Poetry and Politics with Farah Marklevits

My first year at Augustana, I took a poetry class on a whim with Farah Marklevits and was immediately inspired by how enthusiastic she was about poetry. I ended up deciding to have her be my faculty advisor and stuck with poetry throughout college, all thanks to her 8:30am winter term class. Now that it's my senior year and it also happens to be National Poetry Month, I thought there couldn't be a better, more bittersweet time to interview the professor that has had a huge impact on my college career.

Farah recently organized a trip to Split this Rock, a poetry festival in Washington D.C., for seven Augie students and two professors to attend. I am lucky enough to be one of the seven who will be attending the event starting April 19th. Farah and I discussed the festival and how it relates to American poetry as a whole. For more information on the event itself, here is the website.

I know you’re an Augie alum. What made you want to stick around and teach here?

That’s a great question. So, I was gone for a while. I haven’t been here twenty some odd years straight. I left Augustana and I got a Master’s so I could teach high school English and I did that for a couple years in a west suburb of Chicago. Then I applied to MFA programs and went to Syracuse and got my MFA there in Poetry. At that time, I stuck around there for a little bit teaching- adjuncting- then when my husband was done with his program we came here.

My husband teaches here too, in the Physics department. He was doing his dissertation and deciding what to do next and there was a Physics full-time tenure track position at Augie.

I graduated from here and my husband went here for his first two years of undergrad and then transferred, so we both knew of the place. We both had really good feelings and memories of being students here. That was really enticing.

I was pregnant at the time, and it was comforting feeling like this was a place that was home in a way, but also exciting because it was a new thing. Well, new for my husband. He had some experience TA-ing, but never full-time teaching. And I had a lot of experience from teaching high school and then teaching college comp classes at Syracuse. We were looking forward to coming back.

It was a strange feeling when we first returned. I was so shocked by one thing in particular I remember. I was walking through campus and ran into Dr. Wegman-Geedey, who is a Biology professor. I was an English and Philosophy student at Augustana, but I took one Bio class from Dr. Wegman-Geedey. It was the Bio class for non-majors at the time. It was one trimester, and still when I ran into her on campus that day, Dr. Wegman-Geedey said, “Hi Farah!” even after years of not seeing me. I was amazed!

 

That’s definitely a charm of Augie, the professors knowing your name.

I have this weird disorder, I think. I’m pretty good at getting to know people’s names in my classes quickly. But then immediately after the term is over, it’s like my brain erases them. So I know it’s a student that I have had, but I freak out and panic that I can’t remember their name. I have a weird complex about that. I think maybe in particular that’s why Dr. Wegman-Geedey’s remembering my name totally floored me.

 

That is amazing. How many years have you been teaching at Augustana?

Let’s see, I’m about to wrap up my tenth year here. It’s amazing to realize that. The time has flown by.

 

What’s the best part of being a professor and teaching?

It’s interesting because my role this year is different than it has been in the past. I wear three different hats and one of them is professor. I’m an administrator because I help to keep the Reading and Writing Center going and fulfilling its mission. Helping our 24 peer tutors develop and grow in their abilities and writing skills. I also tutor, so I’m working one-on-one with students pretty regularly. And then I also do the professorial thing, which is designing a class and teaching it.

So… what was the question?

What’s the best part of being a professor?

Oh, yes. I would say there’s two best parts. The first is also the best part of tutoring, which is getting to know students and getting to know what they think and how they are thinking and learning. It’s exciting to me when students are thinking, but they’re also thinking about how thought intersects with their own lives and the world around them. A lot of times students make the mistake of thinking what they’re learning in the class is sort of abstract. Or that it’s only for a test or only to get the grade. I’m not saying that's not part of it, because it is. That’s the way the system is built. But the most exciting thing for me as a professor, and I think too for students in classes, is when what they’re learning at that abstract level is also grounded in some connection to the world around them and themselves.

Then there’s a selfish best thing about being a professor and that’s you get to design classes. I love thinking about what’s an interesting question or what’s an interesting set of texts. What’s worth reading and thinking deeply about. That’s really fun for me as a human being.

Do you think you learn with the class as you’re going through the material, either again or for the first time?

I definitely do. But I’m in the unique position of not being located in a very specifically defined field. The majority of classes I teach are FYI classes. Certainly the field of composition studies is a defined specific field, but those classes are also pitched as liberal arts classes so there’s a lot of freedom to think in ways that are beyond a little border that sometimes gets really rigid in defining one subject from another.

 

It being poetry month, I wanted to ask if you have any favorite poets or poems. I know that’s a loaded question to ask, but do any poems/poets pop into your head first?

Just like I blank out on individual people’s names, whenever someone asks me what my favorite something is, I always blank out.

From my perspective, as someone interested in poetry, I’m not the type of person who’s really interested in creating lists in my head of the best or the greatest. My interests tend to range widely and I like to be influenced by a lot of things, oftentimes in ways that I’m not particularly conscious of. And at first I thought that meant there was something wrong with me as a poet, or poetry instructor. But I’ve come to realize that’s a perfectly fine way of being .

That said, I really love Gabrielle Calvocoressi. She has three books of poetry out, the most recent called Rocket Fantastic. I haven't had the chance to read that one yet, but I’m really excited about it.

I also really like Ada Limón. She also has a new book out that I’m excited about. I think I’m just thinking about new books.

But another thing I’ve been really impressed by and excited about in poetry is that there are a lot of new voices that are expressing a much broader range of experience in American poetry today. Which is super exciting and I think the Split this Rock festival is going to make that known to people on the trip who may not have known that. It’s a really exciting time right now in American poetry. There’s a lot of younger, newish, just starting out poets who are doing important work. Bringing to light voices and experiences that haven’t typically been known or heard very often and it’s great.

 

I know there have been issues with poetry critics not thinking poetry is political or that poetry isn't doing its job politically, but I think this festival is proof otherwise.

It’s a really interesting time with regard to political life. It’s not an easy question to answer and it’s not a settled question. Like what poetry should do. I think it can do a multitude of things, but Robert Frost has this thought that I‘m going to butcher. He says that poetry responds to grief and politics responds to grievances*. I think that’s a very interesting thing to think about. Probably too simplistic of a way of thinking about it. It’s something I’m really interested in thinking about because what is the difference between grief and grievances? Grievances are things you can address by making clear policy changes or clear actions or events that can be responded to with action. Whereas grief is something a lot less like that. It’s more of a state. Not that there isn’t something that can or should be done in response to grief. But it’s an interesting other way of thinking about it.

*For the record, this is the official quote: "Poetry is about the grief. Politics is about the grievance." -Robert Frost

 

Grievances almost sounds like something you have to get over, but grief you carry with you. It’s the difference between past tense and a current or lifelong struggle.

I think there’s something there to that because grief is something that shapes you whereas grievances matter in the moment, but you can fix them in some ways. I think a lot of the political unrest right now is not just grievances, but grief mixed with grievances. There’s an intersection where I think these political poems are living. I think it’s going to shape and change American poetry pretty profoundly.

 

Let’s go back to Split this Rock, the festival we will be attending next week. How’d you hear about Split this Rock (STR)?

I was invited to participate in a little poetry weekend workshop that a fiction writer, who I didn’t even know at the time, had put together in Muscatine, Iowa. She had invited me, Ryan Collins who is the director of the Midwest Writing Center and Lauren K. Alleyne who is from Trinidad and Tobago. Alleyne was reading and we were talking afterward and some of the things I write tend to deal with environmental issues, so she mentioned STR and she said “you should go”. That’s the first time I heard about it.

Then last year, SAGA hosted the event “Poetry as Protest” in response to the inauguration. I was really impressed and moved by the variety of people who came. The words that were shared and the voices got me thinking about how Augie has this group of people who are interested in and respond to injustice with creative expression. I was thinking since the beginning of this year that we should do something with a group and weekly meetings, but this new position made me really busy. So STR was that “this is it!” thing. I worked to find a variety of sources for funding to offset the cost as much as possible and it’s really great that so much of it could be covered. I’m really grateful to Augustana for that.

 

What are some of your hobbies outside of school?

I like to read. I've been interested in bike commuting, especially when the weather is nice. I'm really obsessed with steel-cut oatmeal right now.