Poet Katharyn Howd Machan inspires others

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This past August, Katharyn Howd Machan, appointed as the first Poet Laureate for Tompkins County in 2002, introduced herself to a new class of aspiring first-year-seminar writers at Ithaca College. Arrayed in green mask and golden crown, with Peter Gabriel’s song “Kiss That Frog” playing, she danced as the Frog Prince.

“Hazel Tells LaVerne”

last night
im cleanin out my
howard johnsons ladies room
when all of a sudden
up pops this frog
musta come from the sewer
swimmin aroun an tryin ta
climb up the sida the bowl
so i goes ta flushm down
but sohelpmegod he starts talkin
bout a golden ball
an how i can be a princess
me a princess
well my mouth drops
all the way to the floor
an he says
kiss me just kiss me
once on the nose
well i screams
ya little green pervert
an i hitsm with my mop
an has ta flush
the toilet down three times
me
a princess

“Hazel Tells LaVerne” is Katharyn’s most widely read poem. People all over the world follow her work and each has favorite poems.

Arriving in Ithaca in 1975 with a Bachelor of Arts in English from the College of Saint Rose and a Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Iowa, she taught literature, writing and speech classes for three years at TC3 while sending out her poetry for publication.

Always a popular teacher, she also specialized in students’ intercollegiate performance. Combining her ability to create written images that grabbed people, even those unused to poetry, and to present poetry in ways that engaged the audience, Katharyn’s classes and her performances were riveting.

At the same time, readers beyond Ithaca were receptive to her bracingly clear and honest poetry.

“In the mid-’70s, I lived on East Seneca Street and was so stretched for money I made furniture by covering boxes with fabric. (I had to make sure one was strong enough for my typewriter),” she said. “Then, novelist and co-founder of the Ithaca Community Poets, Edward Hower, told me, ‘Katharyn, Ithaca College is hiring.’”

Katharyn continues her commitment to IC to this day, now as a full professor after a short departure in the early 1980s to Northwestern University, where she completed a Ph.D. in Interpretation with a dissertation called The Writer as Performer.

Writing her fellowship-funded dissertation back in Ithaca, Katharyn interviewed many fiction writers and poets, studying why and how they read aloud and why audiences attend. Interviewing Allen Ginsberg was a highlight.

Ph.D. imminent, Katharyn returned to teaching at IC in 1983. She knew that the solo interpretation skills she taught first at TC3 and then at Northwestern, and the poetry she submitted regularly, had all come together for her.

“Performance brings the words on the page to life,” she said.

Katharyn’s classes are renowned for her willingness to break age, gender, class and academic boundaries to find common ground with her students, colleagues and audiences. Her course in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy is steadily popular year after year, as are her fairy-tale-driven courses.

“I joke that I’m Rod Serling’s successor. He taught creative writing at IC,” she said.

Students sometimes confide in Katharyn that they chose Ithaca College because they saw that SF is offered.

Katharyn’s openness to new ideas that go beyond traditional boundaries led her to embrace and facilitate emerging projects. Early on in her career, she was part of the Women’s Coalition at IC that led to Women’s Studies and helped prepare her for the directorship of the national Feminist Women’s Writing Workshops, Inc. in the 1980s.

Married to Eric Machan Howd, musician and fellow poet, writer and faculty member at Ithaca College, Katharyn describes her relationship with Eric as the best part of her life.

“I am absolutely in love with Eric,” she said. “Almost 30 years now of true partnership.”

Katharyn describes her two grown children – CoraRose (mother of Scarlett, both living on Long Island) and son Benjamin (filmmaker, waiter and fellow performance artist in Ithaca) as beautiful people.

In her 44 years of teaching, Katharyn estimates she has worked with close to 7,000 students in colleges and in the community.

“I don’t want to retire,” she asserts. “Teaching energizes my writing of poetry.”

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