The Quest For Connection
As a poet, Lisa Russ Spaar sees connections within the world and creates art.
As a professor of English, she helps her students make their own connections—individually and as a community of writers. And as an advisor to first-year students, Spaar guides students as they make crucial decisions that will help them realize lifelong goals. In all of these roles, poetry plays a key part.
Spaar’s conviction is that engaging with poetry makes us more fully human. A nationally recognized poet and teacher, Spaar (Col ’78, Grad Arts & Sciences ’82) shares her love of the arts through a variety of roles as an English professor, writer, and critic.
She has taught poetry in the Department of English’s Creative Writing Program for more than 20 years. She’s also the founder and director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing, a concentration for talented undergraduate English majors who wish to refine their skills as poets.
The genesis of the APPW appropriately began during Spaar’s own undergraduate years on Grounds.
“In my time as an undergraduate, the University started something called the Modern Studies Area. I was invited to be a part of it and I loved it. It gave me a smaller community within a very large major,” she said. The smaller community allowed Spaar to connect more deeply with her fellow students and with the big questions posed by the program and her professors.
By this time in her life, Spaar had already become a devotee of poetry and was writing her own poems, though mostly in a solitary fashion. “I remember thinking, ‘I wish there was something like this for poetry students.’” She never forgot the experience and tucked it away for the future.
Truth is, the key signature of any day’s measure can be altered all of a wild sudden.
From “Accidental” in Orexia
After Spaar graduated from UVA’s MFA program and had been teaching for several years, she returned to UVA to join the creative writing faculty. In 2000 she proposed the idea of a new undergraduate concentration in poetry writing for English majors. Her colleagues supported the idea, and the Area Program in Poetry Writing was created.
APPW is a two-year writing concentration for third- and fourth-years. “We admit ten students a year,” Spaar said. As with the MFA program, APPW classes are intentionally small so professors can give maximum attention to their students, and because the intimate scale encourages an environment of trust and community.
The program is also designed to be flexible so students can pursue interdisciplinary interests. This reflects an awareness that writers are often fueled creatively by pursuits other than English, such as science, gender studies, or anthropology.
Members of the first graduating class are now well into their thirties. Some have published books, some are English professors, and others have careers in medicine, law, and business.
Universal Value of Poetry
Spaar loves the idea of poets in every sphere of life. She’s a true believer that the skills cultivated by reading and writing poetry have a universal value.
The ability to think deeply, read slowly, see intentionally, and make connections has value that spills over into every pursuit. Poets are natural connectors, metaphor-makers, and interdisciplinary thinkers—qualities highly prized by the emerging innovation economy.
However, poetry has a deeper cultural and human value. “Poetry makes us better writers and thinkers. Keats calls poetry the ‘vale of soul-making’ because it gets us in touch with what we feel and think,” Spaar said.
She keeps in touch with former students and has found that “the big takeaway for them is ‘I was seen, I was valued, and I learned to see and value my own feelings and capacity to make connections. I live with complexity and know myself.’” Spaar’s deep commitment to her students is evident in the glowing feedback she regularly receives and the enduring friendships she and her students enjoy after graduation.
No gold quite breaks the dusk to smithereens like self-pity going down easy.
From “St. Chardonnay” in Vanitas, Rough
In recognition of her close work with students, Spaar was named the Ed Ayers Faculty Fellow Advisor in 2013, funded by a 2007 graduate of the College who appreciated the initiatives led by Dean Ayers to enhance faculty-student interaction. Creating the fellowship was an opportunity to honor the former dean and commend faculty who express such dedication toward undergraduates. Faculty are selected by the director of advising and are appointed for a two-year term. At the end of the term, Ayers Faculty Fellow Advisors are awarded $1,000 in research funds.
A Course that Connects
Each fall, in addition to teaching in the MFA and APPW programs, Spaar teaches a COLA—College Advising—course for incoming first-years. Her course, Myths of Adolescence & Literary Imagination, is a survey of literature dealing with the joys, pains, and upheavals between childhood and adulthood. The course allows Spaar to hear from the youngest students on Grounds and introduce them to reading and writing poetry.
Each year, she learns something new about how poetry can help us to slow down, connect, and see and hear one another. These are vital human capacities “that in the dazzling velocity of their lives might get lost,” she said.
The readings and discussions draw in students, leading them on a quest to self-discovery and a greater awareness of others. “It makes me all the more convinced that the study of literature and of making texts is a really important skill to being human,” said Spaar.
Spaar uses such insights to inform the design of new courses as part of her role in the English department she so greatly admires.
“One of the things I admire about creative writing at UVA is that our faculty is so diverse aesthetically,” she said. “And so when we bring in new students, we’re not looking for one kind of thing. We recognize promise in the full menu of approaches to poems and fiction. I think it’s a testament to the faculty and to the pool of students out there that we were able to bring together students who have a lot to teach each other, because they’re not all writing the same kind of poem. It’s exciting.”
Pursuits of a Poet and Professor
The last few years have been exciting ones for Spaar. She received national honors and awards for her accomplishments as a teacher and a poet, and she saw the publication of “Monticello in Mind: Fifty Contemporary Poets on Jefferson” (University of Virginia Press), which she edited. In 2017 she published her fifth volume of poems, Orexia.
It’s bedtime. Tell me a story as the leaves fly again, even as we love them & cannot see them.
From “St. Protagonist” in Vanitas, Rough
She was named the 2016-18 Horace W. Goldsmith NEH Distinguished Teaching Professor at UVA, was selected as one of three finalists for the 2016 Robert Cherry Award for Great Teaching at Baylor University (she was awarded a $15,000 honorarium and $10,000 to the UVA Department of English), and earned a prestigious Pushcart Prize for her poem “Temple Gaudete.”
In addition to volumes of poetry, her publications include book chapters, essays, and reviews, and her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She also writes a regular column for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Spaar is also the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Jefferson Scholars Foundation Faculty Prize, among many other awards.