TASIS The American School in Switzerland was honored to welcome celebrated poet and former faculty member Kiki Petrosino to campus on September 19–20 in the third installment of the Linda Buchanan Poet in Residence program.
The Creative Writing Program Director and a Professor of Poetry at the University of Virginia, Professor Petrosino is the author of four acclaimed poetry collections—Fort Red Border (2009), Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013), Witch Wife (2017), and White Blood: a Lyric of Virginia (2020)—and her memoir, Bright, was recently published by Sarabande Books. She is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Fellowship in Creative Writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, the UNT Rilke Prize, and the Spalding Prize, among other honors. She holds graduate degrees from the University of Chicago and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and taught English and Italian at TASIS from 2001–2003.
Over the course of her two-day visit, which was organized by High School English Department Chair Dr. Chris Love and run under the auspices of the English Department, Professor Petrosino visited Mr. Greg Kaskan’s IB Language and Literature II class, Mr. Marcello Racchini’s IB Italian Language and Literature I and Pre-IB Italian classes, Dr. Love’s Honors World Literature and IB English A Literature 1 classes, and two of Ms. Carolyn Rosenberger’s IB English A Literature 2 classes.
She read several of her poems in class, some of which students had already analyzed and either written about or translated into their native languages, which made for more robust discussions. Students were delighted to share some of their analysis with Professor Petrosino, and she was happy to answer questions about her work and explain the reasoning behind the techniques she often employs, such as relying upon repetition or enjambment to achieve her desired effect.
Dr. Petrosino also discussed why she prefers poetry as her medium, as each word is carefully selected, sequenced, and put on the page with the goal of evoking an emotional response from the reader. She understands that there will be variation in how her readers engage with each poem, and she is perfectly okay with that. She noted that while some poets write for a specific audience, she doesn’t. She invites any reader to encounter her work and hopes they come to it with a certain openness. The ideal reader is someone who is willing to come along for the ride and who will read the whole book of poems to experience the entirety of the journey.
On the evening of September 19, more than 30 students and faculty members piled into the Casa Fleming living room for a special Poetry Reading and Celebration event in which Dr. Petrosino recited six poems from Witch Wife, which was included in The New York TImes’ list of the best books of poetry published in 2017. She then answered a number of questions about her writing process before sharing the following pearls of wisdom when asked what advice she would give to an aspiring young writer:
- Develop a regular writing practice and always carry a small notebook so that you can jot down notes when inspiration strikes.
- Learn another language if you haven’t already, as it keeps your mind flexible and allows you to think more creatively.
- Speak with your parents and grandparents about their lives and learn as much about their experiences as you can. Don’t wait until it’s too late to collect their stories.
The audience members then surprised their guest by bringing her to the Palmer Cultural Center under a false pretense. Little did Professor Petrosino know that Caroline Titland ’24 (vocals) and Navid Underwood '24 (piano) were there and ready to perform an incredible musical rendition of her poem “Pastoral”!
By Kiki Petrosino
Where did it start? In a city of gardens & muck.
Red-orange light on my legs. Oh, wow—
where insects jumped in starry arcs. My body
I wore so many clothes. Cotton, cotton, wool.
no one saw how we blazed into poppies.
Now, I blister up from bed. My love
to itch. You jostle & fight, scrambling
“That was absolutely amazing and a complete surprise to me,” said Professor Petrosino. “When the first note sounded and the house lights dimmed, I couldn’t believe what was actually happening before my eyes. The music was so beautiful, the piano instrumentation was just transporting, and Caroline’s voice was wonderful and so resonant. I had not dreamed of having that poem arranged musically, and it allowed me to actually hear the poem in a bit of a different way. I really loved it, and I’m very thankful and delighted.”
Dr. Love, who arranged a dinner in Montagnola for a small group of students and faculty members on the evening of September 20 to cap Professor Petrosino’s visit, was very pleased with how the two days went.
“It was a true pleasure and honor to host Professor Petrosino this week,” he said. “After a three-year hiatus due to COVID, the English Department was finally able to run the Poetry in Residence again, and it was wonderful to see Professor Petrosino share her poetry, passion, experiences, and perspectives with our students. To know that Professor Petrosino once taught in the English Department here made the visit all the more special. Her conversations with faculty and students offered an essential reminder that literature is a living art and an art that remains fundamental to a well-lived life. After her visit, many students told me that Professor Petrosino’s visit inspired them to see the urgency of poetry and write creatively themselves.”
Professor Petrosino, who had not returned to TASIS since 2003, talked about how fortunate she felt to return to the place where her teaching career started and said that TASIS still appears in her dreams on a regular basis:
"It’s been really wonderful to come back," she said. "I think about this place all the time. I have dreams where I’m here. I think because it was my first job after finishing university, it occupied this turning point where I began to professionalize as a teacher and also as a writer. When you’re a teacher-in-residence here, you spend so much time with your fellow faculty and also with students. This was a place where I had my very first experiences collaborating with colleagues and making friends with people that I worked with, and those are the values and aspirations I’ve had in every workplace after this one. It didn’t seem strange to me after I left TASIS to be working in a place and have colleagues that would also become friends. That was something that I knew to seek out and value. And it was such an intense working environment here that I think it primed me for all these other professional opportunities and challenges. It was a really great place for me to start my career. Being back has been like returning to a place where I started—only now with all the knowledge and experience I’ve been able to gather over the course of nearly 20 years. It’s been wonderful to share what I know now in this place where I started out as a teacher."
And what is Professor Petrosino’s impression of TASIS students after being away from the school for nearly 20 years?
"TASIS students have always been really wonderful," she said. "They are energetic and enthusiastic, they’re highly intelligent, and they’re really proficient across languages and across cultures. The students I’m seeing now totally line up with my memory of the students I taught at TASIS many years ago. It’s been a wonderful reminder to be walking around campus and hearing the students speaking different languages to one another. And I know this has always been a place where students interact across cultures and that these learning experiences that take place outside the classroom are always something that this community cultivates. I feel as impressed by TASIS students as ever."
Linda Buchanan Jacob Memorial Fund
The Linda Buchanan Jacob Memorial Fund was established in 2015 by the family of Linda Buchanan Jacob ’66, who fell in love with poetry while at TASIS during her sophomore and senior years. After Linda’s passing in September 2014, her family (including her sister and fellow TASIS alumna Nancy Buchanan McLoughlin ’64) made a generous gift of $100,000 to establish the fund, which aims to inspire TASIS students to share Linda’s passion for poetry by providing support for a biennial poet-in-residence program.