Pomona College is nearing the end of its search for a poetry professor to join its English Department. The process began after the acclaimed Claudia Rankine, who taught at Pomona for a decade, left in 2015.
The English department received approval from the the Faculty Position Advisory Committee to replace Rankine in fall 2016 and put together a search committee consisting of six people — English Department chair Kevin Dettmar, associate professor Aaron Kunin, associate professor Sarah Raff, art professor Mercedes Teixido, and English majors Phoebe Kaufman PO ’18 and Tom Lin PO ’18.
The committee members have a daunting task in replacing Rankine, a New York Times bestselling author and winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and NAACP Image Award, among other accolades.
They a compiled a list of 115 poets they were interested in hiring, and reached out to many of those candidates directly, rather than solely advertising the job in academic journals as they would for a literary criticism professorship.
“For something like this where the expectation is that you’re going to bring someone in who would have tenure immediately and it’s kind of a prestigious job, you advertise it, but you’re also asking people if they’d be interested and try to get them in the pool,” Dettmar said.
The group whittled the list of candidates down to 12 and conducted interviews via Skype, after which they chose four finalists, all of whom are acclaimed poets: Anne Boyer, Natalie Diaz, Ross Gay, and Simone White.
“I’ve been doing searches since the 1990s and I’ve never seen a short list like this. People across the country see who we’re talking to and say, ‘Oh my God. That’s an incredible list,’” Dettmar said.
Boyer currently teaches creative writing and literature classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. She is the winner of the inaugural Cy Twombly Award for Poetry. The New York Times described her most recent book, “Garments Against Women,” as “a sad, beautiful, passionate book that registers the political economy of literature and of life itself.”
Diaz, who is Mojave and a member of the Gila Indian River Community, writes about life on the reservation in her book, “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” which the literary magazine The Rumpus described as a “commanding debut.” She has received numerous honors and awards for her work, including a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and currently teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.
Gay’s most recent and well-known work, “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2015. He is an associate professor at Indiana University and teaches in Drew University’s low-residency Master of Fine Arts program.
White is the author of three collections of poetry and the winner of a 2017 Whiting Award. This semester, she is a visiting associate professor of poetry at the Iowa Writers Workshop. She received a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School, a Master of Fine Arts from the New School, and recently completed a doctorate in English at the City University of New York Graduate Center.
Gay and Diaz have already visited campus to read their work to an audience and to teach sample classes with a handful of Pomona English majors.
The other two candidates are visiting campus soon — White will give a reading Feb. 26 in the Ena Thompson Reading Room and Boyer will do so March 5 in the same place.
The committee hopes to announce an appointment by the end of the semester.
Regardless of who fills the position, Kunin, a poet himself, is excited to have a new professor in the department. Though he prefers not to teach poetry writing classes, he stressed the importance of offering creative writing classes of all genres in literature departments.
“Students who are reading poetry, who are studying poetry, and don’t get the chance to do some executive work — that’s a recipe for madness,” Kunin said. “I mean you would go crazy if you were reading poems all the time and you didn’t get to try writing poems.”
Kunin said poetry professors can serve a few important functions, including helping students develop a sense of the kind of poetry they like to read and write. Beyond actual guidance, Kunin thinks having a poet around reminds students that poetry is something they can spend their lives doing.
“This is an option for you. You don’t have to go out there and amass wealth and destroy nations,” Kunin said. “You can be a poet.”
English major Celia Eydeland PO ’18 echoed this sentiment, adding that what she sees as a lack of students interested in pursuing poetry after college may instead be a reflection of the dearth of poetry classes offered in the last few years.
“I don’t know any English majors right now who want to get a [Master of Fine Arts] in poetry, whereas there are actually a number of students who have been writing fiction every summer,” Eydeland said. “I think if people had taken a poetry class, they would’ve realized it wasn’t a super insane thing to do.”