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Wednesday, March 26,2014

Immigrants in time

MSU welcomes U.S. poet laureate for national poetry month

by Bill Castanier
Poets are the Rodney Dangerfields of the literary world, located somewhere down near society writers at weekly newspapers on the no-respect spectrum (no-respectrum?) But each April — National Poetry Month — they get a chance to strut their stuff. Or to put it poetically, to test their mettle.

Michigan State University’s Center for Poetry will sponsor three acclaimed poets to celebrate. Appearing on campus will be National Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey on April 2; Virginia Poet Laureate Sofia M. Starnes on April 9; and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy C. Smith on April 16.

The MSU Center for Poetry, established in 2007, has enhanced poetry’s reception in the area, especially helping to bridge the “town to gown” mix between the university and the community. A recent reading in Old Town by poet Thomas Lynch attracted a standing room only crowd.

Starnes finds it remarkable that Michigan hasn’t had a poet laureate since Detroit Free Press columnist Edgar Guest held that post from 1952 to ‘59. He wrote a daily poem for the newspaper from the 1920s through the ‘50s many of which ended up on refrigerators or in scrapbooks.

“Only four or five states do not have one,” Starnes said, adding that the position is “important to creating credibility” for poetry.

In 1925, the Michigan Kiwanians lobbied for the appointment of a poet laureate; the bill passed the House and Senate without controversy but was vetoed by Gov. Alex J. Groesbeck. Phillip Levine, who lived and worked in Detroit for many years, was selected as the national poet laureate in 2011, but the post of an ongoing, official Michigan poet laureate has eluded the state’s literary community. It came close again in 2000 when Gov. John Engler refused to sign it into law.

“Poetry has the power to go to the heart of a thing, and it will tell you something about who you are,” Starnes said by phone from the Virginia Festival of Books. “When you read a poem it connects with something inside you that you may not be aware of.”

Starnes said that poetry helped her stay in touch with her roots when she moved to the U.S. from Spain in 1989. She said she still thinks about her homes in the Philippines and in Spain.

“I was able to bring (my past) with me, even though I couldn’t put it in a suitcase,” Starnes said. “We are all immigrants in time, leaving the country of yesterday.”

Starnes said her style of poetry is driven by her love of words and their symbolism. She said, for example, that rather than writing about a specific river, her use of the word “river” takes on a universal meaning. She also sees a lot of similarities between poetry and music.

“They both transcend time and place as well as race and gender,” she said. Starnes has written many collections, including the critically received “Love in the Afterlife” and “Fully into Ashes.”

Cindy Hunter Morgan, a professor of creative writing at MSU, said she thinks human beings need poetry to be fully human.

“Having poetry in our life awakens us to a fuller life,” Morgan said. She said she embraces both the power and dualism of poetry.

“It is a joyous part of life, creating a curiosity of life and exhilarating,” she said. “(But) it is not always joyous and can open up old wounds. (That’s why) sad music makes us feel good.”

Morgan has written two chapbooks of poetry: “The Sultan, The Skater and the Bicycle Maker” and “Apple Season.” She is currently at work on a collection on Michigan shipwrecks.

“Every poem has some nugget of historical accuracy,” she said. “I start with some kind of truth — what the ship was carrying or how the fire started that sunk the ship. From that moment, I tell a greater truth like imagining someone suffering.”

Morgan said Trethewey’s appearance at MSU is “a big deal.”

“There will be a change of atmosphere around here after her visit,” Morgan said.

Spring Poetry Series schedule

7-8 p.m. Wednesday, April 2: Reading by Natasha Trethewey 1-2 p.m. Thursday, April 3: Trethewey Q&A (at MSU Main Library W449) 3-4 p.m. Wednesday, April 9: Q&A with Tracy K. Smith 7-8 p.m. Wednesday, April 9: Reading by Smith 3-4 p.m. Wednesday, April 16: Q&A with Sofia M. Starnes 7-8 p.m. Wednesday, April 16: Reading by Starnes

All events except Trethewey Q&A held at Residential College in the Arts and Humanities Theater, C20 Snyder Hall, MSU campus The event is free. For more information, (517) 517-884-1932, poetry.rcah.msu.edu

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