There is a reason the departure from the conventional rules of writing and speaking is often referred to as poetic license. As poets try to tell narrative or more personal stories based on the world around them through their prose, rules on writing could hinder their ability to creatively dissect observations, draw from cherished memories, or tap strong emotions attached to painful life experiences.
To celebrate poets and their renegade spirit, the Academy of American Poets inaugurated the month of April as National Poetry Month in 1996. Today it is the largest literary celebration in the world.
At California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), poetry has a subtle voice, but it is passionately taught and written in the classroom, scribbled before class in quiet locations around campus, or dictated into smart phones on the way home after a full day of teaching. In other parts of the world, poetry is penned by accomplished and celebrated CSUDH alumni.
To commemorate National Poetry Month, three talented members of the CSU Dominguez Hills community recently shared insights about poetry, teaching and their work. To read their work, click on their poems on the right or read the text version here.
Alumna Lucilla Maclaren Spillane’s (2011, M.A., humanities) poetry is widely-recognized around the world, particularly in Britain, Ireland, Australia, the United States and Malta, where she now calls home.
Spillane has been honored at or invited to read her poetry at a variety of events, often attended by political leaders and those who are renowned in the art world. In February, at the request of Malta’s President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, an event to honor Spillane and her poetry was held at the president’s San Anton Palace. There her poem “No Time to Die” was read by famous Maltese actor Jimi Busuttil from her critically acclaimed book “Another Seeing and other Poems.” Busuttil died from cancer just six weeks later.
How did the news of the actor’s death affect you personally?
“Although I only met him [Busuttil] once, I have a vivid mental picture of him; his strength of character and his experience of life as a fisherman were etched in his face. I did not know he was dying from cancer when he was asked to read “No Time to Die,” or that he had told another actor that this would be his last stage performance. The line in the poem, “It’s time to be dead” must have resonated strongly for him. Now, when I think back and remember him, this poem affects me greatly.”
How often do you write?
“Not very often. I began reading traditional poetry when I was 6 years old, but I didn’t really start writing in earnest until I was 30 and it has taken years to build a collection. My first poem was “Whirlie Cats and Girlie Cats.” It was written to entertain my children. “The Fish’s Song” took two years, but I wrote “Late One Night” while stopped at a red light in five minutes, and it is still in its original form.”
How would you describe good poetry?
“Good poetry should give one a physically tingly feeling. I’ve binned (thrown away) a lot that I didn’t think did this. A poem is often retrieved by someone, and a classic case is my poem “A Foreigner Learning Maltese,” which pokes fun at the language and was born out of my frustration. To my surprise, the Maltese people love it, as it so accurately describes their language.”
What is poetry for you?
“For me, poetry is a form of expression. At its best, poetry should be written in traditional form with rhythm and often rhyme. It should make a strong point as powerfully and as musically as possible, and its meaning should be clear to all, so that no analysis is required.” In poetry we can put into words our most acute thoughts and feelings and express them in a concise form, which can seldom be achieved in prose. Good poetry should have a sense of soul, feeling, passion, power, movement and the ability to transport the reader to a new place or state of mind.”
Randy Cauthen is a professor of English and poet in residence at CSUDH. He draws inspiration from the world around him, and from his colorful past: working as a horse-drawn carriage driver in Charleston, South Carolina, serving as first mate of an Erie Canal packet boat, and spending time as a disc jockey, bartender and actor.
Cauthen’s works include two books of poems “Slow Night” and “The Use of Force,” and the non-fiction book “Black Letters.” His blog, “Killing Goliath,” was named by The Guardian newspaper in London as one of the best American antiwar resources during the Iraq War. He’s currently writing the book “The Failure and Success of Occupy Wall Street,” and a narrative poem set in Charleston after the Revolutionary War.
How do you approach writing poetry both physically and creatively?
“I try to write every day. I usually write by hand, but often at the computer. In the car, I’ll just talk into my phone when I get an idea. To me, it’s more a question of how you’re going to live your life compared to just producing things. I write about what I run into. I like to think of it in terms of the painter who says ‘I paint what I see.’ I tend to not be the main character of my own work. You’re supposed be able to assume the story from other’s viewpoints, but people will always assume it’s you.”
As a professor, how do you get fledgling poets to open up in their writing?
“A lot of times what happens when students are writing very stiffly in the beginning is they haven’t gained permission to use their real language and real life experiences. I told this one struggling student to ‘Write me something like you would tell it to a friend.’ This was a local kid from Compton. He asked, ‘I can use that language?’ I told him he ought to. There is a huge amount of great poetry that comes from the inner city. In many ways, that’s where the writing is cutting-edge. That’s where the language is changing and creative.”
What is the most important thing you want your students to know about writing poetry?
“I tell them to start looking at the world with a writer’s curiosity, because that changes the way they engage their experience. I tell them to assume that everything is interesting in some way: ‘What’s that tower over there?’ ‘Where do he get that license plate frame, and are people really proud of having it on their cars?’ I’m a really big believer in that. I can’t guarantee my students that they will all become published writers, but I think I can get most of them to absorb that idea.
How can they become published writers?
“There are students who come through my creative writing class and say, ‘I want to get published.’ I tell them to send stuff out, but for the time being, while you’re waiting for that–and for some the wait is going to be a long one–go read your stuff in a club on open mic night. There’s a huge oral poetry scene here, in almost every neighborhood. Everyone’s going to be pleasant to you. You won’t get booed off stage, they clap for everyone. You may also run into people there who are putting out interesting stuff, and make some great connections.”
Will they get published?
“Today there’s electronic publishing, self-publishing, and–most important–most publishing journals will accept simultaneous submissions. When I started out, you’d send four or five poems to one magazine and it would take six months for them to say ‘No!’ But you can’t take rejection to heart. Now you can send poems to all the publications at the same time and if one likes your work they’ll say, ‘If somebody else wants to buy this let us know.’ That’s a new, big positive change in publishing. But it’s still just a crap shoot.”
Jade Harvey is an English major who transferred as a senior to CSUDH in fall 2014 from CSU Fullerton.
How did you get interested in poetry?
“I started reading at an early age, and with the reading inevitably came writing. My interest in poetry and my interest in writing in general would be from my mom. When I was a little girl she made sure that I had ready sources of reading material all around me. When she was sick of reading children’s books to me, we read the descriptions in the Macy’s catalog or the instructions on the back of the cereal box. If I had trouble with an idea or a definition, she would write stories about glittery shoes or our next-door neighbor to illustrate what was confusing me. She worked with me again and again and again until it was perfect.”
What is poetry for you?
“Poetry is escape and expression. It is a way to reveal everything going on in my head as well as a way to hide from everything going on around me. It’s not a nice feeling; to be different.”
What inspires you the most when it comes to writing poetry?
“My ultimate inspiration is life and, by extension, death. Life is full of people; people make choices, both good and bad, that are hard to understand. Often, my writing is a reaction to events that will likely never touch me.”
Can you describe your poetry style?
“My poetry style is eclectic. I like my poetry to tell a story; however, it comes as a secondary aspect rather than the primary. Even in my short storytelling I would rather the reader slow down and feel the story than focus on the action.”