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English department hosts alumni


“Don’t be an a**hole and do the work,” Timothy Otte ’10 said.

Otte was one of the three Ole alumni that came to the English Department Alumni Reading and Reception last Monday, Sept. 25. His powerful piece of advice echoed in the big classroom, earning a hearty laugh from the crowd of audience. Alongside the priceless advice, the compassionate Ole writers told various stories at the alumni reading.

The three alumni are as follows: Otte is a writer whose poems appear on a variety of online platforms such as the Chicago Review of Books, Clair Dunlap ’15 is an author of the poetry book, “The Plum Dark Belly” and Sagirah Shahid ’11 is board member of the Saint Paul Almanac and 2017 recipient of Minnesota State Arts Board grant. They each began with a reading of their works. All three authors then offered many tips for aspiring writers through a Q&A session on relevant topics such as how to find publishers that are willing to publicize a literary work or how to deal with writer’s block.

While these poems are of different genres, they carried a common trait: all were inspired from the author’s personal experience in an aspect of his/her life. Otte found himself writing more than 100 entries inspired by the routine lifestyle that he followed.

“Each entry starts with the same phrase: ‘Everyday I wake up and …’ It is an interesting experiment and

I would love to get it published one day,” Otte said.

Shahid’s writing mostly resonates the struggle of being a Black Muslim poet in society today. For one of her poems, she opened with a song, humming a melody then diving into the powerful narrative. This one-of-a- kind performance combined with distinctive personal story breathed life into mere letters on a piece of blank paper.

During the Q&A session, the alumni were asked about their personal experience in writing after graduation. Dunlap explained what every single writer would experience. “You will be rejected a billion times. And it doesn’t really reflect on you as a writer. You can submit to the same place a million times, and the millionth time, they’ll like what you did,” Dunlap said.

Seeing these returning students, members of the faculty – especially professors in the creative writing department – were ecstatic to have the chance to catch up with the graduated Oles.

“It is the best reward,” creative writing professor Kaethe Schwehn said. “I had Sagirah for a 110 class when she was a freshman, so it is amazing to watch a student [who] left St. Olaf and a year later hear her talk about post-graduation life.”

Why invite these alumni to share, you may ask?

“Over the past several years, Ole alumni creative writers have dazzled with their many accomplish-

ments from winning fellowships and grants to becoming faculty at institutions such as Gettysburg College,” said Associate Professor of English Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, who coordinated the event.

“I wanted current students to learn more about this thriving tradition to which they belong in order to inspire their literary lives and creative work,” Dobbs said.

“We try to aim for a couple events per semester, and we have a writing contest in the Spring as well,” English professor Sequoia Nagamatsu said. Nagamatsu coordinated the alumni reading’s logistics.

“I want to involve current students in these events. This includes anyone ranging from students interested in creative writing to people from the Quarry, or writers of the Messenger,” Nagamatsu said.

The Alumni Reading and Reception proved to be a success for both the students and the faculty members. At the end of the reading, an audience asked how to respond to those who claim to hate poetry.

To this tricky question, Shahid gave a resounding answer.

“Lies. If you enjoy music, you enjoy poetry. If you walk in space, you experience poetry. It is all around, so if you say that you hate poetry, you’re lying,” Shahid said. 

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