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Professor Spotlight: Professor Mary Jo Salter

Professor Salter has been a member of the Writing Seminars faculty since 2007, after 23 years of teaching at Mount Holyoke College, and currently serves as co-chair of the department. An incredibly accomplished poet, Professor Salter is co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry, has authored seven books of poetry, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014. In the past, her classes for undergraduates have included poetry workshops – at all levels from introductory to advanced – a readings course in Four Women Poets: Dickinson, Moore, Bishop and Clampitt, and The Poetry of War.

In an interview with HerCampus, Professor Salter answers questions about her teaching style, what she likes to see from her students, and offers some of her best pieces of advice for aspiring poets and writers.


How would you describe your teaching style?

I imagine that I’m a combination of strict and open-minded. I’m a stickler for following minor rules, like those of punctuality or punctuation. But I like to create a friendly atmosphere, even a jocular atmosphere, because once everybody feels comfortable and able to laugh a little, they’re more likely to dare to ask serious questions without fear of seeming “stupid” or “wrong.”


What do you like to see most from your students?

Curiosity! You can’t get better at reading or writing without it. I like students who ask themselves: what does this word mean? (Then they look it up.) They might do some additional, unassigned reading around the subject. They might ask themselves why they do or don’t like a poem, rather than just accept other people’s opinions unthinkingly.


What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I’m not sure – that question covers a lot of ground. But the best advice about writing? Elizabeth Bishop, one of my writing teachers in college, emphasized that there’s no advantage to sending out your poems in a hurry, just to get published. Patience is not one of my virtues, so this was an important thing to hear. As Bishop pointed out, nobody is in a hurry to read your work – especially if it isn’t revised to the best version you’re capable of. Bishop often sat on her poems for months or even years before sending them out to the world. So the best advice I ever received was one word: wait.


What is your biggest hope for your students after they leave your classroom?

That they continue to read poetry for pleasure, no matter what else they may do in their personal or professional lives.


Why would you say poetry is important today?

It’s always been important, but perhaps it’s more important today because we live in a great age of science.  We need to work on bridging the perceived gap between science and the arts, and some of the best poets do this.  At bottom, though, poets are musicians. By means of words, they sing to us and suggest truths and feelings beyond words.  


Who is your favorite poet and – this is perhaps related – who would you say has been the biggest influence on your work?

Sorry to be so conventional, but Shakespeare is most certainly my favorite poet. There is nothing he didn’t know about humanity, and no manner of writing about it he didn’t master. Also, he was funny. Even the tragedies have moments of genuine humor in them. I love his flashes of hope in the midst of tragedy.

Shakespeare’s example is so daunting that I must choose a mere mortal as my biggest influence. May I choose a few? Emily Dickinson, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin are at the top.


If you could pick one book for all of your students to read right now, what would it be?

Paradise Lost. Most college students won’t read Milton unless you tell them to. Milton is humorless – a pretty serious fault – but he also has the most symphonic and cinematic imagination you can conceive of.  If your favorite art form is movies, you should read Paradise Lost just for the vertigo of blind Milton’s cosmic camerawork.

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