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Finding Poetry in Life

April 20, 2009

ASU English professor Dr. Chris Ellery draws on what he sees and experiences for inspiration in writing his poetry.

“I think of the poem as a kind of interpretation of life, a lens through which you can focus life,” Ellery said.  “It’s a way of connecting both to myself and to whatever is not myself.  It’s a way of connecting to the deep currents of life, to the lives of others and to whatever life I’m living and hope to live.”

That philosophy serves the Texarkana native well in his writing and figures into his being named a member of the Texas Institute of Letters (TIL), a non-profit group that recognizes literary achievement and stimulates interest in Texas writers.

Ellery doesn’t adhere to strict guidelines in his writing, which makes for an eclectic body of work.

“I don’t like to put any kind of limit on what poetry is,” he said.  “I think there is some very fine fluid poetry, open-form poetry, what some people might call free verse.  There is no such thing as free verse. Whatever you do, you want to write well.”

As for formal poetry of others, Ellery is a fan.

“I’m reading the romantics again for a class I’m teaching,” he said.  “I love the blank verse of Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and the quatrains of Tennyson’s In Memorium, so I think you can write great poetry in a lot of different ways.”

The form Ellery chooses for a poem is a matter of feeling for the subject matter.

 “It’s kind of instinct to sense the form that would benefit it,” he said.  “Somehow, the poem dictates its form.”

“Whatever you want to call it, I don’t think anyone has ever explained creativity – where it comes from or how it works,” Ellery said.  “I’m just glad when it happens and there is kind of a joy to it.  Robert Frost uses a wonderful figure to describe this process: ‘Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.’”

Ellery sees creativity partly as a conscious choice of a particular word, sound or form, but at the same time, he believes that a lot of it is instinctive or intuitive.

“Letting the thing happen and develop where it wants to go – no surprise for the writer or the reader,” he said.  “You love those moments of surprise in the poem.”

Ellery is the third ASU professor to join the TIL, an exclusive group of literature advocates.   He follows fellow English professor Terrence Dalrymple and history professor Arnoldo DeLeón as members.

Among authors the TIL has honored are San Angelo Western novelist Elmer Kelton, Liz Carpenter, Gary Cartwright, former San Angeloan Mike Cox, Kinky Friedman, Skip Hollandsworth, Dan Jenkins, Larry L. King, Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry.

Ellery has been published in literary journals, including Cimarron Review, AVOCET and New Texas and authored two books of poetry, Quarry (Mountain Muse Press, 2005) and All This Light We Live In (Panther Creek Press, 2006).

He is also noted for translating other people’s works, including Whatever Happened to Antara, a collection of short stories by award-winning Syrian writer Walid Ikhlassi, published by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (University of Texas Press, 2004).

Ellery acquired his expertise about Syria while teaching American poetry at the University of Aleppo in Damascus, Syria, while on a Fulbright teaching grant.

“The Syrians have a deep respect for language,” Ellery said.  “Of course, it’s very challenging, but I enjoyed it a lot.  I was pretty provincial, so it was nice to get out of my comfort zone.”

Like in much of his work, Ellery found inspiration in his time in the Middle East and is working on a book of poems based on those experiences.  One of his poems, “Bimaristan Arghun,” won the 2005 Betsy Colquitt Award from the literary magazine, descant.

Looking back on his works, Ellery didn’t pinpoint one as his favorite.

“My favorite is always the poem I’m working on right now,” he said.  “I would be hard-pressed to select a favorite.  I kind of do it and get done with it.”

“To me, it’s more about the writing than it is about publishing it or sharing it or showing it to others.  I do have some poems that I like and that I think are pretty relevant.  They probably have something to offer to readers.”