Maggie Anderson: The Art “In-Between”
by Maria Villafranca
The Zimmerli Museum provided an intimate and inspiring setting for a reading by award-winning poet Maggie Anderson, the semester’s first guest of Writers at Rutgers. Ms. Anderson is the author of four books of poetry. She teaches creative writing and directs the Wick Poetry Program at Kent State University, and through this program, Ms. Anderson is known not only as a writer and a teacher but also as a supporter of emerging poets. During her visit she read a wide variety of poems, showing the range of her concerns and her poetic approaches. Critics have praised Ms. Anderson’s work for being “confident, lyrical and compassionate,” and these qualities stood out in everything she read.
Following the Writers at Rutgers tradition of bringing authors and students together, Ms. Anderson visited an advanced poetry workshop. The students, familiar with Ms. Anderson’s work, asked many questions, and the discussion covered everything from her use of symbolism in specific works to her thoughts about poetic inspiration and the writing process. Ms. Anderson’s gifts as a teacher seem almost to merge with her abilities as a poet; as one student put it, “whenever she speaks, it’s like she’s reading a refined and thoughtful poem.”
Richard Tayson, the Director of Writers at Rutgers and a long-time admirer of Ms. Anderson’s work, introduced her. In the spirit of “full disclosure,” he noted that his own first book had been published by Wick and edited by Ms. Anderson, after having been selected for the award by the well known poet Marilyn Hacker. He then described Ms. Anderson’s talent for writing poetry that balances opposite emotional ideas, poems that juxtapose “joy and pathos, humor and sorrow” to present profound insights. He also quoted a number of powerful and engaging first lines from her poems, such as the humorous question that begins “Beyond Even This”: “Who would have thought the afterlife would look so much like Ohio?”
“I like the margins, the spaces between, the possibility of moving back and forth between the public and the private world,” Ms. Anderson has written, and her poetry often alludes to the creative potential of in-betweenness. Born in New York City to a mother from western Pennsylvania and a father from West Virginia, she has described a childhood of “moving around a lot” but visiting West Virginia every summer. The influence of her rural Appalachian heritage is evident in her work, which often contrasts the common language of popular culture, the exalted language of universities, and the more unschooled language of Appalachian storytelling. These tensions between different worlds, languages, and boundaries help give Ms. Anderson’s poems their powerful impact.
Ms. Anderson read mostly from her latest collection of poetry, Windfall, and from her new work in progress, The Sleep Writer. She began by describing her interest in personal and poetic voices, and the first poem she read, “Ontological,” uses the idiom of an Appalachian dialect, in contrast with the philosophical title (“of or relating to the nature of being”), to add layers of meaning. Reading from her work, Ms. Anderson’s voice conveyed the combination of empathy, matter-of-factness, and humor that is a remarkable characteristic of her poetry. Introducing “Beyond Even This,” Ms. Anderson expressed her hopefulness in what lies beyond boundaries, even in the imaginative geography of an Ohio-like afterlife: “there must be a backcountry of the beyond / beyond even this and farther out / past the dark smoky city on the shore.”
In following the traditions of Appalachian storytelling, Ms. Anderson invests her poetry with a close attention to detail and powerfully specific imagery. Her works thus become vehicles for recording fleeting experiences, and she ended her reading with a selection of new poems about dreams, reality, love, death, and war. Before reading a poem about current political events, Ms. Anderson explained her reason for writing it, a reason which seems to fit all of her poetry: “This is the least I can do to remember; to remember what happens, to remember what they told us to forget.”
The Writers at Rutgers Series including the schedule of writers for 2004-2005
The Wick Poetry Program
Two Poems by Maggie Anderson