A Q&A with Fulbright College Alumna Chelsea Rathburn
In this conversation, Rathburn talks about being an ambassador for the literary arts in Georgia as the state’s poet laureate, her three poetry collections and an upcoming fourth, her passion for building an incredible undergraduate creative writing program at Young Harris College, and the importance of bringing literary programming to rural and underserved areas.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your career, what you studied in college, and how the two relate to one another?
I am the author of three poetry collections, The Shifting Line (2005), A Raft of Grief (2013), and Still Life with Mother and Knife (2019), a New York Times New and Noteworthy poetry selection.
Since 2013, I’ve directed the creative writing program at Young Harris College in the north Georgia mountains. In March 2019, I was appointed poet laureate of Georgia. In this role, I serve as an ambassador for the literary arts across Georgia.
I began the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas in 1997 after graduating from Florida State University with a B.A. degree in English.
I would say that the entire program at Arkansas prepared me well for my writing and teaching career. However, two things in particular prepared me for serving my state as poet laureate: while in the program at Arkansas, I worked closely with Miller Williams, who was the inaugural poet at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration, and I taught in the Writers in the Schools (WITS) program, leading poetry workshops in schools across Arkansas.
Miller Williams showed me what it meant to be a true ambassador for literature and the arts, and the WITS program taught me the importance of bringing poetry and literary programming to rural and underserved areas.
For the past six years, I have worked at Young Harris College, a small liberal arts college in the mountains of North Georgia, where I designed and direct one of the strongest undergraduate creative writing majors in the state.
Our students routinely win state and national prizes and publish their work in national magazines, and I’m incredibly proud of their accomplishments.
When I built the curriculum at Young Harris, I thought about the sorts of courses I took at the U of A, courses like the Form & Theory of Poetry, Major American Poets, and the Genealogy of American Poetry, and I designed a program that would prepare our students for rigorous graduate study.
I’m proud to say that one of my former students is a current M.F.A. student in poetry at the U of A!
Q: What was one of your favorite memories of your time at the college and why?
One of my favorite memories is of walking into a classroom for the first time as a graduate teaching assistant. I looked extremely young for my age, and I was terrified.
I quickly realized, though, that I loved teaching.
Q: Now that you’ve achieved so much in your career, what advice would you give to students?
Read widely and cultivate a lot of interests outside of your major. Make connections between the classes that you take. Be interested in other cultures and in other people’s experiences.
Q: What do you like to do during your time outside of work?
I enjoy cooking and eating good food, traveling, reading, gardening and spending time with my family.
Q: What’s up next on the horizon for you?
Since my third book, Still Life with Mother and Knife, just came out, my immediate project is to try to connect with as many readers as possible.
In intersecting sections, Still Life with Mother and Knife is concerned with girlhood, motherhood, and the female body as an object of art and an object of violence. My hope is that it will resonate with readers, particularly young women and mothers.
Looking ahead, I’ve begun planning my fourth collection, Magic Cities, whose title refers both to the magical realms of childhood and the promotional nickname bestowed upon my hometown of Miami, Florida, by the city’s earliest developers.
This collection will draw upon historical artifacts and personal history, and I’m excited to be starting research though I haven’t begun the poems yet.