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Christopher Penna


Christopher Penna Headshot 2023
Christopher Penna

Literature: Poetry

By: Gail Obenreder

A poem [is] something that adds to our experience of the world and that can enhance our understanding of both it and of ourselves.”

Christopher Penna has been captivated by literature for as long as he can remember. He grew up first in New York City (“where my earliest memories are of riding the Staten Island Ferry”), then in Cincinnati, and – for most of his formative years – in nearby West Chester, Pennsylvania. In his family of six, “my brother and I used to compete to see how many books we’d read.” Penna began writing poetry and fiction as a teen, and his literary focus has never waned.

During a hiatus between high school and college, the young writer edited a West Chester literary journal and organized poetry readings there. That formative period led him to resume his formal education, and his rigorous studies at Syracuse University and the University of Delaware (where he completed his graduate studies) resulted in a distinguished 35-year teaching career in the First State.

Paper Boats (2021)

It’s drawn from memory

this lake of violets

near the broken branches

last winter’s storm took down.

The rest of the yard fades

to twigs and leaves and bare background.

Shape the lines, work in the breathing blue, look up again to see if you

remember what you saw

before you looked down to draw.


Or compose some different lines across a different page.

Stare again before you look down

to write the words, cross out, rephrase.


It’s against the grain

this drawing from memory,

this launching of paper boats on the fading blue

of what we see hoping just the same

to hold onto what we saw,

or what we thought we knew,

before we wrote or drew.

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But throughout his academic ventures, Penna has never stopped writing. Along with his myriad professional publications, articles, and presentations, he has also published poems in a variety of literary journals.

Penna sees creating his poetry as a practice that gives “voice to locations, situations, impressions, and sometimes emotions that allow us to fix our experience of the world.” His wide-ranging poetic influences include writers like Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Wilbur, A.E. Stallings, and Seamus Heaney – all poets who work along more formal lines, often in fixed forms. Penna is drawn to their work because “I am interested in the shaped, thing-like nature of a poem, a thing in the world describing the world.”

An avid hiker and biker who enjoys the challenges of outdoor activities, Penna thrives on the challenges in his artistic practice as well. “With poetry, the struggle is always to find the right combination of words and sounds . . . but when it works, it’s rewarding.” Sometimes his processes “take you in an unexpected direction,” leading Penna to find something “you hadn’t even known to look for when you started.”

Because writing is a solitary pursuit, and much of it can now be accomplished virtually, pandemic restrictions haven’t had a direct effect on his work. In fact, during the isolation period and multiple closures, Penna felt “compelled to write more . . . to carry on in spite of the pandemic.”

The Division’s Established Artist Fellowship will allow him more free time to devote to writing and to finishing up a book that he has now in process. Penna is also working on a new project that explores how the mediums of video and poetry can complement one another. He states that “receiving the Fellowship is a great honor,” one that will help Penna further his goal of creating poems that “may help to fix us, in the sense of holding in place [and] may help to fix us, in the sense of repairing.”

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