By Miranda Nelson
Sonja James (C’86), an alumna of Sewanee, recently presented a reading of her poetry at the McGriff Alumni House. Addressing topics of history and sexuality in a building that formerly housed the fraternity Phi Delta Theta, James challenged the status quo by presenting a new revisionist voice with her insightful verse.
The reading was very casual, with people chatting and enjoying refreshments. James caught up with other alumni from her time at Sewanee, all while sharing her own experiences with the attending students.
Her first poem was a look into the life of Charles Washington, the lesser-known brother of George Washington, and the namesake of Charles Town, West Virginia. The second reading was an astute perspective on feminism called “Email from Martha Washington,” which connected the condition of the First Lady in the 1790s to the closed-off inequality that many modern women still face today.
James’s poems are centered mostly around American history, which she discovered a passion for during her time in college. Her freshman year at Sewanee, “I took a military history class with Dr. Flynn (a former history professor at Sewanee) and was immediately fascinated with it,” she explained.
James is also interested in feminist theory and sexual expression, which she discusses in her poem “American Aphrodite.” The fifth poem she presented, “Words that Fall Short of Beautiful,” earned her a place in the Gettysburg Review.
James has a very unique style of poetry, using epigraphs before most of her works and then elaborating on the quotes within her writing. In one particularly striking poem, James uses three seemingly unrelated epigraphs—one from T.S. Eliot, one from an article about a brainwashing victim, and one from a Harold Bloom essay about Hamlet—and ties them together in her poem “Sunday Morning Love Song,” which she mentioned is her favorite poem out of the ones she presented that evening.
She said that as a poet, she takes inspiration from all things around her; for her poem “Pheasants and Nightingales,” she was inspired by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and, interestingly, the cubist art of Marcel Duchamp.
“I came here originally believing that I was going to be a nun or a priest… I took a class freshman year with Ted Stirling and found that I was passionate about [poetry],” James said of her time at Sewanee.
She encouraged young students to keep their minds open to all possibilities.
Sonja James earned her B.A. in English at Sewanee and her M.A. in literature from Duke University. She currently lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.