Wheaton hosts poets Liz Ahl and Sandra Yannone ’86

This past Thursday, Oct. 3, poets Liz Ahl and Sandra Yannone ’86 presented a reading and conversation to Wheaton students featuring some of their most recent collaborative pieces.

Yannone was invited back to Wheaton to attend induction into the Athletic Hall of Fame based on her field hockey achievements as a student. Upon hearing this news, Sue Standing, Coordinator of Creative Writing and Literature at Wheaton, asked Yannone to present a poetry reading during her visit. Yannone offered to take part in both a reading and conversation with her close friend Liz Ahl, with whom she has been working on a collaboration poetry project.

Standing explained that Yannone and Ahl met at Emerson College in Boston while Yannone was completing her graduate degree and Ahl her undergraduate. Ahl, author of “Talking About the Weather,” “Luck,” and “A Thirst That’s Partly Mine,” now teaches at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Yannone has also gone on to write several books since the two met at Emerson, such as “Maiden Voyage” and “Hop.” She now teaches and is Director of the Writing Center at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

Yannone explained that she and Ahl began working with each other again over something as simple as a dream.

“Fifteen years ago, Liz wrote a poem,” Yannone said. “And I had said something to her that ended up in it. Flash forward fifteen years later to this March, when I had a dream, and when I woke up, I felt compelled to respond to this poem.”

Yannone further explained that after her first response to Ahl’s poem, the two decided to continue responding back and forth to see where they could go with it. The reading and conversation featured their collection of responses to this date.

Ahl began with her poem written 15 years ago, entitled, “We were happier when we smoked.” The poem is based on what Yannone had said to her after the two decided to quit smoking cigarettes together.

“What Sandy said to me was simultaneously ridiculous and brilliant, and it sparked this poem,” Ahl said.

Ahl’s opening poem featured a mystic beat that focused on “smoke breaks round the clock” and how “the cigarette gave us time.” She ended the poem, “If you were a therapist, reader, you’d shake your head, take notes on your pad. But you’re not. You’re you. And once, you were happier, too.”

As Yannone and Ahl continued with poem after poem from their collaboration, they never stopped intertwining the passage of time into their pieces. In Ahl’s poem, “Settling Down,” she read, “I’m starting to do things I’ll do for the rest of my life. What clock keeps such brutal time?”

Yannone then interrupted the flow of poetry with a more conversational tone, explaining how she and Ahl came across this form of writing collaboratively. She said that it is not foreign to the poetry world at all.

“I was very, very struck by a book by William Stafford, who is a poet I hugely admire. In fact, I think the very first poem I read of his was at Wheaton,” Yannone said. “William Stafford and Marvin Bell wrote a book together called ‘Segues: A Correspondance in Poetry,’ and it’s just a remarkable book where you can see the genesis of each poem in the previous poem. Of course, Stafford and Bell were sending these poems literally through the mail.”

“We could do that,” Ahl joked. “It would be kind of retro!”

“We could get some cool stamps, that would be nice,” Yannone laughed. She then shifted back to a more serious tone and went on to explain that because the two have known each other for such a long time, their work benefits exponentially.

“[Liz] knows my work deeply, and I think that exchange makes for really interesting pathways [in our collaboration],” Yannone said.

Ahl shared the next poem from the collection, explaining that she decided to structure it by pulling words from Yannone’s poem and responding to them. Yannone did the same thing with her following response, saying that writing this many poems continuously is difficult, but working with Liz helps to keep her momentum up.

“We never know where the next poem will come from. I really encourage you all to engage in collaborative work,” Yannone said.