Allison Titus, NEA award winner

English instructor's path to success has been a bumpy one

March 25, 2011

Allison Titus, adjunct English professor, describes her life after college as “a precarious series of office jobs and roommates, supplemented with two graduate MFA programs.”

She forgets to mention the two books and many poems she has had published, and winning a 2011 Literature Fellowship in Creative Writing for her poetry—making her one of 42 poets so honored from around the country.

“I have been lucky, because of the fellowship, to stop working full-time as a temp and to take a part-time position, which will allow me to work part-time and write part-time,” Titus said. “Specifically, I’ll hopefully complete my second book of poems, and start a second novel.”

The $25,000 fellowship is from The National Endowments for the Arts, an independent agency of the federal government. The NEA has awarded more than $54 billion to support artistic and creative excellence around the country.

But things have not always gone in Titus’ favor.

Titus remembers a Style Weekly feature about her in 2007, and how much things have changed since then. She said that when that was written, she was working for Circuit City and on the verge of becoming unemployed, as the economic collapse had already started by then.

“I was laid off a few days after Obama was elected President—I had the most exhilarating Tuesday and the most depressing subsequent Friday—and then began my very long stretch of unemployment,” she said.

“I couldn’t even get a job at the mall during that time (I tried). It was during those defeated days that I applied for the NEA, and by the time I found out the miraculous news that I’d been awarded the fellowship (you apply almost a year in advance), I’d found a steady temp job. So between now and then, almost every single thing in my life has changed for the better.”

These days, Titus teaches a section of the English 200 Introduction to Creative Writing and buries herself in the process of writing—after a day job at The Martin Agency.

“I love to teach (creative writing) because it keeps me thinking about the kind of things one thinks about while immersed in poetry school … which, unfortunately, are the same things that can start to float away from you in the daily land of office nine-to-five,” she said.

Titus’s first book of poetry, “Sum of Every Lost Ship,” received praise from a variety of magazines and reviews, including Ruth Joynton in the “Sycamore Review.”

“Most writers agree that there’s something to be gained by studying other genres,” Joynton wrote, “but generally keep it to that: the studying, rather than the doing. By ‘doing’ I mean strong pursuit: reading and writing extensively beyond one’s own genre. Titus joins a more uncommon than common crowd of writers by creating with an eye for both fiction and poetry, for more than one genre.”

Sandra Beasley also reviewed the book in “Blackbird,” an online journal of literature and the arts. Calling Titus a poet “you ought to be reading,” Beasley wrote that “some of her best work emerges when Titus challenges herself by using factual material to complicate or venture beyond romantic themes.”

Titus’s latest book of poetry, “Instructions from the Narwhale” has received the same high praise. Titus said that the only real difference in the writing process for those two projects is that she wrote the Narwhale series in about a month.

She said that she normally works much slower than that, and the “Sum of Every Lost Ship” came together over about seven years, although she stopped in the middle for maybe two years to work on fiction.

“The process I go through for individual poems, though, involves a lot of walking around and thinking about lines in my head,” Titus said. “And once I think I’ve finished a piece, I wait four months and finish it again.”

Titus is currently working on her second book of poems, based largely on the concept of the office as a literal and imaginative “station”—the framing device for our potential or theoretical identity. She is also working on animal poems, and revising the same novel she’s been “mantling and dismantling for years.”

When asked about her future inspirations and goals, Titus’s answer is very satisfied, and one that you don’t often hear.

“Hopefully this won’t sound obnoxious, but I’m so contented with my present, I’m not really concerned with the horizon of any of it, right now,” she said. “I want to continue to challenge myself to create differently, and authentically, and I’d like to continue to be excited by what’s possible in this world.”