English professor and poet makes poetry accessible to all students
"Poetry is very challenging to teach," said Challender. "Many students have convinced themselves that it’s difficult to understand. They spend all their time looking for hidden meaning and rhyme schemes, but there are so many other more important things about how a poem works. I want my students to focus on re-learning to enjoy how words sound."
Challender, who teaches undergraduate and graduate-level American literature and creative writing courses at Longwood, is the author of five full-length collections of poetry. His manuscript, So Far: New and Selected Poems, was recently selected as a finalist for the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry, sponsored by New Letters and BkMk Press. His most recent collection, As Details Become Available, has been nominated in the poetry category for the 16th Annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards.
Challender came to Longwood 30 years ago, having taught for a brief time at a small college in the Midwest. Raised on a dairy farm in Kansas, it wasn’t until he was a graduate student of English at the University of Oklahoma that he began to seriously write poetry. By then, he had entered several poems in poetry contests, and one had been selected as a finalist. More than anything, the recognition validated poetry writing for Challender, showing him that his hobby might in time become his occupation.
"I now realize that I’ve always read like a writer, and I write like a writer, not a scholar," said Challender, whose poems and reviews have appeared in South Dakota Review, Connecticut Review, Tar River Poetry, The Midwest Quarterly, The Paterson Library Literary Review and Chelsea.
Being a published poet is no easy task. Few publishing houses devote resources to the publication of poetry anymore—it’s a largely unprofitable business. Despite the challenges, two of Challender’s manuscripts have found homes at Pecan Grove Press, a small independent publisher devoted to celebrating poets and inspiring a new generation of readers to fall in love with the genre.
Challender’s poems are, for the most part, narrative—not lyrical—in nature. Many take an autobiographical tone, but it’s not uncommon for him to draw from the biographies of other men and women, dead or alive. One recent poem focuses on the impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir; another is about film noir screen legend Robert Mitchum. His first full-length book, Familiar Things, was heavily influenced by his experiences growing up with a sister who had Down’s syndrome. In his recent book, As Details Become Available, there’s even a poem, Local Time, about Farmville.
In the three decades Challender has spent at Longwood, the Department of English’s creative writing program has blossomed, so he has added more classes to his repertoire, in addition to editing the university’s poetry journal and directing a guest lecture series that brings four writers to campus each year. His classes have names that make you want to pick up a good book: Whitman and His Influence, The Fate of the Narrative and Mythology.
"Students are increasingly interested in taking poetry courses, and they’re very perceptive about what they’re reading," said Challender. "My job is to serve as a catalyst, lowering the anxiety level so that people feel free to discuss poetry. If I do that, then hopefully I’m making poetry accessible to writers and non-writers alike."