Nationally acclaimed poet Ellen Bryant Voigt visits UMKC for reading

Joey Hill

Last Tuesday the Miller Nichols Learning Center hosted a reading by American Poet Ellen Bryant Voigt.
Notable for her award-winning work depicting life in the Northeast US, Voigt has established herself as a prominent figure in creative writing, and was recently elected Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. Tuesday’s reading was part of her visit to UMKC, where she spent the week sitting in and speaking in various creative writing courses.
Speaking on her visit to UMKC and the University’s Creative Writing department, Voigt said, “I thought it was wonderful. Aside from the faculty being very accomplished, which you can find at a lot of places, they seem collegial, and they like each other, which is a very good thing.” She went on to say, “It’s a very good thing for the students as well, it makes it so there’s a community and the students are nice to each other and it eliminates competition. Everyone seems delighted and supportive at everyone’s success.”
For the reading, Voigt chose selections from “Headwaters: Poems” and “Messenger: New and Selected Poems 1976-2006” and utilized some as demonstrations for various creative writing techniques she discussed with students during the past week.
“It’s been very nice, being here, to have the fiction writers also present in the poetry classes,” she said before starting a reading of “The Farmer.” “That kind of interchange among the genres seems to be one of the special things about your program here.”
This poem told the story of a farmer who is attacked by bees, which featured incredible passages like, “He walked the fence line like a man in love, the animals were merely what he needed, cattle and pigs, chickens for a while, a dryhorse, saddle horses he was paid to pasture, an endless stupid round of animals. One of them always sick, hungry, lost, fouling or awaiting slaughter.” The farmer attempts to take honey while unprotected and, as Voigt puts it, the bees “smelled something in his sweat.”
On her mindset towards writing, “It’s just work,” she said with a chuckle. “It takes me a lot of drafts, I write very slowly, and I’ve learned over the years not to be discouraged if the first couple of drafts aren’t any good. It probably means you just aren’t paying enough attention.”
She continued, “When I first started writing poems, I thought they needed to be very condensed and I thought that you couldn’t have any extra syllable at all, that you really had to pare down and prune down. I still like economy, but sometimes it takes a few more words to really do it.”
As for her thoughts on contemporary poetry, she said, “It’s very hard to say anything about contemporary poetry that is accurate because, and I think this is very positive, that there are many, many, many different aesthetics at work right now and different notions about what makes a good poem.”
“Up until about fifty years ago, if you look at literary history, it is dominated by giant figures, Voigt said. “Giant figures are great, but they’re like dinosaurs; the little mammals better get out of the way or else they’ll get stepped on. Since the ’70s, however, there has been increased room for multiple voices, all kinds of poetry. Poetry by women, and poetry by writers of color and poetry that is very autobiographical and very experimental, and it’s all been out there. And you can find it. I think that is very healthy.”