Puma Press

Founding creative writing director, poet leaving post

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lois roma-deeley
Photo by Isabella Coburn
Dr. Lois Roma-Deeley, who won national recognition for her teaching in 2012, is leaving her post as creative writing director to focus on writing.

Sitting behind her desk, the walls hung with poster-sized poems written by friends and colleagues—broadsides they’re called—Dr. Lois Roma-Deeley, director of the creative writing and women’s studies programs at Paradise Valley Community College , speaks with passion and humor about her life in poetry.

When she smiles, the warmth seems to project from deep within her dark eyes. Those eyes, says Nancy McCurry, PVCC adjunct English faculty and former Roma-Deeley student, shoot meaningful looks above the glasses perched on her nose. The looks, given in private conversation, or during one of her lauded workshop-style writing classes, can correct you, reassure you, or push you, but above all, McCurry says, tell you unmistakably that she’s listening.
           
Wanting to avoid fanfare, Roma-Deeley broke the news quietly on campus that she would be leaving her post in the PVCC English Division after this semester in order to focus on her writing. The news has been received by students and staff with heartache but also gladness for the opportunities that await the beloved professor.

Her current and former students say Roma-Deeley’s deep attention to them distinguishes her as a teacher. Students report Roma-Deeley guiding writers through what is at first a terrifying experience: sharing very personal writing with a group. Creative writing students say she can make the fear go away with her unique personality, and she makes the creative process fun and exhilarating.
           
Alberto Rios, Arizona’s current poet laureate and a Regent’s professor at ASU who taught Roma-Deeley, says Roma-Deeley has a natural levity coupled with a unique characteristic.
           
“She always had a sense of humor, but it was always tethered to high seriousness…She’s always engaged in the effort of trying to make things matter,” he says.
           
Many creative writing students echoed Rios’ comment, saying that Roma-Deeley takes her students’ writing very seriously. This seriousness toward the writing craft and her students’ work is one of the factors students and colleagues say make her an especially effective educator. Several commented that Roma-Deeley treats you like a fellow writer in her classes. Each writer in her class is on an equal plane with everyone else— including herself.

Tanino Privitera, who enrolled in a class with Roma-Deeley on a whim last year but quickly became a passionate writing student, said he was disappointed that the teacher who had inspired him would be leaving the college.
           
“No, no, no, I want to learn. I want you to teach me,” Privitera says he thought at the time.
           
Hired in 1996, Roma-Deeley is the founding professor of PVCC’s creative writing and women’s studies programs, as well as the college’s poet-in-residence. She won national recognition for her work as an instructor when she was named the Carnegie Foundation and the Counsel for the Advancement and Support of Education’s (CASE) Professor of the Year in 2012.
           
Many of Roma-Deeley’s students have won awards for their creative writing. Long-time student and PVCC Creative Writing Certificate recipient Zona Lawrence took a $20,000 prize at a national poetry competition. Another PVCC creative writing graduate, Travis Duprey, won a national award in a short story competition and is now a graduate teaching assistant at Cornell University.
           
Roma-Deeley’s impact at the college is noticeable beyond the formal awards and honors, too. The phenomenon of student s taking her classes repeatedly is famous on campus. There are students who have taken her classes for over 10 years, including Lawrence, who has had 37 classes with her. Her current and former students have formed two writing groups that meet outside the college. One is named the Romadeelian Chorus in her honor.
           
It’s not hard to find people who have been touched by Roma-Deeley. On a recent morning at Matador Coffee, employee Alex Dahl spotted her name on a copy of “High Notes,” Roma-Deeley’s third book and winner of the Samuel T. Coleridge Literary Prize, and burst into enthusiastic conversation about her.
           
Roma-Deeley says she enjoys teaching, but is also excited for the lineup of projects waiting for her. She’s applied for an 18-day residency for artists at the prestigious Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois. At Ragdale, artists, writers and musicians spend unstructured time at the foundation’s historic mansion on a secluded estate. Roma-Deeley has been selected for the residency three times.
           
Additionally, she plans to travel, and would like to write a memoir. She’s working on a fourth book of poetry. Roma-Deeley also looks forward to tackling an entire shelf of unread books she’s amassed. A voracious reader from a young age, she plans to broaden her knowledge of today’s poets and to catch up on the latest trends in literary criticism.
           
Another intellectual interest for Roma-Deeley that figures prominently in her immediate future is combining poetry with other media like visual art and music. She’s collaborated with musician and composer Dr. Christopher Scinto, PVCC Fine Arts Division chair, on two projects bringing musical elements to live poetic readings. The latest project, a “jazz opera” rendering of her book “High Notes,” is scheduled to hit the stage in its final form next year.

Roma-Deeley’s poems have ventured into traditional visual art venues through her collaboration with Chicago-based artist Beth Shadur on the Poetic Dialogue Project. Since 2004, the project has produced a series of art exhibits blending visual art with poetry. The project has put many of Roma-Deeley’s poems, written on or alongside works of art, into galleries and exhibits that have toured across the country. A giant globe with Roma-Deeley’s poetry, created by Shadur for the Cool Globes Project, a Clinton Global Initiative, was sponsored by the Sara Lee Company.
           
Her work with Shadur on the Poetic Dialogue Project reveals another aspect of Roma-Deeley’s personality: she is social and engaged with the arts community. When Shadur needed 31 poets to partner with 31 artists for an exhibition at a women’s art gallery in Chicago, it was Roma-Deeley who rounded up the names of poets for the project. She has met famous poets like Alan Ginsberg, C.D. Wright and Jane Hirschfield, with whom she corresponds .
           
Roma-Deeley, who was raised in a traditional Italian family on Long Island, New York with elaborate meal time gatherings, says she loves to cook and sometimes treats visiting poets (“ they’re always interesting,” she says) to big Italian dinners at her home in Scottsdale.
           
Roma-Deeley has also distinguished her teaching and writing career with special support for women in education. Neither of her parents finished high school, and she saw the educational aspirations of older family members squelched. She dedicated her first book of poetry, “Rules of Hunger” (2004), to the memory of her grandmother, Frances Maucci, whom she wrote, “was beaten for wanting to learn to read and write.” She was surprised to discover that the Association of Writers and Writing Programs didn’t have a women’s caucus, so she founded one and currently chairs it.           
           
Lawrence, the longtime student, remembers the first time she had to go through the process of reading her work aloud then listening as first Roma-Deeley, then the class, offered suggestions and comments.
           
“It’s scary…you’ve written what you think is your baby,” she says.
           
Previtera says that he is awed by Roma-Deeley’s ability to give writers powerful, insightful feedback in an uplifting way.
           
He uses one of Roma-Deeley’s own analogies to describe her reassuring style of criticism: the writer presenting their work is like a person getting dressed up in their best outfit before a big dance. They’ve tried hard and feel passionate about their creations. But maybe there’s something that’s not quite working in the outfit. Roma-Deeley, he says, communicates to you supportively like a best friend who’s letting you know what’s not working in your outfit.
           
“I know I had my ego rubbed a couple times,” says Dahl of his experience in Roma-Deeley’s classes. But, he adds, “I became a lot better because of her.”
           
Dahl says he also appreciated the camaraderie Roma-Deeley’s classes fostered between the writers.
           
“You have to share your work if you’re an artist,” he says. “A lot of people in class were impressive. I love listening to other people’s writing.”
           
PVCC President Dr. Paul Dale says that Roma-Deeley represents the kind of high quality faculty community colleges can attract.
           
“Because of her gift as a poet she brings a huge amount of creativity and validity to the (creative writing) program,” he says.
                   
Dale says a national search is underway to fill Roma-Deeley’s position in the department, and he hopes that a new creative writing faculty member will begin by the Fall 2014 semester.
                   
“Those are big shoes to fill…but I don’t want to use a cliché in talking about Lois,” says Dale.
                    
To whoever is offered the opportunity to lead the creative writing program at PVCC, Roma-Deeley says she would say to them, “Boy, are you fortunate. You’re going to work with an amazing faculty and students,” adding, “Try not to work too hard.”
                   
Looking back recently on her long, accomplished career at PVCC, she said, “It seems like one long semester. A good semester.”