New England poet Jeffrey Harrison visited Westminster April 13-14 as the 15th Westminster Poet. He spoke to classes and gave a reading in the Werner Centennial Center. He is no stranger to Westminster, having been a Friday Night Reader in January 2013.
Harrison is the author of five full-length books of poems — “The Singing Underneath,” which was selected by James Merrill for the National Poetry Series; “Signs of Arrival”; “Feeding the Fire”; “Incomplete Knowledge,” which was runner-up for the Poets’ Prize; and “Into Daylight”; which won the Dorset Prize — as well as “The Names of Things: New and Selected Poems.”
A recipient of Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships, as well as other honors, he has published poems in The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Nation, Poetry, The Yale Review, The Hudson Review, American Poetry Review, The Paris Review, Poets of the New Century, The Twentieth Century in Poetry, and in many other magazines and anthologies. He has taught at George Washington University, Phillips Academy, College of the Holy Cross, Framingham State University, the Stonecoast M.F.A. Program, and the Solstice M.F.A. Program. He lives in Massachusetts.
“It is a treat and an honor to be here, especially with students having read my work,” he remarked at the beginning of his Westminster reading, which included a broad selection of his poems.
When he met with English classes both days, students asked him about poems they had studied prior to his visit and his writing process. He shared that he had started writing in high school with short stories and then became interested in poetry through his English and French classes. His favorite poet is Elizabeth Bishop.
“Most of the poems I write come out of my life,” he said. “I think a poem should be grounded in real things.” As far as places where he finds inspiration, he said, “I have gone to the Adirondacks my whole life and find inspiration there. He added that for his writing process, he likes to use a pencil or pen, and paper. “I like the organic quality; then I type up a draft on the computer where it is easier to move things. I print it out and revise it with a pen or pencil. It is back and forth for me.” When selecting poems for his books, he said he always try to arrange an order. “I think of the book as a whole poem itself. Sometimes the end of one poem leads into a phrase of the next poem. There is no real right answer. I give it a lot of thought.” And when asked about his advice for aspiring poets, he said they should read a lot of poetry. “You need that foundation. It is about your emotions and life, but it is an art form. You need to see how other people do it.”
English teacher Michael Cervas, who directs the Westminster Poet Series, picked Harrison because his poems work on so many different levels. They are mostly narrative and mostly accessible, but Harrison’s command of figurative language, sound devices, and metaphor makes the poems very rich and suggestive, too. Cervas remarked, “I didn't think any visiting poet would get close to last year’s poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, who is such a good reader and so generous with her teaching, but Jeffrey turned out to be a wonderfully sensitive reader and a thoughtful and big-hearted teacher. It was a very successful visit.”
“Harrison was a friendly, funny, smart, encouraging, inquisitive, introspective addition to the classroom — answering questions and sharing insights about his life in poetry,” said English teacher Emily Neilson. “Students were able to connect with his poems, grounded in the realities of being an adolescent, being a writer and, best of all, being a human being.”
Visits by Westminster Poets are made possible through support from the Ford-Goldfarb Fund, which was established in 2005 by former trustee Maureen Ford-Goldfarb and her daughter Kirsten Ford ’00 to support English Department enrichment activities.
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