May 14, 2009


Graduate student crafts words for speech

Cincy native will speak at SUNY Cortland’s graduate commencement Friday night

SpeechJoe McIntyre/staff photographer
Poet Austin MacRae will be speaking Friday at SUNY Cortland’s graduate commencement ceremony.

Staff Reporter

Austin MacRae knows the challenges of balancing work with graduate school, of figuring out the future, of deciding how to find the words he needs.
MacRae, 29, will speak to his fellow master’s degree recipients Friday evening about finding connection — and he will read a poem.
MacRae will receive his Master of Arts in English at SUNY Cortland’s Graduate Commencement at Park Center’s Alumni Arena. He will be joined by 231 other master’s degree and 36 certificate of advance study recipients.
MacRae will offer a short speech titled “Only Connect,” about his links to academics, the Cortland community and retired professor Van Akin Burd, a scholarly expert on the poet and artist John Ruskin.
“I’m very proud of receiving my master’s,” said MacRae, a published poet who works with disabled people for the Francizka Racker Centers. “I took five or six years off after my bachelor’s. There was a certain amount of fear in going back to school.”
But then, he said, he always feels a bit of fear as he is writing. He wants the words to be precise, the cadence, the imagery.
MacRae writes traditional rhyming verse and has published in the “Measure and Cortland Review,” a prestigious online journal with only a slight connection to Cortland itself. A sonnet of his was published in a 2005 anthology, along with works by Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners.
“I read free verse, but I think you limit yourself, like a carpenter not using all the tools in his toolbox,” he said.
MacRae, who lives in Ithaca, has also published two chapbooks, poetry collections printed by small publishers.
He grew up on Telephone Road in Cincinnatus, on a hill overlooking the valley toward Willet. He graduated from McGraw High School and Keuka College, the place where he said he really emerged as a writer.
His father, Colin, was a self-employed carpenter. His mother, Beth, was an elementary teacher in McGraw.
Both supported his writing, which Austin likes to compare to making a dove-tailed box, a box with hand-cut notches along the edge.
“Austin grew up reading books — his father and I both read to him every night when he was little,” said Beth MacRae. “He has writing in his background, since my mother, Thelma Burlingame, was a correspondent for the Cortland Standard.”
MacRae wrote for a weekly newspaper in Penn Yan after college, then worked as a tutor and writing instructor at Tompkins Cortland Community College. He gave that up once he enrolled in graduate school in 2007 because it was too difficult to manage his schedule and writing.
For the Franziska Racker Centers, which provide services for people with a range of handicaps, he helps people learn living skills. He also does “in-house respite,” providing caregivers with a break.
“I play guitar for a man, for example,” MacRae said. “He’s 24 but has the mental capacity of a 5-year-old. We sing songs.”
MacRae is thinking about pursuing a doctorate or master of fine arts in poetry, hoping to teach at the college level.
“It’s a big decision,” he said. “I want to determine what is best, then find a place that is a good aesthetic fit.”
“He’ll figure it out,” said Beth MacRae. “Whatever it is, we’ll support it.”


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