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Immersed in Verse: Poetry Center Anniversary a Cause for Celebration

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

Only an hour after Billy Collins, then poet laureate of the United States, had read his poems to a standing-room-only audience in John M. Greene Hall, a campus online discussion forum buzzed with postings from students who had attended the reading.

“I feel poetically inspired, not just to write poetry, but to see the world in a more poetic way,” wrote one student. “His words make you feel calm, and through them you can know that poetry is in everything. It is, but we don’t realize it enough.”

Another simply wrote, “Thank you, poetry center.”

Sidebar: A Legacy Stretching More Than 100 Years

Sidebar: Air on Campus Filled With the Sound of Poetry All Around

Sidebar: This Spring at the Poetry Center

Sidebar: The Poetry Center Counts The Ways

To be sure, the steady stream of poets brought to campus by the Smith College Poetry Center in the past 10 years has inspired legions of students, while Poetry Center events have become as much a staple of campus life as Friday afternoon teas.

The Poetry Center, now in the midst of a yearlong anniversary commemoration, has much to celebrate. By all accounts, it has had a spectacular decade marked by a variety and richness of poets as well as immense audiences. Specifically, since 1997, the center has hosted more than 130 readings, drawing more than 35,000 poetry fans. (See page 9.) Those who came to read have included the up-and-coming as well as the famous -- such as Irish poet Eavan Boland, Native-American poet Joy Harjo and Pulitzer Prize-winners Galway Kinnell and the late Gwendolyn Brooks.

Much of the credit for the center’s success goes to two members of the Smith faculty, Annie Boutelle and Ellen Doré Watson.

Boutelle, a senior lecturer in English language and literature, proposed the center in 1996, envisioning it as a place that would emphasize “poetry’s central place in literature and in the academy” and “draw attention to Smith’s present and active role in the world of poetry.”

It was 10 years ago that Annie Boutelle, senior lecturer in English language and literature, seated to the right in the Poetry Center, proposed the idea to establish a program at Smith that would host an ongoing stream of distinguished poets and promote the reading, writing and study of poetry. Poetry Center Director Ellen Doré Watson, left, is known for her eloquent and lyrical introductions of the poets who give public readings at Smith. Photo by Jim Gipe.

Based on her plan, the Poetry Center at Smith -- alma mater of celebrated poet Sylvia Plath ’55 -- was launched in 1997 and has, from the very beginning, fulfilled its mission to bring a broad spectrum of distinguished poets to campus for public readings and personal interaction with students. The center also maintains a video library of all the readings and performs outreach to local schools and to an alternative-education program for pregnant and parenting teens. Last year, the center initiated an annual poetry prize for high school girls in Massachusetts.

In 1999 the center hired Watson as its director. A prize-winning poet and a translator of books from Brazilian Portuguese who also serves as an editor of the literary journal The Massachusetts Review, she says, “This is the best job a poet could hope for: hosting poets from all walks of life and introducing people to the world of poetry.

“The thing that is really unique about Smith’s poetry center,” adds Watson, who is also a lecturer in English language and literature, “is that there are no undergraduate creative writing or M.F.A. programs at the college, while other institutions insist that a poetry center be linked to one of those.”

What’s more, she says, “We’ve built an audience that is very committed to poetry. Visiting poets have told us that the quality of listening is very high here.”

Boutelle agrees. “Our audiences are truly exceptional in the poetry world, and almost all the poets comment on them.” San Francisco poet and playwright Lawrence Ferlinghetti noted that he had never seen such a huge line of people waiting with books to be signed after his 2001 reading in John M. Greene Hall.

After her October 2007 reading, California poet Aleida Rodriguez remarked, “I found the Smith audience, both in the question-and-answer session and at the evening reading, to be highly receptive and tuned in. And avidly curious -- curio­sity is something that drives me, so I like seeing it in others. Some remarks -- that my images were unique or idiosyncratic -- were interesting to me because my experience of my own vocabulary is so intimate I can’t see it from the outside. This highlights the importance of travel, the need for exposure to different audiences.”

A limited-edition broadside of Adrienne Rich’s poem “Fox,” designed and engraved by artist and Printer to the College Barry Moser, commemorates Rich’s 2006 retrospective reading and is part of a series of fine letterpress printings celebrating many poets who have read at Smith. Sales of the broadsides support Poetry Center programming.

The question-and-answer sessions take place four or five times a semester. Shortly after 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, some 25 Smith students and professors waft into Smith’s sunny, book-lined Poetry Center on the first floor of Wright Hall, grab a snack and a stack of poems, and find a seat in the circle of comfortable purple chairs and couches. Opening their notebooks, they smile shyly at the visiting poet sitting only a few feet away. Seated nearby might be a United States poet laureate, a National Book Award winner or a member of the Beat Generation circle of writers and poets.

These question-and-answer sessions -- colloquially referred to as the Q and A’s -- precede every reading and are open only to the Smith community. They give Smith students a chance to make personal contact with the poets who come to campus. This is when they get to ask questions -- whether about the choice of a word, the logic of a language, the emotion driving the poem -- or simply to ask a poet to read a favorite poem.

It’s one of the many events through which students have come to know that at Smith, poetry matters.

For some students, the reach of the Poetry Center influences everything from their decision to attend Smith to their study of the sciences.

“I didn’t realize that Smith had a poetry center until after I had applied for admission. But ironically, I had always wanted to be a poet. In fact I discovered Sylvia Plath and ‘Lady Lazarus’ when I was 14,” says Ada Comstock Scholar Laurie Guerrero-Garces ’08 of San Antonio, Texas. “When I heard about the Poetry Center, I got really excited. I knew having access to all these amazing poets was going to be great.”

One experience she will not forget is an afternoon spent with visiting poet Adrienne Rich after volunteering to help Rich sign limited edition commemorative broadsides to be sold at the Poetry Center. Guerrero-Garces, a mother of three, describes the conversation that ensued. “I was intimidated at first, but I told her I was having some trouble finding time to write. She sat me down and said, ‘You have to carve out time for yourself -- a time when you say I’m not a mother right now. I’m a writer.’ She made me feel as if we were both mothers and writers, just talking it out.”

Now, Guerrero-Garces hangs a sign on her home office door when she needs writing time. It reads: “Future award-winning writer at work.”

Her work is paying off. Guerrero-Garces has had her poetry published in Literary Mama, BorderSenses, The Palo Alto Review, Texas Poetry Calendar 2007 and 2008, and the forthcoming Feminist Studies, as well as the Smith publication Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism. Her chapbook of poetry, Babies Under the Skin, was chosen for the Panhandler Publishing Chapbook Award and will be published by that company next month.

Guerrero-Garces, an English major and a Sophia Smith Scholar, adds that having access to the big-name poets is no more remarkable than having access to Boutelle and Watson, who are “teachers and amazing, phenomenal poets in their own right. I don’t think I’d get this kind of exposure to wonderful poets anywhere else but Smith.”

Computer science major Margaret Zaccardi ’10 from Greenwood Lake, New York, is a STRIDE scholar in her second year of helping Watson manage the Poetry Center’s Web site at www.smith.edu/poetrycenter. “To be involved personally in bringing famous poets to Smith and publicizing the events and managing the center’s public image on the Web is quite rewarding,” she says.

Zaccardi took Watson’s class Reading Contemporary Poetry last year. As a science major recently inducted into the world of poetry, she has had some surprising realizations.

“A funny thing has happened. My fields are converging,” she notes. “Computer science is very much about languages and now I find myself comparing the language of artificial intelligence to the language of natural human expression that you find in poetry. In both poetry and Web design, you learn to represent reality in ways that connect with the personal experience of your audience and to appreciate the varied influences of your work in the world.”

Melissa Davis ’10 of University Place, Washington, is an English major and government minor who dabbles in writing poetry; Teen People published one of her poems when she was in high school. When she talks about her internship with the Poetry Center, she speaks with an exuberance that is common among the center’s interns. “This is a big year because we’re celebrating the center’s 10th anniversary, and we’re having more readings than usual. We’re promoting so much poetry. I’m really lucking out.”

As Davis sees it, her job is also an opportunity to harvest fresh insights from not only the poems she reads but also from her interactions with the poets who write them.

Given her understanding that the internship would be about creating publicity for events, she was surprised by the “perks” that came with the job. “I consider myself very lucky to have this internship. I was invited to dinner at the president’s house with Robert Hass, who was the U.S. poet laureate from 1995 to 1997. You really get one-on-one time with a poet that way. It’s something I never expected.”

The list of distinguished poets who have visited Smith over the years is long and remarkable (see sidebar). The vibrant presence of poetry in academic programs and in the cultural life at Smith underscores how important it remains.

To document the role that poetry can play in our lives, Boutelle is compiling a video archive of members of the Smith community reading their favorite poems and discussing why those poems are significant to them.

Poetry surfaces not only in the curriculum but also at traditional college events. This September, Smith students, staff and professors read selected works of famous poets to help inaugurate a new academic year during Opening Convocation.

Poetry-related courses are available every semester. Each year, students flock to such English department classes as Watson’s Reading Contemporary Poetry, Boutelle’s Reading and Writing Short Poems, and this year’s poetry writing classes taught by current writer-in-residence Nikky Finney. This past fall students taking Methods of Literary Study edited selected editions of manuscript poems from the Sylvia Plath Collection, one of the jewels of the holdings of the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Smith College.

In addition to the Plath papers, the rare book room has substantial holdings representing both historical and contemporary poetry. Among its assembled collections are the literary manuscripts of Margaret Atwood, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Celia Thaxter, to name a few.

Student poets also take part in such events as the prestigious Glascock Intercollegiate Poetry Contest and the annual Five College Student Poetryfest, in which poets from Smith Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke colleges and the University of Massachusetts read their work.

In 2005, Carolyn Creedon AC ’06 took home the Glascock poetry prize, an honor that is handed out annually to winning students who have been chosen to compete from a rotating roster of colleges. Creedon was the first Smith student to win the competition since 1955 when Sylvia Plath shared the prize with a Wesleyan student.

When she proposed the idea for a center in 1996, Boutelle said she wanted a program that “will inspire our students as W. H. Auden inspired Sylvia Plath in 1953.”

Plath’s reaction to Auden has become legendary in Smith folklore. After listening to him read, she wrote in her journal: “God, god, the stature of the man! And next week in trembling audacity I approach him with a sheaf of the poems. Oh, god, if this is life, half-heard, glimpsed, smelled, with beer and cheese sandwiches and the god-eyed tall-minded ones, let me never go blind or get cut off from the agony of learning.”

Boutelle, whose two books of poems were published in 2005, dreamed of bringing a long line of the “god-eyed tall-minded ones” to Smith, under the auspices of a center that would whet an appetite for poetry and “reinforce the vital connections between the study of poetry and the writing of poetry and add significantly to Smith’s offerings and reputation.”

Not surprisingly, Boutelle is a strong believer in the magic of poetry. When poet Li-Young Lee read in 1998, Boutelle remembers the audience as “hardly daring to breathe. We were all under the best kind of spell. It was an intense example of how powerful poetry can be.”

Just as she had hoped the poets would inspire Smith students, Boutelle has found that the poets have, in turn, inspired her. “It’s a particularly fertile atmosphere, since the Poetry Center has flung open its arms to so many different kinds of poets and poetries. The Q and A’s offer a fabulous opportunity to be up close and to participate in a conversation [with a poet]. I leave these sessions reinvigorated and ready once more to reach for my pencil and notebook.”

Smith students Melissa Davis ’10 and Margaret Zaccardi ’10 enjoy vital roles in the day-to-day operation of the Poetry Center. Davis, an intern, helps design and produce publicity posters and postcards for the readings, while Zaccardi, a STRIDE scholar, maintains the center’s Web site. Photo by Jim Gipe.

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