A journey of words

Kristen Russo

Maggie Anderson shares her world through poetry

From left: Maggie Anderson, professor and corrdinator of the Wick Poetry Program, talks with Marianne Jackson, Wick Poetry Fellow and a master of fine arts graduate student, and David Hassler, program and outreach director for the Wick Poetry Center, abo

Credit: DKS Editors

Maggie Anderson clears papers off a round table in the corner of the softly lit room. She places them on her desk, where a copy of Selected Poems of Langston Hughes lies face up.

She sits at the table, her legs crossed. The room surrounding her is the perfect blend of professionalism and silliness, reflecting her poetic personality. In her office, plaques and pictures share the same space as her Bugs Bunny hand puppet and stuffed animals.

Anderson is director of the Wick Poetry Center in Satterfield Hall, chair of the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program and a professor. She has been a member of the Kent State community since 1989. An accomplished poet, she has written five books, edited or co-edited five poetry collections and has been published in numerous anthologies.

After more than 50 years, she still recalls writing her first poem: a piece that related the bark on a tree to the bark of a dog.

Although she doesn’t remember the exact poem, her small brown eyes widen with a subtle excitement as she tells the story. Her eyebrows are raised, deepening the soft lines in her forehead.

“I remember thinking ‘Bark. That’s a funny word, and that’s what a dog does,'” she says. “So here was this thing I could touch, and here’s this thing that makes a sound. It was kind of like a feeling I had never had before.”

Something clicked. She was only 8 years old, but she had found her calling.

Inspiration for Others

Anderson’s puffy black bob makes her easily recognizable on campus, but when people describe her, the focus isn’t on her physical attributes. Rather, one adjective is used consistently when describing her and her work: inspirational.

For David Hassler, program and outreach director for the Wick Poetry Center, the passion for poetry began when he took Anderson’s poetry workshop as a graduate student in Spring 1990.

Since then, Hassler and Anderson have edited two anthologies together. The first, Learning by Heart: Contemporary American Poetry about School, was published in 1999. The second, After the Bell: Contemporary American Prose about School, was published last year.

As program and outreach director, Hassler also works with Anderson in the Wick Poetry Center. He describes her leadership as “circular.”

“She has an uncanny ability to transform loss or pain into a kind of gain – to transform it into something that kind of speaks to us,” he says of her poetry. “And as a leader, she kind of does the same thing. She has the ability to energize people around her.”

Former students describe her in much the same way.

Jen Sullivan and Dawson Steeber say her teaching style is an effective balance between challenging and encouraging.

“If you’re receiving an A in a Maggie Anderson class, you’ve really worked hard for it,” Sullivan says. “But she’s such an advocate for her students, and that’s what a good teacher should be. You should feel like they’re on your team.”

Steeber says Anderson gave him more confidence in his writing.

“She’s a great listener – always full of insight,” Steeber says. “She’s playful, yet demanding, and very much a kick in the pants.”

Words Can Heal

Despite her success as an educator and a poet, Anderson is no egotist. She would much rather talk about social issues and poetry’s effect on people’s lives than talk about herself or her own poetry.

She talks about poetry’s ability to heal, citing the memorial poems found in newspaper obituaries or etched on tombstones. They can be corny, but they help people cope with loss. When poetry touches people, that’s what matters, she says. And that’s part of the reason she came to Kent State in 1989.

The following year was the 20th anniversary of the May 4 shootings. Having graduated from West Virginia University at the time of the shootings, she felt connected to the tragedy. After graduating, she went back to school for her master’s in English and sociology and held teaching positions at universities in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Oregon. But her desire to be part of the Kent State community brought her to Ohio.

She wasn’t sure what to expect during the anniversary, but she knew she wanted to be involved. Along with local poets including Maj Ragain, Kathe Davis and Tiff Holland, Anderson helped organize a large-scale poetry reading called “A Gathering of Poets.”

She glances down often as she recounts the story, her voice soft, yet stern. She sounds tired, but her speech is precise.

“It was very humbling because I knew that the people here in Kent that I was working with were people who had been here in 1970,” she says. “They knew the history in a way I never would.”

The group advertised in poetry magazines and Anderson sent out letters to poets she knew. Three hundred came from around the country – enough to read poems for three straight days.

Although she says the wounds created at Kent State on May 4, 1970, will never completely heal, Anderson feels the poems read during those three days helped with the healing process.

The reading was turned into a book Anderson co-edited, which was titled after the event.

Finding Her Own Inspiration

Anderson says certain authors help spark her creativity: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara. Then there are the magazine articles: travel, natural history, popular science.

Before coming to Kent State, she spent a year teaching at the University of Oregon. She is still inspired by the shaky landscape of that region.

“It’s so dramatic to me from any other place I’ve ever lived,” she says. “It’s all volcanic. It’s on the ring of fire and they have earthquakes.”

As she talks, Anderson uses her hands to demonstrate volcanic explosions and earthquakes.

“It’s funny how sometimes we don’t know what we’re going to like or be inspired by until after it’s happened,” she says. “I thought I wasn’t happy there, but then I keep writing about it.”

Anderson usually writes her poetry in the third floor of her house. This has been her creative spot of choice for the past 15 years.

She attributes part of the space’s appeal to her childhood days in the mountains of West Virginia. Born in New York City, her family moved to the Mountain State when she was 13, four years after her mother died of leukemia. She says because the Ohio landscape is flat compared to that of West Virginia, she looked for a home that had a feeling of “upness.” The third floor made the house a good fit.

Lately, Anderson has been venturing into the world of dreams – she is finishing her next book, The Sleep Writer, which she estimates will be published in about a year.

She was always interested in dreams and says she has always written her dreams down and tried to analyze them.

“I think that any kind of other world that is still in this world experience contributes to poetry,” she says. “We’re dreaming, but we’re still in this world. And yet, our mind and our emotions are in some totally other place.”

The Meaning Behind the Words

After decades of writing, Anderson has some trouble deciding which piece is her favorite. “I love them all,” she says in a hushed whisper, followed by brief laughter. A soft smile remains as she continues: “One answer is that my favorite piece is always the piece that I’m working on right now. The one I’m thinking about all the time, that I’m engaged in that isn’t finished yet.”

But there is one in particular that Anderson says is special to her: “Spitting in the Leaves.”

They’ll go from West Virginia, from

hills and back roads

that twist like politics through trees,

and they’ll fight,

not because they know what for but

because what they know

is how to fight.

“Spitting in the Leaves” is about the men in West Virginia who dropped out of high school and had no other choice but to enlist in the army.

“I guess it’s my favorite because I like what it says. I like the people it tries to honor – those boys from West Virginia.”

Anderson says this poem is also special because it “came to her whole” – meaning she’s never had to revise it after she wrote it.

“I think when that happens to a writer or an artist it’s a gift,” she says. “It’s like years and years of laboring over every word, and then suddenly something – the poem fairy or someone – comes and visits you and gives you a poem whole.”

Although Anderson seems to think she was lucky with that poem, it’s clear that her success doesn’t stem from luck, but rather from her gifted personality.

Steeber says Anderson has a special way of mixing the serious with the fun. He’s right. This contradictory nature exudes from her. She has a tired look, slow movements and dark eyes that seem to be hiding deep secrets, but they are counteracted by her lively smile, quick hand motions and open honesty.

Her office reflects her personality. Next to a bookcase filled with tokens of academia, Mickey Mouse sits in a chair, a blue and gray baseball cap pulled down over his eyes.

“He’s sleeping,” she says in a whispered hush. Her face lights up as she smiles.

Contact Web editor Kristen Russo at [email protected].