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Our Rich History: Dr. Sherry Cook Stanforth and the creative writing vision program at Thomas More

By Tom Ward
Thomas More University 

Part 66 of Our Series: “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021”

The English Department at Thomas More College had for many years been blessed with dedicated and talented professors. In 2000, Dr. Sherry Cook Stanforth, with a PhD from the University of Cincinnati, joined the English faculty. Dr. Stanforth was an energetic and visionary teacher who had many ideas for enlarging the scope of the department’s outreach to students and to the wider community that shared a love for the written word.

Dr. Sherry Cook Stanforth. (TMU Archives)

Even before Dr. Stanforth arrived at TMC, there were several literary programs in place that were not part of the regular English curriculum, but which stimulated student participation. One of the early efforts was a student literary publication, initially called Jesture (a combination of jester and gesture), that was first printed in December of 1965 and continued through 1975. From the beginning, students were its primary writers, editors and producers, though they had the erstwhile support of Professor Sandra Cuni. After going through a brief incarnation as Spirit Gift in 1977 and 1978, the student journal became Words, which began every annual issue with a poem of the same name that had been written by Dr. Cuni (who died in 1973); this has been its name ever since the first issue of Words was published in 1978.

Dr. Stanforth took the place of Fr. Murray Bodo, OFM, as faculty advisor for Words when she came to TMC. She worked closely with the students on managing the editing and production process themselves. She soon initiated an annual on-campus reading celebration at which the student contributors to Words read their poems and short stories before an audience of parents, students, faculty and others who attended; the first celebration, featuring Irish poet Eileen Sheehan, was held on April 3, 2001. On the advice of Marion Moynihan, an Irish exchange student, Dr. Stanforth included a painting by deceased TMC professor of art, Darryl Brothers, printed on the cover, which initiated a more robust inclusion of artwork and photographs in the enlarged volumes of Words (Information provided by Dr. Stanforth, Sept. 19, 2022).

Another program that was already in place before Dr. Stanforth arrived was the Caden Blincoe Outloud Festival that began in the early 1990s. Because the festival has already been featured in this series, I will only say here that this regionally developed festival was eventually adapted to be one of the events in the Creative Writing Vision Program.

In fact, it was the Caden Blincoe Festival that first brought Dr. Stanforth to Thomas More College. Dr. Ray Hebert and Blincoe invited her to participate as a folk musician in the 2000 festival. Her appearance there led to a job interview and her eventual hiring for the English Department, with the expectation that she would specialize in creative writing and ethnic literature, fields of study that she had embraced for many years (Interview with Dr. Stanforth in Moreover, Spring 2019, p. 20).

‘Tellico,’ with Dr. Stanforth, her mother Nancy Cook and father Jim Cook. (TMU Archives)

As a member of the English department, Dr. Stanforth was able to design (with assistance from the Office of Institutional Advancement) a three-year grant from the PNC Schroth Charitable Trust with which in 2004 she founded what would be her greatest contribution to TMC – the Creative Writing Vision Program (CWV) (Moreover, Spring 2019, p. 20). To explain the genesis of CWV and her intentions and hopes for it, I will let Dr. Stanforth speak here for herself. (Quotes are from responses of Dr. Stanforth, Sept. 21 and Sept. 29, 2022).

Her primary motivation was to “bring diverse audiences together for meaningful arts programming and to foster community-centered collaboration among varied institutions and groups.” This meant not only “cultural, racial/ethnic, and generational mixing” but bringing “young people together with regional or local leaders in arts, non-profits, and careers. The program has maintained a strong value for Appalachian and OH/KY arts cultures, which I know to inform a key demographic reach and support constituency.

“I am passionate about the meaningful relationships that can be formed through expressive arts programming and educational outreach.  Creative empathy is a powerful tool for positive social change, and CWV’s mission to directly involve students in arts leadership arises from our Catholic Liberal Arts mission.”

This mission was to include alumni as part of the community. Many of those who participated evinced “a clear desire to make a tangible difference,” she said.

“This value is powerfully seen in the web of relationships nurtured through on- and off-campus events created by CWV.  Alumni from various decades regularly attended CWV events, both on- and off-campus.”

As Dr. Stanforth described it, CWV events with students, alumni and others embraced “a value for  diversity, which I feel must be represented through authentically-derived programming, sensitivity, intergroup collaborations, and resources. I have seen amazing things … generational nurturing within the TMU family, side-by-side mentoring of young people from high profile (even “famous”) professionals — poet laureates, medical professionals, non-profit leaders, award-winning authors, editors, and activists.

Pauletta Hansel, first TMU Writer-in-Residence, CWV student Laura Barfield and Dr. Stanforth, ca. 2014. (TMU Archives)

The CWV mission has gained heartfelt support from alumni who most often represent profession-based writing and non-profit leadership.  So many of our students hunger for growth into community realms, and when they meet generous mentors, this reinforces a model for apprenticeship and lifelong relationships around arts and community service. Over the years, quite a few students continue to keep in touch with the CWV artists they’ve met. These high energy collaborations among people/groups who seem very unlike each other reinforce a deeper vision for what a community might hold regarding its people and its projects. CWV has also adopted TMU family members who want to join us—people who have not attended/worked for TMU, but who believe firmly in our higher liberal arts missions.”

This innovative CWV program would feature many different events and classes that were introduced over the years.

Dr. Stanforth would eventually have assistance in the CWV when TMC accepted her idea of having a writer-in residence join the staff. The first, beginning in 2014, was the oft-published poet, Pauletta Hansel, who would also be named the first Poet Laureate of Cincinnati in 2015. One of Hansel’s earliest accomplishments was starting the “Draft-to-Craft” (D2C) poetry classes that students could take for credit, though the majority of participants had long before attained their college degrees. Each semester the D2C classes had a theme or type of poem that was stressed and on which the poets would concentrate in their writings; these classes encouraged participants not only to write, but to share their poems with the entire group for their suggestions and encouragement. (Note: the author, though primarily an historian, was inspired by Sherry, Pauletta and others to begin writing poetry and has long been a participant in the D2C classes and other CWV programs).

The Draft to Craft classes often had a poetry reading night at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in the Crestview Hills Town Center near the end of the semester. The participants would read a poem or two that they had written during the current class; the audience would consist not only of people connected with TMU, but of curious passersby perusing the selection of books at Joseph-Beth. The CWV also brought in recognized artists to do readings and meet with students at the same venue.

Richard Hague, second TMU Writer-in-Residence. (Courtesy of Richard Hague)

The D2C classes never had a problem enrolling enough attendees. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced a “lockdown” of the TMU campus beginning in March 2020, the classes were able to transition successfully to online “zoom” meetings with little change to the format. Being online had the benefit of allowing many poets to participate who lived too far away to join the in-person classes; when in-person Wednesday night classes resumed in the fall of 2022, Hansel continued to offer the online class on Thursday nights for the participants from distant places (even one from as far away as British Columbia).

One of the most popular CWV programs utilized the beautiful location of TMU’s Biology Field Station on the Ohio River. The biannual (usually in May and November) Community of Creative Writers Retreats were always attended by some of Dr. Stanforth’s students, though the majority were older adults, many of them alumni of Thomas More. The retreats drew attendees from all over the Greater Cincinnati area, some of them being established authors who brought their published works to share. This provided an excellent opportunity for students to meet and work with regional writers, many of whom attended year after year, which helped build a true community of writers who knew each other well.     

Both the D2C classes and the retreats on the river were also important to CWV because they were revenue generating, unlike many other CWV programs that sought primarily to serve underrepresented groups and to promote community-building. After the initial grant expired, TMC provided an operational budget for CWV, though these revenue-generating programs helped to subsidize it.

TMU’s second writer-in residence was another notable regional poet and author, Richard (Dick) Hague. (It is interesting to note that both Pauletta Hansel and Dick Hague won the region’s prestigious Weatherford Award while writers-in-residence at TMU). One on-campus project that he agreed to lead was a noontime “Writers Table” session on every other Monday. During these well-attended events, Hague would provide a prompt to inspire the attendees impromptu writing; when they had written what they could in the time available, they would share their works with the group. This writing group also made a smooth transition to Zoom and back due to COVID. This event, however, was free and open to the public so that it could support underserved groups.

Sherry Cook Stanforth was herself a gifted poet and writer, but she was also a talented musician and singer. Along with her father, Jim Cook, who played acoustic guitar, and her mother Nancy, who played dulcimer, Dr. Stanforth played a variety of instruments, including flute, penny whistle and harmonica, in a family band they called “Tellico.” They played mostly traditional Appalachian folk songs and ballads, as well as some original ones, on which she was the lead vocalist.

Although Sherry Cook herself was born in Cincinnati, she grew up in Clermont County, Ohio, which is considered the westernmost Appalachian County in Ohio; she had even deeper ancestral roots in the Appalachian area through her father, who was born in northern Georgia and lived in eastern Tennessee. With this background, it was quite natural that she developed a love for Appalachian culture, music, poetry and storytelling, which is reflected in her 2015 book of poetry, Drone String (Bottom Dog Press). She conveyed this to her four children, who, as they grew older, also played and sang in Tellico and followed their mother’s lead in writing poetry and songs. The family act has often entertained at the community-wide celebrations that were part of the CWV Program.

The above were some of the regularly occurring events, but there were many others. In its outreach to the wider community, Thomas More’s CWV program has been listed in partnership with organizations such as the Cincinnati Arts Association, Ohio Arts Council, ArtsWave, Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, Appalachian Studies Association, Covington Center for Great Neighborhoods, Wordplay Cincy, Foundation for Appalachian Ohio, University of Cincinnati, the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative, Dos Madres Press, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati, as well as the Boone and Kenton County Libraries, and more.  Dr. Stanforth herself also currently serves as the managing editor of Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel, the decades-old journal of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative.

2019 Caden Blincoe Festival, featuring former and current Poet Laureates: Marc Harshman of WV, Pauletta Hansel, first of Cincinnati, Georgia Ella Lyon of KY, Dr. Stanforth, and Manuel Iris, second of Cincinnati. (TMU Archives)

The CWV not only collaborated with entities in the larger community, but also with various departments and offices at TMU as parts of an interdisciplinary approach, including theater, art, biology, foreign languages, the James Graham Brown Honors Program, the Black Student Union, Student Life, and others.

Dr. Stanforth retired from TMU after the spring 2022 semester, though she would retain emeritus status. She continues to embrace her love of writing and teaching on various levels, and has even expanded her regional initiatives. Although no longer on the faculty, she will continue to share arts and cultural resources with TMU.

Dr. Stanforth recently founded the “Originary Arts Initiative” (OAI) that supports many regional expressive arts, while featuring some of the same programs that she had shared with CWV at TMU—such as Draft to Craft, the Writers Table, and the retreat at the Biology Station — though in different circumstances. For example, beginning in fall 2022, Hansel’s Draft to Craft in-person classes are now held at the Roebling Bookstore in Newport, rather than on the TMU campus.

Although the circumstances have shifted to a more community-based model, the OAI has maintained many of the relationships that had been formed by Dr. Stanforth over the years that she guided the CWV program. She continues to cultivate these relationships and she hopes to continue collaborating with TMU colleagues and students across disciplines. All those who have worked with Dr. Stanforth over the years are undoubtedly glad that her many initiatives will continue.
Tom Ward is the Archivist of Thomas More University. He holds an MA in History from Xavier University, Cincinnati. He can be contacted at wardt@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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