Class of 2015: U.Va. Poet Pursues Her Passion for Art and Politics

Nora Toh headshot

Nora Toh will graduate May 16 with a double major in honors politics and English poetry writing. Her studies have focused on examining transitional identities through poetry, photography and prints.

Editor’s note: In the run-up to Final Exercises on May 16 and 17, UVA Today will introduce readers to some of the outstanding members of the Class of 2015. All of the stories, plus other information about Finals Weekend, will be compiled here.

Nora Toh, who grew up in Singapore, will graduate from the University of Virginia on May 16 with a double major in honors politics and English poetry writing. Her ongoing academic focus has been on examining transitional identities through poetry, photography and transfer prints.

In 2014, Toh received one of the five University Awards for Projects in the Arts. She completed an honors thesis for her major in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics. In the Department of English, she was a member of the Area Program in Poetry Writing, which involved a yearlong project culminating in her capstone, a collection of original poetry. 

“Nora is one of the most talented, intelligent, generous, compassionate, hard-working and altruistic students I’ve had the privilege of working with in my 35 years of college-level teaching,” said Lisa Russ Spaar, director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing, professor of English and Creative Writing and celebrated national award-winning poet. “She’s also a marvelous poet.

“Whether casting the dialect of a Singaporean cab driver into Western ballad stanzas or examining the self through the lens of American poet Marianne Moore, Nora’s poems are always in some way about boundaries, walls, borders, border-crossing, transgression, exile and home. She does not shy away from the most difficult of subjects – violence, loneliness, injustice, fear and unrequited love. Her poems are at once global and local. They take the risk required to tell one’s truth. 

“Some students just pass through their university experience,” Spaar said. “Not so with Nora. As a student, human being and poet, she has been a transformative and gracious force in our Academical Village.”

UVA Today recently talked with Toh as her U.Va. undergraduate career drew near an end.

Q. What was it like growing up and attending school in Singapore?

A. It was wonderful. The vibrancy of life there is just on another level. There’s an intersection between vastly different cultures, and a tension between rapid development and the preservation of traditions. 

For my secondary education at Raffles Junior College, I was part of an intense humanities program. It was what occurred outside the classroom there that really cemented my love for the arts. We would attend tons of plays, dance performances, musicals and even the opera.

My parents’ approach toward my learning has always been to let me do whatever I want – as long as I commit to doing it well. My mother initially wanted me to be a doctor, but as soon as she saw that my interests tended toward the humanities, she was fully supportive of me pursuing that field.

Q. Why did you start writing poetry?

A. I can’t pinpoint a specific time when poetry became my interest. As far as I remember it has always been a part of my life. Pretty dorky I know. Who likes reading poetry when they’re just 8, right? But I did.

Poetry has always been there for me when I didn’t have the words to fully express myself. Growing up as an only child, I had to find various ways to amuse myself, so I think that’s probably why I’ve always been an arts-and-craft type. I’m inspired by aesthetics, so creating art has been a way to push myself toward what I admire.

Q. What inspired you to choose U.Va.?

A. As an international student, I wasn’t able to visit the University before committing here, but the cost of attending U.Va. was significantly less than the private schools. I thought it would be a great place to have the full college experience because of the beautiful Grounds and rich history. 

Q. What did U.Va. offer that helped you to focus on your area of study?

A. The University is great at offering small, specialized programs that really help you develop your interests. My politics honors class has only six people, and my poetry class has only 10 people. That gave me so much more interaction time with professors, who are invested in seeing you grow. 

Q. What extracurricular activities at U.Va. have been important to you?

A. I was a staff member for the Virginia Literary Review, and this was a great way to familiarize myself with the arts scene at U.Va. My Alternative Spring Break trip was also a fantastic experience. I went to Puerto Rico and we helped out with the rangers at El Yunque by doing various paint jobs and digging out drainage systems along the trails. It felt like we were actually making a difference.

Being part of the Muslim Students Association has also heavily influenced my identity on Grounds and given me a family away from home. And finally, my beautiful X family (the X-Tasee Dance Crew, a U.Va. hip-hop performance group), whose confidence has taught me to be daring. They are a constant reminder for me to put everything into what I love.

Q. What impact did U.Va.’s Creative Writing Program, the Area Program in Poetry Writing and the professors in the Department of English have on your work?

A. Frankly, I don’t think my work would exist without the poetry program. When I was trying to choose classes for my first semester, I stumbled across the “Intro to Poetry Writing” course, and so here we are.

Lisa Russ Spaar has been everything to me – teacher, mentor, mother and all-around inspiration. Her guidance and feedback brought my work to the next level, and her genuine concern for my well-being has kept me sane.

Debra Nystrom has inspired me to take poetry more seriously. In the spring of my first year, when the weather finally got nice outside, Debra brought our class out to one of the U.Va. gardens. As we read poetry that afternoon, with the sun in our faces, I felt for the first time that I was truly where I needed to be and that I belonged here at U.Va. Debra gave me that. 

Of course, these are just two members of the amazing creative writing faculty. I would also be nowhere without the guidance of English professors Gregory Orr, Paul Guest and Stephen Cushman.

Q. What is your thesis on "transnationalism" about?

A. As a Chinese-Malay Singaporean who moved to America for college, I chose this topic because I find myself consistently shedding, keeping and gaining new pieces of my identity. The idea is about how we consistently shed and retain pieces of our identities as we move across place – an exploration of place and exile. It’s about how we find our grounding in this world, how belonging to one place essentially estranges you from another. It’s about how home can be every place that persistently lives in you, but also how it can feel like nowhere. It’s a concept that invokes the idea of fluid identities, emphasizing that it’s not something that should be confined to boundaries.

Q. How did the University Award for Projects in the Arts impact your academic career?

A. The award gave me the space and resources to experiment beyond poetry. It was liberating in the sense that I was given complete freedom to pursue what I wanted to – and that led me to places I didn’t expect. Through this process I have learned so much about myself and about what I hope to achieve with my art. I also experimented with watercolors and transfer prints, which was completely new territory. The award allowed me to venture out of the poetry mold that has defined my time at U.Va.

Q. Why do you feel that the humanities are so important to our culture?

A. I think the fact that it consists of the word ‘human’ says it all. The humanities make us consider our own being. They teach us empathy. They encourage us to reach out and make connections. That’s so important to maintaining tolerance and respect in any culture.

Q.  Do you have any advice for students at U.Va.? What will you be doing in this new phase of your life?

A. This fall, I’m applying to graduate schools, so I’ll be taking a year off from school. During the summer, I’m working with the Fund for the Public Interest, a national, non-profit organization that runs campaigns for America’s leading environmental and public interest organizations.

My advice to students at U.Va. is this: Put yourself out there. You should realize that college is all about the opportunities you pursue.

Media Contact

Robert Hull

Office of University Communications