Failed musician, a best American poet

Stuart Dischell teaching

Failed Musician, Best American Poet

“Remain curious – to life itself, to nature, to the world.” That’s the advice Professor Stuart Dischell, whose work appears in “Best American Poetry 2023,” gives to his students.

The vision of a poet as a hermit living away from everyone else is cliché, he adds. “Poets walk among you.”

For the last 30 years, Dischell has walked among the English students in UNCG’s MFA Writing Program. In that time, he has released six books of poetry with prestigious publishers such as Penguin and the University of Chicago Press, secured two National Endowment for the Arts grants, and won a Pushcart Prize and National Poetry Series award. He also held a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Ledig-Rowohlt international writer’s residency fellowships in Switzerland, and an NC Arts Council fellowship.

Dischell is widely recognized for his astute portrayals of how people interact in their environments. Restaurants or war zones, mountain summits or ships at sea, alleyways or boulevards, each poem’s setting becomes another character in his work.

“The idea of location in poetry is really important to me because it grounds the characters,” Dischell says. “It can clarify or complicate the situation.”

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Work by creative writing professor Stuart Dischell is in 2023’s Best American Poetry, the anthology considered the gold standard for American poets.

In the case of “After the Exhibition” – originally published in the Birmingham Poetry Review and selected for this year’s Best American Poetry anthology – the location is a hotel room. Two characters at odds with one another have just returned after a day touring a city. It’s been raining, and they take their places in different parts of the room.

“I like the idea of a hotel because it’s a blank space,” he says. “The bed itself is like a stage, and the bathroom is off-stage. Because it’s rented, there’s no ownership.”

Despite Dischell’s awards and accolades, he is proudest of the bookshelf in his office, filled with dozens of books by former students. “For them to take great talent and transform it into published books is very gratifying.”

He takes his advice to “be curious” seriously, and believes the best authors are the ones whose inquisitiveness, both natural and honed, propels their careers. “I learn a huge amount from my students – their curiosity and their willingness to learn and go beyond themselves. They have a willingness to read and a dedication and love for what they’re doing.”

Dischell traces his own enthusiasm for poetry back to high school when he began to write and perform songs.

He laughs when he shares that he wasn’t encouraged to dedicate himself to the craft of music.

“As it was put to me, the way I played the guitar and sang wasn’t so good.” But the lyrics resonated with listeners. “So I dedicated myself to the craft of poetry.”

To make art is a life-long commitment, Dischell believes.

“It suits my personality. It suits my way of thinking. For me, poetry has both concision and music.”

Stuart Dischell's "Good Hope Road" cover
Stuart Dischell's "The Lookout Man"
Stuart Dischell's "Andalusian Visions" cover

Dischell’s latest works include “The Lookout Man,” a 2022 book of poetry from University of Chicago Press, and “Andalusian Visions” a 2023 accordion-bound book of poetry and photography with accompanying experimental music from Unicorn Press.

His first book “Good Hope Road,” a 1991 National Poetry Series winner, was rereleased in 2016 as part of Carnegie Mellon University Press’s Classic Contemporary Series.

Story by Robin Sutton Anders
Photography by Jiyoung Park

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