Alumni Spotlight: Rita Mercedes '09

September 09, 2014

The Alumni Spotlight is a place to hear from the School of the Arts alumni community about their journeys as artists and creators.

Writing poetry has been a daily practice for Rita Mercedes '09 since 2004. She passed her exams to candidacy for a PhD at Johns Hopkins in 1994; and holds an 2009 MFA in Poetry from the Writing Program, School of the Arts at Columbia. She is raising three intelligent and musically gifted children. The photo is of Rita Mercedes's children in Salzburg, Austria for the 2015 Whitsun music festival.

Was there a specific faculty member or peer who especially inspired you while at the School of the Arts? If so, who and how?

David Plante taught an Experimental Writing course that I enrolled in. (I took every class with him that I could.) He never put on airs or pulled rank, but was modest, and truly respected writing and his writing students. He posed questions in the Experimental course: Do we really need sentences? Can we write without grammar? Has writing gone beyond the necessity of structure? I thought about that for a while.

Since Plante disliked verbal metaphors, and encouraged us to respond "outside the box," I made cookie dough. I didn't bake it, but brought it in raw, in a baggie. I said that using the ingredients of language without structure or grammar was like making cookie dough without baking it: Without structure, there's not much to chew on; there's no "crunch."

He was very pleased, and kept my baggie of cookie dough on his desk for the rest of the term.

The other person I kept close was Richard Howard, who loved writers so much he seemed to know them all personally. His descriptions of their lives were vivid—especially D.H. Lawrence and Lewis Carroll, whose writing he espoused, and whose private lives (no matter how questionable, in Carroll's case) he passionately defended.

Howard not only indulged with great literature and poetry, he also introduced us to Semele, my now favorite opera. Coincidentally, both Plante and Howard played opera in my classes, and made sopranos (somehow) a crucial part of the lyric literary endeavor.

How did attending the School of the Arts impact your work and career as an artist?

I found support for my work and for myself as a person: For many of my instructors, writers and poets are vivid human beings as well as gifted artists. That approach seemed to include us in the great tradition, and expanded the scale of my desk to all of literary history.

If you could revisit any piece you created during your time at the School of the Arts, which would it be? Why?

Oddly enough, I would return to drawings I made in an art class that was my mandatory elective. They turned out to be pretty good, and the instruction was excellent. During that class we were invited to submit work for a show in the Dodge ground floor Neiman Gallery. It was very exciting to see my work displayed in an exhibit with professional artists.

What was your favorite or most memorable class while at the School of the Arts?

I can't chose between D.H. Lawrence with Richard Howard, a travel writing class with Nicholas Christopher, and all the classes I took with Plante.

Read more from the Alumni Spotlight series