When assistant professor Nathan Parker assigned self-portraits to his advanced creative writing class, he said he knew he could expect something different from Will Gillette. What he didn’t expect was his long-limbed student to bringing in a plastic trash bag.
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“So my 12 students all brought in something really interesting. Will just happened to be going last,” Parker said. “Will’s self-portrait was out of the building, so he goes out and comes back in, and he’s got this huge black overflowing trash bag. It’d been his trash he’d collected for the whole week just at his house, but he’d cut these slits all through the sides. So you see some crusty Hungry Howies boxes, stained with grease, all kinds of trash. He holds it up and says, ‘Here’s my self-portrait.’”
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Gillette, a senior majoring in English, is set to graduate from the University in May. Along with his English major, he has a focus in creative writing and is a member of the Blount Undergraduate Initiative. Gillette comes from the town of Gardendale, Ala., a town he reassures is as Southern as it sounds.
“It’s about 30 minutes north of Birmingham. It’s a small city,” Gillette said. “When you enter there’s a sign that says ‘Welcome to Gardendale,’ subtitled, ‘Nice people live here.’ There’s a church that has 4,000 people, which is half of the population, and that’s where I grew up going to.”
Since his move to Tuscaloosa, Gillette said he has found an avenue for his creativity in writing and, more specifically, in spoken word, a branch of poetry that extends to onstage performances. Gillette described spoken word as the halfway point between Emily Dickinson’s poetry and Tupac. Much of Gillette’s writing pertains to growing up in a small Southern town and the problems within the church and his school.
“[Writing] is like a compulsion for me,” Gillette said. “Aside from my spoken word poem [about the church], I have this weird story about God grabbing me by the hair and Satan grabbing my teeth, and my eyes are up in heaven, and everything I see in heaven I speak and is spoken in hell. Some of [my work] is religious, but you write what you know, and my upbringing was grounded in biblical terms.”
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Gillette’s ability in spoken word is no surprise to Parker, who said he was immediately struck by Gillette’s voice when they first met and thought Gillette would be great on the radio.
“If you think of the things that rub you the right way about a person, there are all sorts of things. I would say with Will there’s something about the sound of his voice,” Parker said. “If you look at someone and you might instantly like them because of their eyes or by their vibe, Will’s voice has something really pleasant about it.”
Gillette has made a name for himself because of his creative work on campus, going by the names Heyman or Wildebeest depending on what venue he’s performing at. Wildebeest stems from Gillette’s first name. Gillette presented at Creative Campus events, Xpress Night and has also performed between speakers at Tide Talks.
Gillette’s work is not limited to poetry. He marks his other hobby, rapping, as equal but also very different from poetry.
“John Ashbury has this quote, ‘Famous poets aren’t famous.’ And that’s not a problem with people. That’s a problem with poetry, which is why I try to do more spoken word and performance things like rap,” Gillette said. “It’s kind of like, if I can get famous as a rapper or something, I can be like, ‘Guys, I write poems, too.’”
Cyrus Alavi, a junior majoring in biology, said he met Gillette when he was a freshman and has attended one of Gillette’s rap performances at the Green Bar.
“When I’m talking with Will, I actually get the feeling that he’s listening, which can be rare in conversation. He really does listen to you, and he opens up. He’s a nice guy, as strange as he is,” Alavi said. “My favorite Facebook status ever was when he posted, ‘I saved a frog from a meteor today.’ That’s just Will Gillette for you.”
When it comes to poetry, Parker said he believes Gillette matches his personality with both the work he turns in and the work he creates outside the classroom. Parker describes his classroom as being lit up by Gillette’s personality and charisma.
“I know from talking to him that he does hip-hop and spoken word, but the work that he turned in was unusual, bizarre, really creative, didn’t fit into what I would think of as categorizable poems,” Parker said. “It’s pleasantly shocking, and that’s a really good way to describe Will [and] his presence.”
Previously considering an MFA program after graduation, which includes the pursuit of a creative writing degree by poetry workshops, Gillette is currently considering teaching high school and coaching basketball.
“He loves basketball, which is funny because it wasn’t until we talked about it that I realized how tall he is. I’m 6 feet, and I [recently] realized I’m looking up at him,” Parker said. “He’s full of surprises. You just look at him, and he would seem like the bohemian musician type, but he’s also apparently an athlete.”