Centenary alumna wins acclaim for narrative poetry

Photo credit: Rick Patrick

SHREVEPORT, LA – Centenary alumna Frances Victory Schenkkan ’68 is the author of Mr. Stevens’ Secretary, a poetry collection chosen as a finalist for the 2017 Miller Williams Poetry Prize presented by the University of Arkansas Press. Schenkkan, a lifelong writer but not always a poet, connects the beginning of her literary journey to some formative experiences as an English major at Centenary, including her studies with Dr. Lee Morgan and Dr. Earle Labor and a particularly memorable Chaucer course.

“I was a writer for The Conglomerate and then co-editor, and I was also working for The Shreveport Times in the summer,” explains Schenkkan. “I decided to study journalism at the University of Texas and earned a master’s degree, but didn’t work long in that field.”

For many years, Schenkkan was busy with pursuits that didn’t leave much time for writing at all: raising three children, volunteering at her church, and heading up the city planning commission in her home of Austin, Texas. She did, however, do some contract work in editing and also worked in public information at the University of Texas while her husband was in law school. In 1998, she decided to return to the University of Texas for a second master’s degree in English, and experienced a turning point in her life as a writer.

“I had started writing short stories and thought I might want to write fiction,” says Schenkkan. “It seemed like a good transition from journalism, but one of my professors suggested a poetry class. I loved poetry in college but didn’t write it. Ultimately, I earned the master’s degree with a concentration in poetry.”

Some of the poems eventually published as part of Mr. Stevens’ Secretary were written during this second graduate school period, heavily reshaped by Schenkkan’s meticulous self-editing. She wrote one poem after reading an anecdote about the poet Wallace Stevens and his practice of scribbling poems on his way to work, leaving a secretary to try to interpret and transcribe the words. An editor friend suggested that Schenkkan should pursue her interest in this seemingly minor detail by turning that poem into a longer manuscript. She followed the advice, but chose as the main character not the poet but instead his anonymous secretary – a woman she imagined as struggling with her faith, her marriage, and life in an unfamiliar city.

“I started researching Wallace Stevens and his era, reading letters about his family life, his travels to Florida, his drinking habits,” says Schenkkan. “I also developed another character, a psychiatrist, for the woman. She talks to the psychiatrist about her attraction to Stevens but also her fear of him, even about the way he smelled. The whole process of research and writing took about a year and a half.”

Schenkkan’s work has been praised as “fiercely intelligent.” She has been applauded for her ability to blend fact and fiction in a way that, according to former United States Poet Laureate and Miller Williams Poetry Prize judge Billy Collins, “forces readers to adjust their perspective by showing a great man through the eyes of a previously silent and less visible woman.” Schenkkan cites Collins as an important influence on her own approach to writing poetry, as he has often stressed that poems should not attempt to puzzle the reader but should be accessible and “utterly understandable.”

A focus on accessibility and understanding seems especially well-suited to some of the future projects on Schenkkan’s list, including poems exploring the tragedy of gun violence and the history of the civil rights movement in Shreveport, her hometown. In 2013, Schenkkan helped co-found a non-profit organization, Texas Gun Sense, that advocates for common sense, evidence-based policies to reduce gun injuries and deaths. On the issue of civil rights, Schenkkan has been inspired by the work of two local poets with Centenary connections: Katie Bickham, who has taught past courses in creative writing in the College’s English department, and Shreveport native and award-winning poet Jericho Brown, who gave a reading and lecture to a packed house in Centenary’s Meadows Museum in November 2016.

"Persona poems, written in the voice of an historical figure or someone close to that person, such as this secretary, are one flavor,” explains Schenkkan. “Bickham's The Belle Mar tells the history of a house through individuals who lived there. Prose poems that could just as easily be called short short fiction might tell a story but also might describe the experience of seeing an animal attack another. And poets from other countries are being translated into English more frequently--the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska and Tomas Transtromer from Sweden are two we can easily read now."

In addition to Mr. Stevens’ Secretary, Schenkkan has been a National Poetry Series finalist and has published poems in Southern Review, POOL, and Third Coast. The Miller Williams Poetry Series is edited by Billy Collins and honors Arkansas poet Miller Williams, once described as “the Hank Williams of American poetry” and best known for reading his poem “Of History and Hope” at Bill Clinton’s second  inauguration in 1997. More information and the prize and about Williams is available at uapress.com.