For W. Phila. writer, poetry pays

Elyse Fenton with husband Peenesh Shah and their daughter, Mira Shah, at their West Philadelphia home.
Elyse Fenton with husband Peenesh Shah and their daughter, Mira Shah, at their West Philadelphia home.

Elyse Fenton wins Wales' $48,000 Dylan Thomas Prize.

Posted: December 04, 2010

There's no money in poetry.

OK, maybe for an extremely few, an extremely lucky, blessed few. You could win a Pulitzer. A Guggenheim. A MacArthur. A Nobel.

Or, like Elyse Fenton, a poet living in West Philadelphia, you could win the Dylan Thomas Prize, as she did at the University of Swansea in Wales on Wednesday night. That would earn you a tidy 30,000 pounds ($48,000). Fenton's book Clamor, a collection arising from her experience as the wife of a soldier serving in Iraq, was the first book of poems to win the three-year-old award, given to a work by a writer under 30 that has been published in English.

The astonishing news culminated a crazy week in Wales, and it punctuated five years of writing, anxiety, war, and motherhood for Fenton, now 30, whose husband, Peenesh Shah, was deployed to Iraq as a medic.

"The full spectacle of all this is just starting to dawn on me," Fenton said by phone from the rowhouse (actually, her brother's - more on that in a minute) in Philadelphia. "When I got home, I thought I'd just change diapers, hire a babysitter . . . not have 150 e-mails."

She was in Wales because she and the other five finalists for the award were part of a teaching program. "The Dylan Thomas people have all the finalists live in the same place for a week before announcing the winner," Fenton said. The finalists visit schools and teach the kids. "The reception was amazing," she said. "The students were wide-eyed and well-prepared, and the community of writers was absolutely wonderful. We stayed in the house of Dylan Thomas' birth. My 10-month-old daughter Mira slept in the room in which he was born."

She took her daughter to Wales with her? "Yes," Fenton said, laughing. "My mother and father came with us. I couldn't have done it unless they'd taken a babysitting vacation in Wales."

Fenton, a very accomplished poet, might resist the hackneyed word romantic. But there is a crazy romance in her life since about 2005 - love, war, poetry, two people ranging from Oregon to Texas to Iraq to Philadelphia to Wales.

She met Shah when both were part of a crew building trails in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for the Appalachian Mountain Club. They became good friends and married in 2005. Shah signed up for the Army and did his training in Texas, and Fenton decided to attend the University of Oregon and get her master of fine arts degree. Shah was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a trauma specialist with the fourth brigade of the Fourth Infantry Division; he returned the following year.

Fenton was alone in Eugene, Ore., and her husband was in Baghdad. And she had to do graduate work and write poetry. In her essay "My Deployment as a War Bride," written for the New York Times, she spoke of the emotional stress, in which "a creak on the floorboards, a finger approaching the doorbell, a phone call in the night became signifiers that I might soon be handed a flag's folded triangle." In the title poem of Clamor, she writes of gardening, and seeing white petals, "White as a page or a field where / I often go to find the promise of evidence of you // or your unit's safe return."

But if separation had to be, it was good she was at the University of Oregon. "I don't know where else I could have been that would have been better," Fenton said. "I was productive, I could focus on the poetry. I was an undercover war bride."

The poetry that emerged both is and is not about her experience. Clamor goes far beyond autobiography, to address war, and the language we use - corkscrew landing, friendly fire - to describe (or to distance ourselves from) war.

Michael Dumanis, assistant professor of English at Cleveland State University and director of the Poetry Center there, said he's "amazed and excited about the news." He should be, since the center published Clamor this year after awarding the collection its 2009 prize for best first book.

He remembers first fishing it out of a pile of manuscripts. "I was struck by the directness of her voice, and how clean and crisp and unadorned her language was, despite the beauty of the images," he said by phone from Cleveland State. "She manages to talk calmly, elegantly, and beautifully about very difficult subjects. These are poems that expand beyond just the poet's world - they speak of separation, fear, the politics of war, and, in a lot of ways, it's a collection of love poems."

Shah said the poems shouldn't be seen as being "about" him. Poems don't work like that. "I don't really feel I have a story worth telling," he said. "I was in the Green Zone and was relatively safe. So many people think it's a story about me. And the poems may be rooted in the fact of my being in Iraq, but they're filtered through Elyse's poetry. She's working with language, with her perspective, being honest to her experience as the one left behind."

Fenton and Shah are in Philadelphia for the year, while Shah does a legal clerkship in Trenton. They're staying at the rowhouse of Fenton's brother, Jacob. Next year, it's off to Portland, Ore., where Shah will do another clerkship.

"Oregon is where we've really been trying to get back to for a long time," Fenton said.

She is hoping for more opportunities now for her poetry. "So much of this poetry thing," she said, "is so do-it-yourself, so it's overwhelming to see my poetry get this much attention."


Infidelity

When you were in Iraq I dreamed you

dead, dormant, shanked stone

in a winter well, verb-less object

sunk haft-deep through the navel

of each waking sentence. I dreamed

myself shipwreck, rent timbers

on a tidal bed, woke to morning's cold

mast of breath canted wide as a searchlight

for the drowned.

Dreamed my crumbling

teeth bloomed shrapnel'd bone light

bricks mortared into a broken

kingdom of sleep where I found you

dream-sift, rubbled, nowhere.

Forgive me, love, this last

infidelity: I never dreamed you whole.

Reprinted from "Clamor," published by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010. By permission of the author.


After the Blast

It happened again just now, one word

snagging like fabric on a barbed fence.

Concertina wire. You said: I didn't see the body

hung on concertina wire. This was after the blast.

After you had stood in the divot, both feet

in the dust's new mouth and found no one alive.

Just out of the shower, I imagine

a flake of soap crusting your dark jaw, the phone

cradled like a hand on your bare cheek.

I should say: love. I should say: go on.

But I'm stuck on concertina -

the accordion's deep inner coils, bellows,

lungful of air contracting like a body caught

in the agony of climax.

Graceless, before the ballooning rush

of air or sound. The battering release.

Reprinted from "Clamor," published by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010. By permission of the author.


Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, jt@phillynews.com or twitter.com/jtimpane.

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