Creative Writing Program Prepares Graduate for Life as a Poet

May 17, 2010 — Jasmine V. Bailey, who earns a master of fine arts degree in poetry writing on May 23 from the University of Virginia, cites her father's early influences in her desire to become a poet, and lauds the Creative Writing Program in the College of Arts & Sciences for helping fulfill that desire. The program lived up to its reputation as the country's best, in her estimation, she said.

She knew she'd go to U.Va. – if she was admitted. When her first application was rejected, she lived in Argentina for six months on a Fulbright fellowship, which gave her ample time to improve her writing, she said. Her second application to U.Va. was successful.

She leaves the U.Va. program having published a short book of her poetry, known as a "chapbook," and having had a list of poems published individually in literary journals. She's headed to Colgate University with the prestigious Olive B. O'Connor Fellowship in creative writing.

"This is a fellowship that makes other creative writers salivate," said Jeb Livingood, faculty adviser to the U.Va. program's literary journal, Meridian, for which Bailey served as its poetry editor this past year. The fellowship pays well and gives the recipient time to finish a book manuscript, he said.

Bailey was born in Saudi Arabia (where her father taught English), grew up in southern New Jersey and attended Colgate as an undergraduate.

Richard X. Bailey, also a writer, introduced his then-13-year-old daughter to a range of poets, from 19th-century Frenchman Charles Baudelaire to 20th-century Chilean Pablo Neruda.

"Since Dad was a writer, we had lots of books in the house," she said, including books about writing that her father received as instructor's copies. "I got serious about writing poetry in college."

With the Fulbright, Bailey taught two classes at the Universidad National De La Pampa in Santa Rosa, Argentina. It wasn't a heavy teaching load, allowing her time to write and to visit elementary and high schools in the area, she said.

At the schools, she read stories and poems with the young students and gave presentations on American culture. In one class, she directed a simplified version of Shakespeare's play, "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

But the writing time was key to getting accepted into several M.F.A. programs, including U.Va.'s, which she entered three years ago.

"It made such a difference spending a year writing and improving poems. They were better," she said. "I learned a lot in college, but then I had time to synthesize what I learned in my writing."

She learned even more at U.Va. from professor-poets Gregory Orr, Rita Dove and Charles Wright.

"They were great. They were everything I dreamed of. For young writers, that is so important," Bailey said. "All three are so well read."

She described their scholarship as "writerly," distinct from the scholarship of literary criticism. "You read differently," she said. "You develop thoughts and theories about writing. It's a different goal."

The creative writing faculty teach workshops, where the students read and critique each other's work, along with literature courses from a writer's point of view, such as Orr's class, "Sex, Death, Ecstasy and Madness," which brought her back to studying Baudelaire, as well as the poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and William Blake.

Bailey, 27, said her peers were almost as influential as her professors, and together they formed a tight-knit group.

"We're all struggling to get published and making incremental gains. ... I am by no means the most decorated of my fellow students," she said.

The fellowship at Colgate will give her time to finish the full-length book of poetry on which she's working. She only has to teach one course per semester there, plus give a poetry reading at the end of the year.

She said she would love to get a teaching position after that, and these days, you can't get those jobs without having a book published.

Her top priority will continue to be writing, she said. "Teaching stimulates me intellectually, but I have to have time to write. Writing is the way I look at the world."

Her chapbook, "Sleep and What Precedes it," was the winning entry in a 2009 contest sponsored by Longleaf Press.

About the collection, Orr wrote, "It is the power of Jasmine Bailey's long-lined and gorgeous poems to 'make simple things holy with (their) excess.' In landscapes where 'the floors of New Jersey woods/ are rendered golden with falling walnuts' or lakes are 'misplaced in heavy mists,' her characters move in urgent, elegant search of what eludes them. These poems braid longing and grief into rich, evocative song."

Here is a prose poem from that book, a short piece that doesn't use traditional lines of verse, but does employ other poetic devices.

Poem After Summer

If I created a world I would call it Virginia and every so often it would rain. You and I would set decoys out in the lakes where they would float among the pinprick raindrops and the leaves that would settle after falling. Evenings, we would bring them in and scatter the geese from their flirting. We would understand everything about fall, like where it wanders and why the saddest books are always turned to then, the oldest poems. We would know why haikus arrange themselves in those little lines and why waltzes begin again at four, realize that to die is to forget the world and how all the heroes forgot us. We would set about forgetting peaches, knowing that is the best place to begin.

— By Anne Bromley