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This poem is taken from PN Review 213, Volume 40 Number 1, September - October 2013.

The Stegner Poetry Workshop at Stanford Eavan Boland
The Stegner poetry workshop, which is a part of the Creative Writing program at Stanford University, provides a rare intersection of new talent and poetic history. The program was founded in the 1940s by Wallace Stegner, an American novelist and environmentalist. His purpose then is shared by the program now: to buy time for gifted, emerging writers.

Each year the applications to the program in fiction and poetry add up to a huge number -  sometimes reaching 2,000 for just five places in fiction and five in poetry. Each successful applicant receives a two-year Fellowship. Most aim to finish their first book during that time. An astonishing array of distinguished American writers and previous Stegner Fellows have done just that -  from Tillie Olsen to Robert Pinsky, and from Tobias Wolff to Larry McMurtry. And on my shelves in my office I have a first edition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, started at Stanford by a spirited, dissident Ken Kesey when he was Wallace Stegner's student.

Today, Tobias Wolff, Elizabeth Tallent and Adam Johnson in fiction, Ken Fields and Simone di Piero and myself in poetry, each lead one workshop lasting a quarter.

The poems here are by the ten poets of the current poetry workshop. There is also an additional poem by my colleague Ken Fields, who, as well as being a distinguished poet, provides a bright link to the influence and presence of Yvor Winters who was his teacher and mentor.

The poets included here come from different backgrounds, have different views and may even have oppositional aesthetics. For that reason alone, generalisations are unwise and patterns may be deceptive. Nevertheless, I think any reader can see that these poems are deeply invested in their cultural and political moment, while also registering the private worlds they seek to shelter, expose or interpret.

In Solmaz Sharif's wrenching poem 'Reaching Guantánamo', for instance, the charged, emblematic place is measured against the fractured language of a letter to a prisoner -  fractured not by emotion but censorship. The result is a powerful intersection of language and its erasure. Hugh Martin's eerie, precise poem 'The Range' is deceptively exact, since within its crafted realism is the surreal desolation of wartime. Kimberly Grey's poem 'System with a Failed Image' frames the tragedy of 9/11 with a challenging, ironic meditation on image and language. And Jacques Rancourt's 'American Shrapnel' is an artful braiding of sexual exclusion with political scepticism. Echoes of war, of dissent, of linguistic experiment and erotic insistence may well provide a snapshot of a new and challenging American poem here. In addition, the intersection of the public event with a crisis of language is woven into each of these poems; to powerful effect.

But the national theme is not the only one on offer here. Fifty years ago, with poets like Robert Bly and James Wright, the American pastoral was a bright, solid prospect. In some of the poems here, the violated pastoral -  whether regional or global -  is all that's left of that landscape. But this is not new. The poem of disappointed expectations, of spoiled hopes remains a cultural seismograph today as it did in earlier times. The site where a deeply private experience of loss, illness, estrangement puts a proper stress on language remains a rich source. Above all, form and its likely fragmentation in the face of intense experience is a central theme to which several of these poems return.

The violated pastoral can certainly be seen as a counter-conversation in Kai-Carlson Wee's 'Thresher', with its incantatory narrative in which every rural freeze-frame is memorable and not one is consoling. Dana Koster's ominous and haunting poem 'Emergency Response' destabilises the pastoral of childhood. Chris Kempf's poem 'Pale Blue Dot' takes a bleak and inventive look at how insignificant the human can be in a world both distant and distanced. Mira Rosenthal's intense, off-kilter poem 'Anxiety' skews a love poem into a powerful, contemporary drama, while Mario Chard's deft lyric 'Gallop' explores a dark fault-line between the natural and the created -  a zone in which even a child's world of perception is threatened by human artifice. And Chiyuma Elliott's bold relating of private loss to thoughts of poetic witness makes an unlikely and  moving alignment.

All of these poems show a particular skill at navigating the increasingly crowded superhighways in poetry where public, private, national and formal can push and skid into each other at a moment's notice and at high speed. The poems are set out here for the reader to follow: for convenience's sake, I have put them in the order in which they are mentioned. And finally, Ken Fields' graceful, complex elegy reminds the reader just why these navigations still matter; why it is still essential to capture real feeling with truth and accuracy.

eavan boland
Stanford/Dublin, June 2013



SOLMAZ SHARIF
Reaching Guantánamo

Dear Salim,

Love, are you well? Do they             you?
I worry so much. Lately, my hair                  , even
my skin                       .The doctors tell me it's
...


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