Toby Altman, PhD
I wrote my first poem when I was eight years old. It was an elegy for my dead turtle, Ewok. I still remember some of the—mortifying—lines from that poem today: something, for instance, about the “artful colors” of her shell. But mostly, I remember the experience of writing the poem and then reading it, standing over the turtle’s grave, a small hole in the backyard, with my parents and their friends gathered solemnly around me. I remember the way that working with language created a space for grief and for reflection: a way for people to come together and celebrate the small life of this small creature. That seems to me something that writing and storytelling can do: give dignity and meaning to the smallest moments, the smallest lives. Better, it can help us articulate the dignity and meaning that was always there to begin with, just waiting for us to notice it.
This was powerful stuff for an eight-year-old—though probably not for the adults standing there with me. After all, adulthood can involve a kind of numbness, an indifference to the little moments of beauty and grief that can change a child’s life. It’s part of the poet’s task to get back to that child-like state of wonder, where even the most minute moments have transformative power. When I write a poem now, as an adult, I draw on that early experience: asking myself, what kind of community does this poem make possible? How can I use language to tell stories that might otherwise be forgotten, to forge connections that might otherwise never be made?
In answering these questions, I draw on an unusual set of experiences, a wide training as a writer and thinker. Over the course of my career, I’ve milked cows by hand, moved irrigation lines in the high desert of California, served as a community organizer in a rough part of Philadelphia, worked in scholarly archives, and performed poetry all over the country. Since I delivered my eulogy for Ewok, I’ve written two books of poetry, Discipline Park (Wendy’s Subway, 2021) and Arcadia, Indiana (Plays Inverse, 2017), alongside several chapbooks, most recently Every Hospital by Bertrand Goldberg (Except One), which won the 2018 Ghost Proposal Chapbook Prize. I’ve received fellowships for my writing from MacDowell, the Millay Colony for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. My poems and essay have appeared in some of the leading national literary journals, including Denver Quarterly, The Georgia Review, and Gulf Coast. My work relies on my training as a scholar of Renaissance literature: I received a PhD in English from Northwestern University in 2017. That background gives me the patience and attention to detail necessary to dig deep and get to the heart of things. And my work also draws on my experience teaching and studying creative writing: I received an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2019. Teaching creative writing is all about helping people find their voices: it’s about listening carefully, discovering what’s true, what’s real, then bringing that out. Those moments of honesty and truth make community possible. Whether writing about a dead turtle or forgotten architects, I try to cut to them, bring them out, and, in doing so, make such communities possible.