Choosing a Poet's Life
Despite daunting obstacles, Colby poets pursue their solitary, creative craft
By Gerry Boyle '78
Published May 29, 2007
In February Roderick learned he had won the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, having been chosen from a pool of 222 applicants. The prize is a cash award of more than $40,000; the only stipulation is that the winner spend time traveling outside of North America. Upon his return (his tentative plan was to visit Italy, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Greece with his fianceé) Roderick will be required to submit three poems to the scholarship committee.
"I'm very fortunate, because a year and two months ago, no one had even heard of me," he said. "I was just floundering around like everybody else."
In the world of poetry, Roderick has won the lottery. And yet he already was feeling the constraints of the attention paid to his book. "What I'm finding is that it's preventing me from moving on and doing other things," he said. "I'm trying to pull away and write something different."
If Roderick found 9/11 temporarily paralyzing, it was the tragedy that moved Molly Otis Lynn Watt '60 to begin to write. Watt left her job in higher education after 9/11 and has written a poem a week ever since. Watt is part of a vibrant poetry scene in Boston, including a writer's group called the Bagel Bards, which meets at an Au Bon Pain in Cambridge. She edits poetry chapbooks, and she recently saw her work collected in a book, Shadow People.
"I now say I'm a poet," Watt said.
Her work ranges from the autobiographical to historical. She has found inspiration in subjects as varied as Cambridge Common and glaciers, and she hopes to draw on her firsthand experience with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s for future work. "I don't have time to write even half the poems I want to write," she said. "It's central to my life."
The same has come to be true for the Varsity Poets, who met recently with Blevins at the Riverside Café in Oakland. Sitting on the deck overlooking Messalonskee Stream, the students read poems and listened to critiques. Julia Germaine '07 read a poem and the discussion led to talk of the risk of love poems straying into cliché (Germaine avoided that trap, Blevins said), the use of repetition, and "disjunctive moments."
It was clearly a tight group, the students and Blevins bound by commitment to their craft and the shared intimacy of their writing. The conversation was marked by the juxtaposition of the lighthearted and nearly poetic. Said Liz Stovall '07, commenting on a poem read by fellow poet Jessica Bernhard '07: "It'’s [about] the inevitability of impermanence."
With graduation weeks away for some, the Varsity Poets would soon have to consider what place poetry would have in their post-Colby lives.
Simon chats with Nina Clements, a friend and fiction writer.
Photo by Jane Hoffer
The choice was particularly difficult for Germaine, a biology major/creative writing minor whose love for poetry is matched by a passion for science. Germaine was so torn by her parallel interests that she applied to two graduate programs: the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh and a doctoral program in evolution and ecology at Ohio State University. The professor with whom Germaine would have worked is studying gene flow in transgenic food crops.
Germaine waited for answers on both applications, and when they came, they didn't make her decision any easier. Germaine was accepted to both programs, and both universities wooed her with substantial fellowships.
Ultimately visits to both universities tipped the scale toward Pittsburgh and poetry—as Germaine concluded she didn't want to spend six years studying genetically modified corn. But she still has reservations, worrying that that most people don't read poetry, that poetry is "a pretty closed world."
"I don't know if I want to be an artist," she said. "I don't know if I have the temperament for it."
Another of the Varsity Poets, Sasha Swarup-Deuser '07, said he's going to a poetry summer workshop, that he couldn't imagine parting with poetry as he leaves Colby. "I'd feel like I was leaving behind a dog," he said.
Stovall said she was looking to work for a magazine after Colby, but poetry would continue to be part of her life. After all, she and the others have made great strides since they'd begun to write. "I think it takes a lot of courage," Stovall said. "It takes courage to admit things to yourself. The next step is to admit things to an audience."
In the end, Harris said, it may come down to a question attributed to the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke: "Can you not be a poet?"
"To some people," Harris said, "poetry is a fundamental way of making whole their experience"