Marjory Wentworth’s students at the College of Charleston describe her as “one of a kind.” Her laughter and energy are infectious, and even though she doesn’t require attendance, her classes are always full.
“She goes above and beyond in every class she teaches,” says Elizabeth Meyer-Bernstein, dean of the Honors College. “She routinely creates new colloquia for the Honors College that are timely and rich in discussion. Marj is not only a gifted writer, but a remarkable educator and an asset to the students and our institution.”
And students are effusive in their praise for Wentworth. One student in her Honors course, Writer in the Community, commented, “I have truly never felt so academically supported and personally cared for by a teacher in my life … and I will remember her going forward as the type of professional and person I’d like to be – understanding, bright, kind, knowledgeable.”
But teaching is only one of the ways Wentworth gives back to the community. For 17 years, she held the title of South Carolina’s Poet Laureate and published four books of poems during that time. She is also the New York Times bestselling author of Out of Wonder, Poems Celebrating Poets (with Kwame Alexander and Chris Colderley). She is the co-writer of We Are Charleston, Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel, with Herb Frazier and Bernard Powers, professor emeritus of history, and Taking a Stand, The Evolution of Human Rights, with Juan E. Mendez, which is being translated into Spanish and released later this year.
The College Today sat down with Wentworth for National Poetry Month, which runs through April, to find out why reading, writing and studying poetry matters more than ever before.
Why is poetry important for college students?
Poetry is a great way to improve your writing. The human impact of a situation can be left out of a textbook, and poetry gives us the lived experience, the voices of those who might be lost to history otherwise. Reading and writing poetry can help makes sense of the incomprehensible. It is the language of the soul. I want students to feel like they have a voice and the power to affect change and that their voices matter.
After 17 years as South Carolina’s Poet Laureate, you are passing the torch to a (yet-unnamed) successor. How do you define the primary goal of this position?
It’s a great honor, but it’s also a lot of work. Your task is to find ways to bring more poetry into the community. When I was poet laureate, I worked with former CofC English professor Carol Ann Davis, my comrade in arms, to start the Lowcountry Initiative for the Literary Arts (LILA), which was supported by the College of Charleston. Through LILA, we created programs like Poets in the Schools at Burke High School, helped organize Poetry out Loud, a national high school recitation contest, as well as The Big Read and Capital Bookfest, programs that empowered lots of people to create poetry programming in various communities. We also found ways to provide opportunities for the writing community.
Did your role as poet laureate change your writing process over the years?
My process hasn’t changed, but I’ve become a lot more efficient. As poet laureate, your job is to write a lot of occasion poems, which need to have more imagery and musicality, like Amanda Gorman’s recent poem at President Biden’s inaugural address. When you are called to do that, it’s often short notice. So, you sharpen your skill set and become more efficient. One example is the poem I wrote for the Mother Emanuel AME church titled “Holy City,” which is still difficult for me to read out loud.
You frequently work with other artists, intellectuals and writers. What is it that you enjoy about collaborating?
Collaboration, for me, really started with visual artist Mary Edna Fraser, who came to one of my first readings in Charleston. It was at a Sundown Poetry Piccolo Spoleto event, and she sat right in the front and said when she listened to my poems, she saw images. She brought me into her creative world where she was already working collaboratively with musicians and dancers and geologists, and it was a great experience. Since then, I’ve collaborated with authors, musicians and a composer with the Westminster Choir.
Collaboration has also enabled me to write books I wouldn’t have written. I collaborated on the nonfiction book, We Are Charleston, Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel, with Bernie Powers and Herb Frasier. We only had six months to write it, we were working with people who had experienced this horrific act of violence against their loved ones and we were all working full time, so there was a lot of pressure. We were just trying to do the best we could to honor those who were killed as well as the Mother Emanuel community. It’s a unique experience. It’s not for everybody and you really have to trust each other. Collaboration is a bit like falling in love.
What was it like to honor your friend and novelist Dorothea Benton Frank in the forthcoming book Reunion Beach?
Dottie was one of my best friends, so writing a new poem for this book was a cathartic experience. I didn’t get to say goodbye to her. Writing the poem was a blessing in that way. Dottie had planned to write a new novel called “Reunion Beach,” so her editor pulled together a wonderful group of writers who wrote poems, recipes and funny stories to honor her. For me, writing is a way to figure things out. Somehow things can make sense in a poem that don’t make sense in the outside world. You can make something out of confusion and pain with poetry. Writing these poems allowed me to do that.