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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Beard Whitlow on her award, her poetry and her process

Dana Professor of English Carolyn Beard Whitlow enjoys the reputation of being Guilford College’s Spartan taskmaster. However, beyond that reputation, Beard Whitlow is no knuckle-rapper. She is a witty and modest woman with an immense passion for her poetry, her teaching and her students.

Beard Whitlow was recently awarded the Sonia Sanchez/Amiri Baraka Prize for Poetry by North Carolina A&T University for her poem, “Birthright.” This poem will be published on the A&T website.

“It feels wonderful to have this particular poem recognized in a national competition,” she said.

“Birthright,” as Beard Whitlow explained, is a response to Jean Toomer’s vignette, “Becky.” It also draws a refrain from the Negro spiritual, “Steal Away to Jesus.”

“Having ’Birthright’ chosen for this prize means that the literature of the Harlem Renaissance is still producing and inspiring new work, even in the 21st century,” said Beard Whitlow. “So I’m especially delighted, because it shows a trajectory between what happened in the past and what I and other poets are currently producing.”

Beard Whitlow is definitely producing. Recently, storySouth magazine published another of her poems, “At the Blank Blank Bar.”

“At the Blank Blank Bar” describes a moment in the life of a man named Sturgeon. Through descriptions of the music and dialogue surrounding Sturgeon, Beard Whitlow seats the reader directly on the stool of a lonely, smoky blues bar.

Alongside the vivid imagery is a series of puns utilizing the names of fish.

“I’m seen as sort of strict or intimidating, but this poem reveals how I am,” said Beard Whitlow. “’At the Blank Blank Bar’ has so much humor in it, and there’s that side of me that students don’t get to see.”

Disregarding her “ruthless” facade, Beard Whitlow is a light-hearted woman. However, when it comes to her writing process, she is all business.

“Writing time is so precious as a faculty member at Guilford,” she said. “Most years I get to write only one week to one month all year.

“It’s short; it’s truncated; it’s precious.”

She continued, “I begin by reading. If you could imagine taking a shelf of books on the subject matter that I’m working in that really give an interdisciplinary approach … I surround my chair with these books … and I just read until something ignites.

“When it ignites, I stick with that piece. It could be 24 hours with very little sleep, or it could rest until that next week in the next year.”

Beard Whitlow certainly makes the most of her time. “When the Wind Stills,” a poetry chapbook, will be released early next year. She is now working on a verse novel, “Witch Hazel,” which contains both “Birthright” and “At the Blank Blank Bar.”

“Both of these books were inspired by my Historical Perspectives course, Black Women’s History and Literature,” said Beard Whitlow. “I’m trying to turn history into poetry, and hopefully delightful poetry.”

Beard Whitlow juggles her prolific writing with teaching, but teaching is of utmost importance to her.

She chose to teach at Guilford because, in her words, “I wanted to teach where teaching is paramount, not research or reputation. I wanted to teach where I could make a difference. I know here, that is somewhat of a constant, where students will appreciate me sooner than later, or later if not sooner.”

Senior English major Dahlia Ghadry, once a student in Beard Whitlow’s poetry workshop, said of her teaching style, “Carolyn’s power as a professor comes from her hands-on poetic passion. She’s a patient leader, yet fiercely adherent to the importance of intellectual exploration.”

Years ago, a student made a sign for Beard Whitlow which she then posted on her door. It read, in large letters, “A’s Ain’t Cheap,” but in smaller font, near the bottom, it stated, “But they’re well worth the effort.” Unfortunately, most people saw the scary message without reading the punch line.

This sign, now lost, epitomizes Carolyn Beard Whitlow: bold; intense; even scary, until you read into her further.

Then you find she’s delightful.

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