When Ray McManus learned he was one of five winners of the 2023 Governor’s Award for the Arts, the poet and USC Sumter English professor was surprised. “In my own mind, I don't think I deserve this award,” he says. “I don't think I do anything any more special or spectacular than anybody else that I know.”
McManus isn’t just being humble, though, and he’s not discounting the honor. “It feels pretty good,” he says with a laugh. But his biggest satisfaction as a writer comes from the work itself, which is how he connects and responds to the world he inhabits.
“There's an unfortunate stereotype that the poets of the world are elusive and introverted, and, yes, you will find poets like that,” he says. “But that's not what I'm interested in. I want to connect. I want to be with people. I want to write about things people think about but are unable to articulate.”
And that’s what the Lexington, South Carolina, native has done. McManus now has published three books with another on the way — Driving through the country before you are born (2007), Red Dirt Jesus (2011), Punch (2014) and The Last Saturday in America (2024) — and the Governor’s Award is a welcome acknowledgement of the work he has published over the past 20 years.
But for McManus, being a poet also extends beyond the words on the page. A first-generation college student with a less-than-stellar high school record, he entered USC as an undergrad with only the vaguest notion of what he wanted to do for a career, then emerged three degrees later as a poet and an educator.
Now an English professor and administrator at USC Sumter, in addition to an award-winning poet, he credits mentors like English professor Ed Madden with encouraging him to develop his talents through USC’s MFA program and to continue on for his Ph.D.
“Heading to the university, I was really lucky,” he says. “To this day, I don't know why they accepted me, but the professors I worked with put me on a path that I could have never imagined.”
McManus wants to provide that same sort of guidance and inspiration for USC Sumter students. Many will never take another poetry class again, he says, but they can still benefit from exposure to the form.
“There are a lot of students at USC Sumter that are like me, that were first generation,” he says. “And it’s so fun turning them on to literature, turning them on to poetry, getting them to write.”
Sometimes, he even gets to do what Madden and other professors along the way did for him, back when he was first discovering his knack for the written word.
“At least once or twice a semester someone writes something that amazes me, and it's the first time they've ever heard that what they wrote is good,” he says. “They’ll say, ‘Nobody's ever told me that before.’ There's this moment of disbelief, but I'm like, ‘No, I'm dead serious. This is good!’ ”
And whether or not he thinks he deserves the Governor’s Award, McManus welcomes the platform it gives him to advocate for something important: the appointment of a new South Carolina Poet Laureate.
The post has been vacant since 2020, when Charleston poet Marjory Wentworth stepped down after 17 years. According to McManus, that’s a missed opportunity to promote the writing, reading and appreciation of poetry across the state.
“It's a little disheartening to not have a poet laureate in this state, especially when you know the transformative power that poetry can have,” he says. “I know personally what it has done for me. I know personally what it has done for other people, including students.”