Published:
Jan-Henry Gray, Ellen Hagan, and Igor Webb, PhD.

In honor of National Poetry Month, alumni of Adelphi's MFA in Creative Writing program were asked to share excerpts of their favorite poems and what they mean to them.

Every April, people around the country read, write and appreciate poetry for National Poetry Month, an event established in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets.

“The reading and the writing of poetry are critical to our society,” said Jacqueline Jones LaMon, JD, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion and twice-NAACP-nominated poet. “Poetry allows us to slow down, to pay attention to detail, to examine ourselves and our reactions to the world around us. Poetry gives us a moment to imagine a new world, a new circumstance, a new response to an old reality. The old becomes new through the gaze of the poet. And the new becomes eternal and life-affirming. Poetry has the ability to change the world of the reader and, most definitely, the writer.”

Poetry is an integral part of Adelphi’s MFA in Creative Writing program. Courses are taught by published poets, and our alumni have gone on to publish their own collections. In honor of National Poetry Month, we asked them to share excerpts of their favorite poems (click on the titles to read the poems in their entirety) and what these poems mean to them.

Jan-Henry Gray

Director of MFA in Creative Writing program and assistant professor

In addition to heading up the MFA in Creative Writing program and serving as a graduate thesis adviser for MFA students, Gray teaches courses such as Against American English; Food and Writing; and the upcoming fall semester’s Introduction to Creative Writing and Literature of Migration.

For 12 years, Gray was a chef in San Francisco. Though he loves cooking he eventually went back to school and rediscovered poetry in a classroom setting. “I realized that my poems could take me to new and different places and it’s been an exciting journey ever since,” he said. His first book, Documents, came out in 2019 and he is currently working on his second book.

When asked for his favorite poem, Gray admitted that his “favorite poem changes all the time” but recently his favorite poem is “You Are Who I Love” by Aracelis Girmay. “It’s a long, loose and winding poem that is an open love letter to all kinds of people,” Gray said. “What I appreciate about Girmay’s poems, especially this one, is how her eye pays close attention to the world around her…Hearing the poem read out loud, Girmay’s voice captures and celebrates the wild collage of everyday life.”

An excerpt of “You Are Who I Love

You, selling roses out of a silver grocery cart

You, in the park, feeding the pigeons

You cheering for the bees

You with cats in your voice in the morning, feeding cats

You protecting the river You are who I love

delivering babies, nursing the sick

You with henna on your feet and a gold star in your nose

You taking your medicine, reading the magazines

You looking into the faces of young people as they pass, smiling and saying, Alright! which, they know it, means I see you, Family. I love you. Keep on.

Ellen Hagan

Adjunct professor, co-leader of Adelphi’s Alice Hoffman Young Writers Retreat

Hagan has co-led the Alice Hoffman Young Writers Retreat for high school students every summer for 20 years. She also teaches Exploring the Arts: Writing Our Lives in Networked Age. She is the author of three poetry collections and three young adult novels. Her latest novel, Don’t Call Me a Hurricane, releases in July. As a poet, Hagan is “constantly exploring the intersections of my identity and the communities where I live and work,” she said. Her poems and essays have been published in Underwired Magazine, She Walks in Beauty, Huizache, Small Batch and Southern Sin.

Though Hagan “loves so many poems for so many reasons,” she said, her favorite poem is “Disbelief” by Kamilah Aisha Moon. “There is such an honoring in the poem. It is a gift to love. This poem celebrates that. The lines below stay close beside me. I just love it.”

An excerpt of “Disbelief

I have all of these

lily plants but not you,

nor peace.

How they ease

my breathing yet

trouble my mind,

symbols

of your soaring

too high to see

or reach,

beauty clanging

like bells

out of tune, time’s

up. Leaves

so shiny & perfect

they look fake,

but a few brown ones

barely clinging &

curled in on themselves—

less supple, less everything

like me, let me know

they are real.

Igor Webb, PhD

Professor of English

Poet, author, critic, Dr. Webb teaches a number of classes at Adelphi such as The Study of Literature, World Literature; 19th and 20th Century English; and Advanced Fiction. Raised in the Inwood section of Manhattan, Dr. Webb’s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in renowned publications such as The New Yorker, The Hudson Review and The American Scholar. He also has published four books: Christopher Smart’s Cat; Rereading the Nineteenth Century: Studies in the Old Criticism from Austen to Lawrence; Ideas Across Time: Classic and Contemporary Readings for Composition; and From Custom to Capital: The English Novel and the Industrial Revolution.

“My favorite poem is Nazim Hikmet’s ‘On Living’,” he said. “He is the great 20th-century Turkish poet. [He] wrote the poem after I believe 15 years in prison, but it is a profoundly serious and, at the same time, optimistic poem, about the inestimable value of life. You will love it!”

An excerpt of “On Living

I

Living is no laughing matter:

you must live with great seriousness

like a squirrel, for example—

I mean without looking for something beyond and above living,

I mean living must be your whole occupation.

Living is no laughing matter:

you must take it seriously,

so much so and to such a degree

that, for example, your hands tied behind your back,

your back to the wall,

or else in a laboratory

in your white coat and safety glasses,

you can die for people—

even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,

even though you know living

is the most real, the most beautiful thing.

I mean, you must take living so seriously

that even at seventy, for example, you’ll plant olive trees—

and not for your children, either,

but because although you fear death you don’t believe it,

because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

Todd Wilson
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