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Poetry Center Celebrates First Ten

When President Ruth Simmons challenged those at Smith to "dream big dreams," Annie Boutelle, senior lecturer in English language and literature, heeded the call. It was ten years ago that Boutelle proposed the idea to establish a program at Smith that would host an ongoing stream of distinguished poets. With an enthusiastic response from the college community, the Poetry Center was born.

This year, the Poetry Center celebrates its anniversary with a year-long series of readings and events, beginning October 2 and 3 with a visit by United States Poet Laureate Robert Hass. View a video of Poetry All Around Dec. 11.

Meanwhile, Boutelle offers:

Reflections on Ten Years of Poetry

By Annie Boutelle

Poetry is one of the most intimate arts, but also a public one. We turn to it at crucial moments: in the turmoil of September 11, at funerals or weddings, at times of emotional crisis. We humans know that poetry is mystery, that it speaks what cannot otherwise be spoken, and that it connects to our deepest selves. The Poetry Center audiences demonstrate our human thirst for "the clear water of words," to use a phrase from poet Abe Louise Young ’99.

It's wonderful to meet incoming students who already know all about the Poetry Center and who have chosen Smith because of the center’s reputation. Our website, plus our high standing in the poetry world, have combined to make a strong connection between Smith College and poetry. It's fitting that this vital program has its roots in the early years of the college, when a stream of distinguished poets visited Smith. The "god-eyed, tall-minded ones," to use Sylvia Plath's phrase, continue to inspire students and faculty.

The afternoon Q&As are a highlight of our program. Only Smith students are offered the exceptional opportunity of being up close and personal with the visiting poet. Students often talk about the unique value of being exposed so intimately to a poet's mindset and character, of recognizing that the poet is in some ways a human being, too, and of being inspired to write that next poem.

I had not foreseen that audiences would come from both near and far. Particularly if the poet is famous, fans will drive from Burlington, Boston, New Haven, Albany. My favorite example is a Connecticut man who had to be in Florida on business when Lawrence Ferlinghetti visited. The man flew from Florida to Bradley, rented a car, drove to Smith for the reading, volunteered to carry Ferlinghetti's briefcase for a few minutes as they walked on campus, then hopped back into his rental car and returned to Bradley and Florida, a happy man.

I love the extent to which our student interns have put their mark on the Poetry Center—advising at committee meetings, designing the posters and the incredibly beautiful poetry postcards, and supervising many of the details of the readings.

I love the fact that our archive of videos will be available in Neilson Library for hundreds of years to come. Future scholars will come to Smith to find out what poetry was like in the late 20th century.

I am filled with gratitude to Carol Christ and Ruth Simmons for their strong support.  And to the two amazing directors, Elizabeth Alexander (1997-99) and Ellen Doré Watson (1999-present), who have created a 10-year celebration of poetry at Smith.

I'm delighted with how far we've come, and I can't wait to see what the next decade will bring.

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