November 10, 2022
by Kelly Cass Falzone (Poetry ’22)
Last April, just one month ahead of my graduation from the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing, I had the honor of being named class representative by my Spring 2022 MFA and MAW classmates. Accepting the role involved coordinating a class gift as well as delivering a “Message from the Class” during the commencement ceremony. The first task was fairly straight ahead; the speech writing, however, was much more of a challenge. Fortunately—and proven true at many points throughout my life—poetry saved the day.
It is not an exaggeration to say that in the weeks leading up to graduation I drafted three or four different speeches, unsure of which to deliver. I’d sent out questionnaires, asking my classmates about their Spalding experience, as well as what they might say if giving the graduation address. This was helpful, especially in getting to know them, but it also illustrated our very different lives and experiences in the program. Sixteen of us, from ten U.S. states, represented all six genres; some had started the program one or two years prior, while others had taken three to six or more years to complete the degree. We would gather in May—for some of us it would be the first time on campus in two years, due to Covid shutdowns—having also endured a heavy-hearted time of racial injustice, political upheaval, cultural divisiveness, and mounting violence. Alongside everyday responsibilities, some of us had suffered tremendous losses, isolation, illness, financial stress, natural disasters, violent aggression, and more. The compounding traumas, and personal triumphs despite it all, were significant.
I felt the weight of speaking for my classmates; I doubted that my single voice at the podium could truly represent us all. Fortunately, I’d had the urge to invite each classmate to send me a short passage from their writing, thinking I might be able to weave together a group poem. I asked them for permission to attempt that, gave them free rein on topic and tone, and simply suggested it be work to which they felt especially connected. They shared generously. Twelve of my fifteen classmates participated; some sent two- or three-line sections or a few paragraphs, while others sent full poems or a few pages of prose or script. Familiar with the work of only a handful of my classmates, it was a joy to hear the voices of those I didn’t know, and intriguing to see what each person chose to send.
But then, the daunting part! I went from joy to bewilderment—overwhelmed by the writing piled before me, like so many symphonic instruments, warming up in cacophony. How would I compile something coherent from these disparate and randomly chosen parts? Recognizing the rising doubt, I decided to take the pressure off by embracing the joyful play of the poetic opportunity. I approached the poem assembly as a puzzle or game, a kind of art project I could dip into and out of at my leisure over the following few weeks. Although my primary creative medium is poetry, I drew from my work as a mixed media, paper, and book artist, as if building a collage. And that’s what poets do—we compress and layer, prune and piece together, allowing the mind to leap and find connections. And we have a name for this kind of poem: the cento—from Latin, meaning “patchwork”— a poem composed entirely of lines of poetry written by other poets. So with a lighter heart and playful spirit, I reread the work, noting lines or images that jumped out at me or drew me in. I took (digital) scissors to the page, cutting and pasting snippets into one document, careful to note who wrote what so that I could be sure to include everyone’s work. In poring over the pieces, themes emerged, led by my interest in creating a celebratory piece that spoke to the sense of community that Spalding fosters.
Then came the Eureka! moment: I found a potential governing framework in the writing of classmate Sam Krauss. His television pilot script “Sky Trolley” has humor, visual imagery, and language lending itself to multiple meanings. Sam’s lead character is named “Sky,” and I saw the opportunity to personify the actual sky and use it as a metaphor for both the future and the supportive spirit at Spalding—the sky as limitless cheerleader, ever present, watching our development and coaxing us on, a kind of mentor or divine source in witness to our experiences. I asked Sam for permission to use his work in this way, altering his text a bit, and he enthusiastically agreed! Using the framing conceit of the script, I pulled out five segments of the work that could mimic progression through the four semesters plus capstone residency of the MFA program. Those five signposts then provided a map for shaping the rest of the excerpts, along with a few lines of my own and some small edits for sense-making, into a chorus of our collective voices. I hoped the dramatic arc would illustrate the student writer’s journey—with all its urges, questions, trials, lessons, and victories—ending in ultimate celebration.
It was my great honor not only to speak on behalf of my classmates but to use their words. I truly felt they were all up at the podium with me that day, in community. And it is yet another honor to share our group poem with you here:
A Stanza of Writers
INT/EXT: On the MORNING of the first day
THE SKY appears in a DOORWAY.
WRITING worms its way in— columbine bursting from bedrock. We don’t have a question— we have a hundred questions like a cracked ribcage of wire tangled within us.
But why would we risk our lives to fight for this?
Because we know what QUIET costs.
We’re skilled at hide-and-seek, cutting in zigzags
across the rows of grape vines, hiding
in the heart-shaped leaves.
And we want to be organic in the world, believers
in alchemy and consciousness, we want to pull people together for love— like matchmakers
and we thought we could do it without anyone knowing.
Life’s a wheel. Wheels turn.
THE SKY comes rolling in carrying a CHEESE PLATTER.
We break into a half sprint-half leap to plunge into the muddy brown water of writing. Wood and debris swirl around us; we kick and claw.
We don’t yet know what lies on the other side, just that the dogs will be kept away for a while.
SUMMER purses her leathered lips— promise-makers perched just above her chin like wedges of late-season tomatoes.
But WINTER is the great revealer— what’s held together by gumption and grit begins to show its age
once the freeze comes.
If our water buckets harbor hidden cracks, the ice will force them apart, breaking open.
TRAUMA comes in with its whisk broom and dusts the days
one into the next, under a white noise of piglet deaths,
a Bulova transistor radio tucked under a pillow
and turned on low, the occasional lamb,
and rabbit— all such delicate creatures.
Trauma lands heavy as work boots on pinewood
or an empty bourbon tumbler on the mantel— the camera’s flash: a fierce glance.
THE SKY stares off— as if in its own world.
We turn to the empty page, a wall against which we throw our loneliness, waiting for the mind to swing itself out from the ladder’s last wobbly step.
We love WORDS for their sturdiness.
We have faith in every organ and muscle of the alphabet,
our pens dance like bones in the body—
But not everything is language. There is: whether or not we are kind, or that which makes us laugh,
and those we love.
We want love. We don’t want to be the last to have it.
INT: EVENING, AT DUSK
THE SKY pulls up next to us holding a HOT DOG.
“What’s up?” it asks.
“We’re writing this story...” we say, “about a boy in a chair, who discovers a magic train, and he uses it to try and save his town and family from raging wildfires.”
“Does he succeed?” asks THE SKY.
“No,” we answer. “In the end, even with a magic train, extinguishing the fires is beyond an eleven-year-old’s ability. Inevitably, the entire town burns, including his own home.”
“That’s kind of sad,” says THE SKY.
“It is... and it isn’t,” we say. “In the end, he makes some very special friends on that train— finally— others just like him.
And for people like us, that’s no small thing.”
EXT: NIGHT of the last day.
THE NEIGHBORHOOD seems to exhale in the wake of our departure.
THE SKY begins to clap its hands.
Spring 2022 graduates whose work was used in assembling this poem:
Richard Childers, fiction
Kelly Cass Falzone, poetry
Courtney Hill Gulbro, creative nonfiction
Lisa Hockstein, fiction
Michelle Tyrene Johnson, playwriting
Sam Krauss, screenwriting
Lynette Lamp, poetry
Elizabeth Hall Magill, fiction
Quincy Gray McMichael, creative nonfiction
Angela Ray, poetry
Suzanne Craig Robertson, fiction
Leslie Santamaria, writing for children and young adults
Kylie Yockey, fiction
Listen to an audio version of "A Stanza of Writers" here:
Poet, artist, and educator Kelly Cass Falzone recently completed her MFA at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. She also holds a Master of Science degree in Counselor Education from SUNY Brockport. Her work has appeared in journals such as Stone Canoe, Literary Accents, Nashville Arts Magazine, Clackamas Literary Review, First Class Lit, and others, and been awarded prizes and recognition from the Tennessee Writer’s Alliance, the Knoxville and Chattanooga Writer’s Guilds, the Berry College Emerging Southern Women Writers Competition, and The Porch Prize in Poetry. Falzone’s writing has earned two Pushcart Prize nominations and was winner of the 2018 Bea Gonzales Prize for Poetry. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.