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Seattle Pacific University
Spring 2007 | Volume 30, Number 1 | Books, Film & Music

Dark Alphabet

Professor’s poetry wins book award

Jennifer Maier
Jennifer Maier was the featured writer at SPU's 2007 Fan Mayhall Gates Literary Reading.
For Jennifer Maier, poet and associate professor of English at Seattle Pacific University, growing up in a family “obsessed with language and words” gave her grist for the poetry mill. Her manuscript Dark Alphabet won the Crab Orchard Review First Book Award, an honor that included a 2006 publishing contract with Southern Illinois University Press. Maier read from her book to a standing-room-only crowd at SPU’s annual Fan Mayhall Gates Literary Reading on February 7, 2007.

The author says she began writing poetry in New Orleans while procrastinating on a graduate school project. “I wrote a mock heroic poem to a cockroach,” she explains with a laugh. “The first line was, ‘Think where it’s been!’”

But the seeds of her writing were planted much earlier. “When I was 2 or 3,” Maier recalls, “my father would read me poems I didn’t understand, by Edward Lear and Robert Service. Something of their rhythmic cadences seeped into my unconscious mind. Around the dinner table, our family discussed the roots of words.”

Dark Alphabet’s title comes from a poem in the book (“The Poetry Birds”) that explores the source of creative inspiration. There, the poet describes a flock of black birds as “a dark alphabet against the sky.” “I was going to call the book The School of Weeping, a reference to Mater Dolorosa, the name of my Catholic elementary school,” she says, “but fortunately the publisher put a stop to that, saying people don’t buy books with the word ‘weeping’ in the title.”

Maier’s poems have received four Pushcart Prize nominations and have appeared in Poetry and The Mississippi Review, on the website Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. Poet Madeline DeFrees calls Dark Alphabet “a sophisticated blend of wit, intellect, feeling, and perception, as mysterious as nightfall and as fresh as daybreak.”

One of Maier’s favorite reviews of the book was informal, coming from the Southern Poetry Review editor, who wrote to say he had read her book at the breakfast table and asked to publish one of the poems. “There’s a strange dividend that comes, long after you write a poem,” she teases. “First you’re writing a poem in your bathrobe and then, years later, somebody writes to say he was reading your poem in his bathrobe.”

For Maier, a good poem is “economical, graceful, and it provides momentary insight or illumination at the end. Not that it’s attempting to teach anything. Russian playwright Anton Chekhov said that great art shouldn’t strive to answer the questions of the universe but only to frame the questions correctly. There’s a little click in there, when you find a poem has framed the question well. Luminously, even.”

— by Margaret D. Smith

— Photo By Daniel Sheehan

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Dark Alphabet
Jennifer Maier, poet and SPU associate professor of English, receives a literary award for her first book of poetry, Dark Alphabet.

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