Writers know their ship has come in if a hot music group puts their words to a tune that climbs the charts. Sister Mary Virginia Micka isn't holding her breath waiting for big royalty checks. But if words to music are the measure, she's riding high.
Two of Sister Mary Virginia's poems, "Evensong" and "Shift," have been put to music by California-based choral composer Emma Lou Diemer.
Vocalists from Hamline University, the College of St. Catherine, Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota performed both compositions recently in St. Paul at an annual vocal event called WomanVoice.
Sister Mary Virginia sat in the front row, basking in the bright sound created by the young voices.
Sister Mary Virginia was a sixth grader in Hibbing on Minnesota's Iron Range when she says a teacher, Sister Bernadine, gave the class an assignment.
"I loved her, she called all of us dear heart. 'Now dear heart, I want you to do this. That's good dear heart, that's good.' I throve - if that's a word - under that," Sister Mary Virginia recalls.
"And one weekend she sent us home to write a ballad. We'd been studying the knights and the ladies. And she gave us an opening line and we were to continue. And I remember the opening line. 'For many a year and many a day, fair England lay in a waste.'"
Sister Mary Virginia was hooked by the heartbeat-like rhythm of iambic pentameter.
She grew up in a house with lots of word play. Her father, an electrical contractor, would fire off quips to his wife at the dinner table.
"'Please pass the butter, mutter,' and we would think that was so -- I would think that was so clever," she says.
Sister Mary Virginia says she's a worrier, and when she runs out of things to worry about, she says she looks for more. But worry does not appear to play a big role in her writing, not at least in poems in her newest volume, "In My Best Voice."
And worry certainly is not apparent in Sister Mary Virginia's demeanor. Her laugh is as expressive as her poetry. Ask her how she learned to paint. Her answer begins with a deep, throaty chortle and she says, "This is the story..."
The story is that Sister Mary Virginia is a fine watercolorist, better known in some circles for her visual art than her writing. But she's mainly self taught, she says, not classically trained. An artist friend she met 14 years ago in California handed her a brush.
"'Put it in the paint.' Which I did. 'Now put it on the paper,' says she, and [I] began to see colors begin to work."
Sister Mary Virginia taught English at the College of St. Catherine for 42 years. So she has a ready, if not always immediately understandable, supply of quotes to help students discover the joy of writing.
"Wordsworth said, 'Emotion recollected in tranquility.' You know, it's the feel of the things. There is this urge to say whatever is in there that you don't quite know until you see it," she says about writing poetry.
On finding just the right word,
"Emily Dickinson says, 'When your head comes off at the end, it's a sign you've done it.'"
What in the world did Dickinson mean by that?
"I think, aha. Don't let me be furthering the 'aha' phrase. I refuse to subscribe to that phrase," she says.