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Rita Dove & Creative Writing at Knox College

May 23, 2017

Poetry filled Knox College's Seymour Library as Pulitzer Prize winning writer and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove delivered a reading to a packed house. Some students, faculty, and alumni resorted to sitting on the floor or standing in the back to see the prolific poet.

Dove came to Galesburg this spring to help the Knox College Creative Writing department celebrate its 50th Anniversary.

She read poems from her Pulitzer Prize winning book Thomas and Beulah, which is based on the story of her maternal grandparents, as well as newer works not yet published. The audience was described by Professor of English Natania Rosenfeld as “wrapped” by Dove’s cadence and rhythm.

In between poems, Dove spoke about the craft of writing poetry, taking ideas from personal life, conducting research to add historical context, and the misconceptions of finding your voice as a writer.  

“Don’t look for your voice. You have a voice. You’re just finding it, or you’re making it better, but if you look, you’ll just miss something else,” Dove said.

Dove was invited to Knox by the school’s Caxton Club, a literary organization that brings high-profile writers to campus every term. This year’s Visiting Writers Series celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Knox’s Creative Writing department.

“The Creative Writing Program at Knox is actually pretty phenomenal,” Dove said. “When I think of the number of the students who’ve come through it, and the quality of their work...I don’t know if any other university can boast of having such an amazing reading program.”

Rita Dove, former US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, talks with TSPR’s Casey Mendoza.
Credit Miranda Corbett

Dove said she felt a connection with the community at Knox College. And it’s not the first time she’s visited the campus. Dove delivered the commencement speech to the Class of 1989.

Dove said she considers professors Robin Metz and Natania Rosenfeld to be close friends. Rosenfeld actually lived near Dove when she was a child, and said Dove inspired her to pursue a career in creative writing and English.  Beyond the personal connections, Dove said her respect for the academic community at Knox College made it easy for her to come back and give a reading.

After the reading, attendees waited up to an hour to meet Dove. Erin Daugherty said it was worth it. She graduated from Knox four years ago but drove from St. Louis to attend Dove’s reading. Daugherty was thrilled to see one of her favorite poets at her alma mater.

“You know, here’s the poet that wrote the first poem in the Intro to Poetry book that we started with back in my Intro to Poetry class,” she said.

Daugherty studied Creative Writing at Knox. Although she now works in data visualization at Washington University, she is still writing poetry.

Monica Berlin, Associate Director of Creative Writing, said it is typical of Creative Writing graduates to keep writing, even if they are not full-time writers.

“Our students leave here and whether they go to graduate school or whether they find themselves working in non-for-profits, many of them find themselves still writing. They contribute to the literary world in extraordinary ways,” she said.

Creative Writing graduates often become full-time writers. One of them is alumnus Ander Monson, who recently received a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship which he will use to help finish his latest book.

Monica Berlin credited students for some of the department’s success in shaping successful writers. She thinks that the department attracts “…students who are deeply invested in the project of becoming writers.” That genuine interest seems to create an intimate bond between students, alumni, and faculty involved with the department.

“I think what our students learn here in addition to craft is what it means to be part of a community,” said Berlin.

Erin Daugherty still feels like a part of that community. In addition to learning how to write, Daugherty feels that she gained other important skills.

“I think listening is the thing that I got out of this. To be part of a group of people who for fifty years have been creating and pouring their souls, but also willing to hear what others have to say about that is really wonderful,” said Daugherty.

Dove echoed Daugherty’s statements when she described taking questions from students after her reading.

“The Knox College Program is special. It is unique, and these students, I can see it, are very lucky. I can see it in their questions and the way they responded that they’re great. They’re doing something really good here,” Dove said.