A Professor and a Poet

Shannon Goldhahn, Centurion Staff

Clinking spoons against teacups filled with foamed cappuccinos and boisterous laughter illuminate the cafe. Bucks’ English professor Ethel Rackin soaks up each detail of the small room scribbling down each instant of inspiration from the anxious kids waiting to receive their hot chocolates to the ruffling leaves blowing in the wind to help create her poetry. Even though the hustle and bustle of a cafe can be distracting, Rackin finds it to be the opposite.
“If I’m at a cafe and there’s ambient noise in the background it helps me to feel more relaxed and less pressure,” She clarified with a soft smile. “I think I just always want to take pressure off and feel like ‘Here I am sitting at a desk on my computer writing a poem,’” she said while using her hands to act like she’s typing on her computer. Laughing with a brush of her hand through the air, she said, “It’s just too much pressure, it’s too serious.”
Rackin is always ready to write down any spontaneous line that comes to mind. She’ll doodle before taking a nap, speak into her phone while walking to her next class, and will always carry a notebook with her – just in case.
Although, Rackin prefers to write in a notebook overall.
“It’s a way for me to not put pressure on it and keep it alive in the notebook for a while,” she said. Rackin spoke about her poems as if they are literally a living person. She breathes life into the beautiful and therapeutic process of writing. “Let it have a life of its own,” Rackin said to describe the process.
Rackin’s entire process is filling up notebook after notebook after notebook with lines of poetry. Finally, once you’ve completed a notebook all you want to do is look at all your hard work. Wrong! Rackin said a great writers’ process is to allow the poems to simmer in a notebook for a while.
“After a few months, later you come back and you look at one of the notebooks and you’re like, ‘oh, I didn’t know I did that,’” Rackin said. She lets her poems hibernate for years at a time before she goes back to them. She even has her first few notebooks from when she was a child.
“That’s one way in which I am a pack rat. I have kept all of them,” Rackin admitted with a proud look on her face. She has boxes and boxes of notebooks that travel with her whenever she moves.
“When you’re a poet, it’s so personal,” said Rackin. Poetry becomes like family that will never leave your side, even when you’ve become so frustrated with it. Right now, Rackin has been going through past notebooks to find inspiration for a book of poetry called, “Lately.”
As Rackin grows older she finds herself looking at her friends, family and society suffering yet changing. “The theme is really loss. So, there are poems in there that are elegies or poems for people who’ve passed,” Rackin explained with a somber tone that some of the poems are for society itself.
“I think my writing is changing as society changes. It seems like a time where were needed to tell our stories and where it’s a little weird not to” said Rackin.
Rackin’s story started in Germantown with her parents and her older sister. Rackin isn’t the only one who has caught the creative virus. Her sister is a visual artist, while both her parents are English professors. Her mom taught at the University of Pennsylvania, where Rackin attended, while her dad worked at Temple University.
Growing up, there would be books all around her house. Her parents also encouraged her writing when she was just a child, not that she felt comfortable sharing her work yet. Rackin confessed that she felt “it was a secret to hold and carry with me.” To properly expressive herself, poetry became the outlet that she needed.
Rackin made clear that although it was helpful that she had parents who studied English, “I don’t think that’s the magic formula.” The ‘magic formula’ seems to be the perseverance to be a writer. I mean it seems to be a biological need,” she said.
That’s why she enjoys teaching creative writing classes here at Bucks. People who have an affinity to be creative tend to be introverts who are waiting to find people who have that same drive. “That’s a theme, I think, in artists and writers. That at some point you’re gonna feel isolated and there’s a need to meet others who are doing similar things,” Rackin explained.
Even though Rackin wakes up at the crack of dawn with her dog, to then teach, write, communicate as the director of the Poet Laurette contest, and coordinate for the Word Smith Reading Series; she still makes time to put all her work into her students. She truly cares about the thoughts and work that her students do in and out of the classroom.
Sitting in her classroom one day with all the students facing each other in a circle, she began by congratulating a student on his music that he’s producing. She even questioned when the album is coming out so she can listen to the complete version.
Teaching has always been on Rackin’s mind as she first began teaching at Penn State Delaware County, which is now Penn State Brandywine, at 27 while completing her MFA in creative writing. Although, she admits that it didn’t come naturally at first. The hardest part was learning how to critique students work.

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“When you first start off, it’s hard to be that flexible because your scared and you don’t know too much,” Rackin answered honestly. Although, true to Rackin’s disposition she continued to work at it until she felt that her critiques were helping her students. “I think when you help people identify what’s most unique in their own work and grab onto that and run with it, that’s a really helpful thing to do,” said Rackin.
Rackin enjoys meeting with students working on their writing. Seeing her students experience that types of joy and pain that she has when writing is life changing. The way that poetry can really become the center of someone’s life.
Rackin has been married since 2002. Her husband is just like Rackin where it seems that they can’t just stay still. She happily said that he is a real estate agent, builder, and does contracting and historical restoration. Rackin finds it better that he does not write himself.
“It is great in many ways
because were never competing with one another. We support each other, but were slightly in different worlds,” said Rackin.
The Rackin’s only child is their dog. Rackin said that there is no hidden secret of why she doesn’t have kids. It was just, as she put it, ‘a non-decision.’ Both Rackin’s felt like they didn’t need to have children. Rackin, for once looked vulnerable while talking about her writing as she said, “I knew that if I did have kids, I would want to put my kids first. And my writing would get kind of shoved to the side.”
Women often feel that they have to choose either family or their career. Rackin still believes you can do both, as she said, “I know plenty of writers who have kids. It’s just for me personally, it didn’t feel like it was a balance that would work.”
Writing isn’t a career that occurs if you just go with the flow. Rackin, with a fierce determination said, “I felt that I’ve had to kind of fight to maintain my writing life in graduate school, in the context of my job, in the context of my marriage, in the context of family, my friends. I feel like I’ve had to kind of fight to maintain that space.”
Fighting for her writing has been a constant
struggle in Rackin’s life, yet she constantly pulls through. Her first book was published when she was 40, which apparently is late for a first book. She expressed that it became a struggle to write. That it felt like she wasn’t being accepted to sit at the writers table.
“I was happy that it happened when it did, very
happy. Almost like, less elated and more just relieved,” She paused and got a far off look in her face as she remembered the heart-ache she experienced before her poetry was published.
“If you want to do something for a very long time and it’s not working out, and you just have kinds of doubts about your path; then you start to lose faith. So, that actually happening was just like, ‘Oh, thank God!’” said Rackin.
She then went on to publish two more books of
poetry, which led to her being a finalist in national awards and being in multiple poetry magazines.
Rackin is now working on finalizing a textbook for students who have just started their creative writing
experience. It is set to be published in the next few years but knowing Professor Rackin, it will breathe the life into a few more writers out in the world.