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Emory sophomore Lucy Wainger's poem selected for 'The Best American Poetry' anthology

Lucy Wainger's poem “Scheherazade” was selected to appear in the 2017 edition of "The Best American Poetry" alongside work from Joyce Carol Oates, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Olds and Robert Pinsky. Photo by Nicole Rosengurt, courtesy of Lucy Wainger.

When Emory College sophomore Lucy Wainger attended this year’s Decatur Book Festival session celebrating 2017’s "The Best American Poetry" anthology, she had no idea she would be called to the stage by award-winning poet Jericho Brown to read her own work.

But Brown, director of Emory College’s Creative Writing Program, had good reason: Wainger’s poem “Scheherazade” had been selected by anthology editor and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey to be included in the volume.

“That was one of the most terrifying things that has ever happened to me,” Wainger says of her unexpected reading, as she shared the stage with poets Brown, Trethewey and Judson Mitcham.

“Other than pure primal fear, I felt so much joy and gratitude to be able to share my poem in that space, to connect with a church full of people in a way that simply wouldn’t be possible if they were reading my poem on the page or a screen, miles away," she says. "And I felt my usual sense of awe that a person like Dr. Brown even exists in the world, let alone supports me with such warmth as to invite me onstage.”

Brown, associate professor of English and creative writing, says Wainger has earned the support.

"Lucy is a wonderful student because she makes herself vulnerable to influences beyond her own life,” he says. “In other words, Lucy understands that reading is the best inspiration for writing. Students who actually seek out writing to read in order to learn strategies are the students who succeed.”

Wainger is one of several Emory students publishing poems in magazines that even established writers consider highly competitive opportunities. Emory is consistently cited as one of the best programs in the nation for undergraduate creative writing, and alumni have a stellar track record for acceptance into the highest ranked MFA programs, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, NYU, Columbia and Johns Hopkins.

“We want to continue to grow Emory as a center for undergraduate education in creative writing because we believe the future of this world will depend on writers who are able to see it clearly, say what it is truthfully, and write it in a way that makes it new,” Brown says.

During a recent alumni event in New York City with Emory College Dean Michael A. Elliott featuring recent Emory creative writing graduates currently at Columbia University, Brown read Wainger’s poem “Memorandum: September” to a hushed and appreciative audience. “Isn’t that beautiful?” he said.

Finding her passion for poetry

Wainger’s world began in her hometown of downtown Manhattan. She began writing early on, but when exactly it became a passion is difficult for her to pinpoint.

“I usually attribute it to a friend’s dragging me to afterschool writing club at the end of sixth grade. Writing once a week at club meetings quickly morphed into writing every day,” Wainger says.

While Wainger didn’t initially focus on any particular genre or form — she loved reading YA and fantasy novels and, later, literary fiction, plays and essays — she gradually and unintentionally worked her way toward writing poems.

“I found Anne Carson when I was 14, but other than her work, I didn’t enjoy reading poetry until junior year of high school," she says. "So if I’m being honest, I have to cite Lemony Snicket and Joe Meno and a whole lot of gay fanfiction as my first literary ‘influences.’”

Wainger's poetry was first published in 2013, a prose poem called “James VIII” that ran in the first volume of Winter Tangerine, a literary magazine founded by Yasmin Belkhyr.

“I was already friends with Yasmin online," she explains. "It was just an opportunity to contribute to a thing my friend was making. That's kind of how publishing always felt, just without the friend part.”

During Wainger’s senior year, she participated in an informal mentorship program with literary arts journal Gigantic Sequins.

“My mentor, the lovely Elizabeth Onusko, encouraged me to submit to a range of publications, including Poetry. We agreed that we would both submit to Poetry and if one of us received an acceptance she'd buy the other one dinner," Wainger recalls. "Six months later, my poems were accepted, only Elizabeth didn't actually make me buy her dinner because she is a generous soul.”

Unexpected honor 

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and “Scheherazade” appeared in the December 2016 edition of Poetry Magazine.

Wainger had watched the highly acclaimed 2013 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” about the 85-year-old Jiro Ono, considered to be the world’s greatest sushi chef.

“That was the first time I ever recognized myself in anyone else's account of their experience of making art, or of living. 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi' lived in my head for the rest of the year and most of my writing, reading and thinking related back to it," Wainger says. "The poem is an essay written in body language; it articulates, as simply as possible, what Jiro made me see when I was 17."

The process for writing “Scheherazade” was somewhat similar, which, Wainger says, was surprising since she doesn’t adhere to a consistent writing process.

“The first draft was a found haiku, culled from my third-period English class notes at the end of sophomore year. I rewrote it as a prose poem during third-period English my junior year, and again during third-period Acrylic Painting my senior year," she says. "After that it no longer felt like ‘my’ poem, which is how I knew it was finished.”

“Scheherazade” would go on to be included in The Best American Poetry anthology alongside work from Joyce Carol Oates, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Olds and Robert Pinsky.

The honor was completely unexpected. Best American Poetry doesn’t accept submissions for inclusion, so when an email hit Wainger’s inbox telling her that “Scheherazade” had been selected, “it literally came out of nowhere," she says.

Her writing, meanwhile, comes from a place of fascination and curiosity about the human experience, and the people and world around her.

“The poems themselves are built out of the things that I think about, and I think about the things that everybody thinks about at some point throughout the day: my favorite books, TV shows about serial killers, math, the way it feels to be connected to another person, really good English classes where everyone makes each other smarter, weird things that happened to me when I was a kid, and time.”

When it comes to really good classes, Wainger has found that Emory has that covered.

“I love the creative writing program — I feel blessed to have a space in which writing and reading are centered, considered vital. Sometimes those spaces are hard to find.”

As for time? With two more years to go, there is a lot of time to continue writing and learn and grow before Wainger moves on to the next thing – whatever that may be.

“Writing is inextricable from living, so I will be writing full-time as long as I am living full-time," she says. "Career-wise, I have absolutely no idea what I will be doing after I graduate college. Hopefully something that allows me to live quietly, to wait and listen.”

And, of course, to write.

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