Teachers Who Write

The humanities are thriving at Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire), and not just in the classroom. Though Exeter teachers need not publish or perish, publish many do, in the departments of History (see Michael Golay’s recent America 1933), Religion (Tom Simpson’s American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism), and most of all English. English teachers Erica Plouffe Lazure, Alex Myers, and Sue Repko have published fiction and creative nonfiction, while Sarah Anderson, Kelly Flynn, Todd Hearon, Matt Miller, Willie Perdomo, and Ralph Sneeden write mostly poetry, some of which is featured here.

We’ve had teacher-poets on our faculty before: Rex McGuinn, Dolores Kendrick, and Charlie Pratt, the latter whose work has been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac. Rex McGuinn had a huge and lasting impact on hundreds of our student writers, and the Lamont Younger Poets prize is given annually in his name.

What accounts for this remarkable concentration of writers? All writing is creative, of course, but what’s conventionally called “creative writing” does have a special place in our department. Personal narrative and essay provide the foundation of our writing curriculum, and our seniors take genre courses in which they study and practice the crafts of fiction, poetry, drama, creative nonfiction, and multi-genre work. We’re fortunate to have regular contact with practicing writers. The school’s Bennett Fellowship brings us a writer-in-residence each year (in 2016–2017, it is novelist Walter Thompson), and the Lamont Poetry Series brings us two world-class poets to give public readings and lead student workshops. The school’s culture and resources certainly promote writing and publishing. And the community helps. According to Todd Hearon, “The students and colleagues are an inspiration.” Ralph Sneeden adds, “We urge each other on.”

I’m humbled every day by the work of all my colleagues here at Exeter; it’s hard to imagine a more committed, talented, and inspiring group of teachers than those I’m lucky enough to see every day. That so many are also practicing, publishing writers is a boon.

Ellen Wolff is Lamont Professor and chair of the department of English at Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire) and author of “An Anarchy in the Mind and in the Heart”: Narrating Anglo-Ireland, a study of 20th-Century Anglo-Irish fiction.

 

 

It’s Brooklyn. It’s about time.

Yeah, it’s always about time. Strings of little lights and paper lanterns, the shimmering city over there, the sirens over there. All those lives in all those windows, a fearlessness.

We have to say this headlong into the night. Here is what we say: Then she kissed me in the middle of my back. Why didn’t you call instead of getting in the pick-up in the storm?

And then he left. Really left. I still don’t know, a train, I think. She put her hand on top of my head, kissed my temple. Why did it take us this long? My children

have filled me. They have filled me. I should have called you. I should have told you what a poet once told me: That it “takes half a century to figure out who they really are,

the real true loves of our lives.” Kings and queens, at banquets, at dances do this, in unlit places. There’s a word that means homesickness for a home that never existed,

but I remember every room in your home. We burn into each other. Syllable, driftwood, beach fire, forest. We throw it all on. We talk until our voices scratch the worn wooden table,

until the ocean in our story is far away, girls racing headlong toward the magic and the hurt. No one could have stopped us. We had salt in our hair and we were fast.

— Sarah Anderson

 

 

September

In which life is all photos in sepia tones.

In which the leaves grow tired,

even as the sky turns its bluest tricks,

so blue that sky. In which the sky

is almost the blue of flowers,

which is a lavender or a purple, really.

In which one realizes that once again

love did not come, but the sunlight

 

bends honey-gold in consolation,

the sun pours honey on your weary head.

Across the street, a cat stretches

in the still-green grass, then pads

up the steps to the porch and enters

at a screen door, drawn by an invisible sign.

 

— Kelly M. Flynn

 

 

 

Voyager

We’ve packed our bags, we’re set to fly

no one knows where, the maps won’t do.

We’re crossing the ocean’s nihilistic blue

with an unborn infant’s opal eye.

 

It has the clarity of earth and sky

seen from a spacecraft, once removed,

as through an amniotic lens, that groove-

lessness of space, the last star by.

 

We have set out to live and die

into the interstices of a new

nowhere to be or be returning to

 

(a little like an infant’s airborne cry).

We’ve set our sights on nothing left to lose

and made of loss itself a lullaby.

 

—Todd Hearon

Originally appeared in Poetry, 2008. Used by permission of the author.

 

 

 

Ballistics

 

That the greasy pop-pop

of a semiautomatic wrecks

 

the air before I can get off

the couch, before my wife yanks

 

our baby daughter

from the new fallen flesh

 

of pomegranate and runs

inside before their car horrors

 

past our fence is true.

That this winter this town

 

has more bullets than rain

gutters in truth but is not true. But the bullets

 

are true. Candles, rosaries, the roses

that shrine the street corner

 

are true beyond the next day stare

of faces watching me walk

 

behind a stroller. What’s true

is the wound

 

channel, that human tissue jumps

from a bullet like water

 

from a diver. One

boy bled out where he fell.

 

The other on a table

at a university hospital. Drawn

 

blinds are true, checked locks. Smiles

have too much teeth to be true.

 

What’s vital is the crush

mechanism, the permanent hole

 

a bullet makes in that moment

I’m watching

 

my wife and child each time

they fail to reach

 

the door. Noises at night grow

skin, grow fur, spring fangs

 

that scratch and score casement

glass and hinge

 

between what’s true. And what isn’t?

That I wrote down the names

 

of the dead, though it should be.

What’s real are the costs

 

of moving, of staying, the recoil

from a too early doorbell,

 

the ten to fifteen seconds left

to a body when the heart’s

 

instantly destroyed. What’s left

is our fence five feet from

 

the street, the house thirty feet

from the fence, the front wall

 

four inches of California

bungalow and then her crib.

 

— Matt Miller

Published previously in the journal Memorious and the collection Club Icarus, by Matt Miller. Used by permission of the author.

 

 

 

Trago

Some of us stopped going to wakes since Petey. Chuna stays outside because he has nightmares whenever he’s near a casket. Loco Tommy cracks the first pint of dark rum and Junior pulls out a Polaroid.

You remember when the flick was taken. That was the day of the block party. The summer you almost fell in love. It was the day you, Junior B., Payito, Sinbad, and Bam Bam decided to split everything five ways. B. was looking at the camera like a coyote who wants you to think he’s smiling. His heater was aimed at the lens. It was the last group shot of a death squad that had long ceased talking about the latest dances.

When all the plastic cups are filled, Loco Tommy gives God a quick shout and says, “Look out for B. We’re sending him correct. He got a gold rope wrapped around his prayer hands and he ain’t wearing boots so he should be okay to get in.”

We all take a trago at the same time and then someone started talking about B. and monsters. Loco Tommy squashed it. If anyone asks, he says, it was cancer. Everything is cancer.

 

— Willie Perdomo

From Smoking Lovely by Willie Perdomo. Used by permission of the author.

 

 

 

Boys Riding Bicycles to School

In Memoriam, T. P.

 

They’re always pedaling up the long hill

from 1970, standing upright on their pedals

to trace with careless penmanship, tires

dipped in the ochre ink of June’s pollen,

our confused directions from one decade

to the next.

         Leaves have barely unfurled

above the antlers of weaving handlebars,

rusted chains and rims, and still they ignore

commuters’ honks as they have all

those reminders, that nagging not to leave

things in the rain.

       Perhaps the impossible cool

of hemlocks is where they’ve been, abandoned

nursery where they hunkered in depressions

of extracted maples, dropping acid, waiting

for the precision-guided future…

      Spin on,

oblivious gyroscopes. It is your last day

of classes. And because everything is ending, you

have never been as enthusiastic to reach it.

 

— Ralph Sneeden

Originally appeared in The American Poetry Review, July/August 2013. Used by permission of the author.