EAST LANSING, MI – Anita Skeen teaches in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University. She also heads up the Center for Poetry there and has written several books of poetry.
Skeen studied with Margaret Atwood, author of the "Handmaid's Tale". She says Atwood taught her to find the "perfect" word, not just a word that works.
Skeen has a new collection of poetry called "Never the Whole Story" coming out this month from the MSU Press. WKAR's Gretchen Millich recently spoke with her and asked her to read the poem "What the Cat Brought Home" from her new book.
ANITA SKEEN: "Here, outside the front door
in 4:00 a.m. porch light, splayed
on its back and gnawed
through its heart,
the frog I've talked with
from our backyard pond, keeper
of secrets and reminder that
each Spring, green things return
to life, camouflaged croaker
of dark's mysteries, proof
that those we love
do not always love what we do,
every purr has fangs, and gifts
can come at terrible cost."
GRETCHEN MILLICH: "What are you aiming for when you write poetry?"
AS: "I think poetry is about communication, and I think the reason people write poems is they have a story to tell or an experience they want to communicate. So, what I'm trying to do when I write a poem is to tell that story, or present that experience, or put out that emotion and my hope is that someone will read that poem and say "That happened to me, too," or read that poem and say "That's how I felt, but I didn't know how to say it." It's very important to me that the poem be accessible and work on multiple levels. Perhaps it works on just the story level, but if you are a sophisticated reader, you can find more beyond just that story."
GM: "Is that what makes it poetry, instead of just telling a story?"
AS: "Partly, I think what makes it poetry is the language, the juxtaposition of words that you use, that you choose to bring together, that you wouldn't do in ordinary language. I think there's poetic language and there's ordinary language and most of the time we use ordinary language. One of the reasons we're drawn to poetry is we get a chance to use and to hear that poetic language. That and music. It's all music."
GM: "That was one of the questions I was gong to ask. Nowadays, since Rap is so popular, and anytime when you listen to Rap or watch a Rap artist, you realize they are not singing, they're talking. Even though singing a song is also using poetry, but Rap especially is using poetry."
AS: "I think that's right and I think there are many different kinds of poetry from very academic and erudite poetry to t he poems that you hear kids on the playground saying to each other. You know, skip ropes and things like that, and one of our jobs at the Poetry Center and as poets is to acquaint people with different kinds of poetry and get them not to make value judgments about this poetry is better or this poetry is not so good, but that different kinds of poems are appropriate in different kinds of settings and for different kinds of audiences and in different contexts. I think we ought to appreciate and value all the kinds of poetry that are out there and support them."
GM: "Tell me about the Center for Poetry. In fact, we're sitting in the Center for Poetry right now."
AS: "Yes, the Center for Poetry started with the new Residential College in the Arts and Humanities about four years ago. And it was an opportunity to really have, as part of the Residential College's mission, a mission about poetry. And we say in our mission statement that what we try to do is bring poetry into people's everyday lives. And we work a lot with the community. Almost all the projects we do are both community oriented and student oriented. We sponsor readings, we sponsor workshops, we collaborate with people like the Old Town Poets and Lansing Poetry Society and different organizations to try to support and increase the number of poetry offerings that are in this area."
Anita Skeen is a professor at the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University. She's also director of the Center for Poetry at the college. She spoke with WKAR's Gretchen Millich.
Skeen's new book "Never the Whole Story" will be published this month by the MSU Press.
For more information about the Center for Poetry, visit their website at rcah.msu.edu/poetry.