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Poet and Professor: Bucks’ Very Own Ethel Rackin

Shannon Harrar, Centurion Staff

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Warm sunlight poured through
the tall windows of Tyler Hall’s
room 142, illuminating the space
that would soon be filled with
those attending the afternoon’s
poetry reading. The weather was
perfect for a day in late February;
a gentle breeze accenting the high
50-degree temperature outside,
setting a tranquil mood throughout
the hall.
As the room filled up, Dr. Ethel
Rackin prepared for the reading.
This afternoon she’d be reciting
lines from her newest published
work, “Go On.” Alongside another
local poet, J.C. Todd, the two
met with an audience of about
75; a mix of students, faculty, and
poetry-lovers.
Dr. Rackin, a Germantown-native
and daughter of two English
professors, has been writing
poetry for nearly her whole life,
beginning at the age of 9 and
starting to write seriously when
she was about 15.
“When I first started, it provided
me with a space to say things
I couldn’t otherwise say,” Rackin
says of what poetry gives to her
life personally. When she was a
teenager, her best friend ran away
from home and her poetry gave
her an outlet to express thoughts
and feelings about that experience
that would otherwise never see
the light of day.
Now 44, Rackin looks back on
how her poems have evolved.
“Even though
my poems aren’t
necessarily
always personal
I still think that
poetry gives
us a space to
say things that
would otherwise
be difficult to
say for one reason
or another.”
Writing for most of her life,
Rackin’s poetry style has changed
and developed over the years. In
her two published works, she uses
the lyric style, allowing her inner
thoughts and feelings to come
to life through her words. Lyric
poems are primarily distinguishable
through the musical rhythm
they possess. Aside from having
a musical aspect to them, lyric
poems often have deep emotional
ties, too.
Rackin recalls her biggest
poetic change happening after
graduate school. She received her
master’s degree in creative writing
at Bard College, where her
teachers pushed her to experiment
with things like made-up cartoon
characters for the poems, and toying
around with white space.
“Although those things were
fun and interesting to try,” she
explains, “the process of developing,
in some ways you gain
something new with everything
you try, but in other ways it’s
been a process of getting back to
my own voice.”
She settled back with writing
lyric poems, noting the finalization
of her first book, “Forever
Notes” as where her “real passion
and voice started to emerge.”
And emerge her voice did. The
poet J.C. Todd said of Rackin,
“one thing I admire about Ethel
Rackin’s poetry is the quality of
its voice. It feels authentic and
trustworthy; it feels like a voice
that couldn’t mislead or lie. I believe
her poems, even if they are
sometimes mysterious or elusive.”
Her most recent book, “Go On,”
is, as she described, “looser and
grittier” than her first book. “Go
On” is a book based on survival,
a how-to on how to live in
unsure times. She cited the book
“Calamity Jane” by friend and
fellow poet Thomas Devaney as
an important influence, pushing
her to consider topics previously
untouched in her poetry, including
politics.
Another friend and colleague of
Rackin’s, Professor Chris Bursk,
said, “Ethel Rackin is one of
BCCC’s secret treasures. She is a
remarkable teacher who brings to
the classroom a deep commitment
both to her students and to the
craft of writing. And she is also a
remarkable poet.”
The fact that Rackin is a poet
herself definitely shines through
in the classroom. Her honors
comp 111 class is currently finishing
up the semester with Yolanda
Wisher’s book “Monk Eats an
Afro,” a book of poetry that, without
the guidance and instruction
of Rackin, would otherwise prove
to be tough to analyze. One of
her students, 19-year-old journalism
major Hal Conte said of
her ability to teach poetry, “other
professors or teachers in the past
have made it seem like there’s
something you have to hunt for
but she makes it easy.”
Another student of Rackin’s,
18-year old veterinary medicine
major Victoria Ryan also said of
her teacher, “Professor Rackin
always does a great job making
the subject material more relatable.
Due to her background, she
is able to bring new and inventive
meanings to the text that I would
have never thought possible. I
have definitely grown as a writer
because of her!”
“I know of no voice quite like
Ethel’s,” Bursk also added. “Her
poetry is breathtaking. In the
wake of all that bullying and
divisiveness that marked this
past presidential campaign and
this current presidency, I have
kept returning to Ethel’s book. It
is lyrical and brave. It does not
use language to bully or divide.
It makes magic out of that white
space that surrounds a poem. It
speaks truth to power; it reminds
us why we are alive. It gives us
courage to keep on living and daring
to imagine, daring to hope.”
Along with politics, other
influences come into play, albeit a
little more subtly.
Although she is a practicing
Buddhist, Rackin’s family heritage
is Jewish, and her book was
nominated for the 2016 National
Jewish Book Award. “I don’t
think that they’re directly religious
but now people are telling
me they definitely see a spiritual
dimension,” she said of the influence
of religion in her poems.
“Spirituality is a big part of
my life, so it’s probably coming
through organically… I’m not
aware of purposely putting Jewish
content into the poems at all but it
does make sense to me that some
of this is coming through in the
work because that’s my heritage
and culture and background so it’s
coming through naturally.”
Culture and background are
constant inherent influences that
stay with us throughout our lives.
Rackin says of hers, “[it was]
definitely an urban upbringing,
growing up in Germantown it was
really lively and really diverse
and I feel fortunate to have grown
up there.”
The writing methods of all
poets vary. One of Rackin’s preferred
places to write is in a café
in Lambertville, NJ, where she’s
written a collection of poems
called “recovered dailies.” “A lot
of times lines sort of pop into my
head and it’s more of a musical
composition where I get the idea
of the lines and slowly work on
it,” she said of how the poems
come to her.
To all her readers, Rackin says,
“I hope that my
poetry offers
people comfort
and also space
for their own
thoughts and
that they find it
inspiring.”
And to all aspiring writers looking
for some words of wisdom,
she advised; “You hear this a lot
but it can’t be said enough that
if you want to write the most
important thing to do is read. We
offer some wonderful creative
writing classes here at the college,
but whether you take the classes
here or not, you can learn to be a
writer by studying other writer’s
work. It’s also good to have a
writing buddy or two so you can
exchange work and talk about it.”

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Poet and Professor: Bucks’ Very Own Ethel Rackin