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June 2, 2005

A First for Smith College's Summer Reading Assignment: Poetry

NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—As usual this summer, Smith College’s incoming students will spend time reading an assigned book in preparation for discussions during the first-week orientation in September.

But instead of the typical novel, the Class of 2009 will read a collection of poems written from the point of view of Appalachian coal miners in the 1920s.

“Kettle Bottom,” by Diane Gilliam Fisher, depicts in heart-rending poignancy and narrative poetry the struggles, occasional joy and stalwart faith of the miners in Mingo County, West Virginia, who ply the subterranean depths for their profit-focused company, Stone Mountain Coal.

“This is the first time that we have selected a book of poetry,” said Tom Riddell, dean of first-year students at Smith, who chairs the committee that chooses the book for summer reading. “It’s rare that poetry is picked for the summer reading by any college.”

Smith’s summer reading assignment is intended to engage new students in meaningful issues. With a spare economy of language that supplies an abundance of information using a minimum of words, “Kettle Bottom” addresses several topics pertinent to modern society: the plights of poverty, lack of affordable health care, racism, religious freedom, corruption and rampant injustice.

As illustrated in the poems, the miners’ grim fate and that of their families is too often controlled by the company’s devotion to its business interests. The laborers in Fisher’s book live in camps constructed and administered by the company and frequently fall victim to the cruel whims of the mountain and its ubiquitous coal dust.

Professor Susan Van Dyne assigned the book to students in her American Women Poets course last year. “We all have something incredibly valuable to learn about poetry as a supplement to history, as the way that history is embodied and given emotional force,” said Van Dyne, chair of the Women’s Studies Program.

Some 650 new Smith students will meet in small groups in residence living rooms to discuss their reflections on “Kettle Bottom” with staff and faculty members on Tuesday, Sept. 6. That evening, Fisher will visit campus for a reading from her work at 8 p.m. in John M. Greene Hall. Her reading, which is free and open to the public, will be followed by a book signing and reception.

“Kettle Bottom” was published last year by Perugia Press, a company in Florence, Mass., that puts out one collection of poetry each year by a woman at the beginning of her career. It was named a Book Sense Top Ten Poetry Pick for 2005 by the American Booksellers Association and nominated for the Appalachian Writers Association Book of the Year Award.

Fisher’s book of poems joins past summer reading selections such as Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” Ruth Ozeki’s “My Year of Meats” and last year’s selection, “The Gangster We Are All Looking For,” by Hampshire College alumna lê thi diem thúy.

The 2005-06 academic year will begin Thursday, Sept. 8.

Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation’s foremost liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from every state and 60 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women’s college in the country.

Office of College Relations
Smith College
Garrison Hall
Northampton, Massachusetts 01063

Marti Hobbes
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