Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Poem's the Thing

Erik Mortenson
Blogger's Note: The following was taken, at the suggestion of Hill School Communications Director Cathy Skitko, from the school's web site and provides an example of how everyone can do something to help. Further, given that April is National Poetry Month, we would be remiss in not bringing you this story.

Erik Mortenson, a teacher at The Hill School, is a lot of things.

An English teacher, with impressive private school teaching jobs on his resume.

A varsity lacrosse and junior varsity squash coach; a poet and humorist and journal editor.

A lapsed Catholic. Or, as he has said, a very lapsed Catholic.

A husband and father of two active young children.

A white man who, by world standards, is immensely affluent.

And, by his own admission, Erik Mortenson is “the farthest possible thing from a poor black African woman with HIV/AIDS.”

And yet – defying the conventional wisdom that a writer should “write what you
know” – Mortenson has published a chapbook of poems that share the wrenching sadness, isolation, and physical suffering experienced by an impoverished young African woman with AIDS. 

The structure for the 15 poems, collectively titled The Fifteenth Station, mirrors the 14 Stations of the Cross that appear in Roman Catholic churches to commemorate the final hours of Jesus Christ.

Mortenson – who writes as E.K. Mortenson – began conducting extensive research for this project in 2009, delving into religious imagery, medical reports from the World Health Service, and cultural background, all of which he synthesized into poems written in several different voices, primarily that of the woman with AIDS. Each poem (or “station”) advances and flows into the next.

“As her disease progresses, the actual writing became more difficult to do,” Mortenson says, explaining that he tried to capture her increasingly muddled, semi-conscious mind. “Part of a writer’s job is to inhabit these people” about whom they write, he adds.

One of his goals in writing The Fifteenth Station was to portray the humanity of the world’s most downtrodden people -- to both educate and stir empathy for those suffering with AIDS. Mortenson points out that the sickest generally are the poorest, and that so much of the world remains ignorant and callous about the ongoing tragedy of this disease.

Part of Mortenson’s research involved reading a transcript from a Stations of the Cross Mass said by Pope John Paul. “I read John Paul’s mediations on what Catholics are meant to see when they look at each station,” Mortenson said. “Much of it did resonate with me. And, I realized that if this chapbook were ever
published, I could not profit from it in any way.”

True to his word, Mortenson carefully researched charities that directly benefit women and children living with HIV/AIDS, and he identified the international Partners in Health organization that provides care in the remote mountain areas of Rwanda. 

Late last summer, when The Fifteenth Station won the Judge’s Choice award in the Accents 2012 Poetry Chapbook Contest, Mortenson donated his modest prize money to Partners in Health and pledged to also donate every penny of his chapbook sales profits. 

His publisher, Accents Publishing, has agreed to match his prize money and contribute 50 percent of its own profits from the chapbook sales to Partners in Health.

“In the small poetry press world -- where presses operate on, at best, a shoestring budget -- this is virtually unheard of,” Mortenson says. “This is a most gracious gift.”

Hill School Headmaster Zach Lehman
Furthermore, Zachary Lehman, Headmaster of The Hill School, promised to match Mortenson’s prize money on behalf of the School. 

His offer ties in well with the theme established for students for The Hill’s 2012-13 school year, “What can I do?”

“Although the contributions themselves are small, I am hoping to create a groundswell of concern,” Mortenson says. “The book is $5. That’s like, what? A large cup of coffee at Starbuck’s? Now half of that money will go to women and children who need it most.”

Mortenson, who graduated from Tabor Academy, a boarding high school in Mass., holds a B.A. in English and creative writing from Colby College, an M.A. in English and philosophy from New York University, and an M.F.A. in creative and professional writing from Western Connecticut State University. 

He taught at the Blue Ridge School in Virginia; Portsmouth Abbey in R.I.; Rye Country Day School in N.Y.; and King Low Heywood Thomas School in Conn., before arriving at The Hill School in 2011. 

His work appears in print and online journals and anthologies, and he is the author of another chapbook, Dreamer or the Dream (Last Automat Press, 2010) and a full-length collection, What Wakes Us (Cervena Barva Press, forthcoming). 

He was the 2008 recipient of the Leslie Leeds Poetry Prize and is poetry editor of
Kugelmass: A Journal of Literary Humor.

At The Hill, he encourages his students to express their creativity through his “Poetry Everywhere” elective, which has resulted in poems being written on mirrors and mobiles that appear throughout the campus. 

Mortenson strongly believes that for today’s students to write well, they need to read good books and they need to read them for longer, uninterrupted periods of time, without intrusion from email pings and Facebook updates.

“They can’t write elegant sentences if they don’t read elegant sentences,” he says, adding, “and, in general, few elegant sentences are found on the internet.”

He writes, he says, “when it occurs to me,” first writing prose by hand, then reworking and “scratching,” then, finally, transferring everything to the computer where he can manipulate the lines. Mortenson is not a “daily grinder” who makes himself sit down to write something for a set period of time each day, “the way the writing books say you’re supposed to work,” he comments wryly.

He hopes to find time to dig through the archives of New England whaling museums as research for a book of poems derived from letters written by New England whalers to their wives.

He also is working on “a manuscript that weaves love poems together with quantum mechanics.”

“Seriously,” he adds.

Erik Mortenson lives at The Hill School with his wife, Staci, and children, Anders and Anneliese. 

You may read more about E.K. Mortenson and his work at To order The Fifteenth Station, email Mortenson at or visit

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