Born in New Jersey and raised in Lake Forest, Illinois, poet Beth Ann Fennelly settled in Oxford, Mississippi, in 2001 with her husband, author Tom Franklin. She received her BA from the University of Notre Dame and an MFA from the University of Arkansas, and had a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. She is professor of English at the University of Mississippi, where she teaches poetry and nonfiction writing. She served for six years as the director of the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, before stepping down in 2016 when she was named the state’s fifth poet laureate, succeeding Natasha Trethewey. On being named poet laureate, Fennelly said, “Southerners in general and Mississippians in particular are known to have produced many of our nation’s greatest writers. It will give me joy to help promote literary arts throughout the state and encourage future generations of Mississippi storytellers and writers.”
Fennelly has published three books of poetry, Open House, Tender Hooks, and Unmentionables, and a book of nonfiction, Great with Child: Letters to A Young Mother, all with W. W. Norton. She has been included three times in the Best American Poetry series. Her work is challenging in both its themes and its structure, and Fennelly experiments widely with poetic form. She sometimes writes autobiographically, and the poems in Tender Hooks were inspired by the first year in the life of her first child. Her book-length poem “The Kudzu Chronicles,” published in Unmentionables, is grounded in her experience of living in Mississippi and reflects on how a Midwestern transplant can take root as a southern writer, just as the kudzu vine flourishes. One reviewer wrote, “Acknowledging the intractable problems of uprootedness, indebtedness, and inheritance—writing about them rather than ignoring them—may be the best solution available for a contemporary poet. In the end, an imaginary grave next to the plots of one’s literary forebears, a place in a personally constructed canon, may be the most secure station the contemporary American poet can hope for.”
Fennelly has also written in multiple voices and in conversation with poets and artists of the past, and the settings of her poems range across the world. When an interviewer asked about her subject matter, she replied, “If I could think of anything I wouldn’t put in a poem, I’d put it immediately, rather perversely, in a poem.”
She also writes essays on travel, culture, and design for Country Living, AFAR, Southern Living, Garden & Gun, the Oxford American, and other periodicals. In 2013 Fennelly and her husband Tom published the coauthored The Tilted World, a novel set during the backdrop of the historic Mississippi flood of 1927. Her grants and fellowships have included a 2003 National Endowment for the Arts Award, a 2006 United States Artist Grant, a 2009 Fulbright Fellowship in Brazil, and three awards from the Mississippi Arts Commission. Prizes include the Pushcart Prize, the Kenyon Review prize in 2001, and the 2016 Lamar York Prize in Creative Nonfiction. In 2017 W. W. Norton published her sixth book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, which combines the extreme brevity of poetry with the truth-telling of creative nonfiction.
An inspiring teacher and an ambassador for poetry, Fennelly was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year and Humanities Teacher of the Year in 2011, and a Top 20 Arts and Humanities Professor in Mississippi in 2013. After Barry Hannah’s tenure as director of the MFA program ended when he passed away in 2010, Fennelly filled the role. In 2016 CollegeMagazine.com recognized the quality of the program when it ranked the University of Mississippi a “Top 10 University for Aspiring Writers.” She is an active member of the Poetry Out Loud initiative, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, which encourages high school students to recite poetry. She once said, “I find myself being a proselytizer . . . when I travel for readings in other states, and even countries, and come across an ignorant person who asks, ‘Why do you live in Mississippi?’ Literature has a cultural currency here that feels very healthy to me. I notice (it) in stark relief when I travel to other parts of the country where people think they’re more cosmopolitan but don’t really have a sense of the power of the written word.”
- Jackson Clarion-Ledger (11 August 2016)
- “Unmentionables,” Smartish Pace website, www.smartishpace.com