Mischa Willett and students in front of McKinley Hall

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert. And today, we sat down with Professor Mischa Willett. Though he’s a published poet and writes poetic translations from Italian, German, and Greek, Dr. Willett’s path to literature and academia was not an easy or typical one.

Mischa is a specialist in British literature, particularly poetry, such as Wordsworth, Shelley, and Coleridge, but he often teaches Shakespeare. His essays range from topics such as Native American spirituality to theology of action movies, from university pedagogy to Italian paintings. Mischa, thank you for joining us today.

Mischa Willett: Thanks so much for having me.

Amanda: Well, as a literature professor who teaches the very highly academic undergrad and graduate students, one would just assume that you were born into academic circles. I think we find that pretty typical, but that’s not the case with you. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey into college?

Mischa: Oh, yeah. Well, it was a rocky one, for sure. My grandparents were Italian immigrants, so neither of them finished eighth grade, I think. And then I came along when my mother was 14 years old.

Amanda: Wow.

Mischa: So she didn’t get to finish high school even, nor did my father, if I understand it correctly. So it wasn’t at all obvious. Going to college wasn’t a thing that I foresaw in my family necessarily, but I decided I wanted to. And particularly because I had one teacher who believed in me and thought that could be in my future.

So I just put it together and figured out how to do the financial aid forms and how to take the appropriate tests. I never visited the campus that I went to before. I just turned up on day one and said, “Here we go.”

“I never visited the campus that I went to before. I just turned up on day one and said, ‘Here we go.’”

Amanda: And so when you were a part of that process, when you were finding your way into college, at least from our previous conversations, you’ve said it wasn’t the paperwork and the test scores that were a hindrance to you. It was more of the day-to-day relationships.

Mischa: Yeah. I was surprised at the number of hurdles that I faced. So many people think that getting into college is the hard part.

Amanda: Right.

Mischa: And that can be, right?

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: That paying for college is hard part. And oh my goodness, that can be.

Amanda: Of course, it is. Yeah.

Mischa: But for me, a lot of it was just cultural, things that I didn’t know I didn’t know until I got there.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: So I dropped out after the first semester, actually. And then I went back and I dropped out again, thinking I just don’t belong here. And it was the smallest things. I went to Wheaton College, which is in DuPage County, Illinois, which at the time, I think it was the third-wealthiest county in America.

Amanda: Wow.

Mischa: Didn’t know that going in.

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: And the family that I came from, we were on food stamps when I was young. Both of my grandfathers had been in jail, my father had, I think four of my uncles and my own brother. So being around the criminal justice system was a regular part of my childhood imagination. And going into a place, the third-wealthiest county in America, was just a culture shock in a thousand small ways. Some of the things were meaningless. I’m pretty sure I had never seen a man wearing khaki pants.

You know what I mean? That doesn’t mean anything. But I just saw how everyone around me was dressed and I thought, “Oh, so I don’t belong here.” I had never met a professor, never met anyone who had a PhD. I had never called anyone doctor, apart from my doctor. And I didn’t know how to do it. It was just those little pieces of friction that, “Wait, what do I …” I was always apologizing for maybe calling them the wrong thing, even when I had done it right.

“I had never met a professor, never met anyone who had a PhD. I had never called anyone doctor, apart from my doctor.”

Amanda: Right. Right. And I’m sure asking questions becomes a whole new hurdle. Because it’s not just, what questions should I ask? When should I ask it? Who should I ask the question to? I’m sure, right? There’s this whole cascade of things, of am I going to look stupid if I ask this?

Mischa: Yeah, that’s exactly right. The self-doubt just ramps up and then echoes and turns in on itself. Like, is this something that I’m supposed to know, or am I not? I know I’ve been told I’m welcome to ask questions. So I remember one time I went to a professor’s office. And after we talked for a while, he said he had to go to work on some scholarship, which is a pretty normal thing to say, as we in academia know. And I remember being baffled. I was there on scholarship.

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: In part, right?

Amanda: Uh-huh (affirmative).

Mischa: And that meant money.

Amanda: Right.

Mischa: So, in what way was this man going to work on scholarship? Do you know what I mean?

Amanda: Yes.

Mischa: He just meant he was going to read books and write articles.

Amanda: Right.

Mischa: Which is what we mean by that. But that word somehow means two things. And I didn’t realize.

Amanda: Right.

Mischa: It’s just tons of tiny bits of vocabulary. I didn’t know who the provost was. If that was a thing, should I go meet them? It turns out no.

Amanda: Right.

Mischa: That’s not necessary. But there were all these bits that, okay, what is my relationship to my dean? They get called my dean, dean of Student Life. Do we need to have lunch? Should I be on a first-name basis with him?

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: All these bits of ways of fitting in that I just didn’t have. And I didn’t realize how, stacked up, those things would be a formidable wall for me to climb.

Amanda: Yeah. Yeah. And I know students today, even deal with … They have lots of support, but where to get which kind of support. And usually, it’s just about relationship. I know this one person, so I’m going to go ask them, even if they’re not the one who can help with this situation.

Mischa: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. And that’s one of the things I talk about in articles that I write for university pedagogy, is a whole-campus approach to student retention that literally every single one of us has a part to play. I know people that stayed at Wheaton after they thought about dropping out, for example, because of the janitor. He was just a kind face.

He was a kind man, and he would talk, and he had this old Chicago way of speaking. He helped out, I think, on a volunteer basis with a hockey team. Do you know what I mean? It was just people like that, that I think that person makes me want to leave, what they said makes me want to leave. The climate makes me want to leave, but that person is looking out for me.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: And that was enough to keep them.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: And I think everybody involved with an institution like Seattle Pacific should be doing whatever they can to be that person for someone.

“I think everybody involved with an institution like Seattle Pacific should be doing whatever they can to be that person for someone.”

Amanda: Absolutely. And you never know what small thing it’s going to be, right?

Mischa: Yeah.

Amanda: Can you tell us the story of when you did drop out, there was a professor that didn’t let that happen.

Mischa: Yeah, that’s right. God bless him. The first thing that impresses me about this, so I had dropped out of college, and I went down to Arizona to measure men’s necks for fitted shirts.

Amanda: Exciting.

Mischa: This is my new future.

Amanda: Maybe it is for you. I don’t mean to make fun of that.

Mischa: Right. Right. It was not exciting for me, personally. And the first thing that impresses me about this, though, is that my freshman year composition teacher noticed I was gone. That’s the first step that seemed something like a miracle, because some of us teach 200 students in a quarter, some of us more, if you’re in these large lecture classes. And I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t send them a note or anything. I just wasn’t there anymore.

I snuck off with my tail between my legs and tried to figure out the money piece and everything. And he noticed I was gone. That was the first thing. And then he called me on a telephone, which is the second thing. This was early, early internet days, so it’s not like he could have just looked up what my number was or whatever. So he had to, I think, walk down to the registrar’s office, find out my home number, call my mom, tell her what he wanted and who he was, right?

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: And then find out my work number at the mall, explain to my shift manager who he was. Do you know what I mean?

Amanda: This was not a small thing.

Mischa: Yeah. All of those steps are just unbelievable to me that a person would just take those steps on behalf of someone they didn’t know, frankly, that well. And I was not an exceptional student. I’m sure of that. And yet he noticed I was gone, thought there was something wrong with that, and tried to make it right. So he pursued me, like Christ says, “To seek the lost sheep.”

“I was not an exceptional student. I’m sure of that. And yet he noticed I was gone, thought there was something wrong with that, and tried to make it right.”

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: I was the sheep, and he just sought me out. And basically, once he got me on the phone, he’s like, “Look, you need to come back to college. I don’t know what you think you’re doing with your life.” And what he actually did was invite me on a study abroad trip.

Amanda: Oh, yeah.

Mischa: Going to England. I’d never been out of the country before. And I went on that trip and it changed everything about my trajectory in life. I decided to become a good student instead of a bad one. I decided right then I wanted to be an English major, and that someday I would be a professor.

Amanda: All from one trip. Well, one phone call.

Mischa: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

Amanda: And from one trip.

Mischa: Right.

Amanda: So that trip and that change in trajectory of looking at literature and going into very old writings and a very deep, rich way of looking at the world, do you think your perspective from where you came from, that more unique perspective as far as English professors and poets, do you think that has helped you as a poet and a writer, to have that unique perspective?

Mischa: Yeah. Poets are always on the outside of things. Poets and prophets tend to not be the ones fully integrated in a society.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: Because if you’re going to offer a critique of something, you can’t very well be in the dead center of it, right?

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You have to have some amount of objectivity.

Mischa: Of remove.

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: Yeah, exactly. Right. So there’s this lovely little poem by Robert Frost. It goes, “They leave us so to the way we took, as two in whom they were proved mistaken, that we sit sometimes in the wayside nook, with mischievous, vagrant, seraphic look, and try if we cannot feel forsaken.” I think there’s something about that that’s always appealed to me, the sense that you’re often in a nook somewhere.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: And part of it, we moved almost every year growing up. I moved schools 20 times before I graduated high school. And so I was always on the outside. Of course, it takes a while to build community and trust, and friendships and things like that. So everywhere we landed, I thought, “OK, let’s figure this place out.” And I think that lent itself to my appraising things rather quickly.

That’s an essential skill that you develop with an upbringing like I had. And I think that parlays into my poetry, as well. Any building I walk into, a room or a social situation, I’m thinking about how this looks, how this could be arranged in a sensible way, which is the heart and art of poetry.

“I moved schools 20 times before I graduated high school.”

Amanda: Right. That idea of that perspective shift means so much to me, because I think so often when people end up in the right place, doing amazing things and affecting lives, they’ve been able to use something that’s unique about themselves in their favor. Whereas I think a lot of people would’ve looked at you in your situation early in college, maybe that first time you dropped out, and said, “Well, he’s just not equipped.”

Mischa: Yeah. Right.

Amanda: “He should be a plumber or an electrician.” There’s nothing wrong with being a plumber or an electrician.

Mischa: Sure. Sure.

Amanda: But it would have sold you short.

Mischa: It would’ve made more sense.

Amanda: Yeah, sold short your dreams. Instead of saying, “I’m actually uniquely qualified to look at the world in a different way. I’m uniquely qualified to look at every situation as a newcomer.” And I think we don’t give ourselves time. And we definitely don’t give other people enough time and circumspection to say, “Hey, you actually have a unique skill here instead of a deficit.”

Mischa: Yeah, that’s a good way of thinking about it. I’ve been pondering recently how the “negative things,” I put that in air quotes, but the difficulties we’ve had in life can actually be gifts, I think, to help other people.

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: So to your question about how it helps as a professor, I’m in a position to say I know what that’s like to a lot of circumstances.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: And the student population that I work with mainly here at Seattle Pacific, some of them have a lot of those circumstances. So if they have faced food insecurity in their family of origin, I can say, “Hey, I know what that’s like. It’s embarrassing to be on food stamps, or when the food stamps run out to have to go to the food bank.” That’s a whole different level of it. And I’ve been there. I know what those places are like. If they don’t feel comfortable telling that to everyone, they can feel comfortable telling it to me.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: Or if their family lives in neighborhoods where the police come around an awful lot, or they’ve had random searches of their house, I can weirdly say, “Hey, I know what that’s like.” Or if they dropped out of school, or if they failed out of a class, I’d done that, too. I was on disciplinary probation, too. I got caught drinking one time. And so they face these problems.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: And a lot of them, they don’t go up to their professor who has some fancy title and a neat-o office and just tell them all this stuff normally.

Amanda: Right.

Mischa: But I try to drop enough hints and share enough about my story in my classes that not no matter what, but given a lot of circumstances, I can say, “You know what, that’s not that weird.” Either I’ve been through it or I know people who have, and I can help direct them towards resources and/or at least say the things that helped me.

Amanda: Right. And at least say, “Here I stand as an example of someone who has been where you are, and has made it through.”

Mischa: Yeah, let’s not discount that. You don’t have to solve every problem. A lot of times, it’s just a matter of saying, “Yes, that’s a problem. I know.”

Amanda: Right.

Mischa: And I’ve seen that.

Amanda: Which is so the heart of mentorship, isn’t it?

Mischa: Yeah. Right.

Amanda: It’s to just stand here as someone on the other side, and say, “It’s possible.”

Mischa: Yeah, that’s the hardest thing for me. I always want to fix things.

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: Right. I want to get in there and start tinkering right away.

Amanda: Yes.

Mischa: But really, what the people need a lot of times, whether they’re facing depression or anxieties, or just missing their family, I’m not going to be a substitute family for them.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: But I can say, “I miss mine, too.” Because I do. My parents are 2,000 miles away, even now. I could just say, “Yeah, that’s hard.” And that’s not nothing.

Amanda: Right. Right. To say that’s real, what you’re experiencing is real. For sure. And speaking of being this person for many students, can you tell us about the Ascent Program here at SPU?

Mischa: Yeah. So the Ascent Program was started … Wait. Are we in our fifth year now? To identify and help students who are most likely to have trouble retaining in college, that is, graduating once they begin.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: It was the brainchild really of [Vice Provost for Academic Affairs] Cindy Price’s office, who watched the data and paid attention to what students we were losing, and when and why. All colleges face retention difficulties. A lot of people bite off more than they can chew, either financially or intellectually, or spiritually, or given their life circumstances.

You don’t know what thing it is. But rather than just let that happen, Seattle Pacific has made a very concerted effort to step in and make sure that the students who are most likely, statistically, to not be here at the end, to have all the help that they need.

“Seattle Pacific has made a very concerted effort to step in and make sure that the students who are most likely, statistically, to not be here at the end, to have all the help that they need.”

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: So having identified this group, Cindy just basically sat down with me and a couple others and said, “All right, what do you think we should do?” She knew a bit about my story. And so she said, “What would’ve helped you in this circumstance?” So we came up with the Ascent Program, which builds a cohort model because connection is a big problem. It’s not usually external factors. It’s usually some version of, I don’t fit in here.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: So we built a cohort model where between the first and second quarters, students will have a group that they came in with, that they’ll see those same 20 students in the next class.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: And that’s a little bit of it. And they’re just like, “Oh, I’ll see you guys next time, you’ll miss me if I’m not here,” instead of always changing to a new class. It connects them with a mentor who’s been through the Ascent Program ahead of them.

Amanda: OK.

Mischa: So then some upperclassmen. Which again, you come in from a high school and depending on what kind of high school you went to, you don’t talk to people in grades above yours. Sometimes you do, but sometimes I’m not talking to any seniors if I’m a freshman. I’m probably not even talking to sophomores. But we necessarily connect them to someone who’s just finished the grade that they’re in, because they can ask them questions they don’t feel comfortable asking me. And there are those questions …

As easy as I try to be with them, I’m still old and credentialed like that. So I want them to know someone they can feel totally comfortable with, just asking about …  things I don’t know about the area and what’s appropriate for kids their age.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: And then it tries to address a bunch of acculturation stuff. So I make sure they meet a librarian, for example. We bring in the student success specialist to help them write a resume, because they probably need jobs. At the same time, I tell them not to work too much, because that was the problem that I had, trying to hurry up and make a bunch of money on the side of my studies. Saying no, you absolutely cannot have a full-time job while trying to be a full-time student.

“You absolutely cannot have a full-time job while trying to be a full-time student.”

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: That’s the heart of it. They have a mentorship, they have a cohort, and then they have this acculturation package, along with some English composition skills, because a lot of students are really, really bright, but can’t express themselves well enough to get measured on that index.

Amanda: Right.

Mischa: Do you know if you have a history class or a theology class, it’s not always that you don’t understand the theology? You’re losing points because you’re not writing in complete sentences, or haven’t figured out a paragraph, or something basic like that.

Amanda: Or even just a vocabulary issue, right?

Mischa: Yeah.

Amanda: You’re using the closest word. And you know it’s not exactly the right word, but you just don’t have access to more choices.

Mischa: Right. Right. So we try to build that piece in, as well. So it’s a hybridized class, and even chaotic at times, but it’s been yielding really good fruit so far.

Amanda: And I can imagine it feels good for you as an individual, to be with a cohort of students where you can say, hey, you can be for them that professor that found your supervisor’s phone number at work.

Mischa: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right.

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: It’s funny because I didn’t think I wanted to do it, because I work in the graduate school here as well. I teach in the MFA program. And I work not in this setting, but I tend to work with advanced students, or I do independent studies with extremely motivated students. And when they asked me about this, I thought, “Oh, I don’t know.” Because I used to have a very professorial persona. No nonsense, let’s just get to business, you need to toughen up, all that attitude, which I think worked, as well.

And for whatever reason, and it may really just be by God’s grace, as soon as they asked me to teach in the Ascent Program, I just changed completely. I softened entirely. I was instantly their biggest cheerleader, like I just want to come alongside you and help. And now, my comments aren’t like, “This whole page can go,” which I used to just use a lot of red ink. I was that professor.

“As soon as they asked me to teach in the Ascent Program, I just changed completely. I softened entirely. I was instantly their biggest cheerleader, like I just want to come alongside you and help.”

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: And now, it’s a bunch of exclamation points and, “This is an amazing story! You’re doing great!” So yeah, it changed me at least as much as I think it’s changing them.

Amanda: Which, one could argue, that you were who your students need at the time, right?

Mischa: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amanda: Maybe some of your graduate students need that tough red pen. And then now, some of these Ascent students need exclamation points and stars to keep them moving forward.

Mischa: That’s a good way of saying it. That’s true. I don’t want to discount either thing. I needed that.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: I was definitely trying to get away with everything I could get away with as a student. I was slacking off and taking advantage of anybody that would let me get away with it.

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: My best teachers were all the ones who said, “Knock it off with that.”

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: “What do you think you’re doing?”

Amanda: “There is more in you than what you just put on this paper.”

Mischa: Yeah, exactly.

Amanda: Yeah. Yeah. I think we can all think back and find some teachers that challenged you. Because you need a cheerleader, but it’s the cheerleaders that challenge you to do your best.

Mischa: Yeah, that’s right.

Amanda: Yeah. Because just letting you slide is not always what is needed, right?

Mischa: Right.

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: Well, and everybody knows it’s easiest to accept criticism from people who you know love you.

“It’s easiest to accept criticism from people who you know love you.”

Amanda: Yes, and who you want to impress.

Mischa: Do you know what I mean? From some random person … yeah.

Amanda: Yes. I always found the classes I worked the hardest in were the ones where I really respected the professor, because I actually cared what that person thought about me.

Mischa: Yeah. Yeah.

Amanda: And that’s where my motivation came from. It wasn’t about the grade. It was because I cared.

Mischa: It’s funny. Or even the subject, right?

Amanda: Yes.

Mischa: Yeah.

Amanda: Yes, exactly.

Mischa: I’m not trying to do right by history, or whatever it is.

Amanda: Yes.

Mischa: It’s that professor. I don’t want them to think I’m slacking off or I’m not trying my best.

Amanda: Right. Right. Somehow, someone’s going to harness that someday out in the professional world of finding those mentors or that person in your life that you want to impress that person with the work you do now.

Mischa: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amanda: I feel like I worked a lot harder to keep someone believing in me.

Mischa: Yeah, that’s right.

Amanda: And we don’t really have that as much as adults, I don’t think.

Mischa: No. No, it’s a powerful motivator.

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: And it’s something that the university is a good incubator for. But then I’d like to see it expressed more in the professional world.

Amanda: Yeah. Maybe someone can call in that hears this and says, “Oh, we have a program just like that.”

Mischa: Right. Right. Right.

Amanda: Well, I’m sure that there are family members, friends, members of the church … people that have students within their community.

Mischa: Hmm.

Amanda: And maybe students that are struggling, especially during this time, immediately … Well, I was going to say post-pandemic. I’m not sure we’re finished.

Mischa: Right.

Amanda: Pandemic era we’ll say, that are at least adjacent to students that may be struggling. From your perspective, what can we do as community members to help?

Mischa: That’s a good question. Well, two things, I think. One thing that I remember was we didn’t have money to fly me home for breaks and that. So I never went home for Thanksgiving. I never went to a Thanksgiving after I was 18 years old. I never went back for them, because we were about to go for Christmas. I couldn’t buy two tickets in a year.

Or spring break, or any of these big times when the campus would shut down and be very, very lonely. And it felt strange. I remember being on campus, the only student in my hall, the whole hallway just completely empty, and buying myself like Oscar Mayer sliced turkey. You know what I mean? The lunch meat.

“We didn’t have money to fly me home for breaks and that. So I never went home for Thanksgiving.”

Amanda: Yeah. Yeah.

Mischa: And just having that as Thanksgiving like, “Well, this is what I can do to honor the day.” That was, until some stranger invited me to their house for Thanksgiving. And it was the best. I love my mother, but cooking isn’t the strongest thing that she does.

Amanda: Yeah. Yeah.

Mischa: And so I had a Thanksgiving that just blew my mind in these people’s house, who I didn’t know. I was not sure I was going to go. I was like it’s a stranger’s house, right?

Amanda: Right. Right.

Mischa: But they were connected to the university. And so I thought, “OK, I’ll just try it. Better than my lunch meat from last year.” And it was wonderful. That’s one thing that everybody can do, is to be on the lookout for those lost sheep.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: You can ask. There’s nothing wrong with asking a college nearby, or anyone connected to a college that attends your church, or that’s in your neighborhood. Like, “Hey, do you know students that don’t have anywhere to go?”

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: Some of my students are in Africa, and they’re not allowed to fly back until they have a certain amount of money. There’s cultural reasons they can’t go, unless they give certain gifts to their family.

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mischa: So I have a student who went through my program last year who estimates he won’t be able to visit home for at least four years.

Amanda: Oh, my God.

Mischa: Because he has to save a certain amount of money to give the ritual gifts. Four years, he’s going to be here for Christmas with no one. Do you know?

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: So you can find those students, you can ask those students. And just open your home if you have the space for it. The second thing is to help build little micro-communities. There are some students who will never feel like they quite fit in, whether it’s sociologically or economically, or intellectually, or spiritually. There’s any number of reasons. Some students might just always feel on the outside of any particular sociological group. And there’s not much we can do about that.

But what you can do is make another community that is possible for them to fit in and to feel like they have some ground. So in my case, it took me a long time to get ahold of being in an academic environment. But there was a small church group that met in the mornings and had 6:00 a.m. prayer, which was very difficult for me. But afterwards, they went out to breakfast at a cafe, which was very good for me. I love breakfast, and that was an easy sell for me. And I don’t remember for whatever reason, there were two students, one single mother, and four senior citizens.

Amanda: Wow.

Mischa: And we had breakfast together at 7 in the morning, every Tuesday. And I felt like I had found my people for whatever reason, whenever I thought they’re probably judging me or I can’t keep up, because frankly, there were a lot smarter people than me in school around me, I felt like I could sit with those people who were talking about the price of hay and sports, and whatever else. And I felt like I had a group.

And that gave me the strength to go back into that larger and more intimidating group, the academy, with a little bit more fortitude and sense of self. So I think there are ways of creating, whether it’s book clubs or Bible study groups, or neighborhood groups or any number, or the Hawaiian Polynesian club or whatever it is, there are smaller communities that give an awful lot of strength to people who don’t feel like they can scale the larger community.

“There are smaller communities that give an awful lot of strength to people who don’t feel like they can scale the larger community.”

Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Places where you can exhale, right?

Mischa: Yeah, that’s right.

Amanda: Where you can just relax.

Mischa: Yeah. Right.

Amanda: Yeah.

Mischa: And even if it’s not the case, to stop feeling judged.

Amanda: Yes.

Mischa: Right?

Amanda: Yes.

Mischa: It’s not the case that I was looking at you.

Amanda: That’s what I’m saying. Put down those barriers for a minute and just feel like I don’t have to protect myself for this breakfast.

Mischa: Right. Right. Right. Right.

Amanda: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, Mischa, I have certainly enjoyed our time today. I feel like I could continue talking to you all day long. And maybe we will, after we push stop. But we usually end each episode with a prayer of blessing. This time though, I asked if you possibly bring us a poem.

Mischa: Sure. I can always be pressed upon to read poetry to people. This is one from my first book, Phases, and it’s about the potential impact that we have on people, without knowing it. It could be a stranger that you meet in Tiffany Loop and that you say good morning to, rather than look down at your phone, or do any other instinctual thing. Or a book that you’re assigned and you just don’t know how much impact it has until … the student doesn’t know even, until 10 years later when they go through that life circumstance and that becomes a touchstone for them.

So this poem is called “Senza Titolo,” which is Italian for “no title”: “Taking slow the pronunciations, so that he’d know when a bow was low instead of a quick curtsy. I read The Book of Poetry for Young Readers to the infant piled between my elbows, limp and indifferent. Differentiating the characters’ voices for him who could tell apart so little still, and still so much, and whom I probably wouldn’t see growing up. Wouldn’t know whether he’d appreciated the round and open beauty of a word like owl, or why I thought it so important that he should, as though that sort of beautiful had ever done any good.”


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