-- Now a Professor Emeritus, He Taught at Queens College for 35 Years; Arrived in U.S. from Yugoslavia at Age Seven Speaking No English --
FLUSHING, NY, January 16, 2015 – For any immigrant who arrives in America, the future is full of hope, but a mystery. That was true for Stephen Stepanchev, who came to Chicago with his mother from Mokrin, Yugoslavia (now Serbia) in 1922 at the age of seven, not knowing English.
Like many foreign-born residents of Queens, the place he would one day call home, Stepanchev soon learned the language and enjoyed spending hours in the local public library. He also discovered a love of poetry, and frequently brought home stacks of books. Excelling in school, the young man received a scholarship to attend the University of Chicago, where the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder became his mentor. Stepanchev also served his country in World War II—receiving a Bronze Star—and resumed his education on the G.I. Bill, earning a doctorate from N.Y.U. in 1950.
One year earlier, Stepanchev had begun teaching English at Queens College, where he remained on the faculty until retiring in 1985. Over the decades, he mentored many student-writers. He published his first poem in the prestigious journal Poetry while still a student. During his teaching career, he continued to write and publish his work in Poetry and in magazines such as The Nation and The New Yorker. His twelfth poetry collection, River Reveries (Orchises Press, 2015), is being published to coincide with his 100th birthday on January 30. He is also the author of a critical work, American Poetry Since 1945 (Cotler, 1966).
During his teaching career, Stepanchev, a lifelong bachelor, lived in a studio apartment in Flushing, drawing much inspiration from immigrants’ influence on the borough. Whether he was writing about nibbling on dim sum or penning a poem, “Sunday in the Queens Botanical Garden,” every experience was “grist for the mill,” he says.
From the poem “Immigrants”:
I stand at the gate in October. Marigolds
Yellow the air. An arrow of birds points south.
Rain falls, leaf to leaf, a waterfall
Of sound. It speaks to the molten interior.
When Stepanchev was selected in 1997 as the first Poet Laureate of Queens, he said, “This is a highlight of my life.” Queens Borough President Claire Shulman presided over the installation, calling him “a prolific and talented writer.” Stepanchev served for three years. The idea for the honorific position originated with David Cohen, a Queens College librarian and teacher associated with Friends of the Queens College Library, a group of volunteers. The Poet Laureate fosters a love of poetry among the residents of Queens, America’s most diverse county, through readings and other community-focused activities.
In 2005 Queens College administrators learned that Walt Whitman had once taught in a one-room schoolhouse on land that later became part of the campus. Stepanchev was tapped to read at the ceremony dedicating a plaque on that spot. Named a Professor Emeritus after his retirement, Stepanchev had previously written poems about Whitman’s spirit at Q.
…I walk with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in hand
And think of the Great Depression, years of death,
When a vision of the future moved New York City
To build a college on this hill…
(“Words for Queens College”)
Earlier, Stepanchev had edited The People’s College on the Hill, a book of essays and photographs published by the college in 1987 on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. QC was the first public college established for the growing borough.
Approaching his centennial birthday, the poet still rises every morning before 4 a.m. to write. “Poetry is an intense experience,” he says. “It’s the truth of what it’s like to be alive.”