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Clamoring for Elyse Fenton '03

By Robin Tovey '97 on April 01, 2011 03:49 PM

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It was standing-room only in the psychology auditorium when poet Elyse Fenton '03 read from her award-winning collection, Clamor, on Thursday night. OK, nobody was actually standing: late arrivals sat on the floor or reclined against the wall, situational discomforts that paled in comparison to the striking corporeality of the poems we heard.

Professor Lisa Steinman, Elyse's thesis adviser, praised her aptitude for "making things that are lost or imagined real" in a warm introduction. Steinman noted with pleasure that Elyse's Reed experience is evident in her work as much through references to Orpheus and Dante as through a distinctive "physicality of language" honed by a rugby player...

Elyse took to the podium with obvious joy at being back at Reed, and reflected on her own routine of Thursdays past: rugby, the scrounge, a visiting-writer reading, and the promise of cookies during the reception afterward.

Love, loss, and the human heart are recurring themes that Elyse tackles in poems such as "Gratitude," "The War Bride Waits," and "The Dreams." She drills down to the level of human anatomy in others like "After the Blast," "Love in Wartime," and "Mercy" (which she dedicated to broken rugby players everywhere). Elyse has a powerful way with descriptions of destruction and debris, be it material or emotional, in part because there is a surgical precision to how she wields words. Whether she is talking about scars, ribs, or limbs (be they attached to people or to oaks), there is a beautiful utility in her language as it cuts to the bone.

Her craftsman-like approach to poetry was highlighted by an instructive analogy she drew between beginning a new poem and the laborious process of finding just the right cornerstone for a fence. Then she gave us a preview of a new poem that will be printed in an upcoming issue of Hubbub; "Missive from the Back Forty" draws upon her time working on a farm in Texas and piques the senses with the essence of juniper turning to gin. Finally, she switched from what she terms the "Field Irritants" group of poems to the "Insurgency" poems about pregnancy, speaking to the "strangeness and lack of control" that she experienced in motherhood with a poem entitled "Preparations for Your Kingdom."

During the Q&A portion of the evening (the last hurdle before the cookies), Elyse addressed a question about the logistics of becoming a writer. After graduating from Reed, she felt the need to break free of a post-grad holding pattern. She spent time building trails in the woods and teaching English in Mongolia, which clarified some things (including the fact that she did not want to be a middle-school teacher). Ultimately it was a matter of making the time to develop her skills, which she was able to do in the MFA program at University of Oregon because the financial support allowed her to create routines to be a more habitual writer.

Even now she believes that inspiration comes with immersing yourself in language; she reads her own poems aloud as a means of paying close attention to "sonic quality." This is not surprising for a poet who named her collection "clamor," a word that can mean both sound and soundlessness; at any volume, there is an undeniable insistence in her evocation of the wounds of war.