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Visiting poet inspires students at creative writing workshop

by Cindy Weiss - October 24, 2005

Chris Venter, a senior English major, didn’t know what to expect when he went into an hour-long tutorial with prize-winning poet Lynn McMahon, who visited campus recently as the Aetna Visiting Writer in Residence.

But by the time he came out, he had learned something about his own poems.

“Some of the stuff she liked, I had done unintentionally,” he said. “Now that I see it, it sort of helps me to strategize how to play it up.”

Venter was one of 10 creative writing students who had the opportunity to work one-on-one with McMahon during her week-long visit, which was presented by the Creative Writing Program and the Aetna Chair in Writing. McMahon, who has won the Best American Poetry Prize, the Pushcart Prize, and an Award for Literary Excellence from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, gave a public reading of her own work, discussed and read poetry with students in English 210, and conducted intensive tutorials with student poets.

Venter, who usually writes short stories, submitted five of his poems for McMahon to read before she arrived on campus, including “Five Times,” a circuit poem whose lines can be read through to the next line or from mid-sentence back to the line’s beginning, as the first three lines show:

five times. He scrubs his hands

to kill pentagram germs. His life goal is

not easily achieved. Microscopic holocaust is

“She liked it a lot. Another one, she said, ‘You really need to work on that.’ I knew that,” said Venter. “She suggested that I needed an explosion in each line, a ‘bubble of interest’ I believe she called it.”

McMahon, a professor of English at the University of Missouri, said it may not be possible to teach someone how to write a poem, but “it is possible to teach someone how to read a poem, or to teach by example.

“Teachers can teach structure, sound effects, and in a way, they can help sharpen image-making possibilities,” she said. “But you can’t teach the mind to be inspired.”

McMahon has written four collections of poetry and her work has appeared in many magazines, including The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Rolling Stone.

She began her poetry education in high school by reading other poets. She had always wanted to be a writer, but thought she would become a novelist.

She didn’t start writing poetry until college.

McMahon was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, famous for its Writers’ Workshop, and at the University of California, Irvine. She received a Ph.D. from the University of Utah.

“Poets were by far the most exciting people in college. They were the interesting talkers and thinkers,” she said, adding, “I think poetry will always be a rarified thing for most people. They fear it will not be accessible, and that prohibits them from reading it.”

Still, the opportunities to publish and share poetry have “exploded,” she said, with more small magazines and pockets of interest, and the development of so many genres within American poetry, from traditional poems to spoken hip-hop.

Added McMahon, “The poet laureates have done a good job of popularizing poetry.”

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