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Poet writes gritty and lyrical words

by Amy Kingsley

by Amy Kingsley

One of Christine Garren’s first toys was a portable Smith-Corona her mom gave to her when she was just six years old. Typewriter in hand, she started writing.

“It was really powerful,” she says. “It was a form of play for me.”

Three books of poetry later, that play has taken a rather serious turn. Garren, a quiet type with the physical presence of a paper doll, stands at the podium in the UNCG Faculty Center a few minutes after 8 p.m. straightening her papers. She clears her throat.

It’s a chilly night, bitter cold by North Carolina standards, but Garren has attracted a healthy crowd split almost evenly between students and contemporaries. As a group, they demonstrate a sartorial preference for black-and-white, and one can even spot a handful of literary-conventional turtlenecks.

After a short introduction, Garren opens her reading with the title poem from her new collection, The Piercing:

Small piercing as if in an earlobe

your leaving caused. Air is filling it now, time fills it

the view through these windows fills the tiny hole.

The people on the street, the manic father

the other father carrying his child in pink-this

millimeter’s-width opening is for a decade to fit through.

Her words are personal, but just obscure enough to get the standing-room-only crowd nodding along in universal agreement. The lyrics she strings together ricochet between lyrical and gritty – sometimes in the same poem. Her subjects include drug addicts, homeless people, organ donors and young track runners.

Garren says her early poems were often inspired by landscape, but several unexpected deaths in her family have forced a turn inward.

“Recently it’s been a lot about interior struggles,” she says.

Garren is a familiar figure at UNCG. She attended the school for both undergraduate and graduate school – she obtained an MFA from the prestigious poetry program. Because of a mild phobia, she and her husband, an English professor at NC A&T University, have lived in the same house across from campus for 26 years.

Poetry is Garren’s full-time vocation, and although she hasn’t profited much monetarily from her work, she recently succeeded in publishing poems in some high-profile literary magazines including Ploughshares, Poetry, The Boston Review and The Greensboro Review. She was also offered a Lannan Residency in Marfa, Texas, home of Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation – a collection of large-scale sculptures that has transformed the Western town into a cultural mecca.

Unlike many other poets, Garren does not augment her paycheck with teaching gigs. She tried it, she says, and she’s not very good at it.

After her reading, several students in the MFA program approach Garren for counsel. The writer is generous with herself, talking with each of them at length.

Garren is modest to the point of self-effacement. Noting the large turnout she says:”They sort of have to come as part of the program.”

But they don’t have to stick around, or buy out all of the copies of The Piercing stacked on a round table at the back of the room.

“The program has been so generous to me,” she says, referring to UNCG’s MFA program. “They’ve actually embraced me, even though I’m a… what do you call it? A townie.”

For almost an hour after her reading, fans stroll up to Garren, books in hand ready for her signature.

“It was extremely powerful, provocative and rigorous,” she says of her time at UNCG. “It forced growth upon me.”

All of which started at six years of age, because of a contraption made of clacking keys, a carriage and an ink ribbon. It’s a gift Garren has treasured.

“I think more young mothers today should think about giving their children typewriters,” she says.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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