Rhett Iseman Trull '99: Voice of a Poet

Rhett Iseman Trull '99

Credit: Jeff Trull


Rhett Iseman Trull has been crafting stories, poems, and plays since she was a girl. Writing provides an outlet for articulating emotion and experiences, from the confusion and conflicts of grade school to the heartbreak and regrets of young adulthood. "I was looking for a way to voice things I didn't have a voice for," she says. "Writing—especially poetry—helped me take powerful feelings and put them into words."

Growing up in Winston-Salem, Trull aspired to follow in the footsteps of her father, James Marx Iseman Jr. '74, and attend Duke. (Her brother, James Marx Iseman III '02, followed suit.) As an undergraduate, she sought out creative-writing courses taught by faculty members and visiting scholars, including Melissa Malouf, Elizabeth Cox, Deborah Pope, Erin Cressida Wilson, and Lucille Clifton. She graduated with a major in English, and then earned an M.F.A. at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Since then, Trull's work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Best New Poets 2008, The Southern Review, and Prairie Schooner, among other publications. She has garnered awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation, and her collection of poems, The Real Warnings, won the 2008 Anhinga Prize for Poetry, established by Anhinga Press to recognize fine poetry. Anhinga judge Sheryl St. Germain praised Trull's writing, commenting, "I've never read a poet who understands more fully the brutal paradoxes of love and of loving damaged things, nor have I ever read one whose epiphanies felt truer."

In addition to her own work, Trull publishes Cave Wall, a semiannual journal of poetry that includes work by both established and up-and-coming poets. The first edition, for example, included works by 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner Claudia Emerson and former North Carolina Poet Laureate Fred Chappell '61, A.M. '64, who was one of Trull's professors at UNC-G. Trull and her husband, Jeff, produce Cave Wall from their home in Greensboro.

"Jeff loves poetry, although he doesn't write it," says Trull. "He's the one who encouraged me to start Cave Wall" and helps with final decisions, layout, and design.

As her work has found a broader audience, Trull admits that she has subtly altered her poetry away from the intensely personal, first-person approach. "The Real Warnings was not autobiographical, but the poems did draw from difficult situations in my life," she says. "Now I'm noticing that my latest writing tends to be in the third person, not out of fear that people will think the poems are autobiographical, but more as a way to step back and take a different approach."

At readings, Rhett tailors her presentation for the audience, whether that's a mainstream crowd at a major bookstore chain, health-care professionals at Duke Hospital, or local middle-school students. When she read her poems to the latter group recently, she says, she chose a selection she thought would resonate with adolescents trying to navigate through a turbulent stage of life.

"I was more scared about that reading than any other reading, because that's the age when I found poetry," she says. "It's a very scary time. So I selected poems that I thought could speak to some of those emotions."

Among the selections she read was "Last Word," written from the perspective of a depressed teenager contemplating suicide. The narrator stands on a window ledge, imagines the fall to the ground, recalls the boy who called her fat in seventh grade, the "saccharinely pretty girl who stole my seat in calculus," the unnoticed cries for help. But in the poem's concluding stanza, she reconsiders:

Maybe it takes an actual jump:
the sound
of my life briefly on the wind.
Maybe to see me
they have to kneel by my body
like a test
someone finally scored incorrect;
they have to close the zeroes of
my eyes.
Tomorrow I will come back and
do this again.
But not today. I don't really want
to be a concrete
signature. I want to grow old
choosing ink over blood
with which, on the flank of the
world, I'll set my brand.

When Trull finished reading, it was clear she'd struck a nerve: The nearly 200 eighth-graders in the audience erupted into applause.

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