Writer Series Honors a Poet for the Ages

On Thursday Oct. 2, poetry enthusiasts filled Patterson Lounge to honor the work of Alice Mackenzie Swaim ’32 as a part of the 2014 through 2015 Writer Series, sponsored by the Department of English and Communications, the Office of Alumnae/i Relations and the Heritage Committee of the Alumnae Association of Wilson College.

Courage is not the towering oak

That sees storms come and go; it is

The fragile blossom that opens in

The snow.

-Alice Mackenzie Swaim

Michael Cornelius, Chair of the English and Communications department, Associate Professor of English began the night with a laugh and a welcome, while conveying the timelessness of Swaim’s works.

Guest speaker Joan Prescott then introduced Swaim’s work. Prescott is the author of “A Poet for the Ages,” which features Swaim’s poetry. Over years of research and personal interaction, Prescott became intimately knowledgeable about Swaim’s life and works.

“[Swaim] speaks to us in such pure language—it’s amazing,” Prescott said. “Her words are perfect portraits of people and things.”

Students Jamie McCauley ’05, M. A. ’15, Patrick Fox ’16, and Adjunct Professor of English Sharon Erby each read a selection of Swaim’s poetry. The readers chose pieces that spoke to them personally, making the recitations feel honest and genuine.

“As I started reading through poems, I felt a connection to Alice,” said Erby. “She has a love of nature, and I do too.”

College Archivist Leigh Rupinski honored Swaim’s life through the records of the poet’s schooling at Wilson. Rupinski claimed finding Swaim in the college’s archives was “like a treasure hunt,” though information about the institution itself circa 1930 was illuminating.

Thanks to the Wilson Billboard’s records from that time, Rupinski found that Swaim once lived in Main 46, on the second floor. McElwain/Davison hall (more commonly, Mac/Dav) now stands where this building had previously. Her graduating class had around 90 students in it.

Swaim was a fairly average student. She majored in English and French, and according to Rupinski, “Math was not her thing.”

Even though generations separate Swaim from current students, with each reading, she became more relatable to the contemporary audience.

“Her popularity comes from her universality,” said Cornelius. “Swaim invites us to sit with her and consider the wonders of life.”

Though Swaim’s style was not considered high culture at the time it was written, her work saw success in her lifetime, and Swaim’s work continues to delight after her death in 1996. After she graduated Wilson in 1932, Swaim authored over 25 books and pamphlets, won more than 800 awards and citations and has been recognized many times over for her literary achievements.

Prescott continues her study of Swaim’s life, stating that she has “only scratched the surface.” Prescott plans to publish a second work, focusing on Swaim’s personal life, especially focusing on Swaim’s relationship with her husband.

Each semester the Writer Series features poets, novelists and prose writers to visit Wilson and share their newest works. These events are free and open to the public. Upcoming speakers include Wilson’s own Sharon Erby on Nov. 13 and Hugh Martin on March 5.

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