Poet Tim Seibles, Norfolk Academy’s Visiting Author, Spurs Fervor for Verse

What does it take to get a group of Upper School students out of bed early on a Saturday morning for an entirely voluntary three-hour session at school?

A chance to write some poetry.

Yes, you read that right. But it wasn’t just any poetry workshop. The main attraction was the workshop leader: Tim Seibles, Poet Laureate of Virginia and Norfolk Academy’s Visiting Author. Throughout the year, as Seibles has explored poetry in English classes and workshops, he has fueled enormous enthusiasm for poetry; indeed, for some students, his rare combination of intensity and openness has ignited a genuine interest in poetry that had not previously existed.

Seibles, who has published numerous volumes of poetry, first came to Norfolk Academy last spring as a guest speaker. His readings from his most recent collection, One Turn Around the Sun, as well as some earlier poems, created such an emotional connection that students lined up to buy his books and get a chance to talk to him, even briefly, as he signed their books.  

When it was announced that he would return to the Upper School this fall, excitement ran high, and the energy only grew, as he visited an array of senior English courses.  In those classes, he dove into poems—both those he has written and those by some of his favorite authors, from Shakespeare (sonnets) to Theodore Roethke (“In a Dark Time”)—and helped students write their own poems, as he used exercises to help them play with language.

In recent weeks, he held the Saturday workshop, and he visited Headmaster Dennis Manning’s course on leadership and Shakespeare, where started with a querying of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” and moved into an investigation of Sonnet 60, “Like as the waves make toward the pebbl’d shore.”  

Along the way, he wove in myriad relevant references to favorite works of art, including Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor (“There’s such agony in it, but it’s so beautiful.”); Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved (“Filled with anguish, but also beautiful.”); and poets Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sappho, Mary Oliver, and John Anderson, as he quoted from some of their works. While he held the class mesmerized, he would sometimes cut short a digression humorously—“I am not going to rant and rave at you characters anymore”—and return to a close reading of the text.

At every step, he reinforced his conviction that those who love reading should not be deterred by moments of confusion. “If you read some of these poems and find yourself baffled, don’t think ‘Man, I’m not smart,’” he said emphatically, noting that he does not hesitate to use reference books himself.

As it was a class on leadership, he deliberated with the students on the idea of engaging with the world, noting that for him, engagement with the world arises from reading widely, and then thinking and writing clearly as a poet. He is constantly working on poems, and he has allowed students to see the notebooks he uses for generating ideas and early drafts. While most people have a core activity that is different from the poet’s craft, the call to be fully awake and meet the world with conviction are the same.

“There is no way to lead except by being fully engaged,” he said. “If you you want to be a leader, you will have to decide ‘To Be.’ You might rather disappear and go into the attic or the basement...but ultimately, you are educated and you have even more of an obligation to stay engaged.”

Later in April, he will hold an after-school workshop with English teachers about strategies for teaching poetry.

Tim Seibles is a professor of English at Old Dominion University. His collections of poetry are available at bookstores, including two recent collections, One Turn Around the Sun and Fast Animal, for which he was a National Book Award finalist.