When John Lawson was a teenager, he started playing guitar and writing songs. Right around that same time, he discovered poetry. “I wanted to grow up to be John Lennon,” he says.
OK, so Lawson didn’t become a Beatle, but he’s done just fine for himself – and for Robert Morris University. An accomplished poet and playwright, Lawson is an associate professor of English studies of RMU. He is among three writers honored this year St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina with the school’s Ethel N. Fortner Writer and Community Award.
Ethel N. Fortner (1907–1987), a frequent contributor to the St. Andrews Review and editor of Human Voice Quarterly, was an accomplished poet, critic, and editor who believed strongly in community support of the craft of writing. This annual award, created by St. Andrews in 1986, is given to individuals who make exceptional contributions to the writing community.
Lawson, a St. Andrew’s alum, received the award because of his writing and because of the various forms of community involvement he’s had through the years, starting with his service as a community organizer in largely Black communities during the early ‘70s.
“I helped to set up black shadow governments in the rural areas of Virginia, where black people were heavily discriminated against by the regular county governments,” he says, adding that the project was developed by Donald L. Anderson, a former staffer for U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. “It was a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in Black culture for a couple of years – an experience I'll never forget.”
In addition to his master’s in English from Virginia Commonwealth University, Lawson also has a Ph.D. in English, with an emphasis in rhetoric, from Northern Illinois University. He taught creative writing at St. Andrews between 1996 and 1998 before coming to RMU, where he founded the university’s humanities core curriculum. “I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the rhetoric of business writing, so RMU seemed like a good fit for me.”
Lawson likes to use other poets' work as the spark for his own. “It's kind of like carrying on a conversation,” he says. Fortunately, he’s found plenty of inspiration here in Pittsburgh. “I've met some wonderful poets here, including my colleague Dr. Jay Carson, Jan Beatty, Ed Ochester, Sam Hazo, and the list goes on.”
He’s even recorded readings and interviews with quite a few of them for RMU Radio's “Literature Out Loud” show,” and often gets his students involved. “They seem to enjoy rubbing elbows with great writers,” he says.
Lawson has also served on the Board of Associates for Pittsburgh's own International Poetry Forum. His first collection of poetry, Generations, was published by St. Andrews College Press in 2007.
In addition to poetry, Lawson has developed a love of the stage. He wrote his first play, “Amis and Amile,” in 1980 for the Theater of the Deaf in his hometown of Richmond, Va. Based on a medieval legend that he ran across in a book by Walter Pater, Lawson, ever the poet, wrote the play’s dialogue entirely in verse. “[Pater] retold the story so beautifully that I suddenly saw it unfolding onstage; I couldn't help sitting down to write it as a play.” In the play, the deaf actors performed their dialogue in American Sign Language while translators spoke the lines. “The production was incredibly beautiful,” says Lawson. “It looked like a strange ballet of some sort.”
Lawson was integral in the development of the RMU’s innovative Communications Skills Program, which focuses on strengthening all students’ writing and speaking skills to better prepare them for an ever more diverse and interconnected global economy.
“The English program here at RMU has really taken off,” he says, “probably because we emphasize English as a practical major. We have lots of students getting certified to teach, and we offer career-building experience through internships and projects in editing, publishing, creative writing, and writing for film and television.”
Currently, Lawson is working on another play and several poetry projects.