The faculty members in Penn State Behrend’s bachelor of fine arts (B.F.A.) in creative writing are collaborating both in the program and on the page: All three have new books in print, and each lists the others on the acknowledgements pages of their books.
“One of the great things about our B.F.A. program is the real sense of community among the students and the three of us,” said Tom Noyes, professor of creative writing and English and the chair of the creative writing program. “We are good friends as well as colleagues, and we share our work a lot.
“George and Aimee are often my first readers,” he said.
There have been a lot of pages, lately. Noyes completed his fourth book – his first novel – which will be published in late April. Aimee Pogson, associate teaching professor of creative writing and English, published a collection of short stories. George Looney, distinguished professor of creative writing and English, published two new titles – a book of poetry and a collection of stories.
The B.F.A. in creative writing is the only program of its kind at Penn State. In addition to shaping their own voices, students in the program learn various aspects of publishing work through Lake Effect, an international literary journal that is edited at Behrend.
Looney, the editor of Lake Effect, said students also benefit when they see their professors seek, and secure, publishing deals for their own writing.
“You get a lot more rejection than acceptance,” said Looney, who often has as many as 70 poems under consideration by different literary publications. “You have to be able to handle that. It’s why, when you get that ‘yes,’ it means so much.”
Here’s a closer look at each faculty member’s new work:
Looney had both a book of poetry and a collection of short stories published last fall. The books were in development before the pandemic, so the title of the story collection – “The Worst May Be Over” – wasn’t intentionally timed for the current environment.
“It’s a hopeful coincidence,” Looney said, “but it is just a coincidence.”
He wrote the stories between 1983 and 2020.
“I was sifting through stories I had written, and I noticed recurring themes and motifs and constructed this collection from those stories,” he said.
The book won the Elixir Press Fiction Award. The stories “create characters who engage us emotionally … and stir our empathy even as they fumble and struggle to make decisions that might better their lives,” the judge wrote.
Looney’s other new book, “The Itinerate Circus: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020,” is his 10th collection of poetry. It was published by Red Mountain Press and includes nine new poems, along with selections from his earlier books.
Pogson’s story collection, “The Sadness of Spirits,” is the first book she has had published. It’s an intriguing collection of sorrowful stories, all told through elements of magical realism.
The publisher, Blue Light Books, describes the book this way: “While sadness weighs heavy in “The Sadness of Spirits,” Pogson’s writing provokes strong emotions, leaving the reader with hope and admiration as the characters are awakened to the nuance and possibility melancholy can bring.”
In one story, a preschool teacher contends with the stream of salmon that keep appearing on her windowsill, and in her closet, and tucked into her shoes. In another, a short, dancing man manipulates the melody of molecules in an attempt to bring his loved ones back to life.
Pogson, who is now working on a novel, says she finds time to write every night – just as she urges the students in the B.F.A. program to do.
“Even a little bit of work counts,” she said. “Even just jotting down notes, or pre-writing for 30 minutes. Just do something to stay in the zone.”
“The Substance of Things Hoped For,” the fourth book – and first novel – by Noyes, will be released in late April.
The book explores the life of John Humphrey Noyes, a distant relative known for bringing together a passionate community of abolitionist, “free love” perfectionists during the mid-nineteenth century in Oneida, New York. It focuses on the relationship between John Humphrey Noyes and Charles Guiteau, a one-time follower of Noyes who would later assassinate President James A. Garfield.
While based on actual events, the book should not be considered historical fiction, Noyes said.
“The dialogue and the way I stitched the events together make no claims of factuality,” he said.
Noyes spent five years researching and writing the novel, including time during a sabbatical. He did much of the writing in his home’s attic.
“On the days I’m not teaching, I try to get an hour or two in,” he said. “If I don’t, I’m not good for much. I get grumpy. For my own good, I need to practice my art any time I can, even if that means searching for a new project, or just getting a few sentences down.”
He often talks with students about the challenges he encounters in his own writing.
“I think it’s important for them to know that I sympathize with their frustrations, self-defeats and lack of confidence,” he said. “It’s something all writers go through.”
There also are good days, when the products of that work are released into the world for all to read.
“That is an amazing feeling,” Noyes said. “There’s nothing quite like it.”