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poetry

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.

 

 

Lee Keylock was “bombarded with poetry” when he was growing up in England. “Whether or not I liked it as a kid, I was exposed to it,” he says. It seems that all that exposure is paying off for Keylock, a graduate student in creative writing at Southern: he recently won both the 2009 Leo Connellan Prize for his poem “The Tattie Hawker” and the 2009 John Holmes Poetry Award for his poem “Font.”

The Connellan Prize, open to students at the four CSUS universities, is named for the former poet laureate of Connecticut, who was also CSUS poet-in-residence. The John Holmes Award, given by the New England Poetry Club, the oldest poetry club in the country, is presented for a single outstanding poem by an undergraduate or graduate student enrolled in a New England college. Vivian Shipley, professor of English and a prize-winning poet herself, calls the prize “significant.”

Keylock has been working towards an M.A. in creative writing at Southern but was accepted to the university’s new M.F.A. program in creative writing, which starts in the fall, so he will continue his work in that program. He earned his undergraduate degree at Southern, as well as an M.S. in English with teacher certification.

An English teacher at Newtown High School, where he teaches juniors and seniors, Keylock also co-coaches, with poetry slam champion Elizabeth Thomas, Connecticut’s youth poetry slam team. Keylock explains that slam poetry is “more urban and hip hop” than what he teaches or writes himself but that “the kids love it.”

Slam poetry, performed for an audience and judges, “can be very contemporary,” Keylock says. “It can be a response to war, or to something else in the news, and it can be highly personal.” The best slam poets, he says, are the ones that work “both on the page and on the stage.” The youth slam team Keylock co-coaches is now headed to represent Connecticut at Brave New Voices / International Youth Poetry Slam and Festival in Chicago in July.

Keylock’s own poetry is largely inspired by his experiences within the volatile atmosphere engendered by the Irish/English conflict in England during the 1980s, when he was growing up there.

“As a kid in England,” he says, “I had jobs picking potatoes and baling hay, and these were the only times in my experience when English and Irish would mix. There were a lot of Irish in my town, and in the ‘80s, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was pretty big. There was tension between the Irish and the English. Bombs were going off every week in England. Leaving England and being away from it for so long, I write a lot about that topic now because I have some distance from it.”

Keylock left England when he was almost 17, backpacked around Europe and came to New York City by himself when he was 18. Always a reader, he found books to be great traveling companions. He only began writing poetry in earnest about four years ago, once he had finished his teacher certification. “I started writing and just got into it,” he says. “I started reading more about poetic structure and form and learning more about the genre. I became more willful in my choices as I wrote.”

He started writing “The Tattie Hawker” on his own and finished it in a workshop. The poem draws on the tensions Keylock recalls between the Irish and English in his hometown and portrays an English boy’s futile crush on an Irish girl. Having taken poetry writing workshops with both Shipley and English professor Jeff Mock, Keylock gives credit to both for having helped him shape this poem.

Mock describes Keylock’s poems as “tough-minded, gritty, muscular and still elegant.” Shipley says Keylock’s poems “offer the consolation of an intelligent human spirit who speaks of what flails at his heart. He struggles with the blackness and is not broken, showing us that we must not refuse to look away from the world, from its terror, but that we also must not ignore its ravishing beauty.”

Keylock received the Connellan Prize at a writers’ conference at Central Connecticut State University in April.

Tony Fusco

SCSU Graduate Student, A West Haven Resident, Wins Prestigious Poetry Prize

Overnight success isn’t usually what it appears to be—it’s often preceded by years of patient, persistent work. Such is the case of West Haven resident Tony Fusco, a graduate student in creative writing at Southern Connecticut State University, who recently won first place in the prestigious 2003 Sunken Garden Poetry Festival Competition, which is co-sponsored by Farmington’s Hill-Stead Museum and The Hartford Courant’s “Northeast” magazine. As first-place winner, Fusco will read two of his winning poems in the poetry festival on Aug. 20, and the CSU literary journal Connecticut Review will publish the poems—“The Guest Upstairs” and “The Litany of Streets”—in its fall 2003 issue.

Fusco has been writing poetry for years, and he has worked hard for this recognition. The Sunken Garden festival takes place during the summer months on the Hill-Stead grounds, and it is, says Fusco, “the biggest and best venue for poetry in Connecticut. I’ll get to read two poems there, and two or three thousand people listen to you read, plus it’s on public radio. That many people coming out to hear poetry is wonderful.”

This year, Sunken Garden is linked for the first time with Connecticut Review, which is edited by SCSU English Professor and poet Vivian Shipley. Shipley and Sunken Garden Director Alison Meyers have joined forces so that winners of this year’s Sunken Garden competition will be published in the fall issue of Connecticut Review, after reading their winning poems at the festival.

Shipley, a widely recognized poet and editor, says she is “really thrilled” that Fusco won the competition, saying, “This is a major thing he’s won.” Shipley adds, “It’s prestigious to get to read there. They have national figures come to read.” She describes Fusco as being very active in the graduate writing program and in the Connecticut poetry world. “Poetry shapes so much of what Tony does.” He is, she says, “an example of an older student who returns to school and can achieve. He’s a mature writer who’s been working at this for years.” Fusco is 52.

As an undergraduate at SCSU—he graduated in 1973—Fusco was the editor of the undergraduate newspaper and majored in social work. He started writing poetry in high school. Before entering SCSU’s graduate English program, Fusco participated in a number of workshops and writers’ groups and won some awards for his writing. He came to SCSU “to take it to the next level. The reason I came here is to take a workshop with Vivian Shipley.”

In addition to working with students, Shipley regularly brings poets and editors to SCSU to meet with students and discuss their work with them. Fusco says, “That kind of stuff is invaluable—you get to network, and the editors workshop your work and give you constructive criticism. Everyone is encouraged. Everyone gets positive criticism.”

Fusco describes his poems as narratives about his family and his memories of growing up in West Haven. “I used to write about mythology and more esoteric subjects. Vivian told me to concentrate on my family and my background as subjects because I do them well.” Shipley says that she has worked with Fusco on writing about what he knows best, and now in his writing he is “detailing and preserving his heritage. I’m really proud of the work that he’s done.”

Fusco is also a freelance photographer and writer for local newspapers, a cartoonist and a pen and ink and multimedia artist. He works at the Yale Medical Group in New Haven and created the Yale Physicians Building Art Place Web site and the documentary “Art Place: The Quilters @ Yale,” which was broadcast by Citizen’s Television. Fusco does videography and has a public access television show, “West Shore Poets.”

Fusco has been working on his M.A. degree for about three years, taking one class a semester. He will graduate in January. His thesis, a book of poems, has been recommended for distinction, and he plans to publish it. Shipley says that he is already actively pursuing leads as to where to get the book published.

“He’s worked hard and persevered, and he’s talented, says Shipley. “Sometimes the development of talent takes some time.”