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