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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    …And she didn’t even know it

    Rebecca Rillos/ Arizona Daily Wildcat

Madison Bertenshaw, a graduating creative writing senior, stands in the back garden of the University of Arizona Poetry Center on Saturday. Bertenshaw recorded 15 original poems in the same style as old blues music for her honors thesis.
    Rebecca Rillos
    Rebecca Rillos/ Arizona Daily Wildcat Madison Bertenshaw, a graduating creative writing senior, stands in the back garden of the University of Arizona Poetry Center on Saturday. Bertenshaw recorded 15 original poems in the same style as old blue’s music for her honors thesis.

    When a creative writing senior says she just finished her honors thesis, you would assume she turned in a thick stack of paper. Instead, Madison Bertenshaw gave her adviser a CD recording of 15 new poems.

    Bertenshaw decided on the unusual format for her thesis while taking a literature course taught by Charles Scruggs, a professor of English. As part of its syllabus, the class examined the plays of August Wilson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who was influenced by blues music. The idea of bringing qualities from blues music to poetry appealed to Bertenshaw.

    She wrote the poems and discussed them with her adviser, Jane Miller, a professor of English. After final revisions, Bertenshaw recited each of her poems into her sister’s audio recorder in one take. The process, according to Bertenshaw, was similar to how early blues music was recorded.

    “”I thought I would be totally uncomfortable and be like, ‘Oh my God, this is going to sound so bad.’ But I guess because I was so invested in the poetry and I read it in my head so many times, the first time it came out it just felt right,”” said Bertenshaw, who doesn’t like speaking on the phone or texting but loves conversing with people in person. “”That’s how I wanted my poetry to be witnessed — through the ears and not necessarily through the eyes.””

    One poem from her thesis that Bertenshaw enjoyed performing was inspired by Robert Johnson, a singer and musician whose influence can be heard not only in the blues but also rock ‘n’ roll. According to Bertenshaw, Johnson would record one song multiple times but varied each performance.

    “”So I wrote a four-page poem, which is a really long poem for me, and I made these multiple takes as part of the poem, and I repeated the same poem in different ways,”” Bertenshaw said. “”It’s like re-imagining the same poem five different ways.””

    The poem centers on a woman wearing a cotton dress and the boll weevil, a nonnative beetle that has devastated cotton crops in the U.S. and played a major role in the economic and cultural plight of Southern farmers in the years just before the Great Depression.

    Unlike some students who have difficulty deciding on their major, the Phoenix-born, Tucson-raised Bertenshaw decided to be a creative writing major in her freshman year. She chose the poetry concentration after her professors in the introductory fiction and poetry workshops told Bertenshaw that she wrote “”a lot like a poet.””

    The creative writing senior remembers the turning point in her decision to become a poet. It came after reading “”A Story About the Body,”” a prose poem by Robert Hass.

    “”The way it’s written is so much better than I can ever summarize it for you, and that’s what makes it such a good poem,”” Bertenshaw said. “”I can say it and you’re like, OK. But you read it and you’re like, OK, that’s really cool. … I want to do what people like him (Hass) can do on a page.””

    The shape of language in its written and spoken forms has been a lifelong fascination for Bertenshaw, who briefly considered becoming a linguist. (“”I’m the worst at grammar. Like, I just bought a book about how to use commas,”” she said.)

    Bertenshaw credits her older sister Kaitlyn, a UA alumna who is now an opera singer, as an inspiration and a source of support.

    “”When you have a sister or brother, you do exactly what they don’t do,”” Bertenshaw said. “”You don’t want that competition, you’re siblings, you know? So this (writing poetry) was a route I took that was close to the musical realm. It’s sort of parallel and it rubs next to it a lot, and that’s what I like about it. So I can connect to her and relate to what she’s doing and she can do the same with me.””

    After living in Tucson for the past 11 years, Bertenshaw said she is ready to do something new and “”to not be happy for a while, to get a different sense of the world.””

    The creative writing senior will be attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst this fall for her Masters of Fine Arts, and said she would love to return to the UA as a professor.

    “”I think everyone is capable of poetry,”” Bertenshaw said. “”All it takes to be a poet is to be thoughtful.””

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