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Kathleen Graber, now on our faculty, wrote her first poem in the "Poetry Writing" workshop in 1997.

Wildwood Poet Piles on the Awards

February 06, 2009
Reprinted from the Cape May County Herald

WILDWOOD - This city doesn't have a poet laureate, but if it did, Kathleen Graber (pictured right) would be the obvious choice.

A life-long Wildwood resident, Graber's first volume of poetry, Correspondence, won widespread critical praise culminating in the 2005 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize. She's also won numerous fellowships from the state, private foundations and universities.

"She's like a rock star," said Peter Murphy, a fellow poet who used to teach Graber. "She's been winning all these major awards and fellowships, but she's still very humble. She's always surprised when she wins."

Both Murphy and Graber were recently named 2009 fellowship winners in poetry from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

But Graber hasn't always been a poetry rock star. In fact she told the Herald she didn't start writing poetry until her middle-30s, what she refers to as "fairly late in my life."

She was a teacher in the Wildwood and Wildwood Crest school districts for many years. Then, around a dozen years ago, the poetry bug bit.

She took a group of high school students to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, one of the largest of its kind in the nation. "And while I cannot claim that any of them were so inspired as to change their lives, I was," she said.

Graber was hooked.

She started enrolling in local community-based writing workshops and continuing education classes at Richard Stockton University. While at Stockton, she worked with award-winning poets Murphy and Stephen Dunn.

"I am extraordinarily fortunate, especially given my relatively remote location, to have had access to two poets and teachers of this caliber," she said.

Murphy said Graber's very intelligent and her early poems were also "smart, complex and difficult to understand."

"Kathy didn't want to compromise her work or dumb it down," Murphy added. "But in time she learned to make her poems more accessible."

As time passed, she continued to grow as a poet.

She graduated from New York University's Creative Writing Program in 2002 and began shopping the manuscript for Correspondence in 2003. She also won that year an Artist Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council of the Arts and a Rona Jaffe Writer's Award, which supports women writers of exceptional talent in the early stages of their careers.

Following the publication of Correspondence and its critical acclaim, Graber won the 2007 Hodder Fellowship in Poetry at Princeton University. That award allowed her to spend an academic year of "studious leisure" on the campus to pursue and independent project.

In a Princeton alumni publication, Graber said, "my only regret about being a Hodder Fellow is that I (will) have to leave. It has been a kind of writerly paradise for me."

Speaking of writerly paradises, Graber next won the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, which allowed her to spend a year away from the North American continent "in whatever place the recipient deems best suited to advance the art of poetry as practiced by him (her)."

When the Herald spoke with Graber, she and her husband Larry were staying on the Mediterranean Island of Gozo, the sister island of Malta. She said the people, the food and the quarried limestone buildings there are wonderful, but "you can't drink the water...too salty."

Prior to Gozo, she summered in Budapest and Berlin before spending nearly four months in an old stone barn on an organic farm in breezy, damp Cornwall, England. Unfortunately, the renovated farmhouse they stayed in had no heat.

"We spent a lot of time collecting wood and tending the fire!" she said.

Graber has spent her time at Princeton and abroad preparing her second collection of poetry. Poems from the upcoming volume have appeared in the Georgia Review, the American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast and The New Yorker.

With a working title of The Eternal City, Graber's work-in-progress is based "not only the physical city of Rome but also the psychological city which each of us constructs and inhabits," Graber said. One group of poems from the collection works off quotes from the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

Pretty heavy stuff for someone who grew up the daughter of jack-of-all-trades business people in Wildwood who at various times owned a floor covering business, a motel, a bar and a miniature golf course.

"But from the time that I was about eight until they retired, they owned a pretty large arcade and games of chance on the boardwalk," Graber told the Herald. "So most of my childhood was spent either in school or working with them."

Graber must like it here, because she and her husband Larry run a seasonal music shop on the Boardwalk to this day. Graber said her Wildwood experiences have influenced her poetry.

"Having grown up in something of a carnival, I think that I have always had in place an appreciation of the role of persuasion...this is a large part of being a writer, especially of being a poet or an essayist," she said. "You have to be some part confidence man."

"If poetry is making a moral or intellectual claim, it is rarely making that claim by means of pure reason," she added. "The reader has to be convinced that the poem's maker is in some way in control of things (even when the poem seems wild) and that that person is trustworthy and that the view being advanced is potentially worth engaging."

There was also a downside to her Wildwood upbringing.

In an interview last year with a Stockton University student before a visit there, Graber said, "I think that for many years I was-and this is understandable, I hope, if sad-more than a little ashamed of having spent most of my life as a kind of glorified carnival worker, a carnie, on the Wildwood boardwalk."

"I thought all 'real poets' must be so much more sophisticated, so much better educated, and so worldly. Yet if you set out to sever yourself from your past, you risk cutting yourself off from yourself in a way that now feels very dangerous to me."

But despite those early feelings about her native home, Wildwood often sneaks into her poetry.

In Book Three of the Marcus Aurelius poems, Graber describes a scene that could happen nowhere else.

"Last night at work, before I knew it - while I was busy/selling a t-shirt, the one with the glow-in-the-dark skeleton/in the electric chair, to Canadian tourists - an addict convinced me/to keep an eye on his six year old son. Slurring something/as simple as Don't let him go nowhere, he turned & stepped/into the congress of night-strollers on the boardwalk."

In Book Four of the same series, Graber again lets her life at the beach creep in:

"My cellar is full of boxes./In this one: bleached shells - conch, scallops, snails - /which I carried home, one by one, in a childhood I've abandoned."

Graber likes to take long walks to draw inspiration from the things she sees insisting that little observations she makes throughout the day often make it into her poetry.

She also shares her work and reads the work of other poets.

"There are three or four people with whom I have this relationship. It's a vital connection and I'm lucky to have smart, insightful readers and I am also lucky to be able to read their work and think about it," she said.

But the life of a poet isn't always as romantic as Graber's life might seem.

When not living abroad or pursuing leisurely study in Ivy League schools, Graber said she would normally be teaching two or three days a week, preparing for classes and meeting with students.

"On days when I am not teaching and have no teaching related work to do, I usually get up and immediately make coffee and have some hour or two doing housework and laundry and then I settle into work at my desk," she said. At her desk, she either works on new poems or revises poems "that are in various stages of failure."

Graber's also a big fan of popular culture and watches a lot of television, enjoying House, The Wire, 24 and Deadwood. Also a sports nut, she devotes Sundays during the season to football and was thrilled watching the Phillies win the World Series on her computer from Europe.

In answering the question "How has your first book changed your life?" for following the publication of Correspondence, Graber said:

"Deciding to try to write poems changed my life. I'm very fortunate to have been old enough to have been fully conscious of this change as it was unfolding. Writing poems brought me into contact with new people, and it required me to learn to think about the world and my own experiences much more deeply. It's not an exaggeration to say that I am not the same person I was a decade ago. I'm happier and more awake to my life than I've ever been. What more could I possibly want?"

What's next?

The couple plans to spend some time in Italy before returning to the states where Graber will be joining the literature faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University. And of course, she also plans to return home to Wildwood in the summer to work with her husband in their Boardwalk music shop.

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