"For most of my career, I haven’t done anything out of the ordinary. I write pretty accessible, straight-forward narrative poems.”
~Professor Isaac Pressnell
But writing and getting poetry published is not an ordinary or easy process, and Pressnell’s success is shining.
“A few years ago I started a collaborative work with a friend from graduate school. We decided to create a poetry project using material that we wrote about each other. The process forced us to give up control of our narratives and rewrite them; to sort of renegotiate our shared past. We exchanged our poems, and then I cut hers into pieces and introduced a secondary text – like a song or another poem – and took snippets of language from that, and then I combined the two. By using language from our present environment and taking apart the other person’s version of what happened, we were rewriting the story with the idea that by doing so we would tell a more honest version. We gave up the subjective control of the narrative. A number of those poems are published in a journal called Carrier Pigeon, in which visual artists were given our work to illustrate without any directives. One of those pieces was also just published in Best American Experimental Writing 2015, the anthology published by Wesleyan University Press.”
This is nowhere near “the ordinary.”
Professor Pressnell has been teaching at Graceland for five years and is sharing his journey, just as all excellent teachers do. The same focus and honesty he gives to his poetry he employs in his teaching and leadership, which was recognized, as Pressnell recently became Graceland’s humanities division chair.
“The best part about teaching is relational,” says Pressnell. “I see the same students in small classes and really get to know them. Teaching involves helping students deepen their understanding of themselves and the world. That’s what I try to foster in my writing classes. I like equipping students with the writing tools, to process and to dig deeper in ways that maybe they haven’t done before.”
The competitive and persistent development of publication is a real-world process that every writer needs to learn. Pressnell’s success in this process spills over to his teaching. He is the faculty advisor for Graceland’s student literary journal, The Vespiary. This was a student project that started three years ago and will continue to be published for years to come because of the generous donor support of James McCullagh in honor of his wife, Cheryl Edwards ’67 McCullagh. It is an annual literary magazine for student writing, and it gives the real-world experience of the entire publication process. There is a student editor who assembles a staff. They advertise for submissions, review and select the pieces for inclusion. They experience the whole production from start to finish, including marketing and launching a publications party with performances.
Pressnell impacts students at the university through service appointments as well. He serves on the curriculum instruction stewardship taskforce committee and the general education committee. The general education committee is charged with overhauling the general education package, which should roll out in 2017-18. “We have put in countless hours coming up with something innovative that will serve our students even better than our current package,” explains Pressnell.
The creativity and intense devotion that Pressnell brings to Graceland was almost diverted. After taking a poetry class his freshman year in college, he changed his direction, leaving a planned and lucrative engineering path for a calling that inspires and feeds his soul. The Graceland family is thankful for his decision to follow the call on a path that is anything but ordinary.