Photo of Sarah Gridley and her dog

5 questions with… associate professor, award-winning poet Sarah Gridley

Sarah Gridley believes children are natural-born poets, but they lose that sense of lyricism as they grow older and are taught that they must speak in a certain way. Keeping that poetic orientation, she said, is “a matter of holding on to that way of thinking and seeing and saying.”

Gridley held on.

Now, an associate professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, Gridley fondly recalls the poetry her parents would read to her as a child, specifically A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. (Gridley’s father is from Wales.) These early experiences helped her develop an appreciation for the way words sound. She was drawn to the works of poets such as Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins and W. B. Yeats, “who really make language sing.”

Gridley’s path to academia—and to becoming a professor of creative writing—was anything but linear. Though she completed a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in poetry at the University of Montana, she was open to paths that weren’t necessarily academic. After completing her MFA, she moved to Maine, where she worked in a variety of contexts: at a bakery, library, and insurance company, before taking a job on the gardening staff at Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth.

When an opening for what she thought was a one-year, visiting position at Case Western Reserve came up, Gridley had a tough choice to make. Though she loved gardening, she ultimately decided to come to CWRU, thinking she’d return to Maine at the end of the year.

But it’s been nearly 13 years and Gridley is still here, now in a tenured position. A Cleveland native, Gridley said she’s glad she made the choice to come home.

At Case Western Reserve, there is a “very rich intellectual community,” Gridley said, which gives her the opportunity to learn from others in different disciplines such as religious studies and classics, and work with students with wide-ranging academic interests.

“I really like that you get people who completely contradict the idea that you’re either STEM or you’re humanities,” she said. “I see students all the time who are really fluent in different languages—so to speak—like physics and poetry, or whatever it may be.”

Recently, Gridley has been trying to teach her students that the pinnacle of praise for a poet isn’t when someone says “I can relate to that.”

“What I’m hoping to teach students is that literature is a place for meeting difference and sitting with difference,” she said.

When it comes to her own work, Gridley finds inspiration and “catches fire” in watching her students compose their own pieces.

“That sense of being around people who are in the practice is exciting and contagious and inspiring,” she said.

Earlier this year, New Issues Press selected Gridley’s manuscript Insofar for its Green Rose Prize. Forrest Gander, the 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, judged the competition.

“I’m just really excited and honored that he chose it because he’s a poet who’s been a real guide for me,” she said.

In the book, Gridley uses the first sentence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Experience essay—“Where do we find ourselves?”—as a launching point, with a further exploration of scope, relation, proportion and choice.

As the winner of the award, Gridley’s manuscript will be published in 2020, and she will receive $1,000 in prize money, which she intends to donate to the university’s Frederica Ward Memorial Scholarship Fund. The English department created the fund in honor of Frederica Ward, who was a department assistant for more than 17 years before she passed away in 2010. The scholarship recognizes an African-American undergraduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences. Contribute to the fund.

Learn more about Gridley in this week’s five questions.

1. What’s next on your reading list?

  • Deaf Republic (Ilya Kaminsky)
  • The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetic Essays on a Changing Planet (David Carlin and Nicole Walker, eds.)
  • Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversations (CMarie Fuhrman and Dean Rader, eds.)
  • William James’ Hidden Religious Imagination (Jeremy Carrette)

2. Do you consider yourself an early bird or a night owl?

An early bird! My dog has me trained to get up at 5:45 a.m., and I am an obedient human.

3. What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?

I sometimes regret I did not become an arborist.

4. What do you think is the most beautiful spot in Cleveland?

Holden Arboretum.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

That I have more than one favorite thing about Case Western Reserve. For example: colleagues who bring as much care and dedication to their teaching as they do to their research; students who show that a real education is not just knowing how, or knowing that, but is learning in genuine relationship to the human and more than human world. I also love the copper beech tree just beside Clark Hall, and (a recent discovery) the rusty sculpture of Justice with her balancing scales outside the law school. Recently I’ve been reading about the ancient Greek female trinity, Eunomia (Good Order), Dike (Justice), and Eirene (Peace), so it was fun to come across this sculpture on a recent walk.