Graduate student Caroline Randall Williams has been busy.
After graduating from Harvard University in 2010 with a degree in English and working for Teach for America in the Delta, Williams came to the University of Mississippi to become a part of the Master of Fine Arts program in English. In her time here she has begun a collection of poems that has acquired a great deal of attention.
“I’ve been working on this series of sonnets since last spring,” Williams said. “The project is really near and dear to my heart. It’s something that’s been germinating since the fall that I got here.”
She worked on them at Cave Canem last summer as well. Cave Canem, an African-American poetry foundation, holds a workshop retreat at the University of Pittsburgh each year for young poets to come and tune their skills.
“You get a week working with all of these incredible, nationally known, black poets, and you get to do a series of workshops,” Williams explained. “It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, and I’m going back again this summer.”
Williams’s assortment has an interestingly historical base.
“The project revolves around the idea of Shakespeare’s dark lady sonnets,” Williams said. “It’s unclear exactly who the dark lady was, but 37 of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to someone he describes as black and ill colored. I’ve been using them as springboards to inspire my own sonnets that deal with white male perceptions of black females in society and through time, particularly in the Jim Crow South era.”
Williams implied that the complex and mercurial topic also had some grounds in her personal experience.
When Williams showed her work to her friend, Gregory Sherl, who is also an M.F.A. candidate at UM and an accomplished poet, she didn’t know it would lead to her eventual publication.
Ampersand Books is a small press in Florida that publishes new and little-heard-of authors and poets. Each year Ampersand produces a collection from a previously unpublished poet. This year, that poet will be Caroline Randall Williams.
“Greg gets to select which poet gets the next book,” Williams said. “He called me and said, ‘I really love your project. Do you want your book to be the next one Ampersand Books does?’”
This is not Williams’ first experience in the world of publishing; she coauthored a young adult novel, The Diary of B.B. Bright, Possible Princess, with her mother, Alice Randall, that was released last year. But this work is more personal.
“This book is nearest and dearest to me because it’s my own.”