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poetry

Vivian Shipley

English Professor Vivian Shipley, a Connecticut State University Distinguished Professor, has won the grand prize in The MacGuffin’s 25th Annual Poet Hunt Contest with her poem “No Rehearsal.” The MacGuffin is a national literary journal established in 1984 at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Mich. The winning three poems, selected by this year’s guest judge, poet Matthew Olzmann, will be published in a short feature appearing in Vol. 37.1 due out in early 2021.

Shipley, who earned her bachelor of arts and master of arts degrees in English from the University of Kentucky and her doctorate in Victorian literature from Vanderbilt University, has taught at Southern since 1969 and has published 16 books of poetry. She teaches undergraduate and graduate poetry writing workshops in the English Department. She says that her winning poem is about the coronavirus.

Shipley’s work has received many accolades. Her book All of Your Messages Have Been Erased (Louisiana Literature Press, 2010) was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won both the 2011 Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement and the Sheila Motton Book Prize for Poetry from New England Poetry Club. It was also recognized as Best Creative Work by the Connecticut Press Club and was a finalist for both the Connecticut Book Prize and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize from SUNY-Binghamton. Shipley has received many other awards and recognitions as well, including being chosen as SCSU Faculty Scholar three times and named to the University of Kentucky Hall of Distinguished Alumni.

Rayon Lennon, '09, MSW '16

Poems can be prayers, life savers, and eye-openers. Poems can be therapeutic and transformational. For Southern alumnus and poet Rayon Lennon, ’09, MSW ’16, poetry is all of these things and more. So when the moment calls for a poem, Lennon answers that call, saying that poetry’s purpose “is to make us see — by clarifying and deepening our understanding of what it means to be alive.”

Lennon has won a number of writing contests, and his most recent accolade — his poem “Any Light” won the journal Rattle‘s “Poets Respond” contest on June 2, 2020 — is for a work that speaks to the moment we’re living in right now: a moment of global protest and the raising of millions of voices in support of racial justice.

“The poem originated from an incident I experienced on the golf course a number of days after the George Floyd tragedy,” Lennon says. The Poets Respond contest is Rattle‘s solution to the length of time it often takes for a poem to be published in the print journal. The contest recognizes poems “written within the last week about a public event that occurred within the last week.”

Lennon’s poem was published on Rattle’s website on June 2, 2020, eight days after George Floyd was violently killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.

Read “Any Light”

Born in rural Jamaica, Lennon moved to New Haven County when he was 13 and now lives in New Haven. He earned a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing, as well as a master’s degree in social work, from Southern, and in addition to his successful career as a poet, he works as an adolescent psychotherapist. His work has been published widely in various literary magazines, and his poems have won numerous poetry awards, including the 2017 Rattle Poetry Prize contest for his poem “Heard” (the poem was chosen out of 15,000 contest entries and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize), for which he received a $10,000 cash prize. His poem, “Heaven Tree,” was nominated for Best of the Net by The Indianapolis Review in 2018. His first book of poems, Barrel Children, was released in March 2016 by Main Street Rag Publishing Company and was a finalist for the 2017 Connecticut Book Award for best poetry book.

Below, Lennon shares his thoughts on the power of poetry, living in a racist society, his work as a clinical therapist, and more.

1) How did you get started writing poetry?

My poems are prayers, I think. I write with the sense that God is reading my words and tweaking the world because of them. I write to map my emotional world too. I started to write in general at an early age because of a budding stutter (I still stutter). I write too to bridge my inner and outer worlds.

I was beyond sad to leave Jamaica when I was 13; in Connecticut, I wrote to preserve my warm memories of Jamaica. But the more I wrote the more I discovered that there were issues clouding paradise — issues I wanted to highlight.

I’m primarily a place poet. I draw from the world around me. I imbue objects in my surroundings with human qualities.

People have told enough lies about me for me to know that it’s not the truth that usually survives; what survives is the most compelling story. People can ruin your life that way. A good storyteller matters. I’m the child of divorced parents. I didn’t know my father well until I came to Connecticut. My father is easily the best storyteller I know. He can weave a story so intricate and moving that you forget that it may be a world of lies.

I can tell you there is nothing as thrilling as creating a poem. I would even take that feeling over winning the lottery or falling in love.

The poet Jericho Brown has talked about “crafting a rant.” That’s exactly what I do in my poems now. I let myself go and then package it in a poem.

The poet Tiana Clark has said she writes to save her own life. That’s true for me too.

2). You give a brief explanation as to the origin of the poem “Any Light” on the page below the poem. I like Rattle‘s idea of poetry that responds to events in the moment, and becomes part of the conversation — and your poem certainly does that, very powerfully. Can you talk a bit more about the golfing incident that inspired you to write the poem? Can you tell me about the poem’s title, which I see comes from a line in the poem?

Yes. I love Rattle’s Poet’s Respond contest. I think it encourages poets to look outside of themselves and to help to bring about change by making connections and enlightening people — with striking language — about who we were, who we are, and how we live now. The poem originated from an incident I experienced on the golf course a number of days after the George Floyd tragedy. I will say that the poem is a heightened version of what happened. In reality, it was a cordial exchange. In the poem, I sharpened the language and brought current events and history into the fold. I captured the spirit of that moment while also tailoring the incident to fit the needs of the poem. It was not the first time that someone hit a ball my way while I was on a golf course. It was the first time I confronted someone about it — in that way. Those other incidences also shaped the poem. It was twilight and I was playing the last hole at a golf course. I was about to hit my second shot into the green when a ball zinged by my head. I couldn’t believe it. Someone on the tee behind me had hit a tee shot while I was close enough to be hit by it. I knew the person had seen me before he hit the shot. I waited for the person; and saw it was a young white guy. He was nonchalant about the incident — as though he hadn’t valued my life. I was nice to him, but made him know that it was wrong. I was wearing a red shirt. So he must have seen me. In golf, one is supposed to wait before hitting a ball if the person is close and could get hit by the ball. I immediately thought about George Floyd then as I knelt to read the putt — the way the officer had devalued Floyd’s life and kept his knee on his neck even as Floyd begged for air. That’s how the poem was born. I wrote it within an hour.

I’m usually not very good at analyzing my own poems. I leave that up to readers and scholars. But I’ll give it a try.

I think the title, “Any Light,” can have different meanings for different people. “Any Light” can mean any source of hope. It can mean that any light — self-awareness, love, kindness, empathy, etc., — will help to root out racism. For me, it also means people can choose to make you invisible if it benefits them. Someone can see you in any light they want. That means that the person who is viewing you is projecting on to you whatever internalized/generalized perceptions that person has been harboring about you or people like you. That person can choose to see you as good or bad. It’s a choice. It can also be the poet/speaker’s way of asking for any “light” of kindness in these trying times. Any light, any hope to increase racial harmony. People can choose whether to see or treat you how they want to see and treat you. What’s important is that we treat each other fairly and well. In the poem, the poet speaker tells the offending golfer that the golfer — before hitting his ball — should have been able to see him in any light because he was wearing a red shirt. But also, the poet speaker is saying that the golfer chose to not see him; and it’s his choice whether he wants to challenge and root out racist programming or continue to live by it. It’s not only that he hit the ball towards me, but it’s if I were invisible to me. And that’s a choice he made.

On another note, I love golf because it teaches me about life. Tiger Woods, the first African American golfer to win the Masters and who is now tied for the most wins in PGA tour history, once said that his father used to yell the N-word at him during practice sessions just so he would get used to hearing it, so he wouldn’t get distracted by hearing it from people in crowds during tournaments.

Golf teaches me how to be patient and roll with life. In golf, you can hit a perfect shot and it ends up in the water or the woods. You have to be patient and be mentally tough. I typically play 18 holes (4-5 hours of walking); and a lot happens in that time. It’s an adventure. I started to golf to find peace on weekends after working a long week of providing therapy to families. I love the groomed greens, clapping leaves, and bodies of water. I love how the game occupies my thoughts. It’s brought me peace.

I also stutter and the key in golf is to not swing with all your power. If you swing hard you will likely lose control of the club and ball. The key to managing my stutter is to slow down my speech.

3) Of what use is poetry in today’s world?

I love what Salman Rushdie says about poetry: “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” Yes. Poets “name the unnameable.” Poets live to point out connections. I can’t say exactly what poetry means to the wider world. I can say what poetry means to me. I don’t want people to fall in love with my poems. I want people to be uncomfortable when they read my poems; I want them to question their lives; I want them to change. I know a poem has matured when I can’t read it without crying or getting angry. The singular gift of poetry is its ability to open up a window into another person’s perspective. Poetry tells you what the other is experiencing. It tells you in a moving, eye-opening and startling way. I want to startle people into action. I want to know what someone else sees and feels. I think on some level I’m talking about empathy, which is key to love and unity. And as a clinical therapist, I do use poetry in therapy. Poetry is my therapy. Poetry shows us that we are all mostly tiny dots down here facing the same hurdles to happiness. Poetry has this ability to open my eyes and enlighten me, helping me to see and think differently. I love being enlightened by poems on a line to line level. I remember discovering the poetry of the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott and understanding for the first time how poetry can deepen and define a country and a people’s understanding of themselves. How everything, as Walcott indicates, is a poem. Poetry’s work then is to make us see — by clarifying and deepening our understanding of what it means to be alive.

4) Tell me about your experience as a creative writing student at Southern. Were there particular courses or professors or experiences at Southern that you would say especially made an impact on you?

On a more formal level, I fell for poetry after failing as a fiction writer in college. I attended SCSU and attained a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing. I learned much of what I know now from the terrific creative writing staff there. In college, I wrote an unpublished novel (which was really a prose poem). I flirted with narrative poems and discovered that my thoughts fit better into this form. I love being able to fit a whole short story into a page-long, enlightening poem. My poems tend to have a strong narrative spirit running through them (because of my previous relationship with fiction). I want readers to get wrapped up in the narrative of my poems. My poems operate somewhere between fiction and poetry. I like to mix genres.

The English Department at Southern made me into the poet I am today. Jeff Mock (poetry professor), Tim Parrish (fiction professor), Robin Troy (former fiction professor), Jennifer Holley Lux (former creative writing professor), Vivian Shipley (poetry professor). All of these people shaped me into the poet I am today. Also, other English professors at Southern played pivotal roles in my growth as a poet. I received unconditional support from Steven Larocco, Brandon Hutchinson, Dana Sonnenschein, Dr. Ogbaa, Anthony Rosso, etc. These professors regularly read my budding creative work outside the classroom and provided me with valuable feedback.

Nearly two decades later, I still continue to communicate with many of the above professors. Vivian and Dana provided blurbs for my first poetry book. I regularly trade poems with Brandon Hutchinson. Steve Larocco and Rosso were like my therapists and good friends while I attended Southern. I stay in touch with Tim as well. I am proud of the work that Tim has done to transform the creative writing program into a powerhouse MFA program.

When I was struggling as a poet while in college, Steve Larocco pointed me toward Derek Walcott’s work (Derek Walcott is a towering, Nobel-winning, Caribbean poet). This helped me tremendously. I learned a lot from Walcott’s work. And this helped me — perhaps more than all other factors — to become the poet I am today. Walcott’s themes and way of writing matched my poetic vision. His work taught me how to see differently; how to find poetry in everything.

Also, the creative writing contests and literary journals at Southern helped me to gain confidence as a writer. I still remember the thrill of seeing my first published story in Folio, the undergraduate literary journal at SCSU. I remember the deeper thrill of winning the magazine’s poetry and fiction contests some time later. One year I won both of Folio‘s contests — poetry and fiction. I think I won the poetry contest a few years in a row. I also won many SCSU creative writing contests. To me, these early successes fueled my confidence and led me down the path I am still on today. Those early poems would take center stage in my first poetry collection.

Southern was good to me. I even received speech therapy for my stutter from the Communication Disorders Department. I think I attended speech therapy there for years. I learned a lot. They taught me how to manage my stutter and how to accept it — and embrace my gifts and my challenges. This was crucial for my growth as a poet, person, and therapist. While in college, I would ask my friends to read my poems at poetry readings. But after speech therapy, I gained enough confidence to go on stage and read my work. It empowered me. And I continued to challenge myself by reading to a wider audience.

After I left Southern, I helped to start a poetry workshop group of former creative writing students. We meet at each other’s homes once per month and workshop each other’s poems; and drink wine and eat pastries and fruits. The group has been meeting for four years. There are currently five members in our group: Lee Keylock (founding member), Pat Mottola, Matthew Beacom, and Maryanne Bowen. The workshops are serious and fun, and have played a pivotal role in my success as a poet.

5) Can you tell me about the work that you do in your profession of clinical therapist? Do you see a connection between your work as a poet and your work as a therapist?

Yes, there is a connection. I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. I received my master’s in social work from SCSU. (On a side note, while attending Southern as a social work student, I won the graduate poetry contest. It proved to me then that my true calling was poetry and that I ought to continue to write.) I work as a psychotherapist. I provide in-home therapy to a range of clients. I provide individual, couples, and family therapies. I frequently utilize art in my work. Especially with clients who are artistic. My work drives my art and my art drives my work. I work to empower people and to shine a light on their perspective.

6) I see on your website that your mission is to help Barrel Children in Jamaica. Can you tell me the nature of this work and why you do it?

Barrel Children are children whose parents leave Jamaica to come to America to make a living and send back money and barrels full of essential and nonessential items for them. The barrels replace the parents. The children are left with relatives or others. They face psychological and physiological challenges. It’s a major problem in Jamaica. I am a Barrel Child. My goal is to increase awareness around this challenge.

Also, my first poetry book, Barrel Children, came out of a special project I completed in order to fulfill my requirements for my master’s degree in social work. A good many of my poems are about feeling “Homeless at Home.” Or being an immigrant in a sometimes cold foreign land.

I recently completed a new poetry manuscript called “Heard.” And I’m working on a new chapbook called “Notes for Wedding Vows during a Pandemic.”

Learn more about Rayon Lennon and his work.

 

Vivian Shipley

English Professor and Connecticut State University Professor Vivian Shipley, an acclaimed prize-winning poet, recently won a prize for “An Old Husband’s Tale,” one of five prize-winning poems in the 2020 Ekphrastic Poetry Contest, part of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. Poems entered in the contest were inspired by the ART COUTURE exhibition which was on display pre-pandemic at the Cornell Museum at Old School Square in Delray Beach, Fla. All five prize-winning poems will be featured in the May issue of South Florida Poetry Journal.

An ekphrastic poem is generally a poem that is inspired by, or a response to, a work of art.

To enter, writers were asked to submit up to 30 lines of original poetry inspired by one of eight images featured in the exhibition that focused on contemporary art that is fashion-inspired, and on fashion designers’ couture designs and illustrations. Fashion as art, important works of contemporary art, and couture designs featured on mannequins were all part of the exhibition. The Palm Beach Poetry Festival received 154 poetic entries in this year’s contest, arriving from 30 states and 17 different countries.

Shipley’s winning poem (below) was inspired by “Meghan” by Rick Lazes, a hand-molded acrylic panel.

“An Old Husband’s Tale”
how it takes place/ While someone else is eating
— W. H. Auden

Daedalus was not a man, Icarus no boy. That’s a myth.
Without a husband to bind her, Daedalus turned nature
inside out, taught her daughter to fly from earth; after all,

men couldn’t fence air. Feathering Icarus in sequence
as a pan pipe rises, Daedalus twined quills to mold two sets
of wings sealed in an icing of white wax, stiff as bridal lace.

Daedalus hovered, warning: Keep mid-way; water weights
and sun burns. Always follow me. Icarus rose or was pulled
up, casting her shadow on a ploughman, head lifted from

his rut, who grumbled, A woman’s place is in the home.
The mother tried to lift her arms higher to buffer her daughter
but blue enveloped Icarus who cried, Let’s fly all the way

to Trinacria. Knowing Samos was north and Calymne east,
Icarus ignored the earth’s warning being traced out for her
by the sharded coast of Crete. Filial duty cannot blot desire

as the moon eclipses the sun. Perhaps there was a brilliance
gleaming in Icarus’ green eyes that flashed, mercifully
blocking the sight for Daedalus: her only child encircling

wings, writhing like a corn snake carried aloft by a hawk.
Imagine the girl, her mother’s support failing, the aerial lift
and impulse spent. Dripping to the sea, only the wax

hissed, floating as islands do. Daedalus did not fly again.
Unused, feathers yellowed; wax stiffened in her wings
that stretched out more like a shroud than a swan in flight.

 

 

Pat Mottola

Patricia Mottola, a graduate of Southern’s MFA in creative writing program and now an instructor in the program, was featured recently in the Hartford Courant’s CT Poets’ Corner section. Read the article here: Pat-Mottola-Hartford-Courant-042620

Mottola was hired to teach Introduction to Creative Writing immediately after receiving her MFA from Southern because, as one colleague noted, “She was an exceptional student in our department’s MFA program,” and she has been an extraordinary instructor ever since. Mottola’s adviser and now colleague English Professor and CSU Professor Vivian Shipley awarded Distinction to Mottola’s MFA thesis, “If the Shoe Doesn’t Fit: Poems About Relationships,” something rarely done. Shipley remarked that since 1969, she has “never had a better student or known a more dedicated and inspiring teacher.”

Mottola was the 2019 Recipient of the Connecticut Board of Regents Adjunct Teaching Award. She is co-president of the Connecticut Poetry Society; works online with Afghan women and girls through the Afghan Voices project, encouraging them to write poetry in order to empower themselves; and she works with senior citizens, encouraging them to have a rebirth at a time when they are nearing the end of life.

She earned her MFA in creative writing from Southern in 2011; an MS in art education from Southern in 1990; study in the Art Psychotherapy Institute, SCSU Department of School Psychology, in 1988; and a BS in art education from Southern in 1987.

 

West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi with Tony Fusco, recently named the city’s first poet laureate (Photo credit: Michael Walsh/New Haven Register)

SCSU creative writing alumnus Tony Fusco, a West Haven, Conn., resident, was recently named that city’s poet laureate. Fusco is co-president and past-president of the Connecticut Poetry Society and has a master’s degree in creative writing from Southern. He was the editor of Caduceus, the anthology of the Yale Medical Group Art Place, and past editor of The Connecticut River Review, Long River Run, the Southern News, High Tide, and Sounds and Waves of West Haven. His work has appeared in many publications including the Connecticut Review, Louisiana Literature, the Red Rock Review, The South Carolina Review, Lips, and The Paterson Review.

His most recent book is Extinction, published in 2018.

His book Java Scripture was published in 2014 by Flying Horse Press. Previous books include Droplines (Grayson Press) and Jessie’s Garden (Negative Capability Press), which feature poems about his youth in West Haven, Savin Rock, and Allingtown. His poetry has won prizes in many contests, including The Sunken Garden Poetry Prize. His poem “Harvest” was nominated for a Pushcart Award. He is a member of the New England Poetry Club, past literary chair for the West Haven Council of the Arts and the Milford Fine Arts Council. Fusco produced West Shore Poets, a television poetry series at CTV, and served on its board of directors and the Cable Advisory Council.

The New Haven Register published an article about Fusco being named West Haven’s poet laureate, which is available here.

Mick Powell is a poet who, she says, “likes revolutionary acts of resistance.” Resistance and revolution can take many forms, and Powell weaves both into her writing through poetic form, language, subject matter, and imagery. “I like that poetry can challenge what we typically think of as poetry,” she says, and indeed her own poems – often provocative and experimental – can push the reader out of familiar territory.

Powell, who graduates this spring with her MFA in creative writing, has just won two major prizes for her work, so her powerful writing is garnering significant attention. Her chapbook, chronicle the body, won the 2017 Chapbook Contest held by Yemassee, the official journal of the University of South Carolina, and her poem “last night I dreamed KJ undead” was a winner in the Winter Writing Contest sponsored by Columbia Journal, based in the Graduate Writing Program at Columbia University School of the Arts. The chapbook is based on the thesis she wrote for the MFA, and the poem she wrote for her friend KJ, who was murdered in the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando.

Powell says of her work, “My tendency is to write about bodies and how we use them. Sometimes when we experience violence or hear about it, we forget that both parties are human beings. My call to remember the body is to show that we’re all human.” She shares the stories of people whose stories don’t usually get shared, she says, “sometimes my own stories and sometimes other people’s stories.”

English Professor Vivian Shipley, who was Powell’s thesis adviser, says Powell’s poems are “memorable because they are physical and remind us to think of people who might otherwise be forgotten. What unites her intense and compelling poetry is her knowledge that in spite of the complexity of being human, we cannot allow a world that threatens to drown out song to swallow passion and laughter. Mick Powell’s poems contain a deep understanding of what it is to be human because she has cored them from the heart.”

Like many writers, Powell began writing when she was a child. She grew up in Bridgeport and attended an art high school in Trumbull, where she focused on creative writing, writing mostly fiction while also “dabbling in poetry.” She started a literary magazine at her high school and was the fiction editor. “I definitely thought of myself as a fiction writer then,” she says, but when she went off to college at the University of Connecticut, a poetry survey course she took in her first semester intrigued her. “I became interested in how poets tell stories as opposed to how fiction writers tell stories, “ she says. “Poetry allowed me to explore different forms of narrative.”

With the rise of spoken word and slam poetry, and their accessibility through such online platforms as YouTube, Powell says she became more familiar with these forms. She shifted from writing fiction to writing poetry as an undergrad, but “always knew I wanted to go to grad school. I was especially interested in women’s studies and poetry and found myself wanting to talk about poetry through a women’s studies lens.” She was attracted to Southern because of both the Women’s Studies Program and the MFA program and started at the university in 2016.

Of her prize-winning work, Powell says that the chapbook is a collection of experiences, “a lot dealing with my family, but also asking, how do we navigate in the world, how does the Internet facilitate our interactions with each other? Relationships are very important to me – familial relationships, relationships with ourselves and with the community, as well as love relationships.”

Chapbook judge Aaron Coleman, a poet whose work Powell admires, said of Powell’s collection: “Urgent music and breathtaking self-reflection spill from chronicle the body. …I’m also reminded of all the ways we must work to remember the simple miracle of our bodies, their wounds and healing, in a world that so often refuses to see the body’s – in particular: black women’s bodies’ – trials and complexities. But chronicle the body lives and sings in the midst of our American mess, crafting its own rituals and music. . . Especially in our current moment of unmasking dangerous facades of masculinity, I’m grateful for the brilliant courage we witness here. chronicle the body is a collage of the sacred, mundane, familial, and existential; together, these images, emotions, and stories thrive as one ecstatic whole….chronicle the body’s time has come — as both testament and challenge, this is a book we need.”

As the winner of the chapbook contest, Powell will receive $1000 and 25 copies of her published chapbook. For the Columbia contest, her poem will be published in the journal and she will receive $500.

Currently the dean of students at a social justice high school in New Haven, Powell says that after she graduates she’d like to teach. “I like to talk about poetry, and I like to support people on their journey.”

Read a sampling of Powell’s writing:

“i am thinking of fire forgiveness my mother (and fire)” – published in Apogee, 31 May 2017

Four poems by Mick Powell – published in Crabfat Magazine, April 2018

 

 

Lynn Houston

After a near-death experience, you really figure out what’s important, says Lynn Houston, a poet who graduated this May from Southern’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. Houston’s collection of poems, “Unguarded,” recently won the inaugural Heartland Review Press prize, and will be published this fall by the press. The collection is Houston’s first book, but she also now has two other books of poetry under contract.

Writing poetry wasn’t always part of Houston’s life plan. But a few years ago, after Houston had begun keeping bees as a hobby, one day she was stung and went into anaphylactic shock. “I woke up in the hospital afterwards and thought about my bucket list,” Houston says. Although she was a literary scholar, with a Ph.D. in English and a job as a college professor, “my heart is in poetry,” she says, and she began to make some life changes.

She started a small literary press – Five Oaks Press — with her graduate students. “I started it to have a small community feeling,” she says, “but we’ve grown and we have many submissions.”

Wanting to improve her poetry, Houston applied to several MFA programs and chose Southern’s. “I wasn’t winning contests with my poems before I came to Southern, and now I am,” she says. “I like my work better now than I did two years ago, before starting this MFA program. I’m now able to write the kind of poems I enjoy reading.” Houston points to the sense of community within the MFA program as being a key component of her success.

English Professor Vivian Shipley, one of Houston’s professors and her thesis adviser, says, “As a student, Lynn was brave enough to share very personal and difficult emotions with the other poets and she invited them to come along with her as she experimented with her poems. In order to pay tribute to all those who have served our country and those who sustained them while they were deployed, the moving and memorable poems in ‘Unguarded’ are dedicated to ‘all the women who have waited for soldiers to come home.’”

Houston explains that the poems in “Unguarded” are letters she wrote to her boyfriend when he was deployed with the National Guard last year. Some of the poems appear in the book just as they were, and some Houston edited to make into poems. “This book is my heart on pages,” Houston says.

She and her boyfriend met when she was at a writing residency program. They knew he was going to be deployed, but they didn’t know when. They were together only three weeks before he deployed, serving in the Middle East.

While he was away, Houston sent him many letters. She says that as she waited for him to come back, she was strongly aware of the passage of time. “I also felt I was part of a long tradition of women waiting for men to come back from war,” she says.

Houston explains that he had been wounded previously, having been deployed six of the past 12 years and adds that “he suffers these deployments. When he came back he was not the same man as when we met.”

When he returned to the United States after several months, she flew to Florida to meet him. He told Houston her letters had stabilized him, keeping him connected to home. They spent four days together, but soon after, he broke up with her. “He was not the same person,” she says. “I was heartbroken.”

She began collecting the letters she had written to him, working on them as poems, and sending the collection out to contests. “It’s very raw,” she says of the emotion expressed in the poems. “But now I can say it was worth it – I have the book – it lives on.”

One of the judges of the Heartland Review contest, Matt Brennan of Indiana State University, wrote of “Unguarded” that it is “a coherent whole, its arc tracing the emotional plot of a woman waiting for her lover to return from a military deployment. It effectively links the changing seasons to the speaker’s fluctuating psychic experience.”

Houston says she found it difficult to be the support system for someone who’s deployed, but she adds, “My poetry has been a huge part of my healing process.”

“For other people to see the poems means so much – no other prize will ever mean so much to me,” Houston says. “It’s the record of the beautiful person I am when I’m in love with someone.”

 

A selection from “Unguarded”:

 

I Miss the Fullness of Summer Light

I’ve been up since five, and I’ve had too much

of that cold, blue glow from the computer.

What happened to the golden light of summer?

Mellifluous and wild, like well-gathered honey

with a tangy, feral taste. I’m not just talking

seasons. I’m talking about light that loves us:

second story light with its full horizon, the wide

angle of light over dunes or rolling hills, the kind

we had during afternoons in the holler.

It’s the kind of light one has to wait for,

and like anything, waiting makes it worth more.

 

For a poet to be mentioned in the same breath as Wallace Stevens, the great American poet of the 20th century Modern period, is a rare honor. For poet Elizabeth Hamilton – a graduate of Southern’s MFA in creative writing program and an adjunct professor in the English Department – having her poems share the bill with Stevens’ work at a February 20 event at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford seems a bit surreal. At “Voices of Connecticut Poets: Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Hamilton,” the Hartford Independent Chamber Orchestra (HICO) will perform a celebration of these two poets in in a concert of contemporary chamber orchestra music. Hailed as “an invaluable addition to the Hartford musical scene” by composer-critic Robert Carl, HICO will present the music of Thomas Albert and premiere a commission by composer Jessica Rudman. Albert’s music uses Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird,” and Rudman’s piece uses Hamilton’s poetry.

Poet Elizabeth Hamilton, MFA, '14
Elizabeth Hamilton, MFA, ’14

Hamilton graduated from the MFA program in 2014, and over the past year and half has collaborated with Rudman after the two met during a three-week artist residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna, Florida. Hamilton was chosen by the poet Richard Blanco to participate in that residency; Blanco is perhaps best known for reading his poem “One Today” at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.

Hamilton applied for a writing residency at The Center after finishing her MFA. She explains that the poet in residence at The Center chooses the poets for the three-week residency, and Blanco was poet in residence at the time. He chose Hamilton and a few other poets, and during her three weeks in residence, Hamilton worked on her writing with Blanco and says “he was such a help to me. I can’t say enough about him.” While in the MFA program at Southern, she worked closely with Jeff Mock and other members of the creative writing faculty, all of whom she says were great to work with.

While in residence at The Center, Hamilton explains, “I was there with other artists of various disciplines. We all hung out together and learned about what each other was doing with our work.” At the beginning of the three weeks, each artist had to present his or her work to the group. “This is instrumental in building relationships with other artists,” says Hamilton. For her presentation, she chose to read poems she had written for her MFA thesis. Afterward, a few of the artists approached her and asked if she would consider collaborating with them. Of these artists, composer Rudman was most persistent in following up with Hamilton. She, like Hamilton, is from Connecticut, and she has a relationship with the Hartford Chamber Orchestra.

Following the residency, after they had both returned to Connecticut, Rudman contacted Hamilton, and they began to meet to work out the details of their collaboration.

“She’s been busy composing and I’ve taken a full-time job,” says Hamilton, “so I haven’t yet had a chance to hear the work.” A vocalist will sing her poems verbatim, she says, and the piece will be performed for the first time alongside Albert’s piece based on Stevens’ famous poem. Hamilton says she still can’t quite believe it when she sees her name paired with Stevens’.

The concert begins at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are available by calling (860) 247-0998.

The cover of Jeff Mock’s new book is a stark photograph of barbed wire in extreme closeup, the focus on the sharp point of a rough barb – not exactly an image that makes a reader think of poetry. But writer Allison Joseph says Mock’s new book, “Ruthless,” is “just that—ruthless in its precise and incisive vision of our off-kilter world, cutting through the shams of language and thought to arrive at hard-won humor that makes his readers see his—and their—foibles all the more clearly.” The image of the barbed wire speaks to the collection’s toughness and incisiveness.

English professor Mock’s first published full-length poetry collection, “Ruthless” came out on Jan. 1, and he calls its publication “a relief.” He explains that the way poetry books get published is by winning competitions. His manuscript “bounced around for several years,” he says, as he sent it to different contests and publishers. It came close to being published on several occasions, sometimes a semifinalist and sometimes a finalist. At last, poet Deborah Keenan selected it as the winner of the Three Candles Open Book Competition.

Although “Ruthless” is Mock’s first full-length book, he has numerous other publications. His first book, “Evening Travelers,” a chapbook, was published in 1994 by a very small press, with handset type on handmade paper and a handsewn binding. It is no longer in print.

His second book, “You Can Write Poetry,” was a commission, designed for a specific audience. A poetry writing guidebook for writing groups and individuals, “You Can Write Poetry,” now also out of print, was aimed at beginning writers.

Mock has also published a number of poems in such prominent journals as The Atlantic Monthly, Cincinnati Review, Connecticut Review, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, The Georgia Review, The Indiana Review, The Iowa Review, New England Review, The North American Review, Poetry Northwest, Quarterly West, Shenandoah, The Sewanee Review, The Southern Review and others. He is now working on two other books: one is a book of longer poems of five to 12 pages each, and one is more thematic, a sequence of poems spoken by gods and goddesses that Mock is calling “American Pantheon.”

Although Mock remembers hating to write poems in second grade, he says he’s been a poet for most of his life. He explains, “writers have to write – it’s like an obsession. We don’t have a choice. That need to make something – we all have it, and we each find the outlet that serves us best. I think like a poet more than like a fiction writer.”

Thinking like a poet, Mock says, involves putting into words those images or moments that “strike us and stick around. Writers put words to those things and see what happens.

Seeing where it goes, finding out what happens, writing to find something out. Things can become clearer in the writing.”

He quotes a line from poet Robert Frost’s essay “The Figure A Poem Makes”: “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” That little surprise in a poem, Mock says, “is what brings a story alive.”

Mock, who has been at Southern since the fall of 1998, teaches undergraduate and graduate poetry courses. He came to Southern from The Gettysburg Review, where he spent seven years as assistant editor.

A co-director of the Creative Writing Program with English Professor Tim Parrish, Mock worked with Parrish to create the English Department’s new Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program. He credits his colleagues Robin Troy, assistant professor of English, and CSU Professor Vivian Shipley for their help in developing the program as well.

Mock gave a reading from his new book at the university on April 15, along with writer Steve Almond, best-selling author of the books “Candyfreak,” “My Life in Heavy Metal” and The Evil B.B. Chow,” among others.