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Sugar House Journal

Utah poet brings her poems to life at free reading

Nov 01, 2019 15h26 ● By Jenniffer Wardell

The free poetry reading will be held at Westminster College’s Kim T. Adamson Alumni House. (Courtesy)

By Jenniffer Wardell | [email protected]

Add a little linguistic magic to your life. 

Westminster College is helping residents do just that with this year’s Anne Newman Sutton Weeks Poetry Series, which kicks off Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. at the college’s Kim T. Adamson Alumni House. This month’s poets will be Kara Van De Graaf and Mahtem Shiferraw, who will stay after the reading for a reception and book signing. Van De Graff, who is also an assistant professor of English at Utah Valley University, said she’s looking forward to bringing her poems to life. 

"I love poetry readings because they allow writers to animate their poems," she said. "Suddenly, you have a specific voice and performance of a poem that you didn’t have before. This adds another layer of meaning to your experience of the piece." 

Van De Graff's first collection of poems, "Spitting Image," won the 2016 Crab Orchard First Book Prize in Poetry and was published in 2018. She has also appeared in national literary journals including “The Southern Review,” “AGNI,” “New England Review,” “Crazyhorse,” “Alaska Quarterly Review,” and the anthology “Best New Poets.” She's also won several awards for her poems, including an Academy of American Poets Prize.

“As a writer, I want to explore how language can call certain histories, bodies, and identities into being, while shutting down or refusing to make room for others,” she said. “In my poetry, I want to question the concept of ‘femaleness’ as it has been presented to us in popular media and western artistic traditions. I want to explore how rhetorical constructions of the world in culture—via art, historical narratives, and created senses of bodies—offer to us certain ways to be humans.”

Though this is a lot to tackle, she’s also careful not to forget the lighter side of poetry as well. 

"As often as poems are somber, they’re also fun, little experiments made of words," she said. “I think we forget, with all of our text messages and emails and memos, that language is a material that has the capacity to create real pleasure. Poems give us another way of understanding the world.”

As part of her efforts to share that understanding, she started the Lightbox Poetry website with co-founder Richie Hofmann. The purpose of the site is to help teachers integrate poetry into their classrooms through a variety of means. It also offers resources to people who would like to learn more about poetry, but who may no longer be part of a classroom setting.  

"We interviewed important poets, asked them about their work, and learned from their own approaches to teaching the craft of poetry," she said. "You’ll also find prompts, advice, and activities to engage in if you want to try your hand at writing poems."

Van De Graff said she tried her own hand at writing poetry because it gave her a voice for something she had no other way of articulating. 

"I think I started writing these poems out of a desire to articulate the experiences of my own body in the world, experiences I had trouble communicating about in my everyday life," she said. "I hope people can connect their own experiences of being a body to my work, or re-examine the ways they interact with the bodies of others."

Even with the help of poetry, however, sometimes that’s not an easy thing to communicate. 

"You have to be willing to write badly," she said. "Learning to write is a process, and it’s a process paved with failed experiments. Those failures don’t mean you’re a bad writer. They mean you’re a writer."

And if you keep working at it, those failures can help you bring something important into the world. 

“Poetry is a place where we use language differently than anywhere else,” she said. “We stretch words, make them function differently, put them together in unconventional ways. We do this, in part, to help others get a different glimpse of our interiors, to share in a more intimate way how we experience the world. Because of this, I think the practice of reading, writing, and listening to poetry makes us better, kinder, more empathetic human beings.”

The Kim T. Adamson Alumni House is located on the Westminster College campus, 1840 S. 1300 East. Admission is free, and copies of the poets' books will be available for purchase the night of the event. For a complete schedule of readings, visit