An Interview with Sally Bliumis-Dunn MFA '02 on the Vijay Seshadri Endowed Graduate Fellowship in Writing

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Sally Bliumis-Dunn received her MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence in 2002. She teaches at Manhattanville College and the 92nd Street Y. Her books of poems include Talking Underwater (Wind Publications, 2007), Second Skin (Wind Publications, 2009), and Galapagos Poems (Kattywompus Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in Paris Review, Plume, Poetry London, Prairie Schooner, The Academy of American Poets' Poem-A-Day, and The Writer's Almanac, among others. Her third book of poems, Echolocation, will be published by Plume Editions in October 2017. She is currently working on a book of fable poems.

The Vijay Seshadri Endowed Graduate Fellowship in Writing was established by a group of alumni to celebrate Sarah Lawrence faculty member Vijay Seshadri, recipient of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. It will provide tuition assistance to an exceptional MFA student with demonstrated financial need, studying Poetry or Creative Non-Fiction in Sarah Lawrence's Writing Program.

What inspired you to spearhead the creation of the Vijay Seshadri fellowship?

I guess it was an accrual of the many conversations I have had with his other students over the years. I found that their stories paralleled mine in terms of the gratitude they feel towards Vijay. It was this groundswell of admiration and enthusiasm that gave me the idea. Also, my dear friend Miles Coon had spearheaded a similar scholarship for Tom Lux in 2002. And lastly, when I asked Vijay if he would like it, he said he would be extremely honored and gave me permission to begin the efforts. As you can see, we have had an incredible response!

How do you feel about Sarah Lawrence?

I found that when I began Sarah Lawrence's MFA in Poetry in 1999, the professors were of very high caliber and that the community of writers was particularly cohesive and supportive. Some of my best friends in the poetry world are a result of the Sarah Lawrence program and Sarah Lawrence MFA poets have landed books in very prestigious places. I think Ross Gay, for instance, just recently won the National Book Award.

Tell us a story about Vijay from your time at Sarah Lawrence.

Vijay numbers among the best teachers I have ever had. He is incredibly knowledgeable about poetry and its history. He wears his intelligence lightly and is very skilled at using it to deepen a student's work. I have watched him work with other students as well, and he always approaches their poems with respect for what they are trying to accomplish. Vijay believed in my work, a bit more, perhaps, than I did at the time, and was extremely helpful and encouraging during my time at Sarah Lawrence.

I remember my first conference with Vijay. We met in an annex bridge-type structure constructed from fieldstone. It had the feel of an old castle or fortress. I had given Vijay a manila envelope of my earlier poems, as he had wanted to get a sense of my work. I was a bit nervous on entering his office, but the first thing he said to me, with a big smile, was, "I had no idea how far along you were. These are really strong and I want to help."