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Spaar explores theme of insomnia in new poetry anthology

A woman with fluffed blonde hair sits in the corner office of the Creative Writing Department. She gets up, moves around the cluttered office piled high with papers and passes a shelf stuffed with books of poetry -- Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, along with various anthologies. But now Lisa Russ Spaar will be able to add one more poetry anthology to her collection, only this time, it will be her own.

Spaar is an administrator and teacher of poetry and creative writing in the Creative Writing Department at the University. She has just published her own anthology called "Aquainted with the Night." Spaar named her new book after a Robert Frost poem that deals with insomnia. That same theme of wakefulness pervades all of the poems in the book, in which poets explore this strange "affliction."

Spaar explained that the origins of the anthology were not necessarily straightforward.

"At first, I wanted to do a jazz anthology, because my husband is a jazz musician. It was kind of disappointing when I found out someone had already done it," she said.

However, her own insomnia triggered the idea for the anthology, she added.

"I was in our basement bookshelves late one night reading and found a poem on insomnia. I identified with it and began to come across more and more poems on the same topic. I was thinking, 'I didn't know so many poets wrote about this,'" Spaar said.

She set about compiling poems on insomnia during a long weekend and soon found she had 40 or 50 poems from her household poetry collection alone.

"Then I kept getting calls from colleagues and friends who told me, 'You've got to put this one in,' and so the list kept getting longer and longer," she said.

The anthology was originally about twice the size of the current volume's 183 pages. Spaar said it was hard to be picky and cut some of the poems, although she eventually divided the finalists under the categories of "Anguish and Longing," "Solitude and Vigil" and "Epiphany and Vision."

"They were all so good," she said. "I had enough for two volumes instead of one."

Spaar leaned back into the chair as the conversation drifted into the specifics of insomnia, whose mystery she tries to explore in her own poetry.

"I think insomnia is related to why we make poems. Poets want to be watchers all the time -- they are ever wakeful people," she said.

She added that not being able to sleep allows writing to develop a new intensity.

"All the big questions in your life, like love and death, become more intense in insomnia," Spaar said.

She said she is comforted by the fact that insomnia is so widespread not only among poets, but among creators in general.

"There are so many famous people who have had insomnia, like Matisse and Thomas Edison," she added.

Spaar said she remembers reading about how Emily Dickinson would rise at three or four each morning to write her poetry.

Because she found that a majority of poets grappled with insomnia in their works, poems from all over the world are included in the anthology, she said.

"It's amazing that you can read this book and find that poets like Sappho in ancient Greece as well as poets writing today are exploring the same thing," she added.

Spaar said one aspect of the insomnia poems she especially likes is the way each poet deals with the trouble differently.

"Some of them were solitary, and some, like Robert Frost, were walkers, and took their sleeplessness into the street," she added.

Although the scope of the book is world wide, the poems of several English department faculty members, such as Rita Dove, Stephen Cushman, Gregory Orr, Debra Nystrom and Charles Wright are included in the anthology. Cushman and Wright both said they admire the anthology's breadth and creativity.

"I think it's a wonderful book and I'm glad to be associated with it," said Wright, whose poem, "Appalachian Book of the Dead III" is one of those featured.

Cushman, author of "Make the Bed," said the anthology is a great idea because it can act as a cure for the misfortune.

"It's an interesting topic," he said. "And it's an affliction that harasses many people."

Cushman described the book as "rich" because of the range in the history of poetry and the geography represented in "Aquainted with the Night."

Cushman, who is an insomniac himself, said the visionary and mysterious aspects of wakefulness intrigue him.

"There is something about laying awake when everything else is asleep. It's as if your life is suspended and the supports are gradually being peeled away. You are free to think, see, and imagine," he said.

There will be readings from "Aquainted with the Night" tonight at 8 p.m. at the University Bookstore. Local poets, as well as Wright and Cushman, will be reading from the anthology.

A collection of Spaar's poetry, entitled "Glass Town," will come out next month.