A way with words: Elon senior prepares to push her poetry beyond graduation

By Stephanie Butzer

Elizabeth Purvis is currently in an Advanced Creating Writing course, which requires her to edit peers' work on a regular basis. All photos by Stephanie Butzer.

Elizabeth Purvis is currently in an Advanced Creating Writing course, which requires her to edit peers’ work on a regular basis. All photos by Stephanie Butzer.

Elizabeth Purvis, known to her friends as Liz, could read when she was three years old, something most children don’t practice until they’re five or six.

“I know that because my sister was born when I was two and a half and I was reading in the waiting room of the hospital,” she said.

Now, as a senior English major at Elon University, literature and creative writing is what she does best. She has her plate full as the managing editor the Colonnades Literary Journal, an Elon College Fellow and the vice-president of the Elon chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, the international English honor society.

But when Purvis first came to Elon, she thought she was going to major in literature and professional writing and rhetoric, not creative writing. By her sophomore year, she realized she was not happy sitting at a computer for four hours at a time, she said.

Instead, she decided to revisit some of her creative writing talents she had vaguely explored in high school. Just one class – Introduction to Creative Writing – was enough for Purvis to drop her professional writing and rhetoric major and pick up a creative writing concentration.

During the Winter Term of that year, Purvis embarked to Ireland with other Elon students in a study abroad program. There, she studied Irish literature, culture and history. During her travels, the class read a poem titled “Quarantine” by Eavan Boland, an Irish poet.

“It was really, really beautiful and terrible and gut-wrenching,” Purvis said. “And I thought that was awesome. I don’t know what she did, but I wanted to read more of that.”

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Of all the poetry she has written, Purvis is most proud of “Eight-Ball.” Click here to read or listen to the poem, and read about her thoughts on the piece.

The poem told a story of a sickly couple during Ireland’s potato famine years. They were kicked out of a workhouse and later died in the snow in front of another workhouse.

That piece solidified Purvis’ passion for poetry.

“It’s the love poem that’s not super mushy because there’s no time for that in this – they’re sick and dying and her feet were against his breastbone,” she said. “The last gift he gave her was his last heat. That’s just beautiful and sad. It just did something for me.”

With “Quarantine” in the back of her mind, Purvis returned from Ireland determined to throw herself into poetry. When she told her friends from home that she was now writing poetry on a regular basis, they told her they already knew.

“They were like, ‘yeah, of course you write poetry. That’s a thing. What do you mean you didn’t know?’” she said. “It took me longer to realize than the people around me.”

In high school, Purvis and her friends had kept blogs as creative outlets and it gave them ways to communicate without having to say, “‘Ugh. Life is hard. I’m being angsty,’” Purvis said.

When her high school AP Literature class introduced creative writing prompts at the end of her senior year, Purvis was very enthusiastic about the project, while most of the class didn’t enjoy it. Purvis said the assignment was to read James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and then write an imitative piece: a portrait of the blank as a young blank.

“Mine was 15 pages,” Purvis said. “All my classmates hated me, in a loving way.”

Her school’s English department ended up making a special English award for her work.

Four years later, professors still consider Purvis an exceptional student.

Kathy Lyday-Lee, an English professor at Elon as well as Purvis’ academic advisor and Fellows advisor, said Purvis is such a good reader she was asked to be a beta reader – somebody who critiques a work and edits for grammar and style – for the final draft of a novel Lyday-Lee is working on.

“She has very, very keen editing skills,” Lyday-Lee said. “I mean, amazing editing skills. Out of all the readers we’ve had so far for our novel, she is the one that has found the most things and asked the most pointed questions. I’m thinking, ‘this is an editor-to-be.’”

easelly_visual (4)During her junior year at Elon, Purvis started looking seriously into attending graduate school.

“The whole grad school thing came when I realized I would like to write poetry,” Purvis said. “So, how do I write poetry and feed myself and not live at home? I also love workshop [the process of editing peers’ work]. I love sitting in a group of people and doing the critiquing and marking up and showing what line I love and what line is weak. I love that. That’s what MFA programs – Masters of Fine Arts creative writing programs – are.”

Her roommate and good friend, Kiley Brandt, said she likes Purvis’ writing because there is a personal part of Purvis in all of her work.

“She’s working through her thoughts in creating these poems,” she said. “They aren’t always what she feels exactly, but something that’s been nagging at her or something she wanted to express. They’re truthful as an expression of her, but it’s kind of a warped truth that you can’t take at face value sometimes.”

After months of research and applications, Purvis hopefully waited to hear about acceptances. Lyday-Lee said she knew Purvis put a lot of effort into the search for the right school because she wasn’t writing dozens of recommendation letters. Purvis ended up applying to seven graduate schools: the National University of Ireland at Galway, Hollins University, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, N.C. State University, University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Vanderbilt University.

The first school she heard back from was the National University of Ireland in Galway. But, due to financial concerns, she reluctantly declined the offer.

“There was a spiral of, ‘what am I going to do?’” she said. “There’s a 1 percent acceptance rate in MFA schools. It’s a 600-people-apply-for-six-spots kind of situation at most of the schools that have MFA programs.”

The wait continued.

Click for interactive image describing how Purvis writes her poetry.

Click for interactive image describing how Purvis writes her poetry.

Brandt, who was by her side throughout the process, expected Purvis to get into graduate school. She said she would also go beyond just grad school.

“I think Liz will write some amazing poetry and become one of those elite people at literature and poetry panels who have become the expert in their field,” she said. “She’s directly involved in making her ideas a reality. If she has one foot in a dream, then she has the other moving toward it.”

Then, Feb. 12, an email appeared in Purvis’ inbox from N.C. State’s MFA Creative Writing Program. It was from Dorianne Laux, a poetry professor in the school’s MFA program. She asked Purvis if she’d still like to be on the waiting list. But Purvis could barely get over the fact one of her favorite poets had directly emailed her.

easelly_visual (3)“I freaked out. I was like, ‘oh my goodness, I put one of your poems on my blog and I love it and I stare at it and I was reading it yesterday and you just emailed me,’” she said. “I said, ‘Yes, of course I want to be on your waiting list. I would be so honored to be accepted into N.C. State’s program.’”

Two hours later, she received another email.

“[Dorianne Laux] emails me and is like, ‘we have two more spots open so you’ve been moved to the acceptance list. Congratulations. It’s fully funded. You’re going to get an official letter from so-and-so soon,’” Purvis said. “I was freaking out; did a happy dance in the snow. I told my roommates I got accepted and it started snowing.”

As somebody who likes to be prepared for everything in a field full with disheartening rejections, Purvis could finally breathe easy as she waits to hear from the other schools.

“I’m actually going to get to go to grad school next year and that’s really, really cool,” Purvis said. “I know what the next two years are going to be.”

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