SCCC English instructor earns national notice
Visit Janice Northerns’ poetry website, and the first thing you’ll encounter is an image of light streaming through a drill bit and the words, “Poetry is that glimpse of shine in the ordinary.” The English instructor at Seward County Community College writes poems that document the red dust of country roads, the frosting that decorated childhood birthday cakes, or whiteboard notes on comma splices in freshman composition class: ordinary moments elevated by careful wordsmithing and a keen eye.
Lately, a fair amount of shine in Northerns’ poetry world also comes from awards and honors. She recently won second place in the 2017 Marr Poetry competition hosted by Southwest Review, the third oldest literary quarterly in the nation, published by Southern Methodist University. Northerns was named a finalist in the IHLR 2017 PhotoFinish contest and is a recipient of the Robert S. Newton Creative Writing Award from Texas Tech University.
The brightest light, though, is a Tennessee Williams poetry scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Hosted by the University of the South, a liberal arts college known for producing Rhodes Scholars, the conference ranks among the best in the U.S., with an applicant acceptance rate around 20 percent.
Despite the glitter of her ascent, Northerns remains as down to earth as her upbringing on a farm in rural West Texas.
Though she got good grades in English and won a district-level writing contest as a junior in high school, Northerns “had a lot of doubts” about her ability. Instead of college, she got married, had children, and set personal pursuits aside. A divorce in 1989 sent her to community college, where she joined the journalism staff, began writing short stories, and submitted a piece to a Sunday School magazine. Receiving that $35 check, she recalls, “made me think maybe I was good at this. It was affirmation.”
As Northerns continued her education through graduate school, professors encouraged her to focus on poetry. It didn’t take much persuasion: she’d already discovered its power.
“Because I’d gotten married so young, I didn’t take time to explore who I was as a person,” Northerns said. “Poetry gave me a way to explore my past, my cosmology, who I was. It was a way to figure out my place in the world.”
Northerns has lived in Southwest Kansas for nearly two decades, working as an editor, writer, and teacher. She currently teaches creative writing, literature, and composition at SCCC.
“There was a period of about 15 years where I just didn’t write that much,” she said. “When we moved to Liberal, like a lot of people, I just got caught up in the daily routine of work. My son was still in high school, I was starting new jobs, and I didn’t make time for writing.”
Northerns would scribble down beginnings of poems that eventually sifted to the bottom of a desk drawer. It didn’t bother her to shift her focus.
“I love teaching comp 1 and 2,” she said. “I feel like I’m in the trenches, we’re down to the real stuff: the students need to know how to write. It’s a very valuable service. In some ways, it can be all-consuming. You’re reading and grading, and there’s not time to think about writing your own poetry. I never felt like I wasn’t doing something worthwhile. The cool thing about teaching writing is that I feel I’m making a huge difference. I get a lot of fulfillment from my job.”
With her husband, now-retired SCCC English instructor Bill McGlothing, Northerns helped establish an annual poetry contest and coffee house night for students and the community. The celebration of writing — from poetry created by ESL students at the SCCC Colvin Center for Adult Learning to appearances by Kansas Poet Laureates — reflected both instructors’ commitment to education and the greater possibilities for creative writing.
This spring marked the 9th annual event, and Northerns read two of her own poems that connected to her journey back to the written word, “Fireflies,” and “Some Electric Hum.” Both works explore a sense of place, the history of the land, and how both touch the lives of people today. They also connect to Northerns’ own community of writers, which had a hand in her return to writing.
In 2009, Northerns and McGlothing visited friends in Idaho, who asked “What are you writing these days?”
“I told him I wasn’t, and Jim asked, ‘why aren’t you?’” Northerns recalled. “I didn’t have a good answer.” A few months later, a friend from Texas asked her to submit work to a new journal he had started, “and I couldn’t because I hadn’t been writing. Both of those conversations stuck with me. I sat on them for a while, but I finally came to realize that if I didn’t start writing again, I’d never get back to it.”
A 2016 trip to Palo Duro Canyon in Texas, the second-largest natural canyon in the nation — stunningly beautiful and marked by the Comanche Indian tribe’s last stand — provided inspiration.
“Bill and I hiked and camped, but I also spent time writing, and I got three poems out of that trip,” Northerns recalled. “One of them, ‘Fireflies,’ just came out in Laurel Review.”
Encouragement from fellow writers further fueled Northerns’ progress. Poet Pete Fairchild, one of the two famous Kansas poets who hail from Liberal (the other is William Stafford), responded to a copy of “Some Electric Hum” Northerns had emailed him. He encouraged her to apply to Sewanee. She had published enough work to be eligible, he pointed out; more important, he said, her writing was good.
“I wasn’t sure. It’s one of the most prominent writing conferences in the country,” Northerns said. “I was intimidated, but I’m kind of an optimist, so I gave it a try. I still can’t quite believe I got in.”
For 12 days in late July, Northerns will participate in daily workshops, manuscript reviews, and readings by prominent poets, fiction writers, and playwrights. Literary agents and publishers routinely stop in at Sewanee, but Northerns is most excited about the opportunity to meet, and work with, fellow writers from all walks of life.
Like desert flowers that open with the barest misting of rain, Northerns’ work has found an appreciative audience online and on paper. Over the past year, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Chariton Review, descant, The Laurel Review, Roanoke Review, Southwestern American Literature, Iron Horse Literary Review, and elsewhere.
As she began submitting work again, Northerns developed a tolerance for rejection. Tweeting often about the arc of determination, hope, and “no thank you” letters, she concluded that “the more you do it, the easier it is to take the rejection, although it always hurts a little bit,” she said. There’s no way around the risk, though.
“Nothing happens,” she said, “unless you start doing something.”