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Poets Spiegelman, Salter to discuss writing, the English major

Poets Spiegelman, Salter to discuss writing, the English major

By Emily Sakamoto

What do mushroom ragout, yoga, the poet Amy Clampitt and Harvard University have to do with each other?

They all connect back to poets Willard Spiegelman and Mary Jo Salter. The two friends are both fans of yoga and cooking, attended Harvard, and also share a special bond over the late poet Clampitt.

Professor of English Jennifer Clarvoe will facilitate a conversation between the two poets on Thurs. Oct. 17 in the Cheever Room in Finn House.

Both have also spent time as professors: Spiegelman at Southern Methodist University in Texas, and Salter for 23 years at Mount Holyoke College.

“The inspiration of watching young readers and writers develop [is why I teach],” Salter said. “It’s very exciting to see how fast a talented young mind goes from a beginning writer to a real writer.”

Both poets agreed on the benefits of being an English major, even in a time when the English major pursuit has become laden with questions like “What will you do with an English major?” or “What kind of job are you going to get post-grad?”

“People who are big readers and have a lot of practice writing can do pretty much anything,” Salter said. “If you love it ナ it’s a mistake, I think, to be too careerist about it.”

Spiegelman agreed. “I have had [years] where English majors are few and fewer ナ I have had English majors who have gone on to be doctors, lawyers, the whole gamut ナ don’t give up hope.”

On a whole, the two writers have contributed to news magazines such as The Wall Street Journal, written children’s literature, plays and poetry collections as well as having received numerous awards.

Spiegelman is a regular contributor to the Leisure and Arts section of the Journal. He recently published the article “Academy at a Crossroads” in September about the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Their conversation is as of yet unscripted with no intended talking points, and will rely on Clarvoe to lead the discussion. Neither author expressed worry about the impromptu style of the discussion.

When asked about his expectations for the conversation, Spiegelman said, “I can assure you there will be no paucity of words or points of interest, because we are lively people.”

Indeed, the two are old friends. “We’ve known each other for so long that I can’t even remember, but it’s been decades,” Salter said.

The two were quick to declare poetry as their favorite medium of writing. Salter, who has published a range of works from children’s literature to plays, explained why. “Poetry is what I’ve done the most of,” Salter said. “The other most important [medium] to me has been song lyrics.”

“A writer is a person who likes playing with language,” Spiegelman said. “And who will do so all the time ナ I like writing for The Wall Street Journal: I get paid for it, it has a large readership and most interestingly, because I am given a word limit.” Spiegelman added truthfully, “Nothing focuses the mind so much as a deadline and a word count.”

The authors also agreed on the difficulties in high-up positions. For Spiegelman, his position as Editor-In-Chief of The Southwest Review, a literary journal, has been painstaking. “[It’s] increasingly becoming a great pain. I’ve been [the editor] for 39 years and I’m tired. Print quarterlies are quickly going out of fashion and losing steam and losing power ナ I’m a dinosaur.”

Likewise editing the Norton Anthology of Poetry twice has been “a very humbling experience,” Salter said.

“You’re aware of your own experience ナ you might disagree with yourself. You can only do your best,” she said.

Both Salter and Spiegelman are prime examples of just how far the study of English can go. As for the creativity of writing, Spiegelman said, “Don’t give up hope ナ I am a great believer in America’s strong liberal arts colleges.” Salter agreed.

“I do think that our culture places too little emphasis on the ability to express oneself,” she said.

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