Natalie Tombasco discovered her creative path in Staten Island, leading to far-reaching success with Creative Writing Program

By Molly DeKraai

Natalie Tombasco did not always see herself as an author. A first-generation college student, she began her academic career in 2009 at the College of Staten Island in New York as a student-athlete, who then stumbled into creative writing courses.

Now, Tombasco regularly publishes and wins awards for her own creative works and is wrapping up her one-year tenure as editor-in-chief of Southeast Review, where she fosters a community for writers in Florida State University’s Department of English and beyond. In early May 2024, she will graduate from FSU with her doctoral degree in English-Creative Writing.

As a cap to those accomplishments, the English department chose Tombasco to receive the Bertram and Ruth Davis Award for Outstanding Career as a Graduate Student. She and other award winners were honored in a ceremony on April 12, 2024.

“Truly, I'm so honored to win this award,” Tombasco says. “Five years went by in a flash, especially with navigating the pandemic and teaching a 2/2 along with a full course load and service projects. I want to acknowledge that I share this award with the rest of the graduate students. I feel lucky to be surrounded by undoubtedly talented and hardworking peers who always raise the bar, who always put 100 percent into their art and classes."

Tombasco first enrolled at the CUNY-College of Staten Island (CSI) as a soccer player. Recurring injuries placed her on the sideline quite often, though, and she needed a new outlet for the intensity she felt playing the sport. She enjoyed writing as a child but could not see that interest leading to a career path—save for a brief stint in her childhood when a habit of scrawling secrets in a notebook gave her the idea that she wanted to be like Harriet the Spy.

Ultimately, she took more interest in creative writing classes at CSI, choosing to finally declare herself an English major.

“I really fell in love with it,” Tombasco says, reflecting on the beginning of her relationship with creative writing and how her mentors—the prolific American poets Cate Marvin and Tyehimba Jess, both CSI professors—opened her mind to what poetry could be.

Tombasco recalls the moment reading Joshua Beckman’s poem “Karate Chop of Love” that “poetry didn’t need to be in a rhyme scheme or professed on a balcony in Verona as high school teachers presented it, but it could be found in the depths of a teenaged basement in the haze of a party scene. The muse could be a ‘barrel of fried chicken.’”

After graduating from CSI in 2014 with her bachelor’s degree in English, Tombasco took a gap year, working odd jobs that were “artistic in a way”—selling tea and working on a flower truck in Manhattan, for example. Then, she secured her first editorial internship with an online magazine called Paragraph Shorts.

"I’d take the ferry a couple times a week to sit in a loft, scouring established literary magazines for pieces that fit our themed issue and displaying these pieces into our user-friendly app,” she says. “I loved it because it taught me about the lit mag world and helped me foster a sense of taste for contemporary writing, for something outside Pride and Prejudice.”

That was when she committed herself to applying for multiple Master of Fine Arts programs, ultimately choosing Butler University in Indianapolis, jumping back into creative writing and her poetry.

“It was great being immersed in something that I was passionate about, and to learn the nitty-gritty of craft from Alessandra Lynch, Chris Forhan, David Shumate, and Hilene Flanzbaum,” Tombasco says about her master’s program. “I think Indianapolis was my most generative place. It promoted community with casual poetry lunch hours, the Writing in the Schools Program, and Vivian S. Delbrook Visiting Writers Series. I had ample time to study craft and have poets like Danez Smith and Diane Seuss provide me feedback.”

She became involved with the school’s literary magazine, Booth, contributing to the journal as a poetry reader and by conducting interviews with visiting writers Brenda Shaughnessy and Monica Youn. This experience showed Tombasco that publishing was an exciting possibility and led her to establish her personal literary taste. She began to develop an appreciation for diversity in identity and content in the works she read for publishing.

Her journey as a doctoral student at FSU began in 2018 with that expanded awareness in mind. She was drawn to the department’s Creative Writing Program, she says, because of its impressive faculty and writing community.

Among the many she admired and wanted to work with is Distinguished University Scholar and English Senior Lecturer Barbara Hamby, who also is the chair of Tombasco’s doctoral committee.

“It has been such a pleasure working with Natalie,” Hamby says. “Not only is she an amazing poet, but she is also an excellent critical writer.”

Tombasco was an assistant in a class that Hamby had just restructured, and she says could not have accomplished what she did in the course without her.

“She taught the ekphrasis class and did a marvelous job,” Hamby adds. “She is a young woman at the beginning of a brilliant career.”

Tombasco appreciates the opportunities Hamby created to discuss her students’ work, during a meeting at Square Mug Cafe in Railroad Square or while hosting a garden party at her home.

“Barbara Hamby cracked something open for me in her class on the poetic sequence,” she says, “where I was able to utilize what I was learning in literature classes to write a mini-series of poems on Shakespeare, medieval Dream Visions, climate change, or film adaptation, and have these all coalesce into my manuscript and provide depth.”

Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English David Kirby and former FSU doctoral program colleagues Paige Lewis, Dorothy Chan, and Kaveh Akbar also influenced Tombasco’s decision to attend FSU. Akbar, who recently was named a 2024 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry, chose Tombasco for publication in the 2021 Best New Poets anthology when he was editor.

She jokingly adds that after spending most of her life in colder climates, moving to Tallahassee for its warm weather was simply a plus: “I’m sure the live oaks, snakes, and Spanish moss will find its way into my poems soon,” she adds.

Another pull to FSU for Tombasco was Southeast Review, the nationally recognized literary magazine that English graduate students oversee and publish.

“I was such a big fan,” she says, “watching from a distance and sending my work in and getting rejected by them,” referring to when she was at Butler. Tombasco was also participating in the journal’s Writer’s Regimen.

The rejections did not deter Tombasco, however. When she arrived at FSU, Tombasco found a place on the magazine’s staff as Interviews Editor. For three years, she interviewed influential figures, such as Nick Flynn, Mary Jo Bang, and Diane Seuss, learning as much as she could about her subjects. She also started the "About the Works" series which is now a staple of SER’s content.

She then became a Poetry Editor; working in those roles led to her position as Editor-in-Chief, which started in the fall of 2023.

Although her academic studies and creative pursuits have taken her to multiple states, Tombasco still considers New York home, and most of her poetry is based on her childhood and experiences in Staten Island. Considering that Staten Island is nicknamed “The Forgotten Borough,” her writing naturally expresses an inherent grit and awareness.

“You drive over the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and there is immediate angst,” she says of her hometown. “It’s definitely something that comes up a lot in my writing. There’s a scrappiness that you have to have.

“And, of course, Pete Davidson is from there,” she says, with a laugh and a nod to the comedian-actor and Staten Island’s pop culture crowning jewel.

Whereas Davidson has been nicknamed “King of Staten Island,” Tombasco describes herself as the “Jackie O of the mollusk kingdom” in her poem, “Brief List of Things That Will Kill Me: Being Favored,” which was published in 2021 in Hayden’s Ferry Review.

Tombasco’s first published collection of poetry is Collective Inventions, collating her poetry on girlhood. Named after Rene Magritte’s eponymous painting of a half-fish, half-woman lying helplessly on a shore, the imagery presented throughout the book paints a picture of her adolescence, weaving together her fantastical inspirations with her lived experiences.

“I liked that idea of ‘collective invention,’ this idea of many different things coming together and constantly reinventing the self,” she says.

Her writing is punctuated by her desire to “rummage for loveliness; looking for something that’s beautiful in the ignored.” She speaks of the inspiration she finds in mythology, likening her Staten Island Ferry rides to Dante’s Inferno. She acts as a retroactive Charon to herself, using poetry to guide the teenage version of herself through the trials and tribulations of becoming.

Tombasco finds her voice in the chapbook Collective Inventions by piecing together the work of female authors, writing about what she knows: womanhood, imbued with the voice of the women who came before her.

“There are a lot of different persona poems,” she says. “There’s a Barbie poem, there’s Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre, there’s Lolita.”

Stepping into the reality of Eyre’s madwoman in the attic or the plastic exterior of a Barbie doll to understand growing into a woman helps Tombasco accept her own coming of age, she explains. Collective Inventions serves as a jumping-off point for her full-length book, Milk For Gall, forthcoming in Fall 2024. That collection is also her doctoral dissertation.

The title piece aims to track Tombasco’s growth, from before birth to entering her 30s.

“I think that growth happens also comes with me trying to figure out not only who I am as a person or as a woman, but as a poet,” she says.

The book title comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as Lady Macbeth rejects her femininity, her milk, in exchange for gall, actions to convince her husband to betray another man. In this scene, Tombasco explains, Lady Macbeth is challenging what it means to be a woman, to subvert her feminine power away from nurturing docility and toward boldness.

“That was important for me to step into, now later in my life, like, ‘Okay this sweet, nice girl thing wasn’t working out. So now you get my gall,’” she says.

Channeling Macbeth along with medieval dream visions, where Tombasco “slips into the world of my favorite poets and hangs out with them,” creates the landscape of Milk For Gall, blending her grasp on literature and imaginative style.

As Tombasco continues to step into herself as a writer and as a person, her role as SER Editor-in-Chief has heavily influenced her final year at FSU.

“It’s very, very gratifying,” she says. “I’m managing a team of about 60 students, and we’re a graduate student-run magazine. And we’re one of the oldest ones in the country to do that.”

One of the challenges she faced this year was distributing money from a Florida Department of State’s Division of Arts’ Specific Cultural Project Grant the magazine received in the summer of 2023. Tombasco used the $25,000 to increase payments for contributors, pay the masthead for the first time, fund events, and focus on community outreach.

I want to make writers feel like we’re rooting for them long after their work has found a home in our pages. . .and that for this brief amount of time at FSU, we championed art and literature that represents the American South as an intellectually rich and inclusive space.

— Natalie Tombasco

A specific effort Tombasco oversees is the incarcerated writers workshop at the Gadsden Correctional Facility, where several members of the magazine staff visit eight sessions a year and provide companionship and motivation for incarcerated individuals through the workshops. She says the staff enjoys the experience because it gives them an opportunity to teach, and, in turn, the workshops give the women at the facility a chance to focus on their creativity.

“They’re so eager to learn and talk to us about writing and our process and how to get published,” Tombasco says. “One of our main goals is to find someone from there that we can publish in our magazine.”

Another program the staff focuses on is the Writer’s Regimen, a project that includes 30 days of writing prompts with a goal to create an online community of writers. SER writers and published authors also offer advice and materials to help those who enroll with their writing journey.

These two ongoing projects underscore Tombasco’s overall purpose with her position as Editor-in-Chief.

“I want to make writers feel like we’re rooting for them long after their work has found a home in our pages,” she says. “Similarly, I want the staff to feel proud of Volumes 41.2 and 42.1 and that for this brief amount of time at FSU, we championed art and literature that represents the American South as an intellectually rich and inclusive space.”

As Tombasco considers what comes next, she’s “ready to spread her wings.” She’s excited to enter teaching full-time after she graduates with her doctoral degree.

Even though this is a stray from her childhood wish to be a private spy, Tombasco has likely found her true calling. In the process, she left an indelible mark on the English department and Southeast Review.

Molly DeKraai is a senior double majoring in English-Editing, Writing, and Media and in Media Communication Studies.

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