Few may know as well as Chet’la Sebree, ’10, what Toni Morrison meant when she said, “Writing is about putting things together.”

Sebree’s childhood fascination with Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman who bore children fathered by Thomas Jefferson, revived while she completed her master’s in creative writing at American University. As Sebree then taught and completed fellowships at institutions including the MacDowell Colony, Hedgebrook, and Yaddo, her production of Hemings-inspired poetry evolved and grew. For a time, she even stayed at Jefferson’s Monticello, thumbing historical documents from its libraries and studying artifacts from its slave quarters. After a retreat dedicated to the burgeoning body of work, Mistress was completed, published, and awarded the 2018 New Issues Poetry Prize.

With a gripping poetic voice, Mistress explores dynamics of race, color, sex, and power. It wrestles with a term like “mistress” being applied to a black woman owned by a white man, as well as the “devastating similarities” between navigating the world as a woman of color in the 19th century and today.

Sebree, an assistant professor at Bucknell University and director of the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts, has begun her next work. A hybrid of poetry and nonfiction, it will continue her investigation of the power and diversity of black women’s experiences, now within a modern-day narrative.

“People often look at black women as monolith,” she said, affirming that it was important to her “to resist people’s impulses to say something like, ‘Oh I finally understand what it’s like to be a black woman.’”

In addition to publication in journals and anthologies including the Kenyon Review, Pleiades, wildness, Guernica, Poetry International, and The Account, Sebree recently received an NAACP Image Award nomination. “That gave me something that I needed,” she said, “the validation that there is value in celebrating this polyvocality.”