While working on the upcoming Smith production of “Fun Home”—a musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel—cast and crew members experienced a bit of behind-the-scenes magic: A trip to Special Collections in Neilson Library, where Bechdel’s papers are housed.
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Exploring the Possibilities of Poetry
The deft dialogue that ensued revealed to Donovan an unabashed intellectual enthusiasm that he said he has come to recognize as quite typical at Smith.
“They all just wanted to keep talking poems, all day, and that was really exciting,” recounted Donovan, an award-winning poet who moved east from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to assume his new role at Smith. “Everything came alive when we were talking about poems.”
Donovan is author of two collections of poetry and a collection of lyric essays. Calling the culture of poetry at Smith “wonderfully and refreshingly diverse,” he is quick to pay tribute to the long tradition of writers and poets who have graduated from the college, as well as to the growing international reputation of the 20-year-old Poetry Center, which regularly brings renowned poets to campus. Its longtime director Ellen Doré Watson retired last year.
“Poetry is not a siloed experience at Smith,” observed Donovan, whose academic title at Smith is professor of practice in English language and literature. “There is an open-mindedness, a willingness to explore the possibilities of poetry even if students coming to it for the first time know nothing about it.”
Indeed, there is something unique about the way in which Smith students hone their language skills and immerse themselves in the study of poetry, whether they see it as an academic calling or a new interest, Donovan said. “In my English 112 [Reading Contemporary Poetry] class, students are coming from all different disciplines across campus to explore poetry.” He’s observed neuroscience or biochemistry majors reach into science—or look beyond it—for insights that allow them to find poems they like and determine them to be great. And to write their own poems.
Last year, Donovan worked closely with four students in the poetry concentration capstone class. “All four of them were writing truly stellar work,” he said. “Just extraordinary work.”
Poetry, he said, is a way of distilling the possibilities of language in an age of tumult and ill-spoken prose. “There is almost a daily degradation of language that’s happening in our current political environment,” he said. “And I’ve encountered a lot of students that want to focus on using poetry to respond to our political climate. In fact, poetry can serve as an antidote to our political discourse just by virtue of this fact alone: Words matter.”
This story appears in the Fall 2019 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.