John Pursley, recent recipient of a South Carolina Arts Commission fellowship, is pictured at his home in Greenville.
John Pursley’s book-length poem, a work in progress, focuses on a changing America as seen through a very personal lens. Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

John Pursley III, a senior lecturer in English at Clemson University, was recently awarded a fellowship by the South Carolina Arts Commission in support of his latest project, a book-length poem that reflects on tumultuous change in America.

Pursley, who is also director of the Clemson Literary Festival, was one of only two writers to receive the $5,000 fellowship for the 2021 fiscal year.

Pursley’s partner, novelist Sarah Blackman, was the other writer to garner the fellowship.

“We both found out the same day. It was a pretty good day,” Pursley said. “It’s a wonderful fellowship, particularly in the world of poetry.”

“Fellowships recognize and reward the artistic achievements of exceptional South Carolina individual artists,” said David Platts, executive director of the South Carolina Arts Commission. “Recognition from a fellowship lends artistic prestige and can often open doors to other resources and career opportunities.”

Pursley’s as-yet unnamed poem looks at contemporary events and American myths through a personal lens.

“I think it’s really about the rapidity at which the world is changing, and how the world I once knew is gone,” he said.

Much of that change over the past few years has been positive, Pursley said, “rectifying the wrongs of the past.”

Arts Commission fellowships were awarded based on the recommendations of out-of-state judges who reviewed anonymous work samples.

Pursley is writing his poem in free verse, crafting every line to be the exact same length, a feat that one of the judges called “extremely compelling” and “an audacious ambition.”

“This kind of long-form lyric verse is exceedingly difficult to pull off, especially given a unified measure of line length,” said panelist Sandra Beasley, “but the poet has demonstrably finessed each phrasing and break to complement the constraint.”

Pursley hopes to complete the poem within a year.

Poetry is Pursley’s primary literary focus, although he also writes fiction and non-fiction. Among his books is a volume of poetry, “If You Have Ghosts.” His work has been published in Poetry, the Colorado Review, and the Western Humanities Review, among others.

Now beginning his 12th year at Clemson, Pursley teaches creative writing as well as 20th and 21st century literature.

Due to COVID-19, Pursley had to cancel this year’s Clemson Literary Festival but all writers scheduled to speak this year have been engaged to appear at next year’s festival.

Pursley earned his B.A. in English at the University of Missouri-Columbia and an MFA in creative writing at the University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa.

Blackman is the director of creative writing at the Fine Arts Center, a magnet high school for the arts in Greenville. She is also co-editor of fiction for Diagram and the founding editor of Crashtest, an online magazine for writers in high school. Her debut novel “Hex” was published in 2016. Blackman spoke at the Clemson Literary Festival in 2019.

The state arts commission awards only four fellowships every year in rotating disciplines. In addition to Pursley and Blackman, fellowships went to choreographer Erin Bailey and dancer Tanya Wideman-Davis, both of Richland County.

“The fellowship program is one of the many ways the South Carolina Arts Commission shows commitment to artistic development and sustainability through its support of South Carolina creatives,” Platts said.

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