Kendall Driscoll ’16 thought writing her thoughts would keep them hidden safely away. What the soft-spoken music education major from Aiken, S.C., didn’t count on was the words jumping off the page.
Speech of the Masquerade, Driscoll’s first book, will be published Dec. 5 by PRA Publishing. A collection of 31 poems, Speech of the Masquerade represents the culmination of a talent that Driscoll simply couldn’t keep secret despite a personality not exactly determined to find the limelight.
Driscoll began writing poetry in elementary school, penning “hundreds” of verses in notebooks only she ever saw. But one she wrote as a sophomore in high school, called “Speech of the Masquerade,” made her especially proud—and especially brave. In it, a protagonist “wants to show the world that she’s something more than that quiet little bookworm, but she’s scared.”
It took more than a year, but Driscoll stopped being that scared bookworm when she entered “Speech of the Masquerade” in the 2010 Poetry Matters contest. To her surprise she won, and to her chagrin one of the requirements was that the poem be read aloud to the judges and a group of her peers.
But Driscoll “blew the audience away,” according to Lucinda Clark, founder of PRA as well as a co-founder of Poetry Matters. She also gained a confidence she didn’t know she had.
“That poem speaks so clearly for me because at the time I when wrote it in high school I was so scared to talk to anyone, and sharing poetry with anyone was a huge fear that I had,” Driscoll said. “’Speech of the Masquerade gave me the voice to get my poetry out there, present my ideas, put my heart on the page. That’s what it really made me do. It’s my favorite poem, I think.”
Driscoll went on to win Poetry Matters contests twice more in three years, and during her freshman year at Furman she took Clark up on Clark’s offer to try to produce a book. Her query letter was quickly met with a request for a completed manuscript.
“I didn’t expect that it was going to be accepted, and then I realized, wow, I’m going to have to balance poetry and music. It is a crazy juggling act, but it’s an experience of a lifetime,” Driscoll said.
Working with PRA editor Melody Collins was a “very long process,” Driscoll says, and she had to find a way to do it while also keeping up her grades in a tough major and playing the flute in the Furman Symphony Orchestra and the Paladin Regiment. Driscoll wishes she had the time to double major in English, but she has surprisingly taken only one English class at Furman—Studies in the Essay, taught by Joni Tevis, Ph.D.
Even then, she hoped to keep her writing life a secret. No such luck.
“I purposely didn’t tell her when I got into the class that I was a writer; that I was going to be a published poet. I didn’t want her to know,” Driscoll said. “To my surprise, halfway through the term she heard from another student that I had a book coming out. She announced it to the class, and I was like ‘oh my word, my secret’s out!’”
Tevis did more than spill the beans, however. The professor’s own book The Wet Collection was published in 2007, and she was happy to mentor Driscoll through the process.
“They’re amazing poems. They are very generous in the way that her narrator sees the world,” Tevis says. “They are detailed, and there’s kind of a wry sense of humor. The narrator is someone that you want to walk through the pages with.”
Driscoll says her musical background helps with her poetry, and vice-versa, and inspiration comes simply from waking up every day.
“A lot of poetry for me, it’s all about the rhythm—the rhythm of the words, how it sounds. That is the biggest element for me when I write my poetry, so music does play a large part,” she said. “Looking around at my surroundings, observing life, kind of getting into my own self and thinking ‘how do I feel today? How do others feel? How are people reacting to something?’ And it stirs up ideas and it makes words come out onto the page. I have to write. I can’t imagine not writing.”
Driscoll thinks her work has gotten “a little bit darker” in college as she has been exposed to more of the realities of life, with subjects like suicide, divorce, and dysfunctional families replacing youthful idealism. But the quality has hardly suffered. Poet J.C. Elkin says the poems are “angst-ridden and should be required reading for parents and teachers who may have forgotten how it feels to be a teen in turmoil,” while DeVeata Williams, aka LadyVee DaPoet and author of Clenched Teeth Smiling, raves they’re a “perfect blend of complex wordplay mixed with honest simplicity to paint mind pictures that are hard to shake.”
Driscoll still can’t suppress a smile when talking about the compliments she’s gotten.
“The thing that blows my mind the most is to see the reviews of my book. When you first submit, you think, oh, maybe some people will like what I have, but there are going to be some people who don’t. So you really start doubting if you’re good enough. You’re so scared,” she said. “But you get it back, and they have wonderful things to say. I’m amazed.”
Driscoll never intended to be a professional writer, though, and success hasn’t changed her plans to become a music teacher.
“I don’t want to dedicate my life entirely to writing and just sitting at home and staring at a computer screen,” she said. “I’ve learned already that it’s maddening to sit in front of a blank screen going, ‘I am going to write a poem. I am going to write a poem. I am going to write a poem.’”
She will continue to write them when the mood hits, though, and Professor Tevis has some advice for readers reluctant to tackle the poetry genre.
“A lot of people are kind of afraid of poetry, and I think this book reminds us that we don’t have to be. We all listen to music every day, and poems are music too. You’re just reading them instead of listening to them on the radio,” she said. “I think Kendall’s poems are a great place to start because she wants you to understand them. She’s not trying to be opaque. She wants to lead you through it.”
Tevis will host a signing and reading party for Driscoll on Dec. 10 in the English department lounge, located in Furman Hall 101. Learn more about Driscoll here and keep up with her latest work at her blog.