UW-Madison Fellows Program

[Poems by Lauren Berry and by John Murillo follow this article.]

by Amy Quan Barry

Since its inception in 1978, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Creative Writing Program has grown not only in size but also in excellence and national reputation. We are distinguished as the only Program in the country to offer Creative Writing on all three levels—undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate; recently our MFA Program was ranked sixth nationally in Poets and Writers.

On the post-graduate level, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, founded in 1985, has awarded post-MFA fellowships to over eighty writers, who have subsequently published over eighty books and chapbooks. The Institute, which draws over 600 applications annually, is one of the two most prestigious post-MFA fellowship opportunities in the country, along with the Stegner Fellowships at Stanford University. Through the generosity of such donors as Ruth and Jay C. Halls, UW alumnus Carl Djerassi, the McCreight family, and the late Carol Houck-Smith, six Institute Fellows are invited to campus for one year where they teach one undergraduate creative writing course while they simultaneously work on completing their first manuscripts. Additionally, thanks in part to a generous donation by Carl Djerassi, in 2008 the Institute was pleased to begin inviting one senior playwright to campus for the spring semester.

During the spring semester the Creative Writing Program runs a reading series featuring the work of our fellows. (Please see our website www.creativewriting.wisc.edu for details.) In the course of our twenty-one year history, the Institute is proud to have hosted such talents as Charlie D'Ambrosio, Tony Doerr, Beth Ann Fennelly, and Ann Packer, and we look forward to continuing to bring talented emerging writers to Madison in the future.

Amy Quan Barry is a professor of English and the Director of the MFA Program at the University of Wisconsin.

Three Poems by Lauren Berry

Song for the Only Other Woman in the Slaughterhouse

                                         —It has been reported that the menstrual cycles
                                           of women in close quarters synch together.

            Behind the barn, the men say,
                        It sounds like someone’s singing?

            Inside the barn, I say, 
                        It’s music, the way I control the body part
                        That makes me want to kiss.I don’t have to

                        french the double spine of the tracks
                        behind the slaughterhouse.
                        Without rusted lips, I can walk home.

            Behind the barn, the men say,
                        It sounds like someone’s singing?
            Inside the barn, I say,
                        It’s music, the way I can’t control the body part
                        That, without my permission, answers women
                        With blood.  A quarter century in this body and still

                        It has conversations I’m not aware of.
                        It wants to be like the other girls, it begins
                        Desire without me. I hold a water glass to my thigh
                        But I get no secrets.
            Behind the barn, the men say,
                        You must have smelled her, the dark headed woman
                        Who climbed the ladder and gave mosquito fever speeches
                        Through complicated teeth.

            Inside the barn, I say,
                        I can not remember my mouth opening into black curls,
                        Sucking so hard the air from her neck. Perhaps there is
                        A part of me that dragged a white handkerchief
                        Under her arms while she dreamt of scraping the gate open
                        For the fourteen fevered paints.

            Behind the barn, the men say,
                        Too brilliant, the body and its too many bones.
                        It sounds like someone’s singing.

            From inside the barn, I say,
                        How do I dare live inside the body
                        When the dark headed woman is the opposite
                        Of the mare on the table?


Notes on How My Mother Gets into Bed

Never forget that we are still animals, my mother warned me as she examined the tongue
of my father’s young lover, pressing it between her thumb and index finger.
My father rubbed his eyes in the ripped-silk chair. He watched through his fists.  For what

was my mother looking? What could she recognize in that pink tongue? Beauty
maybe. I wish she would’ve told me to go to my own bed, though my mother  made me
stand in the doorway. How did the girl get into our house? New friend?

I wondered if she was sick— my mother checked her body like she checked  mine
when I was fevered, suffering from dreams that I was taller
than the barn. We are still animals, my mother said, fumbling into bed for days

like the most beautiful warmblood horse, that careful way, you can see it,
they have to figure out how to get to the ground. They struggle with their own  body,
surrender the bend, their front knees unlocking until they kneel, a slow-twisting  prayer

that it will work, and they drop their back-end to the dirt, oh, with that look
like they’ve hurt themselves, though they had to, they had to lie down,
and then that one pant from their deep-carved nostrils, which has to be the  hottest breath

there is because they squint those weak, wet eyes for a tender second. Oh my  mother,
with that young girl’s pulsing tongue between her fingers, which is nothing
a horse could ever do—oh my mother, my mother, she is so tired.


The Year My Mother and I Mistook the Pool for a Father

If I couldn’t sleep I nightgowned out there
and held my breath on top of it. 

Who’s afraid of the dark? Not me. There should be

something sweet in taking care of your own.
Sweeter than water than blood than honey than tar.

My mother and I mistook our pool for a clean-shaven man—
she crouched on the edge

and surface-dipped her face. Left side, right side.

The night, with its orange cat in a burlap sack scent,
made the water look solid.
Like it could kiss back. Why else would it ask

my mother and I to undress?

We decided this was the best way to live.
We set up two chairs and cut our own hair

over the pool. We unhooked
the backs of our dresses, dove. We floated ovals

around each other, fountaining green
mouthfuls to the deep end and pausing every now and then
like statues of living women. Of dead women.

The wetness felt honest.
(I still can’t trust an unwet body.)

My mother fed the pool
water fed it blood fed it honey. I said, Tar?

No, she said. He won’t be able to handle that.

Who were we all those nights?
Who were we talking about?

Three Poems by John Murillo

Practicing Fade-Aways

—after Larry Levis

On a deserted playground in late day sun,
My palms dusted black, dribbling
A worn leather ball behind my back, this loneliness
Echoes from the handball courts nearby.
Nearly all the markings—free throw lane, sideline,
Center circle—all rubbed to nothing.
A crack in the earth cuts across the schoolyard
Jagged as a scar on a choir boy’s cheek.

Twenty years ago,
I ran this very court with nine other
Wanna-be ballers. We’d steal
Through peeled chain links, or hop
The gate to get here: Our blacktop Eden.
One boy, who had a funny pigeon-toed set shot
And a voice full of church bells, sang spirituals
Every time he made a basket,
The other boys humming along, laughing,
High-fives flying down the court.

And a boy we called ‘The Sandman’
For how he put you to sleep with his shoulder fake or drop step,
Over six feet tall in the tenth grade,
Smooth talker with an itch for older guys’ girlfriends.
One Sunday morning, they found him stabbed to death
Outside the Motel 6, pockets untouched,
Bills folded neatly against his beautiful cooling thigh.
And ‘Downtown’ Ricky Brown,
Whose family headed west when he was two,
But still called himself a New Yorker,
Who never pulled from less than thirty feet out,
And could bank shots blindfolded.
He went to Grambling, drove himself
Crazy with conspiracy theories and liquor,
Was last seen roaming the French Quarter, shoeless, babbling
About the Illuminati’s six-hundred sixty-six ways
To enslave the populace.

At sixteen, I discovered
Venice Beach, with its thousand bodybuilders,
Roller skates, and red thong bikinis.
I would stand on the sidelines and watch
The local ballplayers, leaping and hollering
Quicksilver giants, run and gun
Already grown into their man bodies.
Funkadelic rising from a boombox in the sand.
Now, all I hear are chain nets chiming as I sink
One fade-away after another,
The backboard, the pole, throwing a long shadow
Across the cracked black asphalt.

What the nets want must be this caress,
This stillness stretching
Along every avenue, over high school
Gymnasiums and deserted playgrounds,
And the ambulance drivers drifting into naps
Back at the station house.
What the boys who ran these courts wanted was
A lob pass high enough
To pull them into the sky,
Something they could catch in both hands
And hang from,
Long enough for someone to snap
A photograph, to hold them there,
Skybound. Risen.

November 26, 1980

Five faces bunched in the glow of an old

floor model black and white, and a shadow

the shape of knuckles splashed

against the living room wall, my father

hollers when Hands of Stone, Roberto Duran,

waves off the fight and slinks

toward the corner, cut-man and handlers

struck dumb as ringside tuxes, dumb

as the uncles and cousins squeezed

onto our couch, cigarettes hanging from every open mouth.

Sugar Ray, all rhythm and blur, afro and short shorts, deals

a three-piece to the gut for good measure,

and Duran is done. Uncle Buck

praises Jesus, c-note riding on Ray in eight. Says

he’s late for a cross-town Rhonda rendezvous,

grinding the air, smacking imaginary ass.

Cash in his pocket, a woman to see, we know

Buck won’t be with us for a good few days.

What we don’t know is why. What we can’t know

is how Rhonda—the one he won’t bring by

since Crazy Pete caught her peeking 

at his cards and ran home to load his Roscoe,

she of the Chaka Khan wigs and thick lips—hip

to Buck’s heavy betting and the bragged-on odds,

smells presidents from miles away, the fresh bulge
of an old billfold, and is telephoning homeboys

from the other side of Exposition Boulevard.

Buck grabs his coat, shuffling into night.

We don’t know the next time we’ll see Buck

is in traction—bandaged, jaw wired shut,

tubes for piss and shit. Back home,

I’ll be in charge of soup and vitamin shakes,

the spoons he’ll push away, the straws he’ll spit out.

I’ll say nothing of the whispers, the rumors,

that he’s marked as a mark now. I’ll not repeat

that Rhonda must have set him up, that this is what he gets,

that a pussy-whipped gambler ain’t too long 

for this world. I’ll leave the grown-up talk 

to grown ups, make the shakes, serve the soup.

At nine, I’ve years to know a thing about this

kind of pain, the kind with little to do 

with bicycle chains, aluminum bats, boots

between shoulder blades. But I know enough

not to refuse this man his bottle of Night Train.

When he motions for it, I know I’m not supposed to, but

I’ll unscrew the top, put it to his lips, watch the burn—
the stitches’ give, scabs scratched open

in what passes for sleep—and halfway understand,

watching Buck flip channels, every one

replaying that last long round, the night, 

the first clear words we’ve heard from Uncle Buck

since he left us for his rendezvous:

No mas, no mas, no mas.


after Adrian Matejka, Ernesto Mercer

I know it’s wrong to stare, but it’s Tuesday,
The express is going local, and this woman’s

Thighs—cocoa-buttered, crossed, and stacked
To her chin—are the only beauty I think I’ll see

For the next forty minutes. Not the train’s
Muttering junkie, who pauses a little too long

In front of me, dozing, but never losing balance.
Not the rat we notice scurry past the closing doors,

Terrorizing the rush hour platform. Not
Even these five old Black men, harmonizing

About begging and pride, about a woman
Who won’t come home. But skin, refracted

Light, and the hem’s hard mysteries. I know
There’s a man somewhere in this city, working

Up the nerve to beg this woman home, the sweet
Reconciliation of sweat on sweat, and pride

Not even afterthought. My own woman, who
I’ve begged sometimes not to leave, and begged

Sometimes, please to leave, never has, also waits,
Uptown in a fourth floor walk-up, in an old t-shirt

For me to make it back. She waits for me to come
Through jungles, over rivers, out from underground.

She waits, without fear, knowing no matter what,
I will make it home. And, God, there were times

I probably shouldn’t have, but did, and lived
To see this day, the junkies, rats, and thighs,

And I say, praise it all. Even this ride, its every
Bump and stall, and each funky body pressed

To another, sweat earned over hours, bent over moats,
Caged in cubicles, and after it all, the pouring

Of us, like scotch, into daylight, dusk,
Rush hour, this long trip home. Praise it all.

The dead miss out on summer. The sun
Bouncing off moving trains and a woman

To love you when you get inside. Somewhere
In this city, a man will plead for love gone,

Another chance, and think himself miserable.
He’ll know, somewhere deep, he may never

Win her back. But he’ll know, even deeper,
That there is a kind of joy in the begging

Itself, that all songs are love songs. The blues,
Especially. Praise the knowledge. Praise

The opening and closing doors, the ascent
Into light, heat, each sidewalk square—cracks

And all—the hundred and twelve stairs between
Lobby and my woman’s front door, the exact

Moment I let in this city, let out this sweat,
And come to own this mighty, mighty joy.