A Young & Well-Versed Poet

Local poet Emma Sullivan uses creativity to conceive and contribute

Photography by Vanessa Rogers. Shot on location at Collier County Public Library Headquarters, Naples
Photography by Vanessa Rogers. Shot on location at Collier County Public Library Headquarters, Naples

Naples resident and local poet Emma Sullivan was not your average middle schooler. Sure, many tweens dabble in poetry writing, but few have their works published in a national publication by grade six—and far fewer pen perspicacious titles like “Existential Crisis” at such a tender age. As Sullivan, now age 20, currently attending Wellesley College in Massachusetts, lightheartedly says, “I was a very intense little sixth-grader.”

Sullivan was never keen on sports or typical schoolyard activities. Instead, she was attracted to writing, the arts, and things calling for creativity. While many of her fellow Gen Z-ers know only digital devices, Sullivan composed many of her poems to the clacking of her blue Smith Corona manual typewriter, a gift from her father, Richard. An academic standout, in 2020, she graduated eighth out of 462 students at Naples High School, self-publishing two books of poetry before graduating: Stonefruit and how to tie your shoes. 

Stonefruit explores topics of adolescence, romantic relationships, and family ties. Her second collection, how to tie your shoes, shows Sullivan’s maturity and reflection on subject material related to maternal and paternal roles, domesticity, and other family-related matters. 

In her work, Sullivan probes the world around her, often delving into highly personal matters. In its entirety, her work doesn’t seem to seek conclusions or hard and fast definitions but instead is highly contemplative. Her poetry makes readers curious; it’s specific enough to prompt readers to ponder the particulars of Sullivan’s life, as well as the context that sparked her emotions. And yet, Sullivan leaves enough room, enough ambiguity, to allow readers to consider larger themes perhaps applicable to their own lives.

Photography by Vanessa Rogers. Shot on location at Collier County Public Library Headquarters, Naples 2

As an upperclassman at Naples High School, Sullivan participated in the Accelerated Collegiate Experience, a dual-enrollment opportunity that allowed her to take several creative writing classes at Florida Gulf Coast University. At FGCU, her poetry found both direction and appreciation from Jesse Millner, a composition and poetry instructor within the Department of Language & Literature. 

“I admire her work because she writes poems that move me, and she’s also got a gift with language in that her poems sound like music, which is rare for a young poet,” says Millner. “She reminds me of Sylvia Plath in the way she tackles difficult and sometimes personal issues with the good and difficult work of writing a poem; this to me is kind of miraculous.” 

Behind excellent poetry writing, according to Millner, is reading, something that Sullivan does voraciously: “Emma has always written well, but she also reads prolifically: these two things reinforce each other. Reading is what teaches writers how to write.”

An image of a perceptive young woman self-contained in a room click-clacking away writing poetry only tells a portion of Sullivan’s story. Cheery and energetic, she’s harnessed her creative talents to make contributions to the Naples community. While at Naples High, she founded Story Lab at Gulfview Middle School, an after-school creative writing program that organized online and in-class workshops featuring authors such as Glennon Doyle and Sandy Hall. She also co-founded a Naples High School literary magazine.

Photography by Vanessa Rogers. Shot on location at Collier County Public Library Headquarters, Naples 1

Sullivan, who also has a background in theater, served as volunteer stage manager for Gulfshore Playhouse, acting as a liaison between directorial and technical staffs for summer educational productions. Here, in addition to facilitating live audio and visual effects, she collaborated with colleagues to ensure content quality and efficient operations of choreography and auditions for casts of more than 50 people. 

Sullivan’s academic excellence and impressive community contributions have earned her awards and funding that nearly cover all her expenses at Wellesley College, where she’s majoring in English and creative writing. In addition to the $50,000 Doris Reynolds Naples Daily News Scholarship in journalism/English, Sullivan, in 2020, was one of six selected for the Leaders 4 Life fellowship program, sponsored by the Asofsky Family Foundation in partnership with Take Stock in Children, a not-for-profit mentoring, college success, and college scholarship organization for low-income youths. 

Cheryl Latif, former education programs administrator at Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Sullivan’s mentor through the Take Stock in Children program, notes the seriousness and maturity that she emanates: “Emma is brilliant, focused, creative, and insightful well beyond her years; I tease her that one day I will get to say ‘I knew her when….’”

At Wellesley, though she’s not using her Smith Corona there, Sullivan is still leaving her imprint. She interns for WZLY, the student-operated radio station, and established “Secrets Between Girls,” a new student publication. Her nonfiction writing is published in Counterpoint, the Wellesley College student life magazine. In addition to her leadership role for Wellesley’s team participating in the College Union Poetry Slam Invitation tournament in April, she is also the co-president for Out Loud, the first spoken-word organization at Wellesley known for performance-based poetry focused on the aesthetics of wordplay and storytelling. 

Photography by Vanessa Rogers. Shot on location at Collier County Public Library Headquarters, Naples 3

Though COVID-19 has changed the landscape of the college experience, Sullivan is making the most of her time at Wellesley, an institution that has graduated the likes of Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and Diane Sawyer, among other distinguished alumnae. 

“It’s an interesting time to be a college student today,” she explains. “But [the pandemic] has made every single opportunity so valuable, and I think we’re all very conscious of these blessings.”

Of course all poets play with language, but the better ones seem to impart larger, more universal themes through the use of the highly specific. Elizabeth Bishop, celebrated nature poet and one of Sullivan’s favorites, once remarked, “If after I read a poem the world looks like that poem for 24 hours or so[,] I’m sure it’s a good one—and the same goes for paintings.” 

If good poets make contributions to reality or the reader’s reality, Sullivan’s work seems to hit that mark well. She compels readers to think about her experiences and their own against the backdrop of the natural world—a world that includes both beauty and conflict. And while Sullivan may have contemplated an existential crisis when she was in the sixth grade, and perhaps still does so in some of her work, she’s progressed substantially since adolescence. Her writing reflects a mature, finely developed voice—a voice she hopes to further refine as she forges her future.

Stonefruit and Other Poems by Emma Sullivan


I’m unsure of how I might ever love without dreams of my teeth falling out.

Now I simply watch from behind the curtain
as you show the new girls
how coins appear behind their ears,
reminding them that their bodies are silver dollars.

I’ve always been so awful about handling change.

(Taken from Stonefruit)

How to Tie Your Shoes by Emma Sullivan


My father is the idealist looking over his shoulder,

retelling stories as they were meant to happen.

He hears what the band meant to say and changes

the words to clarify it for us.

I can imagine him on his paper route, or smoking

in a bar in SoHo.

I see him in Where the Red Fern Grows.

Every boy desires to conquer and command this

world of green.

He is at once a kid with his loose tooth, riding in

swoops without a bicycle helmet,

who grows into the man planting a tree in the

front yard for my mother,

who only recalls Boston as its relentless winter

and not the spring it becomes.

(Taken from how to tie your shoes)

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