The Word Whisperer
Through her teaching, writing and performance of poetry, Marilyn Kallet demonstrates her command of the power of language. She has taught thousands of students and audiences alike that any and all of life’s experiences can be enveloped in a poem; no subject is off limits. Kallet also teaches her own belief that the calling of a poet is to bear witness, to give voice to those who cannot speak for themselves, and to sing the truth, even when it isn’t pretty.
As a poet, her voice is direct, compelling, confronting, fearless, and sometimes humorous as the trickster in her spirit emerges. In both her writing and her teaching, she wields the power of poetry to break down barriers and to create bonds that unify readers and audiences in a shared human experience.
Where does Kallet get inspiration for her poetry?
“Sometimes it falls on my head like pollen,” she says.
But she also has a keen eye for observation of people and her environment and has the ability to connect and identify with people and their emotions.
She connects also with her imaginary muses, whom she has playfully named Dante and Beatrice, who commune with her on occasion and offer a rich vein of ideas and inspiration.
Kallet says poetry can happen anywhere, but there are certain quiet and peaceful places that invite the muses. Favorite retreats for her are an old friary at Mount St. Francis, Indiana, a small French village (Auvillar), and a studio at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts where she can be alone with her thoughts and inspirations. In these settings, words and thoughts surge, and poems form.
Much of Kallet’s poetry is self-revelatory and one wonders how she can be comfortable with that level of openness and candor.
“Once it is made into a poem, it becomes a verbal object,” she explains. “It’s not me anymore. It has been shaped into an art form that distances the work from me.”
Kallet joined the faculty of the Department of English in 1981. She currently is professor of English and director of UT’s Creative Writing Program. She was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and grew up in New York, but Kallet’s extensive travel experiences and knowledge of other cultures, languages and literatures make her a citizen of the world.
Kallet acquired the tools of her craft through study with master teachers at the Sorbonne, where she earned Diplôme Supérieur, Cours de Civilisation, at Tufts, where she earned a bachelor’s degree (summa cum laude with honors), and at Rutgers, where she completed master’s and doctoral degrees in comparative literature.
She recalls the influence of X.J. Kennedy, an early mentor at Tufts, whom she credits with introducing her to the freedom of writing fearlessly. A humorous man, he brought to his first class a recycled cucumber basket filled with examples of what he termed “bad” poetry. He reassured his students that they should write freely without fear and inhibition, for surely there were worse examples of poetry than they could ever write. Today, Kallet follows his example in her own classes and writing workshops.
Another important influence at Tufts was a teacher of French, Georgette Pradal, who also had a background in theater. Kallet recalls the teacher’s dramatic and expressive reading of poetry that so empowered the words that they produced a visceral effect on her students. Kallet recalls feeling dizzy from the overwhelming power of the language, and she was quickly hooked on reading and crafting poetry.
At UT, Kallet teaches classes for graduate and undergraduate students in creative writing and poetry. Her favorite undergraduate class is the special topics class Dreamworks. In this class, students write poetry about their dreams, but the class is not simply an unstructured spilling of thoughts and words. Rather, students learn to confide in one’s own writing and develop trust with fellow students as an audience in an environment of committed confidentiality. Sometimes the students begin writing at low places in their lives, and through writing, they resolve personal issues such as the death of a loved one or the ending of an important relationship. If Kallet senses that students are experiencing serious issues, she refers them to professional resources that can help them address their emotional needs and circumstances.
To those who might question the value of such a class or of studying poetry in general, Kallet exhibits her grounding in the real world. Poetry promotes self-understanding and appreciation and acceptance of others; it teaches powerful observation skills, precision, focus, clarification of thought, economy of language, critical thinking, imagination, and communication—all valuable skills for any workplace.
In addition to teaching university classes, Kallet teaches poetry workshops in Auvillar, France, for the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She also contributes to teaching local high school students as co-director of the Brian M. Conley Young Writers’ Institute, which will celebrate its twentieth anniversary in 2013. Founded to encourage the talents of budding writers, the institute brings high school students and their teachers on campus for a full day of sharing their writing with one another and for mentoring by university faculty and students.
Kallet also responds to frequent requests (both local and distant) for poetry readings and poetry writing workshops. For local engagements, she involves her students in as many of these activities as possible.
For a number of years, Kallet and her graduate students met with members of the local Wellness Community—a gathering of cancer patients and cancer survivors who meet near campus.
“The grief and anger were powerful emotions forthcoming from the assembled group when my graduate students and I arrived,” Kallet says. “The faces of the individuals seemed to beg the question: ‘What are you going to say to me today that matters?’ It was clear that there could be no waste of words in that setting.”
Kallet drew on her wisdom and life experience to guide the interaction. She sensed these patients were looking to language for something to sustain them. She determined an approach.
“No matter how tough the circumstances, there is always something to be grateful for,” she says. “So I allowed that thought to lead us.”
Kallet engaged her students in working with the group to write a poem of gratitude. Everyone was asked to generate a few lines expressing something they were grateful for. Each person contributed lines of gratitude, even if small or seemingly insignificant. Soon Kallet and her students had established common ground with the members of the Wellness Community. They shared—and sometimes laughed—as they created their poems.
“It’s an example of how poetry is a unifying force, helping to bring the strands of life together and create bonds,” Kallet says.
In addition to teaching, directing the work of graduate students, and engaging in outreach and public service, Kallet is a productive author. She has fifteen books to her credit that, in addition to poetry, include translations, anthologies, personal essays, criticism, and children’s books. Among her many accomplishments she is best known for her poetry and charismatic poetry readings and performances.
Admirers of Kallet’s poetry wish blessings on the heads of her muses, Beatrice and Dante, and hope that they continue to infuse her with creative powers that keep the poems springing from their source.