'The light' showed the way to a life in poetry


"I can tell you what the light was like," Karen Fish says, remembering the day she first knew she wanted to write. She was reading "The Lagoon" by Joseph Conrad in a junior high school in Allentown, Pa. A golden light shone through the windows. "The writing astonished me. I wanted to try this, too."

Now, 22 years later, Ms. Fish has had poems published in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review and other prestigious magazines. She has written two highly regarded books of poetry, "The Cedar Canoe" and "What Is Beyond Us." The title poem of her second book was published in the 1990-1991 Pushcart Series, which annually collects the best from small presses. Ms. Fish has received other writing awards, including the Towson State University Prize for Literature.

She will read poems from her books and from her new manuscript, "The Nights of Knowing," at Loyola College, at 5 p.m. today.

Ms. Fish writes about human experience -- loss, death, love, joy -- with her more recent poems tending toward the political. "Seen From Far Away," a poem about Bosnia that Ms. Fish has been working on for two years, was inspired by a photograph and a newspaper story.

"I had been reading an article about the Balkan conflict," Ms. Fish explains, "when I saw a photograph of a boy dressed in an angel costume, riding his bike to school. I imag-ined what it was like for a boy like this to see ethnic cleansing and wrote the poem from outrage."

The birth of her daughter inspired "What Is Beyond Us," which David St. John (who nominated that poem for the Pushcart Prize) calls, "the most powerful poem about childbirth that I know." Mr. St. John, a poet and a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars when Ms. Fish studied there in 1982, believes the poem will be included in many anthologies.

Elizabeth Spires, poet-in-residence at Goucher College and a former editor of the Pushcart series, agrees with that assessment. She remembers the poem as a "terrific evocation" of childbirth. "From pain," Ms. Spires says, "the poet creates this imaginative place, which is this incredible poem":

... I am on a sailboat, standing on the bow, looking ahead,

spotting for rocks ...

The midwife tells me, think of pain as constructive.

This pain is the best-kept secret in the world. ...

And when they hand you the child,

our daughter, you look at me with a face I've never seen


I've heard, sometimes, it's what we've never seen before

that we recognize.

Assistant professor of writing and media at Loyola College, director of Loyola's Modern Masters Reading Series and a lecturer at Princeton University, Ms. Fish lives on Bodkin Creek, in Pasadena, with her daughter, Katherine, and her husband, Tim Stapleton, who is also a professor at Loyola.

Ms. Fish believes that many poems originate "from a desire to show someone something," as in teaching. But writing poetry isn't like teaching, she says. Teaching is a lot like being a museum guide. You get to show people things they've never seen before. As a poet, you show people things they have seen, but you show them in such a way that people are changed.

"If you truly see something," Ms. Fish says, "you are changed."

Ms. Fish, who received her undergraduate degree in art, speaks as writer and artist. "If I had to do it over again, I'd do it the same way," she says, noting that the compositional skills she learned as an artist are indispensable to her poetry.

Just how indispensable can be seen in "Equivalent," a poem Ms. Fish considers one of her most successful.

Inspired by Alfred Stieglitz's photographs of clouds, "Equivalent" describes the meeting of the visual world and the interior world. As they meet in the mind of the artist, they also meet on paper, making photographs into poems and poems into art:

The mind returns to the past,

like a deer that moves gracefully in front

of the car like a premonition, only to re-enter the woods

as a shaft of light ... "

Poetry reading

Who: Karen Fish

Where: McManus Theater, De Chiaro Center, Loyola College

When: 5 p.m. Oct. 2 Admission:

Free Call: (410) 617-2385 or (410) 617-2418

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