Poet Laureates Around the Nation:
Majory Wentworth, Poet Laureate, South Carolina
On Writing: I began writing around 12 years of age, when my father was diagnosed with leukemia.
Inspirations: First and foremost—landscape. The SC landscape has been a kind of muse for me. It is intense, sensual and rather exotic to someone raised in New England.
I am also inspired by human survival in inherently challenging situations. I write a lot about people I have met through my human rights work. Writers need to question accepted norms, and make readers think in new ways. Poetry, in particular, teaches us how to live and navigate our emotional lives. It teaches us how to love, how to grieve, how to maintain our compassion. Good poems come from a kind of intense empathy with the subject of the poem. It could be a river or a country or someone we saw on the bus—what matters is the inherent goodness that comes from an empathetic approach. I am always looking for that.
Challenges: Making a living. It is very difficult to spend most of your time working at jobs that have nothing to do with your writing. I tell college students that the secret to writing is marrying someone rich. I’m only half-kidding. Very few poets make a living with their writing, and most become academics. I have worked as book, film, and television publicist for 20 years. It is lucrative and flexible, but very consuming. I try and write early in the morning before my children get up to go to school.
Turning Points: Meeting my husband Peter Wentworth during my senior year of college was the most important event in my life as a writer. Peter was writing screenplays, and we felt an immediate camaraderie. We moved to New York City immediately after getting married, and it was enormously important to have the support and understanding that we shared. He continues to edit just about everything I write.
Going to graduate school was clearly a turning point, because it allowed me to focus on writing. I was so fortunate to study with some of greatest writers in the world.
Moving to South Carolina. One month after we moved we were hit by Hurricane Hugo. Our home and most of our belongings were damaged and/or destroyed. We had nowhere to live. It was devastating, life changing.
Witnessing the destruction of the landscape gave me an intense emotional connection to this place, and when I began to write about it the poems were published. My poems came to the attention of an internationally known batik artist who lived here named Mary Edna Fraser. She wanted to collaborate with me, and this was a wonderful way to enter into the creative community in Charleston. Since her work is based on geological abstracts, and aerial photographs it also taught me a great deal about the things I was observing on the SC coast where I lived on a barrier island. Our collaborative exhibition was displayed at the National Science Foundation and at Duke University. This experience gave me confidence and knowledge that continues to be invaluable.
Novelist Dorothea Benton Frank has been putting one of my poems in the front of her novels ever since we met. Dottie is a New York Times best selling author, and print-runs of her books are as high as 800,000!
Being named poet laureate of South Carolina certainly changed everything for me. I suddenly had a book contract, etc. There’s a kind of respect that comes with the role, which is fantastic.
Mentors: My teachers from New York University’s Graduate Program in Creative Writing. I studied with Galway Kinnell, Carolyn Forche, Louis Simpson, Phil Levine, Dennis Johnson and Joseph Brodsky. Toi Derricotte was a student in the program also. Imagine! They were all fantastic teachers intent on making sure we each maintained our own original voice.
My day job involved working with refugees and in the human rights field, and I was beginning to write about these experiences. Carolyn Forche took me under her wing. She took my work very seriously. We became friends, and I worked on a book project with her husband Harry Mattison. Her support, instruction and affection continues to influence me.
Favorite books/poems: Otherwise by Jane Kenyon, The Country Between Us by Carolyn Forche, The City In Which I Loved You by Li-Young Lee, The Duino Elegies by Rainier Maria Rilke, Frefusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert, Dreamwork by Mary Oliver, Extravagaria by Pablo Neruda, In The Shadows Light by Yves Bonnefoy, The Names Of The Lost by Philip Levine, Macnolia by A. Van Jordan, Could Have by Wistawa Szymborska.
Advice to young writers: Read well and approach writing like an athlete. I heard Joyce Carol Oates say that successful writers are the most disciplined writers. They are not necessarily the most talented.
Poets don’t have agents, because there is so rarely an advance on a poetry book and no money to be made by an agent. If one is writing prose, however, an agent is crucial. I have an agent for my fiction and non-fiction projects. Finding an agent is very difficult. I always tell young writers to look at the front of books that are similar to their own, and see if the writer thanked their agent. If the agent took that writer’s book, they just might be interested in your manuscript! Agents also rely on their own clients to find new clients. It helps to have friends in the writing world that can help you in that way.#