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Caution: Poetry at Work

October 12

The CSB/SJU Writing Center will be creating entries for Poetry at Work this year. The twenty undergraduate tutors are excited to share this project with you!

College is a time of expression, where students are encouraged to think creatively and find themselves through their passions. Likewise, blackout poetry focuses on pushing creative boundaries and forces author to improvise by limiting their voice in the poem and relying on found language. The author must have a certain amount of trust with the page, allowing the given words to guide their poetic voice. There is a similar level of trust when it comes to college. Students must rely on their surroundings in order to navigate a new way of life.

On August 31, the Writing Center held its first formal event to introduce students to the new writing center space in the renovated Alcuin Library at Saint John's. The tutors collaborated with library staff to host the event. Molly Ewing helped us set up a station for composing blackout poetry and provided some discarded volumes from the library. This fun exercise encouraged students to play with different writing styles. In blackout poetry, individuals choose a page from a book and create a poem by blacking out words on the page until the remaining words form a poem. Below are some examples that students submitted from the event.

Blackout Poem

Poem by Brie Baumert.

Blackout Poem

Poem by Holly Ossanna.

Blackout Poem

Writing Center Student Employees.

September: Transitions

September 21

As I prepare this posting, our world is facing violence, war, distrust, and tensions that erupt in the worst behavior that human beings carry within them. The poem I share this week does not address or solve any of those urgent problems; it is a poem about making time to write, even in the midst of so much need. There are wonderful models of poets whose writing grapples with the most challenging issues of our time, whose advocacy comes through their poetry. Their work seems unquestionably worthwhile to me, and I doubt that anyone would question the time they devote to their writing. When a poem comes from a more personal landscape, as this one does, or captures a moment of joy, or expresses something unrelated to politics or social justice or human drama, it can seem optional, unnecessary, and making time to write can be hard to justify. But writing poetry can nourish and enlighten us in the personal sphere, helping us prepare to meet the needs of the world more courageously and fully. Writing can help especially when it brings to the surface expectations or assumptions that operate subconsciously. Writing this poem helped me see an ideal of motherhood I had internalized, without being aware of it, a constant measure of my inevitable failure. Devoting time to the poem made the sense of failure worse in a way (I was even further from the ideal described here because I took time to write), but working through the poem helped me realize that not writing the poem would not bring me much closer to the ideal. Being a perfect whatever is always out of reach. Releasing myself from this expectation was a necessary step in my maturity as a parent, and learning to make time for what sustained me amidst the flurry of tasks was extremely important.

Writing and cookingThe Good Mother's Reward

In the time it takes to write this poem
I could have opened the new packs of diapers,
stacked them neatly, strategically.
I could have folded all that laundry, too --
shirts, socks, training pants, onesies, tights, booties, hats.
I could have made it all ready for the frenzied morning grab.

I could have prepared a dinner of
freshly cooked vegetables packed with vitamins
bits of cheese cut in the shape of their names
fruit arranged in a smiley face and
sandwiches cut into triangles (not squares)
and even a cookie as a special treat.

I could have baked the cookies --
the house after daycare would have smelled
the way my grandmother's did,
dessert still warm on a gently perspiring plate
glass of milk confident, proud beside it,
two percent or maybe even whole.

I could have pressed my apron for the baking --
I know I could have found it crumpled in a drawer
and washed and ironed it, starched and crisp.
I could have added a ruffle, too, assuming I could find
my sewing machine, still in a box in the basement.
I could have made room among the cartons and the chaos.

I could have followed the seductive trail of motherhood
back to its subterranean storage where the perfect mother waits.
I see her sigh at me now, fold her plump arms over her ample waist
and then, just before the word from the sponsor,
she smiles that beatific all-forgiving smile
and rumples my hair with a slightly floury hand.

My own hand signals the ultimate laborsaving device to print
as I race to the freezer to see what's for dinner.
Pizza and guilt, and a poem as my just desserts.
      -- Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing:
Think about your own strategies for making time to write, knowing that what works for others may not work for you. If you wish that you wrote more, experiment with different writing schedules, locations, goals and strategies to share work and receive support from other writers. If the quandary of the ideal expressed in this poem resonated with you, consider whether an ideal may be helping and/or hindering your work. Draft a poem or lyrical prose passage where you explore the ideals against which you measure success - as the perfect writer, friend, student, athlete, daughter, brother, employee, partner, citizen…. What aspects of the ideal draw you forward, giving you strength and inspiring further effort? Is there any part of the image that needs to be updated, refined or retired?

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