Local poet shares experiences as a writer, immigrant

By Colin Willard, Staff Writer
Posted 10/11/23

VIENNA — Heartland Regional Library System (HRLS) continued its Author Talk series in September by hosting discussions in Belle and Vienna with poet Agnes Vojta from Rolla.

At the Vienna …

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Local poet shares experiences as a writer, immigrant


VIENNA — Heartland Regional Library System (HRLS) continued its Author Talk series in September by hosting discussions in Belle and Vienna with poet Agnes Vojta from Rolla.

At the Vienna Library on Sept. 26, Vojta shared poems from her three solo books: “Porous Land,” “The Eden of Perhaps” and “A Coracle for Dreams.” She also shared selections from “Wild Muse: Ozark Nature Poetry,” a book that features several Missouri authors.

Vojta immigrated to the United States many years ago. Her hometown is Dresden, Germany, and many of her poems recall her time living there and returning for visits.

“I still speak with an accent after 22 years here in Missouri,” Vojta said. “The accent is not going away.”

In “A Coracle for Dreams,” many of Vojta’s poems relate to what it is like to immigrate to another country and navigate that country’s culture while keeping ties to the culture of the country she left. The first poem she shared, “Involuntary Immigrants,” took inspiration from the story of ornithologist Eugene Schieffelin. As a member of the American Acclimation Society, Schieffelin worked to exchange plant and animal life around the world and introduce new species to the U.S.

Between 1890 and 1891, he released 100 European starlings in New York’s Central Park. According to New York Invasive Species Information, a website published by Cornell University Cooperative Extension, the starling population in North America now numbers more than 200 million.

“Immigration has to do with finding a new home in a new place,” Vojta said. “It’s a lot of learning. It’s a lot of being plucked into an unfamiliar culture.”

Another poem in the book shares what it was like for Vojta to miss German Christmas traditions. She said the poem is true when it says she found imported Lebkuchen at a grocery store and ate it for several months despite not liking it. Lebkuchen is a soft cake or cookie that often includes honey, spices, nuts and candied fruit.

“In the beginning, the homesickness was strong,” Vojta said.

Other poems in the book have themes dealing with the struggle of maintaining communication after moving away from a place, the way places change or stay the same as time passes, and Vojta’s struggles being an ocean away from her elderly parents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The only poem that explicitly mentions the pandemic, “Nursing Home Visits in the Time of Corona,” is a found poem.

Found poetry features the use of words, phrases or passages from another source and repurposes them as poetry. For the found poem, Vojta translated the visiting rules for her father’s nursing home from German into English.

The book includes a photograph of Vojta’s childhood home and several poems that reference it. The door on the book’s cover features in the poem “Vineyard in Dresden.” The title of the book refers to a type of small, rounded boat developed in ancient Wales.

Vojta said she wrote frequently when she lived in Germany. When she moved, she did not write as much. By the time she started writing in the U.S., she found it difficult to write in German, but she still felt like she could not write poetry in English.

“It was very odd,” she said. “It had nothing to do with fluency. I was fluent. I could teach at the university. I couldn’t pray, and I couldn’t write poems.”

Vojta said she did not start writing again for more than a decade. As an attempt to start writing again, Vojta tried translating her German poems into English, but it was difficult because most translations come from a third party rather than the original author. She refound the spark when her daughter started preparing to move away for college. Many of the poems in “Porous Land” are about that time in her life, and she dedicated the book to her family.

“This is a great example of how when you give the poem to the world, you no longer control it,” Vojta said. “The reader puts into it. I’m processing my daughter leaving home for college and people come to me and say ‘The way you write about divorce, that really spoke to me,’ or ‘I too have lost loved ones.’ You take from the poem what speaks to you.”

Vojta said she no longer writes in German though she still speaks it with her husband and her mother. The loss of language immersion makes it more difficult to write.

“It’s no longer the emotional language,” she said. “That is now English for me.”

Vojta also shared many poems about nature. She said during the pandemic, she gardened and found inspiration for her writing.

“Nature has always been a solace,” she said.

Vojta described “Wild Muse: Ozark Nature Poetry,” as a “chap-thology,” or a collection of several poets’ chapbooks. She became a contributor to the project after an editor contacted her to ask if she would like to write some nature poems for the book. The book includes 24 of her poems.

In some poems, Vojta relates her observations in nature to her work as a physicist. She read a few poems to commemorate the beginning of fall, including one that features the process by which autumn leaves change colors. Vojta said an autumn walk through Spring Creek Gap Conservation Area inspired one of the poems she shared.

The HRLS Author Talk series highlights the work of mid-Missouri writers. The series continues on Oct. 12 at 5:30 p.m. at the Vienna Library with a visit by Dr. Sean Siebert from Cuba. He will discuss his book “Fighting the Good Fight: Finding Hope Where Hope Has Been Lost.”