Feature Article

Purdue Calumet professor links poems to real-life situations

Michael Dobberstein
Michael Dobberstein

Purdue Calumet Associate Professor of English Michael Dobberstein began writing poetry as a college student. He remembers the first piece he wrote, titled, ‘My Mother’s Cats’;  penned as such because his mother liked cats and owned two of them, one a present from her son.

Fast forward many years.

The longtime faculty member has retained his love of writing poetry and has read many of his works in various publications.

Dobberstein approaches the skill of poetry writing with his students in a specific way, trying to help them understand that poetry must be as clearly written as the best prose.

“Poetry may be difficult – it may have to be – but it is not an excuse for bad writing,” he added. “Sentence for sentence, lyric poetry may be the next best writing we have because it is so transparently about the sentences – even when it seems to disdain the sentence.”

As he discussed various aspects of poetry, the associate professor believes that lyric poetry has survived in it singularity because it does not really have a purpose – it is not a utilitarian project.

“Lyric poetry – at least the best of it – is about how words alone help us deal with loss and uncertainty, the normality of life,” he said. “The poem’s shaky conviction is that words are all we have, in any case. Wallace Stevens said that poems help us live our lives, and that strikes me as one of the most profound statements about poetry that I know.’

Everything about the act of writing may seem challenging to those who write it. “A poem, unlike a narrative such as a short story or novel, or a movie for that matter, has to succeed as a stream of words alone,” Dobberstein said, adding, “Poetry is about words, not plot, so the sound of the words has to be right, as well as whatever the words mean.”

The Schererville resident chose his profession after working for a few years as a reporter. He felt he had something to teach students about writing, and especially about what it means to be a professional writer.

Fellow faculty member Renee Conroy, assistant professor of philosophy, has known Dobberstein for three years.

“One of the things I very much appreciate about his poetry is its variety,” she said. “He moves seamlessly from subject to subject – and from free verse to structured rhyme schemes – never becoming bogged down in a particular set of poetic ‘tricks’ and always speaking in a distinctive voice. I find his use of language surprising yet stunningly accurate.”

Conroy adds that she is a philosopher, not a poetry scholar. But, as an aesthetician (person who specializes in the philosphy of art), she has an abiding affection for poetry and has always wanted to improve both her understanding of it and experience with it.

“Michael Dobberstein has very generously and delightfully afforded me this opportunity over the past several years. Starting in the Fall of 2010, he began introducing me seriously to the work of  T. S. Eliot at my request,” she said. “Our informal poetry reading sessions actually  became a public presentation for the Philosophy Club in the winter of 2011, in which Dobberstein, John Rowan, Charmaine Boswell and I did a ‘performative reading’ of  Eliot’s The Waste Land. Michael talked to the group about the context of the poem, while I reflected on the ways in which one might see the importance of experiencing poetry in performance in light of Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theory.”

Although Dobberstein doesn’t have an exact count of his published poems, they have appeared in Poetry, Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Formalist, The New Formalist, The Beloit Poetry Review, Western Humanities Review, and other journals.

“My most recent poem is called, ‘The Deer Park.’  It is about some deer that live in the woods near my house,” Dobberstein said. ”I see them occasionally. I like the shy way they come out of the woods to graze on the golf course across the street.”