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Poet Wraps Up PhD — And Snags Prize

What's a great present for someone about to defend her dissertation? For Liz Tilton, it was the Wick Chapbook Prize, which she earned for her poetry collection titled Salt.

Date: 2/10/2008
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Britt Kennerly
It might be hard for Liz Tilton to top a week in which she not only successfully defended  her dissertation but also learned that her poetry had earned a prestigious prize.

That's OK, since mapping out what comes next doesn't work for Tilton, an expressive poet with a knack for engaging conversation and a huge respect for the power of writing.
"That question about my future plans has dogged me all my adult life," says Tilton, who captured this year's Wick Poetry Chapbook Competition with a collection titled Salt. "I'm a non-traditional student who has always longed for and yet resisted a traditional career path, and the PhD hasn't exactly changed that tension."

Liz Tilton

She does have a few "to-do" items on her calendar.

"I will remain in Cincinnati where I'll stay hooked up with college teaching and work at scholarship; I plan to spend the next few months writing a book about the women of Findlay Market," says Tilton, whose PhD is in English and Comparative Literature.

"Until June, you'll find me at UC's Center for the Enhancement of Teaching & Learning working with a crackerjack staff of administrators and graduate students. We envision, plan, and coordinate programs to give innovative college teachers a forum for sharing their creative pedagogy and expertise with faculty and GTAs interested in implementing these ideas to improve their students' learning. Our office is in 480 Langsam Library, where I also get to hang out with the world's greatest librarians."

A few questions on Salt (to be published in 2009) and more:

Q) Please provide a little background on Salt – what role did it play in your dissertation?  How long was it in the making and how proud are you of the final product? 

A) Salt is a part of the larger poetry manuscript composing the creative portion of my dissertation. Strangely, it doesn't contain a number of the poems I like a lot in the larger manuscript because those poems just didn't fit the overarching narrative of this chapbook. It does, however, contain some poems that I wrote as long ago as eight or 10 years as well as poems written just months before the competition. I'm really happy with the way the chapbook turned out ... maybe I would choose the word "pleased" rather than "proud" because these projects end up being collaborative and the word "proud" seems self-important.

Q) If you had to write a press release for this collection, what three adjectives would you use to describe its content?

I'll steal from the poems in Salt: sweat stained, muscular, waxed in jalapeño paste.

Q) You're the latest in a string of Wick Chapbook winners from UC. How meaningful is it to you to have won this prize shortly before defending your dissertation?

A) I learned that Salt had won the competition less than 48 hours before defending my dissertation, and I feel really lucky to have reached these two milestones in the same lifetime much less in the same week. And the department should be proud of the Wick winners from UC; at one point these successes might look like luck, but when it gets to the point that we're referring to it as "a string," we have to start calling it something else – like a top-notch English department.

Q) What can you say about the work of previous winners Kevin Oberlin and Sarah Perrier, and the quality of the work of our English department and our graduate poets? And are there any professors who have a special place in your educational adventures?

A) I just ordered Kevin’s hot-off-the-press Spotlit Girl; I’m eager to read his narrative sonnet sequence … it’s about a Texas girl, and Texas is my home state, so I’m all over that one. Kevin’s got a way of turning something on its ear, which, in good hands, can lead to great poetry. And I consider Sarah Perrier one of my teachers though she never actually had that job. I admire her work (and the voice in it) to the point of literally asking her, "How can I do that?" That she would then actually tell me says a lot about Sarah. But let's not leave out two of UC's previous Wick chapbook winners, Julianna Gray Vice and Will Toedtman. Julianna taught my first poetry workshop. At its end, she gave me her own Poet’s Market book and told me to start submitting my work. Her "Speaking for the Moon" is one of my favorite poems. Will is just about the smartest, most talented and humble poet I know, and some of his compliments about my work still mean a lot to me.

I've always been smitten by smart, funny storytellers and by excellent thinkers and writers, so once I discovered the professors in our English department, there was no getting rid of me. At the risk of leaving out many people, I'll say that Russel Durst, Lucy Schultz, Don Bogen, and John Drury were professors who lured me to grad school because I wanted to think and write like they do; but it's always been Jon Kamholtz's mentorship that has consistently helped me cut through the doubts and the occasionally negative noises in my head.

Q) Do you remember your first attempts at poetry as a child or teenager, and did you save any of that work? Was there anyone in particular whose poetry inspired you back then?

A) I took one creative writing class in high school and wrote a poem that was published in the school newspaper. An art student illustrated it, and I remember being shocked at how she'd interpreted the poem. It's packed now in a box in the attic. I don't remember the poem's title, though I now realize that the artist caught the poem's meaning as I had been blind to it. That's the only poem I remember writing until I returned to college about 10 years ago. Although few poets influenced me in my early years, poetic writers like Faulkner, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe made me yearn to do what they did with words.  

Q) You have taught composition and creative writing to a very diverse range of people and in a variety of settings. Are you still excited and/or inspired by the work of young writers?

A) Writers of any age and any level who wrestle to create knowledge through writing still inspire me. Some of my favorite writers are those non-traditional students who work full-time jobs and pay their own way to take college courses at night and who work out some big questions through their composition and creative writing. That's what keeps me marveling at writing's power; it's dangerous.

Q) What are you reading for fun – or if you haven’t had time for that, is there a book you'd love to jump into during your next break?

A) I'm reading essays lately – not student papers, but essays from The Best American Essays 2007 and The Art of the Personal Essay. I don't think I intend to write personal essays any time soon, but these are smart and thoughtful and exploratory, and they're short. For some reason, I need short right now. This morning I got the urge to read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.

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