Susan Davis and Words

Courtesy of Susan Davis

With the start of the first quarter of the year comes a new line of teachers for most students. Out of this new batch of teachers, there will inevitably be some whose wisdom will impact students  for far longer than the quarter’s end. If you happen to be enrolled with Susan Davis, you may consider her to be one whose teachings will remain with you for much longer than 10 weeks.

Head of the English Department here at UC Irvine, Susan Davis upholds a career of passing on to her students a passion for the written word and ultimately reminds us why it is that we write.

The respect Davis holds for reading and writing is evident through the line of work she does and the contributions she has made toward the emphasis program.

At an early age, she was exposed to literature, art, music and a sensitive view of the natural world.

“My parents were pastors,” Davis said. “So I was fascinated with and grateful for the people in our lives and how the human mind makes sense of things. How one loves. Poetry is how all that comes together for me. It is the language of the soul.”

When Davis first came to work at UCI in 2001, she and another colleague within the English major worked together to design the creative writing program and breathe life into what had only been an idea at the time. With the supervision of the Chair, the undergraduate committee and the help of Programs in Writing in which graduate teachers were called to serve, intermediate workshops in poetry and fiction were implemented, while already existing courses were adapted to serve the remaining requirements.

In addition to guiding the articulation of some of these courses, Davis arranged a website for undergraduate writers, as well as a forum for discussion that the students could rely on for planning meetings and events, seeking publication and job opportunities and celebrating the successes of fellow English majors.

Throughout the next seven years, she went on to enhance the public profile of the existing New Forum journal and has produced the completion process for the emphasis that is followed today, the highlight of which includes a portfolio of all the creative work of Emphasis students submitted upon graduation.

The intention, as Davis put it, was to “make our presence known.” Most writers here will certainly agree that our place could warrant such interest. Even with UCI being recognized as a top ranking school in the humanities and arts, it’s hard not to feel obscure or out of place in a university that also boasts of a high percentage of science and engineering majors. The ease of finding Bio majors round every dorm or classroom is lost to the writer, along with other conveniences that come with being surrounded by people with a similar focus.

Davis recognized this when she first set out to design the English program. Along with teaching students how to close read and give and receive criticism, students have expressed to Davis that the program provides an “intimacy on a large campus with a small group of writers who understand and share a love of the craft.”

And come graduation time, that bond is celebrated and concluded with “one last fling”- a dinner held toward the end of springtime, where soon-to-be-graduates can say goodbye to one another and read their work in a relaxed setting. It’s a moment many consider a highlight of their career.

One woman, whom Davis recalls had approached her early in her senior year, was surprised to discover this social aspect. At the final dinner, she was tearful, saying the last year was the best part of her time at UCI.

“Working on the journal and having classes with the same group of people helps to develop relationships that outlast graduation. I think that’s important, especially if one continues to write — a lonely and discouraging endeavor,” said Davis.

In  recent years, Davis has made quite a name for herself in the writing field with her award winning poem, “The Season Begins in a Waiting Room,” and the recent publication of her book, “I Was Building Up to Something.”

A collection of poems over the course of 16 years, her book is a reminder to the impatient writer of the value of dedication and persistence.  “The Season Begins in a Waiting Room” received the Rebecca Lard poetry award in 2010.

When discussing how she feels about her present place at UCI, Davis considers it the best job.

“If I had known this job existed before that, I would have dreamed of doing it all my life … I think that’s because ours have the best students anywhere. And that’s not just my opinion. Distinguished writers from all around the country come here and compliment us on the intelligent and thoughtful way our undergraduates ask questions and talk about work.”

So what can prospective writers and curious students expect to see from Davis this fall quarter? To new students, Davis jokingly suggests the same thing she does for voting – “do it soon and do it often.”

“You can’t read too much good work and you can’t learn too much.  Find ways to meet your peers and contribute to one another’s writers’ well-being. And stay with it. If you don’t keep going, you will never know whether or not you can write or how well. You have to commit to it”

As for Davis herself, she is looking into plans for a possible outreach in a South African township for some youth in a poetry workshop, as well as in a writing class in Cambridge. For the moment, however, she is looking forward to the fall quarter and  seeing what new faces will match up on her roster.