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Corey Marks ’92

Corey MarksCorey is a professor and director of creative writing for the department of English at the University of North Texas. He is a prizewinning author of two volumes of poetry, Renunciation and, more recently, The Radio Tree. Corey is also a poetry editor at the American Literary Review and a judge for the University of North Texas Rilke Prize, which recognizes mid-career poets. An article on Corey that mentions his roots in rural Michigan and at Kalamazoo College appeared in the NTDaily.com.

Gail Griffin, Professor Emerita of English

Gail joined two other Kalamazoo writers in a recent issue of the journal Quarter Past Eight. It was the first time that longtime colleagues and fellow writers Gail and Di Seuss ’78 appeared in print together. Di is Writer-in-Residence and a professor in the English department. The two colleagues were joined in print by Hadley Moore ’99, a short story of whose appeared in that issue of the journal. Di’s piece won the journal’s Short Prose Contest. Gail’s two pieces were both finalists.

In other “English” news, Gail may have retired, but she keeps a close eye on K graduates in the arts. She sent us the following note:

Lisa Kron ’83 is almost sure to win the Tony Award for the book associated with the Broadway hit Fun Home, and possibly share the Tony for lyrics as well. Joe Tracz ’04 was just nominated for a Lucille Lortel Award (off-Broadway) for the musical The Lightning Thief. David France ’81, of course, received an Oscar nomination for his documentary film How to Survive a Plague, and it’s being turned into a series on F/X. It’s interesting to me that Lisa was a theatre arts major, Joe an English major, and David a political science major. And then there’s Jordan Klepper ’01 (a math major!) of The Daily Show fame and Steven Yeun ’05 (psychology) who plays Glen on the The Walking Dead. What a crop of media stars from K! And the breadth of their liberal arts journeys is incredible.”

Aaron Coleman ’09

Aaron is currently a third-year Fellow in Poetry at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. Aaron is a Fulbright scholar, winner of Tupelo Quarterly’s TQ5 Poetry Contest, and a semifinalist for the 92Y/Discovery Poetry Contest. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Meridian, Pinwheel, Southern Indiana Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. The Spectacle recently published The History Behind the Feeling,” Aaron’s conversation with poet Claudia Rankine.

Corey Marks ’92

Corey was the spring 2016 Lawrence Clayton Poets and Writers Speaker Series guest at Hardin-Simmons University (Abilene, Texas). Corey is the author of two award-winning volumes of poetry. His first book, Renunciation, was selected by the late Philip Levine as a 1999 National Poetry Series Competition Winner. It also received the Natalie Ornish Prize from the Texas Institute of Letters. His most recent book The Radio Tree, won the Gren Rose Prize from New Issues Press in 2011. Corey is the Distinguished Teaching Professor and Director of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas (Denton).

At Hardin-Simmons Corey participated in an afternoon question and answer session and, in the evening, he read poems from his collection of works. His poems have appeared in the New England Review, The Paris Review, Poetry Northwest, Ploughshares, Southwest Review, The Threepenny Review, TriQuarterly, The Virginia Quarterly Review, as well as in the anthology Legitimate Dangers (Sarabande Books, 2006) among others. Corey earned his B.A. in English at K. His Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (poetry) is from Warren Wilson College, and his Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature is from the University of Houston.

Jessica Walsh ’96

Jessica published her first full-length collection of poems, How to Break My Neck. She is is a poet and professor of English at Harper College in suburban Chicago. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic; Ninth Letter online; TRIVIA; The Fem; Whale Road Review; Crab Creek Review; Yellow Chair Review; artisan: a journal of craft; The Listening Eye; Driftwood; Furnace Review; Blood and Fire Review; Mobius; The New Press Literary Quarterly; Red River Review; Third Wednesday; In Posse Review and others. At K Jessica earned her bachelor’s degree in English and studied abroad in Caceres, Spain. She earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. in literature from the University of Iowa.

Sarah Estes ’98

Sarah published her first book of poetry, Field Work, and it won the Cider House Review Editor’s Prize. The book has garnered critical acclaim in several publications, and Sarah has done several appearances for the iconic Los Angeles Beyond Baroque reading series. Her work has also appeared in Agni, The Atlantic, Christian Science Monitor, Cimarron, Crab Orchard Review, Field, The Missouri Review, New Orleans Review, Psychology Today, Scientific American, Southern Review and elsewhere. Sarah has taught poetry and composition at the University of Virginia, James Madison University, Young Writers’ Workshop and Tsurumaru High School in Kagoshima, Japan. She was a creative nonfiction fellow with Think, Write, Publish. She has worked with other writers as well, including New York Times columnist David Brooks (as an early reader for The Social Animal), social scientist Jonathan Haidt and the novelist Jonathan Franzen. “I was born in an unincorporated rural area outside of Peoria, Illinois,” Sarah writes, “and have lived in countries as far afield as Belgium and Japan. This has given me an unusual perspective on the rural/urban experience and the differences between liberals and conservatives–an uncommon vantage point that I bring to bear on my work in both poetry and nonfiction. I’ve enjoyed being able to work on a broad range of projects, and I try to bridge the seemingly disparate worlds of science, parenting and the arts.”

Conrad Hilberry, Professor Emeritus of English

Conrad HillberryIn a speech he gave in 1987, Professor Emeritus of English Conrad Hilberry said,”When I think of poems that I am especially drawn to, I find they often have a silence, a mystery at the center.”

Today Con is that silence, a life now part of a “mystery at the center” into which words will penetrate insufficiently at best, the way sunlight beneath the surface of a deep ocean shimmers a few meters at most then disappears.

Con died on January 11, 2017. Several weeks previous, his daughter, Jane, wrote that her father had written to her that he planned to “make his exit” after Christmas but wasn’t sure he could endure that long. He endured and then died from complications of cancer and pneumonia. He was 88 years old.

Con earned his B.A. at Oberlin College, his M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. Attracted to “the promise of a college that was willing to try things,” Con was recruited to Kalamazoo College by Larry Barrett, a colleague in the English department and later a dear friend. Con started his career at K in 1962, the first full year of the bold and quirky curriculum called the K-Plan. He retired in 1998. In between, countless students of all majors and liberal arts inclinations fondly recall his literature and writing classes and especially his poetry courses. He wrote 11 volumes of poetry. His latest, Until the Full Moon Has Its Say, he wrote in his mid-eighties, and many of its poems are villanelles, a demanding form Con seemed to execute with ease. Like his friend and colleague Larry Barrett, whom he eulogized in 2002, Con was “in business right to the end.”

His prolificity as a poet sometimes obscured the fact that he was a marvelous writer of prose, author of the genre-bending creative nonfiction piece, Luke Karamazov, and countless essays and chapel talks, often on poets such as John Donne and Galway Kinnell, two he particularly loved, though there are many many more. Con loved to illustrate with poems the ideas he articulated in his prose as if to remind us that poetry (as he once said) can be a brief and invigorating elevation from the “lowly ground” of our inward selves–not that such ground is bereft of beauty and mystery, only that our souls seek a glimpse of something abundant beyond our own inwardness. Con often found that abundance, “a pool of meaning,” in the ordinary.

He was a remarkable teacher, entirely and joyfully at home in the “arches and vaults” of the liberal arts, created when the seemingly separate disciplines lean together and conjoin. He continually sought inspiration for his own work (both his teaching and his poetry) in the subject matters of his colleagues and friends in biology, mathematics, religion, philosophy, physics and psychology, to name just a few. Often he’d audit courses in different departments as grist for his imagination, for example John Spencer’s seminar on Alfred North Whitehead and David Evans’s class on ethology. What he learned in those classes found its way into his poems, intentionally or not. Most of all he loved K students, and the effect on them of the K-Plan: their genius, he wrote, “for combining academic work and off-campus experience in just the way to allow themselves the most dramatic growth.”

In 1995, three years before his retirement, he began teaching night classes in poetry at the Stryker Center. These he continued for some 15 years, and many of his ex-students and members of the greater Kalamazoo community attended. Con helped poets make and publish their poems, and the list of these writers is impressive, including, among others, Susan Blackwell Ramsey, Corey Marks, Gail McMurray Martin, Marie Bahlke, Kit Almy, Gail Griffin, Rob Dunn, Hedy Habra, Marion Boyer, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Jane Hilberry, Amy Newday, and his lifelong student and friend, Pulitzer Prize finalist Diane Seuss. His beloved wife of 60 years, Marion, who died on April 8, 2008, often joined him in these classes.

In an essay he wrote on Galway Kinnell, Con described the opposition between poems and the notion of the final word. Comments on poems we perceive as “right on certain points and wrong on others,” he said. “But no one sees [those comments, even if they are the author’s] as the last word, equivalent to the poem itself. We always assume there is more to be said as the complexities of the poem take different configurations from other readers….Whenever a reading is taken as final, the poem is diminished.”

He managed his classes like that, starting things off, then sitting back to listen and provide space for students’ voices–for that peculiar confluence of text and the texture of readers’ lives, from which arises meaning. “I just need to choose the right books,” he once said. “Then the students notice things about the poems, and they teach each other.”

He was a poet and teacher of the people, deeply involved in the city of Kalamazoo’s Poetry on Buses program during its heyday. Often, with fellow poets (and friends) Herb Scott and John Woods (English professors at neighboring Western Michigan University) among others, Con would bring poetry into public middle schools, somehow managing to engage that always potentially intractable audience into the “best poems,” which Con considered an ineffable harmony of vividness (which the junior high students loved) and wholeness (where, often, the work began). He served as an editor of the Third Coast anthologies of Michigan poets and seemed to be a friend to every writer therein.

In his teaching prime Con’s presence was unforgettable, especially his red hair and ready smile. His limp and the rattle of his bike always suggested some past accident that had had no effect on his love of biking steep grades, celebrating gravity. And why not celebrate the force that holds us in what he called our “borrowed dust” for our short while on earth–the best, the only place for love.

In his last chapel talk (2001), using a line from a poem by Stanley Kunitz, Con said, “I have walked through many lives, some of them my own.” Indeed, Con contained multitudes.

Near the end, when Con was in the hospital, before he came home for hospice care, he said to his daughter, Jane, “I still have some talents left.  One of them is sleeping.  Another one is laughing.”

So like Con: able to sort by scent the smoke of sleep and laughter. He was, to the very end, the poet of the ordinary’s miracle.

Aaron Coleman ’09

Aaron won Tupelo Quarterly’s TQ5 Poetry Contest with his poem “St. Inside & Not,” About the winning poem contest judge Amaud Jamaul Johnson wrote: “I read the list of finalists aloud, alone, standing in my office. While there were many fine, well-polished poems, the music of Aaron Coleman’s ‘St. Inside & Not’ followed me out of the room. The use of anaphora, heavy alliteration and assonance, the quirkiness of the syntax, the image system, all kept me off balance. I was under the spell of this poem. A poem should possess its own logic; establish a unique authority over the reader. From the first line, the poem takes you by the throat and turns. Reading ‘Being midnight ripped / off the face of constellation,’ I thought of Dickinson’s ‘If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off …’ Of course, I’ve never been able to divorce this sentiment from my lingering fear of racial violence. But I know Coleman’s lyric shatters us into song. I know this is poetry!” Congratulations, Aaron! Aaron earned his B.A. at K in psychology, and he studied abroad in Caceres, Spain.

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 and Jane Huffman

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.”