Anita Skeen said it took a move to Michigan to help her re-establish her roots with her native rural America.
A faculty member since 1990, she is the founding director of the Center for Poetry at Michigan State University and a professor in Residential College in the Arts and Humanities.
Originally from West Virginia, Skeen earned a bachelor’s degree from her home state’s Concord College, and later earned a pair of master’s degrees from Bowling Green State University. After a stint at Wichita State University, she came to MSU where she was the driving force behind the founding of the center.
Being from rural America, Skeen’s poetry tends to focus on the natural world. During 18 years at Wichita State, she said she wrote a lot “about the prairie, storms and the sky.” Oddly enough, it was after she found her way to Michigan that she reconnected with Appalachia.
“I got back a voice I had lost,” she said.
One way Skeen keeps that connection going is by teaching a course in Appalachian literature. The students read novels that are relevant to the region, such as “Storming Heaven,” which is about the West Virginia mine wars of the early 1920s, as well as poems, essays and stories.
Skeen then ends the semester by having a dinner with her students that features Appalachian cuisine, including cheese grits, pinto beans, cornbread and vinegar pie.
Considered one of America’s finest poets, she is the author of six volumes of poetry, co-edited the anthology “Once Upon A Place: Writings from Ghost Ranch,” and has published poems, short fiction and essays in numerous literary magazines and anthologies.
Not bad for a woman from Appalachia who left home for college planning to teach history or physical education. It was her mother who pointed her in the direction of teaching.
“It was so very 1950s,” Skeen said with a smile. “My mother, who was a secretary, wanted me to be a teacher so after I got married I’d have something to fall back on. Back then, the only options in the part of the country where I grew up were teaching, nursing or secretarial, and I sure didn’t want to be a nurse or a secretary.”
As with a lot of young, impressionable college students, it was a special teacher who helped her on her way. In this case it was a Victorian literature professor who gathered the class in a circle, taught without notes and led fascinating conversations about literature.
“He carried on a conversation with us,” she said. “I loved that and, in the process, found I loved books and talking about books. That model as teacher-as-a-member-of-the-discussion-group is the model that I’ve tried to utilize.”
Skeen is one of a number of world-class poets who have ties to MSU. Others include Diane Wakoski, an emeritus University Distinguished Professor of English; Jim Harrison, an MSU alum internationally recognized not only for his poems but novels and short stories; alumnus Dan Gerber; Carolyn Forche, another alum who currently is on faculty at Georgetown University; and Theodore Roethke, one of America’s most-recognized poets, who briefly taught at MSU in the 1930s.
When she arrived at MSU she felt something was lacking in the Department of English. That some-thing was a poetry center.
“I really felt like we needed a poetry center here,” she said. “So, I collected all this information on centers around the country. I had this huge binder that I took with me to meet the dean and argue my case."
“I said, ‘I think we should have a poetry center.’ He looked at me and, without further discussion, said, ‘OK.’”
Since then, the center has thrived, serving students not only in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, where it is housed, but from many other colleges, departments and disciplines as well. It offers writing workshops and seminars, as well as brings in nationally known poets, such as former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, Mark Doty and Dennis Hinrichsen, who currently serves as Lansing’s poet laureate.
Skeen recently stepped down as center director, handing over the reins to interim director Cindy Hunter Morgan, assistant professor in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities.
But she does remain on faculty, teaching and writing. She said one reason she stepped down as director is she became the founder and series editor of Wheelbarrow Books, an imprint of the MSU Press that publishes two books of poetry a year – one by an emerging poet and one by an established poet.
Meanwhile, the MSU Center for Poetry will continue promoting poetry across campus, as well as working with the Lansing community, which has a thriving poetry scene.
“Part of our original mission was to bring together the community and the university,” said Skeen. “And we can help people in many ways other than poetry, such as connecting folks with writing communities, book clubs and so on.”
To learn more about the center, and view its list of upcoming events, visit poetry.rcah.msu.edu.