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Seth Michelson MFA '02
Growing up with a congenital hip disease, Seth Michelson was precluded from many of the same activities his friends enjoyed. Poetry, literature, and a passion for language, however, afforded him a creative outlet and a portal for self-expression that helped him adapt to the limitations of his disease.
“I grew up in a wheelchair, so I wasn't allowed to take part in physical education classes. Instead, I was sent to a kindergarten where I read them stories. And that's where I became intoxicated by languages at a very young age, connecting with people as it opened up all sorts of opportunities. I was in a wheelchair and using crutches and having surgery until I was fourteen but I was always writing. It was eight or nine years that I was really restricted, but I always loved books and loved learning and communicating through language.”
Seth double-majored at John’s Hopkins University in Baltimore—in English and in Latin American studies—and taught at an after school literature program. After John’s Hopkins, Seth’s life became a two-pronged affair: a life pulled taut by his desire to both teach and write. He applied to Teach for America and taught in South Central Los Angeles for two years doing what he regards as some of his most fulfilling teaching. But his passion for writing poetry remained undiminished.
“I was always writing poetry, going to workshops in the evening, going to readings. But I felt strained between my poetry life and my teaching, which led me to realize the power of an MFA. I went to a poetry retreat in Mexico and I met up with a [Sarah Lawrence] faculty member and other young writers, new writers.”
The poetry retreat in Mexico solidified Seth’s ambition to pursue writing with greater commitment. It was there that Seth was introduced to the idea of a Sarah Lawrence MFA. As he explored the program, he was seduced by the opportunity of working with a glittering roster of successful writers.
“Faculty: that's what drove me to the writing program at Sarah Lawrence. There were so many estimable writers: Marie Howe and Vijay Seshadri to name just a couple. From my first visit at a prospective student’s meeting, I felt comfortable and welcome. And once in the program, I was never disappointed. All the teachers were tirelessly available—amazingly so. I had a great experience, even to the point that the professors went out of their way to ensure that I was having fun. I worked with truly amazing people who were so focused and gave up a lot of time and energy to all of their students.”
Having numerous ties with emerging writers in other MFA programs, Seth was able to gauge his experience at Sarah Lawrence against those at other noted colleges. He was surprised to find that his experience was quite different than the rest.
“I had friends who went to other famous programs but they didn’t have the same intimate, sustained contact with their writing peers as I had. I had a friend who went to a university of high esteem, possibly the most famous around, who said it was sometimes the case whereby poets would have their work reviewed by their thesis advisor only after submitting it first. In other words, that was the only time that their thesis was reviewed. So, the antithesis was my experience. Those who are looking to explore, who want close guidance, who want subtle, precise, nuanced insights into their writing, word by word, then Sarah Lawrence is the alternative. For me, that’s what I wanted—and that's what I got.”
Unlike his nascent years as a writer when he struggled to find a symbiotic relationship between his artistic and teaching endeavors, Seth manages now to combine both. His latest book, Eyes Like Broken Windows, a collection of poetry, won the International Book Award. He is also the translator of El Ghetto—a book of poetry by the distinguished Argentine poet Tamara Kamenszain. Teaching, however, is still very much a priority in Seth’s life.
“I'm teaching now at USC in LA, where I also earned a PhD in comparative literature.
It all goes back to the difference between Sarah Lawrence and other colleges, and the pedagogical enthusiasm of the Sarah Lawrence faculty. However versed they are intellectually and ideologically, they're all open, available, honest and well-informed professional teachers. It’s informed my teaching in so many ways. When I won the award of professor of the year for my teaching at Adelphi University directly after leaving Sarah Lawrence, I was not only influenced by my Sarah Lawrence mentors, who were great teachers, but also the structure that I transplanted: of writing conferences with my students for all their classes. We go over the writing carefully and I teach them how to think more critically about language. And the students really respond well to the extra effort of setting aside time to look individually at their work. In the student’s evaluations at USC at the end of the semester, the students often remark specifically upon that, how they really appreciate conferencing with the professor. It wasn't something that I had to do inventively, I've just been lucky enough to replicate what I've experienced.”
Not that Seth’s ties with Sarah Lawrence have been severed since his graduation. He has remained in contact with faculty and administration, and returns each year to teach a summer writing workshop.
“One of my closest friends is a fellow student from the MFA program, and I come back every summer to teach at the Summer Writer's Program at Sarah Lawrence. I love it because I get to see again that magical campus with those truly great people. Thanks to Sarah Lawrence, I’m part of a wonderfully supportive community of writers with whom I can exchange work, maintain contacts, have this solidarity and common outlook of living through writing. The support is just so nourishing and helps me live through the harder moments of being a writer.”
By Daniel Ross '13