A Piddling Peek into a Poet’s Life & The Writer’s Foundry at SJC by Tenzin Yingsal ('16)

For me, mostly, creative writing has been a private affair. I’ve always written, but rarely have I shared my work. It took over two years of marriage to even permit my husband to get a peek at poetry (when I finally did he read them on the subway and missed so many stops that I had to pick him up with our car).

-Catherine Meehan

One of ACES’s very own, Professor Meehan, is part of the first class of The Writer’s Foundry at St. Joseph’s College. She started the two-year program in the fall of 2013. Dating back to her college years, Professor Meehan majored in Literature with a concentration in Pre-18th Century texts and double minored in Classics (also known as Greek and Roman Studies) and Inter-Arts (a hybrid of Studio Arts Classes, with a focus on Painting and Art History) at Georgetown University. Professor Meehan also got her Masters in English from Middlebury College at the Bread Loaf School of English and she studied on several different campuses including Vermont, Santa Fe and Lincoln College,  Oxford.

 With regards to Professor Meehan’s taste in writing, she was in love with writing and language ever since she was a little girl; she would craft her own words and had a collection of her own mini books. She recalls, “When I was really tiny I became so angry about the ending of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, I took matters into my own hands, ripped out a few pages and re-wrote an ending that secured an immortal existence for the tree, the boy, his parents and basically every other living thing mentioned in the book. Throughout high school and college this impulse to write only became more pronounced.” This perspective has slightly altered for Professor Meehan though; when reading a work, instead of trying to change the ending, she has learned to appreciate the writer’s work and attentively observe how the writer has completed the writing with their own words and how not to be judgmental about it.

 Professor Meehan had always wanted to get an MFA to give herself formal time to develop a collection of poetry; however, she says,

With working full time and one Masters already under my belt, I had figured that I would have to wait a while for that opportunity to come up, but then something amazing happened; an MFA program came to me here at SJC.  After I heard about the Writer’s Foundry, which was founded upon the principles of teacher, poet and SJC graduate, Marie Ponsot. I found myself in our familiar parlors listening to the premise of a really exciting program. I started to convince myself that it was actually possible.

In addition to her interest in literature, art, and painting, Professor Meehan also had her eyes on Law. She was part of the Debate Team and The Mock Trial during her high school days. She also interned at Capitol Hill as an undergraduate. Her crusade to be successful in life motivated her to journey to California upon graduation to look into Law Schools. She was studying for the LSAT, while waiting tables to support herself. The great moment of intervention in her life occurred during her time working as a waitress, says Professor Meehan:

On one occasion I served a couple who pointed out my New York accent and asked me what I was doing out West. I had one of those moments where I kind of over-shared and said out loud, for the first time, that I was trying to find a practical application for my literary degree by looking into Law Schools, but that I really just wanted a life comprised of books and art. Turns out the guy at the table was the Dean of a Prep school down the block. Soon I was in an oak paneled room interviewing for a job as an English teacher at that school. So, I kind of serendipitously found my way into the classroom. As a teacher I formed a number of clubs and led a number of Creative Writing Retreats out in the desert. After I went back to school again for myself, I knew that I wanted to teach writing to undergraduates.

After attaining her Masters from Middlebury, Professor Meehan fled straight from the Lincoln College, Oxford, England to the Atlantic Terminal in NYC where Sister Margaret, then Academic Dean of St. Joseph’s College, picked her up. She initially taught The Short Story class on the Brooklyn Campus. Today, Professor Meehan is the Associate Director of ACES and teaches the freshman ACES class The Freshman Seminar and English Composition. 

Professor Meehan with her ACES freshman. 

Professor Meehan with her ACES freshman. 

2.jpg

When Professor Meehan began the MFA program, she experienced a role reversal – where she had to shift back into the mindset of being a student while still being a professor and giving lectures to her own students. This interchanging role for her was positive and humbling. When the time came for her to share her own works out loud in the classroom with other Writer’s Foundry students, she actually felt anxious at first. Then she adds, “What I came to find is that sharing your work, sharing your writing with others is transformative, so I am going to keep doing what I have been doing – but with greater empathy and compassion for my students.”

Professor Meehan writes poetry primarily and she tries to incorporate poems into her teaching. Currently, her Freshman Seminar class is reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th century medieval work of poetry. She has also introduced poets like, Rita Dove, Robert Frost, John Keats and T.S. Eliot to her ACES classes.

Since the fall of 2013, Professor Meehan has incorporated some of the Foundry’s pedagogy into her own teaching, primarily the art of observation – just observing what the writer is saying rather than thinking too hard about what he is trying to convey. She has also incorporated the importance of being prolific while learning the art of writing – asking students to write during the class period, practicing form, rewriting more deliberatively and appreciatively, and moving from an abstract to a more concrete form. In addition, Professor Meehan discovered that it is important to trust your own individuality and says, “I always knew to be true I am a poet and that is what I want to make my life about.” She now is more open-minded towards all types of literary genres and subjects in addition to poetry.

As part of The Writer’s Foundry, each semester, numerous notable authors visit the program to deliver master lectures on noteworthy work of writing. Out of many, Professor Meehan really enjoyed poet Marie Howe’s talk. She gave a Master lecture on the poetry of Robert Frost. Professor Meehan states,

She spoke about how his poetry informed her work, and really the way in which she writes but also reads – how she reads text but also the experiences that inform her life. I was excited to see her name on the list because I love her work, but also because I have often kept my admiration for Frost quiet because it seems like in certain academic circles people tend to reduce Frost to this simple naturalist/poet-you-read-in middle-school who penned Mending Wall and is heralded as a “New England voice.” I don’t quite see him that way – I take Frost’s definition of poetry as “a momentary stay against confusion” to heart and it informs my own writing. So, Howe’s lecture felt like a validation for me. Also she talked about a phrase John Keats came up with, “negative capability” which was weirdly a subject I was pursuing in a poem at the time she spoke. As poets, both Frost and Howe try to discern the separation between the sacred and the everyday. All of Howe’s poems seem to do this – to unite and then separate the seams that make us human, to show us what we are made of before tearing it all apart in a single line. After the lecture I remember going home and dusting off a volume of Keats’ letters that I had on my shelf.  In a letter he wrote to his brothers on December 27th 1817, the poet closes by saying, “this (and by this he means an academic answer of sorts) pursued through volumes would take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all other considerations.” So, the lecture reminded me of what I aim for in my own writing, a reluctance to claim knowledge of the transcendent, to make that reluctance vibrant in contour, in question, in suggestion, like a flash in a well, well-placed moonlight falling on the throat – the transcendent gleams in a mirror, a reflection of something we all once knew. In other words, a momentary stay against confusion.

With Frost’s definition of poetry as “a momentary stay against confusion,” Professor Meehan explains, when reading, there is one moment that makes complete sense; however, that moment lasts only for a minute or so and then the confusion kicks back in when you peek at the following lines. With writing, there is no fixed meaning. Everything makes sense at one moment and you find yourself all confused the next moment; the cycle repeats all over again.

For Professor Meehan, poetry is a “radical form of nonfiction.” Her poems are all based on real experiences. For her thesis for The Writer’s Foundry, her collection will focus on specific landscapes, all relating to bodies of water, even when there is an absence of water. There are landscapes where there was never any water, and some that used to have water but no longer do. The motivation behind the landscape collection dates back to her young life, growing up on boats, travelling and moving to many places; it is a movement through nostalgic memories. The creativity and inspiration stems from her love for words and language, the natural world, and when not inspired, she just sits and writes down with the help of meter, verse, and form – these generate words and with words come sentences and the journey goes on from there.

Professor Meehan happily confessed that she would love to publish her poetry collections in the future, but for now, she wants to write poems for herself instead of thinking about publication. Here is an exclusive look at one of her many, many poems:

“The Physics of What We Know and What We Don’t”

I.

 

Just read it, he said

 

The article speaks of

Cosmic horizons

Farthest distances

Traveling light

Quantify it

It is the same

The same distance

Between us

Between elementary particles

Atomic nuclei

It is the same

 

Agree with observation.

 

Physics is not

Sold separately

In the end

All is one

 

Six months to live

So. Yeah. I had a spiritual moment

 

There is palpable delight

Around the dinner table

 

I’ll send it to you -

 

What is your opinion

Of religion

In situations

Like this

 

II.

 

Little clouds

Their visible

Fixed positions

Among the stars

 

Distant galaxies

Our own milky way

A chiffon scarf

 

Rushing away from us

 

What about the after life?

 

Our car barrels forward 

Rushing away from them

From dinner with his Dad

Back to Brooklyn

Over black asphalt

The tarmac of night

Headlights dash past

Eyes fix forward

 

Here the distance

Between us hangs

And connects

These are the moments

So – now we are talking about it

 

Dad said he’d rather not see them

The late dead

But the love

That lasts invisibly

Is not them, is

My feeble response

To his expanding universe

 

Pin down the rate

Measure changes

Find the time

When we were all

Crunched together

And it will be so again

 

III.

 

So, you are saying that you think

There is a literal afterlife?

 

A guitar sits rests on his lap

A pick between his lips

He refuses to play

I hip heave a wicker basket of our

Laundry down the stairs

He quickly follows touting detergent

We muse upon the thought

We turn it over

We consider the

Location of Heaven

Over this week’s wash

The visibility of God

Over towels and socks

We empty the contents

Together: scattered articles

A lavender camisole, my

Levis, his shorts

We wind up in silence

Until the only answer

To our queries is

The hum and metallic click

Of the washing machine

The dial cranks to cold

Water tumbles flat into

The generous basin

My love slowly empties

A careful capful

It drips, counterclockwise

Round into the galactic swirl of

Of our bed sheets

Soap and cloth

Begin to spin

I shut the lid

And open up

With a story:

 

I went whale watching

With my own Dad

Off the cold coast

Of Cape Cod, the

Solo Humpback he spotted

 

Was either a cruel humorist

Or wise to his own horizon

Either way, he swam

Deep beneath us

The Hyannis Cruiser

Rocked to and fro while

Wide-eyed passengers

Scattered back and forth

Tipping the ship

Hoping to see

The top of the tail

Of this humpback whale

Cameras poised to catch

A flash of gray

Cresting majestically

In the sunlight

Dripping with crystal –

I saw nothing.

Nothing at all.

My Dad, lovingly,

Desperate for me

To see something

Cupped my chin

In his hand

And pointed it 45 degrees

Off starboard, shouting

“See, see! Katie, do you see it!

My tiny hands gripped

The lifelines, I held 

My breath in vein

As the boat rocked on

 

The wash sways

And hums

Until he speaks:

 

That’s kind of what it is like

Inside right now 

Lean in to believing

And the vessel tips left

Lean into doubt

And it tips to the right

I cup his chin

 

I think I can

See what you are saying

 

IV.

 

Sunday morning papers -

The news of the world

Splays out before us

All else is quiet

There is no morning music

As is usual habit

No honey sun

Streaming through

Our burlap curtains,

Catching his hair and

Eyes as music slowly drips

Across his six strings,

And into the room

 

I pipe up in tidbits:

So, there are whales living now,

Like, alive. Who were swimming then.

Swimming when Melville’s ink was

Still wet. Cresting over

White caps, the wet engine

Of these thousand pound hearts

Must know something we don’t

Bobbing underwater

In suspension

Living, still

Thick and vital

Still living, spilling

Secrets under skin

When they wash up dead

Biologists reclaim ancient

Ivory and stone

Some two centuries old

Under the mottled

Constellations of

Weathered flesh

The rudimentary tools

Of harpoonists

Swallowed up whole

In the corrugated groves

Of longevity.

 

Where do you go when you are gone?

I look over at my love

Who is staring out the

Window, I could burst open

 

Here the distance between

Us hangs and connects

These are the moments

That break my heart

 

V.

 

The weekend closes,

Where do you go when you are gone

God the roaring silences

There is so much under the surface

Six months to

Love him

Six months to forgive

I’ve heard that fully

Five sixths of the

Universe is dark matter

We get 4% or the 96

If the external world reveals

Itself in hieroglyphics

I want to go at it with

A backhoe.

 

His head rests

On my chest

His guitar rests

On the couch

Until night

spills in

Is that Venus?

Out there, the brightest one?

I say yes, but

I don’t know.

 

My love, you are in the

Belly of the beast

The belly of the great

White whale

The wine dark sea

Inside of it

Lick his ribs

With your fingertips

It is the roof of

Your own mouth

sing the song

that you love

believe it

with all your heart.

 

VI.

 

Magazine articles

About elementary particles

Rest on the pale coffee table

“The Physics of What We Know

And What We Don’t”

Is covered in rings of red wine

Part One of a poem begins

On the back of a napkin

He wants to set it to music

String Theory, he jokes and reaches

For his instrument

Pulled by some unseen gravity

Settled into better silences.