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Felicia Mitchell

Poet, English Professor at Emory & Henry College

Class of 1977
English

Coping with cancer and caring for a parent with dementia would be enough to do anybody in. Not Felicia Mitchell. The poet, professor, and Honors College alumna transformed her grim into great—using her semester-long sabbatical in 2011 for treatment and to work on poems for her first full-length published collection. “Waltzing with Horses,” recently released by Press 53 in Winston-Salem, has won acclaim for the Sumter-born Mitchell, who has taught English and writing at Emory & Henry College in Virginia since 1987.

Reading now: I am currently reading Bern Heinrich’s Winter World. The Ingenuity of Animal Survival and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See.

Favorite movie: I don’t tend to choose favorites. I will say that a favorite from childhood is The Three Lives of Thomasina.

Most recent concert: The last big concert I attended was Rhythm & Roots 2012, Bristol VA/TN, to see Emmylou Harris. 

For fun: I like to hike. I knit all the time, and I enjoy knitting with friends once a week. I laugh more when I am knitting with my friends so that counts as fun.

Good at: I am good at my job (teaching college students and serving the liberal arts at my institution). I am also good at health crises (my own and the crises of others). 

Bad at: I am not the best housekeeper in the world; dust can accumulate, and dishes are not always in their rightful places. I would prefer to sweep than use a vacuum cleaner, but recently I bought a light vacuum cleaner and am awed by what it does to my wood floors (even as I feel a little guilty using electricity to keep my floors clean).

What most people don’t know: Poets are almost open books. At the same time, most people who know me might not know that I take comfort from old-time hymns and like to play them on the piano and sing along. Most people probably don’t know that my alter-ego is a country music singer. The other day when I was hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I began singing “The Long and Winding Road.” It didn’t frighten the birds.

Biggest indulgence: Sometimes I buy shitake mushrooms when they are not on sale. And while I tend to buy clothes at thrift stores or on sale, I buy good shoes when I need shoes. I don’t mind spending money on a good pair of hiking boots.

Greatest fear: A long, drawn-out period of being incapacitated by end-stage cancer and not able to fend for myself (I do have a living will).

How the SCHC prepared you for your future: It gave me the intellectual stimulation to thrive as a student and as a poet. I was allowed to balance creativity with all my academic tasks. Bernie Dunlap, Jim Stiver, Ennis Rees, Bill Mould, James Tate, and many others—including all the Honors students who were in classes with me—helped to shape who I am today. Dunlap encouraged my creativity, allowing me to turn in all sorts of genres rather than traditional essays in his English 102. In my senior seminar, I spent lots of energy taking photographs of trees and writing about trees (to figure out the meaning of life the semester my brother was dying). Stiver noticed early on that I was pathologically shy, sitting an inch from the door and ready to flee, and drew me out so that I began talking in class (and sitting at the front of the room). Tate introduced me to new ideas (existentialism especially) and encouraged my creativity as well, noting once on a French composition (rather than telling me that I was a little off the wall), “You must be the poet of the class.” Tate also introduced me to country music in a course on existentialism. I have been listening to it ever since.   Mould was an advisor and kind enough to hang some of my artwork in the Honors offices.  Rees had us sit around a table and talk about poems in our Norton Anthology (I still have that book). Poets are open to poetry and its possibilities in a way that critics are not always. (I was lucky to have James Dickey for a similar course when I was in graduate school; he celebrated poetry and its possibilities too.) There is a long list of other professors I won’t name, all of whom gave me something. Then there are my classmates. In class and out, we got so much from each other (intellectually, socially, emotionally). I still keep in touch with many friends from Honors.

Go-to places on campus: My first year, these places included the green area, the reflecting pool by Humanities, and the Honors lounge. As I became less shy, Russell House University Union became my second home. I was active in that organization (as a member and officer), and I loved the Union for hanging out (inside and out, especially out back, where I could sit and read). I also spent a good bit of time sitting cross-legged on the grass on a quad between the Humanities buildings and the Horseshoe. The reflecting pool outside the humanities building was a great place to talk to friends as well.

Best memory as an SCHC student: There are many, but I will say that I enjoy telling my students about the time I passed out a square of Saran wrap instead of the usual typed page we would share with each other in a seminar on the literature of war and revolution. I wanted people to think about napalm, and Saran wrap was how I did it. I also recall Kevin Lewis deferring to me one day in a religion class in a discussion on Sylvia Plath. I was the resident Sylvia Plath expert. I’m sure he knew more, but I appreciated the gesture. I will say that I also enjoyed my co-curricular activities, from University Union to Student Government. I was extremely shy when I began college, and over time I learned how to be around people in a range of ways.

Advice for SCHC students: I keep up via “AHA!” and know that they get great advice and support and are doing wonderful things. That said, I will say something simple. Save a few of your textbooks and books to look back over the years. You will grow, and your relationship with these texts will too, even as what you are learning in college is as important as it can be at the time. Also save your papers and comments. Recently I went back and read all the comments on my papers, which I found as important as the papers that I had written. It is fascinating to establish a personal archive that can include both touchstones and guideposts and proof that we grow at the same time we have so much potential already being expressed in different ways.