The Place Where Poetry Lives
by Adele Johnsen '02
One evening a few years ago, as Ann Boutelle drove to her home in Chesterfield, she suddenly had an idea. "I wanted to see a poetry center at Smith," says Boutelle, a senior lecturer in English language and literature. The impetus for her idea may have come several days earlier, when President Ruth Simmons spoke "eloquently and passionately" about changes she envisioned for the college and asked faculty members for suggestions. At the time, "I was moved by her speech," admits Boutelle. "But I didn't think it had very much to do with me."
During the next several months, Boutelle drew up a proposal and solicited support from other faculty members, students and alumnae. Her hard work paid off.
The following spring, the college awarded the Poetry Center at Smith $15,000 to bring notable poets to campus in its first year. Elizabeth Alexander, a visiting Grace Hazard Conkling Writer-in-Residence, began organizing and laying the groundwork for the new center's first year of poetry readings.
In September 1997, acclaimed Irish poet Eavan Boland arrived on campus to give the Poetry Center's inaugural reading. "Wright Hall was absolutely packed on that very first reading, and I think it was a sign of how hungry the campus was for poetry," Boutelle says.
Now, five years later, the Poetry Center continues to nourish the campus with poetic sustenance. "The idea was to keep the tradition of poetry at Smith alive and to bring more internationally and nationally acclaimed poets -- who Sylvia Plath '55 called 'the god-eyed tall-minded ones' -- to Smith," says Ellen Doré Watson, who directs the Poetry Center this year. "And it's been a fabulous success, it really has. It's now widely known in the area. Our audience is made up of people who come from as far away as Albany, Vermont and Hartford. People know that some of the best and the most well-known poets read here."
Indeed, in the years since it was founded, the Poetry Center has successfully attracted an impressive lineup of talented poets to Smith. Among the prominent guests have been Gwendolyn Brooks, who in 1950 became the first African-American writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize. Brooks' reading in fall 2000 was one of her last before her death in December of that year.
Another literary legend to visit the Smith campus was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a famous Beat poet, publisher, activist, translator and author, who became "the most important force in developing and publicizing antiestablishment poetics," according to the Dictionary of Literary Biography. And in fall 1999, the Poetry Center brought Sylvia Plath's daughter, Frieda Hughes, to her mother's alma mater. Reading selections from her own first book of poetry before a large and eager audience, Hughes joined those "god-eyed tall-minded ones" her mother had spoken of decades before.
Last December, the Poetry Center at Smith celebrated its fifth anniversary with Alexander and Watson reading from their newest collections.
This year, the Poetry Center has again assembled an impressive list of visiting poets. On February 6, Billy Collins, the poet laureate of the United States, gave a reading to a nearly full house at John M. Greene Hall.
Cornelius Eady read on campus two weeks later. Eady, whom The Southern Review called "the heir of Langston Hughes," often writes about Harlem and the vision of the black man in white imagination with "tremendous verve, drama, compassion, and insight," according to Booklist.
Other poets who gave campus readings this past spring were Welsh poets Gillian Clarke and Menna Elfyn, Jean Valentine, Sharon Kraus, Stanley Kunitz and Bernardo Atxaga.
"Each season, our slate of readers is very diverse in terms of gender, race, poetic style," Watson explains. Attracting poets of all kinds has grown easier for the Poetry Center as its reputation has developed and spread, she adds. "The more we've gotten our name out, the more poets are willing to come. The word is out that it's a good place to come and read."
As the Poetry Center celebrates its fifth anniversary, its founder and director are pleased with its steady growth and development, and excited about the future. "We expect to continue doing the reading series as we do it, to continue to bring more poets and continue to flourish," Watson says. "We'd also like to create a space outdoors on campus, like a poetry grove and a reading space. And it's very important to work toward a physical space for the Poetry Center."
Adds Boutelle: "We would like a lovely space on campus, where we could have a beautiful room with comfortable chairs and access to the audio and video collection, because we have, since the start, been videotaping every poet who gives us permission (and most of them do) and assembling this fantastic archive of what poetry has been like here."
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