Last November, Elyse Fenton came to University of Portland to read from her wildly acclaimed poetry book Clamor. Her collection caught literary fire after she was not only the first American author to win the University of Wales’ Dylan Thomas Prize, but also the first poet. She’s been interviewed on NPR and BBC. After her reading at the University of Portland Bookstore, she was offered an adjunct position for Fall 2016 teaching the poetry workshop class offered every other year.
Sitting down next to me at the Pilot House, Professor Fenton smiled and explained she was going to go running after our interview, hence her jogging attire. I asked how her Halloween went. “Great,” she replied, “I went as ‘bigly,’ a play on how Donald Trump says ‘big league.’”
Her experience teaching here has been unique, she said. “UP students are the most enthusiastic group of students I’ve taught. They’re willing to try new things and get out of their comfort zones.” As one of these students, I take that as a great compliment.
After living in Massachusetts, Texas, and even Mongolia, Fenton chose Portland to settle down with her family. But just because she’s a transplant doesn’t mean that she isn’t familiar with West Coast antics; she got her B.A. from Reed College and her M.F.A. from the University of Oregon.
Fenton is not only a writer, mother, and professor, but also a high school career counselor. All these identities make for one great resource for students pursuing a writing career but don’t know where to start. I picked her brain for advice and she said what every other teacher has been saying since I can remember: read and write. “Writing is a spectrum, not a vacuum. Be influenced!” She also said that writing only ever gets done when you schedule it. “Prioritize your writing life. Call yourself a writer. Believe in your work enough to put it out there.” Fenton says she balances seasons of writing with periods of PR work, an important aspect if you want to be published. “I accept that I won’t get as much writing done in the summer and use that time to edit and publish.”
Fenton’s second book of poetry, Sweet Insurgent, is scheduled to come out early next year, so keep your eyes peeled. And after gaining significant recognition in the poetry world, Fenton is now moving on to a new project: her first novel. Fenton said that switching genres can give an author perspective about their past, present, and future work. It also allows her to access different languages and ways of writing. Because she received help with Clamor from critics and peers, she categorizes this first work as a “typical” writing process. She decided to go about her second literary work differently, working on her new novel alone. But she doesn’t forget the help she’s received, saying, “I still keep those voices in my head.”
Professor Fenton is invaluable to the University of Portland community, and we’re extremely lucky that she shares her insights and experience. Her current poetry workshop class, ENG 306, is dynamic, fun, and creative. Her laid-back persona encourages a comfortable environment for deep conversations and writing workshops, a difficult task that seems natural to her.
Check out Fenton’s website for more information about her and her work.