Maturing as a poet

By Christopher Kempf ’07

“Poetry is the loveliest of all conversations for it seeks to belong to no one person, but to overlapping and concentric circles of self, friends, family, tribes, communities, and humanity,” writes David Fenza, executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

The poetry I wrote during my undergraduate career at John Carroll, however, was anything but lovely and inspired. It was more a product of hormonal excess than talent. It dripped with the kind of overwrought emotional indulgence I routinely excise from my own students’ poetry. “Tonight, the lights are all/ blurred out by tears/ on the cheek of this girl beside me,” I wrote in one poem. Or, never one for humility, “On Sundays I rise/ late in the afternoon like a messiah.”

My poetry from those years is filled with the raw, unedited enthusiasm for life that’s perhaps most accessible to us as college students, who are mad, as Walt Whitman says, for the world to be in contact with them, and uncensored, like most college students, by age or doubt or concern for any kind of aesthetic integrity. I felt things then, and everyone had to know about them.

Yet as I look back over the poems and notes from my creative writing courses, I find, on one cringe-inducing page after another, traces of the communities of which I was a
part, piecing together the person I was, the tribes we were. Profound quotes from professors – “Feel the way the words are shaped in the mouth” – stand next to petty social observations – “Why does Dan always wear a tie to class?” – and above the trivialities of my daily schedule – “Country Fried Steak Night at Parkhurst” – creating a palimpsest of the kind archeologists discover to this day at preserved sites in ancient Rome. To open those notebooks is to step back into a world lost to me. And this is one of the primary functions of poetry – to testify what has been lost and insist on the enduring, concentric communities out of which it’s written.

For however sophomoric that poetry might have been, it was instrumental in cementing some of my most cherished personal and professional relationships with writers I knew first as teachers and know now as friends and fellow poets. When I mentioned to my former creative writing professor, Phil Metres, that I’d be writing this piece, he reminded me just how much I had grown as a writer, from early unbearable phrases such as “the holy heights/ of her thighs” to an MFA thesis at Cornell University and a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. What astonishes me now, however, and what I aspire to in my teaching, is that Phil and other professors recognized, even then, the potential for beauty and profundity from a poet interested mainly in cataloguing the banalities of life as an undergraduate, a poet whose titles, from the fall of 2005, include “Lifting Weights,” “Drinking,” and “The Good Shower.”

As I moved on to other universities and mentored my own students, I saw poetry less as an expression of intense emotion – a kind of refined Blink-182 song – and more of an exercise in probing the limits of linguistic expression, making strange the otherwise familiar language with which we understand our world. This is consonant with the ideals of a Jesuit education, a philosophy that refuses to accept the largest of communities – the world – as it is, but rather seeks to engage and change it, making more just forms of existence familiar, which at times, seems not only strange but impossible.

For me, this philosophy begins on the page and extends to the classroom, where in my creative writing courses, I’ve attempted to model the same kind of teaching I witnessed at Carroll. For what I learned as a student during those years wasn’t simply to craft a more intellectually resonant poetics, but how to foster a challenging yet supportive classroom environment in which students feel comfortable moving into the strange, unfamiliar territory from where the best poetry comes.

This is why ongoing, nationwide cuts to humanities funding at the university level are so perilous to the cultivation of responsible, engaged communities. What’s at stake in these cuts – which cripple creative writing departments while privileging football programs and cosmetic campus upgrades – isn’t simply an abandonment of trivial exercises in emotional expression, but rather the suppression of a sophisticated, challenging conversation about the kind of tribe we are and want to be. JCU

Kempf is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, where he’s working on his first full-length poetry collection “Disaster Capital.”


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