Working the Line
MU Students Steve Gehrke, Nadine Meyer, Emily Rosco and Julianne Buschbaum Gather Top Prizes for their Poetry
by Martha Vanderslip
COLUMBIA, MO -- A poetry workshop can help a writer improve a poem or even craft an entire book.
Last spring, for instance, doctorate candidates in Professor Sherod Santos’ poetry workshop at the University of Missouri-Columbia brought books-in-progress to work over in class.
Students were encouraged to think about the ways their poems worked together in sequence, Santos says. The workshop, he says, was exceptional. "A group of people came together in one place, and something magical happened."
Three students in the class, Steve Gehrke, Nadine Meyer and Julianne Buchsbaum, have since won book prizes for their manuscripts.
Santos wasn’t surprised, considering the caliber of students in the program, which includes poetry, fiction and nonfiction.
"Applicants to our program have to meet fairly high standards in both their creative and academic work,’’ he says. "And because we admit only two students in each genre each year and because those two are chosen from a pool of 70 or more applicants, we’re able to recruit some of the best young writers and scholars in the nation," he says. "The record of the overall accomplishments over the years - their publications, awards, grants and fellowships - is testimony to how truly remarkable they are."
Among the latest to arrive from that pool is Emily Rosco. Beginning the program this fall, she recently received the prestigious Iowa Poetry Prize for her debut poetry collection.
Here is a look at four newly celebrated Mizzou poets and a sampling of their poetry:
Steve Gehrke and Nadine Meyer
Poetry and art brought Steve Gehrke and Nadine Meyer together. The couple met when they came to Columbia three years ago as doctorate candidates in the creative writing program. Their first date involved a trip to the St. Louis Art Museum to study paintings.
During the next two summers, they traveled to Paris to take in more art, a visual banquet that fed their poetry. "We have both written about what we saw on those trips," Meyer says.
"It is all pretty exciting," Meyer says, "but I’m exhausted."
"I didn’t have any publications when I came here," she says. "It’s nice to know we both won the prize."
The two were among 50 finalists and only five recipients of the series, sponsored by five major publishers. This is the first time a husband and wife have ever won in the same year.
"This is huge," says Professor Scott Cairns of the MU poetry faculty. "The National Poetry Series receives thousands of submissions every year, from poets at all stages of their careers."
"Michelangelo’s Seizure," to be published by the University of Illinois Press, is Gehrke’s third book of poetry. Meyer’s first book, "The Anatomy Theater," will be published by HarperCollins. Both books are scheduled for publication in the summer of 2006.
Meyer’s early poems dealt with health and the body, she says. "When I got here I was looking for something new to do, and yet I was still interested in those issues. I started looking at anatomical illustrations from the Renaissance that showed people tearing off their skin to teach about the inside of the body," she says. She looked at "the traditions within medicine and the study of female anatomy," she says, and her poems began to evolve.
Engaging in the history of poetry and visual art has helped Gehrke to "continually reinvent myself as a poet or reinvent what I think poetry is because there is so much history and so many aesthetic styles," he says. "It’s a way to stay interested. For me, that is the point of doing this."
Raised in Mankato, Minn., Gehrke, 33, pursued a degree at Minnesota State University after he’d had his fill of gas station and restaurant jobs. "I started college late. I was 24."
He thinks the late start made him a more serious student. His first book of poetry was published while he was still an undergraduate. His second book, "The Pyramids of Malpighi," was written while earning his master of fine arts degree at University of Texas-Austin.
Gehrke, poetry editor of the Missouri Review, took an interest in Renaissance painting after taking an art history class at MU. He began writing "Michelangelo’s Seizure" last year in a poetry workshop with Professor Lynne McMahon. He finished it the next fall in the book workshop with Santos.
Meyer, 37, taught learning-disabled children for eight years after graduating from Johns Hopkins University with an English degree. She then returned to writing, completing a master of fine arts degree at George Mason University. One of her professors, Eric Pankey, suggested she apply to MU’s doctorate program. "He told me this is one of the best schools for creative writing.
"My poetry has grown enormously here," she says. "Part of it is the time and the focus that I am allowed, as well as the workshops themselves. The students are at a high level; you get really good feedback and a lot of excitement in the classroom.
"You have to have a thick skin to be a poet," Meyer says. "I have finally developed one. At first Steve would send poems out for me. Now I do it myself. We have a system; it’s like paying bills. If you get one accepted, you’re thrilled and try not to worry about the rejections."
Both poets hope to pursue careers at universities. "The university gives you a community of people who care about poetry," Gehrke says, "which is hard to find these days."
Julianne Buchsbaum is intrigued by the "impractical." She collects toy motorcycles, and she writes poetry.
"I like that you can’t really do anything practical with poetry." Still, she is drawn to poetry’s compression of language and its "immediate impact on the reader," she says.
"I have an obsessive interest in words and language - a need to observe things more closely and discover in language different ways of saying things and thus different ways of thinking."
Her pursuit of the impractical began in undergraduate school at Beloit College, where she earned her bachelor of arts degree in philosophy and classics. After earning a master of fine arts degree from Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Buchsbaum, 35, decided to pursue a career as a librarian. She went to library school, receiving a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Pittsburgh.
The career didn’t fit, but it led to her next move. While working as a librarian at Kenyon College, she taught a creative writing class. "I loved it," says Buchsbaum, who hadn’t imagined that she could teach. "I was so introverted and shy," she says, "but it wasn’t as scary at I thought it would be."
She is into her second year in the program as a G. Ellsworth Huggins Fellow.
Her second book, "A Little Night Comes," will be published later this fall by Del Sol Press. She was recently named the winner of the publisher’s annual poetry award.
The poet also is an accomplished painter but keeps her paintings piled in a stack in her exercise room. She rides to school on a Honda Rebel 250 motorcycle and displays a collection of toy motorcycles in her kitchen. "I like the old ones better than the choppers," she says.
Buchsbaum is less selective about her poetic subject matter.
"I don’t like to prescribe or limit a range of interests, as they always vary."
She is interested in "imagery of industrial/post-industrial landscapes or landscapes affected by urban waste and technology, issues of alienation/outsider views, images of darkness and light, skies, clouds, stars, and the inhuman."
In workshop, she likes getting to the point when discussing her poems and joining in the weekly banter over aesthetics. "We all have ideological differences that affect how we talk about a poem," she says. "It’s important to hash out those differences.
"I’m getting over my shyness," she says. "I am much more assertive than I used to be."
This fall, the first day of class, poetry workshop students shared what they had read over the summer. At the top of Emily Rosko’s list was "How to Lay Tile."
Later, during her public introduction of Rosko at the first of the graduate student readings, Liz Langemak described Rosko’s work as "concrete yet innovative, infused throughout with sharp personality, measured equally for precision and surprise." Langemak could have been describing Rosko herself, or her summer, for that matter. Rosko and her husband, Anton Vander Zee, moved to Columbia in June, whereupon they bought a fixer-upper and commenced fixing it up. At one point, she and Vander Zee pulled an all-nighter, laying kitchen tile.
In August, the handywoman poet learned she had won the 2005 Iowa Poetry Prize for her first collection of poems, "Raw Goods Inventory." The University of Iowa Press will publish the book in the spring of 2006. For Rosko, the book award marks the end of a chapter and the opportunity to grow as a poet, she says. "I now think of the book as complete and can let it go, move on." Much of the book comes out of her work at Cornell, she says. "The poems are each very different; I wrote them as I was learning new things or trying new things," she says. The title serves as "a way for me to tie up all of these very different poems as much as a first book can."
Though Rosko has been writing since high school, she entered Purdue University as a physics major - "falling back into English pretty quickly."
She also holds a master of fine arts degree from Cornell University, and earlier this year, she completed a Wallace Stegner Writing Fellowship at Stanford University.
At 26, "I’ve never really had a real job," she says. Unless you count the summer she taught English in Siberia with Vander Zee, a Stanford doctorate candidate.
Born in Pennsylvania, Rosko grew up in West Virginia, Indiana and Ohio. "My father was a corporate nomad," she says. Rosco - something of an academic nomad - moved to Columbia from Palo Alto, Calif.
"After the manicured glory of the Palo Alto suburbs, it is great to be in Columbia," she says. She chose the MU program because she thought the smaller size would afford more one-on-one time with professors such as poet Lynne McMahon. "Her work has wonderful sound and architecture, something I am trying to include in my work," she says.
Rosko is a poet by disposition. "I am not a long-distance runner. I don’t have the attention span to stick with a story," she says.
"Poetry is closer to the way I think and offers a little more chance for invention and risk. I like the way language can drive you to find certain sounds or images."
Columbia Daily Tribune: http://www.showmenews.com/2005/Oct/20051023Ovat008.asp