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ISSUE 117 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/7/2003

‘Saintly words’: Wilson reads original poetry

By Meredith Johnson
Arts Editor

Friday, November 7, 2003

Associate English Professor Eliot Wilson opened his poetry reading last Thursday by quoting poet Yusef Komunyakka, English Professor Jim Heynen, and the placemat from Northfield’s own Mandarin Garden. This combination of seriousness and dry humor set the tone for an evening of poetry that ranged from the reverent to the ridiculous. Wilson read works from his first book of poetry, “The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go,” as well as poems he has written since coming to Minnesota.

One of the first original works Wilson read was "U.S. Defends Afghan Village Bombing," a poem whose title was drawn from an actual newspaper headline. He later explained, "I try to write a political poem. I am conscious of the social context of my poems." This attitude was evident in subsequent works such as "Customs," which was inspired by traveling with a Saudi Arabian friend who was consistently hassled at airports.

Besides being aware of the social context of his poetry, Wilson is also conscious of the people he writes about. "I’m interesting in people who are kind of unsung," he said. That interest was evident in poems such as "Uncle Frank and Little Rock Joan," inspired by Wilson’s real Uncle Frank, and "Elegy for The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go," which was one of the most powerful poems he read. In the latter, Wilson tackles the subject of a child suffering from serious burns, writing, "Where were you saints when the fire first licked his hands?/Hadn’t he in living prayed to you?"

After reading several more poems centered around heavy subjects, Wilson declared, "Here’s something a little more upbeat," and read "The Final Words of the Uhh Man," a poem inspired by the idea of a funk singer whose only role was to say "uhh."

Of his transition from serious to light-hearted works, Wilson later said, "Normally I want to start with more serious poems and then read light-hearted stuff, because if you read your light-hearted stuff first then they’ll start laughing at your elegies." He ended the night by reading "Passion," a poem about destroying his sister’s Barbie dolls, and "Minnesota Can’t Complain," a crowd-pleasing friendly jab at life in his adopted home state.

Wilson’s real home state is Virginia, where he grew up in "a family of professors" and got his undergraduate degree in American literature from Old Dominion University. He then went on to earn his Ph. D. in critical theory from the University of Alabama, where he began to seriously write poetry four or five years ago. "I was in an atmosphere of poetry," he explained, "so I generated a lot of it."

According to Wilson, an atmosphere of poetry is crucial to the success of aspiring poets. "What you need is a workshop of people who read your work," he explained. "What you need is a mean bastard friend and someone like your mom, and between the two, you just keep writing." His other advice to young poets is thoroughly grounded in the real world: "I wouldn’t recommend anyone be a poet," he said. "It’s preposterous … you need to love it more than you like money or reason. It’s an unfortunate habit."

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