Language Distilled

Doctoral candidates at FSU discuss the art of poetry

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Ask any writer how he became interested in writing, and chances are good that you’ll hear fond reminiscences about life-changing books or teachers.

“I’ve spoken with a lot of poets who have stories similar to mine,” said Kaveh Akbar, a poet in the Creative Writing Program at FSU. “They had that moment when the switch was flipped and they got that clarity telling them that this was what they were supposed to do.”

Akbar was in high school when an English teacher who had been published as a small-press poet sent him home with a pile of literary journals. 

“I got midway through the first one, and it was like I knew with an angels-blaring-their-trumpets clarity that this was what I was supposed to do,” Akbar said. “I was first published in a literary journal when I was 17.”

“To be a poet is a calling,” said Yolanda J. Franklin, another FSU doctoral candidate in poetry. A Tallahassee teacher, Kathleen L. Rodgers, taught her to love poetry.

“I was in the fifth grade in Ms. Rodgers class,” Franklin said. “(She) designed an ‘Introduction to Poetry’ unit and taught us haiku, tanka and other poetic forms. These poems still hang on the fridge in my mother’s house.”

“I started writing in high school,” said Erin Hoover, who will graduate with her doctorate from FSU’s poetry program this spring. “I submitted my work to a literary magazine and was published, and I also won some awards. In Pennsylvania, where I grew up, there was a state-sponsored summer academy — the Governor’s School for the Arts — and I was accepted into their poetry program. I got a lot of encouragement when I was young, and that becomes really important in whether or not you’re going to continue in something.”

Akbar, whose first poem was published in his hometown newspaper in Oak Creek, Wisconsin when he was in second grade, agrees. “I’ve had the same email address since I was first published, and just a couple of months ago, I looked at the email I sent out to this poor editor when I was 17, where I talked about how excited I was by poetry and said, ‘So, here are some of my poems.’ She responded very graciously to my email, and she ultimately even took one of the poems.”

The road to success for these three award-winning poets hasn’t always been easy, but each tends to see challenges as opportunities for growth. 

After receiving her master’s degree from the University of Oregon, Hoover spent seven years working in New York City as a public relations director.

“I wouldn’t say that my path is really typical of other writers, but it’s not that unusual,” she said. “There are other writers who have gaps in their writing, where they’re doing other kinds of work. But as a result of spending a lot of time outside of universities, I feel like I’ve had certain experiences that some other writers haven’t had.”

One experience that almost every published writer — including Akbar, Franklin and Hoover — have had is that of receiving a rejection letter.

“The phrase I remember from my first rejection letter went something like ‘not the right fit’ or ‘not at this time, but thank you for your submission,’” Franklin said. “I remember … being surprised by how pleasant (it) was. I imagined that these letters would read like a ‘Dear John’ breakup letter, instead!”

Akbar concedes that he, too, has received his share of rejection letters, but he was “never too put off” by them. “I see them — and acceptance letters — as useful data points and not a whole lot more. My joy is found in the writing process, itself,” he said. “I think there are those for whom poetry is the greatest, truest thing. The people who believe that believe it with a total conviction. I count myself among their ranks. This is the thing in this world that brings me the most delight.” 

Delight. It’s a feeling that was referred to by Robert Frost, the great American poet, when he wrote, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” While none of Akbar’s, Franklin’s and Hoover’s poetry necessarily starts — or ends — with the frolicking-through-woods-on-a-snowy-evening sense of “delight,” readers can take delight in the absolute craftsmanship exhibited by poets and in the intensely moving experience of reading their work. And, there is wisdom in their writings.

“I’m interested in creating stories and in writing about people and what motivates them, and about the identity of places,” Hoover said. “I’ve been told that I’m good at telling multiple stories or complicated narratives in a concise, meaningful way. People often ask me how I do that. The truth is, none of us really knows what we’re doing. Think about how boring it would be if we all had it down to some elevator speech. It would be weird. I wouldn’t trust it. For me, writing is often just putting one idea against another and seeing how they relate to each other — being obsessed by multiple things at the same time and seeing what is common between them.”

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