their work Winners of the annual poetry series’ College Contest read from
Basia Miller began writing poetry shortly after retiring from a 20-year teaching career at St. John’s College. She was translating some French poetry when she decided to do more than dabble with her own creative urges. She started auditing classes at Santa Fe Community College and got involved with the local poetry scene in town by attending monthly open-mic nights at Teatro Paraguas. “It’s a wonderful, warm community,” Miller told Pasatiempo . “I’m happy to be a member of it.” Now Miller and three other aspiring poets who attend higher-education institutions in Santa Fe have won the Muse Times Two Poetry Series College Contest. On Sunday, March 29, Miller reads at Collected Works Bookstore with Dara Elerath, a second-year student in the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Master of Fine Arts program; Serafima Fedorova, a freshman from the Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s creative-writing program; and Samantha Ardoin, a junior at St. John’s College.
“The winners seem to represent their individual schools in some archetypal way,” said Carol Moldaw, co-coordinator of the poetry series. The inspiration for the contest, now in its second year, was a similar contest held among the Five Colleges of Western Massachusetts (UMass, Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, and Mount Holyoke). “Holding a contest like this here seemed like a great addition to the mission of Muse Times Two, which we do with a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry. I feel like all the colleges have students who are interested in writing, but the populations are very separate; they all have their own little cultures. It’s wonderful to be able to bring them together this way.” Each college has its own internal selection process and then submits three finalists to the contest. Moldaw and Dana Levin, founder of the series and a professor at SFUAD, select the four honorees. To avoid any conflicts, Moldaw reads the entries from St. John’s and SFUAD, while Levin reads those from SFCC and IAIA.
Of Miller’s work, Levin said, “What I liked about these poems is that they were really attentive to the animal world, and there was attention to the sound of words and to slant rhyme” — words that almost rhyme, such as “orange” and “syringe.” It seemed to Levin that by meditating on the animal world, Miller learned about herself and about life cycles. “I just appreciated that mode. She has a great sense of image. One of the poems, ‘Stray Cat,’ begins, ‘She haunts the twilight, like phosphorus/haunts empty places where fish have passed/leaving only a skeleton of memory.’ ”
“My subject matter is pretty much all over the place,” Miller said. “I’m only just learning, so I take it where it ends up. I have a mood or an experience that I want to turn into something, not just capture and record it. I want to shape the experience and put it into words so it’s accessible to other people.”
Elerath, Levin said, also focuses on nature and animals and has a gift for image making. “She has a long poem called ‘Self-Portrait as Diving Bell Spider.’ It’s a persona poem written from the voice of the spider that also engages the reader. I loved the title and the conversational way it begins: ‘Maybe it’s unremarkable/ the life I’ve lived/It’s true not much has happened/ In spring I anchored my web/in a tangle of eelgrass/ Whatever entered I ate/or mated with/But tell me, what kind of story/were you expecting?’ It just goes on and on about this weird spider that lives underwater in a bell of air. I thought it was cool, and she has the ability to sustain a long poem about one thing and keep it interesting, which is hard to do.”
Elerath, who grew up mostly in Albuquerque, holds a bachelor’s degree in visual art from the University of New Mexico and a bachelor’s in graphic design from the Southwest University of Visual Arts. “I’m somewhat of a latecomer to poetry,” she said. “Writing was something I did as a private outlet. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve deepened my association to writing and taken a more purposeful approach to developing my voice.”
“I didn’t realize Serafima was a freshman,” Moldaw said of the SFUAD winner. “I thought her work showed a great deal of originality and ambition. There’s a sense of solidity and a sense of shape. She’s working well with the line and the stanza.” Fedorova submitted a long poem called “Time: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” which contains an overture, prelude, crescendo, cadenza, and coda. It was written for a highschool assignment in slam poetry, which Fedorova didn’t think she could write or perform. “But it’s so interesting how you could give something more depth by how you say the word,” she noted. The idea for the poem came from wondering what kind of soundtrack could be put to time, creation, and the universe. Fedorova was born in Moscow and grew up in Miami. In high school, she
said, it was easy to win small contests and get published, but when she got to college she started submitting to literary journals and was rejected. “These poems were rejected by 10 magazines before Muse, so it’s nice to have this validation that there are people who understand what I’m trying to say.”
Ardoin is the only winner not taking creative-writing classes. At St. John’s, she reads a set curriculum of “great books” that doesn’t leave much room for working on her own poems, but what she reads percolates during the academic year and blossoms when school is out. She spent last summer working in a restaurant in town; taking the bus there each day became her writing time, as well as a source of inspiration as she got to know the other passengers on the route. The result is several long, prose-block poems with a surreal bent. “She showed a lot of originality and interesting tone — a combination of control and wildness where you think the poet is tapping into someplace deep but also knows how to work with and use language. I thought her work was lovely, interesting, and unexpected,” Moldaw said.
Like Elerath, Ardoin found inspiration in spiders. “I’m made of miniature cities, shards of glass you look/into that look back out at you like a million spider/eyes. Touch me on the hairy spider leg. My bones/become wires and twist to cradle you. My arms are a/million monsters dancing,” she writes in the short poem “Mother/Spider.” “I think my surrealism comes from my relationship with my dreams,” Ardoin said. “I pay a lot of attention to them. I have no idea how people perceive my poems, and it’s strange to find out that people have read them and liked them. It’s unsettling, because I think my poems are weird. But I’m really excited to read with the other winners and the judges and get to know more poets in Santa Fe.”
Muse Times Two Poetry Series; reading by winners of the College Contest 4 p.m. Sunday, March 29 Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226