Three Poets, Three Poems

The poems and their creators

  By Meagan Thomas

Vivian

The first reader to take to the lectern, she wears a yellow dress over a black turtleneck and tights, like a cheerful shell over mourning clothes. Her voice wavers for a moment, then takes on a smooth legato quality, lulling, soothing with a touch of sadness underneath.

Excerpts from: Yom Kippur, 2019

By Vivian Altopp

I thank Kaddish for its community.
Thank you to the sterile wooden book room chairs that we sat in
where I felt
so deathly uncomfortable, naming my raw, hurt memories with strangers—
but thank you,
to kaddish, for surrounding the bodies I cherish; whose hands I held around
the Eve tree,
where we placed a white rose in her vagina
and the leaves wept on our shoulders.

 I returned, once, without the kaddish, at night. Alone.
Not intentionally.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry
that I didn’t come sooner.
The flies, they bit your hands and hair.
I touched your every branch and begged you to help me cry,

falling on my scars. Weeping by the hole
in your trunk.

After your death
I would almost forget to eat
because I felt the filling poison of grief start
to swallow my stomach
and try to make me feel
full. So, from February to May,
I sat
with my face in my food and listened
to the sounds.
And drank, so much coffee,
black waste covered the table and my notebook.

I hope.
And wherever I sit, I hope

that somehow, I will someday cry in some way as a way
to release this hurt.

Releasing the guilt I feel over death.

* * *

Vivian Altopp, 20, did not approach “Yom Kippur, 2019” the way she approaches most of her poems.

“I was thinking about longer forms,” Altopp says.

Normally her poems are no more than a page but for this piece she wanted something longer.

“Every poem that I wrote I wanted to capture all these conflicting feelings that sort of cancel each other out,” Altopp says.

So for “Yom Kippur, 2019” Altopp sat down and tried to work through them all. When she was through, it felt done.

“There’s this sense of healing,” she says.

The poem is visually interesting compared to Altopp’s other work.

Much of what she wanted with this piece was to get off the left margin and play with space. Altopp says her friend is good at visuals, and showed her tools in her word processor to help her.

With the use of space, a reader can feel the thought process and the breath of the poem. It is a thoughtful, reflective piece.

“Yom Kippur itself holds space for reflection,” Altopp says.

“Yom Kippur, 2019” is filled with religious imagery. But Altopp says she didn’t originally intend for it to be there.

“I’ll have to go back and look do it,” she says.

She thinks it makes sense that the religious imagery would naturally weave itself throughout. “Yom Kippur, 2019” is about death, specifically a friend of Altopp’s who passed away last year.

“There’s this looking out for somewhere else where that person might occupy a space,” she says. Grief and death take on the religious imagery of the time in which the poem was written.

For Altopp, poetry comes from real events, and writing it is a process of stepping back and noticing their parts.

“I do like to use a lot of nature imagery,” she says. “It is okay to take life symbolically.”

References in the poem are real world events made symbols.

Take the dining hall imagery, for example. After her friend passed, Altopp would spend hours every day in Erdman dining hall.

“There was something comforting about being in a public space,” she says. She would also use it as a way to process, remind herself to eat, and practice self-care.

To Altopp, poetry is another way of processing the world around her.

“Whenever I’m having trouble writing, I put things into poetic form,” she says.

She does it especially with presentations, using the lines and stanzas to force herself to slow down and breathe as she presents. It helps her keep herself less nervous.

The reading was a different story.

“I definitely was nervous to read my poem,” Altopp says. “I was nervous to not do it justice.”

Beatrice

She comes up cautiously but holds her voice steady, tone firm. Her blond curls shine under the lamplight, and her long eyelashes shade her eyes as she reads so they almost appear closed, sybil-like. She is the only poet who gives a trigger warning.

Footnote

By Beatrice Stewart

The American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment revealed that in Spring 2015, approximately 1 in 6 students reported that in the past 12 months a cold, flu or sore throat had negatively impacted their academic performance.1

The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 1 in 5 women will be raped during their time in college.2

The ACLU estimates that 95% of sexual assaults go unreported.3

  1. My body produces mucus instead of sound. Weathered leaves collect on my doorstep. Soup sears, dribbles on my chin. I don’t go outside often, but when I do I’m a foxrabbit ready to run or stay and fight or die. Leaves collect on my doorstep. I sense a rupture somewhere at my core. Something is sick. Something is wrong with me, I tell a little bird. Something is deeply wrong.
  2. My best friend was raped three days into college. She called me last week and told me she feels like she’s going insane. She can’t get up and go to class. The police interview felt like an interrogation. She wonders if she is making it all up. There is no vaccine.
  3. Something happened to me in my sleep once. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about it, it’s that the prehistoric animal in me made an agreement with my young tongue and both of them are fossils now. Nothing happened, so it doesn’t hurt.

                                                                    * * *  

As soon as Beatrice Stewart, 18, started writing “Footnote,” she knew it would be about sexual assault.

“A lot of men in academia will talk about it like it’s this abstract concept,” Stewart says. She sees their responses as cold and without empathy, without acknowledging that sexual assault is something that affects real people constantly.

The statistics she chose for “Footnote” have particular resonance.

“It’s more common for women to be raped than to catch the common cold,” Stewart says.

The three statistics she chose show that comparison. It’s more difficult to hear when read out loud. The nature of the poem on the page means it can be read in a different order depending on how the reader prioritizes the footnotes.

If the reader reads the statistics, then the footnotes, the cold academic language of the former is put into stark context by the latter. If the reader reads the footnotes after each statistic, the contrast is revealed slowly over time.

The physical separation on the page is intentional, contributing to how the poem is read.

“Footnote” initially came out of a prompt as well. That was useful for Stewart. She cites prompts and poetry classes as helping to “develop the muscle” of turning abstract concepts into concrete images.

Take the first line of the first footnote:

Line: mucus instead of sound

Stewart compares the emotions to “That idea of chronically having the cold and not being able to talk about it.” Physical discomfort mixes with a metaphorical blocking of voice. As though sexual assault creates a sickness that silences the harmed.

The last thing Stewart wanted was for the poem to be didactic.

“I hate poetry that’s like, ‘this is a problem,’” Stewart says. “I didn’t want to sound preachy.”

So she included her personal story to combat an academic tone. The poem is doing the work of taking an academic setting, as well as literal statistics, and turning the jargon into visceral images. Stewart humanizes the subject.

Stella

She is the most casual reader, and says ‘hey,’ disarming the audience, who chuckle. She wears a hoodie, and has close-cropped hair. Her voice is soft, with an edge. She speaks quickly, and her poetry is filled with sweaters and bikes.

american sonnet for my blackness, because what’s more american than a debate

By Stella Spratley

 while admittedly i feel more pen than paper

i think it can be argued that my skin looks like my mother’s

only when scratched by bikefall. i am more string

than anything else. more pear tree.

maybe gold and silver picture frames

were too on the nose but i’ve never known myself

with painted nails. so sit gavelhanded and ask

what i remember about my brother’s hands. i will only say

that we have all shaved our own heads

to sweater soft. that we feel most like a family

singing sweet baby james. that we kept

my father’s ashes in a closet that they are still there.

that we are still here. that after all the wax falls

you will remember us.

                                                                                             * * *

For Stella Spratley, 20, poetry must always have a sense of place.

“I’m always imagining my home town,” she says.

Spratley grew up in a suburb and weaves nature imagery throughout her work. She relies on her home town as a setting she knows and understands, rather than imagining somewhere she doesn’t.

“I feel like my poem feels sterile when I do that,” she says “When it doesn’t have a place.”

When Spratley thinks about her hometown, she thinks about her family.

“Because that’s all I ever write about,” she jokes.

Her home and family are intrinsically tied to the plaintive tone of her poetry. Spratley characterizes herself as having written poetry for a long time, but said that she started to write seriously after her mother died when she was 17 years old.

“Poetry is a place where I explore sadness,” Spratley says. “Sadness and my poetry are inextricable.”

“american sonnet for my blackness because what’s more american than a debate” is no exception. The poem was based on a prompt to write a American sonnet, a political poem with 14 lines. When faced with the prompt, Spratley was less interested in writing the political side of things.

“I didn’t want to, so I didn’t,” she says. So she wrote a political title, and then wrote, as she always does, about her family.

“It’s not a debate; it’s a response to a debate,” Spratley explains. “I started thinking about what it means to not look like your mother and be raised by only her.”

While Spratley is mixed race, her mother was white. She explains that she constantly feels herself to be in the middle of other people’s debates about blackness, and how much genetic history a person needs in order to be considered black.

This semester, she is taking a class on Afrofuturism, where she sees this debate played out.

“There are a lot of people in my class, and I’ve seen this my entire life, who think mixed people don’t count,” Spratley says.

“american sonnet for my blackness because what’s more american than a debate” speaks to Spratley’s experience of growing up with her mother, and the contrast that lent to how Spratley saw herself, and sees herself.

While much of her poetry meditates on domestic imagery, of her body of work this is one of the poems that nods most directly to a bigger context – what it means to be mixed race and how others count, or don’t count, those people as black.

While Spratley’s poetry stays close to home, it conveys the complications and menace of even quiet imagery. Spratley’s work, in general, has a quiet, meditative quality.

“When I’m writing a poem, it comes into my head very quietly,” she says.

Writing the poem is a physical, musical process.

“I do this thing,” she says, and closes her eyes. She sways her head and shoulders as though hearing a faraway tune that no one else can. She composes.

Meagan Thomas writes about the arts and the written word

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