Sapphire in the Rough

Sapphire, a critically acclaimed author and poet, discussed her controversial work and emphasized the importance of poetry Monday at a special reading in Council Hall.

Sapphire, whose real name is Ramona Lofton, read several works ranging from so-called “found” poems to sonnets. During her reading, the Brooklyn College graduate and current professor said that aspiring writers should attempt to have their pieces published, regardless of whether or not the publication is mainstream.

“I am a big advocate of students publishing,” Sapphire said. “If you’re writing, you don’t wait for the gig or the big moment; you publish where or when you can.”

The author, who has performed her work and taught literature workshops around the country, has had her work translated into 11 languages.

Sapphire, born on the Fort Ord military base in California, became a staple in the literary world after her first anthology of poems, American Dreams, was published in 1994. Shortly thereafter, her novel Push, a tale of an illiterate girl who is victim of incest and abuse, in 1996 won the Stephen Crane Award, which recognizes “an outstanding first work of fiction in the English language.”

When asked whether she has a preference for prose or poetry, Sapphire said that the two are very different things.

“I’m at the end of another novel now,” she said. “But there isn’t a day that doesn’t go by that I don’t write.

“With Push, I began [writing] in graduate school,” she said. “It was an intense situation. The book was short because I kept wanting it to be over. But the part about the novel that I like is not only getting into a character, but taking the 26 letters of the alphabet and making something of it.”

Sapphire did indicate, however, that poetry allows her to create a world in which she can set up her idea of others’ thoughts.
“Even when a person creates what they are calling ‘autobiographical poetry’ they all have that element of fiction to me,” Sapphire said. “Things that [have] struck me are put in [to my work].”

Sapphire was asked to perform a special reading for students and faculty after a former adjunct English professor suggested Sapphire as a guest speaker. The reading was co-sponsored by the English department and the University Library.

“Her work is very topical, controversial and funny,” said Arthur Sherman, acquisition coordinator for the library. “It’s very ‘in-your-face.'”

Sapphire also read her poem “Sweet Angelica Dreams,” a three-part poem about her sister. Her poetry, which has been described as raw and moving, got the same reaction from faculty and students.

“I think poetry is a good outlet [for people] to express their emotions,” said senior criminal justice major Nerlynda Beauzile. “I haven’t read her poetry before this, but I have read her novel Push. What I loved about it is how she placed herself into the character as opposed to just describing.”

As part of the Library Programming Group, Sherman also explained that the library enjoys pushing the envelope with special guest speakers.

Sherman added that St. John’s students can expect more keynote speakers, featuring lecturers on crime in New York City and other authors.