September 2011 Archives

1st Year MFA Profiles: Elisabeth Workman

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In late August, 12 promising writers showed up on our doorstep in the thick of the night. We've taken them under our expansive wing and called them our first year MFA candidates. We're going to give you the chance to get to know each and every one of them as if they were your very favorite sweater. First up is Elisabeth Workman!

Name: Elisabeth Workman
Genre: Poetry

Where are you from?

Philadelphia's sprawling suburbs

What was breakfast like?

A sensitive beach

Which zoo animal is your writing?

A macaw in love with a narwhal

Greatest poetry/fiction reading you ever bore witness to:

Amiri Baraka performing with Sonny Rollins was pretty mind-blowing. But also: I was living in Boston when Allen Ginsberg died. That night a throng of Boston-area poets got together in a small auditorium at Harvard to read Howl. The last to read, a short bald man poet (who was probably a poet of influence and academic stature, I just didn't know), took on the Footnote to Howl and embodied those anaphoric "holy's" with all of his red-faced being. It was chilling. And lots of us were crying. When he finished, all of the readers filed out of the room; there was a long pause and then they played a recording of Ginsberg reading "A Supermarket in California." After it ended, no one knew what to do and that was palpable in the air, this question of "what now?" And here's the best moment ever at a reading: a large man in the audience stood up, and sang in this sonorous voice "There's a man by my side walking. There's a voice within me talking. There's a voice within me saying, 'Carry on. Carry it on.'..."

Also, describe your headspace while you're reading something really wonderful:

Emily Dickinson is purported to have said, "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." (Maybe this is where the phrase "mind-blowing" has its roots?) I love this standard, and would definitely say I experience a partial decapitation of sorts, along with an inaudible humming/disorientation (the sensation of all normative synapses being rewired?), and an elevation and opening with a great momentum pushing it. So, basically, something like the French Revolution.

Now describe your (physical) writing space:

I'm stationed in "the library" of our little house, so three walls are mostly lined with books. The fourth wall has a painting of an ampersand by our friend Chris Thomas. Wooden floors. Yellow walls. Red desk. Old wooden desk chair on casters with a seal reading: "Property of Department of State." Little bed (for guests and naps). Piles of books on the floor. Windows facing west. Pictures hanging in spare spaces: a disco ball, Purple Rain Prince, two headless sparkling horses, a little owl saying "Poetry's heavy," and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. On my desk, besides my computer: Yoko Ono's Grapefruit, a book of surrealist games, a photo of my man, a weeping Buddha, and a glass paper weight from a dear friend that has scrawled on its paper bottom in an antiquated hand "Mon cher"--over the summer the high humidity somehow sealed it to the desk, so now it's more of a desk growth or partial orb I can touch when I need to.

Something that inspires you that isn't a writer or a piece of writing:

Movement. Getting to the point of physical exhaustion.

Last great/horrible thing you overheard:

"My wife compares my relationship with Freud to that of a child's with Santa Claus."

Society lacks what flavor of Doritos?

Mayan Apocalypse -- The New Yum!

Read some of Elisabeth's poems! They are full of all the right vitamins!

Let's Give Them Sutphen to Talk About

We have something really great to stir into your coffee on this ever so fall-ish morn. Joyce Sutphen, a graduate of the University of Minnesota's MA and Ph.D programs in English Literature, was recently named the poet laureate of our great flannel state. She graciously agreed to answer a few questions for us about her writing and what it's like to preside over Minnesota's poetry kingdom.

This is a basic question, but how does it feel to receive a title like "poet laureate?"

It feels a bit unreal; I can't explain how it happened or what I did to deserve the title. People like to tease me ("Where are your laurels?" "Do I have to address you as Madame Poet Laureate?"), and I laugh and change the subject.

Is there a difference between a poet's laureate's responsibilities to the (general) public and his/her responsibilities to the writing community?

I hope not, because I don't think in those terms. I write for passionate intelligent readers, and those readers are part of the writing community that exists in every part of the state.

Minnesota is not the only thing you write about, but it's something that surfaces and resurfaces throughout your body of work. Is there some aspect or part of Minnesota you've been preoccupied with in your writing lately?

I haven't finished with writing about my family and the experience of growing up on a small farm. That's material that keeps looking different to me and I continue to try to get it down, to create something that conveys what's being lost when those independent little places disappear. Lately I have been writing poems about the late 60s, when I was an undergraduate at the University and the early 70s, when I was trying to find my way through ... life.

Which contemporary Minnesota poets are you excited about?

I feel fortunate to have met so many fine Minnesota poets over the years. I especially admire Connie Wanek (of Duluth), Tim Nolan (Minneapolis), Patricia Kirkpatrick (St. Paul) and Phil Bryant (St. Peter). These four are excellent poets in very different ways and make a sort of poetic compass for me. We often send each other new poems and talk about who we are reading. Lately I have been admiring Ed Bok Lee's new book, Whorled, Jim Moore's beautiful Invisible Strings, and Bill Reichard's Sin Eater. Of course, there are poets I have admired for years and those I've come to read and admire more recently. I tried to make a list, but it's impossible!

Can you give us a prompt for a poem?

For me, most poems come in one of two ways: either I get an idea or some words and I obey the direction of that prompting and start writing or I start reading poems (from a volume I'm currently reading or a book I pull from the shelf) until something (an idea or a word) catches my imagination and I pick up a pen and write. In the classroom, it's hard to present students with more than one poem, but sometimes I like to take a pair of poems that complement each other in some way (for example, James Wright's "Hook" and Mary Oliver's "Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957"), read the poems out loud, talk about them a bit, and then give the class about ten minutes to write. I try not to suggest a direction in this kind of exercise, since I want the richness of the source poems to lead the way.

MFA Love in the Star Tribune

The Star Tribune gave a shout-out to the University of Minnesota MFA program in Sunday's Sept. 17 edition:

Laurie Hertzel notes the excellence of our faculty, our top-10 national ranking among MFA programs and our stellar Edelstein-Keller Visiting Writer Series.

Friday doesn't always have to make a party sound

Steve Healey is a local poet, who recently wrote a book about that giant river outside Minneapolis' window. Our own Sarah Fox, a 3rd year MFA candidate, interviewed Healey about the magic of spelling M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i, Betty Crocker, and the animals that wander into poems for the Coffee House Press website.

2 Mississippi
Steve Healey

Standing next to the river, I recorded the sound
of the river in an attempt to represent that sound
more accurately than my earlier description of it,
which compared the river sound to someone
saying "shhhh." I rewound the tape and played it back,
and the recording also sounded like someone saying
"shhhh," but then I remembered that I was listening
to both the recording of the river and the river itself,
and I could not with absolute certainty distinguish
one from the other. It sounded like the two sounds
synchronized into one "shhhh," but at times they
seemed to separate, as if telling each other to be quiet,
like accomplices committing a crime. Or they may
have both been telling me to be quiet, despite the fact
that I was producing no sound, or so I thought.
Retreating swiftly and quietly to the privacy
of my own home, a safe distance from the river itself,
I listened again to the recording of the river sound.
This time it sounded like a perfectly preserved memory
of the river, a solitary "shhhh" moving inexorably
toward the Gulf of Mexico, and just as I felt liberated
from the burden of having to remember the river
through my own mental activity, the recording stopped,
precisely at the moment when I had turned off
the tape recorder. Then I remembered that the river
itself was elsewhere, continuing its perfect sound
forever, and that I would never be able to represent
that continuousness accurately. I remembered,
however, that I could take a length of magnetic tape
on which that river was recorded and splice the ends
together to form a loop which I could then play
continuously. The sound could keep going "shhhh"
all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, telling all the cars
and condos to be quiet. It's worth remembering,
however, that a river is not a person, and that a person
saying "shhhh" eventually needs to stop making
that sound, either to inhale or die. There would be no
other choice, unless of course I recorded myself
saying "shhhh" and played a loop of that recording
continuously, in which case I'd no longer need
to remember myself. I'd be immortal
in the privacy of my own sound.

MFA Program Named #10 in Nation

Poets & Writers Magazine has listed our MFA Program as #10 in the nation in their 2012 program rankings!

While we have been as high as #3 and drifted around in the teens, we are plenty happy to be #10. This year, we expect admissions to the program continue to rise with the addition of Peter Campion, our new Assistant Professor of Poetry. Campion was recently awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. Last year, we received 467 applications to the MFA and we will shoot over 500 this year. Our current students are being published in a staggering amount of literary journals (and even publishing debut books while in the program, a la second-year poet Mary Feng Chen, whose first book will be published by Black Ocean Press in January 2012). Our alumni have published over 99 books and chapbooks since 1997, and that tally doesn't include three new books coming out this fall and in spring 2012 (Nate Slawson, Lauren Fox, Shana Youngdahl). The dedicated and generous faculty mentoring our students? Here's a list of our stellar faculty writers: Charles Baxter, Julie Schumacher, Regents Professor Patricia Hampl, Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether, Ray Gonzalez, Maria Damon, Dan Philippon, Peter Campion and David Treuer.

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