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Oh, The Places You Can Go: Meet James Brasfield ’79 (Alumni Interview)

A 1979 graduate of Armstrong Atlantic State University, Brasfield retired from teaching English and Creative Writing at Penn State and lives in Belfast, Maine.  Brasfield’s third collection of poems, Cove, is expected to appear from Louisiana State University Press in 2022.

After graduating from Savannah High School, I enrolled at Presbyterian College where I played a year of intercollegiate football.  I worked summers in a paper mill to help pay for college. And living through my responsibility in the struggle against Jim Crow and through the years of the Vietnam War, and after years distracted as an athlete, I discovered that words and their syntax in literature brought me closer to reality:  being, place, and time had resonant contexts for understandings of what happens around oneself for deeper understandings of people, their devotions and conflicts, thus deepening my own sense of who I was among others, deepening further an enlightened empathy toward existence. The best writing brought a visceral response, alive as any perception on the street.  Poetry became essential to my life.  

I transferred to Armstrong to become an English major.  I began to make poems seriously, and though my efforts were sincere, I had much to learn.  The English faculty was welcoming and encouraged my making of poems and maintained great patience in my progress as a serious student.  Professors became mentors for my writing; there were no creative writing classes at Armstrong. 

After Armstrong, I worked as sports editor, reporter, and photographer for a Georgia weekly and continued to make poems.  After a year at the newspaper, I received a rejection note from a literary magazine, saying my work sounded as if it were written by a sports writer.  The editor and publisher of the newspaper was taken aback when I told him why I was leaving. Deciding to attend a graduate school for English, I discovered a Master’s of Fine Arts program for creative writing.  At Armstrong, I’d studied philosophy and Milton with Joseph Killorin and admired him greatly. I knew he’d received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, so I applied there and was accepted.  

Not long after graduating from Columbia, I moved to the Bay Area where I worked at a translation company, editing foreign language texts translated to English.  Needing to find work in an environment more sympathetic to my need to make poems, I began teaching at Western Carolina University and later at Penn State. My wife, the writer Charlotte Holmes, and I raised our son in State College.  And there, I published two books of poems: Infinite Altars and Ledger of Crossroads with LSU Press, and received fellowships in poetry from The National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Twice a Senior Fulbright Fellow to Ukraine, I received the American Association for Ukrainian Studies Prize for Translation and the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation for The Selected Poems of Oleh Lysheha, published by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University Press.  

Armstrong’s English Department proved to be a crucial pivot and bridge on the path. 

Many thanks to James for this month’s thoughtful reflection. Are you an alum? Would you like to be featured on the blog for the 2020-2021 academic year? Email us!


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