Personal Poetry

GW professor Jane Shore wins prestigious writing award.
June 23, 2010

By Jennifer Price

When award-winning poet Jane Shore needs help with her writing, she knows where to turn.

Her students.

"Even though I'm the teacher, I'm the same as my students because we're both writers," says Ms. Shore, an English professor in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. "They come up with amazing suggestions."

She credits some of those critiques for helping her win the Poets' Prize, a $3,000 annual award for the best book of verse published by an American during the previous year.

"The wonderful thing about the prize is that it's given by other poets," says Ms. Shore, who won for her book, “A Yes-or-No Answer,” published by Houghton Mifflin-Harcourt in 2008. "These poets have been heroes of mine. I was so thrilled that my book was chosen by them."

In "A Yes-or-No Answer," Ms. Shore writes about growing up North Bergen, N.J., becoming a parent and adjusting to middle age. Ms Shore writes about personal events, she says, because she believes readers connect with the commonality of the human experience.

Because most of the people she writes about are already dead (her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts), she views herself as an archivist.

"I like to preserve the world that doesn't exist anymore," says Ms Shore, who uses her inherited possessions-- her mother's swivel chair and nightgowns, her father's piano and cufflinks and an old blue address book-- to bring characters back to life.

In the poem "The Closet," Shore's dead mother suddenly appears to give advice:

Never wear white in winter or velvet in summer.

Buy life insurance. File a will.

But although most of her poems are autobiographical, Ms. Shore says they "take on a life of their own."

"Your own personal experiences may be a trigger for a poem, but then it stops being about you and your personal experience. It becomes wider and more universal," she says.

In the poem "The Streak," Shore tells the story about her then 12-year-old daughter getting a red streak in her hair.

"My husband and I were terrified," she says. "It's not like we were afraid the hair wouldn't grow back, but we knew that some big change was taking place."

While some of her poems are light-hearted and filled with warm memories, others are incredibly disturbing.

In three different poems, Ms. Shore describes the nightmare that occurred inside her home. Seven years ago, Ms. Shore allowed a woman to house-sit, while she and her husband, Howard Norman, spent a summer in Vermont. The woman ended up stabbing her 2-year-old son to death before slitting her own wrists.

In the poem "Possession," Shore explains how she's still haunted by the memory of the woman and the little boy.

But the kitchen still smells of her spices--

her cinnamon, curry, cloves.

The house aromatic maze

of incense and sachet.

Almost every day now something of hers

turns up. The way La Brea tar pits

keep disgorging ancient bones, squeezing them

through the oily black muscles of earth

to the surface.

A yoga mat.

I don't need it. I already have my own.

Prayer beads. A strapless bra.

A gold ring. It's pretty.

It fits my pinkie.

Ms. Shore, who graduated from Goddard College in Vermont and received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa, says she was always drawn to the arts, but it was a college professor who shared with her "the gift of poetry." Before coming to GW in 1989, Shore taught at Harvard University, Sarah Lawrence College, Princeton University, Tufts University, the University of Washington and the University of Hawaii.

Ms. Shore's ability to draw upon her life in her art has won her prestigious accolades. Her first book of poems, "Eye Level," won the 1977 Juniper Prize, and her second, "The Minute Hand," was awarded the 1986 Lamont Poetry Prize. A decade later, she was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award for "Music Minus One."

"Jane Shore's receipt of the Poets' Prize affirms what our department already knew -- that we also excel in poetry," says Gayle Wald, chair of GW's English Department and an English professor. "We're thrilled for Jane, an incredible teacher and mentor to GW's many student-poets."

Ms. Shore says many of her students are afraid of poetry when they first take her class.

"They're told in high school that poetry is too hard or that it's a code that has to be cracked," she says. "So I just encourage them and try to inspire them by showing them great poetry. Every student has a unique life, and I want to find out what makes them tick and have them write about it."

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