Alumna Update: Rachel Malis

Rachel Malis graduated GW last spring, and she’s currently celebrating the publication of her poem “Odessa, Odessos” in the online journal In light of this new achievement, we caught up with Rachel to see what else she’s been doing.

When did you graduate GW? What was your major?
I graduated from GW in the Spring of 2007. I double majored in Women’s Studies and English & Creative Writing.

Do any GW professors stand out as strong influences for you?
Professor Jane Shore strongly encouraged me to first apply for the creative writing major and then for MFA programs. Without her encouragement I don’t think I would even believe that what I’m doing is possible. Tammy Greenwood-Stewart also really helped me believe that poetry could be a part of my future and was a huge support.

A favorite GW moment or experience?
I liked a lot of things about GW, but the moment that will always be in my memory is getting the call that confirmed my acceptance at ASU’s MFA program in Kogan Plaza. It was a beautiful April day and I had some poetry workshop friends with me. I think I almost passed out by the giant clock.

What have you been doing since you left GW? How have you benefited from a degree in English?
ASU’s MFA program is three years (not the usual two), which means more time to write and learn, and of course escape the real world. Part of my acceptance package was a Teaching Assistantship, which means that I teach two courses per semester entirely on my own. So far, I’ve been teaching Freshman Composition, but next year I’ll get to try my hand at an undergrad poetry workshop! Without my English degree, I wouldn’t have even been eligible to apply for these programs.

How do you anticipate keeping writing in your life since leaving the workshop environment?
The workshop environment is still with me! But even when I’m finished with this degree, I know I’ll always write. I write everywhere already. Airports, buses…but I hope to eventually teach writing classes and maybe even go for a PhD.

If you were at a poetry reading and read “Odessa, Odessos” aloud, what introduction would you give?
My Odessa poem germinated in the car, with my father, when he was confessing to me that he had just purchased a rare coin online. He was really excited about it, getting a money order (I didn’t know people still did that!) and explaining it to me. We were driving to his mother’s grave. It all sort of fit together for me. The two of them immigrated to the US from the USSR in 1980. Their story has often played a role in my work; I’m fascinated by it.

Here is a copy of Rachel’s poem.

Odessa, Odessos

In the car my father turns and asks, “Do you know
where I was born?” I hate these questions.
Odessa. He knows I know. Answering, deadpan
to the windshield, the edges still curl in anger.

The coin he bought is from the ancient Greek city
that thrived in the same place. “Odessos,” he says.
I am filled with a slow, heavy sadness,
and wish the air was something other than our silence.

We drive into the cemetery and walk through
the snow to his mother’s grave. It is covered
with a thick layer of ice, and if I step lightly enough,
I can slide across without breaking it. My father falls through.

The sound from beneath our feet is the only one we hear.
“This place brings you back to earth,” he whispers to me.
He slips two smooth rocks into my hand. Their warmth
is eerie and fluid between my fingers, stiffened with cold.

The engraving is written in both English and Cyrillic,
and the coin is for his mother as much as his collection.
The branches shine with frost.
In the wind, they make no sound.

He brushes away dried pollen from invisible blooms
and finds a spot to place his stones. They are pink,
veined with blue, just bigger than pebbles. He has
had these in a little dish on his dresser for months.

Somehow, I knew not to ask what he was saving
them for. Back in the car, my hands are empty.
My father takes the handkerchief that had carried the stones
in his pocket, and lifts it to his face.

Best of luck with everything, Rachel!

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