By Elena Goodenberger
MFA Graduate Student

Ten years ago, Barack Obama was finishing up his first year in the White House, the must-have new technology was the iPhone 3GS, and Tabula Poetica: The Center For Poetry at Chapman University was founded.

Over the past ten years, Dr. Anna Leahy and her Tabula Poetica team have fostered a creative community centered around the poetic passions of faculty and students alike. From the literary journal TAB to the “Tabula Poetica Presents”  reading series, Tabula Poetica beckons poets from a wide range of perspectives and backgrounds.

On December 9th, 2019, Tabula Poetica will host a reading celebration in honor of its 10th Anniversary. The event begins at 7 p.m. in Fish Interfaith Center, will feature fourteen poets, and is free to attend.

In anticipation of this event, I had the opportunity to speak with two of the poets who will be returning as readers for the celebration. Michelle Bitting and Lynne Thompson previously visited Chapman (Bitting in 2018 and Thompson in 2010) to read their work as a part of the “Tabula Poetic Presents” reading series. Bitting and Thompson were kind enough to share some of their accomplishments and also provide some advice for creative writers like myself.

Elena Goodenberger: As you know, this year marks the 10-year anniversary of Tabula Poetica. What were you writing 10 years ago?

Michelle Bitting

Michelle Bitting: Ten years ago, I was out and about reading from my first collection Good Friday Kiss. I was also formulating the curriculum for my first major teaching gig at UCLA Extension, a course I conceived of, pitched to the higher hiring powers, and ended up teaching for two years called “The Multi-tasking Muse: Inspiring Your Poetic Voice Through Exploration of Multiple Art Forms.” As the title suggests, I pulled from many influences I had knowledge and talent in: music, theater, dance, culinary & visual art—and let those practices inform the poets I chose to talk about as well as how we discussed their work. It was endlessly fascinating—both what we dug up and what we created as a class.

Lynne Thompson

Lynne Thompson: I was two years out from publishing my first book, Beg No Pardon. The manuscript won the Perugia Press Award as well as the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award. As a result, I had a whirlwind of readings and related activities that were personally gratifying and energizing. But in the world of “the next new thing,” my book was soon weighed under by newer books, not forgotten but also not front of mind. As a result, I was eager to publish another manuscript, and Start With a Small Guitar came out six years later.

Goodenberger: Would you have done anything differently if you could go back in time?

Thompson: Although I’m quite proud of Guitar and grateful to What Books Press for publishing it, if I could go back in time, I think I would have waited longer to publish a more polished and “meatier” second manuscript. I would encourage all emerging writers to put the quality of their work ahead of their own egos and need to see their name in print. In the end, we all want our names associated with the best work we are capable of producing.

Goodenberger: As a first-year MFA candidate, I’m learning how to balance the quantity of work I am producing with the quality of the work itself. As creators, we have to always keep moving forward, but I agree it’s important to take the time to make sure the quality is where we want it to be.

Goodenberger: Michelle, through your various teaching experiences over the past decade as well as your continued work as a poet, have you seen any changes in the Southern California literary community and the larger poetry community?

Bitting: I see a whole new generation of poets on the rise who represent a much wider array of cultural backgrounds as well as gender and sexual identities/orientations. More poets of color, more women, more from the LGBTQ+ communities are taking the prizes, the stage, and the power. It’s very fluid and very exciting. Not that these individuals and groups didn’t exist before (obviously) but it’s glorious to witness the shift of attention, and it makes sense in light of what’s happening globally in the arts and entertainment (as well as political and other) arenas. Also, this rising generation of poets is tech, media, and performance savvy—they’re so good at putting all the modalities together—it makes room for much that’s new to happen.

Goodenberger: Speaking of tech and new approaches, Tabula Poetica is relaunching its literary journal, TAB: The Journal of Poetry and Poetics, in January 2020, with both an innovative print issue (it’s different every year) and a new online presence. Why do you think it’s important for universities to develop and produce poetry publications such as TAB, where the rising generation can appear alongside more established poets?

Thompson: Two benefits, in particular, come to mind. One, a university truly committed to and understanding of the importance of literature in print in our culture—like Chapman—is usually in a better position, financially, to support the publications. Small, independent presses, though wonderful, often struggle to publish if they can’t find a donor, have a substantial subscription base, or find another way to underwrite the costs of publication. (I don’t mean to undervalue digital publication because it has been able, among other things, to reach a broader audience. Nevertheless, for me, there’s nothing quite like holding a book or magazine or periodical in my hands!) Second, the involvement of universities in literary publication opens a space for its students to understand the step-by-step process of producing a document for the reading public as well as to join a community of writers that will likely lead to lifelong relationships that benefit their own writing.

Bitting: I think that if universities want to continue to develop their writing programs, it’s essential to offer publications that will nurture the showcasing of young writers’ work as well as provide a venue for them to learn the foundations of editing and publishing. Accolades and skills of this nature can only help build job and communication bridges between graduates and the multi-faceted, competitive, communication/publication fields outside of academia. So, too, I know from experience that when my writing students get the nerve to submit to on-campus journals (and where I’ve been teaching of late, the quality of magazines produced is exquisitely high) they, not surprisingly, “up their game.” Suddenly, what they’re inventing on the page has the potential to impact humanity beyond the classroom or grade book. In other words, it signals some sort of stakes being raised and a seriousness about their art and vision that’s straddling and striding towards the “real world.” This goes for academic writers and journalism majors as well!  

Goodenberger: Whenever we celebrate the past decade, that’s an opportunity to look ahead to the next ten years. What are you looking forward to accomplishing over the next decade?

Thompson: I’ll continue to write poems, of course, but I’d like to stretch my imagination into creative nonfiction and playwriting. I’ve had a personal essay published thus far and enjoyed working in that genre. It’s all about change and growth!

Bitting: I can’t think of anything more important right now than encouraging young people to speak their minds well and authentically. As an artist and educator, nurturing those endeavors is precisely what I intend to devote myself to for as long as I’m able!

Goodenberger: As for me, I am looking forward to speaking with both of you in person and hearing you read from your work at the Tabula Poetica 10th Anniversary Celebration on December 9th at 7 p.m. in Fish Interfaith Center!