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Four Alumni Authors Talk About Their Work, Influences and Inspirations
By Dan Ressner ’99 | Back to Table of Contents
Almost every Ravenscroft alum has a memory of a novel, poem, play or non-fiction work that made an impact on them when they were a student.
We asked four alumni authors — Bill Browning ’78, Mary Catherine Bunn Johnson ’83, Kate Hagopian Berry ’95 and Rebecca Myers ’95 — who have channeled their passion for language, literature and learning into books across a variety of genres to tell us about their work. Here’s what they had to say.
- TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR BOOK.
- WHAT GOT YOU STARTED AS A WRITER IN THIS GENRE?
- WHAT’S THE MOST USEFUL OR IMPORTANT LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED THROUGH THIS PROJECT OR THROUGH YOUR WRITING EXPERIENCES AS A WHOLE?
- IS THERE SOMEONE IN YOUR FIELD WHOSE WORK HAS INFLUENCED YOU OR WHOM YOU ADMIRE?
- IS THERE SOMETHING YOU LEARNED AT RAVENSCROFT THAT HAS SERVED YOU PARTICULARLY WELL IN THIS ENDEAVOR?
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR BOOK.
Bill Browning ’78: “Transformational Learning in Community Colleges” describes the tumultuous experiences of deep personal change that many underrepresented students undergo in order to adapt to unfamiliar environments of higher education and professional work, and how community college educators can better support them in this journey. In addition to mastering the curriculum of a new professional field of study, these students must also grapple with significant and potentially threatening changes in their self-image, identity, self-efficacy, resilience and social norms. For people who didn’t grow up surrounded by a college-going culture with many professional role models to observe, college isn’t the “normal” next step as it is for most Ravenscroft students, but a dramatic and courageous step far out of their comfort zones.
Mary Catherine Bunn Johnson ’83: “Where Your Treasure Is” (arriving April 23 under the name M.C. Bunn) is a historical romance set in the late Victorian period, 1892-1895. A spinster-heiress goes to the bank to withdraw a diamond necklace; a down-on-his-luck prizefighter drives his friends in a stolen cab to the same bank so they can terrorize a clerk who has cheated them at cards. Nothing goes as planned. A woman of privilege and a man from the gutter are thrown together against their will. Their lives and those of everyone they know change forever. While the love story between the heroine and hero is front and center, “Treasure” delves more deeply into the transformational power of love in the lives of all kinds of people by exploring the web of relationships between the lovers’ families and friends, who are of various ages and very different social classes. We see town and country, upstairs and downstairs, wealth and poverty.
Kate Hagopian Berry ’95: A mast year is an ecological phenomena rooted in mystery. Some years, for reasons known only to themselves, all of the oak trees in a region will overproduce acorns. The abundance of acorns leads to an abundance of rodents, which leads to an abundance of predators. It’s as if everything in the local ecosystem decides it’s safe to grow. My own mast year began when I finally dedicated myself to poetry with a discipline I hadn’t had since college. I began to steadily draft, revise and submit, and found a place in an anthology of Maine poets, “Balancing Act 2.”
From this anthology I began to participate in regular readings. My own writing practice exploded. Then, the publishers of the anthology expressed interest in my manuscript. I began a flurried, magical couple of months taking 20 years of poetry manuscripts and uncovering what would form “Mast Year.” The book took its final form when I realized it would contain only poems I wrote, performed or extensively revised during 2019.
Rebecca Myers ’95: I wrote many of the poems in the second half of “My Seaborgium” (2016) in response to a call for contest entries (the inaugural Mineral Point Poetry Series, for which my chapbook was chosen as one of four winners). It charts the journey from recurrent miscarriage to pregnancy to birth to raising a young child — heavy stuff — but a lot of the poems rely on moments of levity (“Like the cream filling/in a Twinkie, how did I get here?”). I called the manuscript “My Seaborgium” because I had just read that seaborgium is the only element named after a living person at the time of naming; I wanted my son Miles to hold a similar certainty about his wondrousness while alive:
Now I want joy to arrange you.
Forget the spool, the queue.
May you crow from the prow.
Be your element’s namesake
and alive, know it. My Seaborgium.
My little radish bugaboo, my
pillowfoot jeweler. Sweetgum
sing, sing to wake the water.
WHAT GOT YOU STARTED AS A WRITER IN THIS GENRE?
Browning: In the early 2000s, I transitioned from a previous senior management role in corporate training and into a program manager role at a Northern Virginia nonprofit, training low-income adults for new careers. I was absolutely blown away by the degree of change I witnessed from the first day of a new cohort — with participants who had been beaten down by living poor — to graduation days, four months later, when you couldn’t distinguish them from the corporate partners sitting with them at their tables. I had to know more about how such change happened! So, for five years while working there, I carried a notebook around with me to capture firsthand stories of what I heard and saw from our participants. I also read every book I could find on transformational learning so that I could understand their journey. Fifteen years later, many of those stories made it into our book, bringing the voice of actual participants to enliven the theoretical framework that my co-author, Chad Hoggan, contributed and providing practical guidance that college educators could follow.
Johnson: It was unintentional but inevitable. Probably because I’ve always loved old books, like Austen and Dickens and Anthony Trollope, I wanted to create that kind of reading experience, a multilayered world with lots of characters, action and plot twists.
Berry: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in words — writing stories, writing poems. I have a very vivid memory, though, of Sharon Barlow’s eighth-grade English class, when we were assigned poems. I did this Wordsworthian shout-out that was aggressively rhymed. Rebecca Myers ’95 did an extremely restrained blank verse one about a tree. But I remember being really thrilled listening to her poem — like here was something magical done completely differently than I did (and better!) — but that wasn’t crushing; it was inspiring. Weirdly, both Rebecca and I ended up writing books of poetry, but I hold that moment as the first time I identified voice — the moment that got me wondering what I wanted to sound like, what I should sound like, in a poem.
Myers: In sixth grade at Ravenscroft, I received a $10 gift certificate to Sam Goody for a sonnet about my next-door neighbor’s neglected German Shepherd (which, by the way, is some of the most money I’ve ever made from poetry). I guess I’ve always considered myself to be a lyric thinker. I have aphantasia — I can’t visualize in my head — so my way of making sense of the world is mostly through metaphor and syllables and stresses. But genre is fluid to me. I’m also a nonfiction writer, and there is a lot of overlap between what I do in essays and what I do in poems. Many of my poems have narrative elements, but their backbone is always how language sounds. For example, my most recently published poem, “Homeschool,” features the lines, “That faraway look/is you working through some first/falling-off: narrowed breath, fixed blood.” Those lines were the wellspring for what became six stanzas about how incredibly difficult it is to supervise your first-grader’s virtual learning during a pandemic (AHHHHHH). But the poem didn’t start out with a clear narrative direction at all; it existed first as music. It began with Miles in the bath pouring water from one bottle into another and suddenly asking me to explain how the soul rises, and me thinking, “That faraway look/is you working through.” Sometimes I’m not the most present parent — I remember I ran out of the room so that I could write that down! On playdates, I like to think of myself as an unhinged detective who will periodically turn away and mumble lyric descriptions into her phone. If someone were to find my phone and unlock my Notes, they would either say, “Wow, this belongs to a poet!” or, “Wow, a spam bot has corrupted this app!” This week’s entries include phrases like “say wings and the wings can fold,” “that wilted spinach on the finger feeling,” “eye hooks (embalming)” and “the rhino who ate a serrano.” That last one is a children’s book I really want to write since my family makes fun of me for eating jalapenos whole.
WHAT’S THE MOST USEFUL OR IMPORTANT LESSON YOU’VE LEARNED THROUGH THIS PROJECT OR THROUGH YOUR WRITING EXPERIENCES AS A WHOLE?
Browning: Even in professional writing for academic publishing such as our book, it’s helpful to include material for the heart as well as the head. With compelling and authentic personal stories and other material to tap into a reader’s experiences and deeper aspirations, we open a door for more of our own humanity to be expressed in professional settings. A book or other type of professional writing that aligns one’s head and heart together can also provide readers with a clearer experiential roadmap to apply what they’ve learned in their own professional settings.
Johnson: It’s exactly what your teachers always tell you: Writing is rewriting. The story may come all at once, but it’s in rewriting that you mine characters’ psychology, refine big ideas and hone scenes and dialogue that will demonstrate your message to the reader.
Berry: Be brave. Be deliberate. So easy to say and so hard to do. But the writing only gets better when you fiercely devote time to it. And the writing won’t go anywhere if you aren’t brave enough to face the zillion and one rejections that come with pursuing a writing career.
Myers: I’ve always struggled with self-imposed perfectionism. That’s probably why I’m so drawn to poetry; I enjoy obsessive tinkering on the line level. It’s the same impulse that leads me to keep rearranging furniture. At the same time, my creative control can inhibit my ability to write. “My Seaborgium” marked a departure from my exacting process. I found the constraints of motherhood to be strangely freeing. I was so tired from waking every three hours with a baby who never slept that if I wanted to write, I had to do it in bursts. There was no other way. I didn’t have time for second guessing, not to mention I was existing in a drowsy fugue state that often led to aphasia. It became interesting to chart my language confusion. My favorite example of this is when I told my husband (also a poet) that I was going out to pick up a latte at Gimme Coffee, only I called it Gimme Coffin. I guess I’ve learned to live by the advice I give my students, which is to trust in instinct and increment. I love this quote by E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
IS THERE SOMEONE IN YOUR FIELD WHOSE WORK HAS INFLUENCED YOU OR WHOM YOU ADMIRE?
Browning: When I started at the nonprofit, I technically supervised the two co-founders of the program, who were actually my mentors in transformational learning. Everything that they did in the job-training program was designed to help participants navigate the changes needed to see, and gain confidence in, themselves as successful adult learners and professionals in new fields. So many times, I heard participants say to them things like “You saw potential in me that I couldn’t see for myself.” What a legacy they left — hundreds of dramatically changed lives of people who launched new and exciting chapters in their lives.
Johnson: I have a lot to learn about contemporary historical romance writers, so in my field — not yet. My modern influences come more from television series like “Upstairs Downstairs,” “Downton Abbey” and “Poldark.” Yet it’s those earlier authors whose works continue to inspire and move me, especially Dickens’ humanity and his desire to make the world a better place.
Berry: I don’t even know how to begin the list: H.D., Deborah Pope, Lucille Clifton, William Blake, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Linda Pastan, Alicia Ostriker. Locally, Gary Lawless, Jeri Theriault, Annaliese Jakimides, Meghan Grumbling, Julia Bowsma, Clarie Millikan, John Rosenwald, Meghan Sterling, Saama Abdurraqib. In 2019, my local library ended up being a stop on Tracy K. Smith’s outreach tour as the U.S. Poet Laureate. I brought my daughter and ended up seated next to a poet who has become one of my dearest friends, and we found ourselves, not at the reading I expected, but basically getting a free class in poetry from Tracy K. Smith. She did so much for me in 40 minutes. She reminded me of forms I had forgotten. She inspired me with how one could teach a poetry class approachably and yet with brilliant insight. She reminded me to read every poem twice and then listen to someone else read it differently.
Myers: So many! I only applied to one MFA program in poetry — NYU — because I wanted to work with Sharon Olds. Her poems about motherhood, childbirth and female sexuality have inspired me to write more frankly (I’m thinking of a ghazel I published about charting my body temperature to get pregnant). She also taught me that there is no such thing as an apolitical poem. I’m currently working on my first full-length book of poems, tentatively titled “Sauna,” and my willingness to hold the smallest detail up to the light owes a lot to her work. I was Sharon’s full-time personal assistant for a year after I graduated, and she is just this wonderful person to be around. Her poem “My Son the Man” is maybe the best description I’ve ever read of how it probably feels to wake up one day and discover you no longer have a little boy who depends on you. Other poets who have influenced me: Emily Dickinson, Yusef Komunyakaa, Herman Melville (“Moby-Dick” is just one really long poem), Kevin Young, D.A. Powell, Anna Akhmatova (Jane Kenyon’s translations), Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Carson, Anne Sexton, Frank O’Hara, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jack Gilbert, and of course I love the work of my husband (poet Dan Rosenberg) and ’Croft alumni Katie Hagopian [Berry] ’95 and Brooke Baker ’99!
IS THERE SOMETHING YOU LEARNED AT RAVENSCROFT THAT HAS SERVED YOU PARTICULARLY WELL IN THIS ENDEAVOR?
Johnson: Read and do your homework! I will never be able to thank my English teachers enough, from Joan Middleton in sixth grade to Joan Battle my senior year. I was also lucky to have Sylvia White, Elaine Cottrell, Angela Connor and Sue Ellen Sims. I hope “Where Your Treasure Is” will make them proud.
Berry: Without question, Liz Clifford and “The Living Hand.” I’m still using those lessons I learned at the literary magazine — as a poet, as I submit, remembering how a poem can sound differently in different spirits — and as a reader for the “Maine Review” championing other poets.
Myers: I attended Ravenscroft for 12 years, and I can’t thank my English teachers enough for encouraging me to write. In sixth grade, my teacher Teresa Young [Moore] let me turn in an epic poem on Agatha Christie’s “The Mirror Crack’d” instead of a book report. In high school, faculty like Marcia Jones and Angela Connor made reading and discussing literature fun and engaging. Whenever I would drop by one of my English teachers’ rooms after class to sing the chorus to the big finale of “All Quiet on the Western Front” or “Crime and Punishment” (I used to make up musical showstoppers based on books), I was welcomed. I’m also grateful to Marilyn Budrow, my violin teacher for twelve years. My love of music and my love of poetry are inseparable, and I owe so much of my ear to her patience.
Ravenscroft teachers continue to inspire and instruct writers! In the Spring 2021 Ethos, we explore writing instruction in each of the three divisions, taking students from PreK through 12th grade.
Know a Ravenscroft grad we should have on our watchlist? Send us the details via “Submit a Class Note” at www.ravenscroft.org/alumni.
Bill Browning ’80
Mary Catherine Bunn Johnson ’83
Kate Hagopian Berry ’95
Rebecca Myers ’95