Choosing a Poet\'s Life

Choosing a Poet's Life

Despite daunting obstacles, Colby poets pursue their solitary, creative craft

By Gerry Boyle '78


 
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Colby poets discuss their work at a class held at Riverside Farm Market in April. Clockwise, from left, are Assistant Professor of English Adrian Blevins, Julia Germaine ‰07, Sasha Swarup-Deuser ‰07, Lucy Hitz ‰07, Jessica Bernhard ‰07, and Liz Stovall ‰07. On facing page, a draft of one of Bernhard‰s poems shows notes from the workshop comments.
Sadoff, a widely renowned poet and the Arthur Jeremiah Roberts Professor of Literature, says it has become tougher in recent years for students to follow their muse, at least professionally. The increased cost of college today sends them out into the world with more financial pressure. Poetry is more marginalized as an art form than it was 20 or 30 years ago. And students at colleges like Colby, he says, tend to come from a social class for which becoming a young artist "represents a loss of class privilege."

"I think it takes more courage to become an artist now," Sadoff said.

Despite that, for some there is no choice.

Rachel Simon '99 was taught by Sadoff and Peter Harris, poet and Zacamy Professor of English, and recalls an odd moment of encouragement in Sadoff's advanced poetry class."He said, 'You know, the people in this workshop who are the best writers right now are not necessarily going to be the people who pursue this professionally.' And that gave me hope because I knew who the two best writers in the room were. Neither of those two were me."

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Poet Rachel Simon '99, who recently saw her first book of poetry released, reads from her work at Sarah Lawrence College in May.
Photo by Jane Hoffer
The two best writers went on to become a doctor and an actor and musician, Simon said. She moved from Mayflower Hill to Chicago, worked for two years in higher-education accreditation, and continued to write, meeting in a weekly poets' group. Simon entered an MFA poetry program at Sarah Lawrence College and left with a degree and a determination to continue writing poetry. She did, while teaching at the State University of New York at Purchase. That led to the eclectic set of poetry-teaching gigs that support Simon today: at Sarah Lawrence, SUNY-Purchase, the Bedford Hills Maximum Security Women's Prison, and Poets House in Manhattan. "And I'm starting in two weeks with a short class for high school students," she said.

Simon also writes, and she would no matter what her day job, noting that she has colleagues from graduate school in marketing and corporate jobs. "Even if I had done something like that, I would still have time to write," she said. "For me, I feel like it's something I have to do for my own sanity and stability."

She carries a notebook and sporadically jots down ideas. While Simon says her writing process is not very regimented, it has resulted in publication of her work in a variety of journals (including the North American Review and Poetry), a poetry prize, and the recent publication of her first book, theory of orange.
"I think it takes a lot of courage. It takes courage to admit things to yourself.
The next step is to admit things to an audience."

Liz Stovall '07

The book, which draws on "any interesting and moving thing that I have access to," Simon said, has been favorably received, including a blurb from the poet and writer Joan Larkin, who praised Simon's "clear-eyed gaze at life's odd, irresolvable circumstances." Characteristically, and perhaps in keeping with the tone of her work, Simon's recollection of her book's actual arrival was both specific and reflective: "There was a big snowstorm and the mail carrier showed up with two thirty-pound boxes," she said. "He was unhappy. He said, 'What are these?' I said, 'My book.' And then he shared some of my excitement."

If occasional publication stirs the coals of the poet's fires, a book is gasoline on the flames. As Zorgdrager put it, "To have an audience and know that you're going to have a reading audience out there"—that's an honor and a privilege."

A fiction writer at Colby with Sadoff and Susan Kenney, the Dana Professor of Creative Writing, David Roderick '92 didn't write his first poem until he was in his mid-20s, enrolling in a poetry class during summer break from his job teaching English at a Massachusetts prep school. The poetry took hold, and he left his teaching job for an MFA program at the University of Massachusetts. For the past decade he has taught creative writing at colleges, most recently as a visiting writer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (and next year at UNC-Greensboro).

Along the way he had a two-year writing fellowship at Stanford and began publishing in small magazines in 2000. He was runner-up for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. His writing stalled after 9/11, but he found his way. "I had this nice long run where I was around a lot of people who were struggling in the same way and also were beginning to publish books, too. So I could see there was light at the end of the proverbial tunnel," he said.
Coming in the summer 2007 Colby, a review of a new book of poetry by Ronald Moran '58. The Blurring of Time, published by Clemson University Digital Press, is Moran's ninth book or chapbook.

"I'm also a pretty stubborn guy, so that helped me along the way. And I have a thick skin. I can deal with a lot of rejection. The book is a good example."

The book is Blue Colonial, versions of which were rejected by more than 70 publishers before being published last year. It won the coveted American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, and it includes an introduction by the renowned poet Robert Pinsky. The book, which explores the American past and ties it to our present, has propelled Roderick into the spotlight: a feature in the Boston Globe, an interview on National Public Radio.
 
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