Finding Life in Language
Betsy Neary Sholl ’67, P’93 blazes a poetic trail
by Brooke Thames
Words didn’t always come easily to Betsy Neary Sholl ’67, P’93, who stuttered throughout childhood. When she began putting pen to paper, writing suddenly became “my way of communicating those inner workings I had trouble getting out,” she says.

But it was at Bucknell — reading the electrifying works of William Butler Yeats and Allen Ginsberg in poetry courses — where the English major discovered the form that would spark her wordplay.

“With poetry, there’s a point where the language itself takes over, where you just let go of yourself and follow where it wants to go,” says Sholl, who’s published nine poetry collections. “The movement, the lyrical associations, the wildness of it — I love those moments of discovery and surprise where it feels like the poem is leading you.”

Sholl’s poetic subjects are as eclectic as they are personal, ranging from her love of jazz and observations about social class to her father’s early death and her subsequent life in a 1950s all-female household. The latter served as inspiration for Changing Faces, her first collection published by Alice James Books, a press Sholl co-founded in 1973 to uplift the voices of female poets.

Betsy Neary Sholl headshot
Photo: Hannah Tarkinson
Poet Betsy Neary Sholl ’67, P’93 discovered her passion for wordplay at Bucknell.
Back then, women saw their work rejected by male editors who “didn’t publish ‘kitchen sink poems about your mama,’ but ironically filled their magazines with poems by men complaining about their fathers,” Sholl says. Since then, Alice James Books — named for the 19th-century American diarist — has celebrated underrecognized perspectives on race and gender.

When Sholl was tapped as Maine’s poet laureate from 2006 to 2011, an even greater opportunity to shepherd diverse, exciting writers emerged.

Says Sholl, “It was amazing to see how alive the literary world is in my local towns and see writers grow into their power as they believe that their voices matter.”