Without Rhyme, With Reason
Creative Writing Prof. Lisa Spaar’s poetry welcomes life’s complexities with open arms
“Is courage artifice? / As though to answer were within my means,” Lisa Russ Spaar writes in her poem, “Midas Passional.” It is this characteristic acceptance of the unknown that has set Spaar apart from many of her colleagues. For some, poetry provides answers. Spaar appreciates it mainly because it does not.
Spaar, who specializes in creative writing and poetry, has taught in the University’s English department since 1993. Though she previously was a professor at both James Madison University and the University of North Texas, she was drawn back to Charlottesville, where she was both an undergraduate and graduate student, at the request of famed poet Rita Dove — a Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate who also serves as the Commonwealth Professor in the English Department. Spaar has been a full-time faculty member since 1995.
“Charlottesville is a hard place to get out of your system,” Spaar said. “I began to write poems here, and felt I came awake as a student when I was here. I think people teach because they love being students. It was a privilege to come back and teach at the place that taught me so much.”
Spaar’s passion for poetry, literature and reading was sparked at a young age. From third grade onward, Spaar started to keep diaries and journals. Throughout high school, Spaar dedicated herself to the works of the Brontës, Dickens, Dickinson and Bachelard.
“I wrote on my own and started to write poems,” Spaar said. “The more serious poems I read, the more I wanted to write poems myself. I came to Virginia knowing that they have a wonderful English program, and got so excited about the possibility of really, seriously writing poems. I could write as somebody writing her own story.”
Spaar realizes that many people are critical of poetry, viewing the art form as intentionally confusing and obscure. But she is quick to note it is when people are in a state of crisis — dealing with death, anger or the trials and tribulations of love — that they turn to poetry.
“On some level, I think choosing the life of a poet is accepting that there aren’t easy answers to things,” Spaar said. “I think what a poem tries to do is honor the complexity of things, in an era when people want things dumbed down or easily swallowed. Poetry is not about that.”
Spaar attributes much of her continued inspiration and growth to her teaching job, particularly the contact with her students.
“I’m always reading new stuff — new poets, old poets and all kinds of literature — and I get to talk about those texts with very smart young people,” Spaar said. “It is a great gift to have a new crop of 18- and 19-year-olds every year to help me stay caught up and … make me think in new ways.”
Spaar also contributes much of her maturity as a poet to the experiences she’s gained from parenting and motherhood.
“Being a mother is another kind of making and creation that deepened my awareness of what I was doing as a poet,” Spaar said. “Aging, watching my parents get sick and age and realizing that the time one spends in one’s body is finite – the more I become aware of that, the more I become aware of the forms of poetry and the kinds of things I [want] to say and do in my poems.”
Spaar has received significant critical acclaim as both a poet and a teacher. Spaar highlights her teaching awards, such as the All-University Award and the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award, as some of her greatest accomplishments.
Fourth-year College student Isabelle Connor, who is currently enrolled in Spaar’s poetry capstone seminar, said Spaar is a dynamic professor who values the input of her students. “She’s extremely generous intellectually, and the atmosphere of her classes reflects that,” Connor said. “Students feel welcomed to come at the material from different directions.”
Spaar complements her teaching accolades with both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize.
“When someone you don’t know taps you on the arm and says this committee of poets around the country has decided your poetry is worth supporting, it means a lot, because writing is such a solitary thing,” Spaar said. “I’m writing for me to make sense of the world and to whoever might be feeling what I’m feeling, but it [is] so meaningful to have that inner space in which I felt accepted and encouraged.”
Spaar’s most recent project, due out this month, is a book titled “The Hide-and-Seek Muse: Annotations of Contemporary Poetry,” which is a collection of essays and commentaries on poems for the Chronicle of Higher Education. The book features a diverse collection of poets who represent a wide range of ethnicities, aesthetics and styles.
“[The Hide-and-Seek Muse] relates to questions about what American poetry [is] at this moment and what place [it has] in … American life and culture,” Spaar said. “Many people question poetry and think they need a certain password in order to understand it, and this book tries to provide answers by asking, ‘What can it mean to people in this world?’”
At a time when it can seem somewhat trivial to pursue a liberal arts education, and students look to forgo academic passions in favor of more financially secure alternatives, Spaar continues to encourage her students to follow their true interests.
“Many of my students have gone on to become professors, lawyers, businessmen, published writers and doctors,” Spaar said. “When you study poetry, you learn that every word counts. Every word you say [and] every word you write makes you more aware. You pay attention and make connections in smart, discerning ways. That is something that’s going to help you no matter what you do.”