Poetic Justice
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As Poet Laureate, Simic will receive a $35,000 privately endowed stipend and an office in Washington, D.C. The minimal requirements—to give a lecture and reading and to introduce poets in an annual series—are designed to allow him to set his own agenda. For weeks after the announcement, Simic was inundated with invitations and requests for interviews. One day a PBS camera crew followed him around for 10 hours. His friends dreamed up projects for him: Collaborate with Oprah on an anthology of poetry! Put haiku inside fortune cookies! Simic, however, would only say that he planned to assess the situation in October, at the beginning of his eight-month term.

In a wide-ranging conversation on a summer afternoon, Simic becomes most animated when asked about his teaching. A loon croons in the distance, and the lake can be glimpsed through the leafy woods surrounding his deck. In every beginning poetry class, he explains, several students will reveal hidden talent. "A certain quality of imagination, a way of looking at the world, a love of language—all suddenly emerges. They're excited, I'm excited, and the other kids in class are astonished." Some of the images these beginners have written—a small child pushing a plastic lawnmower between the graves as his father mows the grass in a cemetery—have stayed with him for decades. At the graduate level, he says, he often encounters truly first-rate work, and so many UNH poetry students have gone on to publish their work in magazines and books that "we've lost count." Although he retired a year ago, he still chooses to teach one course a year at UNH.

Lee Fetters '07G came to UNH in 2004 expressly to study with Simic; yet he was a bit cowed at the prospect. "I expected I would walk into class and have this brutal Eastern European guy telling me my poetry really stinks and I'm too sensitive about it," he says with a half-laugh. Instead, he found a famous writer for whom teaching was not "just a gig that lets him write. He's just a wonderful teacher, and he's a wonderful poet."

In the classroom, Simic shares plenty of anecdotes—Fetters remembers itching to hear his stories about famous writers. But the poet is also known for being uncommonly direct. In fact, his teaching is much like his writing: colorful, darkly humorous and playful. And he doesn't hide behind "word-salad" in person any more than he does on paper.

Midge Goldberg '06G, a 43-year-old educational-software designer who recently became the first to receive a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from UNH, remembers bringing to class a poem called "House," which began: The roof is pitched/This should tell you/There is snow here. When Simic suggested that she end the poem right there, she was taken aback: "I just wrote 10 stanzas and he only wants one?! But the first stanza always felt magical to me—the rest were based on an abstract idea—and he really zeroed in on that." She took his advice.

"You have to be frank with students to help them," says Simic. "In a good writing workshop, everyone participates in an open, constructive way. You don't overdo it, but if somebody bursts out laughing and says, 'This is a very bad line!'—that's good. We all write crap. Why pretend it isn't?"

In the third week of school, Simic sits at the head of a conference table in a class of undergrad and graduate students. He wears black leather—a sort of softened, refined bomber jacket—and his glasses, the kind that darken in the sun, remain slightly tinted even indoors. He's talking about how hard it can be to share a poem with someone for the first time, a poem that has caused you "months and months of serious torture." Then turning on a single word, much as he would in a poem, he adds, "Waterboarding!" and everyone laughs.

In a student's poem, "One Bright Thing," Simic draws attention to the first line. It's such a nice line that he wants the reader to savor it, and suggests making a stanza break right there. A poem is like a clock, he says, and you set the speed by adjusting the breaks. Another student has a problem with a particular image, and Simic concurs. "Do the birds really look 'bedraggled'?" he asks, humorously bedraggling the word itself with his intonation. "This is the gorgeous pleasure of a short poem—the tinkering one can do. It's sort of a chess problem." He tells the class about the newspaper chess problems that identify the positions with numbers and say something like "White mates in two moves."

"These problems," says Simic,"are contrived by perverse intellects to cause sleepless nights among lovers of chess. You would set up the pieces on the board and months would go by." One of his poems, too, may go through 10 to 100 revisions—adding and taking away, moving pieces around—which can take months. "But when you realize you have a solution, then you get this feeling. . ." he rubs his hands together with glee, "if you just make this little move here."

Simic turns to the young writer. "This is an intense poem," he says. "Every word here is important." ~

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