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Poetic Justice


Hamiltonians with a gift for verse honored as poets laureate

(Originally appeared in the Fall-Winter 2017 Alumni Review)

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.

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.

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.”

Stuart Kestenbaum ’73

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.”

Fall-Winter 2017
Stuart Kestenbum '73

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

Peter Meinke '55

Fall-Winter 2017
Peter Meinke '55

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.

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.

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.”

  • Read “To Alice, Who Taught Me About Poems” from Prayers & Run-on Sentences: Poems by Stuart Kestenbaum (Cumberland, Maine: Deerbrook Editions, 2007). Reprinted with permission from the author.
  • Read “The Bookshelf” from The Contracted World: New & More Selected Poems by Peter Meinke (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006). Reprinted with permission of the author.

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.

Fall-Winter 2017
Zoë Bodzas '16

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. 

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