Jesse Lee Kercheval
Position title: Marjorie and Lorin Tiefenthaler Professor of English
6195G Helen C. White Hall
- Creative writing (fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction) and translation.
Degrees and Institutions
- M.F.A., University of Iowa
Jesse Lee Kercheval is the author of 18 books including America that island off the coast of France (Tupelo Press, 2019), winner of the Dorset Prize in Poetry; the short story collection Underground Women (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019); the memoir Space (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), winner of the Alex Award from the American Library Association; Extranjera/ Stranger, a bilingual Spanish/ English language poetry collection. (Editorial Yaugurú, Uruguay, 2015); Brazil (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2010), winner of the Ruthanne Wiley Memorial Novella Contest; Cinema Muto (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), winner of the Crab Orchard Open Selection Award; The Alice Stories (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), winner of the Prairie Schooner Fiction Book Prize; and The Dogeater (University of Missouri Press, 1987), winner of the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction.
She is also a translator, specializing in Uruguayan poetry. Her translations include: Love Poems/ Poemas de amor by Idea Vilariño, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020); Night in the North by Fabián Severo (Eulalia Books, 2020), co-translated with Laura Cesarco Eglin; La voz y la sombre/ Voice & Shadow: New and Selected Poems of Luis Bravo (Dialógos Books 2020), co-translated with Catherine Jagoe; Fable of an Inconsolable Man (Action Books, 2017) by Javier Etchevarren and The Invisible Bridge/ El puente invisible: Selected Poems of Circe Maia (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015).
She is also the editor of Mis razones, mujeres poetas del Uruguay. Ensayos, co-edited with Virginia Lucas. (Editorial de Biblioteca National de Uruguay, 2019); Earth, Water and Sky / Tierra, cielo y aqua: A Bilingual Anthology of Environmental Poetry. (Editorial Yaugarú, the South American Institute of Resilience and Sustainability Studies, and Dialógos Books, 2017); and América invertida: a Bilingual Anthology of Emerging Uruguayan Poets (University of New Mexico Press, 2016).
Writing poetry in English and Spanish. Eco-poetics. Writing fiction, memoir and creative nonfiction. Additional interests include translation and Uruguayan poetry: Circe Maia, Tatiana Oroño, and Idea Vilariño, among others.
I teach workshops in poetry, fiction and memoir at the undergraduate and graduate levels and serve as a thesis advisor for both poetry and fiction MFA students.
After losing her husband and daughter in an auto accident, 42-year-old Emma flies to Paris, discovers she has a twin brother whose existence she had not known about, and learns that her birth parents weren’t the Americans who raised her, but a White Russian film star of the 1920s and a French Stalinist. A story about identity and the shaping function of art, My Life as a Silent Movie presents a vividly rendered world and poses provocative questions on the relationship of art to life.Read more
Brazil is a quintessential American road trip. Paulo, an 18 year old bell boy in a Miami Beach hotel, and Claudia, a wealthy Hungarian refugee, take off on a night drive that turns into a crosscountry journey, a sleep deprived search for the real America and for missing family, a fast-moving car trip into her past and toward their future.Read more
Crab Orchard Open Selection Award Winner
In ….i, Jesse Lee Kercheval examines the enduring themes of time, mortality, and love as revealed through the power of silent film. Following the ten days of the annual Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Italy, this collection of ekphrastic poems are love letters to the evocative power of silent cinema. Kercheval’s poems elegantly capture the allure of these rare films, which compel hundreds of pilgrims from around the world—from scholars and archivists, to artists and connoisseurs—to flock to Italy each autumn. Cinema Muto celebrates the flickering tales of madness and adventure, drama and love, which are all too often left to decay within forgotten vaults. As reels of Mosjoukine and D. W. Griffith float throughout the collection, a portrait also emerges of the simple beauty of Italy in October and of two lovers who are drawn together by their mutual passion for an extinct art. Together they revel in recapturing “the black and white gestures of a lost world.”
Cinema Muto is a tender tribute to the brief yet unforgettable reign of silent film. Brimming with stirring images of dreams, desire, and the ghosts of cinema legends gone by, Kercheval’s verse is a testament to the mute beauty and timeless lessons that may still be discovered in a fragile roll of celluloid.Read more
Wisconsin is not where Alice, a girl raised in Florida, meant to end up. But when she falls in love with Anders Dahl, a descendant of Norwegian farmers born for generations in the same stone farmhouse, she realizes that to love Anders is to settle into a life in Wisconsin in the small house they buy before their daughter, Maude, is born. Together, Alice and Anders move forward into a life of family, friends, and the occasional troubled student until they face their biggest challenge. Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, Jesse Lee Kercheval’s The Alice Stories tells the tale of a family: the pain of loss and the importance of the love of friends in the midst of turmoil. As timely as the news yet informed by rich humor and a deep understanding of human character, the interlinked Alice Stories form a luminous tale of family life.Read more
Winner of the Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize, selected by Albert Goldbarth
Film History as Train Wreck was published in 2006 by Center for Book Arts as a letterpress chapbook printed by Barbara Henry in an edition of 100.Read more
Full of wit, vivid language, and devastating honesty, these autobiographical poems trace the timelines of life forward and backward. In them Kercheval offers a moving examination of the role of family and the possible/probable/hoped for existence of God—and how our perceptions of the divine can be transformed from a kindergartner’s dyslexically scrawled “doG loves U” to the ever-present but oft-ignored Dog Angel of the title.
Ranging from a cross-country drive to bury her mother’s ashes at Arlington National Cemetery, to a family vacation in Spain, to an imagined final exam given by her children, Kercheval explores the vagaries of love, loss, faith, grief, and joy with a calm, convincing wisdom that permeates this resonant and wonderful collection.Read more
Ginny Gillespie is a young widow who has fled Florida with her husband’s ashes in her suitcase. Roland Keppi is a half-Alsatian, half-German carnival worker in search of a vision. They meet in Paris in 1929 and fall in love under a cloud of sparrows, but are soon separated when Roland is deported. Moving back and forth between Ginny and Roland, past and present, The Museum of Happiness follows the paths that bring them together in Paris, and the journeys that reunite them in a town where happiness has a shrine of its own.
Along the way, we meet an eccentric array of characters whose fates are all somehow connected to those of Ginny and Roland: Roland’s grandmother Odile, a visionary like him whose final revenge on their superstitious hometown is forgiveness; Ginny’s landlady, the indomitable Madame Desnos, who finds herself evicted from her own hotel; Ginny’s mother, a doctor whose religion has led her away from humanity; and a crew of filmmakers out to document the entire world.
Starting with Roland’s birth just before World War I and ending with the invention of television, The Museum of Happiness ranges from small-town Florida to a bizarre German detention camp, from the Parisian underworld to a place in the south of France where lace is the only industry. Exploring the conflicts between nationality and identity, family and freedom, fate and choice, The Museum of Happiness is a romantic and compelling novel with a gloriously happy ending.Read more
No one looks at structure like Jesse Lee Kercheval. She builds a work of fiction just as an architect would design a house-with an eye for details and how all parts of a story or novel interconnect. Even with the most dynamic language, images, and characters, no piece of fiction will work without a strong infrastructure. Kercheval shows how to build that structure using such tools as point of view, characterization, pacing, and flashbacks. Building Fiction will help you envision the landscape of your fiction and build great stories.Read more
“From the powerful and unforgettable opening sequence which recounts, with passionate intensity and uncompromising honesty, the death of a dear friend from cancer; through the wonderful middle poems on the complex pleasures of marriage, motherhood, and family life; to the final meditations on the poet’s own intractable childhood; World as Dictionary explores the vagaries of love, loss, desire, and will. At times heartbreaking and elegiac, mourning a universe that ‘is racing from us / at the speed of light/ and . . . is never coming back,’ Kercheval is also unswervingly affirmative, celebrating with her infant daughter (whose word for ‘open’ expands her world), ‘Ope, ope, ope . . . we live in hope./ My daughter claps her hands.’ Fierce, intimate, lyrical, profound, and true, World as Dictionary is a beautiful, beautiful book. A book that lives in hope. A book that claps its hands.” -Ron Wallace”Read more
Winner of the Alex Award from the American Library Association
Looking back at a time when America was on the brink of all the big changes coming by way of Apollo 11, The Feminine Mystique, and the Vietnam War, this high-spirited memoir focuses on what it was like back then–for a girl.
Jesse Lee Kercheval opens her story in 1966 when she was a precocious ten-year old girl whose family moves from Washington, D.C. to Cocoa, Florida. Bedroom community to the rocket launchers, Cocoa was a town rising out of a swamp, a city of the future being built out of concrete block and hope. Alligators still wandered across the newly paved subdivision streets, and civilization was based on the twin luxuries of central air-conditioning and mosquito control.
Living in their brand-new house in a brand-new development (called Lunar Heights), the Kercheval’s–father, mother, two little girls, tried to ride the Space Race’s tide of optimism. But even as the rockets kept going up, the Kercheval family was spiraling down. Father hid out at work while Mother overdosed her depression and Jesse Lee and her sister, Carol, hovered at the edge of the nest, having to try their wings too early and too alone. By the end of the book, America has flown to the moon but the Kercheval family, weighed down by the realities of life on earth, has crashed.
Weaving domestic and public concerns, this brilliant rendering of an era juxtaposes the sensibilities of a young woman poised at the edge of adulthood (hilariously, touchingly so) and those of a whole country poised on the edge of things equally frightening–the future of NASA, the outcome of the war and woman’s lib.Read more
Winner of the Associated Writing Programs Award in Short Fiction
The stories included in the collection are “Underground Women,” “Willy,” “A Clean House,” “Tertiary Care,” “La Mort au Moyen Age,” “The History of the Church in America,” “A History of Indiana,” and the title story “The Dogeater,” about an elderly Igorrote man, living in New Orleans, who was originally brought to the United States as part of an exhibit for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
“Underground Women,” the first story in the collection, became the nucleus for The Museum of Happiness. It was also the basis of Paula Froehle’s 2002 film.Read more