L. Lamar Wilson was 10 years into his journalism career when he interviewed Nikki Giovanni for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Instead of just writing a feature story, he discovered something else — a new direction in higher education.

English Career Connections keynote speaker

Wilson, M.F.A. ’10, returns to Virginia Tech Nov. 3 as the keynote speaker for English Career Connections. This is a Department of English networking conference organized by its Distinguished Alumni Board on which Wilson serves. The Florida State University assistant professor's talk, “The Invisible Hands in the Stories We Tell Ourselves,” will discuss what helps him to recalibrate his writing life and renew his focus on that which he finds matters most.

“Mastering the art of clear, concise, and precise writing in a confident voice that’s all your own will make you stand out in any applicant pool in any field you pursue,” he said, advocating for students to passionately chase their unique excellence.

From journalist to M.F.A. student

Reflecting on his career trajectory, Wilson’s initial choice was in news editing. However, a decade later, he felt less enthusiastic about this path as print journalism transitioned to a 24-hour online news cycle. After interviewing Giovanni in January 2007, her encouragement led him to Virginia Tech’s new Master of Fine Arts program, marking a transformative phase in his career.

At Virginia Tech, Wilson found faculty mentors beyond Giovanni, including Virginia Fowler and Gena E. Chandler. Their guidance not only honed his writing but also inspired him to consider academia. Chandler, now associate chair and associate professor in the department, played a pivotal role in his transition from an M.F.A. to a Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is also an alumna of that university.

Wilson’s M.F.A. thesis, “All-American,” won the 2012 Carolina Wren Press Poetry Series as “Sacrilegion” and garnered accolades such as an Independent Publishers Group bronze medal and a finalist for the Thom Gunn Award. This debut collection helped him secure a tenure-track position at the University of Alabama while he finished his dissertation and received his doctorate.  

“While I worked toward tenure at U.A., I was again guided by the invaluable mentorship and friendship of these fearless women, especially Dr. Chandler,” he said.

Becoming faculty and embracing a mantra

Currently an assistant professor at Florida State University and a faculty member for the low-residency M.F.A. at Mississippi University for Women, Wilson's writing and expertise spans multi-genre creative writing, film studies, and African American and multi-ethnic American literatures. He also publishes widely in these disciplines.

“I’ve learned to embrace the mantra Nikki models: ‘The answer (to any opportunity to grow) is always yes. You can always change your mind later, if it doesn’t feel right,’” he said regarding the idea of networking on one’s career trajectory.

Throughout the past decade, this mindset provided opportunities to adapt poems fromSacrilegion” into the musical production “The Gospel Truth” for other disabled, queer actors and artists and to work with Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, the directors who made “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project," and serving as chief subject and associate producer for “The Changing Same.”

“With this perennial flagship in PBS’s POV Short series, I retitled the film to honor an Amiri Baraka essay on the blues that Nikki brought to my attention during my M.F.A.,” Wilson said.

He gathered the films subjects, crafted interview questions, and identified filming locations throughout his native Marianna, Florida — its main setting.

“The film’s central role in engaging a national conversation about lynching and other extrajudicial acts of violence against Black people in the wake of the horrific killings of Elijah McClain, George Perry Floyd Jr., Breonna Taylor, and others since 2019, the year the film debuted, has proven a career-defining moment for me,” he said. “It coalesces my past in journalism reportage and editing with my artistic investment in documentary poetics in ways that I hope define this next phase of my art making.”

Challenges and advice

Reflecting on challenges post-9/11, the April 16 tragedy at Virginia Tech, which occurred the day he was admitted as a student, and the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilson’s talk aims to address his relationship to his disabilities today, which differs greatly from how he was taught to minimize them in years past. He no longer has the desire to keep them hidden.

“I’m still wondering where I’ll land as an unapologetically and multiethnically Black, genderqueer, disabled, multi-genre, multi-hyphenate artist in academe,” Wilson said about higher education, which appears to inadvertently perpetuate traditional structures that may not fully embrace the diverse perspectives and experiences of all members, particularly those from marginalized communities.

But, now as an academic, writer, and Distinguished Alumni Board member, having had strong mentors, Wilson embodies their leadership, sharing it with the next generation of students.

“No one arrives at any pinnacle of success or can ascend to the next level without others who are at that level reaching back to say, ‘Follow me. I’ll show you a way,’” he said. “Their paths may not prove to be exact ones that those who heed their call can or need to take. The most courageous among us often diverge onto paths not yet taken, but having others to look up to can demystify our journeys and make them less lonely and isolated.”

Written by Leslie King