Local poet shares his lifelong passion with students

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Killingly - posted Tue., May. 10, 2011
Jon Andersen in his office at QVCC. Photo by D. Coffey.
Jon Andersen in his office at QVCC. Photo by D. Coffey.

Jon Andersen got hooked on poetry while pursuing a degree in English at the University of Connecticut. It was there that he took classes with Joan Joffe Hall and James Scully, English professors he considers poets as well as scholars. They introduced Andersen to contemporary poets writing out of what he calls “lived experiences that were parallel to my own.”

One poet was Jim Daniels, a Detroit native and factory worker, before getting his degree at Alma College, who wrote poems about blue-collar workers and gritty urban landscapes.

“I didn’t know someone could write poetry about that,” Andersen said.

That idea took root in Andersen, and he began to take poetry seriously. The poems he wrote in high school were influenced mainly by song lyrics. At UConn, he began to work on craft and intensity.

And while his path to teaching wasn’t direct, it was a goal he never lost sight of. After graduating from UConn, he worked at a lumber yard, an organic farm, and in his father’s landscaping business. He even joined a trail crew at Baxter State Park in Maine for a season, where he worked building trails.

“It was glorious,” Andersen recalls.

He settled into teaching at E.O. Smith High School in Storrs, where he met his wife, Denise Abercrombie, who is also a poet, writer and teacher. He received a master’s degree in special education. All the while, he kept writing poems. In 2003, he won the Working People’s Poetry Award. In 2004, he won the People Before Profits Poetry Prize. His first book of poetry, “Stomp and Sing,” was published in 2005 by Curbstone Press. It was reviewed in the United Kingdom by a publisher who wanted to do an anthology of contemporary U.S. poets. He asked Andersen to compile it.

After years of reading, researching and collecting, Andersen finished editing “Seeds of Fire: Contemporary Poetry from the Other USA.” The collection of poems from more than 50 poets was published in 2008.

He went to England in the summer of 2008 to do a reading tour with the poet Martin Espada. They started in the northern town of Middleborough and worked their way south to London, reading at literary fairs and festivals and art galleries. It was his first time out of the country, and it was a great experience.

“Readings are special,” Anderson said. “That’s where you connect with people. That’s where it happens. The work is a trigger to their own experiences.”

Andersen currently teaches literature and composition at Quinebaug Valley Community College, where he is an assistant professor in the English department. He teaches courses in literature, creative writing, and composition, spending “about a month on poetry” in his classes. He wants his students to understand that poetry isn’t something rarified. “It comes from all walks of life,” he said.

He’ll do an eclectic survey and look at all kinds and forms of poetry and the different concerns poets have. He’ll show his students everything from loud, kinetic, free verse to quiet, insular, introspective, formal verse.

“I want it to be seen as alive,” Andersen said. “The best poems transcend time.”

He reads poems out loud to his students and talks about how the poems have impacted him.

“I expect my students to do the same,” Andersen said.

His students come with all kinds of experiences around poetry, but he claims not to have had any negative experiences.

“I’ll ask if there’s anyone who doesn’t like music,” he said. That usually breaks the ice. His enthusiasm for his subject helps, no doubt.

Andersen still sees writing as secondary to teaching. He never wanted to go into the teaching of writing or poetry. “I wanted to teach people,” he said. “I went from teaching young kids in high school to teaching kids of all ages. One thing I love about community college is the multi-generational class mix,” Andersen said.

Andersen continues to write poetry in the unhurried manner to which he is accustomed. Sometimes a poem will compost for a long time before he can work it into a finished piece. Some poems come quickly, but none are completed without going through revisions.

“I always revise,” he said. “It’s important to be spontaneous at first and not worry about craft, just get a lot of ideas and words and images down. But then I have to come back and hone the words and lines and make sure that everything is placed just right. I want to take the words seriously.”

It’s the same advice he gives to his students. That and the line attributed to Roque Dalton, a Salvadoran poet, who said, “Everything that fits into life, fits into poetry.” It’s a slogan Andersen tries to live by.

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