When Tara Skurtu ’10 took a poetry workshop with Lloyd Schwartz, UMass Boston’s Frederick S. Troy Professor of English, it changed her life.
A Florida native and first-generation college student, Skurtu initially enrolled at UMass Boston planning to one day become a nurse or midwife. Taking English and Spanish classes along with premed coursework, Skurtu unleashed her love for language—and her plans changed forever.
This month, Skurtu will depart for Romania for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship at Transylvania University of Brasov. There she will lead creative writing, translation, and poetry workshops for young Romanian writers. It’s a coming home for Skurtu, who completed a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship in Romania in 2013.
“It feels like a second home to me now,” Skurtu said of Romania. “As a Fulbright student, I’m supposed to be a cultural ambassador. I’ve realized how important translation is for a writer. There’s so much beautiful poetry—and that’s a huge chunk of why I’m teaching myself Romanian, so I can translate poetry to English.”
In one of her early undergraduate English classes at UMass Boston, Professor Duncan Nelson encouraged Skurtu to submit poetry to the UMass Academy of American Poets Prize. When her submission, “Visiting Amber at Lowell Correctional," was awarded an honorable mention, she decided to sign up for Schwartz’s class.
Skurtu fell in love with poetry in Schwartz’s class. She went on to win the UMass Academy of American Poets Prize with “Some Days Begin Like This” and to see her work published. Upon graduating, and in the midst of medical school interviews, Skurtu realized she needed to change paths and to answer her calling after winning several more poetry awards.
“I was thinking, ‘I’ve been trying so hard not to be a poet, maybe I should just give in and try this poetry thing and apply for an MFA in poetry,’” said Skurtu. “I spoke with Lloyd and he thought it was a fantastic idea.”
Five years and a master’s degree later, Skurtu and Schwartz will soon depart for the International Poetry Festival in Sibiu, Romania with three-time poet laureate Robert Pinsky to kick off Skurtu’s Fulbright experience. She will write and teach English in her great-grandparents’ homeland until June.
“I will always consider him the best teacher of poetry that I could possibly imagine,” Skurtu said of Schwartz. “He’s an ideal reader—he’s the only person I share my early drafts with and he still continues to give me advice about my poems.”
Skurtu says her Spanish language skills also helped her pick up Romanian.
“Everything about studying at UMass Boston has paid off and basically brought me to where I am today with this Fulbright,” Skurtu said. “The Hispanic Studies department gave me the tools I needed to be able to learn a language that sounded completely foreign to me.”
Assistant Professor of English Jill McDonough also impacted Skurtu through a poetry workshop and the experience she shared with Skurtu about teaching in prisons.
“A lot of my creative writing and teaching skills I’ve modeled after Jill,” said Skurtu, who currently teaches creative writing at Boston University as well as intermediate composition at MCI-Framingham correctional facility for women.
“UMass Boston really, really means a lot to me and really did shape everything—how I advanced and the direction I went in. Because of UMass Boston, I’m a happy poet, and not an overstressed medical student,” she added. “It was the first place I felt completely at home, with so many other first-time college students.”
Today, Skurtu looks forward to achieving a different goal: publishing The Amoeba Game, a collection of her poems based on childhood and family, illness and healing, travel, and the limitations of language and love.