On Wednesday, April 11, poet Vivian Shipley came to speak with a handful of KU students in the Student Union Building (SUB). April is National Poetry Month and the staff at KU could not have chosen a better speaker for the day. Having been nominated for numerous Pulitzer Prizes and honored with the Library of Congress’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Shipley is far from unqualified to be a part of the National Poetry Month celebrations. Even more so, Shipley was meant to read in Kutztown because she has roots here. The distinguished poet and Southern Connecticut State University teacher was an educator of Kutztown’s very own Professor Voccola.
After receiving two introductions, Shipley walked onto the stage much more humble than one would expect. While Voccola listed award after award that Shipley had received over the years, it was obvious that even he was astonished by her accomplishments. At nearly 70 years of age, Shipley was energetic and youthful. While standing on stage, despite being humble, she was extraordinarily confident. She spoke to the room like she was speaking to her own children, whom she wrote nearly every poem about.
It was interesting to hear that Shipley had never written poetry until age 30. Having just been diagnosed with a brain tumor in her frontal lobe, Shipley became pregnant with her third child. Doctors suggested she abort the child for her own life, but Shipley refused. After refusing, she wrote a poem for her third child in case she never spoke to him again. Her son, Matthew, eventually did get to hear her speak with him because Shipley was strong enough to beat the cancer. The poem was strong, powerful and a great way to begin the night.
Shipley surprisingly had content for young adults, which is not what you would expect from a 70 year old woman. She spoke about the Grateful Dead, bongs, “Fungus Yung,” bootlegging and much more. I especially enjoyed the new work she had that started with “The Poet as.” “The Poet as” series is her pretending or imagining herself as other characters. For instance, the slightly overweight poet did one as a surfer chick. It was funny because in one line she described fitting herself into a wet suit like a overly stuffed sausage. Her imagery was on point and hilarious.
Shipley’s reading was by far the most entertaining and rewarding KU has sponsored. Unlike a Shoofly reading, Shipley was a well-decorated poet. She knew how to get her work published and she was comfortable reading her material. Often times when students read, they become flustered by the idea of sharing their deepest personal problems. Shipley was eager to share her life stories with us. She was all-around fascinating. When she spoke about bootlegging and her love for Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, she managed to connect with the room despite her age.
It was most interesting hearing about her writing process. For instance, she described how changing the title of “Jill’s Tale” to “”How Many Stones Weigthed Virginia Woolf’s Pocket’s?” was a great idea. The literary reference was perfect for the poem. It described a mother trying to raise several kids on her own. Each problem, cut, scrape and bad decision feels like another stone dragging her beneath the water. It was a perfect alternative to the original title, which she said is the reason the poem was finally published.
Finally, Shipley taught that the most important time to lie is while writing. This may seem negative, but the poet continually said, “poets are good liars.” It made sense in a way. No one wants to be deceitful, but in poetry you almost want to be as far fetched as possible to intrigue readers.
A professor asked at the end of the reading, “What do you write about, when your life isn’t exciting to write about?” It’s a question many writers struggle with, but never know how to address. It’s hard to say that you’re an uninteresting person, but sometimes life is just that: uninteresting. That’s when her advice comes in handy. You may not live a life of excitement, but you can imagine it being exciting. Lying can be a useful tool to better illustrate parts of your life that may not seem interesting, but actually can be with little embellishment.
By Frank Lippincott