“Astronomy, Toddler Poetry, and Quality Management”: Alumni Interview with Katie Bode-Lang ’02

We’re delighted to have the chance today to catch up with illustrious alumna Katherine Bode-Lang. So, Katie, tell us a little about what you’re up to now, and how you got there.

I’m a working poet and mother: I write, and I’m the Director of Education and Quality Management in the Office for Research Protections (it’s a mouthful!) at Penn State University. We manage research compliance—making sure all research conducted with people or animals (or drones!) follows legal guidelines.

My book, The Reformation, won the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize in 2014, chosen by Stephen Dunn. After sending out my manuscript over a hundred times, I was honored to have the book land with APR and find an audience. And it was such a thrill to come back to Hope to read for the JRVWS that year with my dear friend and wonderful poet, Laura Donnelly (’01)!

I like to joke that poets need day jobs. After working in nonprofit administration, I earned my MFA in poetry at Penn State. I taught English full-time there for three years before making the leap to research administration.

My English major comes in useful in my current job: I try to communicate our work in terms non-scientists can understand. My boss teases that she hired a poet because she wanted someone who could say complicated things simply—and in a small amount of space!

I also love being a mom; our daughter, Clara, turned three last month. I recently heard the poet Naomi Shihab Nye read, and she said that if you’re around a toddler, you should just watch and take notes—it’s true. I write down something Clara said almost every day because her words are both honest and magical. Today when we took a walk to the park, she said, “Thank you, sun. It was nice playing with you today.” It’s toddler poetry.

How would you say that your Hope English education shaped you?

I’m a poet because of Hope. Back when I applied, I won one of the earliest Distinguished Artist Awards to support my study of creative writing. I studied with Jack Ridl my first semester of freshman year, and I didn’t look back. And classes with Kathleen Verduin, Jesse Montaño, Julie Kipp, and William Pannapacker surely influenced my view of the world and literature.

Hope was also my first interdisciplinary experience. I double-majored in women’s studies and T.A.ed for astronomy. That meant my interest in the sky could influence my poems, and my interest in writing led me to help rewrite the curriculum for an astronomy course. Being able to integrate my work was such an incredible opportunity.

I think you can still see those influences in my poetry: I write a lot about the female body, hoping my own experiences will give voice to the experiences of others. You’ll also find astronomy in my poetry. My senior year at Hope, “She’s Heard It Said if It Weren’t for the Sky We Would Go Mad” was published in the Beloit Poetry Journal. I still remember having that poem workshopped in one of Jack’s classes!

I love that some of my earliest poems made it into my first book. Another was “In the Back Field,” written while taking Dr. Pannapacker’s course on writing and the environment. A third was a response to an assignment to write about a photograph in English 355. Obviously, they were edited in the decade following.

If you could teach any English class, what would be the title?

I loved teaching poetry workshops and would happily teach them again. English 355, please.

What advice would you give to current English majors, or students considering an English major?

Don’t limit yourself because you don’t know what’s out there. There are whole realms to operating a large university that I had no idea existed—and they are great places for English majors to work! I get to learn about interesting research, I make sure people are conducting their work ethically, and I influence the curriculum of our graduate students.

But if you’d asked me if I wanted to work in research administration, I wouldn’t have even known what that was! If you’re interested in jobs that use your skills, ask questions, network with alumni, and do your research. And working outside of an English department doesn’t mean you can’t be a writer.

Finding the balance of working, writing, parenting, and partnering isn’t easy no matter what discipline you’re working in. I’m always journaling and writing drafts of poems as they come to me. But this past year, I actually started taking vacation days so I would have dedicated writing time. I’m happy to “vacation” with my laptop at a coffee shop. And these vacation days have led to a manuscript for my second collection.

Also, join OPUS. It’s where I met my husband (Andrew Bode-Lang ’99). No joke!

Favorite book read recently or in college?

Hope introduced me to the poetry of Li-Young Lee, Jane Hirschfield, and Louise Glück. And I still remember Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia from a Latino studies class with Jesse Montaño.

Thanks for checking back in with Hope English, Katie! We can’t wait to read the next book, and hope we’ll hear a bit more toddler poetry.

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