Pulitzer-winning poet Rae Amantrout returns to her roots at SF State

Rae Armantrout always knew she wanted to be a poet. From the time she was young and her mother read her poetry from an anthology of children’s poems, she knew what she wanted to do when she grew up. She wrote her first poem when she was 6. However, at the time, she admits she was unaware that there were still any living poets.

“I, of course, found out later that there were poets who were very much alive,” Armantrout laughed.

At UC Berkeley, she studied literature and creative writing and went on to receive her master’s degree in poetry from SF State. Now at 64, Armantrout has published countless poems and two books, winning her the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Critics Award.

Armantrout has returned to campus before to workshop writing with student poets and has done readings downtown.

“It’s fantastic,” said Jason Johnson, 39, who is earning his master’s degree in poetry. “It’s fantastic to see someone who has gained such success returning to their roots.”

And Steve Dickison, who works for the Poetry Center, agrees.

“It’s encouraging to students who are in the same program,” said Dickison about having an alumni who has received such acclaim. Dickison has played a large part in getting Armantrout on campus.

“Her work is very strongly consistent,” Dickison said of her work as a student. “You can track her work back to SF State.”

Armantrout appreciates the time she spent at SF State,  and although creative writing careers aren’t known for their job security, Armantrout wasn’t worried about the job search after graduation.

With San Francisco’s rich literary scene, Armantrout was able to become a published poet and author before moving to San Diego for her husband’s job.

Shortly after moving, a friend of Armantrout suggested she pick up a part time job teaching at UC San Diego.

“The more I worked the more I wormed my way in,” said Armantrout about becoming a professor at UC San Diego. “It took years.”

Armantrout has seen a lot of success since then, including winning a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Award for her book “Versed” in 2010.

She admits that the celebrity of winning two awards caught her off guard and definitely took some getting used to.

“I didn’t expect all the media attention,” Armantrout said. “Poets don’t really get famous the way pop stars do.”

Although she was happy to win the awards, she said that it was coupled with some winner’s guilt.

“You never really feel like you deserve it. I know a lot of poets who are just as good as I am and they didn’t win,” Armantrout said.

Kit Robinson is working with Armantrout on the project “The Grand Piano,” which focuses on poets in the Bay Area in the late 70s. Robinson enjoys working with her because she is easy to work with and he enjoys her poetry.

“Her poetry is mysterious without being mystical,” Robinson said. “She writes short poems about everyday events, but there are gaps in the poems that make them mysterious.”

The creative writing department is looking forward to having Armantrout back on campus, not only because of her skill, but because of the positive impact it will have on campus.

“Seeing any poet is a good experience,” said Maxine Chernoff, the chair of the creative writing department. “It can be inspiring and give hope to students.”

Armantrout sees a lot of students who are skeptical  about studying poetry and creative writing these days, which she attributes to the rough state of the economy.

“People have become very careerist,” Armantrout said. “But I just kind of fell into it, it was lucky.”