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Hamline GLS Alumni book club: Poets reading poetry — this time, Rita Dove’s

“Next time anyone does a reading, email me!” said Jean Larson to the Hamline GLS Alumni Poetry Book Club, which she hosted recently at her home. As Larson’s request suggests, her fellow members are more than appreciators of poetry.

The club is composed of aspiring and published poets who meet once a week to discuss books of poetry “from the point of view of getting published ourselves,” said Larson.

The book club, which is sponsored by Hamline Graduate School of Liberal Studies Alumni Association, has been going on for about a year. The club acts both as an outlet for members to discuss poetry and as an opportunity for networking with other writers to discuss job options and publishing opportunities.

This time they met to discuss Rita Dove’s poetry collection “American Smooth” and to compare its approaches to poetry to their own.

“American Smooth” explores rhythm and musicality through the subject of ballroom dance, which she relates to love, war, self-reflection and race, among other topics. Dove was the first African-American to be appointed U.S. poet laureate, in 1993. She is also a competitive ballroom dancer.

Poets talking poetry
The selection and organization of poems in “American Smooth” dominated the evening’s conversation. “How did the decisions get made to keep these poems together?” asks Paulette Warren. “What makes a manuscript?” Various members then gave their opinions about the book’s organization, sharing their perspectives as writers constructing their own manuscripts.

Many of the members disapproved of Dove’s selection of poems for the book. Warren believed that the poems about war didn’t belong alongside the ones about ballroom dancing. “I would’ve just taken that out and put it in a different manuscript,” she said.

During the meeting, the members discussed constructing their own manuscripts almost as much as they discussed the book they had read. A particular focus was the way in which people read books of poetry.

“I want to put a poem in the middle that’s titled ‘Boogers’ ” to see if it becomes the most read poem, Sarah Spleiss said, speculating that most people read books of poetry by picking from the index.

Rita Dove
Rita Dove

Ellen Harrington has worked reading manuscripts and could share her point of view about what keeps a manuscript fresh. “You can’t be profound all the time,” she said. To which Spleiss commented, “People who try to be profound all the time are exhausting.”

“Especially if you try,” Larson shot in.

Not only could the members speak from experience on a poetic level, but on a personal one as well. Many of Dove’s poems in “American Smooth” were about shooting, which many of the people there had experience with. Warren was a hunter, Spleiss grew up with one as a father, and even Larson had shot birds before.

‘Meditation at Fifty Yards …’
“I totally thought this woman went shooting first,” said Spleiss, after the group read aloud “Meditation at Fifty Yards, Moving Target.”

The poem contained a couple of lines from the point of view of a bullet, which resonated with everyone:

“beautiful body i am coming i am yours/ before you know it/ i am home”

There’s a joy in killing, the hunters agreed, but what about the poet’s responsibility to the world? “Would I write about this?” Larson asks herself. “I don’t think I would. It would promote the pleasure.”

The book club began about a year ago when five graduates of Hamline’s Graduate School of Liberal Studies (GLS) wanted “to read books of poetry and have an incentive to read them,” said Larson. “It’s harder to do it on your own.”

Larson, who worked for the GLS alumni association, later made the book club an alumni association event, which helped gain membership.

Interest led to Hamline MFA
Larson herself became interested in poetry at a young age and wrote throughout high school. After high school her interests changed when her college English classes were “woefully deficient in poetry.” However, she began writing again to help her get through a divorce, then got her MFA from the Hamline Graduate School of Liberal Studies, where she met the members of what would become her book club.

Micawber’s Books in St Paul’s College Park area has helped them find the books they read and supply them to the members. “Some books were hard to find,” Larson said, “and they ordered them right from the publisher, not the distributor.”

The book club has been a great success, Larson said.

“It feels like being back in school. That’s kind of what we all want.”

Oliver St. John, a student at Macalester College, is a Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA) intern at MinnPost.

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