2014 Fall Writing Series wraps up with nonfiction writer

The RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU

By Kelsey Block

On Wednesday, Nov. 19, the Center for Poetry welcomed nonfiction writer Jim Minick as the last guest in the Fall Writing Series. Throughout the week, Minick visited two RCAH classes in addition to reading from his memoir, The Blueberry Years: A Memoir a Farm and Family and an essay in which he explores the question, “How can I be both a vegan and a deer hunter?” He concluded the reading with a poem titled “The Intimacy of Spoons,” which you can view here.

Minick said he’s always loved blueberries. He and his wife, Sarah, planted their organic blueberry farm in the spring of 1995. He said they decided to farm organically because they couldn’t see a reason not to.

“There is so much poison already in our world that I didn’t want to add to it if I could. But, there are organic poisons as well. Some…

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Memoirist Jane Congdon in conversation with RCAH community

The RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU

By Kelsey Block

“It’s a shared experience,” Memoirist Jane Congdon mentioned during her visit to the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities last week. “I’ve been a visiting writer before, but I’ve never been an artist in conversation.”

The RCAH welcomed Congdon back in November 2011 to discuss her first memoir entitled, It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother, and Me.

This time around, Congdon joined the RCAH as an Artist in Conversation. She attended Professor Anita Skeen’s senior seminar, “Geographies, Journeys, and Maps,” and told the class about her plans to hike the Appalachian Trail. The West Virginia native says she’s spent months reading books, going on practice hikes, and gathering materials for her journey.

“I think it’ll be hard. It’s not a vacation,” she said. “I never thought it was something I would do in the beginning, and I found myself in stores buying…

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La escuela en el verano

Well, I made it. I survived summer classes. “Survived” being the key word, of course. I wouldn’t say I did poorly, but I certainly wouldn’t say I flourished either. I did well in three of the four classes I took, and was able to live with the results of the last – the dreaded Spanish 310.

You see, I’m good at Spanish. Or at least, I thought I was. After seven weeks of participios, copulativos, y el subjuntivo, I’m not so sure anymore. A great time to discover this, especially after I just added a Spanish minor.

This advanced Spanish grammar class shook me deep down in my bones. I started to stumble through sentences I used to be able to form without thinking. I began to question basic rules like where the adjective goes in relation to the noun. Simple, simple things somehow turned into something nearly as complicated as calculus.

Like you’ll find in most humans, there is a direct correlation between the things I like and the things I am good at. Usually, one follows the other, whatever the order. The problem with this class was, because of my incessant questioning of those basic concepts, my grades began to drop. I made stupid mistakes, panicking as I watched the allotted time for the quizzes run down. I started to see less than stellar scores. I was used to scoring 2.0s and 2.5s in math classes, but never in Spanish. First, I was only confused. I thought I was just in a funk and that I would quickly adjust to the upper-level course. Then, I began to dread doing the homework, and would feel ill before I took every quiz or exam. As the semester drew to a close, I actually began to  hate the language and its nonsensical little rules and quirks.

Furthermore, because it was an online class, I wasn’t able to compare notes with classmates to see what on earth I was missing. Was it just me? Or was everyone else having similar problems? I also couldn’t seek out help from the teacher as easily as I normally would have been able to. Try as I might, Skype conversations were just not as effective as in-person communication.  I also found my professor’s grading scale to be confusing and rather inconsistent – a problem compounded by the fact that technical problems sometimes caused homework answers to be marked wrong when they were, in fact, correct!

So, you ask, what did I do? Well, reader, I did the only thing I could do. I cried, then I got mad, and then I decided I was going to beat this blasted class and move on with my life. I ended up earning a 3.0 (the lowest grade I’ve ever received in a class related to my degree program) but that was good enough for me. I knew I had tried my best.

I also knew from talking with friends who were also studying Spanish that this particular class was the most challenging of them all. Quite possibly, it’s also the least relevant, since most native speakers don’t even know the rules of grammar in this much depth. (I certainly know I don’t know these things in English!)

So, dear readers, as many of you are returning to school and starting a new semester, I leave you with a few tips about difficult classes.

1) Do not, do not, DO NOT give up!! Sure, you can drop the class and pick a new major. That’s one way to go about it, but it’s not the best way. You picked that area of study because it matters to you. If another one was important to you, you should have picked that one. Don’t be ready to give up on your dreams just yet. Sure, you can also just quit trying and plan to take the class again next year. But I caution against that, too. For one, if you have to take it again, you’ll do so much better the second time around if you’ve actually put forth all you have to give in the first place. Additionally, you might surprise yourself at how well you actually do. I had mentally prepared myself for an overall grade of a 2.0, and I ended up with a 3.0. Don’t throw in the towel so easily. College is supposed to be hard. That’s the point.

2) Talk to your professor. This goes for every class – no matter if it’s easy or hard, important for your major or not. You need to talk to your educators. Let them put a face to the name on the top of that exam paper. Let them see you as an individual with unique learning goals. Ask for help – that’s what they’re there for! They don’t bite. A lot of them even care about your education. Whoa. I know, crazy, right?

3) Utilize the tutoring on campus. Every school is a bit different, but here at MSU, they have free tutoring for just about everything. If your school doesn’t have tutoring 1) Where are you going to school anyway? And 2) I’m sure you can ask a classmate or your professor. Even if you have to hire a tutor, do it. Remember, you’re paying for the classes anyway. You might as well do well in them! If you don’t, you’ve lost out on a whole lot more than the $100 or so you might have to pay a tutor.

4) Know when to put it away. Surprisingly enough, I’m not going to tell you to study that one subject for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You have to give your brain a break. Take a walk, take a nap, eat something, watch a movie. You cannot work on the same subject all the time – especially if you’re struggling. The words start to jumble together and you get the ideas mixed up and it’s impossible to tell what’s what. You will do better after a break. Conversely, know when it really is time to study. Breaks are important, yes, but be sure not to go on a permanent break. That isn’t good for anybody.

5) Set little, realistic goals. Don’t automatically expect to get a 4.0 in a “weeder” class (a “weeder” class is designed to include very difficult material in order to sort out the students who are truly serious about the major/minor. The idea is that students who love the major will stay, and those who are less enthusiastic will go elsewhere.) That doesn’t mean you can’t push yourself to get a high grade in the course, but don’t forget to take pride in se e in that 3.0 or even 2.5. There is nothing wrong with that. Celebrate those little accomplishments. More often than not, earning a 3.0 or a 3.5 on a bunch of small assignments will boost your grade more than earning a 4.0 on a big exam. Read the syllabus, check the grading scale – don’t let those small opportunities to boost your grade go unnoticed. Don’t be the kid who wakes up to go to class one day only to find they missed an assignment or, worse, an exam. A lot of the biggest problems students face are, in theory, preventable. Stay organized and work  hard.

6) Don’t worry. You’ve got this. You can do it. And, in the worst case scenario that you actually can’t, it isn’t the end of the world. This class doesn’t define you as a person. This semester is just a few, short weeks of your life. Yes, they are a very important few, short weeks, but they’re not your whole life. You will get through it. Just hold on till then and enjoy the process. Semester break is only 15 weeks away.  🙂

Apartment Life

It’s been a little more than a month since I’ve moved into my very first apartment, and I thought I’d share a few of the things I’ve learned so far.

1) The neighbors will disturb you. The disturbances come in many varieties – there’s always something new and unexpected to shake up your day. Whether it’s a shouting match on your first night, a prolonged reunion between lovers, a group of bros tossing a football around outside, or the neighbors moving out noisily, you will not have quiet all the time. Now that you’re out of the dorms, you can’t even ask an RA to tell them to shush. Your best bet for a quiet living space is to adhere to the golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. Don’t vacuum at 7 a.m. Don’t play loud music or video games. Just be a good person and do your best not to cause problems for other people. That way, if you ever do have a problem, you’ll at least have a good relationship with your neighbors and can (hopefully) work something out.

2) If the neighbors don’t disturb you, your roommates will. They might passive-aggressively wash dishes during your movie, they might come home at 10:30 and begin cooking dinner, they might leave hair in the shower drains, and their laptop and schoolbooks on your already too-small kitchen table. They might do all of these things in a span of twelve hours. The truth is, you’re going to get annoyed with them more than you did in the dorms because there are more worries than the are in the dorms. You now have an entire apartment that needs to be dusted, swept, mopped, scrubbed, and sanitized to be even close to fit for human habitation. You’re going to have to work out a system for chores – whether that means everyone pitches in, or if it means the least-busy person does all the housework. Something’s got to give. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it works for everyone involved.

3) The neighbors and your roommates might unknowingly band together and disturb you on the same day. This one gets its own point because it’s extra bad. As if being bothered by one group of people you can’t avoid isn’t enough. It’s further exacerbated because you can’t go to that quiet study room down the hall – there isn’t one. You have to learn to deal with your environment somehow – put in headphones, buy a sound machine, shut the door, avoid the problem until you’re ready to deal with it. Whatever it takes to make you comfortable and keep you sane.

4) Being on your own means seeking things out – your mailbox, the laundry room, the pools, the trash facilities, the internet company, the post office, the leasing office, maintenance, etc. Your internet doesn’t work? Call Spartan Net. You have ants in the kitchen? Call maintenance. Your bathroom is gross? Get to Meijer and buy some Scrubbing Bubbles, because, honey, nobody else is going to clean it for you. You’ve probably heard the song by Paramore that goes, “Ain’t it fun, living in the real world? Ain’t it fun, being on your own? Don’t go crying to your momma, ’cause you’re on your own in the real world…” It’s a cold, hard, truth: you don’t get to cry to anyone anymore. But you can be your own solution. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, take a minute to look at how awesome things actually are. You have the freedom to pursue your dreams. You can make your own decisions. You have the ability to completely transform a humdrum college apartment into a space that’s really your own, into a space that feels like you. Attack those problems with the same confidence you had when you decided to hang that One Direction poster by your bedside. It’s yours – your room, your apartment, your life – so own it.

5) Having a car is both a blessing and a curse. Being able to scoot off to the grocery store or the mall at any hour of the day you please is great. And parking your car twenty feet from the doorstep of your building is even better. What sucks is driving into campus. Especially when they’re doing roadwork and you have to sit through four cycles of the stoplight to turn the corner. Keep your head up though. Because you’re so far from campus, rent is cheap. The gas that it takes to drive in to campus doesn’t nearly add up to what you’d spend if you’d live closer. Just budget a little extra time into your schedule – yes, even if it means getting up ten minutes earlier – and you can make it work. Besides, part of being an adult is getting up on time.  You might as well start training yourself now, when the consequences of being late to class are minimal, rather than wait till you have an actual boss at an actual job.

6) I’m going to eat a bit of my own previously shared “wisdom” here. Remember how I told you it might not be the best idea to room with friends? That still holds true, but it also depends on the person. I currently have two roommates: one’s a best friend and the other was an acquaintance before we moved in. Right now, things are going strong with my bestie, but they can also get a little rocky with the acquaintance. So, I’m going to amend my previous statement to this: use your judgment. It can be amazing to room with friends. It can also be a nightmare. Things can be just as great/horrible if you barely know the person or if you’ve known them forever. The truth is, there’s just no way of knowing for sure. If you think there’s even the slightest chance your personalities will clash, don’t do it. Or if you do (because such things are sometimes unavoidable), be prepared for the good as well as the bad. It won’t be easy 100% of the time no matter what you do, but you owe it to yourself to minimize potential problems before you let them upset your entire week, semester, or even year – however long you need to coexist with that person.

7) Having a kitchen is both a blessing and a curse. Just like travel, you need to budget time in your schedule to eat. Whether that means packing a lunch, coming home to eat, or eating out – your budget will likely decide which of these options you’ll do for you.  You can’t just run up to the cafeteria and grab a slice of pizza on your way to class. You’ve got to think about your meals. Watch yourself. Don’t just eat cereal and microwave mac n’ cheese for two weeks straight. It can be so easy to fall into that pre-made trap. But it will catch up to you soon enough. Not necessarily in terms of weight gain, but certainly in terms of energy levels. You have to put a decent amount of healthy food into your system just to function. Personally, I get sick if I don’t eat enough protein in a day. It’s up to me to give my body what it needs to keep working. (Side note: my favorite meme is currently a picture of a man saying, “Salad? That’s what my food eats!”) That being said, look out for your roommates as well. Because it’s a decent, human thing to do. Everyone handles stress differently, and that can appear in many different forms. You don’t have to cook for them all the time or nag them to eat their Brussels sprouts, but a casual, “Hey, when was the last time you ate/showered/slept?” can really go a long way. Now, they might take it the wrong way or look at you like you’re insane, but honestly, that’s what you’re hoping for. Forgetting (or purposely neglecting) to eat/bathe/sleep is, sadly, not as uncommon as you think in college. Stress does crazy things to people. Be aware and look out for the people you love.

8) Have fun. Enjoy yourself. Like I said before, it’s your space. While it might be unwise to run completely wild, take advantage of the kind of freedom you’ve never had before. Stay up past 10 on a school night. Sleep in till 7. Do what makes you happy – as long as it doesn’t interfere with your actual purpose in college, which is, you know, to learn things. Good luck.

Virginia poet laureate visits RCAH

The RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU

By Kelsey Block

“What I like most is following the words, following their sounds. A poem for me always starts as a phrase, a couple of words I hear together that just intrigue me,” Sofia Starnes, the poet laureate of Virginia, said. “Where will this word take me? It might open up a memory, something you’re concerned about, something you haven’t resolved inside your heart. And you start following that word through that emotion and through whatever it wants to include.”


Starnes said she started writing at a very young age, at the encouragement of her mother.

“My mother had four daughters. I’m the second one, and she named me for a great aunt she had who was a writer,” Starnes said. “So I think she decided that of her daughters, I was going to be the writer… I didn’t write poetry at that time, always short stories.”

Starnes said…

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Center for Poetry intern wins poetry prize

The RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU

By Kelsey Block

Visiting writer Sofia Starnes, the poet laureate of Virginia, announced at her reading last night that RCAH Center for Poetry intern Jenny Crakes won this year’s Annie Balocating Poetry Prize.

Crakes said she was both surprised and excited to have won the $500 award.

“The poem was about a road trip that I took with my family last summer in July and we were going to see The Royal Tyrrell Museum,” Crakes said. “It just made me think of watching the mountains as you drive away from them and drive back. They’re sort of just perched there watching you. And when you’re driving back they just appear really shadily on the horizon and you get close and closer. It was just so beautiful.”

Crakes, 21, started as an intern at the center in September. Her work focuses largely on community engagement, and entails conducting workshops with…

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By Kelsey Block

Darting through
The crooked rows,
Coarse leaves slapping
My face and arms.

The ground is crusty, uneven,
Pulled up by wiry roots
Clawing deeper into the earth.

I am laughing
But the sound evaporates
Quicker than water,
Soaked up by green.

Daddy’s warning:
Don’t play in corn fields!
But I won’t lose myself –
I am only a few rows in

Staring out
Tucked behind spindly stalks,
Almost invisible,
But I am there.

Author’s note: I wrote this poem for my book arts class taught by Professor Anita Skeen. The assignment was to create a tunnel book, a task I happily admit I am not competent at. So, proud of at least one part of the project, I decided to post another poem on Cows2College. If poetry’s not your thing, no worries, this is not about to become a poetry blog. I just happen to be doing a lot of poetry-related things lately. Hope you like it.

Haiku Hike with the Poetry Center

Hi everyone! So, I went on a haiku hike around campus with the RCAH Center for Poetry today, and decided to publish a few of the haiku I wrote on here in honor of National Poetry Month. Enjoy, and write some of your own! If you want, send them to me and I’ll put them up here!!

The thawing ground pulls
hungrily at my sneakers.
Ready for warmth.

Water rushes steady,
Excited to finally be free,
Tossing itself downstream.

Waves crease and bend,
Dimpling before hurling
Over harsh rock cliffs.

Thin twigs litter the ground – 
Young growth snapped off too early
During the harsh winter.

Detroit Poet Jamaal May visits East Lansing

The RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU

Last week, the RCAH Center for Poetry in collaboration with the MSU English Department was proud to host a reading by Detroit poet Jamaal May.


May’s first book of poetry, Hum, was published in 2013 and won the Beatrice Hawley Award.

May said he first got interested in poetry while recording a hip hop album. With a little nudge from his sister, May said he rearranged two of the songs he had been working on and performed them at a poetry slam.

“The only way to grow is to do what you cannot do, and the thing I could not do was crowds,” May said.

May noted that his weakest moment was early on in his career as a performer. He said he had done well at a slam in Baltimore one year, and went back the next year to prove himself again.

“It was the first time…

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