"O Muses, O high genius, aid me now!" writes Dante Alighieri in The Inferno, the first section of his epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Invoking the muses at the start of a poem dates back to Homer and the Roman poet Virgil. Dante called on the Classical muses—the nine goddesses of artistic inspiration. But he also found new muses in Virgil as well as Beatrice Portinari, a childhood acquaintance. Both appear in literary form in The Divine Comedy to lead Dante through hell, purgatory and heaven.

Dante was one of the first poets to invoke real people rather than mythical figures as muses. Though Dante barely knew Beatrice in the actual world, she became "the glorious lady of [his] mind." From Dante and Beatrice to Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick, artists and muses have maintained a mysteriously symbiotic relationship for nearly as long as art itself has been around. The artist draws inspiration from the muse, while the muse achieves fame, or even a kind of immortality, through the artist's works.

Kiki Petrosino Mickie Winters
Two alumni are following in Dante's footsteps by taking as their muses people who exist (or once did) in the real world. Poet Kiki Petrosino (Col '01) uses Robert Redford as an inspiration in her book of poems, Fort Red Border (which is an anagram of "Robert Redford"). Petrosino is quick to clarify that the Redford in her poems is a muse and not the living Hollywood celebrity. "It was not really a conscious decision on my part. It was more like Redford wandered into some of my poems and seemed to want to stay," she explains. She realized she could explore certain elements of the speaker's emotions by putting the Redford muse in her poems. "My Redford represents a cure for loneliness," she says.

Petrosino's appreciation of Dante and the relationship he shares with Virgil figured largely into this creative endeavor. She first studied The Inferno as an undergraduate at U.Va. "It was in this course that I first read the beautiful language that Dante uses to describe the bond that exists between the two figures," she says. Just as Dante knows Virgil only through his own poetic creation, so does the speaker of Fort Red Border know the actor Robert Redford: "The 'Redford' persona that I invent for the series is completely imaginary, and that project of imagination is essential to understanding the series," Petrosino says.

Fort Red Border by Kiki Petrosino
In these sometimes tender, sometimes funny poems, the beloved washes the speaker's hair, splits a serving of pommes frites with her and shares a series of domestic moments so comfortingly commonplace that the iconic name "Redford" creates a jarring juxtaposition. But Redford's fame is not the subject here. "The speaker is the real star of the poems," Petrosino says. "As I worked through the series, the Hollywood familiarity of 'Redford' became a kind of formal constraint—something to work against. I enjoy imposing constraints on my writing, just to see how far I can go. In this case, I wanted to 'invent' my own muse."

Now an assistant professor of literature and creative writing at the University of Louisville, Petrosino credits her years at U.Va. with setting her on the path to a career in poetry. As a Jerome Holland Scholar and an Echols Scholar, she took classes with professors Gregory Orr and Jerome McGann. She can still remember receiving her acceptance letter into the Echols program, on which the late professor Charles Vandersee had handwritten a personal message: Your poems do you great credit. "To receive those few words of validation—to say nothing of the opportunities Echols presented—meant a lot to a 17-year-old Star Trek geek," she recalls. "Put simply, attending U.Va. helped me claim the writer's life as my own."

Poet Paul Legault (Grad '09) has come to know the writer's life quite well since graduating from U.Va.'s MFA program. His first collection, The Madeleine Poems, was the winner of the 2009 Omnidawn Poetry Prize; his second, The Other Poems, was published in 2011. His third collection, The Emily Dickinson Reader, an "English-to-English" translation of Emily Dickinson's entire oeuvre, was published by McSweeney's in August.

Paul Legault Billy Merrell
Although Emily Dickinson is his most famous muse, she isn't his first. Legault's The Madeline Poems revolves around an imaginary woman named Madeline. "At that point in my life, the muse was a feminine figure of inspiration for me."

It wasn't long before a new muse replaced Madeline. "Dickinson became my muse when I was in a Dickinson and Whitman class at U.Va., taught by Stephen Cushman," Legault says. "That class was really helpful, in terms of pushing me toward her." As the class was reading all of her poems in chronological order, Legault started to scribble marginalia about each poem according to what his classmates said—"the basic versions that they came up with"—and an exercise that began as an amusement turned into something bigger. The final result is a poem-by-poem translation of Dickinson's poetry to literal meanings.

"I describe it as a joke that became serious," Legault laughs. As he fell deeper into his project, he found himself completely immersed in Dickinson's work, carrying the poems around with him constantly in order to find time to examine and translate every single one.

"She was with me every day at lunch, and I would write in the margins—I would actually read the poems and respond to what they were saying." Ultimately, Dickinson became quite real to him: "Muses are generous and giving and inspiring, as muses should be, but they're also ghosts who are haunting you," he cautions, "and they won't leave you alone until you're done with the project that they set before you."

The Emily Dickinson Reader by Paul Legault
Even though his Dickinson volume is now complete, Legault's fascination with nontraditional poetry translations continues, primarily through Telephone Journal, a literary journal that Legault founded with his friend Sharmila Cohen. Each issue features four or five poems by a single foreign writer, which are then creatively "translated" by multiple other poets.

"Every issue produces something original," he says, explaining the name of the journal, "which is what the game of Telephone illustrates." Recently the journal expanded to include a new publishing imprint, Telephone Books, which will publish its inaugural book this fall: an anthology of 154 poets, including literary stars such as Rae Armantrout and Ron Padgett, who have translated Shakespeare's 154 sonnets into new, original poems.

Legault is now on the lookout for his "next obsession." Then again, perhaps Dickinson does have a few more things in store for him. "I started working on this Emily Dickinson biopic screenplay the other day," he admits. "I don't know if I'll pursue it, but I feel like she could come back. She's such a huge figure."

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Poetry In Motion

Poetry at the University is "thriving," says Lisa Russ Spaar (Col '78, Grad '82), professor of creative writing and director of the undergraduate Area Program in Poetry Writing (APPW), which she founded 11 years ago. Creative writing classes at U.Va. "serve a great many undergraduates from different schools and departments," she says. Both undergraduate and graduate poetry students take workshops and seminars with Spaar, Rita Dove, Greg Orr, Debra Nystrom (Grad '82) and the recently hired poet Paul Guest. "Paul brings fresh energy to the program," Spaar says. "The students really love him."

Undergraduates in the APPW also have the chance to be mentored by graduate students in the MFA program, forming bonds that last far beyond graduation. Many poets who emerge from the MFA program have gone on to find publishing success. In the past year, eight alumni from the program published collections of poetry, including Katherine Larson (Grad '04), whose book, Radial Symmetry, was the 2010 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition winner. "That was a serious kudo," says Jeb Livingood (Col '86, Grad '00), associate director of the creative writing program. Other recent books include:

  • Voodoo Inverso by Mark Wagenaar (Grad '10)
  • Darkroom by Jazzy Danziger (Grad '10)
  • The Curiosities by Brittany Perham (Grad '06)
  • Weather by Dave Lucas (Grad '04)
  • Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls by Erika Meitner (Grad '02, '12)