When you enter a Zoom conference with Cara Dees, she immediately offers a glimpse into her love for writing and literature just through her living room. As she excuses herself to make a cup of coffee, she reveals at least three shelves packed bottom to top with books, ranging from high fantasies to her own collection of poetry. For Dees, this love of literature has existed for as long as she can remember.
Dees grew up in a rural area and found herself often turning to books and stories for entertainment. Ella’s childhood was spent hunting down as many classic literature novels as she could find at her local library. After some time, however, Dees found herself imaging her own stories and such to be told. What she thought was just a childhood love for storytelling would eventually blossom into Dees becoming a doctoral candidate at the University of Cincinnati (UC) for creative writing.
When asked her favorite authors and poets her eyes widened. “I can never answer this question,” she exclaims. Yet she immediately has a list about three minutes long of writers she finds herself returning to again and again: Emily Dickinson, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Monica Youn, Terrance Hayes and Natasha Trethewey are just some of the names on her expansive list of her.
“My go-to answer is Emily Dickinson, I simply think she’s a writer who I can go to and always feel shocked in the best way possible,” said Dees. “She does things with language that I don’t expect.”
Dees is as eloquently and delicately spoken in person as she is in her writing. She gives careful thought before she responds to questions, and you can feel the care she has for her craft de ella. Ella Dees’s poetry often comes from a wistful mindset of how one can sustain a moment.
Her first collection of poetry, “Exorcism Lessons in the Heartland,” came from a place of remembrance and grief. Dees’s mother passed away from terminal cancer in 2012 during her graduate studies at Vanderbilt.
“I was learning to write poetry and think about what poetry was, I was also writing poetry that was looking at illness as I was writing poetry about my mom,” Dees said. “That sort of an advanced warning you do when someone has a terminal illness where you’re trying to comprehend what the world will be like when they’re not there.”
Though none of the poetry she wrote during her graduate studies appear in the final collection, she cites this as the groundwork of her book. Literature and writing have long been ways Dees grounds herself in the world around her. It’s a uniquely empathetic experience to dedicate your time to literary arts, and Dees feels she continuously betters herself because of it.
“When I was a kid, literature was really how I processed the world and what was happening around me. [It’s] really how, in some ways I feel like, my first interaction with language in general,” said Dees. “I think literature simply improves our daily lives. It gives us the space to be with ourselves mentally, with others mentally in a way that I don’t think any other kind of art form can offer.”
Her impact with words goes beyond her roles as a writer. As she pursues her doctorate, Dees also serves as a graduate teaching assistant for UC. Dees has taught courses for higher education on creative writing, poetry, French and composition. At UC, she teaches courses such as “Creative Writing” and “Social Change, Topics in Literature, Health, and Society.” Dees’s experience of her with teaching has been nothing but positive; being able to learn from others as you teach them is a unique experience that she highly values.
“Being with other artists in that way and being able to share what I’ve learned over the years with people, I don’t think there’s any replacement for that,” said Dees. “I find it very energizing for my own writing and I find it really, really important for my own reading too. I think it’s such a cliche, but I do feel that I often learn from it.”
Lately, Dees has found herself turning to works discussing ideas of social change and justice. Her own next collection of poetry, under the working title “Lacuna,” hopes to take more of an ecofeminist lens to discuss the state of the world today.
Dees is an adamant believer in the ways that literature should be at the cross section of any important changes enacted in society.
“I think a lot of the time when we see historically that the idea that arts aren’t important, is usually when arts are the most important when they’re bringing people’s attention to things that have to be paid attention to,” said Dees.
She believes that creative writing should be discussing crucial topics such as medical rights, racism, feminism, environmental rights and more.
In her class “Topics in Literature, Health, and Society,” Dees introduces students to topics about the Aids epidemic, racism in the medical fields, the inequalities and classism of healthcare in America and more. Dees actively uses literature and the platform she has created from it to continue to uplift as many voices of changemakers as she can.
“We need to be able to have students who are studying sciences, who are well read in cultural issues and social issues and are able to talk about those and think about those in ways that are compassionate and ways that can really take into account how complex human experience is,” said Dees. “I think literature does that uniquely.”
After completing her doctorate, Dees plans to continue dedicating her time to “Lacuna” as she continues to observe the world around her. Dees has made much effort to grow from her own grief of losing her mother, and this growth has led her to creating spaces in the world where others experiencing similar grief can turn to in their own times of need.
“I think it’s easy to think of compassion or sympathy as things that are not hard work. But they are and they take training to think about them a lot,” said Dees. “I think literature provides that for everyone.”