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Sheryl St. Germain - November 2018

Sheryl St. Germain

Poet and essayist Sheryl St. Germain is the recipient of the 2018 Louisiana Writer Award given annually to recognize outstanding contributions to Louisiana's literary and intellectual life exemplified by a living writer's body of work. St. Germain is the nineteenth recipient of the annual award given by the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana.

“The best literature has the ability to connect with readers in a way that allows us to build empathy and to see the world—if only for a moment, an hour, an afternoon –through someone else’s eyes,” says Rebecca Hamilton, State Librarian of Louisiana. “Sheryl St. Germain’s poems and essays not only do this, but they inspire, too. Her work is as perfectly crafted as it is humane. Lucky for all of us, St. Germain is a Louisiana native, and we receive the gift of her insight and descriptions of our shared home. In the title poem of her collection Going Home, St. Germain describes what Louisiana means to her, capturing our food, our ecology, our language, and our culture in a way that is both familiar and fresh, a way that is ‘slow, deliberate, and magnificent.’ It is impossible to read a piece of St. Germain’s work without walking away a little changed, a little better than you were before.”

“Louisiana is always front and center in Sheryl’s poetry and essays, and her voice is distinctive, bringing that fierce intelligence of hers to bear on such pressing issues as addiction and environmental losses,” says Susan Larson, host of WWNO’s The Reading Life. “She is someone I see in the great continuum of Louisiana literature, taught by great Louisiana writers, fashioning her own style and vision, and passing on her wisdom to her students. She is a true Louisiana writer, through and through.”

Poet Darrell Bourque, former Louisiana Poet Laureate and the 2014 Louisiana Writer Award recipient, adds, “Sheryl has dedicated her professional life to helping others find their way into the writer's life: the incarcerated, the addicted, the homeless, the wanderers, with special emphasis to abused and abandoned women.”

Sheryl’s family roots in Louisiana are deep, going back over two hundred years.  Her earliest maternal ancestors, immigrants from France and Italy, worked a small orange plantation in Buras for many years before moving to New Orleans to run a grocery store in the French Quarter. Her father’s family was of mixed Cajun and Creole descent, hailing from Ville Platte on her grandmother’s side, and Jamaica and France on the grandfather’s side.  Born in New Orleans, Sheryl spent most of her life as a child and young adult in Kenner, where her family moved when she was five, and where her mother still lives. She attended Southeastern Louisiana University, studying creative writing with Tim Gautreaux.  After graduating with her BA in English, she moved to Dallas, Texas, where she completed her MA and PhD in Humanities at The University of Texas at Dallas, and published her first poetry books.  Her first full-time teaching position was as a professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Sheryl's poetry books include the chapbooks Going Home and The Mask of Medusa, and the full-length poetry collections Making Bread at Midnight, How Heavy the Breath of God, The Journals of Scheherazade, Let It Be a Dark Roux: New and Selected Poems, and most recently The Small Door of Your Death. She has also published Je Suis Cadien, a chapbook of translations of the Cajun poet Jean Arceneaux.

Of her poetry, Edward Hirsch writes:

“Sheryl St. Germain’s fiery, sensuous, harrowing poems of longing and grief burn with knowledge of the American night.  I admire her relentless determination to witness and understand, her brave willingness to follow the truth wherever it leads, her searing discoveries, and, above all, her emotional courage.”

Sheryl’s son, Gray, died in 2014 of a drug overdose.  Over the years she has written several poems and essays about her son’s struggles, and her own attempts to mother him and heal; but the poems from her latest poetry collection all chronicle those struggles and his death.  Of The Small Door of Your Death, Tim Seibles writes:

“In Sheryl St. Germain’s new collection, we find ourselves enthralled by one woman’s attempt to look straight into the eyes of Loss without blinking—to speak, without stuttering, grief’s true name—a name none of us wants to know, though we always listen for its inevitable approach. St. Germain’s work teaches us how to talk back, how to talk through the intimate agonies that, in many ways, define what it means to be human now.  Muriel Rukeyser said poetry cannot save us, but it is the kind of thing that could.  I think this book is proof of that.”

Sheryl also published two memoirs, Swamp Songs: The Making of an Unruly Woman, and Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair (Louisiana Literature Press), both of which focus on growing up in Louisiana and her continuing connection with the landscape and culture of south Louisiana. Of Swamp Songs, Tim Gautreaux writes “Swamp Songs rings with intelligence and heart. The essays put us in touch with a place and time in a way wholly original, poetic, and precise.  St. Germain’s love for Louisiana winds its way through every paragraph like that indestructible wisteria in her mother’s backyard.”

 Of Navigating Disaster, Darrell Bourque wrote “It is Sheryl St. Germain’s voice that will finally get you.  Hers is a voice of a master singer, one trained in the ancient ways of telling a story, and one fiercely contemporary.”

Sheryl also co-edited two anthologies, Between Song and Story:  Essays for the 21st Century (with Margaret Whitford) and Words Without Walls: Writers on Addiction, Violence, and Incarceration (with Sarah Shotland).

A collection of essays, Fifty Miles, is forthcoming in Spring 2020. The book is a companion to The Small Door of Your Death in that it addresses in wider and deeper ways the issues of addiction and recovery.  Of the forthcoming book, Barbara Hurd writes:  "These heart-breaking, candid and beautifully crafted essays reach beyond the death of a child. They examine the difficult work of surviving the aftermath. What St. Germain offers is not just her story, but the broader wisdom of distilling grief’s many voices. In so doing, she remains an artist of the highest order."

Sheryl has taught creative writing at The University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Knox College, and Iowa State University. Her work has received many awards, including two NEA Fellowships, an NEH Fellowship, the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, the Ki Davis Award from the Aspen Writers Foundation, and the William Faulkner Award for the personal essay. 

She directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University where she also teaches poetry and creative nonfiction. She is the co-founder and director of the Words Without Walls Program, which offers creative writing courses to those incarcerated in the Allegheny County Jail and also to inhabitants of Sojourner House, a rehabilitation facility for women with children. She most recently founded the Maenad Fellowship Program, which brings together women who have gone through recovery and wish to continue a writing process to participate in master creative writing courses. The program pays a stipend as well as transportation and childcare and has been funded by Staunton Farm Foundation and The Opportunity Fund.

Sheryl lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, photographer and journalist Teake Zuidema, and returns often to Louisiana to visit family and friends, and, of course, to attend the annual Louisiana Book Festival.