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‘Let’s Just Experience This’

Texas’ new poet laureate, Carrie Fountain, MFA ’04, on our biggest misconception about poetry, how to tell whether poetry students are learning, and why “Romeo and Juliet” is the best Y.A. story ever

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Carrie Fountain
Carrie Fountain, alumna of UT and poet laureate of Texas, in the Michener Center library 2019, Photo by Marsha Miller

When Carrie Fountain was in her first year as a master’s student at UT’s Michener Center for Writers, a visiting poet read a poem. It painted a scene of a deli at closing time, with one bottle of ketchup balanced upside down on another, emptying itself out. “I’ve thought about that image for almost 20 years now,” Fountain says. 

In an East Austin coffee shop, at the same corner table where she often comes to write, she says she thought about the ketchup bottles just the day before as she was wiping her kitchen counter. “That’s enough for me. If all I ever get out of my experience with poetry is one image from a poem, I’m good. That’s the experience of being a human. That’s what poetry is — the experience of being a human.”

But 18 years later, she has gotten much more out of poetry than that. She is the author of two books of poetry — “Burn Lake” and “Instant Winner” — and the novel “I’m Not Missing” and hosts a podcast about poets for the UT-owned NPR affiliate KUT. And this year, the state legislature named Fountain the 2019 Texas poet laureate. 

She grew up in Mesilla, New Mexico, and moved to Austin in 2001 at 23 to study at the Michener Center, assuming she would be back in New Mexico after three years. But she married a fellow writing student, started a family, and before she knew it had put down roots. Her reaction to being named Texas poet laureate: “Wow, I guess I really am a Texan!”

* * *

In Fountain’s freshman year of high school, her class was assigned “Romeo and Juliet.” Her initial reaction: “I don’t know what this is. I don’t want to read it,” she says. “And then we started through it, and the teacher took his time, and it really started to resonate with me. It’s the best Y.A. (young adult) story ever told! The stakes are so high.”

By contrast, when she arrived in Las Cruces for college, she got a literature professor she describes as “on his way out,” tiredly teaching the cannon of Norton’s Anthology. “I really hated that class, partly because I just knew that somewhere there was a teacher who could really make that live. There’s a way to teach those authors and connect them to human nature. Hamlet is human nature. It is pure human nature,” she says, pounding the table. “No one’s going to say, ‘That’s old-fashioned jealousy!’ Shakespeare is star-crossed lovers, feuds — it’s all there.”

But her muse survived the bad experience, and the next leg of her journey brought her to UT in 2001. Established in 1993 by a gift from novelist James Michener and named for him after his death in 1997, the Michener Center for Writers admits just 12 students a year and is unique in fully funding its students without requiring them to teach undergraduates. Asked what she took from the Michener program, she points to three things: 

All Michener fellows have to establish a secondary focus, so in addition to concentrating on poetry, she studied playwriting. “I think writing in multiple disciplines was invaluable, and I think it has informed my writing and my career more than I can even articulate. Novels, children’s books, poetry — nothing feels outside my wheelhouse, because at the Michener Center, that was part of the deal. It still really feels like home when I go there.” Since graduating, she has been invited to teach twice at the center. 

Next, she studied poetry at the Michener Center with visiting poet Naomi Shihab Nye, who became not just a mentor but one of the most important people in her life. 

Last, she says, “I met Naomi and my husband, a playwright and fiction writer, in the same class. It was like, ‘I want her to be my lifelong teacher, and I’ll take him as my husband.” That Fountain’s husband, Kirk Lynn, is now an associate professor in UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance is largely responsible for her still being a Texan.

Her break came when the United States poet laureate Natasha Trethewey picked Fountain’s first book of poetry as winner of the National Poetry Series. Coincidentally, one of the first people to subsidize that award years earlier was none other but James Michener.

* * *

Fountain spent five years teaching poetry and creative writing at St. Edward’s University in Austin. At the same time, she published two books and had two children. “I could do two of those three things well,” she says, so she decided to quit teaching. Rather than see Fountain walk away, St. Edward’s made her a writer in residence, and now she teaches workshops, does readings, and mentors students. Among her favorite students to mentor are the “secret writers,” students who don’t want to tell their parents that they want to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts. “That still exists, that bias against the humanities — ‘What are you gonna do for a job?’ ”

This concern about employment is not unfounded. “Poetry is never going to be a money-making venture; that’s one of the beautiful things about it,” she says. “There are very few jobs that creative writing is very useful for.” When one of Fountain’s favorite students asked her to write a letter of recommendation for him, she was overjoyed that he was going to pursue an MFA. Then he told her the letter was for his application to become a Jesuit priest. Initially disappointed, she then reconsidered: Being a priest and giving a homily every week is one of those few creative writing professions.

Fountain says the two biggest misconceptions about poetry are that it is boring and that it is difficult for difficulty’s sake. “I honestly think that a lot of that comes from the way poetry is necessarily taught in K-12 as a source of answerable multiple-choice questions on a standardized test.

“The way that I teach poetry is, there is no answer. Put away the idea that there’s an answer, and let’s just experience this. What does it make you think about and feel? What sticks in your memory? What image from that poem are you going to think about next week? To really teach poetry, you have to say, ‘We’re heading into territory where there is no answer, so come along and we will figure out a way.’ ”

Fountain says the main task of a literature teacher is to break down these preconceived notions. “Poetry isn’t to be analyzed first; poetry is to be experienced. What is the use of it if that’s not what we’re doing with it? A lot of people approach it as if the poet knows what they’re talking about and is trying to teach them what they know, but that’s not true. If you approach poetry like this is just one other human being trying to figure out what the hell we’re all doing on this crazy planet, then I’ll dip in here.”

But if there is no answer, how does a teacher evaluate work and assign grades? “Feedback might be, ‘I didn’t know who was speaking in this poem.’ Or ‘When you say you, I don’t know who you is. Or ‘There are no images in the poem, so I couldn’t really grab onto anything.’ ” Another way of evaluating whether students are learning is by reading their poems early in the semester, having students workshop them, then having students resubmit them so she can compare the drafts. 

Though she feels at home with a variety of literary forms, she says, “I’m always writing poetry. I write poetry every day.” Fountain identifies several recurring themes in her work, and adds, “You don’t really have much control over what you’re obsessed with in the world and what you go back to.” Though not religious, she finds herself continuously returning to the life of Jesus. “It’s so Jesus-y!” she says of her body of work, both amused and a little dismayed. It is a theme she attributes partially to growing up “Catholic-adjacent.” Additional strong themes include parenting (“Being a parent is a pretty existential shift.”) and the spiritual lives of children. Finally, she says, “I’ll always write about New Mexico.” 

Above all, Fountain says poetry is about a feeling. “That feeling of play and discovery you have as a child is what you want when you’re reading and writing poetry.”

 

“Time to be the fine line of light”

between the blind and the sill, nothing
really. There are so many things

that destroy. To think solely of them
is as foolish and expedient as not

thinking of them at all. All I want
is to be the river though I return

again and again to the clouds.
All I want is to stop beginning sentences

with All I want. No—no really all
I want is this morning: my daughter

and my son saying “Da!” back and forth
over breakfast, cracking each other up

while eating peanut butter toast
and raspberries, making a place for

the two of them I will, eventually,
no longer be allowed to enter. Time to be

the fine line. Time to practice being
the line. And then maybe the darkness.