English Teacher and Poet
Masters of Fine Arts in Poetry, 2004
Kathleen Willard’s poetry projects include a travelogue documenting a month long stay in India, an investigation of St. Francis of Assisi based on relics and art depicting his life, a series of sonnets to Mary Shelley, a mistranslation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis using an early 20th Century high school Latin workbook in addition to documenting her life in northern Colorado. One of her interests is using received forms—dictionary entries, tourist brochures, indexes, lists, newspaper articles, and fairy tales—as structures for her poems.
Her poetry has been influenced by travels to India, Italy, Turkey, Portugal and from growing up in a nomadic career military family.
She received a Masters of Arts in English from Middlebury College’s Breadloaf School of English and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Colorado State University.
Awards include a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to study in India, a National Endowment of Humanities Fellowship to study the New England Renaissance in Massachusetts, and an Arts Alive Fellowship to support her trip to Turkey. She received a fellowship to travel and write in Lisbon, Portugal at the Disquiet International Literary Program and to be in residence at the Vermont Studio Center.
She has taught creative writing in public schools, colleges, prisons, and senior housing projects.
Read the interview below to learn more!
(The biographical information above from Colorado Poets Center)
Why did you choose to study at CSU?
I applied to the MFA Program and was accepted. I was thrilled as I had wanted an MFA in Poetry for years and knew that places at the table were limited. I returned to college after a several decade hiatus to work on my MFA in Creative Writing in Poetry. I was a public school teacher and have written poetry since my teens. I still have copies of my high school literary magazine where my first poems were published. From that moment on, I was intoxicated by the act of writing a poem. For years, I wanted to work on an advanced degree in writing, and the convergence of being accepted into the program and receiving a sabbatical from the Poudre School District set me on my desired course.
I wanted to fine tune and hone my craft. I wanted to join a circle of people who were serious about an art form that will never make them rich, that has a limited “market”, but felt compelled like I do, to confront the blank page and write a poem. I needed to get out of my quiet studio, my predictable workplace and moved to the next level of my craft. I wanted to be challenged and my work at CSU provided me with the opportunity to grow as a writer in ways not possible when writing solo.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
Living the life of a poet and not giving up. Writing against impossible odds. One receives many “no’s” before one gets a “yes” as a writer of poetry. Because of my poems, I received a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship to travel to India, a fellowship to the Disquiet International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal, received a fellowship to attend Vermont Studio Center, an artist colony, twice and have had many poetry adventures. Finally, a chapbook of my poetry, Cirque & Sky, was published this year and won the Middle Creek Publishing & Audio’s Fledge Poetry Contest.
How did your major prepare you for your job and the life you have now?
Being an English major prepares one for many jobs and is a prerequisite to become a teacher. I worked in publishing and as a freelance writer, but my career was as a public school English teacher. I wanted to be a writing teacher that had first contact with developing, emerging writers and readers of literature. That first contact happens in 9th grade when students leap from YA Literature into classic literature.
I had a calling. I wanted to help students master Shakespeare and The Odyssey, both very difficult texts. I wanted to share my experience as a writer and help students develop confidence in crafting their ideas, honing their thinking and sharing their ideas with the world through writing. I was especially driven to be the teacher that helps students love poetry and they did come to love poetry as poetry is the language of adolescents.
A large banner with George Orwell quote was prominently displayed in the front of my classroom, “If you do not write well, you cannot think well. If you cannot think well, others will do your thinking for you.” This was my quest—to help students think for themselves.
What advice do you have for prospective English students?
Follow your passion. Many people will question your choice to major in English. I tried very hard not be an English major, and studied Political Science. I took a course on Women and Literature and read 15 novels written by women and I was hooked. People undervalue a degree in English, but, it is one of the most flexible degrees on the planet. You can teach, work in publishing, work in marketing, work in politics, or run a business. As an English major, you are fine tuning analytical thinking and research skills, and mastering communication and writing skills, all highly valued workplace skills. When you study a novel deeply, you are also studying history, philosophy, culture, psychology, religion, and science, as characters in novels inhabit a unique time and space. When you write an essay, you are crafting a new idea and exploring new territory. Writing is a creative act, another valuable workplace skill. But, if you are like me, encountering a beautifully crafted poem or novel or short story or essay or sentence is reward enough to study literature.
Were there any faculty in the English Department that had a special impact on your writing life?
When I became a student at CSU, I wanted to push myself as a citizen of the poetry world, and be involved with an engaged literary community. The professors at CSU have created a learning environment that fostered my journey.
My thesis advisor, Lauren Mullen, pushed me intellectually and helped me fine tune my craft with the precision of a sculptor. She pushed me to question everything I knew about poetry before entering the program and with her guidance I became a better critic of my work and the work of others. She radicalized my approach to my poetry. Mary Crow guided me on a journey into Surrealism and into work by international poets that I would have never read on my own and enriched my body of knowledge. Bill Tremblay continues to be interested in my work long past my graduation, as we are in an occasional writing group. John Calderazzo, even though I never took any of his classes, has always been curious about my writing and kind to me. John wrote a wonderful book jacket blurb for my first chapbook of poetry, Cirque & Sky. Dan Beachy-Quick, who arrived at CSU long after I graduated, also wrote a wonderful book blurb, proof positive CSU alums are forever connected to the MFA program.
What was your last piece of writing?
My last piece of writing is my current piece of writing. I am working on a project with the Denver’s Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and the American Museum of Western Art in Denver called Writing the West. I am currently revising three poems based on three paintings in the museum—Trapper at Fault, Looking at Trail, Desert Journey, and Corn Dancer. The poems will be published as a book and be part of a permanent installation at the museum. They are also making an audio recording of the writing in the project and the recording with be part of their audio tour for the collection.
Why is poetry important? What does it mean to or do for you, all of us?
Poetry connects people across all the artificial divides we have created. It speaks cross cultures and gender, beyond religion and politics and its speaks across the ages. Poets are keen observers of the world and poets have no tie to any marketplace or economy and therefore, we are truth tellers as we know we will never make a living producing our art. We are keen observers of the world around us. We write like investigative reporters as we write deep and close to the bone.
Who are some of your favorite poets?
Sappho, Emily Dickinson, Eavan Boland, W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Fernando Pessoa.
What is your writing process, practice like?
I write by hand on the largest art blank sketchbook paper I can buy. I write outside the lines and let the paper be a field I explore. I write by hand until I cannot write anymore on that subject. Then I go to the computer. And revise revise revise. It takes me a very long time to complete a poem.
I don’t have a fixed time to write, but am always thinking about the next poem or the current one so when I hit my desk, words explode.
How would you describe the poetry you write?
I am a lyric poet, but try to push the boundaries of the lyric into the 21st Century. Currently, I am writing pastorals praising the beauty of the Rocky Mountain West and anti-pastorals lyric poems about fracking, benzene spills, Superfund sites, toxic wastes from the decades of mining and pine bark beetle infestations. My chapbook Cirque & Sky deals with this material, but I am working on a book length manuscript on this issue.
What fuels, feeds your poetry?
Poems are everywhere. Always be open. One just has to listen. Get out in the world. Don’t isolate yourself in your studio. Writing a poem is a moveable feast. It can be done anywhere. Follow one’s obsessions—there are poems in there. Read. Read. Read. Read.
Go the opera. Art museums. Theatre. Antique shops. Get outdoors and walk or fly fish or hike. Learn the names of all the living creatures and plants in your region. Figure out a way to travel. As travel is destabilizing, and in destabilization, poems occur. I have traveled to India, Turkey, Portugal and the Azores—my short list. Each time I cross a new border, I am on alert. Can’t afford to travel across the globe? The West is also a foreign country—travel beyond the Front Range. It’s incredible.
What sort of legacy would you like your poetry, your life to leave?
I would like my poetic legacy to be about interconnectedness. We are connected to the planet and to each other. Williams Carlos Williams said poetry is about contact. When one reads a poem, he believed contact between reader and writer occurs and that is the purpose of all art. I hope my poems make contact with readers.