Alumna Batykefer, award winning poet, discusses her work
Erinn Batykefer, who graduated from the University of Delaware in 2004, has won the 2008 Benjamin Saltman First Book Prize for a poetry collection.
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7:50 a.m., Jan. 6, 2009----University of Delaware alumna Erinn Batykefer, '04 AS, is an emerging American poet and writer and most recently won the 2008 Benjamin Saltman First Book Prize at Red Hen Press for her first poetry collection.

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Her book, Allegheny, Monongahela, was chosen from about 2,000 entries and will be released in February. She is currently working on a memoir, Cut Out Your Heart & Spit in the Hole.

After graduating from the University of Delaware summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in English and art history, Batykefer was a Martha Meier Renk Distinguished Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she earned her MFA in poetry.

Currently, Batykefer is a fellow at the Stadler Poetry Center at Bucknell University.

Q: When did you first start writing poetry?

A: Not counting the wallpaper-bound book of 'poems' I wrote by dictating to my father when I was four or the smattering of wretched pseudo-poems I wrote in high school, I started writing poetry during the spring semester of my freshman year at UD during an ill-advised all-nighter writing an essay. I was feeling kind of desperate and inadequate, and as the first birds started making noise and false dawn turned the sky a dingy gray, an image popped into my head that expressed so perfectly how I was feeling that I felt compelled to write it down.

Pretty soon that image begot other images, which begot other images, and I realized I was writing a poem. Poems, in fact. By the end of the semester, I applied to be in Jeanne Walker's intro poetry workshop in the fall of 2001, and the rest, as they say, is history. I was so relieved to know exactly what I wanted to do.

Q: What made you decide on poetry as a career?

A: To be honest, writing (let alone poetry) is not something I think anyone really considers as a career because being a poet is not a career in the sense that someone would pay you to do it. The incredible fellowships and endowments that exist for the arts are exceptions to this rule, but they are always finite, don't quit-your-day-job gifts. People become writers because they cannot not write.

Once I realized I was pretty much doomed to being a writer, whether I was successful or not, I figured I might as well try to do it up right -- get the MFA, try for some fellowships, try to get my first book published, try to keep making books for the rest of my life.

The career is a contingency plan so that I can get a job and live in a place that is not a cardboard box under a bridge (the only stipulation my mother made when I mentioned that I was going to write poems in grad school).

Q: Were there any particular classes or professors that inspired or directed you at UD?

A: As I mentioned, Jeanne Walker was my first workshop instructor, and she made a big impression, not only what she taught and how she pushed me in classes I took with her, but how fiercely she was committed to me as a poet. She took on two poet friends and me as our faculty sponsor for the Summer Scholars program and was our thesis adviser. Jeanne's amazing.

Cruce Stark was the best thing that ever happened to me in my undergraduate career. He cut though red tape to allow me basically to invent my own course of study -- a feat for which I am indebted to him. His advanced fiction class also lit the fire of prose. The germ of my memoir, Cut Out Your Heart and Spit in the Hole, started in Cruce's workshop as a story. If Jeanne and Cruce were the launch pad, the faculty at Wisconsin was the jet fuel.

Q: Are you teaching poetry at Bucknell as well as writing it?

A: I am currently not teaching. The Stadler Poetry Fellowship at Bucknell is unique in that it is a professional development post-grad fellowship that focuses on editing and art administration instead of teaching. I'm really lucky to have had the opportunity to develop my editing skills as an associate editor.

It helped me find a hidden quirk that finds ruthless red pen copyediting exciting and fun. There is nothing I like better than making good sentences better or catching minute errors in a proof. Discovering that I'm a really good editor is a relief.

Q: How is your memoir progressing -- are you dealing with some of the same topics as your poems? Does writing about these things help you deal with them?

A: I'm actually in the midst of a near-insomniac period of productivity for Cut out Your Heart and Spit in the Hole. Nominally, Cut out Your Heart and Allegheny, Monongahela tell the same story: two sisters dealing with their demons (eating disorders, masochism, rowing, love, cruelty, etc.) but because prose and poetry function differently, the topical similarity winds up being inconsequential.

Yes, writing is a cathartic experience for me. I write in order to lay out all the disparate, confusing things I know and make some sense of them. It's the essential craft of this art-this reorganization. If it isn't there, then all you have is whiny jumble of scribblings in a journal, not poetry, not a novel or a memoir.

Q: What are your future plans?

A: I have three book projects in the works including Cut out Your Heart and a young adult novel. I also have a new collection of poems, Bearing These Pearls that reinvents Bronte's Jane Eyre through the lens of other women's lives. These projects are really about teaching myself to write a book all over again.

In order to fund all these madcap projects once my Stadler Fellowship expires, I am applying for a number of other fellowships and also some overseas grants (I'd love to visit the Bronte parsonage), In a few years, I hope to have a more permanent situation with a small press as an editor, but for now I'm focused on bankrolling these projects.

Article by Sue Moncure