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How to Grow a Poet

Back when she was a third-grader in Marshall, Michigan, Kate Belew ’15 certainly wasn’t going to argue with Conrad Hilberry, professor emeritus of English and founder of Kalamazoo College’s creative writing program. If he told her she was a great poet—and he did—then she would prove him right—and she has.

Kate Belew '15 and Jane Huffman '15

Jane Huffman ’15 had been writing stories all her life; by the time she was in high school in Livonia, Michigan, she’d learned enough about poetry to have her work published in an anthology. When it was time to choose a college, Huffman applied to only one: Kalamazoo College. “I saw Kalamazoo as a mecca for writers,” she says.

Of course Belew’s and Huffman’s orbits would coincide at K, and it was only natural that it would happen in one of the classes they both took from Diane Seuss ’78, writer in residence and assistant professor of English. Under Seuss’s mentorship, the two English majors (Huffman also has a major in Theatre Arts) have learned how they can turn their passion for words into their life’s calling, and both have done an extraordinary—although radically contrasting—job of laying that foundation.

Belew’s K roots run deep. Her dad, Kevin Belew ’85, had taken classes from Hilberry, and her mom, Patricia Franke Williams ’85, is also an alum. Yet another K grad, a class mom, was the one who had issued the invitation to Hilberry to visit with Kate Belew’s third-grade class.

At K, Belew has combined her passions for language (she and Huffman co-edit K’s literary journal, The Cauldron) and for dance (she also co-directs Frelon, the student-run dance company). As a first-year student, she received the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute for Environmental Education’s Nature in Words fellowship. Participating in the Great Lakes Colleges Association New York Arts Program during her sophomore year, she says, opened up her writing horizons and helped her envision her future as a writer. The culture shock of living in New York that term was huge: “I couldn’t even grocery shop for the first few days,” Belew recalls. “But writing was a way to understand what was happening to me.” Four days after returning to Michigan from New York, she left for her study abroad program in Spain, and the personal development and life experiences from that time gave her still more inspiration. Her Senior Individualized Project (SIP) is a collection of poems centered on the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and is based on her experiences in Madrid.

Back on the K campus, Belew honed her skills with experiences at literary magazines and workshops. Along with Huffman, she served an internship at Sundress Publications (a national press), and she assisted Hilberry in planning a children’s poetry workshop in Kalamazoo. She has had work published in a long list of journals and reviews.

Likewise, Huffman’s K years have been spectacular. She’s studied at the Frost Place Advanced Poetry Seminar in Franconia, New Hampshire; the O’Neill Theater Center’s Critic’s Institute in Waterford, Connecticut; the Medieval and Renaissance Conference at Albion College; and the Newberry Library in Chicago, to name just a few. She has had dozens of poems published in anthologies and reviews; she’s won a number of awards and honors—not just for her poetry, but also for her work in theater. As dance is a second passion for Kate Belew, theater is for Jane Huffman. “I’m obsessed with language,” Huffman says, “and theater lets us make words visual and spatial. It’s the stage of the poet.”

For the next phase in her academic and literary life, poetry will take the forefront, because Huffman has been accepted into the prestigious University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the top-ranked creative writing program in the world. Accepting her into its MFA program, the Iowa committee told Huffman they consider their candidates to be “the future of American literature.”

“To make it in poetry you have to be tough.”

Kate Belew and Jane Huffman are very different, in both their writing styles and their career goals. Huffman describes herself as a formalist, “drawn toward form and narrative.” Belew’s work, in Seuss’s words, is “nebulous, like grabbing air.” As Huffman is launching her graduate work at Iowa and hopes someday to get a Ph.D. (“I’m an academic person”), Belew wants to spend a few years in the workplace before she considers graduate school. She’ll choose a big city (“I could never go to Iowa,” she laughs), and hopes to teach poetry to children. Living up to the descriptor “nebulous,” used by Seuss to describe her poetry, Belew says, “My life is going to zigzag a lot.”

Both Belew and Huffman say that poetry influences the way they think. Writing a poem, says Huffman, makes the writer approach every word with precision and thoughtfulness; it lets them dig deep into a small area. Belew says that her poems are like a snapshot of one moment of her life. “They allow me to focus and to voice things I couldn’t articulate otherwise.”

What is it about Kalamazoo College that has given Belew and Huffman such a boost at such an early stage in their literary careers? Huffman knows a lot of words, but she can answer that question with just one of them: “everything.” “Everything I’ve done at K,” she says, “has helped me develop what I need to go out into the world as a writer.”

Seuss says she tries to instill some specific lessons into students in her writing classes, including:

•    Read all the time. She asks all her students to keep up with contemporary poetry.
•    Send out your work. Be prepared for rejection, cope with it when it comes, then send the piece out again. To make it in poetry, she advises, you have to be tough.
•    Be brave. Contact people you admire and ask them questions.
•    Sustain and help each other. Belew has learned, she says, “If somebody lifts you up, you lift the next person up.” To grow the community even further, they point out, K writing students have recently opened the Kalamazoo Poetry Collective to Western Michigan University students and other members of the Kalamazoo community.
•    Don’t take yourself so seriously that you’re not willing to take risks. In Huffman’s words: “My biggest lesson was to be fearless.”

Huffman and Belew agree that one of the major contributions K has made to their writing lives is community. “As a writer,” Huffman says, “it’s easy to isolate yourself. At the beginning, it’s just you and the page. But Di [Seuss] has helped us turn this thing we love into something we can do as a career.” Seuss agrees. “All of us have hermit tendencies, but writers need to make connections with other writers.”

Seuss says she’s been impressed by the class of 2015. “This senior class is amazing,” she says. Then, nodding toward Kate Belew and Jane Huffman, she adds, “and these are two of the amazingest.”

K Journey; Space Journey

It is a very long trip from Yazd, Iran, to Kalamazoo. But in 2010 Mojtaba Akhavan-Tafti ’15 was able to negotiate its many twists and turns, as well as making the cultural adjustments associated with the journey. Now, five years later, he’s graduated from Kalamazoo College with majors in physics and chemistry.

Mojtaba Akhavan-Tafti ’15 in front of the building where he spent a great deal of time during his undergraduate studies.

Next he will turn his full-time attention to an even longer odyssey—the 93 million miles traveled by the sun’s solar winds. When those winds arrive at Earth, our atmosphere and magnetic field usually deflect them. They re-converge, however, on the night side of our planet, where some interesting things take place, including the creation of what are called flux ropes.

Those are the phenomena and that is the field (magnetospheric physics, to be exact) that Mojtaba is studying at the University of Michigan this fall as he starts work on his Ph.D.

According to him, such a rarified area of inquiry would never have been possible had he not come halfway around the world to Kalamazoo College.

Yazd, a city of more than a million people, is situated in central Iran, about 300 miles south of Tehran. Mojtaba graduated from high school there, and even started college. But then he had conversations with his uncle, Hashem Akhavan-Tafti, who had come to the states after the fall of the Shah, then graduated from K in 1982 (and is now a member of College’s board of trustees).

His uncle encouraged Mojtaba to make the same migration, even though both men knew the journey involved a great many steps. The first was to obtain a visa to enter the United States. Because the U.S. doesn’t have an embassy in Iran, Mojtaba had to travel to Turkey to file his application. He couldn’t leave Iran, however, until its government permitted him to do so.

Once he obtained his visa Mojtaba relocated to Howell, Michigan. There he spent three months on a farm with his uncle and Aunt SuzAnne. She is the person he most credits for helping with his acclimation to the West. “She is my best friend and the best mentor I could have asked for.”

A precondition for Mojtaba enrolling at K was improving his ability to speak and write English. To do so, he took an English class at Western Michigan University, then took what is called the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), a standardized proficiency test for non-native speakers wishing to enroll in an American university or college.

Once he received word that he’d passed, he was set to begin his studies at K in the fall of 2011. By that time he’d been in America for more a year and was, well, more than ready.

Before classes started, however, he embarked upon his LandSea adventure. “That was a big learning experience for me,” he recalls. “I made some of my best friends during that time.”

Although naturally outgoing, Mojtaba says that his biggest challenge has been to become more social. “Just to become comfortable and act normal, to be likeable. I’ve learned the value of a smile.”

When told that his smile and the twinkle of his eye bear a resemblance to those of tennis great Roger Federer, Mojtaba nods and says, “Yeah, I’m told that from time to time, especially by the guys on the tennis team.”

From the beginning, his studies at K have focused on the sciences. He spent the summer after his first year at Wayne State University working in a neuroscience lab. His foreign study—in Lancaster, England—involved particle physics.

“The sky is no longer a limit!”

Jan Tobochnik, the Dow Distinguished Professor in the Natural Sciences, has been impressed with Mojtaba. “He is a very outgoing young man, very personable. He loves to organize things. For example, he was part of an effort to get the College to put solar panels on the golf carts we use on campus.”

Mojtaba also helped organize K’s first Complex Science Society. “It’s to help bridge the gap between social sciences and empirical sciences,” he explains. “During our first year we focused on renewable energy. During the second we dealt with vaccination practices in the U.S.”

He also was involved in establishing a local chapter of the National Society of Physics Students. That work led to him and others into local elementary schools to encourage young children to pursue science.

For his Senior Individualized Project (SIP) Mojtaba studied the atmospheres of Earth and Mercury, two of the planets in our solar system with magnetic poles. His SIP received departmental honors.

He spent his SIP summer of 2014 at the University of Michigan with his advisor, Professor J.A. Slavin, and studied physical phenomena such as ‘magnetic reconnection’ and ‘coronal mass ejections.’

Because of his SIP work, NASA invited Mojtaba to attend the launch of its Magnetospheric MultiScale (MMS) mission.

As a result of that experience he was invited to attend the March, 2015, launch of a NASA mission at Cape Canaveral. The Magnetospheric MultiScale mission carried four identical satellites that, once deployed, gather information about the Earth’s magnetosphere. Mojtaba had worked with data from a similar spacecraft for his SIP.

The original plan was to view the launch, with others, from a favored site on NASA grounds. That hope was scuttled, however, when officials realized that Mojtaba was an Iranian national.

“They told me I’d have to watch from across the harbor instead. But at least Professor Slavin went with me. Even from there, it was still stunning to watch.”

When he’s needed a break from school work, Mojtaba has sometimes retreated to nature. “I really enjoy going to the Lillian Anderson Arboretum. It is a good place to heal.”

Mojtaba’s post-graduate studies will focus on the data coming from those four spacecraft. “Solar winds have the potential to overwhelm our technological civilization. If we could predict when that was going to happen we could take preventive measures to reduce the likelihood of a problem. I also hope to get involved in designing instruments for future missions.”

On a different note, pun intended, he has begun taking violin lessons.

Mojtaba soon hopes to achieve another goal—becoming an American citizen. He intends to make America his permanent home.

“While two decades of living in and facing the challenges of growing up in a developing country prepared me for working hard,” he says, “coming to the U.S. and obtaining a liberal arts education enabled me to broaden the scope of my understanding as well as the impact I can have as an individual and as a citizen. Today, more than five years after my first time entering the U.S., I have come to believe that even the sky is no longer a limit!”

Mojtaba also hopes to help other students the way he was helped. “My aunt and uncle have established a scholarship institute called ‘The 1for2 Education Foundation.’ It means that a recipient of the scholarship commits to pay for the education of two others. My aunt and uncle helped me, so I want to help others someday.”

Being There

There’s no business like show business. And Kalamazoo College’s Department of Theatre Arts just showed the acting world it means business.

K theatre arts majors Grace Gilmore ’15 and Lindsay Worthington ’17 recently returned from competing at the 47th annual Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Grace Gilmore '15 (left) and Lindsay Worthington '17

The pair beat out thousands of other student artists from across the country to present their work at the week-long, all- expenses-paid festival in the nation’s capital. Only 125 students were invited to attend.

Gilmore, a theatre arts major and religion minor, was one of only eight students in the country competing for the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship. Worthington, a theatre arts and music double major, traveled to Washington, D.C. to showcase her talents in Sound Design Excellence.

Both categories featured KCACTF students from much larger colleges and universities, several of whom were graduate students enrolled in Masters of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) theatre programs and other specialized acting classes.

“Grace and Lindsay are extraordinary,” says Professor of Theatre Arts Lanny Potts. “They are recognized as the best-of-the-best in the nation in their fields. It’s rare for students from any small program and liberal arts college to achieve this sort of recognition.”

Gilmore spent the week at the Festival immersed in classes that focused on everything from stage combat to situation comedy. She worked alongside professional actors, met with casting directors, and had the opportunity to network with peers from across the nation and in the Washington, D.C. theatre community.

In addition, she went behind the scenes and toured the Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and the world-famous Shakespeare Theatre Company.

“Just being there was so surreal,” says Gilmore. “It was an unbelievable experience.”

For the 21-year-old, whose first acting role was as a jester in a middle school play, performing on the Kennedy Center stage in front of peers, directors, New York-based casting agents (and even her parents!) was the high point of the week.

Her parents, K alums Sherry (Christy) and Jim Gilmore, class of 1983, were both theatre arts majors.

“You could say theatre is in my blood,” Grace says.

Worthington, meanwhile, experienced her own festival highlights. In her master class she worked alongside professional lighting designer (and six-time Tony award nominee) Beverly Emmon as well as award-winning composer, sound designer, and audio artist Obadiah Eaves.

Emmon and Eaves critiqued the students’ work, offering their feedback, suggestions, and ideas. And the students got the chance to share meals and free time with the two professionals.

“It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Worthington says. “We were able to ask them questions about their careers and really get to know them.”

The Road to Nationals
Started in 1969 by Roger L. Stevens, the Kennedy Center’s founding chairman, KCACTF is a national theatre program working to improve the quality of college theatre in the United States. Comprised of 18,000 students from more than 600 academic institutions in eight different regions, KCACTF gives theatre departments and student artists the opportunity to showcase their work and receive outside assessment.

Earlier this year, KCACTF officials visited K and critiqued the work of the students in the theatre department. Gilmore and Worthington, along with 13 others K students, were nominated to attend the KCACTF Region III in Milwaukee. Three additional K students attended as part of their senior class seminar, and two others participated for professional growth and networking. The group joined 2,000 other theatre students from Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin for the weekend competition.

“They are recognized as the best-of-the-best in the nation in their fields.”

Gilmore, nominated for her performance in Romeo and Juliet, beat out 274 students for the prestigious Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship Award. Of the 16 finalists who competed in the final round of the competition, 13 of the 16 were post-undergraduates working on their M.F.A.

“I was absolutely shocked. We went into it clearly as underdogs,” Gilmore says. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would win. No one from K has ever won. When they said my name, I couldn’t believe it.”

She received a scholarship and an invitation to attend the National Festival.

Worthington was the only student nominated to attend the regional competition for her work on TWO (!) different entries in sound design. Her submission for Peer Gynt ended up taking top honors in Milwaukee—giving her a ticket to the National Festival, which turned out to also be an unplanned, but very welcome, trip home for this Bethesda, Maryland, native.

Neither Grace nor Lindsay took top honors at the National Festival, but they returned to Kalamazoo with a playbill full of experiences, contacts, job and internship opportunities, and memories to last a lifetime.

“I didn’t go into it thinking I would win,” says Worthington, who was awarded the Williamstown Theatre Festival Internship for Sound Design. “I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much had I been stressed about the competition. Just being there, to me, felt like winning.”