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We hope you’ll attend next week’s reading by Nell Boeschenstein, who recently joined the creative writing faculty. After receiving degrees from Dartmouth College and Columbia University, Nall served as the associate producer of online media for the NPR radio program Fresh Air. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, This Recording, The Millions, and The Morning News.

Nell Boeschenstein.poster

Below is an interview novelist Carrie Brown conducted in 2012 with award-winning author Edith Pearlman, who will visit Sweet Briar on Wednesday, March 13, for an 8 p.m. reading in the Pannell Art Gallery. The reading is free and open to the public.


Sweet Briar College will host a poetry reading by 2004 graduate CM Burroughs at 4:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 22 in Pannell Gallery. The event is free and open to the public. A Q&A with the author will take place earlier that day during lunch from noon to 1:30 p.m. in Johnson Dining Room.

Burroughs has been awarded fellowships and grants from Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cave Canem Foundation, Callaloo Writers Workshop, and the University of Pittsburgh. She has received commissions from the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Warhol Museum to create poetry in response to art installations. Her poetry has appeared in various journals, including Callaloo, jubilat, Ploughshares, VOLT, Bat City Review and Sou’wester. She holds an M.F.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and has been teaching composition and poetry for seven years, currently as the Elma Stuckey Poet-in-Residence at Columbia College of Chicago.

Her debut collection The Vital System was released by Tupelo Press in September. On its website, the publisher praises Burroughs as a poet who is “already setting off sparks among readers across the globe.”

As the title of her collection suggests, “The body is the most significant figure of my poetry,” Burroughs says. “The beginning and end of all acts, the body is the harbor of all my thematic obsessions: vulnerability, modes of strength, the female body, and the ‘I’ in relation to all Others, namely the relationship of the ‘I’ to threatening and/or intimate Others.”

Fellow poet Douglas Kearney sees “vivid grief, livid vulnerability and bristling sensuality” in her texts, as well as “terrible resilience and dangerous vitality.”

These emotions are driven and enhanced by the poet’s deliberate use — and abuse — of linguistic conventions and imagery.

“The Vital System,” writes Laurie Sheck, is a “provocative” collection in which Burroughs engages with the page “as a visual field.” In it, Sheck adds, Burroughs “enacts the ways in which the very nature of thought is brokenness and disruption.”

Tupelo Press explains that “Burroughs’s compression of phrasing, subverted syntax, and ability to release a story through cinematically sequenced images allow her to expose particular tensions that are gendered and racial as well as essentially human.”

The cinema connection isn’t a coincidence. After all, the poet says that much of her inspiration comes from French movies.

“Godard films always draw contemplation,” she says. In 2011, Burroughs spent a month in France “in order to have quiet, the observatory quality of foreignness and to work on my second book.”

Burroughs says her poetic voice began developing when she was a student at Sweet Briar. Back then it wasn’t France, but the Central Virginia campus, that served as her “quiet place.”

“I used Sweet Briar’s landscape in order to have quiet, an open observation to what my poetry wanted to be, and cultivate a careful listening for who I was then and, perhaps, who I would become,” she remembers.

While at Sweet Briar, Burroughs, who graduated a year early, took advantage of many other opportunities. She was a resident advisor for two and a half years and held other leadership positions.

“I found it the perfect place to develop myself and to develop what have become decade-long friendships,” she says.

This will be her third time returning to campus.

— This story by Janika Carey appeared on the SBC News webpage. Go here to read the original story.

Professor John Casteen shares some thoughts on the link between his own creative process and that of a very different kind of artist:
Writers generally thrive on ephemeral connections that are intuitively correct for them individually, but many of those connections– mine included– prove a bit difficult to explain to others.  Maybe they’re too sophisticated, or maybe they’re too interior; maybe one person’s need to have things make sense is greater than another’s.  But it was a great pleasure for me to discover several years ago that a photographer whose work I’d loved for a long time– Sam Abell, a former staff photographer for National Geographic– explains his work in ways that match up perfectly with a number of craft aspects of teaching poetry.
In this video interview from the web site of The Atlantic, photographer Ross McDermott interviews Abell about the process of making one of his best known NG photographs.  Abell’s method– look, then compose, then wait– is a perfect visual analogy for the kind of thinking that underlies many processes of composing poems.  The connection has to do with subject matter– of a poem or an image– and then the corresponding mood, technical details, timing, and so on.  It’s also a great reassurance to know that an artist working at the highest level can take more than a year to produce an image he believes is worthy of the effort– reassuring, I mean, because so many of us who write poems are used to long, long intervals between conception and completion.
On a personal level, I also love Abell and this interview for his candor, openness, humor, and humility.  These are great traits for writers– and for anyone.  Enjoy.

The Vital System, a first collection of poems by SBC alumna Christina Burroughs ’04, will be published in September by Tupelo Press. Christina, who publishes under the name CM Burroughs, has been awarded fellowships and grants from organizations including Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cave Canem, Callaloo Writers Workshop, and the University of Pittsburgh. She has received commissions from the Studio Museum of Harlem and the Warhol Museum to create poetry in response to art installations.  After graduating from Sweet Briar, Christina eared an MFA  at the University of Pittsburgh, and she now lives in Chicago where she is the Elma Stuckey Poet-in-Residence at Columbia College. Her poem “Artist’s Delight” was published as a broadside in 2008 for Pennsylvania’s Public Poetry Project and appeared in Tuesday; An Art Project. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her poetry has appeared in journals including Ploughshares, Callaloo, jubilat, VOLT, Bat City Review, La Fovea, and Eleven Eleven.

Poet and novelist Laurie Sheck says of The Vital System, “CM Burroughs’s provocative first collection enacts the ways in which the very nature of thought is brokenness and disruption. Saturated in red, full of ellipses, slash marks, lacunae, brackets, and all manner of typographical signaling, this work bristles with a Hopkins-like clashing of syllables and haunting silences. In its challenging engagement with the page as a visual field, The Vital System submerges while never wholly abandoning narrative…. If the word “I” is both an infected and glorious thing, how are we to think of it? — that is one of the questions implicit at the heart of this book so full of vivid cusps and strivings.”

And French critic and essaysist Hélène Cixous writes, “A poem drips through to us … an injection of luminous sentences. CM Burroughs delves into the ultra-sensitive roots of being; where sufferings and desires take shape, she gathers each breath as yet unheard and leads it to speech.”

Links to some of Christina’s poems are available on her web site. Also, she’ll be reading at Sweet Briar at 4:30 p.m. on Monday October 22, in the Anne Gary Pannell Gallery to celebrate the publication of The Vital System. More information about Christina’s visit will be posted later.

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We wait for the moon to rise so we can enter
the woods and hang statues of saints from the trees.

In a thicket, a doe bent in what could be prayer
nudges her young, waiting for it to rise

from its cold sleep. Owls listen for mice beneath
the snow. The messenger of the gods is also a god.

— Traci Brimhall, “Winter Nocturne”

For the first reading of the 2012-2013 academic year, the SBC creative writing program welcomes award-winning poet Traci Brimhall. She will read Wednesday, September 26, at 4:30 p.m. in the Anne Gary Pannell Gallery. The reading is free and open to the public.

Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (W.W. Norton, 2012), selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and finalist for the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Her poems have appeared in New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, FIELD, Indiana Review and Southern Review. She is a former Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, a current Emerging Writer Fellow at The Writer’s Center, and the 2012 Summer Poet in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She has also received scholarships and fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Disquiet International Literary Program.

She holds degrees from Florida State University and Sarah Lawrence College. Currently, she teaches creative writing at Western Michigan University where she is a doctoral candidate and a King/Chávez/Parks Fellow. She also serves as Editor-in-Chief for Third Coast and Editor at Large for Loaded Bicycle.

Poet Gregory Orr praised Brimhall’s new book by writing, “Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins invites us into a richly-textured landscape and the seekers and pilgrims who restlessly, relentlessly explore its darker reaches in search of meanings. It’s as if a Tarot deck came alive and its characters told their stories in stark, imaginative narratives that made their world more real and urgent than the one we inhabit. This is visionary poetry sustained at the highest level—a book full of lucid dreams alive with menace and quest.”

Many of Brimhll’s poems are available online, including “What They Found in the Diving Bell, ” “Aubade With A Broken Neck,” “Through A Glass Darkly,” and “Hysteria: A Requiem.”


Note: The story below, about the UVA Young Writers Workshop on SBC’s campus, is reprinted from SBC’s web site. It can be found here.


It’s a Thursday morning in July, and the second session of UVA’s Young Writers Workshop is in full swing.

In a tiny classroom a handful of songwriting students have picked up their guitars, their fingers searching for notes that might inspire words. Handwritten signs taped to the wall with bright pink duct tape read “Contribute,” “Take risks” and “Revisions.”

In the kitchen lounge just outside the classroom, another student is listening to hip-hop beats on his computer, his head nodding as he scribbles down lyrics.

For 30 years, high school kids from across the country and abroad have been gathering during the summer to immerse themselves in their art. There are workshops in fiction, poetry, non-fiction, script- and songwriting. Some students have been coming for years; others became counselors and now teach some of the writing labs. The second session, which lasts three weeks, typically draws 50 percent of its applicants from workshop alumnae, according to assistant director Jeff Martin.

One thing is different in 2012: It’s the first time the workshop is taking place on the campus of Sweet Briar College, and not at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

“It’s been wonderful,” says Margo Figgins, founder and director of the program, which admits between 150 and 200 students each year.

After last year’s hiatus due to renovations at UVA, she’s glad to have found a new home for her young writers — at least for the moment. It’s too early to say whether Sweet Briar will become a permanent residence, but so far the campus seems like a natural fit for the program.

“The location here is much nicer,” says scriptwriting student Natcher Pruett, a 17-year-old from Minneapolis. It’s his second time participating in the workshop.

Students Libby Brennan (from left), Katherine Thompson, Helena Chung and Sarah Yung don’t mind writing in the company of other poets.

“It’s nice to wake up in the morning and see the mountains when you look out of the window.”

Chicago native Leah Barber, 16, agrees. “I really like Sweet Briar College as a location because it brings character to the program.”

Despite her urban background, the quietude of the campus doesn’t bother her. On the contrary, she says, it’s nice not having distractions.

“You can really focus on your writing,” she says. In her case, that’s poetry.

Some students call the landscape “inspiring” — a vibe Martin feels, too.

“One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed in shifting from Charlottesville to Sweet Briar is that, odd as this may sound, the land seems to have a calming effect on both the students and the parents,” says Martin, who’s been with the program since 2001.

“In Charlottesville there was construction around us every summer for more than a decade, and we were right on a major road, so it was a very busy space — both literally and to the eye — and never really quiet. Here, though, I’ve noticed from as early as registration — when the parents and their children first drive onto campus — that the land gets their attention: they talk not just about how pretty it is, but also about how quiet it is, and how peaceful.”

The campus environment emerged as a theme so often that it prompted Figgins to speculate on its impact.

“It’ll be interesting to see what role the landscape plays and how it enhances their experience,” she says.

Director Margo Figgins is also an associate professor at UVa’s Curry School of Education.

But there’s something else that students are benefitting from just as much as the landscape.

“The other major difference that helps immerse the students in the Young Writers experience is that here at Sweet Briar they’re surrounded by other arts programs, which wasn’t the case in Charlottesville,” Martin says.

“Between BLUR [Sweet Briar’s interdisciplinary arts camp] and [the College’s theater company-in-residence] Endstation, we’ve had opportunities for collaborations that we’ve never had before, and the effect of that is pretty powerful — after a while students simply accept that they’re surrounded by all kinds of different artists, and when art becomes the comfortable norm, the creation and sharing of it becomes much easier to do.”

Scriptwriting students assisted Endstation playwrights with some of their new scripts, and all workshop participants attended at least one Blue Ridge Summer Theatre Festival performance.

The Young Writers Workshop also collaborates with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which is located just across U.S. 29. VCCA fellows come to campus to read from their works and to teach electives — classes that fall outside of the students’ disciplines, but are always tied to writing. They’ve explored “Queer Theory in Beatles Songs,” invented a sock puppet world based on a YouTube video of an old MTV show, and delved into the art of a concept album, which involved listening to “Ziggy Stardust.”

“The VCCA is such an amazing resource,” says poetry student Zoe Jeka, 17, from Maryland.

Pruett, Barber and Jeka’s eyes light up when they talk about their classes. One of their favorite experiences was the 24-hour play, a workshop tradition in which students write and rehearse an original play in just one day. Barber and Jeka also loved finding random science books in the library to use as inspiration for their poetry.

During the academic year, assistant director Jeff Martin teaches composition, literature and fiction writing courses at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro.

On weekends, counselors organize field trips to local orchards and farmers’ markets; during writing labs, students occasionally visit coffee shops and antique stores in Lynchburg. Sometimes, activities are meant to inspire, other times they’re just for fun. But in the end, the one thing everyone wants to do — all the time — is write.

It’s not uncommon for program participants to spend lunch breaks talking entirely about what they’ve been working on, Barber says. Most of the time, she adds, students can’t wait to get back to work. “We’re always writing.”

With just days before this year’s workshop ends, all three students say time has gone by way too fast. They’re not ready to part from newly found friends and return to their high schools, where writing is just one of many subjects.

“I wish it was all summer,” Barber says with a sigh.

Martin knows from experience that there will be “lots of tears” come closing day. “Which is a little sad to watch, but it also means we did our job,” he adds.


— Janika Carey


Since graduating from Sweet Briar five years ago with a degree in English and creative writing,Shavonne Wei-Ming Clarke ’07 has made quite a name for herself. Last fall, her short story “Third Wife” was published in the Bellevue Literary Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. [The story can be read online here.]

Set in Singapore, the narrative pays homage to Shavonne’s grandmother, who was born there and fled to the U.S. during World War II. “Third Wife” is the result of a novel Shavonne began to write for her senior thesis project at Sweet Briar.

“The story was an attempt to enter the mind of one of the wives — eight are spoken of in the novel — so that I could characterize her more effectively if she were ever mentioned in one of the chapters,” Shavonne explained. “Of course, Reumah’s story really took on its own life once I began to write it.”

While the novel remains in progress, Shavonne is also working on a new project — another novel and a short story that is part of it. This summer, she is traveling to England to finish the first draft of the novel, which is set about two hours south of London.

“I’m interested in writing about the riots that took place there last summer, exploring the social and political climate,” she says.

The short story will be published in the next issue of Hayden’s Ferry Review.

With her writing career taking off, Shavonne hasn’t forgotten where it all started.

“I think I had some idea of how to express myself in writing before I went to Sweet Briar, but I was bottled up verbally. It was the best place for me to learn how to speak — and speak up — in a classroom.”

Sweet Briar’s small class sizes and the close collaboration between faculty and students proved a real advantage for Shavonne.

“I wouldn’t have received the encouragement I did for my thesis at a larger school,” she said. “It was a unique, important experience, since a writer’s gotta have nerve, and my professors were nothing but supportive.”

After graduating from Sweet Briar, Shavonne went to Texas A&M University for a master’s degree in English. Since fall 2010, she’s been pursuing her M.F.A. in fiction at Purdue University, where she also teaches rhetoric, composition and creative writing and co-edits the Sycamore Review.

— Reprinted from Sweet Briar Magazine

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