CM Burroughs

English and Creative Writing

Creative writing associate professor CM Burroughs chose poetry over law school—to the benefit of Columbia’s writing students.

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost is a poem so oft-quoted that it’s become a bit of a cliché. But creative writing associate professor CM Burroughs had such a clear moment of roads diverging that the comparisons seem not just necessary, but inevitable. After graduating from Sweet Briar College, an all-women’s school in Virginia, she came to a clear crossroads: go to law school and inherit her family’s law firm, or pursue her poetry MFA. Luckily for Columbia writing students, she stuck with poetry—a decision that led to her appointment as the Elma Stuckey writer-in-residence at Columbia College Chicago (which then turned into a full-time position). Today, Burroughs has earned multiple poetry fellowships and grants, published poems in prestigious journals, and released her debut poetry collection The Vital System with Tupelo Press. 

How did you originally get involved with poetry?

Reading was my life during childhood. I didn’t read poetry, but novels; Dickens was my favorite. Reading was my provocation to write. I was a kid when I started writing, and I continued writing for myself and for classes throughout my schooling. Poetry was the form to which I was naturally given. My life plan in college had been to attend law school and then to take over my family’s law firm. It was my senior year of undergrad when my track changed. My advisor, a law student-turned-novelist and tenured creative writing professor, joked that he was waiting for me to get my MFA in poetry instead of my going to law school. That was the only nudge that I needed. And here I am now—a poet, a poetry professor.

How’s Chicago as a poetry town?

Vibrant. There are several events that I could attend on any given night, including Columbia’s Reading Series events put on by the English and Creative Writing Department, and readings curated by the Poetry Foundation. Chicago fosters a poetry community of great diversity—the various styles of poets here are a testament to the inclusive and curious nature of Chicago’s artists and audiences.

Why do students choose Columbia to study creative writing?

Because writing matters here. The emotional tenor of an arts college, in terms of the passion that one is given permission to carry each day, is an astounding way of being in the world. Everyone from the president to the staff gives the students permission to express themselves fully. One cannot overestimate the importance of Columbia’s unique culture.

How would you describe Columbia students?

Each has a certain amount of self-awareness to say that s/he is an artist. This self-awareness is gained by the students’ practice of art and the rigorous study of his/her particular field. Columbia creates confident and knowledgeable artists.

What careers do creative writing students pursue?

Outside of remaining in academia as a professor, I mentioned that I was “supposed” to be a lawyer. To be fair, that’s a brilliant profession for any writer. I also know writers who live purely on giving lectures and writing workshops. The field also produces editors, schoolteachers, public relations professionals, etc. Expressive and talented writers are sorely needed in all fields. Our writers will always be marketable.