UNC Professor launches third book, with hopes to create a reader-writer connection

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Photo by Levi Shand, courtesy of The Field Office.

With bright eyes, crossed legs and a bow tie loosely linked around her shirt collar, creative writing professor Gabrielle Calvocoressi spoke about her newest book, "Rocket Fantastic: Poems," featuring her favorite character — a talking fox.  

The fox is from her favorite poem in the book and wouldn’t exist had Calvocoressi not moved to North Carolina.

“It’s a poem that is really sad and funny and scary all at the same time, and that’s a real North Carolina poem,” Calvocoressi said. “It’s a poem I could not have written had I not lived rurally, by a ravine.”

The poem is one of many that coat the 96-page work that Calvocoressi has been working on since 2009. Her choice to work at UNC encouraged her to finish this book, as Calvocoressi longed for a return to a rural feeling similar to her upbringing in Connecticut. 

This upbringing was far from easy, as she recalled having no friends, eating lunch in the bathroom and grappling with a mentally ill mother who committed suicide when Calvocoressi was 13. And yet, this experience is what prompted her to begin writing, although she did not originally classify her work as poetry. She believed that realm of writing belonged to her father, who is also a poet. 

“I write a lot about my family,” Calvocoressi said. “When my mom took her life, I didn’t have language for that and there was a lot of silence about mental illness in my house, and so I was kind of left to my own devices to figure out how to make sense of it. Gosh, there are so many things that happen to us every day but we can’t figure out how to say it.”

Aside from focusing on her own poetry, Calvocoressi spends a great deal of time teaching her students how to create theirs. She doesn’t like to place her own works on display, as she views teaching as a time to help others write poems, not learn about hers. 

“I have unbelievable poetry students,” Calvocoressi said. “I have yet to have a class that has not been full of rockstars. They have this kind of passion and openness to experience and learn that I really felt like I could learn from.”

Calvocoressi sees herself as a companion to her students on their learning journey, as both teacher and student learn from one another. This relationship can be found in many of Calvocoressi’s poems, which are written with the hope that readers learn something about the author as well as themselves. 

“I used to really need the reader to understand what a poem was about,” she said. “Now I can say, ‘This was what the water glass looked like in her room the last time I saw her,' and you and I can both look at that glass, and we can both have our experience, but if we don’t get to the same place, it’s OK. What matters is that we were both in that room.”

Calvocoressi truly embraces the reader-response side of literature and opens her work to any audience member who will listen and read. She doesn’t wish to lecture, only to have a conversation and someone to talk to. She wants all her readers to feel welcome reading Rocket Fantastic and believes that if they do not feel welcome, then perhaps they don’t truly wish to be reading the book at all. 

Calvocoressi will be reading selected poems aloud to audiences everywhere from North Carolina to New York in the coming months. 

“I’m doing wild things because I don’t want to miss class,” Calvocoressi said. “I’m flying out on a Tuesday morning at 6 a.m., reading in the evening, then flying back at 6 a.m. on Wednesday to be with students.”

She described her group of senior thesis students as "gorgeous learners," all the while holding back her excitement about her introductory class as well. 

As Calvocoressi takes the literature world by storm with her third book, she begins working on her fourth, "The New Economy." Preparing for this coming year of traveling, teaching and writing, she illustrated her current disposition with a common and appropriate phrase:

“Poetry is the wealthiest way to be broke.”

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