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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Interview: Beard Whitlow on her award, her poetry and her process

How does it feel to be recognized by NC A&T University with the Sonia Sanchez/Amiri Baraka Prize for Poetry?


It feels wonderful, especially to have this particular poem recognized in a national competition.

This poem, first of all, is part of a larger manuscript for a verse novel I’m working on, “Witch Hazel,” and many of the poems are in conversation with earlier African-American literature. This poem, “Birthright,” is call-and-response with Jean Toomer’s vignette “Becky” in “Cane,” and it means that the literature of the Harlem Renaissance is still producing and inspiring new work, even in the 21st Century. 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.


I tried to find “Birthright” online, but I only found “At the Blank Blank Bar” (published online on storySouth) …


“Birthright” hasn’t been published yet; it’s been honored, but not published yet. But it’s under consideration, and I check the mail daily to see if it has been taken. That would be great. I want it to appear in a journal, and ultimately in my book.

You want to talk about “At the Blank Blank Bar?”


Yes, I really do!


Oh, you like “At the Blank Blank Bar!” [clapping]


I really, really enjoyed it!  For one thing, at the beginning I could hear the blues playing in the bar …


So could I!


… just a mid-tempo shuffle …




… and I love your fish imagery; sturgeon and carpin’ and perchin’ …


[clapping] You’ve made me so happy! [laughs] It works!


… and I love the dialogue, you know, “Man, her shit so tight she mus’ wourk in a rubba ban factry / had it poppin’no  pop  pop  pop!”  That was so good!


[laughs] To me, the greatest delight is when I replicate how males talk; when I, as a woman, can really get the nuance of idiomatic expressions by males. In this one, I really reached for it.

And Sturgeon is such a masculine name. You can’t really imagine a regular person being named Sturgeon, but it’s just perfect.

And this, again, this is part of a series. I’m disappointed that storySouth didn’t pick up the two poems which precede this one. This is part of a much longer narrative, and it’s just one little moment where we see Sturgeon.


It does seem like Sturgeon is a character who is established, who has more background.


You have that when the poem sits in a larger context. They kind of plucked a plum out of a longer piece, just a movement when you need the entire vision. But I love him. I love Sturgeon.

But thank you so much. The other thing I like about this poem is that I have this reputation … I’m seen as sort of strict or intimidating, and this poem reveals how I am. It has so much humor in it, and there’s that side of me, I guess, that students don’t get to see. So it’s delightful that you would come in and see all my little puns and plays and appreciate them!


Actually, when I was touring with a CCE group this summer, the tour guide stopped us at Archdale and said, “Oh, there’s Carolyn Beard Whitlow’s office, right there.” I asked, “What’s her deal?” And the guide groaned, “Man, she will put your ass to work.”


[laughs] That’s what the guide said?


Yes, but it was intriguing to me, and I signed up for your Modern Poetry class, anyway! And it was strange to walk into your class to see that you’re really funny, witty and bright.


Actually, before Archdale was remodeled, I had a sign made by a student posted on my door. It read, “A’s Ain’t Cheap!” But at the bottom, in this tiny, tiny font, it said, “But they’re well worth the effort.” Well, nobody saw that part; they only saw, “A’s Ain’t Cheap!” [laughs]

But, oh, thank you, you just made my day! You let me know that somebody gets me and my writing.

[to the photographer] And you’ve got me full of smiles! I’m going to have to confiscate these photos!

So, what else do you want to know, Anthony?


Well, describe your writing process.


I’d call my writing evocative, but it must be provoked.

Writing time is so precious while (being) a faculty member at Guilford that most years I get to write only one week to one month all year. It’s short, it’s truncated, it’s precious.

In order to jump-start myself after this desert of time without writing, 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 to what I’m delving into, and surround my chair with these books, I just go from book to book to book to book to book to book to book to book, 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. It just depends, but the initiation comes from immersion in words or ideas which aren’t my own until something inside of me is provoked to write.

The book I’m working on now, the larger book…well, my chapbook, “When the Wind Stills,” has just been put up on the Finishing Line Press website for pre-order. “When the Wind Stills” is a piece, like a chapter from a larger work. For instance, “At the Blank Blank Bar” is not in the chapbook; it’s in a different section of the larger work.

Both of these books were inspired by my Historical Perspectives course, Black Women’s History and Literature. I’m following the timeline of that course.

When I say I have to know what I’m researching, I have to know what moments in history I have to look at in-depth in order to render those moments poetically … that’s the process right now. I’m turning history into poetry, and hopefully delightful poetry.


Aside from writers of the Harlem Renaissance, who or what would you consider influences for your poetry?


I wouldn’t name any particular person or poet.

I think the fact that I’m considered a New Formalist influences what I write. As often as I write free verse, I write in form, but modernized and contemporary. I embellish or diminish the original shape of a formal poem. I change the rhyme scheme, eliminate the rhyme scheme. I’m always playing with form, but I’ve been well-trained.

The rhythmic section of a poem comes natural to me. I have a good ear; I can hear meter very quickly. I believe the adage, “Free verse isn’t really free,” is very evident in my work.

I’m always conscious of the craft of the poem, so how the poem is made is as important to me as what the poem says. Often in free verse, what’s paramount is what it is the poem has to say, but I’m also delighted in how the poem says what it says.

I think that’s the driving force for me: Is there delight? Seeing your reaction to “At the Blank Blank Bar” is what delights me; that you understand and see what I’m doing and that it delights you.

That’s the only way I can answer that question. Delight is the primary influence.


You’re about to enter your twentieth year at Guilford. What do you like about teaching at Guilford.


I love Guilford’s core values; its ethos; its students … I wanted to teach where teaching is paramount, not research or reputation. I wanted to teach where I could make a difference.

I just had a conversation with an alum this morning who graduated in 1996. I’ve gotten flowers from alums. I know here, that is somewhat of a constant, where students will appreciate me sooner than later, or later if not sooner. [laughs] That’s important and rewarding to me.


How do you juggle teaching, writing … and quilting?


[chuckles] You’ve done your research.

I’m able to do quilting at home in the evening, and I like to say that I’m dipping from the same creative well as my poetry with my quilting. My poetry emerges through my fiber art.

But I cannot quilt and write at the same time. It must be one or the other.

At least I can do my fiber art while I’m teaching, but I cannot produce poetry, so fiber art gets to be continuous. I can watch television while quilting; I can talk on the phone. But I can’t do those things while writing.


When and why did you start writing poetry?


I didn’t choose poetry. Poetry chose me.

Honestly, though, I had no idea I thought I’d become a poet; I was avoiding it. I had such a traumatic experience as an undergraduate with teachers who denigrated my writing and accused me of plagiarism. They didn’t think I could produce what I produced. Even as a child, I was not praised for writing. I had a phobia about trying to write creatively.

Anyway, when I was at the dissertation stage at Cornell as a PhD candidate in Adult Education and Social Policy Planning, poems started bursting out of me, at first due to automatic writing.

I was sitting at the sofa. I had a book in my hand and a tablet at the arm of the couch, and I was supposed to be taking notes, and I literally watched my hand move across the page as though it were not my hand. I looked to see after it stopped what was there.

I think it was in response to the last negative experience I had at the University of Michigan, when my professor threw my pages in my face and said, “This is sentimental pap!” I ran out of the classroom and never returned, and I called my first writing, “Sentimental Pap.”

It must have been my subconscious dealing with that pain, but I unlocked it.

When I had a sheaf of poems, I approached a renowned emeritus professor at University of Michigan, J. Saunders Redding. I had never met him; never been his student. I put the envelope of poems under his door with a note, because I was too shy, which said, “I want to know if I’m writing poetry. Is there anything here that says, ‘I’m a writer?’”

He sent for me and eventually recommended me to the MFA program at Brown University. It was the only program I applied to; it was make it or break it. I was either going down the administrative path or the writing path, but the decision was made for me when Brown accepted me.


What advice would you give prospective creative writers?


Believe in yourself.

Read voraciously, because reading the writing of others is what teaches you subliminally what’s good.

You have to be willing to hear “No” over and over and over again. You’ll get enough rejections to paper a house.

You have to be persistent and be honest about your writing.

Take criticism well. You can always get praise. Your mom can tell you, “You’re really, really good.” That’s why there’s MFA programs, so you have a critique from someone who knows about the craft.

Aim to improve and improve. The first piece of writing will not tumble out of you and be your magnum opus. It takes practice and requires perfecting one’s craft, even if you have a gift.

To be a recognized writer, you have to continue to learn and hone that craft.

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