The Colgate Scene
May 2004

The poet returns

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Poems by Jennifer Kietzman:

When Jennifer Kietzman '92 first read the poetry of T.S. Eliot as a high school student, she found a new way to speak her mind.

"Everybody thought it was confusing and hard and baffling," she said of Eliot's "Preludes," about which she had delivered a presentation. "And I thought it was the most transparent thing in the world. Poetry seemed the most natural way of being true to what you thought.

"Emotionally and socially, I was quite isolated in high school, but that was a moment when I discovered how I could speak," Kietzman explained. "This was a way in which I could exist." She has been writing poems ever since -- and is starting to make her living at it.

Kietzman returned to campus this year as the first graduate ever to hold the university's Olive B. O'Connor Fellowship in Creative Writing. O'Connor fellows teach one course each semester, Introduction to Creative Writing, and give a public reading of their work, but the fellowship's primary purpose is to support a writer completing his or her first book.

Meandering with purpose
An English major and geology minor as an undergraduate, Kietzman was the first student to pursue honors in creative writing. (Colgate does not offer a creative writing major, although since that time, a minor has been added to the curriculum.) She received high honors for her thesis, a book of poems.

"It was wonderfully inventive work," said Peter Balakian, Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the humanities, who was her adviser. He recalls that Kietzman, who had also worked for him as an editorial assistant on The Graham House Review, was "a star student, intellectually independent and self-disciplined."

Kietzman's life has taken a meandering -- but altogether purposeful -- course, filled with experiences both intellectual and menial that she said have marked her poetry in terms of "how I think, and what I think, when I look at something."

After graduation, Kietzman spent the summer traveling with philosophy and religion professor John Ross Carter in Sri Lanka, where she studied Theravada Buddhism, and then working as the cook and resident supervisor at Colgate's Chapel House. That fall, she entered Harvard Divinity School, as she put it, "with an interest in religion as a way of life and ambitions to figure out what it means to be truly human." She received a masters degree in theological studies in 1995.

She also worked as a professional baker in Somerville, Mass. "I wanted to learn to survive by the work of my own hands," she said. "It was the time of my life when I was most proud to identify myself by my profession. There's something gratifying in making things and seeing people consume them immediately."

But after six years of baker's hours, Kietzman felt it was time to pursue her writing more directly. She earned her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 2001 and then taught composition and creative writing and worked as an editor for the Early English Books Online Project and an assistant in the university's library shelving facility.

Along the way, she began working on a collection of poems she has titled Neighbor Dirt.

A New York Times photograph published during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s that depicted a refugee family carrying their meager bedding inspired the project, Kietz-man said, because it "prompted me to think that the more prosperous we become, as individuals and as nations, the further we move from dirt. We bathe obsessively, wear high heels, sleep in high beds, and often hire others to sweep dirt away. Dirt is a physical substance, and I realized that our relationship to it has political and social implications. The title is meant to remind us of dirt's proximity."

Unique and idiosyncratic
Neighbor Dirt was named a finalist in the 2002 Fence Modern Poets Series. "That was thrilling for me since it's not published yet," said Kietzman. She has spent her O'Connor fellowship year refining and adding to the manuscript and is in the process of entering first book competitions and searching for a publisher.

In describing the committee's choice of Kietzman as the O'Connor fellow, Balakian said that "her work is unique and idiosyncratic. She's a talented, creative person, and to have your best student come back and now writing with professional intensity is very gratifying."

The writers Kietzman names who have influenced her range from Kathy Acker, Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Davies, and Jack Spicer to Emily Dickinson, Chaucer, Thomas Nash, and Marjorie Kempe, among others.

In speaking of her influences, Kietzman also talks about growing up the youngest of four in a house that included her grandparents, in the southeastern Adirondack town of Queensbury, N.Y. About her mother, a teacher who is fond of reciting poems like "Richard Cory" and "Evangeline," and who had to take care of the family alone after Jennifer's father died when she was 10. About her grandmother, who enjoyed bawdy rhymes, and her grandfather, who suffered from dementia and spoke rhyming nonsense. And about her experiences in Massachusetts as well as her Colgate coursework in geology. In her poem "Salt of the Earth," in which she incorporates an exchange she overheard in a Central Square muffin shop, she takes a view of the world as a mineral.

Possessing a curiosity that manifests itself in conversation by her being more content asking people questions than answering those about herself, Kietzman is also a voracious reader, an enthusiast of pre-code films, and a collector of vintage clothing and yellow Schwinn bicycles.

As a writing instructor, Kietzman finds teaching poetry particularly challenging because "students come with big assumptions about what poems do. One of the biggest to get past is that it's free verse, it's about expression -- so why should I revise and be receptive to feedback?

"I try to get students early on to look at the assumptions they make about what they do, and to look closely at what they do as they're writing," she explained. Rather than focusing on teaching traditional poetic forms, with their focus on elements such as line count, rhyme, or meter, Kietzman gives assignments that emphasize a process where students "discover form for themselves, in a sense." For example, she has her students keep journals.

"Later in the semester, I'll have them choose three entries with at least a two-week span between each as material for a poem, and in writing find the connections between those entries," she said. "It's a kind of disjunctive reasoning that gets them thinking about form as something that can be fun and an investigation rather than handcuffs."

Looking back at her own varied experiences and their indirect trajectory, Kietzman waxes reflective. "I've pursued things when I wanted to pursue them. And I enjoy thinking about the world from different perspectives, so I couldn't do anything but that."

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