Poetry Program Prepares Students for Life -- and Careers

February 03, 2012

February 3, 2012 — English professor Lisa Russ Spaar's tiny office lures the student into her magical world, leaving behind the ubiquitous brick walkways and plain white walls of University of Virginia's familiar halls. Glinting frames hold paintings and prints from various eras, forming a crooked ladder up the tall, narrow wall to the ceiling, and a bowl of candy in shiny wrappers sits on a small table.

At the corner of her overflowing desk, Spaar perches over a nest of pages, shuffling until she produces several sheets stapled together, a list of 100 names – all the graduates of the Area Program in Poetry Writing since she founded it 11 years ago, not long after she published her first book of poems, "Glass Town."

"They learn to use language with awareness and élan," Spaar said. "We send the students out into the world having looked deeply into language."

Twenty years before she founded the poetry writing program, Spaar was one of the first graduates of U.Va.'s master of fine arts program, ranked as one of the top creative writing offerings in the country.

She returned to U.Va. in 1995 to administer the M.F.A. program, and soon started thinking about the possibility of an undergraduate option. In the decade since the first class graduated in 2002, the program has had a deep influence on the lives of its students.

Lauren Rooker Cardwell, who graduated with the first class in 2002, likens writing poetry to helping a woman give birth. (One of her other jobs is being a doula, an assistant for the new mother.) "All I've learned over the years about poetics and physiology – the knowledge is present when I'm helping a poem or child be born, but at some point I have to let it fade into the background and be with the body opening before me with my hands and my heart and my intuition. Writing poems and working as a doula, both are more about listening than knowing," said Cardwell, a mother of three children under age 5.

"I could not imagine having received better preparation for the work I have done post-U.Va. – first as an M.F.A. student at New York University, and later as a writer and teacher in various capacities," she said.

Libby Burton, who graduated in 2006, said Spaar was the first teacher who told her, "Of course you can do this."

"It is so very difficult to decipher what really is important and what it means to build a life and a career. Lisa gave me permission to follow what I loved, and that made all the difference in the world," said Burton, who works in New York City as a literary editor with Twelve, an imprint of Hachette Book Group and one of the most selective and critically acclaimed imprints in publishing today.

The area programs in the College of Arts & Sciences' English department create smaller communities within the larger group of roughly 250 English majors who graduate annually.

Cardwell said that the academic and creative community of students, as well as professors, broadened her circle of peers. "Being mentored by, and being in seminars with, poetry students in the M.F.A. program and English Ph.D. candidates stretched me as undergraduate writer and thinker," she said.

Along with getting to know her peers, Burton said the English faculty was a major plus. "I had the opportunity to work very closely with some of the greatest living poets today, Charles Wright and Rita Dove, while reading intensely and learning to navigate and shape my own work."

Burton, who also completed an M.F.A. in poetry writing at Columbia University in 2009, gave a public poetry reading in Brooklyn on Feb. 1. Also putting together a manuscript of poems, Burton continues to write several days a week, she said, as well as participating in workshops and writing groups.

Some of the alumni pursue writing and go on to earn M.F.A.s or Ph.D.s in English. If so, they are much better prepared, they have told Spaar: "ready to take their apprenticeship to the next level."

Kyle Dargan, assistant professor of literature at American University, wrote in an email from Washington, D.C., that his first book, "The Listening," began as his undergraduate thesis for the poetry program. The book won the 2003 Cave Canem Prize, from the organization of the same name, dedicated to the discovery of exceptional African-American poets. His second book, "Bouquet of Hungers," published by the University of Georgia Press in 2007, was awarded the 2008 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in poetry.

Now a teacher himself, Dargan said, "The program Lisa Spaar crafted provided just the right balance of formal and informal pressure to allow us to blossom at our own pace, which we all did."

Spaar, who will publish her fourth book of poems, "Vanitas, Rough," in August, continues to tend the budding writers, mostly via email, after they leave U.Va., flung from the Grounds to as far away as Japan. She is in contact with all but a few of the alumni. Many visit U.Va. when they get the chance, some returning as participants in the Virginia Festival of the Book, held in March.

Students seeking admission into the poetry-writing program must declare an English major and then apply, submitting their writing samples. (Other English majors can choose to concentrate on a specific period, such as American studies or the Renaissance, as well.) Many of the program's students double-major or minor in another subject, Spaar said. Students are encouraged to be interdisciplinary in their studies.

Besides those who continue writing careers, others have gone on to become ministers, lawyers, translators, librarians and even financial analysts.

"Though I don't make a living with it today," accountant Matthew Cook wrote, "I find it provides me a tremendous sense of relief simply to put a pen on the page. It is a close friend I may not see for weeks or months, but we'll pick right back up where we left off."

Over the two-year program, 10 students in each cohort write and read an abundance of poetry. They not only engage in workshops with acclaimed faculty such as Dove, a former U.S. poet laureate, but they also take courses in literary periods both pre- and post-18th century, and seminars that might focus on a particular poet or poets, or a specific theme or subject, examining poetry from the writer's point of view. Those course topics include: "The Sonnet," "Poetry and Childhood," "Ecstatic Poetry," "Dramatic Monologue: The Mask in Verse," "Brilliant Corners: Jazz & Poetry" and "Poetry and the World."

The capstone course, in which the students complete their chapbooks, encourages students to investigate their developing aesthetic in poetry, Spaar said. In addition, each undergraduate in the final year of the two-year program is paired with a graduate student mentor, who offers perspective as experienced guide and reader.

Each student works on a group of poems, collected in a shorter book often called a "chapbook," and brings that to the workshop. Students learn about additional aspects of poetry – they look for a writer's themes and obsessions, the organization or shape of the work and what makes it a meaningful document, she said.

"It wasn't a factory. It was a forum," Dargan said. "We were taken seriously as writers, which isn't something that many young people are afforded. And being taken seriously inevitably changes how you think about yourself as a writer."

— By Anne Bromley


The Battlefield
~ for Darrell Burton

by Kyle G. Dargan

That night a mantle of snow fell over all of the bodies, sharp and fine like sky grating itself. Limbs twice brittle, cold on corpus morta, sunk while ground and horizon grew to touch each other. Five months, the icy shards fell like one name, cataloguing every breathless man as one casualty. It dissolved with their flesh and seeped into the pores beneath the grass.

Widows flocked to the wells, to the rivers — scooping hands and buckets, shoes and skirt bottoms. Each poured what they gathered into wooden bowls, flexed forearms with the alchemy of making dough they’d feed to pear-shaped kilns. When the bread had baked, they gathered all the daughters, made them watch while the boys ate.

[Reprinted from The Listening (University of Georgia Press, 2004). Kyle G. Dargan, originally from Newark, N.J., is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently "Logorrhea Dementia: A Self-Diagnosis," (University of Georgia Press, 2010).]

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications