When Madison Whatley was considering colleges, she knew she wanted to study English and literature as an undergraduate, and was drawn by the positive experiences a cousin had with campus life at Saint Leo and the Honors Program.

Since then, Whatley, 22, has made academic and creative strides she would not have imagined four years ago. Not only is she the first person from her immediate family to graduate from college, she has emerged as a published author with an impressive 15 poems published or soon to be published in forthcoming publications (plus three that are being reprinted in new publications). She has also been accepted into graduate school to continue her studies in writing.

April, which is National Poetry Month, is the perfect time to celebrate such accomplishments and Saint Leo has found a way to do so.  

Although the COVID-19 virus has resulted in the cancellation of group events, Whatley was able to read some of her work live during a teleconference organized for Saint Leo student writers, faculty, and invited alumni. Whatley has also met other writers and literary scholars in broader venues through Saint Leo. Prior to the emergence of the virus, she served as the president of the campus chapter of the Sigma Tau Delta English honor society and as the Southern states regional representative to the national organization, which allowed her to attend larger conventions and meetings and share a literary research paper, another of her interests.

Whatley has been able to explore all kinds of writing as an English major, from student campus journalism to podcasting, blogging, and fiction. But poetry is special to her, she wrote in a recent email. "I love poetry because it's like a puzzle," she explained. "I try to use unique and beautiful words to tell stories in a less conventional way than fiction. I want to create pretty imagery and evoke a lot of emotion, but I also try to do that in as few lines as I can. Poetry is more rewarding than fiction because I love the revision process, and fiction is not as noticeably changed by shifts in word choice and punctuation as is poetry."

Broad Circle of Support

Whatley was inspired to try the art form while taking an advanced literature course called Contemporary Literary Winners. It was taught by Dr. Anne Barngrover, who is also a poet and has read on campus from her published works. Whatley said the class made life as a writer an attainable idea. It exposed her to "what people are writing about in our time. I think it helped me see that there are living poets, and that I could be one of them. I was really in awe of how brave and honest modern poetry is."

At first during the course, Barngrover assigned the students to write about the literature they had been reading. Then the professor asked students to write creative works of their own. That got Whatley started, and she asked Barngrover to mentor her on a larger project. "She approached me to set up an Honors (Program) thesis project last fall," Barngrover said, "where she and I met once a week as she analyzed eight books of contemporary poetry and wrote a chapbook comprised of original, polished poems, several of which she presented to the campus community."

The department overall has provided a nurturing atmosphere, Whatley said. Classes in the English major tend to be small, and students encourage one another to improve, even outside the classroom, she said. Faculty have encouraged her in many ways, individually, in internships, and sometimes with some fun flair. "When I got my first poem published last year, our chair Dr. (Chantelle) MacPhee, gave me a certificate signed by all of the faculty in our department and a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda. We have a great community." She said she has enjoyed many positive learning experiences with faculty including Gianna Russo, Dr. Allyson Marino, Dr. B. Lee Hobbs, Dr. Patrick Crerand, Dr. Christopher Friend, Dr. Kathryn Duncan, and Dr. Christopher Friend across a wide range of courses.

Writers' Work Ethic

In turn, the faculty appreciate how eager Whatley has been to learn and succeed, in spite of the fact that until recently, she held down a full-time waitressing job.

Whatley is both hard working and proactive, Barngrover said. "I always tell my creative writing students at both the undergraduate and the graduate level: No one is going to knock down your door begging to publish your novel, memoir, or poetry. You must create your own luck. Very early on, Madison actively sought out publication opportunities in both local contests and national literary journals."

Barngrover added that, "Most importantly, Madison reads and studies poetry on her own time. She looks for new books and voices and even listens to poetry podcasts, all the time working to immerse herself into the contemporary writing world. As students are probably sick of hearing me say, my motto is, 'Read five times more than you write.' It's the common denominator of all successful writers who I know."   

Whatley's particular talents are on display in the imagery and language she creates in her poems, Barngrover said. For instance, the poet describes herself as having "magnolia branch arms" in "The Last Cup of Vegan Ramen" and titled another poem "Self-Portrait as a Spider."

Some of her works are set in a South Florida beach town where Whatley grew up and others in places she has lived since. Several reflect on what she has seen of grief, addiction, family relationships, differences in social classes, and unhealthy romantic relationships from the perspective of someone growing in maturity and independence. The themes of growth or leaving are evident in some titles, such as "I Want to Create Something Else" and "I used to hold you."

Whatley explains why she likes one particular aunt so much in "Sunshine of the Gaels," which was published in journal called Sheila-Na-Gig online for both established and new poets.

"Her poems are humorous and accessible, but most crucially, she's interested in clarity and truth-telling," Barngrover said.