Chris Ketchum

Why did you come to Willamette—and why major in English via the creative writing concentration?

I’m from Idaho, so Willamette was right in that sweet spot of not-too-close, not-too-far from home that I know a lot of students look for. I knew I wanted a small school with strong programs in the arts and humanities, so Willamette really fit the bill. As far as English goes, I had no idea it was something I would pursue when I began college. I thought I wanted to be an International Studies major, and I struggled with English in high school a little bit. I took two English classes my freshman year, “Modernity and Modernism” and “Intro to Creative Writing: Poetry,” that really shifted my perspective on school in general. I had always thought homework was defined as unpleasant and disagreeable, but I was actually excited to do my homework for those classes! That’s how I knew Creative Writing was the right thing to pursue—when classwork and self-directed learning became indistinguishable.

You were awarded a College Colloquium Summer Research Grant after your first year at WU, right? How did that work, and what did you do?

That’s right! My College Colloquium with Professor Bobby Brewer-Wallin, “Walking, Knowing, Making,” was a seminar focusing on the act of walking as a cultural, social, and spiritual practice. Professor Brewer-Wallin encouraged us to apply for one of the CC Summer Research Grants to fund a project related to our Colloquium class. I devised a plan to walk the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrim’s path traversing the 550 miles across northern Spain. The grant covered the cost of the project, and I wrote a creative non-fiction piece as a capstone.

You’ve been spending a fair amount of time overseas. Tell me about the semester you spent studying in Prague.

Prague was great. I spent four months living with a host family just outside the center of the city. Prague’s art scene is really thriving—I had a lot of exposure to avant-garde theater and performance art, made it to tons of both small and large gallery openings, and worked with one of Prague’s most established young fiction authors, Petra Hulova, as part of my schooling. The Czech Republic is right in the center of Europe, so it’s a perfect launch pad for travel to other countries in both the eastern and western sides of the continent. I got to spend three weeks as an intern in Slovakia at a culture center, for example, which was also very rewarding.

I hear The Chrysalis is publishing a chapbook of your poems. Can you give us a sample to whet our appetite?

Sure! Here’s one of the poems that will appear in the collection:

My Mother’s Laughter

is enough to make Dad paddle her around the lake
and back. Maybe alone they don’t talk
of real estate or the back deck’s chipping paint,
but in their furtive daylight moments burn
below the wicks of themselves.
Mom dreams of a Lake Wobegon summer
and cedar-colored porchlight until moonrise,
where she smells berries ripening on their bush.
Dad draws the oar across watertop shadows,
pleasantly open-mouthed with effort,
while he listens to her fancies and the sound
of paint coaxed along a maple plank.
The weight of a brush like a bottle of wine,
the timbre of her triad like a breath.

Do you have any advice/insight for current or prospective WU students (and especially English majors)?

I wish I had known immediately upon arrival at WU how important it is to be willing to ask for things. No matter how soon you learn that, it never seems soon enough. There are a lot of great opportunities for grants, scholarships, jobs and volunteering, and I’ve found that the odds I’ve faced are almost always better than I initially expected. Set the bar high. If you want to work for a newspaper, aim for the New York Times—it makes that application for the Chicago Tribune feel effortless. Really, that’s just a rephrasing of the “shoot for the moon, catch a star” adage, but I think there’s a lot of mysticism surrounding what it takes to get the opportunity you’re truly interested in. Especially for English majors, where success isn't quantifiable in the way it is for an entrepreneur, people sometimes count themselves out of possible options on the basis of prestige. Oh yeah, and study the things that make you happy! I’ve been thinking a lot about jobs recently, but I wouldn't be an English major if I didn't love it. And form a good relationship with your professors. They are the people who define the academic experience at Willamette, and I don’t know where I would be without their support.

So, what's the future got in store—and where do you want to be five years from now?

Well, between the rest of the semester and an editorial internship at Rock and Ice: The Climber’s Magazine, I’ve got about the next six months covered, but from then on it’s all a mystery. I would like to pursue an MFA in creative writing, maybe beginning my search and application process for grad school in the fall of 2015 for a 2016-17 program. Really I just hope to continue writing poetry, maybe teaching a bit and living in different places along the way. I’ve been reading a lot of haiku and Japanese-influenced poetry, and for the first time in my life I feel really drawn to Japan. I might like to live there for a bit.