MARSHALL - One of the poets reading at Southwest Minnesota State University and the Marshall-Lyon County Library Monday served in the Peace Corps, while the other started out on a scientific path in college.
Poets Saara Myrene Raappana and R. Elena Prieto will do two readings Monday - at noon at the Marshall-Lyon County Library and at 7 p.m. in Charter Hall 201 at Southwest Minnesota State University. Their appearance is part of the Visiting Writers Series at the university.
Raappana received her master of fine arts degree from the University of Florida and was in the Peace Corps as an English teacher in China. Her work as been published in the Harvard Review Online, Spoon River Poetry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review and other publications. Prieto, who was born in Venezuela, came to the United States with her family at age 4. She received her degree in English from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and her master's from Southern Illinois-Carbondale. Her writing has been in The Roundeau Roundup, OVS Magazine, Moon City Review and "A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry."
Prieto said she started writing because she loves words and language.
"I was raised in a bilingual home, so the importance of context and word choice was instilled in me from a young age," she said. "Layering words, images and sounds to evoke emotion, stir memories and connect with other people is an art form I began appreciating in grade school, and I love how poetry still surprises and inspires me."
As for Raappana, her interest in writing started with reading. She said she constantly read as a child - storybooks, fiction and poetry.
"When I found something I loved, I'd read it over and over again," she said. "As I got a little older, like maybe second or third grade, I started writing and drawing my own books, and I won a prize in a young author's contest for a little book I made about a bunny."
When she was in middle school, Raappana said she went through a period of extreme shyness.
"It seemed like no matter what I intended to say, I'd get so nervous that the words would come out wrong," she said. "So at that time, writing became a way for me to express myself and work things out without worrying about how I'd sound; I could get the words exactly the way I wanted them to be before anyone else heard or saw them."
Prieto has a background in science, specifically biology with an emphasis in genetics, and that informs a great deal of her work.
"I first went to college as a biology major, but after three years I realized how little joy my studies gave me, and I knew I was beginning to dread my life after school," Prieto said. "Additionally, I was not very good at chemistry or physics, and both were required as part of my course of studies. I left school to decide what I might prefer to do instead. I returned a little over a year later as an English major, and with the encouragement of a professor, began to focus on poetry."
Raappana said serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer was amazing in all ways - amazingly rewarding, valuable and delightful, but at times also amazingly frustrating. She and her husband taught English to college students in one of China's poorest, least-developed provinces. The experience, like all experiences, has popped up in her writing quite a bit, Raappana said.
"Sometimes I'll reference Chinese legends or historical figures that I learned about while in China; other times, I'll write about the feelings and insights I had while living there," she said. "And of course, coming back home has been interesting, and that's come up in poems, too."
Raappana grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, which is full of people of Finnish descent. Finnish music, like its people, mixes melancholy with whimsy until one can't tell which is which, and Raappana has often thought her poetry follows the same path.
"While I often explore grief, dissatisfaction, isolation, or inurement to poverty, I typically do it using fanciful imagery, whether drawn from my native U.P., a landscape of punk rock houses and condemned buildings, old newspaper clippings of Niagara Falls daredevils, or the Chinese province where my husband and I lived for two years. I strive to balance the music of words and the emotional impact of each poem," she said.
Getting poetry published can be tough, Prieto and Raappana said.
"I have just a handful of publications to my name, and I am currently working on a book-length collection," Prieto said. "Rejection is never easy, but it stings less and less. If I let it bother me, I couldn't keep writing, and that would be very sad, indeed. I am always reaching out to an audience of people who enjoy my poetry."
"All writers who want to publish their work will have to learn to deal with rejection, but that can be a really valuable experience," Raappana said. "When I first started sending my work out to journals, I'd get rejected 10 or 15 times before something would get accepted, and I'd feel sad every time. But because I was determined to be published, I learned to turn that sadness into fuel for better work, I'd revise what I had and experiment in new styles, pushing myself further."
Writers need to develop a habit of writing, Prieto said.
"I did not write through two different pregnancies because it became more difficult for me to concentrate, but I also lacked a habit that kept me writing through that difficulty," she said. "I am still working on perfecting that, and I wish I had done it earlier."
Raappana said budding writers should "read, read, read" and then "write, write, write and then read more."
"Stephen King, not a poet, but dang if he isn't prolific as get out, recommends reading and writing for four to six hours per day. Of course, most of us don't have time for that many hours, but daily reading and writing are, I think, a must,"?she said.