By Traci Brimhall
Originally from Little Falls, Minnesota, and a resident of nine cities since, I’m glad to have finally made Manhattan and Kansas State University my home. Though I’m here to teach creative writing classes, poetry hasn’t always been a part of my life. Growing up there were the usual rhymes sung at doubledutch and lullabies (“The Owl and the Pussycat” a memorable favorite), but I didn’t start writing poetry regularly until high school. I studied it in college, and my Norton anthology from my first poetry class traveled with me through five moves. Upon graduating college, I stopped writing, got a house, started working something I considered a “real” job, and then I got very, very bored.
Fortunately, that “real” job was at a Shakespeare theater, and one of the actors there was also an English professor. When he found out I’d studied poetry in college, he started leaving books of poetry in my mailbox at work. Every time I showed up to unlock the doors for another showing of Twelfth Night or Hamlet, I’d discover Rainer Maria Rilke or Stephen Dunn waiting for me. Though I loved the poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay, T.S. Eliot, and John Keats I’d studied in school, reading living poets and poets in translation renewed my love for poetry.
That kind of diversity of reading is something I hope to bring to every class—understanding the poetic traditions and forms that shape the poems being written today, as well as the talented voices around the world. The essayist Rebecca Solnit said: “Books are the solitudes in which we meet,” and through poetry books, I’ve met political poets, people grieving or in love, parents, doctors, insurance salesmen, mystics, sincere writers and ironists, writers praising and lamenting. It’s given me a new way to understand the world.
Another thing I always bring to the classroom is a deeper understanding of how a poem is made. Emily Dickinson once wrote: “Split the Lark—and you’ll find the Music,” and while our dissections in workshop are gentle ones, I want to show everyone the talent and complexity of writers we study, as well as help them see their own gifts. It’s important to recognize that a line of poetry (or an image or a metaphor) is good, but crucial to know how it works. Why does a shift in tone in a poem make you laugh? Why did the juxtaposition in the last line make you cry?
Wildcats, bring me your larks. Let’s find their music.
Traci Brimhall joined the Kansas State University Department of English in August as an assistant professor. She is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award.