Serena Elavia ’14
“Just keep writing” is the theme of Professor Ciaran Berry’s life. In early November, Berry, who is the director of the creative writing program at Trinity and an assistant professor of English, won the prestigious Whiting Writer’s Award for poetry. Since 1985, the award has been given out annually to those whose writing shows great promise. The selection process is top secret; even Berry has no idea who nominated him and his work, and randomly received a call one day in September notifying him of the win. Each year, ten writers in the early stages of their careers are given the award in the fields of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and playwrights. Berry was one of two poets to receive the award. As well, the award comes with a nonrestrictive $50,000 stipend that recipients can use to further their careers as writers. According to Berry, his wife has some ideas for what they can do with the stipend, including becoming home owners, as long as Berry can install a large writing room.
After being notified of the award, Berry attended the awards ceremony on October 23 at the New York Times Center in New York City. He says that winning this award is a very “nice feeling,” and that it is honorable to have his name on the winners list with so many other talented poets and writers. Receiving the Whiting award in the early stages of his career serves as an encouraging force, according to Berry.
A native of Ireland, Berry did his undergraduate work at the University of Ulster, and after graduating, moved back home to work on a novel that he claims was “horrible.” He would write for three hours in the morning, take a walk, and then write for three more hours in the evening. When it was clear that the novel was not going well, Berry realized that poetry was a better outlet for him. “I would have an entire poem, or the workings of one, completely thought out during my walk,” he says about how he eventually realized that his true potential was in poetry. For Berry, writing poetry came naturally to him. Loving poetry from an early age, Berry says that he liked the way that it sounded and he was the only student in class who would get excited when the teacher would assign poetry homework. Like all writers, Berry pulls his inspiration from a variety of sources including lines from other poetry and newspaper clippings, all of which he keeps in large notebooks. His research is neither done in a scholarly nor calculated way, but rather he explores whatever he finds interesting and tries to learn more about what intrigues him. He says that a budding writer will be successful if they “read what inspires them and work at their craft every day.” Those who want to be successful have to practice writing like they are learning to develop a new muscle, and must learn to just put “one word after the other.” If you practice at it, the rest will all fall into place. Berry says that the best writers write for the love of the art, and that writers shouldn’t write with the intention of creating a best-seller. “Whatever you write will find its place in the world,” says Berry.
Before Berry arrived at Trinity in 2009, he received his Masters of Fine Arts at New York University and then taught expository writing at various institutions. During this time, he published a book called “The Sphere of Birds” and applied for creative writing teaching positions, which is how he landed at Trinity.
At Trinity, Berry teaches poetry in a way that demystifies many of the misconceptions about poetry. He says that poetry is not meant to be a sphinx-like riddle, or language that doesn’t make any sense, but instead is a way of explaining the world. To help his students realize this, he tries to discuss poems in class that are relatable and have concrete, decipherable details, and likes to take apart poems by syntax, lines and metaphors. Having small, intimate classes at Trinity allows him to teach poetry in this manner, Berry says. On why he loves teaching here, Berry says “Trinity has a lot of interesting students and it is fascinating to watch them discover something within themselves, catch fire with it and develop it into a passion.” Poetry is more important than most people think, as Berry says that the U.S. wouldn’t be what it is today without poets like Walt Whitman who shaped the national identity and show present day readers what it was like to be a human at a given point in history. For those who think that writing is outdated, Berry begs to differ and says that there may be more writing being done now than ever. With the explosion of social media and blogs, writing is everywhere and constantly surrounds us; despite the advances in radio and television, writing may be at its strongest point ever. With so much writing out there, though, Berry says that people still need to pick out what is good writing.
At Trinity, Berry teaches Intro to Creative Writing, Advanced Creative Writing, and a senior workshop on poetry. Currently, he is on leave, working on his second book, and will return to Trinity in the spring.