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“Thank you for sending the image of the tile,” ASU grad Irena Praitis wrote, “what memories this brings back!”
Praitis earned both her Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing (2001) and her PhD in literature (1999) at ASU. She was also an accomplished athlete. “The other rower on the tile is Kristy Csavina. She was a PhD in Bio-mechanical Engineering,” Praitis said.
When Alberto Ríos and I were working on the Words Over Water project, a five-mile-long, granite book that surrounds the Tempe Town Lake (designed and produced between 1998 and 2001), we evoked varied “neighborhoods” or activity-areas at the lake in images or in poems called greguerías. Ríos wrote, laughingly, “If you get wet / in an hour / you will not be / where is your proof / then?” I drew and sandblasted Praitis and Csavina onto a granite tile.
Praitis’s proof of life on the water was her MFA practicum project, an amazing manuscript of poems called From the Finish. This phrase, defined at the end of the thesis, means “the non-racing starting position for rowing.” Her book is “about rowing and about the levers we use to propel us through the water and through the world,” elements of movement like family, loss of love, literature, rowing, love.
In a poem titled, “March 12, 2001,” Praitis wrote, “One day, from shore, I watched an eight row by. / I asked if I could join them. I’d never rowed before.”
Seventeen years after beginning Words over Water, again on the Río Salado each weekday morning, I’m cleaning, repairing, and repainting those 603 granite tiles. The rowers are out early with their yelling coaches, but I have no desire to join up. Praitis’s poems, however, stay with me, watching how singles and teams handle calm water, waves, or snags.
October 12, 2000
This morning, in the boat, I kept reciting poetry.
I discovered that “One Art” is a great rowing poem.
Then my oar got caught up in a tumbleweed.
I almost flipped because of it, but I managed to disentangle and stay upright.
I want there to be something that does the steering for me,
but in a single, I’m the only one. I have to look over my shoulder.
Now a professor of creative writing and literature at California State University, Fullerton, Praitis is honored and respected for her poems, her translations of Lithuanian poet Sonata Paliulyté, her scholarship, and for intense community involvement. She was chosen to represent Women’s History Month by the Women's Voices for Change site in 2014. In 2002, she began and continues coordinating National Poetry Month at Fullerton. Quoted by the campus newspaper, she said, “Poetry is made up of everyday things, and it invites a sense of wonder of the world and an awareness of that wonder.”
We can see the everyday surface of the Tempe Town Lake with a new awareness after reading Irena’s poem “Turning Over,”
Today, there’s a deeper swell
under the waves. It is spring.
It gets light early.
A lake turns over around the equinoxes:
The cold water at the top,
sent to the bottom in summer,
rises again in winter.
The bigger fish feed and settle.
Barely scratching the surface of the water,
I feel the movement beneath me,
the cold brooding for a summer,
plotting a permanent return.
“Rowing is a pretty amazing sport, unlike anything else I’ve participated in,” Praitis wrote. “These days, I row on a rowing machine indoors which is something else entirely, but at least it’s still an amazing workout!”
Praitis also said “there has been much good news.” She has a six-year-old son, is attending her grandmother’s 100th birthday this month, and her fourth book of poetry, The Last Stone in the Circle, was launched by Red Mountain Press this June 19 in Santa Fe.
Yes, elements of movement and inspiration: Irena Praitis.
Image 1: Cleaned-up granite tile at Tempe Town Lake featuring rowers Irena Praitis and Kristy Csavina. Photo by Karla Elling.
Image 2: Irena Praitis in a photo courtesy Cal State Fullerton News.