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Christina E. Lovin

Christina Lovin
  • Senior Lecturer

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Bio

Some of my earliest memories are of poetry and verse. I was four when my grandmother passed away but remember vividly the lines of “In the Garden,” which was sung at her funeral. (“I come to the garden alone / while the dew is still on the roses…”). I grew up in a religious household and at a very young age was familiar with the hymns, Psalms, and poems my mother would hum or recite, along with her admonition to “buy hyacinths to feed the soul…” By ten, I was writing pages of epic poetry about my family (most of which, thankfully, has not survived, but provided hours of amusement to my older brothers back then). I memorized Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven from the slim ancient volume that always seemed to be on top of the pile of magazines and newspapers in the one bathroom of our old house in Galesburg, Illinois. Carl Sandburg, local poet and celebrity, was my hero (and a fellow Swede) and when my first poem was published at twelve, I felt I had arrived. Poetry had become a part of me; a part that has not only remained intact, but has somehow lifted me in times of grief, joy, love, and loss, filling what the world has repeatedly emptied.

 As a teenager, the only books of poetry I owned were a volume of selected Shakespearean sonnets and a geriatric copy of The Best Loved Poems of the American People (copyright 1936). These were my models. I had not been exposed to much contemporary poetry at this time (and wouldn’t be until I took it upon myself to seek it out), but on my own, without instruction, began experimenting with different forms. I did not have the tools with which to forge good poetry, but to my credit, I had the ability to recognize my weaknesses. I kept trying.
 I began to read more accomplished and acclaimed poets: Emily Dickinson (whom I knew little of except for “A narrow fellow in the grass…”), The Brownings (I grew to love Elizabeth’s passion), Robert Penn Warren, and others. Soon I was devouring Strand, Stern, Jong, and Sarton. I ate Kenneth Patchen whole. I choked on Plath but swallowed her bitterness. I had become ravenous to have more and more and more. A whole new world of poetry opened to me. I had had no idea what was out there. I was stunned with pleasure. The pleasure I discovered took over my writing and my poetry grew more imaginative and interesting, deeper, and richer. Some of it was actually almost good.

I continued to write and publish the occasional poem, greatly encouraged, but still not at the place to make a quantum leap. Moving to Maine afforded me that opportunity. Expecting a dull, rural environment, I was delighted to find a cultural atmosphere that would rival many big cities: theatre, music, and writing. The mid-coast of Maine is peopled with accessible artists, musicians, writers, and poets. For the first time in my life, I felt grounded intellectually, able to move forward, to absorb and learn. I joined writing groups to fill my head with encouragement and, more importantly, criticism. I found a poetry group to offer what my writing life needed: mentors, role models, instructors, and some of the finest poets anywhere to listen and learn from (Tony Hoagland, Wes McNair, Baron Wormser and Kate Barnes). I began writing more poetry, as well as book reviews of other poets’ works. I was invited to read my work at public readings, sharing the microphone with poets whom I admired and respected not only for their work, but also their enthusiasm for poetry in general.

It was with a great deal of self-doubt that I enrolled in Harvard’s Summer Writing Program in 2000: too old, too uneducated, and too lacking in what I deemed to be a necessary literary background but feeling at a crossroads in my life. Now or never. Over the course of those two months, I learned a great deal about writing in general, but more importantly, took on the serious business of writing, revising, and refining my poetry. I learned the value of the workshop and that even the worst criticism is a good thing. I found that I welcomed the slings and arrows of my classmates, and the sometimes brutal, often cathartic, but always enlightening sessions with other poets as we discussed one another’s work. I came to crave the keen eye of the instructors poring over my work and felt each correction or suggestion something to be treasured. My work began to unfold like magic, I understood what I was doing right, but more importantly, I learned to recognize bad writing, especially my own.

In June 2001, I was back in an ascetic but cozy dormitory room on Bow Avenue in Cambridge, for another summer of writing at Harvard. The audible sounds of my writing rose in the high-ceilinged room with the click, taps and release of my computer keyboard, and my sighs of disgust and satisfaction filling the spaces between. I felt at home with my words and myself. In that hushed and holy place in my life I took as my saints poets Amy Clampitt, Ruth Stone, and Wallace Stevens, who all started publishing poetry later in life.
In 2004, I graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing: Poetry from New England College, where I had sat in workshops with such American poets as Gerald Stern, Thomas Lux, Bruce Smith, Anne Marie Macari, Maxine Kumin, Jeff Friedman, Ira Sadoff, and others. I spent one-on-one master class semesters with Li Young Lee, Joan Larkin, Chard deNiord, and Cecilia Woloch as my faculty mentors and instructors, and whose critique and encouragement changed my writing and (literally) my life. Like them and all the other poets who have come before, I am still becoming a poet. It is not what I do. It is who I am.

Philosophy of Writing Poetry

There is a great deal of poetry today that is startling, exciting, deft, even acrobatic, but which often does not have any purpose beyond an ability to dazzle the reader with sleight of hand or pyrotechnics. Much of this work is enviable to those of us whose writing may seem less capable of flight and more grounded in the mundane. The question to be put to poets today is not what is “best” in regard to poetry and poetics, but what is most expedient. For poetry is about expediency as much as experience, for the reader as well as the writer. Lately I have been considering the purpose(s) of poetry and the role(s) of the poet. The question remains: how best does a poem relate to the reader; how best does a poem enact change?

It is my belief that effective poetry operates at more of a sublevel than a super level; that images and simple language are adequate to convey experience from the poet to the reader. I believe that surprise and awe can be elicited without the reader needing to use a dictionary to understand and absorb that experience. That’s not to say that beautiful language is not appropriate, or that finding the perfect word with the closest possible meaning in a thesaurus is wrong. Mozart, Miles, and Post Malone all had the use of only seven musical notes (and the flats and sharps belonging to each) to create their music, whether it be classical, jazz, or rap-rock. They simply have embraced different ways of using those elemental units to convey their messages. The biggest difference in poetry is that writing is even more a relationship between the writer and reader: when a poet’s words are spoken by a reader, they recreate the movement of muscle and bone, ligament and nerve that were first experienced by the poet. The reader, in essence, becomes co-creator of the poem each time it is read, at which point the poet must relinquish ownership of the work.

Most of all, I believe poetry to be uncontrollable. Yes, a writer can control the line and meter, and choose to write in form or free verse. A poet can choose which images to include, which to leave out, and how to juxtaposition those that remain. Once the poem is in the hands of the reader, however, that poem begins to change under the weight of the intellect, experience, memory, prejudices, and predilections of the reader. For they are the readers who decide the meaning and it is meaning that is paramount with poetry.

When my own MFA semester with Li-Young as my first faculty mentor was over, he left me confused (in a good way) about my own work. He bestowed upon me a great gift, however, when he told me (and I paraphrase): How can anyone else tell you what to do with the exotic fruit in your walled garden, when all they know how to grow are peaches and plums? Poets are not builders whose work is planned and built and stands as monument to analytical thinking and logic. Poets seem more like gardeners whose harvest is sometimes bountiful and beautiful, but who sometimes can’t control the obstinate vine that takes over the garden wall or whose bushes grow listing to the side and with only green nubs for fruit. I try to remember this when my carefully planted and tended vines sprout into some unrecognizable, misshapen zucchini. Zucchinis are useful, too. Someone can use them.
 

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Courses

Subject  TitleDatesLocationTerm
ENW 801Domestic Summer Res: Poetry   Summer 2022
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