BA 1998, Classical Archaeology
Poet and Translator, Furniture Maker and Sculptor
I’ve always hesitated to think of poetry as a “career” because it is not a real job, and at risk of sounding pretentious, is more of a “vocation”. If you can’t approach your daily work with a feeling of expectation and wonder, or at the very least a feeling of satisfaction, not necessarily in accomplishing, but in doing–then it’s probably not going to give you much in return. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but I approached that path through a degree in Classics (Archaeology) and the desire for experience. This led me away from an academic path in literature but very much towards a life of travel and various work that I found interesting. I was very luck to find great mentors who were willing to take me seriously and share their friendships and their knowledge with me. I’ve published a number of poetry collections, translations and had the chance to read and lecture around the world. The friendships with fellow poets created through this common work has been the greatest gift in all this. I also make furniture and sculpture and the balance of physical/manual work, with the writing life has always been crucial for me.
When I switched my major from English Literature to Classics during my first semester at UNC I knew I wanted to avoid the poison of “professionalism”. I didn’t want to join the hoards of students vying for the next best job, of internship, or graduate degree. I wanted to return to something lost, the idea of an education for the sake of being educated, not as a means to an end but as a way to walk through life with increasing knowledge. What could have been more gloriously impractical than sitting in a small class with Dr. Reckford, a small bust of Homer on the table, while slowly unraveling the lines of the great poet? I remember Dr. Brown, in his quiet way, conveying an immense passion for the secrets of Linear A and B and Dr. Wooten, wound up like a leopard about to pounce, while he vividly explained the dark workings of Republican Rome. Dr. Haggis exposed us to the very particular beauty of the Minoan civilization and these professors became friends who welcomed us and encouraged us and invited us into their homes and families. I spent a year at a European university and this was very much not the case. The warmth and camaraderie of fellow students and professors at Murphey Hall is not forgotten. The world has enough financiers, politicians, lawyers and engineers. It doesn’t have enough romantic souls who see the importance of what has come before us as a way to discover where we might possibly be going.
Classical studies is a base for everything–you can leap from that platform into a thousand different directions and careers and it will never let you down. There is no time wasted in libraries and bookstores, and studying the classics is just a way of looking at ourselves and rediscovering ourselves. Everything has been touched by the ancient historians, lawmakers, poets, soldiers, etc. Understanding this history just opens your eyes to the beauty of it all. In addition, when you hear people use words such as cathonic, chryselephantine, boustrophedon, and parthenogenesis, you will know what they are talking about.
At high risk of sounding like a didactic fossil: If you’re interested in literature, art, architecture, drama, engineering, or the humanities in general, there is NO greater base than a solid grounding in the classics. Cultivate a passion, get into it, go deeper than you think you can until the rewards feel metaphysical. Read poetry, listen to music, take your books outside. It’s not Indiana Jones and it’s not a wax museum full of old men and cobwebs–it’s what you make of it. For me, Homer and Virgil are contemporary poets. Fall in love–yes, nothing brings more drama to ancient texts than realizing you’ve made, and are making, the same beautiful but necessary errors. Don’t get anxious and overly practical about your career, there will be time yet, as Eliot said, “for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions, before the taking of a toast and tea.” Enjoy it while it’s still happening.