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Poems on the frontlines: Matt O’Donnell ’95

By Karen Sharpe

Matt O'Donnell '95Poetry is all about connection, when one word, one phrase, or a moment of rising emotion—crafted out of language—is shared among people. For the poet, the connection is a validation of artistry. For the recipients, the sharing is a gift from the heart. 

In the battlefront of the Iraqi desert, such moments are rare, with combatants more focused on strategies of staying alive than emotional or artistic endeavors.

But, before he was injured, U.S. Army battalion surgeon Maj. John Rumbaugh, a lover of poetry, was able to contemplate the classic words of Keats and Coleridge, Shelley and Byron—as well as the works of 634 contemporary poets—when the gift of a slim iPod nano, filled with hours of audio poetry files, arrived from back home.

The gift was from his sister Nell Rumbaugh. The poetry collection was put together by From the Fishouse (www.fishousepoems.org), the non-profit online poetry archive of Matt O’Donnell ’95.

Nell, who wanted to send her brother more than the standard care package, came across Fishouse online and asked if she could buy some audio files.

“I told her I’d burn her some CDs,” O’Donnell says, “but then I thought I’d get an mp3 player and fill it with poems and send it to him. My thought is if there’s any way we can do anything to support the people over there to make their existence any easier, we should. It was such a simple thing to do.”

Maj. Rumbaugh was using his iPod when he was injured. He has since been awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
From the Fishouse sprang from O’Donnell’s interest in trying to make creative use of his drive time to and from his job as associate editor of Bowdoin Magazine at the college in Brunswick, Maine. 

Armed with a collection of tape recorders, he asked a group of Maine poets to record some of their pieces for his listening pleasure. For O’Donnell, a poet himself, hearing the artists put life into their words was inspiring.

The inspiration didn’t end there, though. Grateful as he was to the poets for contributing their works to him, he felt there was a greater audience that would benefit from hearing the poems. He also felt the poets deserved to be presented to a greater audience. Not long after, From the Fishouse came into being.

Matt’s father, Tim O’Donnell ’68, helped set up the organization as a non-profit and, since the site’s launch two years ago, it has garnered accolades from the poetry establishment as well as the support of teachers, students, poets and Bowdoin College. The Fishouse’s success is far greater than he expected.
“When people hear poetry read aloud it’s a more visceral experience, and they tend to draw different things from it,” O’Donnell says. “I dragged a couple of students to a reading, and afterward they were so excited. Now they’re more inclined to listen and be involved. It’s getting through the brick wall of poetry in the first place.”

O’Donnell traces his own breakthrough to a seminar on Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop taught by Robert Cording, the College’s James N. and Sarah L. O’Reilly Barrett Professor in Creative Writing.

 “It was the first time I had gotten excited about poetry,” O’Donnell explains. “Bob is just an amazing teacher. It’s no wonder why he’s got legions of fans,” O’Donnell says.

fishhouseCording, who is now on the board of From the Fishouse, serves on its selection committee.

From the Fishouse takes its name, and the spelling of “Fishouse,” from the name of the writing cabin of the late writer and Bowdoin professor Lawrence Sargent Hall. Hall used the former codfish-drying shack as a writing cabin and wrote in the space for 50 years—composing his Faulkner Award-winning novel, Stowaway, there, as well as his O’Henry Award-winning short story, “The Ledge.”
Through serendipity, and the generosity of Hall’s heirs, O’Donnell now owns the Fishouse and uses it as his own writer’s cabin—though with the success of From the Fishouse and his work at Bowdoin, he has been writing less than he likes. The Fishouse now has more than 1,000 poems and 300 question and answer files from emerging poets.

“It’s been fantastic,” O’Donnell says. “I never expected it to get the recognition it has received.”


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