Professor Claudia Cortese of Montclair State University has become the epitome of poetic triumph.
With several published poems and chapbooks, Cortese has proven that a passion for poetry can be rewarding.
“People say poetry is dead or dying — it seems like anyone who’s saying that isn’t paying attention,” said Cortese. “All evidence is pointing to the exact opposite.”
As a professor at Montclair State since 2009, Cortese has taught both poetry and first-year writing.
“It’s easier to be a successful poet now,” Cortese said. “There has been an explosion of small press publishing.”
Cortese’s willingness to push the boundaries of poetry rocketed her towards social media popularity. “I wrote an essay called ‘The Hunger Essays,’ which is half essay, half poem,” she said. “It was published online on Gulf Coast — I had such a positive reaction to what I’d written.”
Cortese acknowledged why her poetry is important for many readers. “I realized how much people connected with it,” said Cortese. “The piece was about hunger, anorexia, fatness and whiteness.”
Cortese received massive amounts of positive feedback. “It felt like an achievement to connect with so many people,” she said. “Everyone has a body and most people have a complicated relationship with them.
“Even the most beautiful women and most confident men have felt ashamed of their bodies; they’ve felt guilty,” she added. “There’s a lot of dysphoria people feel for their bodies.”
Born and raised in Canton, Ohio, Cortese attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York as an undergraduate student.
Cortese’s love of poetry developed during her sophomore year. After the suicide of a friend, Jamie, Cortese was deeply impacted.
“It hit me really hard. I was upset because she had so much life in her,” she said. “She had been through so much trauma.”
During that semester, Cortese was taking a women’s literature class. They discussed Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.”
“I couldn’t stop reading it. I wanted to know why Jamie would kill herself,” Cortese said. “I was fascinated by the death drive. I felt the answer was in that poem.”
“I began writing poetry all the time ― taking poetry workshops. I didn’t know I could be a poet until I took that women’s literature class.”
Cortese’s own grief and former trauma fostered a connection with women who were writing about things “like suicides and uteruses.”
On female writers, Cortese thought, “They did it, so why can’t I? They wrote about sexual trauma, abortions and love affairs and made it into art.
“When I teach poetry, I try to remember how important my poetry workshops were for me as an undergrad. I loved being an intellectual and engaging with the texts.”
Current English major Lauren Semler shared the benefits she received from taking a class with Cortese: “She has such a passion for the art of poetry and writing. I have been greatly impacted by taking Claudia’s class. She is someone whose enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge is contagious,” said Semler. “I have found her to be fascinating to talk to both inside and outside of the classroom.”
Selmer continued by adding, “She has given me some amazing advice about teaching. I have seen myself grow as a writer thanks to Claudia.”
Cortese considers poetry courses to be a “special place” aside from other classes. Getting the feedback from an instructor allows a student poet to “become a better artist.”
“We all write terribly flawed poems. Poetry professors have to help students grow as a writer and a person,” Cortese said. “I love trying to create the same space I had where they can be creative.”
Cortese shared that the most rewarding aspect of teaching poetry to students is “seeing them tell the stories they haven’t been able to tell.”