Randolph College Professor’s Quest to Help Writers See Beyond the Obvious

by | Mar 2024

NATURE IS no stranger to poetry. Writers for centuries have used poems to picture the flora and fauna around us, often expressing it in near-romantic terms. For Professor Laura-Gray Street, surface descriptions of nature, while certainly stirring and emotional, may not go far enough.

Street is an English professor at Lynchburg’s Randolph College, where she directs the Creative Writing program and coordinates the college’s Visiting Writers program. Her love for writing poetry didn’t start until her college years. 

“People always said I should write. I mostly wanted to read, so that’s been an interesting tension for me as a writer,” she shared.

Street explained that in college, she applied for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in poetry, thinking, “Anything I learn in poetry, I can apply to fiction writing.” However, Street pointed out that she fell in love with poetry during her MFA studies. As she put it, “It fits me more than the plot and character development of fiction.”

More specifically, Street’s passion is for ecopoetry, a form of poetry focused on our interaction with nature, its interaction with us, and all of the facets of our world beyond just writing about tall trees, rippling brooks, and majestic mountains. According to Street, ecopoetry is a shift in thinking, promoting the idea that “we are part of the larger picture of nature that surrounds us, that we are companions in and have effects on nature.” 

According to Street, a key aspect of teaching her creative writing students is “getting students to think about setting as more than just a stage.” She wants students to see more than face value — to include in their poetry energy use, technology use, and to incorporate how different aspects of the setting they’re describing interact with one another. As an example, Street points out that if a student wanted to write a poem about downtown Lynchburg, they could include in their observations the wildlife downtown, the impact of the James River, and the city’s people and history.

Street emphasizes that getting her students to pay attention to the world around them gives them a more complete picture to express in their poetry. She encourages them to use better word pictures and to find the relation between the subject and its surroundings.

Street’s efforts since becoming a professor at Randolph College in 1997 have paid off. 

“It’s just a pleasure to see those students who take what you say and take it further than you thought that they would,” she reflects.

Now, Street wants to allow other young Lynchburg residents to have their creative poetic voices heard. Street is a Fellow with the Black Earth Institute in Wisconsin. One of her assignments in that fellowship was to create a project involving poetry. Street coordinated the James River Watershed Poetry Contest, in partnership with Black Earth Institute and Randolph College. Young people ages 14-23 who live or attend school in the greater Lynchburg area could submit poems about the James River or the James River Watershed.

Street points out that the James River is much more of a recreational space than it was seen as in previous decades, thanks to several efforts to clean up the river and its tributaries. With the opening of the new Upper James River Education Center in Amherst County’s Riveredge Park last November, the interest in the area continues to grow. Street hopes the contest will continue and include other waterways in Virginia. She would also like to see the contest lead the way to a youth poet-in-residence to help build an artistic engagement with this area of Virginia.

It’s evident that Street is not slowing down in her writing and editing or as a professor. She recently helped develop an undergraduate editing minor at Randolph College. Street has numerous editing credits to her name, including co-editor of “The Ecopoetry Anthology.” So, establishing the minor was a natural decision. 

“This is a very practical, marketable skill,” Street acknowledges. She affirms that being able to write clearly and express thoughts clearly is critical in any field. 

Street returned prior to this semester from a sabbatical that focused on editing. In a few months, she will travel to Alaska for an intensive time of writing. Street also has some parting advice for aspiring writers: “Read. The more you read, the more you are internalizing language.” 

Good advice for us all. GN 

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