Poet Otremba, assistant professor in creative writing, dies at 40

Paul Otremba, assistant professor in creative writing, died June 24. He was 40.

Paul Otremba

Paul Otremba

Born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, Otremba studied English and Philosophy at the University of Minnesota before receiving a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Maryland and a doctorate in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. He taught at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, driving back “home” to Houston every weekend, before arriving at Rice in 2012.

As both a poet and professor of poetry, Otremba inspired those who knew him and his work.

“I cannot quantify the impact Paul Otremba had on my life as a poet, and more importantly, as a person,” wrote Kelsie Utz ’19 in one of many tributes that poured in across social media. “He gave so much to the world, especially to young people. I am greater for having met him.”

Otremba and his vivid poetry, too, were inspired by both Houston and Rice.

“Living in Houston for the past 14 years, I have gone through three major hurricanes and two devastating floods,” Otremba told New England Review poetry editor Rick Barot while discussing his poem “Like a Wide River” in an interview last year. “I’m also thinking about contemporary ecopoetics with what Timothy Morton, my brilliant colleague at Rice University, calls hyperobjects, or things massively distributed in space and time that challenge our attempts to wholly grasp them, things such as global warming, Styrofoam, microbeads of plastic, fossil fuels.”

Otremba authored three poetry collections: “The Currency,” “Pax Americana” and the forthcoming “Levee.” His final collection confronts ecology, politics and illness, in what Otremba described to Barot as “what is owed, what is gathered, what is a flood of indignation, anger and grief.”

Otremba's third collection of poems, "Levee," is scheduled for publication in September.

“Levee” is Otremba’s third collection of poems, scheduled for publication in September.

Otremba also formerly served as the poetry editor for Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. He published widely in journals, including Kenyon Review, New England Review, Literary Imagination, Southwest Review, Witness and multiple appearances on Poetry Daily. His essays, poetry reviews and food writing appeared in Tikkun, the Houston Chronicle, Spoon Magazine and in the anthology “American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics.”

When he wasn’t teaching at Rice, Otremba was imparting his love of poetry elsewhere: teaching in the low-residency MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College, offering workshops through Houston’s Inprint literary nonprofit, at the dinner parties he famously hosted as a talented cook and cocktail maker with the experience he gained through years of restaurant work before pursuing graduate school.

After being diagnosed with stomach cancer, Otremba published a trio of poems about his experience in BODY magazine. In “Constellation,” he wrote: “The light passing through me in many strands / from the cluster of bees set in the night sky / happened so fast and so many years ago, / there wasn’t even a thought of me being born.”

Otremba’s colleagues at Rice will remember him as a well-loved professor and a dear friend.

Otremba with poet Thom Gunn in Washington, D.C., 2003. (Photo by Josh Mensch)

Otremba with poet Thom Gunn in Washington, D.C., 2003. (Photo by Josh Mensch)

“Paul’s extraordinary poetic talent made him a crucial member of the faculty and a key contributor to the creative and critical components of our curriculum,” said Rosemary Hennessy, the L. H. Favrot Professor of Humanities and English department chair. “His poetry courses were much sought after and he was especially beloved by the students in his advanced poetry classes. We will miss him intensely.”

Otremba is survived by his wife, Holly Holmes, and his loving extended family. A memorial service will be held at the Rice Memorial Chapel at 1 p.m. July 5.

In lieu of flowers, donations in Paul’s honor can be sent to the Southern Poverty Law Center or another organization supporting social justice.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.