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VCU English professor named National Book Award finalist

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For Kathleen Graber, it all began with a field trip.

In 1994, Graber, who was 35, split her time between teaching middle school English and operating a music store that she and her husband owned on the boardwalk in Wildwood, N.J. Then, as a favor to a colleague, Graber reluctantly agreed to accompany some students to the Dodge Poetry Festival three hours away in the village of Waterloo. Graber knew and taught classical poetry – dead poets – but she had little familiarity with contemporary poetry. That changed in Waterloo, where she was “knocked out” by what she learned.

“I remember specifically the poet Mark Doty came out and read and I thought ‘Wow, is that a poem? OK, that’s contemporary poetry. I want to learn to do that. That’s good,’” Graber said. “I went home completely converted and told my husband, ‘I’m going to be a poet.’”

Over the ensuing 16 years, Graber, an assistant professor of English who teaches in the creative writing program at VCU, has enjoyed a remarkable rise in her chosen pursuit. She has received an M.F.A. from New York University, held prestigious fellowships, seen her work published in the New Yorker and the American Poetry Review, among other places, and written two books. Earlier this month, she was named one of five finalists for the National Book Award in the poetry category for her second collection, “The Eternal City,” which was published this year by the Princeton University Press.

Graber said she was “completely stunned” to learn of the National Book Award recognition. Other poetry finalists include Terrance Hayes (“Lighthead”), James Richardson (“By the Numbers”), C.D. Wright (“One with Others”) and Monica Youn (“Ignatz”).

“I’m still sort of out of my life in some weird way,” Graber said. “It feels as though it’s happening to somebody else. I think about the esteem with which I hold the other finalists. To even just be in that category and to be taken seriously is very exciting and wonderful.”

Graber said the honor is another in a series of events that she never would have envisioned when she decided to take up poetry.

“I’ve exceeded my every expectation,” she said. “I’d exceeded my expectations way before this happened.”

David Wojahn, a professor of English at VCU, whose last collection of poems, “Interrogation Palace,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, said Graber’s honor is especially impressive because it was bestowed on just her second book. Authors recognized for the National Book Awards typically are further along in their careers, Wojahn said, and Graber’s selection is “pretty extraordinary.”

Following her epiphany at the Dodge Poetry Festival, Graber approached poetry with the zeal of the converted. She enrolled in several community-based poetry workshops that helped her hone her new craft, and she took workshops as a non-matriculating student with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn at Richard Stockton College. With the aid of a recommendation from Dunn, Graber then enrolled at New York University, eventually earning an M.F.A. degree.

In the years after graduate school, Graber received several fellowships, including the Hodder Fellowship in Creative Writing at Princeton University and the Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship. While at Princeton, Graber gave a reading from her work that attracted the attention of Paul Muldoon, a professor at the university who is widely viewed as one of the most important living poets. Muldoon was impressed and told Graber that he was hoping to revive the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets, a series of poetry books that had been on hiatus for years, and he thought she might be a good fit for it.

The two remained in touch and last year Graber sent Muldoon a manuscript of “The Eternal City.” He told her the work was just what he was hoping for, and he selected the book to re-launch the series, which is published by Princeton University Press.

“They were great to work with,” Graber said. “And the book looks beautiful.”

Wojahn said Graber’s poetry manages to be both deeply personal and deeply philosophical, dealing with “some of the larger questions of how we wrestle with contemporary reality” while remaining grounded in personal observances. The result, he said, is poetry containing “gravity and authenticity and authority.”

“She’s the real deal,” Wojahn said.

Graber joined the VCU faculty in 2008, drawn in part by the presence of Wojahn and the university’s history with Larry Levis, who taught at VCU for six years before his death in 1996. Graber said Wojahn is a role model for her as both a poet and a teacher – “a big part of my being so eager to come to VCU is that I could work with someone I admire in so many different ways” – while Levis “is one of the most important poets for me in terms of influence,” Graber said. She also cited her respect for Greg Donovan, a poet and professor of English at VCU, and the cutting-edge work he has done developing Blackbird, the university’s literary journal, into a benchmark for online literary publications.

Wojahn said Graber has been a great fit for the university.

“She’s a fabulous teacher, very dedicated to her students, and she’s an equally fabulous writer,” Wojahn said. “She’s brought a lot to VCU.”

2010 National Book Award Finalist and Creative Writing Professor Kathleen Graber