Alumni Spotlight: Rodney Terich Leonard '18

February 09, 2021

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

Rodney Terich Leonard '18 was born in Nixburg, Alabama. An Air Force veteran who served during the Gulf War, his society profiles and poems have appeared in Southern Humanities ReviewRed River ReviewThe Huffington PostBOMB MagazineThe Cortland ReviewIndolent Books-What Rough BeastFour Way ReviewThe New York TimesThe Amsterdam NewsThe Village VoiceFor Colored Boys… (anthology edited by Keith Boykin) and other publications. Sweetgum & Lightning is his debut collection of poetry. He holds degrees from The New School, NYU Tisch School of the Arts and Teachers College Columbia University. A Callaloo poetry fellow, he received an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University and currently lives in Manhattan.

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

I chose back-to-back poetry seminars with poet-professor Alan Gilbert. By the time we met for thesis workshop, I was ready to probe into new work and into the landscape (themes, edits & omissions) and architecture (shape, sheen & Afro) of my manuscript. Alan is a selfless teacher and literary encyclopedia. Much in my personal life was rearranged to wholly delve into Columbia’s MFA program. My work schedule and curatorial commitments chose my classes; each class I took had to work.  I worked Alan.  Every student in thesis worked Alan. His rigor and empathy worked me toward a sensible manuscript. Alan is a compass; his steering didn’t end in Dodge Hall. He insisted that I utilize my post-graduation summer to “clear out more of the overgrowth” in The Winter Between Us , my then-title. I partied in Prague, Rio, and Montgomery that summer; I wasn’t thinking about that manuscript or anything poetic. Autumn arrived and Alan gently prodded me to “vastly” submit my manuscript. That, I did do.  Months later, I was inflight when I opened an email from Martha Rhodes, director of Four Way Books; the subject line, in lower caps, read, your terrific book. Joy goes directly to my bladder. I went into the lavatory and sobbed and emailed Alan.  You’ve heard the saying: “ It takes a village.”  I’m my mother’s last child; I believe in villages and village work but I also know how mighty it is to be singularly challenged and nurtured to craft language into poems that adjust us. The notion is tall and marvelous. Thank you, Alan Gilbert, for your constancy. Thank you, Columbia University School of the Arts. Sweetgum & Lightning, my debut collection, arrives on 02/15/21.

What advice would you give to recent graduates?

There is something, perhaps, unusually innate, that guides one into considering an MFA, a laboratory of doubt and possibility. To me, currency and money  have never been play things.  My life-work and commitment to self-betterment qualified Columbia as an ideal intellectual investment.  Succeeding at Columbia meant that I was most interested in students and professors who met me and my scholarship where we were and were not. I didn't claim “side glances” or “maybe” as nutrients for solidifying my writerly practice. I came to the School of the Arts to become a working writer!  I was accepted into the program ripe into my forties;  remember the Sondheim lyric “Losing my timing this late…." Ask yourself, "What does my thirst for advancing as a writer taste like?" Once you know, you know.  And remind yourself that this interrogation is akin to an eclipse.

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