Have you ever been interested in creative writing or poetry but didn’t know where to start? Never fear! Our newest F&M professor is here to help. Dr. Kimberly Grey is a visiting professor in the English department. Read on to find out more about how cool she is through this 100% candid interview (for the people)!
KS: Let’s get into it. It’s going to be super easy, I promise. So I already kind of have a general idea, but for the people–for everyone at home– how did you end up at F&M, and is there anything in particular that inspired you to become a writer or teacher?
Dr. Grey: Oh wow, that’s such a large question.
KS: No pressure!
Dr. Grey: Yeah, sorry, I might talk too much, we’ll have to narrow this down. Well, how did I come to Franklin and Marshall? I’ve been teaching all over the country at different institutions, some very large and some very small, but I’ve always seen myself in a smaller liberal arts institution because I think they’re more student-centered; as in there’s more emphasis on the professor-student relationships. I think we get to mentor you in different ways than in larger research universities, and that really aligns with a lot of what my teaching goals are and why I wanted to teach anyway, which was to work with students on their writing. Some students want to become writers, which is wonderful, and I’m excited to be a mentor for them in the process of building a life around writing. But some students just want to take writing classes and their professional goals are different. And in that case, I get to be part of their experimentation with how they want to express themselves in language and what those expressions mean. So regardless of what the student’s goal is, in terms of the major or professional outlook, I’m excited to be part of all of those processes. So I think Franklin & Marshall allows me to do that which is why I really wanted to come here. I’m also from the East Coast. I’m from New Jersey.
KS: Ah, what exit?
Dr. Grey: What exit? The exit all the way at the top, Exit 163. So coming back to the East Coast kind of felt like coming home a little bit. I get to come back to having four seasons and not being too far of a drive from the Jersey Shore. Stuff like that I love and matters to me, so there are professional and personal reasons to want to come. The second half of your question: why did I want to be a professor? I didn’t necessarily even know that I wanted to become a writer or professor. It was never in the realm of something I could have imagined because I didn’t grow up in a family that fostered education or intellectual thinking. I kind of describe my family as, like, “anti-education.” They really didn’t care if we did our homework or did well in school. I think you were praised in my family for being athletic and really good at sports. I always really loved learning and I always was really attracted to reading. But I actually went to school to be a nurse originally, not to be a writer or study literature. I studied with a poet named Stephen Dunn when I was a freshman, and that was very transformational. And he told me, “I think you should take yourself seriously as a writer because you could really do this.” And it just like changed my entire life. And I’m like, “OK, if a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet is telling me I should do this, then I’m going to do it.”
Dr. Grey: And so I changed my major and I kind of never stopped. So I would say mostly because of him. I think there’s a little bit of, like, defiance in it too, from the way that I grew up. I was like, “Oh, well, I can have an intellectual life.” You know, “I can be good at something that I use my brain for.” Which wasn’t valued, so I think in a way it’s also kind of a pushback against my upbringing… I was going to say middle finger.
KS: An “F-U.”
KS: Anything else you’d like to say on that topic?
Dr. Grey: Nope.
KS: OK, awesome. Thank you.
Dr. Grey: I assume you have follow-up questions.
KS: I have a couple. How long have you been writing for? Maybe about your career–you published a book?
Dr. Grey: Like, seriously writing or like…?
KS: Seriously, but also just like, “Hey, I’m starting!”
Dr. Grey: Yeah, I think I probably wrote some really, really horrible, terrible poems when I was a teenager, like the typical kind of heartbreak poems. I don’t think I was ever seriously writing or thinking about what that writing meant. So I would say it was kind of like adolescent screeds, but I would say when I entered that poetry class when I was a freshman in college, that was when I started to become a student of poetry. And I think that was when I realized I would be a student of poetry for the rest of my life. And since then, I’ve kind of evolved into working in other forms, and I write nonfiction as well as essay and hybrid forms that sort of mix essay and poetry together. So without giving my age away–
Dr. Grey: Yeah, twenty-one, absolutely. I would say, yeah, it’s been about seriously doing this for twenty years like, you know, thinking about it as this kind of like real big, large aspect of my life. And I think I started publishing around a couple of years after that, so I’ve been publishing for about fifteen to sixteen years.
KS: That’s a lot of years, like almost as long as I’ve been alive.
Dr. Grey: It’s a lot of rejections.
KS: Oh, the people want to know: how many books have you published? Tell us!
Dr. Grey: I have two books of poems published and my third book is going to be published in two months. So in a couple of months, I’ll be a three-book poet, a three-book author. But this this book is not poems, it’s essays. So it’s a different genre.
KS: Essays, ooh, branching out. Where can the people get it?
Dr. Grey: It’s officially out in November, but right now it can be pre-ordered on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or directly on my process site, it’s Persia. Persia Books is the name of my press, so you could also pre-order it there. And then once it’s out, it can be ordered in– basically, any bookstore could order it. Amazon. Yeah.
KS: Incredible. I will have to spread the word. I’m curious, what’s your favorite piece of writing that you’ve done, or if you want to talk about someone else’s work that really impacted you?
Dr. Grey: Oh my God, that’s such a good question. I’ll think about that.
KS: Take your time. I have all day.
Dr. Grey: Favorite piece? So you’re talking about like not a book like a smaller, like, individual poem.
KS: Whatever they’re writing. It’s up to you.
Dr. Grey: I think that this new book that I wrote is the most important book that I’ll ever write, regardless of what I continue to write after this because it is the book that talks about my estrangement from my entire family. And I’m not sure it’s something that I will ever talk about again, at least in essay form. It’s a scary book in the sense that growing up the way that I did, you were supposed to be very obedient. And you were not supposed to challenge your parents or the family system. And you certainly were not allowed to criticize it. And so I think this is a book of truth-telling and of overcoming that hurdle of feeling silenced in a lot of ways and saying things that I was groomed my entire life not to say. So, it’s really, I think, a super foundational book in the sense that I’m telling a story that I have to tell and that I might never tell again in this context, so I’m very proud of it. I think there are pieces in this book that I think are some of the best things I’ve written, but I always think my most recent work is my best work. So, you know, you’ll have to ask me after book four or five if I still feel that way. But there’s a piece called “Translation” in this forthcoming essay collection, and I would say it’s one of the pieces that could be interpreted as, like, a mini-essay, but also kind of a weird poem as well. It’s kind of really in the middle, and I think that is–it’s in 10 parts, very small parts–-and I think it’s the piece I’m the proudest that I’ve ever written, where I’ve surprised myself the most.
KS: Wow. “Translation.” I will have to look out for that one. Is there anyone who inspired you?
Dr. Grey: Writers?
Dr. Grey: Well, of course, Stephen Dunn, my professor. I think reading Anne Carson, who is a classics scholar, an ancient Greek scholar, and also a poet– who’s also kind of like a hybrid artist. Her books are unclassifiable and uncategorizable because they’re just like a little bit of everything, like opera and like a scrapbook and translation of Catullus, and you know, all of these things, and then a poem and then an essay on water. I think reading her was really foundational in my realization that I wanted to work across forms and modalities and not just stay to poetry specifically because I believe in this thing called “meaning multiplication,” where if you combine different modes of meaning-making, then the meaning is magnified for the audience or the reader. So it’s part of what I love about hybridity and hybrid forms is that you get to combine all these things together and create an entirely new thing that, hopefully, is meaningful, so I would say she’s probably one of the most influential, like current living writers to me.
KS: I’ll have to check her out. That sounds kind of wild. I like that.
Dr. Grey: Yeah, she’s kind of weird, too. Not everyone, like, loves her, but, I mean, she won a McArthur Genius Grant. So, like, one of the top awards you can win. It’s, like, almost over half a $1,000,000.
KS: Oh wow, she must be good then.
Dr. Grey: Yeah, she’s for sure a genius.
KS: Genius. We can all be geniuses, except maybe not like her.
Dr. Grey: No, I don’t think I would want to be exactly like her anyway, she’s one-of-a-kind.
KS: Moving on, I know you briefly touched on it, but my next question is what principles guide you as a teacher?
Dr. Grey: A great question. I think the number one is inclusivity. And that’s become a buzzword now, but this idea is that the writing classroom needs to be an equitable, safe space for people to feel like they can write the things they need to. And then you know, how do you create not just that space but that classroom culture, where people feel like they can share what they want to share in a non-judgmental, encouraging environment of readers who care about the work? And how can you kind of curate that culture for every new classroom of students? Because every classroom of students is going to be dynamic and different and diverse in different ways. So, it’s the most important thing because if you cannot create a safe, inclusive classroom, the students will not learn. So I think that has to come first before anything else. Other principles? Like a pedagogical approach, I think it would be teaching writing through experimentation and thinking about everything we do on the page as an experiment, as an act or action of play. Because if we don’t let ourselves play or experiment, then we’re not going to discover anything or surprise ourselves, and our writing might just not be that interesting or lively. There’s also–I’ve done a lot of work with doctors and teaching doctors writing, and there’s a lot of neurobiological evidence that the process of play, whether it’s like with language or in writing or even just like, you know, going outside and blowing bubbles or playing kickball–there’s evidence that it enhances well-being. You know, it reduces anxiety, depression, and symptoms of PTSD. It helps people who have attention differences or difficulties feel like they can better pay attention. And so implementing play into the classroom at every level is really important because I think students can’t write well or learn well if they’re not.
KS: Yes, I am in agreement with that one. Yeah, we can’t always be so uptight.
Dr. Grey: Well-being is very important and I don’t know on all college campuses if it’s stressed. They might say that they stress it, but another question is whether they actually foster well-being.
KS: Hmm, I hope so, I don’t know, I’ve only been at college for a short time.
Dr. Grey: I think they do a pretty good job here from what I’ve seen so far.
KS: Yeah, they’re pretty good.
Dr. Grey: I do. I think there are many resources for you guys to consider well-being.
KS: Yeah. In comparison to some of my friends, what they said they’re doing over at their colleges.
Dr. Grey: Absolutely. I’ve been at schools that lack resources, so.
KS: Yes, in that vein and positive feeling, what’s your favorite F&M moment so far? It can be anything.
Dr. Grey: Well, it’s only been a few weeks. I would say probably the first day; getting to meet the students that I was going to work with this whole semester across classes. Also, realizing this particular kind of student that comes to an institution like F&M is the kind of student that I’m the most excited to work with because there’s a feeling or a little vibration that I get from you guys when you walk into the room. Even on days where you’re really tired, which is understandable, that vibration of, “Yes, the world is difficult. Yes, sometimes our lives are individually difficult. But I really want to learn. I’m here because there’s something that is really important about me being here.” And I kind of got that feeling the first day of classes, where you’re all kind of vibrating a little bit. And I feel like that transfers to me and makes me really motivated as a teacher.
KS: Aww, that’s so cute. I wouldn’t have known it, but if you say it’s true, then it must be.
Dr. Grey: It is, yeah. But if you ask me at the end of the semester, it could be a different moment.
KS: Like, “Oh, that moment.” Yes, awesome. Only one more. This one is a little more abstract. For everyone watching, please try to recruit people into your classes. Go!
Dr. Grey: Oh, pressure! I think that regardless of your future goals or your future profession that you have in mind, whether it’s like becoming an engineer, or a historian, or a doctor, or a scholar of literature–so even if you’re not necessarily going to be an English major–I think being a creative writer is one of the most versatile skills that you could have and is one of the things that lends itself to every other discipline. And I truly believe in that so much that when I taught at Stanford, so many of my students–like an obscene number–were pre-med majors and creative writing minors. So I was writing many letters of recommendation to medical schools, which I’m not qualified to do. But talking about the skills that these particular students had obtained through the way we build communication skills and empathy and value systems and thinking about how to express what’s inexpressible made so much sense that students who could do that would make incredible doctors. So for me, my courses aren’t just about like, “OK, you want to be a writer? I’ll teach you how to be a writer.” It’s also about how these skills can be useful to you in whatever you want to do and also help build your personhood. Just to be the person that you want to be in the world outside of any profession, and I think creative writing is one of those classes that allows you to build your personhood. Which we all have to do, I think and want to do in this life. I think nothing else will put you in touch with yourself, like reading some of the texts in my or any literature class. That would be my pitch.
KS: Yes, I agree. I think you’re going to have a million people knocking this door down soon. That was the last of those questions. Anything else you’d like to say?
Dr. Grey: No, just that I’m so happy to be at F&M and enjoy working with the students here.
You heard it here first, Dr. Grey wants YOU to join her creative writing classes! Even if you aren’t a humanities major, the skills of creative writing will help you in your own profession and will develop your personhood. Make sure to sign up for her class next semester, as she is unfortunately only a visiting professor.
Freshman Kai Schwartz is a Contributing Writer. Their email is email@example.com