A poet, scholar, critic, professor and now the newest Poetry Center Director, Dr. Cherise Pollard has taught at West Chester University since January of 2000. A professor of English, she specializes in African American literature, African American literary theory and criticism, the Black Arts Movement and womanist and feminist critical theory. Currently, Pollard is teaching WRT 120: Effective Writing and ENG 206: Black Critical Theory, in addition to her directorial duties over the Poetry Center. She is no stranger to poetry, as the passion runs deep within her family. Her grandparents were poets — her grandfather a self-taught formalist; it was from him that Pollard’s interest and career in poetry was sparked.
“My grandfather was the one that I heard and learned about Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, Christina Rossetti and Shakespeare. When we would go to visit him in his office, upstairs in [my grandparents’] house in Steelton, Pennsylvania, he’d have his typewriter there and a bowl of peppermint patties, and we could just run up and steal the candy and look at his books,” Pollard described of her childhood. She started writing fiction in high school before studying Cultural and Critical Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
Her plan was to teach writing and to do her own work on the side. While writing fiction in graduate school, a professor approached her about the abstractness of her work, saying her stories “were like French films,” suggesting that poetry might suit her style better. As it happened, Pollard lived around the corner from poet Toi Derricotte, the co-founder of Cave Canem Foundation, in Pittsburgh. “I would run into her — she’s African American; she would also be the sort of point person/outreach person for the Black graduate students who were in the program — so I knew her. And I said, ‘Can I take your class! Can I take your workshop!’” which was how Pollard started to transition more towards poetry. Derricotte had just started Cave Canem, which cultivates and supports African American poets through workshops, fellowships and poetry contests. “I just applied on a lark [to the Cave Canem fellowship] and got in. I was one of the first members of that group. And going forward, poetry has been my passion,” stated Pollard.
Pollard had an immediate interest in the Poetry Center when she first came to West Chester. Early in her career at WCU, she would invite African American poets to campus for readings and craft talks. Later, she helped the late Dr. Kim Bridgford, a WCU poetry professor, to create and organize the annual Poetry by the Sea conference. Pollard’s involvement with this conference prepared her for the responsibilities involved with the directorship, as did her previous involvement with the Poetry Center: “People didn’t know me as a poet. They knew I was a Cave Canem and a Callaloo Fellow and that I would organize readings, but that wasn’t my primary job, as they might say, so I would volunteer at the poetry center and conference.”
The director position became vacant just as Pollard was looking for another project, “For various reasons, I broke away from Poetry by the Sea. I was coediting ‘Show Us Your Papers,’ but not organizing any arts events. I just decided when I saw the position open up that I was ready to give it a shot. It was really about timing. It was really about my experience and interest and love of organizing arts events.”
Her ideas and fresh take to the position has already set changes in motion for the center. The annual poetry conference will take a new shape this year as CRAFT, a Poetry and Creative Arts Festival. Due to the pandemic, the first arts festival will take place virtually in April with the theme “The Healing Power of Empathy.” Poet Molly Peacock will be the keynote speaker; students are encouraged to attend the festival and submit poetry to the Iris N. Spencer Awards, an annual poetry contest that runs in conjunction with the conference.
Prior to the festival, the center is hosting an additional conference geared more towards teaching: Craft(ing) the Classroom, A Poetry and Pedagogy Conference. This event takes place in February and students are invited to attend, as well. Pollard is an avid supporter of incorporating poetry practice into analysis learning, attesting that responding to poetry is a wonderful way to practice criticism for larger-scale analytical projects. Pollard uses different forms of poetry in her classroom, including recordings and videos, to engage her students. “A lot of students have been traumatized away from poetry; usually there’s been some torturous assignment that they’ve had to do in middle school or high school. And they either loved it or hated it. Oftentimes, the average person has an aversion to poetry, even students often assume that a poetry unit is going to be boring. And then most often, students will attend class virtually or face-to-face and say it was pretty cool. I need to invest a good amount of effort toward demystifying poetry and poetry analysis. And I feel like that is an important part of my position,” stated Pollard.
On top of her teaching and director work, Pollard is also an active poet and editor. Her most recent work, “Show Us Your Papers,” is an anthology that has been three years in the making. Pollard, Daneila Buccilli and Wendy Scott Paff edited and compiled a collection of poetry concerning documentation and paperwork from about 80 poets in total. “We were talking about issues with border and documentation and what it means to be a citizen, and then what it means to be human, and how much of our lived experience is defined by paperwork. You can’t just say, ‘I’m a citizen, and I live in Pennsylvania.’ You have to show your driver’s license. You can’t just travel anywhere; you’ve got to have a passport, you have to have a birth certificate, and your birth certificate has to have all this information on it,” she described. The launch of this anthology occurred virtually on Nov. 6. The work is available at the SSI bookstore and at Main Street Rag. Pollard already has a new poetry project in mind, though she chose not to reveal any details.
As for subject matter, she is increasingly drawn to political topics due to the current environment. “I never saw myself writing political poetry or doing any kind of political work in that way, explicitly, but I’m finding that it is fascinating and I enjoy bringing those voices out to the world,” Pollard stated. A group of her students from her spring CRW 302 Poetry Workshop course have kept in touch since the semester ended, virtually workshopping each other’s work and discussing poetry, which Pollard has found useful for her own writing. That kind of student engagement and excitement for poetry is something she hopes to grow during her time as director. “I am really grateful to have this position. I am constantly, consistently excited about the possibilities.” Pollard concluded by sharing how poetry is the way in which we can cope, heal and connect with each other during this turbulent time.
Learn more about the Poetry Center and upcoming events at www.wcupa.edu/arts-humanities/poetry.
Maria Marabito is a fourth-year English major with a minor in Literature and Diverse Cultures. MM883631@wcupa.edu