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Floyd Poet Wins Symposium Award

xmarakathps.gifThe following was published in The Floyd Press on April 10, 2008.

Floyd County poet, Mara Robbins (pictured on the left) was one of three students representing nine regional schools to receive a first place award at a Poetry Symposium this past weekend. The symposium, titled "The Power of Poetry," was a first time event, sponsored by Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington. Robbins, a Hollins University senior with a major in creative writing, is a founding member of the Floyd Writer's Circle and one of the hosts of the third Saturday Spoken Word Night at Floyd's Café Del Sol. She was chosen from area college applicants to present in both featured categories, original poetry and critical papers on poetry.

The two day symposium began with a Friday evening reading by guest poets, Claudia Emerson and Bruce Weigl. Emerson, Professor of English at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, is from Chatham, Virginia, and at one time was a rural mail carrier in Danville. In 2006, she won a Pulitzer Prize for her third collection of poetry, "Late Wife." The book was aptly described by Jeffery Brown when he interviewed Emerson for the PBS NewsHour as one about "loves lost through death and divorce." He also rightly called it an examination of the newfound love between Emerson and her second husband, who came together late in life. The poetry Emerson shared at her reading revealed her masterful ability to use concrete images - the furnace, the hairbrush, a quilt - to relate indirectly to underlying emotions.

Weigl, also a professor of English, is best known for his Vietnam War poetry. At the reading, he followed his first poem, about witnessing a young Vietnamese girl after she had been napalmed, by saying, "I'm not going to gloss these." Weigl, who was just out of high school in Ohio when he was sent to Vietnam, says in his memoir, "The Circle of Hanh," "The paradox of my life as a writer is that the war ruined my life and in return gave me my voice." psuvitablex.jpg

It might seem unlikely that a poetry symposium, especially one hosting a poet like Weigl, who writes with graphic honesty about war, be held at a military academy. On the VMI (Virginia Military Institute) news website, symposium organizer and VMI professor of English and fine arts, Gordon Ball, explains the institute's interest in poetry, "Today's creative writing classes are filled to capacity, and the student literary magazine "Sounding Brass" showcases our many student poets; the symposium capitalizes on such interest and productivity." Ball, who has documented the beat poet generation through film and words, was close friends with beat poet, Allen Ginsberg. He points out that Iraq War veteran, poet, and author of "Here, Bullet," had also read at VMI. At The Power of Poetry Symposium, a number of VMI cadets participated in poetry and prose readings. One revealed during a question and answer segment that he wrote much of his poetry in his head while marching on the drill field.

The symposium readings of papers and poetry by a total of thirty-six students were broken up with a luncheon and keynote address given by Emerson. Speaking on "The Power of Poetry," and the measure of it, as opposed to the meter, Emerson said, "Poetry is a way to measure emotion and manage events ... We measure what we care about." Emerson spoke about her past experiences as a literacy volunteer and of her love of Emily Dickinson's poetry. She also shared what her students had to say about the power of poetry. "Poetry is measured by alcohol proof and not by nutrient fact," one student had said. keynoteps2x.jpg

It was Robbins' paper, titled "The Sacred and Everyday in Two Ancient Goddess Poems" that won her formal recognition, a monetary gift, and complimentary books by Emerson and Weigl. The paper (which tied for first place with another student's) compared two ancient Goddess poems, one of which was originally written in cuneiform, the earliest known form of written script created by the Sumerians in 3,000 BC. The other, "Invocation to Aphrodite," the Greek Goddess of Love, was written by the ancient Greek female poet Sappho. Robbins read, Spirituality has elements of mystery, and we need a sense of mystery and ritual in our lives. We also need to eat, drink, sleep, bathe, and procreate, and when the divine is set apart from these necessary activities it becomes less applicable, and therefore less meaningful. In order for the sacred to be sustainable it must have a place in people's daily lives ...

Katherine Swett, a student from Virginia Tech, won the poetry component of the symposium. One of her poems, "A Documentation of Grief" (which she referred to as 4/16 poem), particularly struck a chord with those in attendance. My first thought was that the literacy journal would have to have a special edition ... or specifically not have a special addition ... and that this wasn't the right kind of first thought ... I was in my towel and was thinking about the fact that I was in my towel and that I would probably always remember that I was in my towel ... Swett read and then continued... I didn't cry at the convocation ... it was too much like a football game, Nikki's words echoing in the stadium ... like an alien in our heads ...

On the steps of VMI's Preston Library, after the award announcements, Robbins was exhilarated and exhausted as she recalled how her Hollins professor, Jeanne Larsen, encouraged her to submit to the symposium. She expressed excitement at having met and interacted with Bruce Weigl, who she dedicated a first line to in one of the poems she read that day. "Poem beginning with a line from Bruce Weigl," it was called.pointx2.jpg

"Claudia Emerson is my hero," Robbins, who was primarily home-schooled as a girl, announced. Daughter of Wayne and Vera Bradburn, Robbins relates to Emerson's rural Southern background and was inspired by her keynote address. "Her reason for writing made more sense to me than any successful published writer. She doesn't write because she has to. She doesn't write because someone told her to. She writes because it is essential to her existence," Robbins said.

As a student and single parent of a nine year old daughter, Robbins would soon need to get back to the routines of everyday life. But for this weekend, she was content to savor her experiences. Surrounded by friends and few new admirers, she paused to take a phone call from her sister, who was calling from Floyd to offer congratulations on Robbins' outstanding accomplishment.

Post notes: VMI Poetry Symposium Outtake Photos are HERE. The first photo in this post is of Mara (on the left) and Katherine. The last one is of Mara with other Hollins poets who participated in the symposium. Left to right: Melanie Lynn Huber, Sharon Mirtaheri, Julie Lawrence Abernethy, and Mara. To read more about Mara, click on my sidebar archive category under SCRABBLE or SPOKEN WORD and scroll.


Congrats to Mara!

Thanks for the visit, Colleen. When I go*gled images for B. Packer, I found that one; someone had photoshopped it from another guy's photo and I thought it was funny, since I was so mad at him at the time.

Way to go Mara! I know you are very proud of your friend.

I'm swelling with pride- kudos to Mara -expansive subject as well. Bruce Weigl and Vietnam days memories.

Thank you. What an amazing article.

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