Kelly Cherry, a 1961 alumna of the University of Mary Washington, has been appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell as Virginia’s new poet laureate, succeeding UMW Professor Claudia Emerson. Cherry becomes the third consecutive Virginia poet laureate with Mary Washington ties.
Emerson, a Pulitzer Prize winner and professor of English, held the honorary, two-year position from 2008 to 2010. Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, a 1969 alumna from Mary Washington, served as poet laureate from 2006 to 2008.
Teresa Kennedy, chair of the Department of English, Linguistics and Communication, welcomed the news of Cherry’s selection for the position created to encourage the exchange of arts information and perspectives statewide. “I’m proud that Mary Washington has produced such distinguished alums,” Kennedy said.
Cherry has published 20 books, eight slender volumes known as chapbooks and two translations of classical drama. Her works “run the gamut,” said Cherry, who has published short stories, novels, memoir, essay and criticism, in addition to poetry.
Cherry was the first recipient of the Hanes Poetry Prize for a body of work from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Her short fiction has won three PEN/Syndicated Fiction Awards. Her collection “The Society of Friends: Stories” received the Dictionary of Literary Biography Award for the best volume of short stories published in 1999.
Cherry is a professor emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Cherry taught a range of writing genres, including fiction, nonfiction and poetry. She also taught contemporary American poetry.
She holds a bachelor of arts in philosophy from Mary Washington and a master of fine arts from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She also was a du Pont fellow at the University of Virginia. Cherry has received the Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Mary Washington Alumni Association.
Cherry, who lives in Halifax, Va., said her years as a Virginia resident and as a student of Mary Washington greatly influenced her writing. “Geography is compelling,” she said. “You look out the window and you see what you see. You listen to the language and you hear what you hear. And all of it goes into one’s work.”
Even though Cherry knew she wanted to be a writer, she majored in philosophy at Mary Washington. She published a couple of pieces in a student journal and she had several professors who influenced her writing, including George Van Sant, professor emeritus of philosophy, and Charles Sletten, professor emeritus of sociology. “Dr. Sletten taught theory of sociology and it came close to philosophy,” Cherry said. “That was fascinating. These concerns still turn up in my work.”
One of Cherry’s favorite memories of Mary Washington was the Trinkle Hall library. “I spent many happy hours reading there,” she said. “I loved that we could go into the stacks. I would sit down on the floor and pull books off the shelves and read whatever caught my attention.”