Degrees and Certifications:
Iris Rinke-Hammer has taught at ASFA since 1989. Since 2002 she has taught in the Creative Writing department; prior to that, she taught Language Arts and several foreign languages, including French, German, Russian, and Spanish. She holds an M.S. in Linguistics from Georgetown University and an undergraduate degree from the University of Tuebingen in Germany. In 2017, she was one of ten teachers nationwide to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award. She was a 2011 recipient of the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program’s Teacher Recognition Award, and she was awarded the ASFA Distinguished Service Award in 2015. Her students have won numerous national and regional writing contests, including the National YoungArts Foundation’s YoungArts Awards, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Books-a-Million BAM! Publishing Contest, and the Alabama Writers’ Forum’s Senior Portfolio Scholarship Awards. In addition to writing (creative nonfiction, in particular), her many passions and creative interests include performance art, photography, pottery, jazz, golf, and AKC dog training.
- 2015 ASFA-CW alumna Adriane Tharpe’s essay nominating Iris for the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award.
- Journalist Erin Edgemon’s interview profile of Iris in al.com: “Birmingham teacher inspires, looks for the ‘spark’ in her students.”
- ASFA News & Announcements: Daniel Blokh Wins BAM! Publishing Contest
Philosophy of Teaching (and Life)
by Iris Rinke-Hammer
Coming to this country was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. On May 1st, 1975, I put my foot for the first time on this continent. And I never forget the silly thought that crossed my mind: ‘The grass is green here too.’ Luck was on my side that my introduction to the U.S. was a beautiful, small neighborhood in Northwest Washington, D.C., where African-American families had lived for generations. Little did I know that not all of America was this culturally diverse, a lesson I learned when I moved some years later to Bowling Green, Ohio. First I came to the U.S. to visit for a few months because I was in love with an American fellow and wanted to improve my English (we had met in Lausanne, Switzerland, where we both studied French and then transferred to Paris, France, where we continued our studies), then I came back to go to graduate school at Georgetown University where I got my master’s degree because I had fallen in love with the country: with jazz (the music of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Wayne Shorter lead me to my late partner, Lewis White, the man I shared my life with for nearly two decades), with baseball (my late husband, Adam Hammer, was not only a poet but also a baseball player who had a tryout at age eighteen with the Pittsburgh Pirates), with the openness (in residential neighborhoods the green lawns move seemingly seamlessly from one house to another versus the walls, hedges and fences that so often separate properties in Europe), with the vastness of the country, with the people.
I came to writing rather late in life. I was nineteen when I wrote my first serious piece. I remember how I hammered away on my manual typewriter so fervently it felt like my life depended on it. Ever since that time writing has been a refuge of sorts to me. Growing up, books and classical music provided that kind a refuge from an often incessantly active household. Writing reminds me of the feeling I had when I was little hiding under the covers at night, my flashlight lighting up the page of my book like a big dramatic scene. Nothing else mattered, just me and the word.
Applying to ASFA was another one of those good decisions. To be an artist takes courage, lots of courage. I believe that ASFA is so special because we are surrounded by gutsy people who don’t shy away from facing their innermost feelings.
My twenty-seven years at ASFA have been a wonderful journey from teaching German and Russian, then French and Spanish, and then creative writing. Moments when students hand in beautiful work, win contests, become Presidential Scholars or get their first book published while still in high school, are just the icing on the cake. It’s seeing the daring diving into invisible territories that students do every day while writing that makes me admire them so much. I can’t imagine a more rewarding job. Besides working with students and getting to read their work I love discovering new writers, my favorite writer always the one right in front of me. I just read Mary Ward Brown’s stories for the first time – tight and controlled small jewels of stories that give the reader glimpses into Alabama’s rural life ca. fifty years ago. Her language so precise and clear, almost minimalist. I love crazy experimental literature too, like the sound-driven pieces in Severance by Robert Olen Butler. Growing up watching movies by Fellini, Bunuel and Bergman have made me lean toward the edgy and surreal qualities of art.
When asked who my mentor was in my life I’m quite surprised by my response: my mother. Surprised because our relationship went through many rocky moments. But she, a strong woman, taught me to work hard and to always speak my mind. It was instilled in us to never stop trying new things: discover a new part of the world, learn a new language, start a new hobby or sport. So five years ago I started training my two German Shorthaired Pointers, one in conformation until he earned his championship, and the other in agility. Three years ago, almost sixty years old, I began to play golf, a sport I would like to get decent at before I turn ninety. If somebody would ask me the silly question of what I would like to have inscribed on my tombstone I’d say: “She loved life.”