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Poetry in Motion

Written by Shanan Glandz
10/21/2008

Professor Katharyn Howd Machan

There is nothing ordinary about Ithaca College writing professor Katharyn Howd Machan. A published author of numerous books of poetry, the first poet laureate of Tompkins County, and an energetic teacher most often seen around campus dressed in flowing skirts, bright colors, and tons of tinkling jewelry, Machan is a true creative presence at IC.

Oh, and she’s also a belly dancer.

See Professor Machan in action.




“I didn’t start dancing with any degree of real commitment at all until I was 27,” Machan remembers. “I started because a writer friend said, ‘I want to take a class downtown and I don’t want to go alone. Will you come with me?’ I fell in love with belly dancing that night!”

And Machan incorporates her love of belly dancing and welcomes its inspiration into her poetry. “Belly dance has strongly informed my poems for a quarter of a century,” Machan writes in the introduction to her poetry collection, Greatest Hits. “It’s a challenge and a joy for me to offer words about a community of artists whose expression celebrates the nonverbal.”

Professor Machan teaching a summer writing class at her home in Ithaca

Professor Machan has taught a belly dance class at Longview, an adult residential community, for years.

The complicated link between visual performance and poetry is the driving force behind Machan’s work. “Pretty early on I started writing about dancing, and I have a couple of books of belly dance poems,” she says, going on to observe that, within the body, “. . . the core, bloodbeat, is as essential to poetry as it is to dance.”

Poetry, and the visual performance of that poetry, have been Professor Machan’s passions since the age of 15. Writing major Natalie Ferrigno ’09, who has taken several writing classes with Machan, observes, “She had us practice doing poetry readings, which I think leads poets to push themselves a bit more.”

This belief in poetry as a performance art is still a bit revolutionary for some. Even Machan’s close friend Delilah, herself a belly dancer, doesn’t fully understand it.

“I have written a book about her called Delilah’s Veils,” she says, “and Delilah said, ‘Poetry’s great, but you know, why say it if you can move it?’” Indeed. Machan has been bridging this divide between words and dance for almost 40 years.

Professor Machan has taught a belly dance class at Longview, an adult residential community, for years.

Professor Machan has taught a belly dance class at Longview, an adult residential community, for years.

Machan’s creativity often crosses the age gap as well. She teaches weekly belly dancing classes at Longview, a local residential senior community. Some of her best dance students at Longview are 90 years old, she says. But younger dancers are welcome to join, and Machan encourages her writing students to come to these classes.

Ferrigno, who has also taken Machan’s belly dance classes, says, “They were a fun experiment for me! I’m not really that much of a dancer, but she takes a very casual approach, trying to welcome people who would not normally take belly dancing. She focuses on building confidence, encouraging girls to dance.”

Publishing is the lifeblood of a writer, and Machan is no different. To date she has published 28 books and collections of poetry.

Sharona Ginsberg ’08, a former student of Machan’s, says that Machan also encourages her students to try to get their work published. “She continually pushed me to publish and would jot down names of magazines or publishing houses on my work to give me a direction to start. I really appreciated this. It got me thinking about my work on a real and professional basis, rather than as something I was completing for a grade in class,” she says.

Machan remains active in the publishing community herself. She is currently collaborating on a project with former Ithaca College student Andre Cuda ’02 called One for the Road, a collection of works about the experiences of writers who have dealt with the impact drugs and alcohol have had on their families.

Thanks to writing professors like Professor Machan, the idea of poetry as its own form of performance will play for a long time. “My favorite thing about Katharyn,” remarks fellow writing professor Elizabeth Lawson, “is that I’ll walk past her office and she can still be found sitting in a chair, writing a poem.”



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