The Bucknell community mourns the loss of our beloved colleague and friend Carmen Gillespie, who passed away unexpectedly at her home on Friday, August 30. At Bucknell, Carmen was a professor of English and founder and director of the Griot Institute for the Study of Black Lives and Cultures. She served as the university’s first arts coordinator and edited the Griot Book Project Series, published by Bucknell University Press. Carmen was a vibrant presence on our campus, a tireless and passionate champion for the arts and social justice who initiated a wide array of academic and creative projects at Bucknell and in Lewisburg, including the Griot Institute, the Africana Studies program, Arts Everywhere!, and the statue of Edward Brawley. She designed innovative courses such as Extreme Creativity, Arts Entrepreneurship, Stories of Cane, Jefferson’s Other Children, Jonestown: 30 Years Later, Postmodern Suburbia, and African-American Arts: Activism and Aesthetics, among others. She led the Bucknell in the Caribbean study abroad program for several years. And she brought leading figures in the arts and letters to Bucknell, such as Carrie Mae Weems, ntozake shange, Bill T. Jones, Charles Blow, Sonia Sanchez, Ibram X. Kendi, and many others.
Carmen authored several scholarly works, including A Critical Companion to Toni Morrison (2007) and A Critical Companion to Alice Walker (2011), and she edited Toni Morrison: Forty Years in the Clearing (2012). She presented her scholarship and poetry at more than 50 conferences and readings including the Modern Language Association (MLA), Bread Loaf, and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). In addition to literary critical book chapters, journal articles, creative non-fiction essays, and individual poems, Carmen also published a poetry chapbook, Lining the Rails (2008) and three full-length poetry collections: Jonestown: A Vexation, which won the 2011 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize, The Blue Black Wet of Wood, which won the Two Sylvias Press 2016 Wilder Series Book Prize; and The Ghosts of Monticello, which won the 2017 Stillhouse Poetry Contest. She also wrote the libretto for the opera The Ghosts of Monticello, whose music was composed by Garrett Fisher. The opera was premiered by the Bucknell Opera Company in February 2015.
Carmen received her bachelor’s and master’s degree in English from James Madison University and her Ph.D. from Emory University before working as a professor at George Mason University, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Mary Washington, the University of Toledo, and Bucknell University, which she joined in 2007. She taught American literature, African American literature and studies, creative writing, Women studies, Caribbean literature and cultures, world literatures in translation, popular culture, and composition. Carmen’s awards include a Patricia Roberts-Harris Fellowship and an Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowship for Excellence in Poetry. She was awarded grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. In addition, she was a Cave Canem Fellow and served as a Fulbright scholar at the University of the West Indies, Cavehill. On her long-awaited sabbatical, she was looking forward to a writers’ retreat in Italy and to a workshop with Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. Essence magazine named Carmen one of its 40 favorite poets.
Carmen, a brilliant scholar and poet, inspired young scholars and writers, students in her classes, and colleagues with whom she worked. Wherever she went and with whomever she spoke, Carmen radiated a beauty and a love for language, for humanity, and for art and creativity. She was an erudite colleague, a passionate writer, a generous friend, and a loving mother to her two daughters, Chelsea Gillespie and Delaney Bakst.
“. . . moving on faith — no guarantee
or promise, just a prayer that someday
things be a little bit better than today.”
~ Carmen Gillespie, “Nothing New” (2008)