A Journey Befitting a Poet
By Michael Moore, Carthage College
Over the years, Carthage has provided tens of thousands the opportunity to rise to places beyond any of their dreams or expectations. Jean Preston ’02, director of the Brainard Writing Center and Kenosha’s newly appointed poet laureate, feels fortunate to be one of those people.
At age 19, after one year of college, she married her high school sweetheart and became a Navy wife. During the next 25 years of “real life” — marriage, kids, divorce, public assistance, remarriage, stepchildren, jobs she disliked, and jobs she enjoyed — one goal remained constant: to someday continue and complete her education.
Ms. Preston took the first baby steps on that journey the day in 1994 that she interviewed for her first position at Carthage, as a faculty secretary.
“That July day, as I walked down a darkened hallway towards LAS 213 (now known as Straz), I passed a collection of preserved mammals peering at me from laboratory windows,” she recalled. “When I reached the office, took a seat, and prepared to answer Charlotte Chell’s interview questions, I noticed the horizontal spaces were covered with all sorts of mathematical puzzles. There was also a flock of white paper doves suspended from the ceiling. Dead animals? Math? Floating doves? What was I doing here?”
Despite her trepidation, that interview led to 11 years in the Division of the Natural Sciences, working with chairs Charlotte Chell and Kevin Crosby and supporting the division’s faculty. She appreciated the enthusiasm and dedication of professors and saw herself happily working in that position until retirement.
Carthage courses uncovered new passion for writing
Even when Ms. Preston began taking classes at Carthage in February 1995, her goal wasn’t to embark on a new career path —rather, simply to learn. She settled on English as a major and added minors in classics and women’s and gender studies, all while working full time and raising a family.
To garner enough English credits for her major, she registered for her first creative writing course. Poet and professor Dan Tobin taught it.
“From the first night of class, I was hooked,” she said. “Despite the fact that studying poetry seemed to offer little career or financial incentive, I added a creative writing emphasis to my major and never looked back.”
With guidance from numerous faculty members, Ms. Preston graduated summa cum laude from Carthage in 2002. She treasures the memory of Prof. Chell, a longtime faculty member in mathematics, computer science, and Great Ideas, cutting short an out-of-state conference trip to attend the graduation.
A Return to Carthage
Seeking to focus more seriously on her writing, Ms. Preston entered the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Writing Program. By the time she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts, she had written a substantial critical thesis on politics and poetry and authored a collection of poems titled “All the Queen’s Horses.”
Before she had time to consider where that degree would lead, Carthage answered the question. In August 2006, Ms. Preston became the director of the Writing Center and added the title of adjunct assistant professor of English.
Located on the upper level of Hedberg Library, the Writing Center is a free resource available to all members of the Carthage community. After completing a stringent training program, student fellows provide assistance at any stage of the writing process.
“I could not have manufactured a career for myself that would have been a better fit,” Ms. Preston said. “I have the best job on campus, supervising bright and talented student tutors, assisting traditional and nontraditional students to become better writers, teaching in the Heritage Program and in the English Department, and working with great colleagues. The only thing missing is enough time to spend on my own creative work — something I strive to carve out for myself as often as possible.”
Poet laureate of Kenosha
Although she still hesitates to label herself a poet, Ms. Preston’s selection in October as poet laureate of Kenosha confirms her place in that circle. During the two-year term, she will read at public venues, organize and implement a community project, and publish a chapbook. (Fellow Carthage graduate Nick Ramsey ’08 received the same honor in nearby Racine, Wis.)
“Jean’s social consciousness is acute,” fellow poet Gray Jacobik said during the introduction at one of Ms. Preston’s readings. “In fact, her awareness seems so keen at so many levels of being, that reading her poems is like getting a crash course in how to be alive. It’s both frightening and scintillating, and her work teaches me, all over again, just what an extraordinary art this is, how much poetry can accomplish.”
Ms. Preston is the co-author of a photo-journal, “Tete’s Story: One Woman’s Work Among the Karen of Thailand,” and a chapbook, “Sixteen Mothers.” In addition, her poems have been published in several literary journals and featured in local art exhibits.
She described her feelings about writing in a statement that accompanied a 2011 art exhibition of her work.
“What I write (simple expressions about what it means to be a human being in the world today) seems too ordinary to be considered poetry – and yet, sometimes it is,” an excerpt of that statement reads. “Sometimes, what moves through my fingers to the keyboard and onto the screen does indeed have an internal music that seems to write itself, combining mind and memory, heart and soul, to make a poem. In those moments or hours or days, I am completely absorbed and happy, humbled and profoundly grateful to be able to do this work.”
When she’s not tending to the Writing Center or her family — including a dozen grandchildren — Ms. Preston enjoys sharing her love of creative writing with others. Besides Carthage courses, she presents workshops at Reuther Central High School and Children’s Horizons, an organization that assists victims of domestic violence.
As she sees it, helping people discover ways to tell their stories in meaningful ways never gets old.