November 18, 2002

Spotlight on: Alice Fulton MFA '82

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Prof. Alice Fulton MFA ’82 is helping to bring prestige and popularity to the University’s English department. The poet’s most recent book, Felt, has been awarded the 2002 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry by the Library of Congress. This biennial prize awards the recipient $10,000 and is given on behalf of the nation to the most preeminent book of poetry published in the preceding two years.

Because she “had no idea the book had been nominated,” Fulton was surprised that she won the Bobbitt Prize. Yet, her first thoughts after finding out that she won were memories of her earlier days at Cornell.

“The first thing I thought was that Archie Ammons had won this prize, and that made it more meaningful to me,” said Fulton. Ammons was one of Fulton’s most beloved English professors at Cornell and Fulton’s office in Goldwin Smith Hall is the same one from which he used to work. Ammons died in 2001.

From her Cornell office, Fulton realizes that a book of poetry will not necessarily become widely popular. “Poetry is never a bestseller, but it can have a life anyway” without popular culture’s fanfare, Fulton said. The impact of a book of poetry is through the audience it does reach, she added.

According to Fulton, just as the “Butterfly Effect” demonstrates how the effect of a butterfly waving its wings in New York could become a monsoon in the Pacific under the right circumstances, so her work could be profoundly effective if it reaches the mind of one person who becomes empowered and fights for a greater cause.

The receipt of this award and others like it provides Fulton — and authors of poetry in general — with the opportunity to reach a wider audience. Felt was chosen by The Los Angeles Times as one of the Best Books of 2001 and as a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Award in Poetry.

In her work, Fulton expresses her own concern to better express her passion.

“I try to find what matters to me before writing,” she said. Her deepest issues are cruelty, suffering and justice.

“I want things to be fair. I want the world to be just, though I know it never will be. We can fight to make it more just than it would have been had we not raised our voices,” she said.

Fulton extends her view of expression beyond the realm of poetry. “I think writing is important. All writing is testimony. It’s not just self-expression,” she said.

Through the expression and receipt of writing, Fulton believes in the profound interconnection between all humans. In Felt, Fulton emphasized this interconnectedness by appealing to the common experience of human emotion.

“For many years, I thought that to focus on feeling would be too manipulative. But while writing this book, I decided to think about emotion and make it part of my subject,” Fulton said.

The title itself also played a key part in Fulton’s goal. Not only is “felt” the past tense of “feel,” Fulton said that, “Felt is made by twisting fibers together. This became a metaphor for the interconnectedness of humans, animals and planet.”

Readers often struggle with emotions that exist between two feelings, but for which there exists no one word. The beauty of poetry is that it can enable people to feel emotions there is no word for. “Poetry is very much about how a thing is said,” Fulton said.

In poems such as “About Music for Bone and Membrane Instrument,” Fulton writes about an almost ever-present network of connection between words, meanings and life. In this poem, she describes the metamorphosis of a paper fan into a celebrity devotee — a human fan. She constantly plays on the qualities of both as one blends into, molds and becomes the other.

“Creating the inner life of a fan wasn’t too much of a stretch because I’m a fan myself,” she said.

Lofty goals aside, Fulton remains a grounded individual and poet. She believes she has her mother to thank for it.

“My mother has a way of telling me to get more real and stop talking like a college professor. I wanted her diction and language and advice to be part of a poem too — so that alongside high reverence, the sublime, is common sense,” she said.

Fulton reminds herself of the need for humor in poetry, just as it is needed in everyday life. “I also try to laugh at myself because I’m absurd. We all are. You have to laugh at yourself because otherwise, well, you’d be an ass,” she said.

Fulton’s ability to encompass feeling, connection, sublime and common in her work is an accomplishment praised by her colleagues.

“This commitment to fertile interactions among and across fields has made Prof. Fulton a special resource for faculty and students in English, as we try to imagine new conjunctions between creative and critical work,” said Prof. Laura Brown, chair of the English department.

To emphasize Fulton’s cross-disciplinary perspective, Brown said that Fulton is currently teaching a course on “Science and Poetry” and has also studied and written about feminist theory, environmental science, Emily Dickinson and the little-known seventeenth century poet Margaret Cavendish.

Fulton hopes that the prize, which she will formally receive on Dec. 5, will remind the community of the importance of English and the arts. “It’s largely up to the universities to keep the arts alive. Yet, at the moment, universities are much more interested in funding the sciences,” Fulton said.

Still Cornell does take pride in the work of artists like Fulton.

“We are proud of her accomplishments, and we are especially excited by the possibilities she provides for us as a model of the creative intellectual,” Brown said.

Fulton’s reflection on Felt demonstrates her own opinion of what is important in the making of a creative piece. “I hope it’s a strange book. Good strange,” she said with a smile.

Archived article by Liz Goulding