Thomas MacQueeney’s Reflections On Nature, Teaching, and Poetry
Robert Frost’s farmhouse in New Hampshire contains conspicuous traces of the legendary poet’s writing. Gentle views of distant mountains from the porch, stone walls that meander around the property, and a path that splits in the nearby woods all indicate the lingering presence of the poet’s elegant expressions. Echoes of Frost’s work may also be found in Warrenton in the form of Thomas MacQueeney, an educator and poet at St. John the Evangelist School. We spoke with MacQueeney, who points to Frost as his greatest influence, emulating the artist’s writing with pieces that meditate on the underappreciated miracles of the natural world.
Warrenton Lifestyle: You grew up in Virginia, but left to receive your master’s degree at the University of Oklahoma. After teaching in the public-school system in the Midwest for many years, you made your way back to Virginia. What inspired this migration?
Thomas MacQueeney: I feel like a sea turtle, a creature that always returns home to the beach on which it was born. I had spent 35 years in public school and was ready for something different. I heard about an opening for a middle school teaching position at Saint John the Evangelist School in Warrenton and decided to apply. It was a good decision; Virginia is a beautiful state. There’s nowhere else as lush and verdant as it is here in the spring and summer. I love working in Warrenton and living in this area, where we’re so close to the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah National Park. I’m always in the national park, whether it’s to hike, kayak, or mountain bike.
WL: Aside from teaching, you coached and refereed soccer for many years, and you are still involved with the middle school soccer club at St. John’s. What drew you to working with adolescents?
TM: How you treat people is what matters most in life, and that is a lesson I want to impart on younger generations. Teachers have a big influence on their students, one that goes beyond the classroom; it’s important for educators to be aware that students are listening and impressionable. They’re also funny; they crack me up each class. I try to reflect that joy, to project light in and out of my classroom. As a referee, I always talk to the kids on the field and explain why I did or didn’t make a call, trying to show them respect as players as well as instruct them on how to improve their performance.
WL: Having worked for so many years as an English teacher, what is the importance of getting kids to read and write?
TM: Reading develops cultural awareness, which is an ability to discuss current news and global issues competently and thoughtfully. It broadens your horizons by expanding and elevating your vocabulary. At the very least, being an avid reader makes you more interesting to talk to. With the accessibility of information on the Internet, I think kids these days are, in many ways, the most intelligent generation yet. The issue is that they struggle to get through classic literature. But books are still going strong. Harry Potter, Eragon, and The Hunger Games; these modern stories have as much value as the classics, because they are all matchups of good and evil. There is no such thing as a bad book. If kids are reading, it’s a good thing.
WL: Where do you find
inspiration for your poems?
TM: I draw inspiration from nature, but all of my poems are allegorical. If I’m writing about nature or animals, it’s also about humans. The poet tries to get people to see or feel the emotional impact of what they are seeing. Take the turkey vulture, for example, which most people consider to be very ugly…and they are. But the turkey vulture can fly, and that’s amazing. I try to tie that idea in with humans; some of us do not conform to the expectations of attractiveness set forth by the media. But every person is a creation of God and has good in them, an awesomeness which should be recognized and appreciated.
WL: You have written that, in your experience going to some of the world’s most prestigious art museums, you felt they were ‘Guarded with seemingly haughty disdain.” However, your work is refreshingly accessible. How is this achieved, and who is your intended audience?
TM: I taught Advanced Placement Literature, so I’m familiar with many poets. I’m with you. If you didn’t have my college professor explaining the work of classic writers to you, the language can be too obscure and difficult…it’s a different generation and style of writing. If a teacher assigns a student a reading with unfamiliar language, then that student is not going to get much out of it. My poems are mostly for middle and high school audiences, designed to not be esoteric or over their heads.
WL: What role do you think art plays in dealing with emotions, especially painful ones?
TM: Art expresses the frustrations of the world, which can be beautiful or not. Everyone deals with pain and stress, and poetry is a good way to let that out. If you can let pain out through something creative, you are helping others and the world. Take the music of rap and hip-hop, for example, which are just poetry to a beat. They serve as an outlet for artists and listeners to channel their frustrations with unemployment, poverty, depression, loneliness, and racism. Art can help to communicate these themes in a positive way rather than with violence.
WL: What advice do you have for aspiring poets and other artists?
TM: Writers need writers. Feedback on anything you create is invaluable. There is no such thing as the perfect work of literature, so you need to be able to take criticism. For anyone who wants to create art: be present in the moment. Focusing on how you feel in the now can lead to an unexpected reflection into something meaningful and profound about the human experience. It’s a big world. Get off the cell phone, step away from the video games, and go do something amazing…go live. ϖ
Virginia, I left you years ago – reluctantly
As lovers must do sometimes
I blew around like pollen upon the wind
But as the hummingbirds do I migrated back to you
You embraced me smiling and laughing
As when old friends reunite after years apart
I missed so much about you:
The big, round, granite boulder atop Old Rag,
Did it move an inch?
Hay bales lying idle in the golden fields,
The sweet scent of honeysuckle,
Lithe horses grazing in the lush pastures,
Pink azaleas screaming out spring,
And such green like nowhere else I’ve ever seen,
Yellow fields of buttercups so bright Van Gogh would weep,
The quiet beauty of the morning mist upon the pond,
So much, so much …
They say you can’t go home again, but you can.
The Birth of a Poem
Out of the imperfect gray egg
Of subconscious thought
Comes a pecking
There emerges an Orc-like fledgling
Covered in slime
Weak, fragile, featherless
Eyes closed; mouth open
Uttering faint little cries
Wisps of down emerge
Brighter feathers appear
Wings grow stronger
All the fears disappear
Now comes the bold leap from the nest
The songbird takes flight and thrives
Or crashes to the forest floor and dies
Unseen and unheard
Resplendent in colorful plumage