Posts Tagged ‘Knox College’

In Memoriam: Robin Metz

I first met Robin Metz when I hitch-hiked to Knox College in the midst of a November blizzard. In typical Robin fashion, he took it all in stride, found me a place to stay on campus, and proceeded to sell me on transferring. It would have been hard to do anything else after being exposed to Robin’s charisma and the incredibly vital environment for writing that he and Sam Moon had created. They will remain two of the most influential educators and writers in my life.

I have many fond memories of long discussions in fiction workshops with Robin that went long beyond the official end of class, especially on the nights (at least once per term) when Robin would have us all come out to his house on Broad Street. A five-hour class was not uncommon—the fact that we were allowed to drink and smoke in these night classes (maybe not the wisest policy and one that he would change in later years) may have contributed, but so did his wide-ranging discussions. Critiquing a story was never just about ‘fixing’ issues of form or style; for Robin it was always an opportunity to discuss the deeper meanings of life.

No one I knew worked harder or gave more of himself to his students than he. We joked that he sometimes didn’t pay his bills, not because he didn’t have the money but because he couldn’t find the time to write out the check. But he always had time for coffee in the Gizmo and the conference that would often last at least twice as long as scheduled. And his friendship and devotion lasted long after we graduated.

I got to spend time with Robin in Chicago when he was leading the ACM Urban Studies program. He invited to help with a workshop and then invited me back to Knox a couple years later to help with the Alumni Catch and be his assistant for two terms when I was between a job and grad school. He welcomed me into his home until I found a place to stay in an apartment across the street. And he invited me back twice mores to read on campus when I had a new book out. I also saw him many times at AWP or when I passed through Galesburg, which wasn’t as often as I wish now. But every time I saw him, it was like no time had passed.

And of course, we had our differences, and even a run-in or two, but we also had an enormous amount of mutual respect. I don’t know of anyone more curious about life and more dedicated to his craft and to his students, who he alwasy treated as fellow writers. I learned more from working with him than I have from any of my other mentors.

Robin Metz died today, after teaching at Knox for 51 years. I am in the middle of my 25th year of teaching at Mississippi University for Women. To imagine doubling that is nearly unthinkable, yet Robin never stopped. Despite pancreatic cancer, he always wanted to be teaching and inspiring new students and colleagues. He built a creative writing program at Knox that is unrivaled by any udergraduate college, and he inspired an army of writers who have all gone on to do great things, whether as writers, as educators, or in other creative fields. He was fortunate to be able to celebrate the program’s 50th year by traveling around the country visiting alumns (though for part of that year he was undergoing treatments).

I don’t know that I will try to match him in longevity, but I do know that he inspires me every day to create a legacy. For Robin, it never seemed to be about his own ego, but always was about helping others to achieve their potential. Yes, he had books and awards to his name, but I believe he was most proud when someone he taught had their successes. And whenever we meet up at AWP or in any other context, I know the talk will always turn to Robin Metx and how much we will all miss him.

In Memorium: Nelson Mandela

It is hard to hear of the passing of Nelson Mandela today. He was one of the major political figures of my youth, a living icon to look up to as a man of unprecedented strength of spirit, yet a man of passive resistance. Icons of a former day, Gandhi or Martin Luther King, were historical figures by the time I came of age, but Mandela was still in prison, fighting for an end to Apartheid.

When I was a student at Knox College, a group of us got involved in the anti-Apartheid movement, arguing for divestiture from companies with holdings in South Africa. I can’t claim to have been a major part of that movement on our campus. My good friend Adam Bruns was one of the main organizers, though, and I remember hanging out at the shanty we built on campus to raise awareness. I say that we built it, though I don’t recall how involved I was in the actual construction. I remember hanging out there many days and talking politics and social issues (and I’m sure other more local and personal issues as well).

Later, I would follow Mandela’s successful battle to be released from prison after 27 years and then watch as he helped guide a nation through reconciliation and rebuilding. Those years were not without challenges, yet Nelson Mandela always seemed the epitome of honor and nobility. His influence in the country, the continent, and indeed the world. He was a leader who helped make the world a much better place in the 21st century. Without him and those he inspired, our world would be a much darker place.

Reflections on a Poetry Contest

I am in the Moline airport, heading back to Mississippi after two wonderful days at Knox College, judging the Davenport poetry prize. In reflecting back on the experience, I am first struck by how much fun it was. The best part for me, besides getting to spend time at my alma matter and hanging out with Robin Metz and Liz, was spending time with students in half-hour conferences. These conferences really gave me the chance to get to know the students better and to better appreciate their poetry. Of course, my judgments had to be made prior to the conferences, based solely on the poems that I read with no knowledge of the poet. I enjoyed everyone’s poems and found strong moments in all of them. I also tried to point out areas in everyone’s poems that might use work, acknowledging that  sometimes these are very personal choices, but ones that shouldn’t be made too easily, and issues that the poets may want to work on in new poems.

So, how did the process I described in my last post work out in the end? The contest judging turned out about as I expected. Two of the top prizes went to poets whose work struck me on first read, but one was a poet whose work on first reading hadn’t stood out. With further reflection and after reading it a second time, her work grew on me, and I was happy to award her a prize. The ones I focused on initially managed to keep my interest throughout the process. So my method of sorting and reshuffling the poems worked for me to give a new, fresh look and/or confirm my first impressions.

I read all the poems I was given at least three times, and often several more times. I read them at least twice before making my initial decision of who to conference with, and then at least once or twice more as I prepared my comments for conferences. It was only at this point that I made the final decisions about who would receive a prize and who would receive honorable mention.

And I must say that the competition was very stiff. Most of the poems that I read were polished, and many would be worthy of a prize, yet only three could get the top prizes, and I decided three was a reasonable number for honorable mentions, though I did feel it was appropriate to honor everyone who had taken the effort and the risk to enter. They are all poets, as I told them, and all ought to be proud of their accomplishments.

Nonetheless, I am pleased with my selections. I did my best to judge based on a cold reading of three poems. My goal was not to judge the entrants as poets, only to judge their entries as poems. If I had it to do over again, I would come to the same decisions. And yet the first lesson any of these young poets needs to learn about contests is that they are subjective. That is to say, it is the decision of one poet on one submission at one point in time, and if you changed any of these factors, the decision might be different.

The language in one poet’s poems that to me felt just a little too sensational, might to another judge have just the right level of edginess. The formal experimentation in another poet’s poems that to me might have gotten in the way of my reading, may have taken the fancy of a judge whose own work leaned towards a similar use of typography. You can’t take the poet out of the judge, in other words, and there is and never will be a perfect decision.

That said, I feel any of the poems I selected would have fared well in most other judges’ rankings, though another judge may have gone a slightly different way. The shade of difference in the top ten or so entries was not so great that the choice was obvious or easy. And that was the greatest thrill for me in the judging part of the process, since it asked me to carefully weigh what is most important to me in a poem.

I must confess that I am drawn to subtle poems and have a harder time with poems that are brash or flashy. Some poets may have chosen those poems from their portfolios, hoping that they would do better in a contest because they would get the judge’s attention. Another time, that strategy may have paid off.

As is true for most poets, I am moved by vivid imagery and a poem that seems grounded in sincere emotion. But most of the poems I read had this to a greater or lesser extent. Beyond these qualities, that I hate to call basics but will instead name essentials, poems that worked well with the sounds and rhythms of their language affected me. But ultimately, the main concern that differentiated poems for me was the attention paid to the subtleties of sentence structure and syntax. The logic of the poem, both on the macro level of the meanings of words and on the micro level of the syntactical glue that holds them together (and in what order or pattern), made the difference to me in a poem that was nearing a professional level — and many of the poems I read could easily be published; the top poems read like ones I would expect to find in an anthology.

Is syntax the most important aspect of a poem, then? Hardly. But image and music are probably the areas of poetry that get the most focus in a workshop setting. I found, as I find with my own students, that Knox poets are quite sophisticated in image and are beginning to listen to the music of their poems. Grammar is an area that may be harder to notice. Beyond being grammatically correct, is a poem structured in the most effective syntactical way?  How to address this in a workshop setting? Yet the phrasing of the sentence across the line and the phrasing of sentences in relation to one another creates the most vital rhythms of a poem, especially of a free verse poem that does not rely on meter. Or that is where one of my interests in poetry lies, and that interest is reflected in my choices and in the comments I made on my selection.

So, if you are a Knox poet who won a prize or didn’t, bear that in mind as you weigh the results of this contest. It is an issue I tried to raise in nearly every conference, and it is an issue with which we as poets must constantly struggle and constantly improve. And remember, if you whether or not you were one of the lucky three, the results will be different next time. The first lesson of the writer is to keep writing. If you win a prize or if your work is published: be happy! Then get back to work. And if your work is not so chosen, move past it and keep writing. Everyone I talked with at Knox seems dedicated to their craft, so I have no doubt they will keep at it. And there will be more rewards in the future. Yet the greatest reward is one they already have, a community of writers who inspire (and yes also sometime compete with) each other. I like to think that the Davenport prizes foster that healthy competition and collaboration. It is one of the things I most value about my Knox education, and one reason I was so glad to once more briefly be a part of the Knox campus community.

How to Judge a Poetry Contest

Okay, I’ll admit it, everyone is different in this regard, so I ought to just title this “How I’m Judging the Davenport Poetry Prize for Knox College.” There, now that I’ve included the name, some enterprising Knox students googling my name or their school, might stumble upon this page. That’s all right. I promise not to reveal the winners nor those who won’t win. With 21 entries, there’s only one thing for certain: 18 people won’t go home with a cash award.

This is a small contest (in terms of numbers). I’ve judged bigger ones with more entries, but my method is about the same. One of my first goals is to read everyone’s poem a couple of times. Another goal is to fool myself into making a decision, because it isn’t easy to disappoint 18 out of 21 people. They are all people, after all. And all of those people are poets. So how to decide?

My method is to start sorting. Initially, I”m not looking for who’s in the top three coveted spots. That would be too daunting. Instead, I’m looking for whose poems strike me as worth another look. But rather than sorting into two piles (again, too daunting), I sort into 3-4 piles: Very good chance, good chance, maybe not, quite likely not. So far, I only have 3 piles, though I haven’t decided what to call them yet.

When I have made it through the stack once, I will go back through each pile again and sort until I end up with 2/3 in one part and 1/3 in the other. I like to read most poems at least twice, since I find my initial reaction to a poem may depend on when I read it or how I reacted to the poem before it. Sorting helps me to look at poems in different orders and different contexts. Reading a poem a second or third time, I usually see it better than the first time, though initial impressions are often true (but not always). Some poems get three or four readings at this stage as I weigh which pile they ought to be in.

One aspect of the Davenport prize is that the next round involves conferencing with students. Everyone’s work has merit, and I wouldn’t mind talking with any of these poets. But my time is limited, and 14 half-hour conferences will likely take me more than 7 hours, figuring some time in between, breaks, lunch, etc. This will be spread out over two days, and I’ll also be giving a reading, for which I’ll need to prepare.

So what am I looking for in a prize-winning or even conference-eligble poem? I’d like to find some lines that I wish I would have written in a poem that I would never think to write. Vivid imagery is one way to achieve that; another is interesting use of rhythm and sound. Ideally, there’s some of both. I appreciate unity and concise language (even in a long poem). Ultimately the poems I’ll gravitate to are the ones that reward multiple readings as I go back through them to prepare for the conferences. For that to happen, the poet also has to have something to say. I don’t mean I want a didactic poem (though I’m not averse to it), but I want to feel what the poet feels, and I want a poem that still gives me something to think about after I’ve read it several times. I’ve seen several poems that have this potential. It will take more time with them all before I know for sure which will rise to the top.

In Memoriam, David Hernandez, Chi-Town Poet

Yesterday, I learned that David Hernandez had passed away of a heart attack at the age of 66. He died in his beloved city, Chicago, on Feb. 25, 2013. (By the way, there is another David Hernandez, a poet from California, who is very much alive.)

Reading this news two months after the fact brought back vivid memories of another stage of my life, when I was fortunate enough to know David and be influenced by this fabulous poet and teacher. As I read articles about his life that included lines from his poems, his distinctive voice came back to me as well. David read his poetry with a musical lilt, even when he wasn’t performing with his band Street Sounds. When he was with the band, then the full sense of the Latin rhythms came through, but even without the band, you could hear the echoes of the music in his lines. Poetry Poetry has audio clips of several of his poems available online, including one of my all-time favorites “Why I Want to be a Real Poet.” But it’s hard to pick a favorite David Hernandez poem: every poem is a hardened gem.

Hernandez has been described as a street poet, as Chicago’s unnofficial poet-laureate (he wrote innaugural poems for Mayor Harold Washington), and Chicago’s first Latino poet (he began publishing in 1971). But I didn’t know any of those things when I met David in 1986. He was well into his second decade as a published poet, but apart from his fabulous poems, you’d never guess it to look at him or to interact with him.

I was just a kid, fresh out of college, trying to make a living in my first job at Chicago Review Press, and my good friend and college professor, Robin Metz, was running Knox Colleges’ Urban Studies program in Chicago for a semester. He enlisted me to help out with their poetry workshop. David was the real poet, I manned the coffee pot and  sat in on the informal discussions. I was probably full of myself and gave too much ‘advice.’ David was always encouraging, gently prodding or exploring a poem, but mostly encouraging the other poets to explore their creativity. You see, he never treated us like students; he always treated us like artists. He could be demanding about art, but you never felt judged or looked down upon. He led by example, and his example was absolute honesty. There was no room for pretentiousness in the little church basement where we met each Saturday. He never had to lay down the law or tell us to be humble: you just knew. In part because, though he never claimed to be a great poet and even wrote ironic poems about wanting to be a ‘real poet,’ we could sense we were in the presence of a real poet.

I learned more about life and about poetry in those Saturday mornings with David than I would in many other classrooms, so I was sad when the Knox students packed up their bags and went back to campus. But I didn’t need to be. David was still around, and I’d bump into him at the Green Mill Lounge, where I’d started going to the Poetry Slams. And David never forgot who you were and never acted like he didn’t know you because he didn’t have to know you anymore. Each time you saw David, it was like no time had passed. We remained friends throughout the time I lived in Chicago, and he remains one of my absolute favorite poet friends from those days.