As she celebrates a career milestone, the new Susan Gager Jackson Professor of Creative Writing, Cathryn Hankla ’80, M.A. ’82, says that throughout Hollins’ changes, one thing has endured: its creative community.
By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11
As a student in the 1970s at Pulaski County High School in Dublin, Virginia, Cathryn Hankla purposefully set the bar high for the college she would attend. “I was looking for a creative community,” she recalls. “I edited the literary magazine, played in the marching band, acted in plays, and took independent studies in photography and filmmaking. Finding that kind of community was important to me.”
After considering universities in Colorado and North Carolina, Hankla focused on the college her sister had graduated from in 1973. “I visited Hollins as a twelve-year-old and attended a reading in the Green Drawing Room. It made a big impression on me. I thought, ‘Oh, what a cool place.’
“So I ended up here and I’m still here,” she laughs, referring not only to earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Hollins but also to what is now a thirty-year teaching and writing career that currently boasts eleven published poetry and fiction titles and a number of prestigious awards, including a PEN Syndicated fiction prize and the James Boatwright III Prize for Poetry.
“Hollins has changed tremendously during that time, but the one constant has been the creative community I was seeking and I’ve tried to make possible for other people,” she explains. “If you’re a writer you’ve got to do your work in solitude, but that doesn’t mean you’re not nurtured enormously by community.”
I don’t write formulaic books. Every time I start something it’s a new experiment.
Whether she’s teaching an introductory or upper-level course, Hankla says her goal is helping students understand writing as a process requiring patience. “It happens in stages—generating ideas, drafting, revising, and editing. You also have to grow yourself spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally in order to write your best stuff. That takes time. You have to be the kind of person who can delay gratification. If you’re not, you won’t stay with it.
“I hope I inspire my students to endure and maintain humility about what that means—not mastering something but remaining a student of it for a lifetime.”
Hankla has written in different genres since an early age, but “my main genre will always be poetry. The flexibility poetry teaches you can translate into other genres—I don’t think prose travels as readily toward poetry as poetry does toward prose. The minute attention to language you need in a poem is useful in all kinds of writing.”
Of shifting back and forth between poetry, short stories, essays, and novels, Hankla says, “For me it’s just a practical matter of finding the right form for what you want to do,” but she emphasizes each new work represents an unprecedented adventure. “I don’t write formulaic books. Every time I start something it’s a new experiment.”
This comfort with a variety of artistic media—in addition to English, Hankla also majored in filmmaking at Hollins—has led her over the past dozen years to paint. She grew up sketching for fun and kept drawing. “I didn’t call myself an artist, I just drew a lot, but [Professor of Art] Nancy Dahlstrom and I taught a class for ten years beginning in the late eighties on bringing writing and drawing together, and that kept my visual life alive.” With artist Ann Glover she’s collaborated on sculpture, winning an award in the Roanoke Sidewalk Art Show. Hankla’s paintings have been juried into national shows and found collectors. She was a runner-up in the 2007 New American Paintings competition, and her work was selected for Studio Visit magazine (2009).
For the past four years, Hankla has directed the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins, spearheading partnerships with the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference and the former independent theatre Studio Roanoke, and devoting significant effort to expanding scholarship support for graduate students. Now she is excited to begin a two-year term as the Susan Gager Jackson Professor of Creative Writing. “The ability to really focus on my teaching and my own work is precious. After what has been essentially a twelve-month administrative calendar, the timing is wonderful.”
Jeff Hodges is director of public relations.
An award-winning writer, Hankla is also a successful painter.