Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
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Pilot's daughter

Poet and author (and Wheaton alumna) reads from her work

Award-winning poet and author Gardner McFall, a Class of 1974 Wheaton graduate, will come to campus on Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 5 p.m. to give a poetry reading for students. The event is open to the campus community as well as the public.

She will read from her new collection of poems Russian Tortoise in Ellison Lecture Hall in Watson Fine Arts. McFall’s first book of poetry, The Pilot’s Daughter, is the inspiration for a libretto that Seattle Opera commissioned her to write. The libretto is based on the profound effect that losing her father as a child has had on her entire life. Her Navy pilot father's plane went down over the Pacific on a foggy night in December 1966. He was readying his squadron for a second tour of duty in Vietnam. His body was never recovered.

The opera company commissioned McFall to write the libretto for the two-hour American opera Amelia, which has flight as a theme and is believed to be the first opera to deal with the Vietnam War experience. It will have its world premiere in Seattle in May 2010. The University of Washington Press will commercially publish McFall's libretto as a book, which is seldom done, according to Marilyn Trueblood, press managing editor. This is the first time since 1983 that Seattle Opera has commissioned an opera. And this is the first libretto that McFall has written.

In addition to The Pilot’s Daughter, she is the author of two children's books, Jonathan's Cloud (Harper & Row) and Naming the Animals (Viking). She also is an adjunct associate professor at Hunter College. A French major at Wheaton, she has a master's degree in writing from The John Hopkins University, and a doctorate in poetics and modern British literature from New York University.

McFall said that Russian Tortoise represents eight years of work. “It is divided into four sections, dealing with my mother’s death, the larger world, a trip I made to Vietnam in 2006, and love,” she noted. “The book’s title comes from the title poem, “Russian Tortoise,” inspired by my daughter who brought a Russian Tortoise home at Christmas break for us to take care of.  Since she was in fifth grade, this really meant that I took care of the tortoise. What I learned from this experience surprised me, as the poem reveals.

“I expect I will talk about writing, especially as it relates to questions students may have. I would like students to know that poems reside in the smallest of life’s encounters as well as in the big events that shape us. I would like to show them that imagination can alter and redeem. The key is to pay attention, and, of course, set aside regular time for writing.”

McFall’s visit to Wheaton is sponsored by the Evelyn Danzig Haas ’39 Visiting Artists Program. Professor of English Sue Standing invited McFall to come to campus. Students in her “Advanced Poetry Workshop” are reading Russian Tortoise, and students in the “Word and Image” course also be will reading some of McFall’s poems.

“I have long admired Ms. McFall's work and feel privileged to be able to share it with my students,” said Standing. “I'm delighted that we will be able to bring her to campus through the visiting artist program. Every year we bring exciting writers to campus, and it is especially thrilling when one of those writers is an alum of the college. Having alumnae/i come back to campus helps give students even more of a sense of personal connection with these visitors.”

After the reading, students will join McFall for an informal dinner and engage in further conversation about her work, writing and life.