by Jo Pitkin K’78 and Stacey J. Himmelberger
Here’s a question worthy of Final Jeopardy! — From the East Coast’s northernmost state to the one at its southernmost tip, who are the poets laureate of Maine and Florida? Hope you wagered big and answered, “Who are Stuart Kestenbaum and Peter Meinke?” Forty-three states currently have designated poets laureate, and two of them are Hamilton alumni. In June 2015, Meinke ’55 was appointed by the Sunshine State’s governor to a three-year term where his job is to promote “reading, writing and the appreciation of poetry throughout the state,” according to Florida’s Division of Cultural Affairs.
Meinke is the author of eight books of poetry in the celebrated Pitt Poetry Series, the most recent being Lucky Bones (2014). He has also published several works of nonfiction, three children’s books and two collections of short stories, including The Piano Tuner (1986), which won a Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.
Poets laureate aren’t in it for the money. Their positions are honorary and come without specific duties beyond broadening understanding and appreciation of poetry.
In an interview from a 2012 edition of the online Artsmania, Meinke noted, “Even in America, where poetry isn’t important to most people, everyone recognizes that at crucial times prose just doesn’t cut it. When we fall in love, when we get married, or have a baby, when somebody dies, prose doesn’t do it. We need poetry at these times.”
Kestenbaum ’73, who was named Maine’s fifth poet laureate in March 2016 upon recommendation of the Maine Arts Commission, hopes to use his five-year term to call attention to the state’s rich literary heritage and to demystify poetry. He is the author of four books of poetry, including his latest, Only Now, published in 2014, and a book of essays, The View From Here: Craft, Community, and the Creative Process (2012).
Upon his announcement as Maine’s poet laureate, Kestenbaum told a reporter from the Portland Press Herald that “poetry is often wrongfully portrayed as a quiz with listeners trying to find the hidden meaning.” However, in his opinion, poetry is simpler than that. “I want to develop projects that will bring poetry to a wider audience, to create places where listeners and readers can approach poetry without expectations — and be surprised and moved by what they find.”
Stuart Kestenbaum grew up in Maplewood, N.J., and began writing poetry as a child. In fact, he still remembers his first effort, a poem about food written for a class assignment in the fifth grade that included bananas, bacon and beets, which, of course, rhymes with eats. He raided the refrigerator and grew as big as an alligator.
As the class worked to craft their poems that afternoon, Kestenbaum’s teacher, perhaps inspired by the young writer’s creativity, eagerly stepped in to help him perfect his work, altering the rhythm and adding some adult expressions. “I don’t think she helped me solve problems so much as to solve them for me — not the best model for the creative process. Still, when I was finished, I knew I had made something that hadn’t existed before. I felt that something had grown inside of me,” he says.
That passion to create would motivate Kestenbaum throughout his years at Hamilton, where he focused his studies in comparative religion and spent a winter term exploring the art of ceramics. His desire to further develop a relationship with materials, along with an interest in education, led him to Maine, where he served as a potter’s apprentice and eventually opened his own studio in Portland.
Working with clay did not dampen the artist’s love of words. While pursuing a livelihood making ceramics, he took time out in 1975 to attend a workshop at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine. The internationally renowned haven for craft makers and visual artists left an impression on Kestenbaum. More than a decade after launching a career in arts administration, first in 1977 as director of the newly established Children’s Museum of Maine, followed in 1980 with a post at the Maine Arts Commission, he returned to Haystack as its third director, a position he held until his retirement in 2015.
Nestled among the woods on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, Haystack offers courses in dozens of craft fields and recruits students and teachers from across the country to study and teach one- and two-week intensive workshops in clay, glass, metal, wood and other media. Under Kestenbaum’s leadership, one of those disciplines included writing. He was known to sprinkle his talks at Haystack with poems appropriate for the moment. His goal — to make poetry accessible and relatable.
To Alice, Who Taught Me About Poems
I remember when we would stay up all night
heading down to the village to watch the baker
make the doughnuts, the greasy ‘O’s rising
miraculously in the oil. I’m sure he was wondering
why jerked-up college kids would come down the hill to visit him:
He was at work, while we were at discovery. Some jobs
can be discoveries, not like the ones famous scientists make
but like those I made before I visited you that summer.
I was working in the gas station, learning to stop the pump
just right on the dollar, not going over by a penny, or cleaning
the windshields perfectly with the squeegee, the water
running down like a light show on the shadow of the dash board.
I hitchhiked from Boston to Maine to visit you at your cottage,
getting a long ride in a hippie’s recycled delivery van past the hulks
of the schooners rotting in the harbor in Wiscasset, past
the souvenirs in Perry’s Nut House in Belfast,
until I was dropped off on route 15, still 40 miles away,
in the mosquito-ﬁlled dusk near the humming and ﬂickering
lights of the gas station, like an Edward Hopper painting come to life.
How is it when night comes on we can feel so alive?
The darkness is surrounding us and we’re standing
with our hopeful thumbs out waiting for a ride.
from Prayers & Run-on Sentences: Poems by Stuart Kestenbaum (Cumberland, Maine: Deerbrook Editions, 2007). Reprinted with permission from the author.
“Hamilton gave me a great respect for writing and the power of language,” he says. “In my writing I try to convey a sense of the miraculous in the everyday — to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.”
Kestenbaum describes his tenure at Haystack as one of preserving the past and looking toward the future. Founded in 1950 but having relocated to its current location in 1961, the school is known for buildings that invite creativity and community. In 1994, Haystack won the Twenty-Five Year Award from the American Institute of Architects, given to structures that have “stood the test of time for 25 to 35 years,” and that “[exemplify] design of enduring significance.” The school was honored again in 2006 when the campus was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
While working to maintain the integrity of its facilities, Kestenbaum melded his dual passions for pottery and poetry by initiating programs that encouraged artists to combine craft, writing and new technologies such as 3D printers and laser cutters. In 2011, he oversaw the opening of Haystack’s Fab Lab in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms.
“Each act of creativity is an exploration into the unknown,” Kestenbaum said in a 2002 talk at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “The faith in the art of creating is that when we put the words on the page or the marks on the paper or our hands to the clay that there will be something that’s worth saying, that we can make a discovery that will lift us and, we hope, others as well. That’s why we’re alive and why we have a desire to create.”
Like many artists, Kestenbaum loosely defines the word “retired.” In addition to his work as Maine’s poet laureate, he is currently serving as interim president of the Maine College of Art in Portland. He gives readings throughout the state and has developed the series “Poems from Here” that airs weekly on Maine Public Radio and features guest poets. In addition, he finds time to collaborate with his wife, printmaker Susan Webster.
Soon after assuming the role of Maine’s poet laureate, Kestenbaum was asked to give the benediction at a meeting of the state legislature, a duty typically performed by a member of the clergy. He notes the differences but also the similarities. “Prayer and poetry have common elements,” he says. “They ask us to slow time down and look at things in a different way.”
His poetry is perhaps best described by Ted Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, who wrote, “Stuart Kestenbaum writes the kind of poems I love to read, heartfelt responses to the privilege of having been given a life. No hidden agendas here, no theories to espouse, nothing but life, pure life, set down with craft and love.”
A resident of Florida for 50 years, Peter Meinke spent his early youth in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where, like most young boys, his goal was to be the next second baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. That career dream faded, however, as he developed a love of poetry, even declaring his aspiration to become a writer in his high school yearbook. “I had always written poetry more or less secretly. When I see the poems I wrote at Hamilton, I wish I had kept them secret, too,” he quips.
But for the young poet, it was an important step to work through different ways of writing. “Fortunately, early on I roomed with Carmen Bufania [’55],” he says. “Carmen was a fellow poetry lover, and we spent a fair amount of time memorizing poems.”
After graduating from Hamilton, Meinke served in the U.S. Army for two years. He taught high school English for another few years in Mountain Lakes, N.J., before venturing to the University of Michigan, where he received his master’s degree in literature in 1961. The next five years he spent teaching at Hamline University; he finished his doctorate in English literature in 1965 at the University of Minnesota.
A year later, Meinke headed to warmer climes and began a long tenure teaching literature and creative writing at Florida Presbyterian College — now Eckerd College — in St. Petersburg, where he directed the Writing Workshop. In addition, he often traveled as a writer-in-residence, teaching and sharing his passion for his craft everywhere from the Geneva Writers Conference in Switzerland to the University of Warsaw in Poland, where he served as a Fulbright senior lecturer. Among his many residencies at U.S. colleges and universities were two stints at Hamilton.
“One of the things I advised my students is to be ready and take advantage of accidents that seem to be pushing you somewhere. You’ve got to take a chance now and then,” he told the Florida Trend in a 2015 interview. “I do a lot of rewriting, and rewrite almost entirely for sound. I tell my students, ‘Follow the music, not the thought.’ The thought will stay.”
Meinke took early retirement in 1993 to spend more time on his own writing. In 2007, Eckerd conferred on him a doctor of humane letters for his “long and distinguished service as a teacher, mentor and writer.” In 2008, the college established the Peter Meinke Chair in Creative Writing.
Throughout his years as a teacher and mentor, Meinke was a prolific writer. Among his numerous awards and honors are a Fulbright Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and three Poetry Society of America prizes. For the last seven years he’s been writing a biweekly column, “The Poet’s Notebook,” for Tampa Bay’s alternative newspaper, Creative Loafing. Many of these reflect his interest in nature, art, travel and politics (a friend has called them his “pinko rants”).
“I enjoy playing with words, and that’s when I’m happiest. I just sit there in the morning and it’s quiet, and I’m mistakenly thinking, ‘I can do this just right,’” he told Artsmania. “That’s one of the attractions of poetry writing — thinking you can make a really perfect poem. There may not be such a thing, but you have that feeling when you’re doing this — going over every line and punctuation mark and spacing.”
Meinke’s poetry varies widely. He describes it as basically a dark view of the world, but with a reasonably cheerful take on it. There’s usually a touch of humor to be found in his poems, whether they deal with politics or family. “I don’t start out with ideas, I don’t start with a plot for a story. I start with a line and see what that triggers. I don’t think I could write if I knew where I was going. The interest is finding out what is hidden there,” he says.
In his role as Florida’s poet laureate, Meinke travels the state to present readings, mostly at universities, but also at high schools, libraries and history and reading clubs. He shares verse with young and old — including a group of homeless people in a room at a hospital in St. Petersburg. He and his wife, illustrator Jeanne Clark, recently collaborated on The Elf Poem, a light-hearted guide for children to inspire their reading and poetry writing.
Meinke credits Hamilton, especially such beloved English professors as Robert “Bobo” Rudd and Thomas McNaughton Johnston, with making him “a serious reader of poetry.” Meinke observes, “Hamilton was an ideal place for me, where I made good friends, learned how to handle my bad habits and developed a lifelong love of books and small colleges — the more like Hamilton, the better.”
In his 1999 book The Shape of Poetry: A Practical Guide to Writing & Reading Poems, Meinke wrote: “I think those in the profession — the calling — of writing poetry should be knowledgeable and skilled as any carpenter, passionate and dignified as any priest. I believe those who are able to spend large stretches of their lives engaged in this activity are the luckiest people in the world.”
Lying flat on the floor because I’m old
and it’s good for my back
counting coins of dust in the twilight
and squinting at the books huddled above me
like immigrants in ragged overcoats
guarding their family secrets
I think You have cost me everything:
stoop shouldered nearsighted soft and white
as a silverfish caught in the binding
of The Complete Works of Henry James
from hours days decades spent bent
over your pages when I could have been
pruning azaleas or hitting tennis balls with real people
Now I’ve been down so long
I’m too stiff to get up or even reach for a book
so I call for help not expecting an answer
but from the stern and shadowed shelves
Emma and Anna and all the lost inaccessible
women above me cry out with their special accents
words I understand only from their rhythm and inflection
O sorrow they say all of them over and over
Carrie and Carol and Cora and Julia sorrow o sorrow Catherine and Scarlet
and Sonja and Daisy o sorrow sorrow
Molly o sorrow Wendy sorrow Dora Maud Helen Hester
and I like any man who has blindly loved
understand too late as unhappy endings pour down
just sentences on their weeping and guilty prisoner
pinned to the floor by threads
of vanishing light
Millennial Alumni Poets ‘Make It New’
While Peter Meinke ’55 and Stuart Kestenbaum ’73 have been recognized for their respective bodies of work, several young alumni are finding fresh modes of creative expression, continuing the legacy of Hamilton poets that includes the legendary modernist Ezra Pound, Class of 1905.
Pound, who turned to untraditional sources for inspiration, challenged his contemporaries to “Make it new!” by rejecting outdated modes of expression and conventions that seemed exceedingly gentile in a world of emerging technologies and global conflict. Today, a century later, Pound’s dictum is one heeded by Zoë Bodzas ’16, Marty Cain ’13 and John Rufo ’16 as they embark on their writing careers.
Zoë Bodzas '16 came to Hamilton from Hillsborough, N.J., with a newfound passion for poetry. “Toward the way end of my senior year of high school, my English teacher brought us a lot of contemporary work that I’d never been exposed to before,” she recalls. “It was really exciting, especially at such a scary moment before graduation.”
On College Hill, Bodzas soon found her niche and comfort zone within the literary community. During her first year, she served on the editorial board of the Red Weather literary magazine, for which she would later go on to serve as co-editor-in-chief, and contributed as layout editor of the satirical weekly newspaper, The Duel Observer.
“Poetry felt more alive than it did in high school,” she says of her time at Hamilton, where she graduated summa cum laude after majoring in creative writing and linguistics. “As a result, I read a lot of poems and wrote a lot of poems.”
And her work garnered a lot of honors. The young writer received an Emerson Research Grant to collaborate with Associate Professor of Women’s Studies Vivyan Adair on the project “Contemporary Poor Women Writers: Bridging an Historical Silence.” Her own work earned her the Weaver Prize in Poetry, the Meehan Prize in Creative Writing and the Watrous Literary Prize.
Bodzas sees her writing style, and the topics she tackles, as always shifting. She’s written about everything from plants, stingrays, chickens and burgers to discos, anxiety, space and missing children.
In her senior year, Bodzas capped her college career by winning the prestigious Kathryn Irene Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Contest. This award, established in 1924 by Mount Holyoke College, is the oldest intercollegiate poetry competition in the United States. After being nominated by her professors in the Literature and Creative Writing Department, she competed for top honors against students from five other colleges including Mount Holyoke, Amherst and the University of Pennsylvania.
Bodzas currently lives in Brooklyn. She is working on a draft for a children’s book and eventually plans to attend graduate school. “Someday, I hope to have a job where I get to do creative work every day — that’s basically the dream,” she says.
Marty Cain '13 had a cursory interest in poetry for as long as he can remember, but it wasn’t until his sophomore year at Hamilton that he decided it could become his career. “At the time, I was in [Associate Professor of Literature and Creative Writing] Jane Springer’s Introduction to Creative Writing course, and she encouraged me to begin taking myself seriously as a poet — to learn how to articulate my own aesthetic and my influences, to read widely, to submit work for publication,” he recalls.
Springer also encouraged her student to consider art and literature through multiple perspectives. This propelled Cain to create his own major in interdisciplinary poetics and devote his final year to a Senior Fellowship focused on multimedia poetics and the pastoral, or poetry that explores rural life.
“I mostly identified as a fiction writer until I got to Hamilton, and I went to college thinking I wanted to be a novelist,” he says. “In high school, I wrote a really bad young adult novel and even went through the process of submitting the manuscript to agents, but I’m truly grateful that none of them thought it was any good, because in terms of my temperament, interests and personality, I’m much better off being a poet.”
Cain, who graduated magna cum laude, served as editor-in-chief of Red Weather and was the youngest writer selected to attend the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vt., not far from his hometown of Marlboro. He also received several Emerson Research Grants to pursue projects titled “Stan Brakhage: Poetic Cinema” and “The Real is Surreal: Reinterpreting the Poetic Pastoral.”
After graduation, Cain earned an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Mississippi, where he edited the Yalobusha Review. Now a doctoral candidate in English language and literature at Cornell University, he is looking forward to having his first book published later this year by Trembling Pillow Press — Kids of the Black Hole, an elegy about being a teenager in southern Vermont coming to terms with death, trauma, capital and patriarchal violence. He has also completed a second book-length manuscript titled The Wound Is (Not) Real.
“Largely, my work is concerned with gender, trauma, adolescence and rural life,” Cain says. “In terms of my formal style, I’m interested in writing that embraces self-conscious messiness and rawness, that resists the polish of the ‘workshop poem’ that’s usually associated with M.F.A. programs and mainstream literary institutions.”
Cain hopes to pursue a career teaching creative writing. But more broadly, he hopes to write poetry for the rest of his life — “to continually innovate and push myself.” Last summer, he married Kina Viola ’14. The pair has launched Garden-Door Press to publish handmade chapbooks and broadsides.
“More than anything, I’m inspired by the poetry of my spouse and friends, and by the texts I consume,” Cain says. Other influences include the global tradition of the avant-garde long poem, contemporary poets who explore “ruralness” though postmodern idioms and the lineages associated with European surrealism. His other muse: an orange tabby named Virgil.
I was born in an airduct. I was born on a school bus. I was born in a dirt mound. I was born in the innards of a dog asleep on the carpet. I was born on a platform. I was burning in the woodstove when I looked in the glass. I was born in a yurt on the side of the road. Death was my father. We had no spigot. He gave me a sponge bath when we woke in the morn. I was born with a splinter. I was born with a flower. I was born in the day and fell asleep in the dark and when they left the room I hollered for help. The wolfspider bit me. The manchild bit me. My father pulled the fish onshore and tore open the gills to get to the lure. I was born in the bloodspool of the calf who was spilling. I was born in a spark. I was born here. I fell asleep in the rafters. I was born in the moonflow.
Excerpted from The Wound Is (Not) Real: A Memoir by Marty Cain
Among the writers who've influenced John Rufo '16 is Hamilton’s own Ezra Pound. Rufo spent a summer as an Emerson Research fellow working on a project that involved writing poetry inspired by Pound’s The Cantos, an 800-page, unfinished epic poem considered one of the most significant of the modernist period. The work is also widely regarded as controversial due to its experimental style, being loosely structured and arcane, and Pound’s publicized fascist sympathies.
“My recent poetry is much more preoccupied with multiple forms, languages and cultures than it has been in the past, particularly Greek and Latin,” Rufo explained in 2014 when he was working on the project. “Additionally, reading The Cantos forces the reader to think about politics and economics constantly, and it inspires a desire to put seemingly non-poetic material into poems.”
The native of Fayetteville, N.Y., has always been drawn to a variety of disciplines and perspectives. He pursued an interdisciplinary studies major at Hamilton, taking courses in literature, history, philosophy, Africana studies and Asian studies, and spent his last year as a Senior Fellow, interviewing young contemporary political poets in an effort to explore issues connected to race, gender, sexuality and disability. The end result was a book he treated not as a documentary, but as a piece of art with interviews that flowed like a novel.
“I’ve always been drawn to poetry that is maybe more difficult or experimental,” he says. “Something I learned in my reading over the past year is that a lot of writers of color or queer writers or writers who identify as having some kind of disability will use more experimental forms to get to things that more traditional avenues of language don’t allow them to talk about.”
Rufo, who graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors, received several awards for his writing and research. In addition to a Smallen Creativity Grant, which he used to explore different modes of performing poetry, he won the Hansmann Poetry Prize, the Meehan Prize in Creative Writing and the Watrous Literary Prize. He also served as co-editor-in-chief of Red Weather.
Rufo is a doctoral candidate in literature at the University of California, Riverside. In addition to his studies, he regularly contributes book reviews and interviews with poets to such online literary arts journals as the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Entropy, and Ploughshares magazine’s literary blog. He also plans to collaborate with photographer Sean Henry-Smith ’15 on a text/image chapbook titled White History/Black Guilt.
In keeping with Pound’s emphasis on experimentation in poetry, Rufo says, “I have a book I keep deleting. I want to know how books disappear, redact, swallow, go live. I recently performed a piece at Secret Dungeon gallery in New York City where I typed on a projected screen for four hours and engaged with the audience to produce a ‘live poem.’”
Jo Pitkin K’78 earned her M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. At Kirkland, she founded the literary magazine Red Weather, won the Watrous Poetry Prize and attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. An award-winning poet, she has published a chapbook and three full-length poetry collections. She is also editor of Lost Orchard: Prose and Poetry from the Kirkland College Community.