Dr. Marilyn Kallet
Director of Creative Writing
College of Arts and Sciences
Where and when was your research/creative experience as an undergraduate?
Tufts University, Medford, Mass.
What did you do?
I entered the New England Poetry Contest during my sophomore year and won a prize. The poem made fun of one of my teachers. It was a parody of one of his lectures. The response to the poetry was very encouraging. Part of winning was giving a reading, at the Boston Harvard Club--and I got hooked. I saw how important it is to communicate your work orally.
How did your mentor help you?
I had two mentors: Georgette Pradal and X.J. Kennedy. Dr. Pradal taught theater and French poetry when I was a freshman. She was a trained actress, and performed poetry as tragedy, and I was hooked. X.J. Kennedy was my first poetry writing instructor. He was really kind, no matter how bad we were … unless student went to his office and asked him, “What do you really think?” He’s over eighty now, and he still encourages me.
What is your favorite memory from that time?
A lot of us were active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. Poetry could create protest. There was a feeling that any creative act was the opposite of the government’s acts. I’m still in touch with several of those students. I contributed to a the Tufts Literary Magazine then, and I look back at the effort fondly. That early material by my classmates wad pretty darn good. And I remember the humor in Kennedy’s work. It still influences me. Humor is so useful, especially for writing students who take poetry so seriously. XJ Kennedy would bring in bad poetry by famous people, carrying the rotten poems in a basket marked “Cucumbers.” He’d tell us, “your poetry will never be this bad.” He’d don costumes as he read the poems and show us how to be playful about our work.
How did your experience benefit you?
At Tufts, my poems were like baby steps, fragmented and small. At Tufts, I double-majored in French and English. In 1966-67, I spent my junior year in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne. That year opened an important door. Now I teach poetry in France every May, and have translated French poetry, which has helped me make friends with the French people, particularly in the village of Auvillar. (I double-majored in French and English.)
How does that experience impact your student engagement today?
I do serve as a mentor, certainly with graduate students, editing, helping them with navigating the publishing world, encouraging. It’s not easy to be a graduate student. I also encourage the undergraduates; at UT, the talent pool is extraordinary, offering a wealth of riches. Many of these undergrads will have books out in 10 years or so. Many are already publishing individual poems. Just like my professors, I always do a lot of reading out load. I require students to perform their poetry. Every class creates two public performances. In my Dreamworks class, I work with artists, painters, sculptors, theater majors. The mix is wonderful, especially those theater majors – they have no fear when it comes to performing.
What advice would you offer to students today who seek a similar experience?
To begin finding a mentor, go to the professor’s office. You don’t need to have anything special to say. Once you talk with the professor, that person is invested in your success. There is a great reading series for visiting writers every Monday night at the library. I require students to attend. Attending these readings helps with career networking and with understanding what the profession is all about. We have a huge number of English majors with an emphasis in creative writing.
Why should students seek such an experience?
It’s a lot of fun. It gives you a chance to use your imagination and play. It helps to have the tools to shape, create, order, and express yourself. When we deal with our lives’ daily stress, writing gives us some control—on the page at least--over what’s going on. When I started out, I wasn’t the best poet in the class. But I enjoyed writing; something about it appealed to me. It has been my lifelong ally. I’ve grown better, more agile, with practice. If you have an interest, a leaning or curiosity about writing, try it and be patient with yourself.
What interesting fact about yourself might surprise your students?
I haven’t cut my hair since I was 18, other than a trim once a year. I even wrote a poem about it, titled “Why I Wear My Hair Long.”
Office of Undergraduate Research
1534 White Ave.
Knoxville, TN 37996-1529
Phone: (865) 974-1475