Cheryl Hopson is an assistant professor of African American Studies at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. She is a poet and essayist specializing in 20th century American and African American literature. She visited UC Clermont on February 14th, 2018 to conduct a writer’s workshop, a Q&A, and a reading of her poetry from Fragile and Black Notes. The workshop took place in Student Services 240 during Professor Reeve’s English composition class, at 9:05 am. The Q&A took place in Snyder 142 at 10:10 am and was attended by Dr. Fetter’s Survey of American Literature II class as well as other students and faculty. The reading and book signing started at 11:15 am. Coffee and danishes were provided to those in attendance.
Dr. Hopson has a bright, personable, and entertaining personality befitting a literature professor. She is passionate about words and feeling; you can hear it when she speaks (and sings). She is a good friend of Dr. Fetters, who introduced Hopson as a “talented, fun, funny, and all-around great person” while also mentioning her accolades and accomplishments, including a PhD from the University of Kentucky.
Cheryl Hopson grew up in Southwest Virginia and spent much of her time in church—specifically, the Pentecostal Holiness Church, which meets five times a week. Dr. Hopson describes her particular experience as almost cult-like. “I was in the holiness world; my life was very small. I didn’t experience a lot beyond that. I didn’t know a lot about the world. … I had very rigid ideas about right and wrong, who was worthy and who wasn’t … [but]once I walked away from that, my world just opened up.”
After taking a college class in world religions, Hopson’s point of view started to shift. “It started to chip away at what I thought. From that point on, I hit the ground running. I started learning about these different world religions, the people that live alongside me, and all these places that I wanted to see.” Ever the literature professor, Hopson relates this to a line in Hawthorne’s The Minister’s Black Veil in which Goodman Brown says, “Faith kept me back a while.”
The poem “Life Calls” from Fragile details her “two-decade” attempt at making up for lost time: “new / faces become my normal, and missing / becomes my every day.” This, she said, made her a more well-rounded person. Mark Twain, who has said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” would agree.
Among the many places Cheryl Hopson has traveled, New York seems to hold a special place in her heart and in her poetry. New York City is mentioned in both Fragile and Black Notes. In “New York City, pre-,” referring to NYC before the attack on 9/11, Hopson descriptively and captivatingly details a memory stuck in time; she reminisces about seeing the Broadway show Rent and clubbing on New Year’s Eve when a drag queen called her “fabulous.” The poem describes a picture from that night in which she is “giving off sexy.”
One student, Kynnedi Frye, liked the line “giving off sexy” because she “had never heard of someone describing their beauty that way.” Hopson responded to Kynnedi by saying, “The poem was a way of celebrating the young girl I was that didn’t know she was fine the way she was … I had to come to the awareness that sexy takes many forms; you can be as I am, a black feminist, and still be sexy. I like that you liked that poem. It made me laugh when I wrote it.”
While “New York City, pre-,” is about happy memories of her youth a month before the attack of 9/11, the poem titled “September 11, 2001” in Fragile aligns with the themes of love and loss present throughout the book. Most of the students present for Cheryl Hopson’s visit were only toddlers when this horrific event took place. She said, “I don’t think we will ever get over that, those of us that are old enough to remember.” The poem is about not being able to look away from the bravery of those who leapt to their deaths rather than dying by fire. “They didn’t want to go alone, so they held hands. And, I thought, My God, to be that brave in the face of that madness. And to say, we can do this together. I thought that was pretty spectacular and said a lot about the human spirit.”
The poems in Fragile resonated with the students who read it because it is about something we all have experienced in some way: love and loss, and healing from that loss. When Cheryl Hopson started writing the poems in Fragile, she was “exhausted and grieving” from the loss of her two sisters. The grief was inevitably her inspiration. “When insomnia hit, I would wake up and write. … Once you go through something like that, it almost becomes an obsession. It’s not that I choose to write about that. When I sit down to write, that is what comes to me. I could be in a situation where I’m ecstatic, and this feeling, grief, will come over me, and I have to write about it. I thought I was writing a book about love, which it is, but it ended up being about the loss of my sisters and recovering from that as much as possible.” Hopson says the poems in Fragile are “as raw as I have ever been with myself,” but it needed to be published because “it is not just me going through this grief.”
Fragile is dedicated to Hopson’s sister, Michelle. It was the women in her family—her mother, sisters, and aunt—who inspired her to write. Her mother and sisters read poetry, so she wanted to be just like them. It was her aunt that handed Hopson her first journal and told her to “write it out.” Ever since the age of ten, Hopson has been writing and drawing inspiration from people and her love of reading. “Ideas come to me because I read poetry all the time, and I read novels all the time, and I read essays all the time. So, I’m always reading because I teach, and I love it.”
Clearly, Dr. Hopson was born to be a poet, professor, and essayist. But, like so many of us, Hopson felt pressured into going into a “practical” career. Her first major was in business. She says, “It was horrible.” Hopson did not enjoy learning about business and found that she didn’t understand it like her classmates did, so she visited the campus career counselor who had her complete the Meyers-Briggs personality test. Her results told her what she already knew: She was creative, loved people, and loved to sing and write. The counselor told her, “I think you’re supposed to be doing something else.”
After freshman year, things got better for Hopson. She found that not only did she love writing, she was good at it. It was this purpose that got Hopson through a difficult time. A week before her dissertation defense was due, she received the news of her sister’s death. Rather than delaying, Hopson continued completing her PhD because she knew that was what her sisters would have wanted. “I knew they wanted me to do it, and be up here doing this.” After completing her doctorate, Hopson felt she could finally grieve, and from that, the beautiful poetry in Fragile was written.
Frequently, students are afraid to pursue a career that they are passionate about. Hopson encouraged students to pursue a career in writing despite the stereotype that it is not practical. “If you are smart and you can write, you can get a job anywhere.” She told the students in Professor Reeves and Dr. Fetters class that “being here is really a gift and a privilege. So, I hope you take advantage of the resources you have. I went to school with Dr. Fetters and I know how great a professor and person she is, and I’ve spent some time with Phoebe. Not only are they great professors, but they are also great thinkers and scholars. So, tap into that.”
However, Hopson admits that completing a master’s degree is not easy, and neither is writing in hopes of publication. In fact, Hopson joked that before obtaining one’s PhD, “First they have to destroy you.” Through her grief, Hopson found courage again to write and face rejection. “Any question of ability went away,” she told herself. “You made it this far; you survived. What do you have to fear?”
Professor Reeves told her class to take advantage of “the opportunity to ask questions to someone who does what I force you to do voluntarily and successfully.” Hopson responded to these questions with the passion and empathy of a devoted English professor. She is inspired by “looking out at my students and seeing new life—the possibility of something more. You all have these lives that you walk in now that are just going to continue to expand.”
In Fragile, the poem “Skirting Demons” mentions the narrator’s younger-self: “a dark eyed / black girl… / waving into the future.” If the students who attended Cheryl Hopson’s talks gained anything from the discussion, I hope it is to not be afraid of what the future brings. Dr. Hopson conveyed to her audience that even though “life is tough” and “knocks you down constantly,” you can still find beauty in this world and hope for a brighter future.
Students, wave into the future; go after a career you are passionate about. What do you have to fear?