By Tabatha B. McDonald
As a child growing up in the Bronx, Stephen Gibson got his first real taste of poetry when a teacher at his Catholic elementary school made the entire class memorize a stanza from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven."
"To this day, I still know it,'' Gibson chuckled. "I think that's what got me interested. I knew I enjoyed it."
That interest in poetry developed into a long-lasting passion, and Gibson began writing his own literature as a young teenager. However, it later would be W.H. Auden, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet regarded by some as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, who would have the largest influence on his work.
When Gibson was in high school, a family friend introduced him to the British-born poet who was living in an apartment on St. Mark's Place in Manhattan. Auden agreed to review and critique some of the budding poet's work, and Gibson became immersed in his.
"I started reading a lot of his work and was blown away by the skill and beauty of it. It's just amazing stuff,'' said Gibson, associate professor of English and literature at Palm Beach State College in Belle Glade and author of four books of poetry. "I learned craft. The craft is really what impressed me."
Gibson indirectly crossed Auden's path again when, as an undergraduate student studying English literature at the State University of New York at New Paltz, he became close friends with his professor, Irving Weiss, and his wife, Anne. As fate would have it, the couple was good friends with Auden, who had dedicated poems to them. "It was a nice coincidence,'' he said.
After graduating with his bachelor's degree in English literature from SUNY at New Paltz, Gibson earned a master's degree in English literature and creative writing at Syracuse University. He continued writing while teaching English full time at a Catholic high school in New York and part time at Onondaga Community College. Then he gave up the snow for sunshine, taking a teaching position in 1983 at the Belle Glade campus, where he has worked for 28 years.
He published his first poem, "The Anthropologist," in 1976 in the journal Gravida during a time when access to literary journals and magazines was limited. "The Internet has made everything much more accessible,'' Gibson said.
Since then, he has had more than 150 poems published in various literary and poetry journals, including Five Points, Georgia Review, MARGIE: The American Journal of Poetry, Michigan Quarterly Review, the Paris Review, Poetry and The Southern Review. He also published four books of poetry, including three published as a reward for winning national book competitions. They include "Paradise," which was published by the University of Arkansas Press earlier this year after Gibson was named a finalist for the Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize. Gibson's book and that of the competition's winner were selected from among 700 manuscripts.
His other books are "Frescoes" (2009 poetry book prize from Lost Horse Press), "Masaccio's Expulsion" (2006 poetry book prize from MARGIE/IntuiT House), and "Rorschach Art" (Red Hen Press). He also is a past Individual Artist Fellowship recip-ient from the state of Florida in both poetry and fiction.
Gibson, a three-time recipient of the College's Professor of the Year Award, is quick to point out that it took multiple tries to get some work published. "I tell my students up front they shouldn't get discouraged by it. That's just the way it is. If you believe in your work, keep sending it."
He said he loves teaching English and literature, and his passion for writing feeds into the classroom. "All writing is a process, so is the reading of it,'' he said. "I like the discovery. Your students are always learning something new, and you're always learning something new when it comes to the literature and the writing.
"Students know when you don't care about stuff. When you get involved in something, you care about it. They pick up on it. They know you do."
Halimeh Shatara, a 2004 graduate of Palm Beach State who now works as a library technician at the College, said she took all of her English classes from Gibson when she was working on her Associate in Arts degree. "He's a wonderful professor; that's why I recommend him to everybody. I love the way he teaches. He gets the students engaged in the course. During class discussions, he always connected real-life examples to the events in the short stories. He opens your mind and heart to really understand other people's stories."
"When he's teaching literature, he actually brings it to life and you can visualize yourself being there within the moment of that particular passage,'' said Dr. Barry Moore, dean of educational services at the Belle Glade campus. "I would have loved to have been taught by him; it would have given literature a different perspective. He's very passionate about it, too."
It started in the classroom. Africa Fine was a fervent graduate student with a zeal for storytelling and an appetite for reading.
She had a brief career as a newspaper reporter after earning a bachelor's degree in public policy and African American studies from Duke University in 1993, but she knew in her gut that churning out daily stories on crime and small-town government wasn't her destiny. Fine missed being in school.
After about five years of various copywriting, editing and newspaper reporting jobs, she returned to the classroom to pursue a master's degree in English literature from Florida Atlantic University and landed a position as a graduate assistant. During that stint of helping students sharpen their English and literary skills, she had an epiphany of her own - teaching was her calling.
"I loved being in school, and I loved reading and studying English. That's when I fell in love and figured out what I wanted to do,'' said Fine, a Palm Beach State College associate professor of English and literature and chair of the English and Literature department on the Boca Raton campus. She worked as an adjunct instruct-or for four years before becoming a full- time professor in 2005 and department chair in 2008.
"Teaching is the best job; even on the bad days I still love it,'' she said. "I loved being a student, and I think being a teacher is the next best thing. I get to feel like I'm doing something productive and positive to help other people. It is what I was meant to do."
In graduate school, she also took several creative writing classes, nurturing her love for storytelling that had begun as a child growing up in Milwaukee.
"I had always written stories and been interested in it, and I was a voracious reader ever since I was a kid,'' she said. "That's an important part of being a writer."
For one of her creative writing assignments, the professor told the class to write whatever they wanted. That's when Fine began "Katrina," a romance novel about a woman trapped in a tangled web of choosing between a mysterious man she has known since childhood and a newfound love. It became her first romance novel published by Five Star in 2001, the same year she received her graduate degree. "The classes gave me the confidence and help I needed to get it finished," Fine said.
A professor at FAU helped her with query letters she sent to about 20 publishers; Fine only approached small publishers who specialized in the romance genre, and Five Star gave her a chance - twice. The company published her second book, "Becoming Maren" three years later, and then Genesis Press published her next three books: "Looking for Lily" (2008), "Save Me" (2009) and "Swan" (2010).
"It was a busy time,'' she said of the books she wrote largely while teaching full time, raising two young children and being a wife to her supportive husband, Jeffrey.
For her accomplishments, Fine was among eight recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Award from FAU in 2009. She said her own experience as a published author as well as her foundation in African American studies and public policy make her a more effective and passionate professor for her students.
"I can think of different ways to help them with writing,'' said Fine, who herself was inspired by such writers as Alice Walker, and particularly by Walker's short stories. "I like the idea of telling regular people's stories. It inspired me to want to tell stories that people can relate to."
She said she gets her ideas from a combina-tion of things. "I write fiction, and I take situations and pieces of lives of people I know or newspaper stories and come up with five more questions I have. A story may strike me, and I'll think about what happened before and how. Sometimes things just sort of jump out at you - the emotions that people experience. It starts with that, and the story goes around that initial idea or emotion."
Her colleagues and students say she is a joy to have in the classroom. "I love her style,'' said Deana Karp, an aspiring engineer who enjoys writing and is taking her third class with Fine this term. "She really pushes her students to independently excel, and she pushes you to do that in the writing. She's entertaining, and she doesn't push her views on the student. Whatever position you take, you just support it well."
"She is a masterful professor and writer," said Leonard Bruton, associate dean of academic affairs in Boca Raton. "She teaches in a way that she writes. She tells a story in a way that captures the students."
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