December 2022 – Drew University alum Ann Wallace C’92 was recently named the next poet laureate for Jersey City, NJ.
Wallace, a professor of English at New Jersey City University, took a look back at her time at Drew and a look forward as she assumes the mantel of poet laureate.
What was your time like at Drew?
I loved my time at Drew. It was the right fit for me—a close-knit community, engaged faculty, proximity to New York City, and an overall spirit of inquiry and intellectual curiosity on campus. I majored in art history and studio art, with a minor in women’s studies, and I was able and encouraged to explore the ways those areas intersected throughout my coursework, independent studies, and senior exhibition.
What stands out from your time at Drew?
One of my most significant memories was the way I was cared for when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the end of my senior year. I had been to the health center for a checkup and the nurse practitioner became alarmed when she felt a mass in my abdomen. She arranged for testing in Morristown, then found an excellent gynecological oncologist and scheduled my first appointment. I think she may have even driven me there! Within the space of a few weeks, I went from being a regular college senior with ordinary worries about homework, papers, and my upcoming senior show, to having major surgery, receiving a cancer diagnosis, and beginning chemotherapy.
It was a lot. And it could have been overwhelming, but the support that I received at Drew, from Dean Edi Lawler, to my professors—especially Livio Saganic, Michael Peglau, and Sarah Henry-Corrington of the art department and Wendy Kolmar of Women’s Studies—to my classmates, was extraordinary. I was excused from completing the final weeks of classwork, but I was determined to complete my senior art show. The problem was that I was building a literal house – well, an attic – as an installation, which suddenly became beyond my physical ability. But my friends showed up and they helped carry the beams and other materials for my installation across campus, from my studio to the gallery. They helped assemble my project and were there celebrating with me at the opening.
My first poetry collection, Counting by Sevens, was published in 2019 by Main Street Rag. There are a few poems in it, including “Commencement“, about graduating from Drew while sick with cancer, written about my time at Drew, and “Aglow“, about a fellow Drew alum and friend Jason Stover C’92.
How did you go from an art major and women’s studies minor to writing poetry?
The path to writing poetry might not seem obvious. After Drew I earned a masters in women’s studies, then a doctorate in English literature specializing in literature of illness and trauma. I’ve also become a composition specialist, run two writing centers, founded a charter school and served as board chair for many years—all before committing myself to poetry! There are a few ways of making sense of this circuitous path – first, a solid liberal arts education such as I received at Drew prepares adults for any number of paths; with curiosity, critical thinking and communication skills, you are well equipped for life. Second, my path has been diverted multiple times by serious illness—cancer while at Drew, multiple sclerosis shortly after I began on the tenure track at NJCU, and long COVID over these past few years. With each subsequent health problem, my drive to share what it means and feels like to face disease and disability intensified but also became more intimate, moving me from literary theory and criticism, to creative nonfiction, and finally to poetry.
What was it like to receive the honor of being named poet laureate?
Being named poet laureate is an incredible honor. I firmly believe that poetry is relevant, timely, and gaining appeal, interestingly enough, through online literary journals and social media, which in many ways is perfectly suited for sharing poetry. Nonetheless, writing poetry is not an easy path. I spend a lot of late nights at my laptop writing and revising, and revising some more. It’s quiet work and it takes a lot of discipline and persistence. And like every poet and artist I know, I receive a lot of rejection notices; that’s just part of the process. So it really does feel good to receive this recognition and know that my city has faith in my ability to provide a platform for poetry. I truly love sharing and elevating the work of poets, as well as working with people—especially young people—to bring their voices to the page and to the podium.
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