PUC alumna Dr. Carlyn Ferrari (English, writing emphasis B.A. ’06) wrote a book titled, Do Not Separate Her From Her Garden: Anne Spencer’s Ecopoetics, where she shows how Anne Spencer used nature symbolism in radical and innovative ways to express her Black womanhood, politics, and worldview. Being drawn to her poetry and fascination with Anne Spencer’s life, Dr. Ferrari saw no books about her in print- so she wanted to write one.
Please tell us about your book. What inspired you to write it?
My book is about Anne Spencer, who was a poet and civil rights activist. She was active during the New Negro Renaissance of the 1920s—also known as the Harlem Renaissance—and her home served as a literary salon during the period. The critics of Anne Spencer’s day misunderstood and dismissed her poetry because she often wrote about nature, so they thought her poetry was stereotypically “feminine” and not political enough. In my book, I show that she was using nature symbolism in very radical, innovative ways to express her Black womanhood, politics, and worldview. Even though she was an important figure, she is still relatively unknown. I wanted to write a book about her because I was drawn to her poetry, I was fascinated by her life, and there were no books about her in print. I wanted to do my part to make sure that this incredible Black woman would not be forgotten.
Fun fact: PUC has a special connection to the New Negro Renaissance because poet Arna Bontemps attended PUC and graduated in 1923. He and Anne Spencer had many mutual friends, including Sterling Brown, James Weldon Johnson, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
What did you enjoy the most about your writing process? What was the most challenging?
I genuinely enjoy thinking and writing—I’m often lost in my own thoughts—and I enjoy Anne Spencer’s poetry, so I looked forward to working on this project. The challenging part for me was finding the time to write and edit! I work full-time as a professor, and there just aren’t enough hours in the day. I spent many, many late nights working on this book.
What do you hope readers will learn from your book?
I want people to fall in love with Anne Spencer as much as I did and see what an incredibly dynamic, fascinating, and brilliant human being she was. Ultimately, I hope that people will be curious about Anne Spencer and want to read her poetry and learn about her life. I also hope that people will visit her home, The Anne Spencer House & Garden Museum, in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Who is your favorite writer? Why?
This is a tough question, and I can’t pick just one writer because I have favorite writers for the various moods I am in or what I might be experiencing at any given moment. Of course, I adore Anne Spencer. Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones, Nella Larsen, Audre Lorde, and Edwidge Danticat are some of my favorites because I see myself in their work. I learn about myself through their work. It’s healing. Their prose is so gorgeous, elegant, and powerful.
Who impacted you the most at PUC?
John McDowell encouraged me to become an English major, and his classes really taught me how to think critically and analytically.
I’ll be forever grateful to Marilyn Glaim for encouraging me to become a professor, and it’s no surprise that, like her, I study American literature. Her classes were always so engaging, and I loved how she provided so much historical context for the texts we read. I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, and she saw something in me that I didn’t see and helped guide me into the career I have today.
Can you share a favorite memory from your time as a PUC student?
I made some wonderful friends during my time at PUC, and I have fond memories of Friday afternoons at Pizzeria Tra Vigne and Giugni’s. Oh, and, of course, the Friday morning biscuits and gravy. So delicious!
What advice do you have for students interested in writing and publishing a book?
I think Toni Morrison says it best: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” An important lesson I learned from Anne Spencer is that writing doesn’t have to be published to matter. Anne Spencer was a woman who wrote furiously every single day, but most of her writing consists of undated, unpublished prose written on ephemera. She probably wrote thousands of poems but published only about thirty in her lifetime. Publishing was not a priority to her, and she never published a book of poetry. She wrote and was committed to the craft of writing because it was important to her, not because she was seeking external validation. So, my advice is to listen to both Toni Morrison and Anne Spencer: write the things you want to read, but also write because you want to and are committed to writing, not because you simply want to be published.
Can you share what projects you have next? Are you planning on writing and publishing another book?
Yes, I do plan on publishing again. I’m currently working on a Black women’s history project. I’d also love to venture into the world of creative non-fiction and write a memoir someday.