#VaReads Writer of the Week: Leona Sevick

Welcome back to the #VaReads blog series from the Virginia Center for the Book, in which we highlight the work of one Virginia writer roughly each week. This week’s spotlight is on Leona Sevick, winner of the 2017 Press 53 Poetry Award for her first full-length book of poems, Lion Brothers

How did you get your start as a writer?

While most people wouldn’t find a career shift from literary critic to poet to be a dramatic one, it was for me. I was trained as a literary scholar, and I’d been studying and writing about Willa Cather for about nine years when I began writing poetry. Before this moment, the thought of writing poetry never occurred to me, even though in grad school I envied the MFA students who went about the world with their thoughts and slim notebooks while I lugged heavy tomes from the library to my car to my apartment. Still, I never imagined myself writing original work, even though I was feeling little inspiration in the writing work I was engaging in.

In 2009, when I was working as an academic administrator and teaching literature, I sat down and wrote a poem about my immigrant mother. It was hard work, and I had not a clue what I was doing, but it was also among the most satisfying experiences of my life. I continued to write, mostly for myself, and at the urging of my friend who directs the creative writing program at the college where I worked, I started sending work out to journals and applying for workshops. In 2012, Naomi Shihab Nye chose my poem, “White,” as the winner of the Split This Rock poetry contest. I realized that other people connected with my poems, and I was hooked.

Describe your work in three sentences or less.

My poems take a good, hard look at the impossible work of being a member of a family in this vexed world. The work is messy and full of alternating periods of deep disappointment and unfathomable joy. I write poems about human failure and redemption.

How does living in Virginia influence your writing?

I moved to Virginia a year ago for my work, and except for the year and a half when I studied abroad, I have never lived anywhere but Maryland. For the last twenty years of my life, I’ve lived a stone’s throw from my entire extended family. It’s been a disorienting experience, moving. I live in a small town, and when people ask me how I’m adjusting to my new home, I say that I’m used to living in a small town—just not this small town. It’s hard to start over.

What’s your favorite part of your most recent book?

My favorite part of my recent book are the poems about my son. In his recent book, Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder reminds us that good poems are about the things we can never fully understand. I once thought that I knew my son, now a teenager, better than I knew myself. Life experience has taught me that this notion is utterly false. We can never know what’s in a another person’s heart—even the people we love the most.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on a book about houses. I never realized what a profound effect houses had on people—on me—until I packed up and left the one my husband and I designed and built and thought we would live in forever. I think about it every day, and what one thinks about every day is what one ends up writing about.

To learn more about Leona Sevick, visit his/her website at leonasevick.com.

Through this series, we hope to showcase the depth and breadth of our state-wide literary community while also encouraging readers in the Commonwealth and elsewhere to challenge themselves to read more books by Virginia writers. If you have an author you’d like to suggest for this series, please email sdlawson@virginia.edu with details. Our focus is on writers with books that have been published in the past two years (self-published is welcome as long as the writer’s most recent book is held in at least one public library in the state).