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Beth Ann Fennelly Passionately Promoting Poetry

Even before Gov. Phil Bryant named her Mississippi’s poet laureate in 2016, award-winning University of Mississippi English professor Beth Ann Fennelly put her passion for words to work in a myriad of activities.

An English professor and former director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at the University of Mississippi, Beth Ann Fennelly is a vocal proponent using poetry to help mold more humane citizens. Submitted photo
As her four-year term comes to an end in fall 2020, the poet and author shared her reflections upon having served in the position and what lies ahead for her.

“I’ve always been a vocal, fierce proponent for getting as much literature as possible into the hands of as many Mississippians as possible, starting at the youngest ages as possible,” Fennelly said. “I believe that my dedication to this mission is why I was selected to serve as poet laureate.

“Basically, I’m doing what I’ve always done, just on a bigger platform and with a bigger megaphone.”

As the fifth person to serve in the role of Mississippi’s poet laureate, Fennelly’s official duties include creating and reading appropriate poetry at state occasions and state agency activities and representing the rich cultural heritage of Mississippi.

She’s conducted readings or workshops in classrooms, libraries, book clubs and bookstores in 26 counties. Fennelly has visited the prison-to-college pipeline program at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, been interviewed on Mississippi Public Radio, served on the board of the Mississippi Book Festival and emceed the annual Mississippi Arts Commission awards ceremony, which she will do again in February.

An avid proponent of the national high school recitation contest Poetry Out Loud, Fennelly has been a judge at the local, regional and state level. In 2017, she traveled to Washington, D.C., with the Mississippi state finalist, who happened to be her daughter, Anna Claire Franklin.

Besides these “daily duties,” as she calls them, Fennelly has become involved in two bigger projects. She is working with the Lynching Memorialization Committee of Lafayette County to create events timed around the installation of the marker inscribed with the names of all the county’s lynching victims.

“I’ve always believed that art can help us confront difficult truths,” she said. “As poet laureate of this beautiful and troubled state, I wish to help my fellow Mississippians find the language that will deepen our connection to the marker and the history of racial terror it represents.”

“The second thing I’m proud of is helping the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies coordinate the state’s first Glitterary Festival April 3-5,” she said. “This celebration of queer literature will bring dozens of authors to Mississippi to share their work. There will even be spoken word and zine workshops designed for Mississippi teens.”

Journey to Mississippi

Born in New Jersey and reared in the Chicago area, Fennelly has written and taught around the United States and world before settling in Mississippi in 2001 and joining the Ole Miss faculty in 2002. She earned a bachelor’s degree, graduating magna cum laude, from the University of Notre Dame, then taught English for a year in a coal mining village on the Czech-Polish border.

She returned to the U.S. to earn her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas. After completing a Diane Middlebrook Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, she taught at Knox College in Illinois.

She has completed residencies at the University of Arizona and MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, fellowships at Middlebury’s Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and Sewanee, and a 2009 Fulbright grant studying poetry in Brazil.

Formerly director of the university’s master’s program in creative writing, Fennelly was named UM Humanities Teacher of the Year and College of Liberal Arts Teacher of the Year in 2011. In 2018, she won the Faculty Achievement Award for Outstanding Teaching and Scholarship.

Publishing Poetry and Winning Awards

Fennelly’s first poetry collection, “Open House” (Zoo Press) was published in 2001. It was a Book Sense Top Ten Poetry Pick and won a Kenyon Review Prize, a Zoo Press Poetry Prize and a Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award.

W.W. Norton published her second and third collections of poetry, “Tender Hooks” (2004) and “Unmentionables” (2008), as well as two books of nonfiction, “Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother” (2006) and “Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs” (2017), which was an Atlanta Journal Constitution best Book of 2017.

In 2013, HarperCollins published “The Tilted World,” a novel that Fennelly co-wrote with her husband, Tom Franklin. It was named an IndieNext Great Read, became a finalist for the 2014 SIBA Book Award and has been published in six foreign editions.

Fennelly’s poem “The Kudzu Chronicles,” from “Unmentionables,” is grounded in her experience in Mississippi and references William Faulkner, the Neshoba County Fair and her home in Oxford. Its closing stanzas were used as lyrics for Jackson musician Claire Holley’s song “Kudzu.”

Fennelly has received a number of national awards, including a 2001 Pushcart Prize and a 2002 National Endowment of the Arts grant in poetry. She received a United States Artist Grant in 2006 and the Subiaco Award for Literary Merit in 2012.

The Mississippi Arts Commission awarded Fennelly grants for nonfiction in 2005 and 2015, and for poetry in 2010. In 2015, the A Room of Her Own Foundation presented her with the Orlando Award in Nonfiction, and in 2016, she received the Lamar York Prize in Creative Nonfiction from The Chattahoochee Review.

Impact in the Classroom

The university is fortunate to have Fennelly in its classrooms, said Ivo Kamps, UM professor and chair of English.

“Our students who enroll in professor Fennelly’s creative nonfiction classes are very lucky to have the opportunity to learn from someone this talented and accomplished,” Kamps said.

But even without awards, both writing and teaching are very gratifying, Fennelly said.

“I tell my students if winning awards becomes their goal, then they will never be satisfied because there will always be more awards to be won,” Fennelly said. “For me, teaching and writing have always been their own rewards. As long as I keep focused on those, I’ll always have my priorities straight.”

What’s Next?

Primarily known for her poetry, Fennelly is writing her first novel.

“I realize that it’s not all that career-savvy to switch literary genres, but I enjoy all genres of writing and I like a challenge,” she said. “I’m finding it harder to write fiction than poetry, but the world is filled with so many wonderful things that I just have to keep exploring the possibilities.”

When Fennelly isn’t teaching or writing, she can be found enjoying family time with her husband – also an award-winning author and UM English professor – and their three children. Travel, exercise, cooking and running are among her favorite leisure activities.

“I honestly don’t see myself slowing down after I’m no longer the poet laureate,” Fennelly said. “I’ve seen how literature helps people think more clearly and prepares them to live their most fulfilling lives spiritually, intellectually and creatively.”

By Edwin B. Smith

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