Dodge Poet Spotlight: Judith Michaels

Welcome to our continuing blog series here on Poetry Fridays, Dodge Poet Spotlight. We are turning the focus over to the individuals who make our programming what it is in the schools, with teachers in Spring & Fountain, and on the ground at the Dodge Poetry Festival — the Dodge Poets.

Each week, a Dodge Poet answers some questions about themselves and provides a selected poem of their own work. We hope that this will be a way for you to get to know the Dodge Poets a little better, and you can get an idea of why we love working with them so much.

We are first featuring leaders of our Spring & Fountain sessions.

Without further ado, today’s Dodge Poet is Judith Michaels.

What are you reading?
Oliver Sacks—Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
Elyse Fenton’s collection of poems—Clamor
George Saunders’s short stories–Tenth of December
Lucia Perillo’s new collection  of poems (scary cover!)—On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths
Hayden Carruth ‘s autobiographical essays—Reluctantly (see also the lovely reminiscence of his visiting Adrienne Rich for lunch, in current issue of Poetry Magazine by a younger poet and Carruth-wrangler)
Terry Tempest Williams–When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice
Natasha Trethewey’s new collection of poems—Thrall (beautiful, but hearing her read them is even better)Back issues of American Poetry Review (always ongoing. . .)
Re-reading Ruth Stone’s collection of poems—Who Is the Widow’s Muse (getting some by heart)
Re-reading Beatrix Potter, one book per night; I started off with The Tale Of Squirrel Nutkin (the pictures are even better than I remembered!)

When did you first discover poetry?  What poets made you want to write poetry?
When my mother sang me a lullaby  (Lavender’s Blue, Dilly Dilly, Lavender’s Green) and read poems aloud to me, and when my father read Winnie the Pooh aloud and sang Pooh’s hums.

My parents responded favorably to the poems and songs I made them as presents, so I kept on making them. Later my fifth- grade teacher let me go into the workroom and write poems and plays (the plays were based entirely on what costumes I had at home from dance recitals and Halloweens). She also encouraged me to memorize and recite poems from “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” and Kipling’s Just So Story about Old Man Kangaroo, which has glorious rhythms you have to chant aloud.

In high school and on through college and grad school I loved Hopkins, Frost, Yeats, Roethke, and the British Romantic poets but thought I hated Whitman until I tried imitating his “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” throughout a supposedly analytical paper for a literature survey course and got caught up in the rhythms (and got a C on the paper)

Later I grew to admire Elizabeth Bishop very much, and then from years of Dodge Festivals: Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, W.S. Merwin, Li-Young Lee, Mark Doty, Ed Hirsch, Eavan Boland. Currently I’m reading a lot of Bob Hicok and Lucia Perillo.

Richard Hugo said we’ve written every poem we ever loved.  He was particularly proud of having written Yeats’ “Easter, 1916.”  What great poem are you proud of having written?
Robert Frost’s “Moon Compasses” and “Come In”

With all the other demands and distractions in life, how do you make time for poetry?
There’s a table littered with poetry books and journals, open notebooks, pencils, and a coffee mug, right next to the couch.  I try to be there every morning for at least an hour (longer, now that I’ve retired from teaching) before bringing the paper in from the driveway or going to check email or going for a walk—all things I’m tempted by when I first get up. No, it needs to be: Feed the cat, make the coffee, go straight to that table.

Sometimes just reading a few lines of someone else’s poem or some random pages in my notebook can get me writing. Sometimes  copying a good poem into my notebook will bear fruit. Or reading aloud. Sometimes going for a walk will jiggle new lines around to the point where I rush right to the computer when I get home.

Early morning, waking still on the borders of sleep and sort of sleep walking to the table before life gets too rational or full of impossibilities seems to work best for entering someone else’s poem or my own.

Tell us about any personal habits, rituals, ceremonies, superstitions that are part of your writing practice.
What I love best is not having much idea where a draft is heading but feeling a rush all through me (that could just be the coffee, of course) that makes me believe it’s a poem and it might be going somewhere. Then when I don’t know what else to do and am still in love with writing it, I go to the computer and type it up, revising as I go, realizing how unfinished it really is, but still in thrall to the excitement of yay, new poem coming. And I’d thought I’d never write again!

This Morning I Wanted To Tell You

that when Chekhov died and his body
was shipped to Moscow, he was packed in
ice in a refrigerated car marked

“oysters.” You would have wanted
to know this—over coffee, a dark
roast, and English muffins leaking jam

from their irregular holes.
How do I know? About you or
Chekhov? Both gone. The oysters

are footnotes to a book resurrected
from another book, old news, from
the German spa to Moscow to Portland to

a flicker of light in my head that is
forty-three years of reading
you and reading with you

and the absurd script that is
death (an entire railway car
devoted to oysters?) This morning,

so much I wanted to tell you—
and then a slow shower
of leaves
………..from the paper birch

-Judith Michaels

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