Auden and Plath: The Inspiration
When W.H. Auden visited Smith in 1953, Sylvia Plath sat and listened to him read in Elizabeth Drew’s living room. Plath listened to the “burlap-textured voice and the crackling brilliant utterances.”
Later that night she wrote rhapsodically in her journal, “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….”
Founded in 1997, and rapidly emerging as a major force on campus, the Poetry Center’s core mission is to bring to campus a succession of the “god-eyed tall-minded ones,” to inspire our students as Auden inspired Plath. Students in the hundreds attend the readings, which draw large community audiences as well, and feature poets of national and international stature.
History of the Poetry Center at Smith College
Launching her “2020” program in September 1996, President Ruth Simmons called on everyone at Smith to “Dream big dreams!” A few days later, driving home to West Chesterfield in the dark, Annie Boutelle, a lecturer in the English Department, suddenly knew what she longed to see at Smith: a Poetry Center.
With encouragement from English Department colleagues and poetry-lovers from other departments, and crucial assistance from senior Meredith Martin, Boutelle fleshed out the dream: a director, student interns, public readings, Q&A’s, a video archive, outreach to schools. The plan garnered vital support from students and alumnae, and a starter budget was allocated.
A Poetry Center Committee was formed, with Boutelle as chair, and participating faculty from various departments (see ABOUT US). Meanwhile, the poetry gods had fortuitously arranged that the English Department’s incoming Conkling Visiting Poet would be Elizabeth Alexander, who had just run a poetry series at the University of Chicago, and who generously agreed to take on the directorship of the Center for her two-year stint at Smith. In September 1997, Eavan Boland packed Wright Auditorium to its seams for the Poetry Center’s inaugural reading.
Alexander brought with her a wide, embracing idea of what poetry is: a wide range of poets would come to Smith, with different politics, poetics, values, backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and styles. Alexander set the tone: this was to be a vibrant energy-filled Poetry Center, celebrating poetry in its many shapes and guises.
Students responded instantly with their presence: hundreds showed up at the readings. From the very start, a poetry buzz was in the air; and each audience was a wonderful blend of students, faculty, staff, and community folk.
Alexander and her student intern, Abe Louise Young, developed the concept of “box-stuffers” (now known as “poetry postcards”).
These charming and colorful cards—each with its elegant design, short poem, and information about the reading—continue to this day: each person on the campus receives one. We view the postcards as an important part of our mission, putting poems into the hands of people; and around campus one can often spot them, tacked on carrels, above secretaries’ desks, and pinned on office doors.
As Alexander’s time at Smith drew to a close in 1999, the Poetry Center Committee received permission from College Hall to hire a new Director; and they were delighted to find Ellen Doré Watson, a poet and translator, who had curated poetry series at The Globe Bookshop and at Thorne’s, both in downtown Northampton. Watson picked up Alexander’s arms-wide-open policy and ran with it, adding the presence of international poets, whose work is read both in the original language and in translation.
Audiences have continued to build, ranging from 75–2,000. They surprise even the poets. Lawrence Ferlinghetti reported it was the longest line for book signing he had ever seen. Stanley Kunitz counted his Smith reading, in terms of audience response, as one of the three best readings he had ever given. Mary Oliver had tears in her eyes to see the enormous and enormously excited crowd gathered in John M. Green Hall.
Poetry Center Room
A quiet browsing room, with shelves filled with slim volumes of poetry and journals, was always one of the Poetry Center’s goals.
In 2004, thanks to Smith support and a gift from an anonymous donor, Wright Common Room was transformed into an elegant and calm space, filled with brilliantly colored, comfortable furniture. The room is used for individual browsing, for many poetry-related events (including all our Tuesday afternoon Q&A’s, which bring the visiting poet and Smith students together in an intimate way), and by various campus and community groups. Poet photos, taken by student photographers, announce the vitality and variety of our guests. Bookcases house signed copies of books by poets who have visited Smith, and book shelves are filled with poetry books and journals. Barry Moser’s stunning broadsides memorialize the dedication of the Poetry Center and Louise Gluck’s visit.
A glass Word Wall not only celebrates poetry in general, with quotations about what poetry is; the Word Wall also honors the depth and breadth of the Poetry Center reading series, with a listing of all the poets who came to Smith from 1997 to 2003.
Student interns design posters and poetry postcards in the adjoining office. Unless booked for college events, the Poetry Center is open during the semesters, Monday-Friday, 8am to 4pm.
From the very beginning, students have played vital roles in the Poetry Center—from vision to daily operation. During the academic year we usually have from 8-10 students working in various capacities:
- Interns take responsibility for all aspects of producing, publicizing, and coordinating the readings in the Poetry Center series. This includes design, production, and distribution of posters, flyers, and poetry postcards; coordinating refreshments, room setup, and postering for readings and events. They also attend some of the dinners with the poets and serve alongside faculty on the Poetry Center policy-setting committee
- The Student Assistant to the Director compiles bibliographies of upcoming poets, researches and writes poet biographies and publicity text, helps to choose poems for Q&A packets, trains interns on the design software, coordinates volunteers, represents the Poetry Center at campus events, and serves on the Poetry Center Committee.
- Stride Scholars assist with research, maintain the website, answer e-mail queries from all over the world; review videotapes of our readings and create indexes to make individual poems easily available for classroom use.
- Student photographers have the rare experience of candidly photographing world-famous poets. Some of their work is on display in the Poetry Center room.
- Other miscellaneous poetry activities for students supported by the Poetry Center: two poets are chosen representatives of Smith each year to read at the annual Five College PoetryFest; students organize self-led writing and critique groups through meetings of the campus group WordSmith; student poets are invited to help screen manuscripts for the High School Poetry Prize.
Distinguished artist and Printer-to-the-college, Barry Moser made two very handsome broadsides to commemorate the dedication of the Poetry Center in April 2004.
The first features original portraits of Sylvia Plath and W.H. Auden, as well as the excerpt from Plath’s journal which played a role in founder Annie Boutelle’s original vision of the Poetry Center as a place where young writers have the chance to meet “the god-eyed tall-minded ones.” The other, first in a series honoring visiting poets, and hand printed at the student printing office, is Louise Glück’s poem “First Memory.”
Moser continues to donate his time to this project, designing and creating original engravings. Our website features a gallery of all broadsides to date: Plath/Auden, Louise Glück, Seamus Heaney, Gary Snyder, and Adrienne Rich. It’s easier than ever to purchase one of these treasures—and to support our programs at the same time.
Outreach to Schools
Outreach to schools has always been a part of the Poetry Center’s mission. During the initial years, outreach was limited to reserving seats at the readings for local schools and donating poetry books to the Northampton High School library.
The Care Center
Established in 1986, The Care Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts, provides alternative-education for pregnant and parenting teens. Its young women, many of them Spanish-speakers, earn their high-school equivalency diplomas, with the support of on-site day care, parenting training, job placement, personal and career counseling, arts programming and athletics. We’ve facilitated visits to Tzivia Gover’s poetry class by a string of poets in our series, including Demetria Martinez, Joy Harjo, Nikky Finney, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mark Doty, and Sharon Olds; and Ellen Watson spent a lively session discussing translation with the student group editing the Care Center’s bilingual literary journal, Nautilus II. It has been thrilling to see poem-talk spill out onto the Holyoke sidewalks! http://www.carecenterholyoke.org/
Poetry Prize for High School Girls
In 2006, we launched our first annual Poetry Prize for High School Girls in Massachusetts (open to sophomores and juniors). Submissions began rolling in, and Naomi Shihab Nye graciously agreed to be our first judge.
Please help us spread the word to teachers and students around the state.
We have also begun collaborations with local organizations whose mission involves bringing the power of the word to underserved populations:
Voices from Inside
Since 1999, Western Massachusetts-based Voices from Inside has offered creative writing workshops where incarcerated and recently-released women write their stories in their own diverse voices. Voices from Inside’s mission also includes bringing the women’s writing to the larger community, to increase awareness of the human and financial costs of prisons.
When Ellen Watson visited a workshop held in the Hampden County House of Corrections, the courage and humanity of the women she met there impressed her deeply, and led to the idea of hosting a Voices reading at Smith. In fall 2005, a packed Weinstein auditorium witnessed firsthand the dignity and creativity of Voices from Inside writers.
Hampshire County Jail Adult Learning Center
The Adult Learning Center at the Hampshire County Jail uses a cooperative learning model to help students gain both confidence and literacy, in classes that provide them with the skills necessary for greater self-sufficiency, improved employment opportunities, and a more thoughtful approach to life. Ellen Watson was honored to be a founding member of the Advisory Board to the Adult Learning Center and looks forward to learning more about the crucial literacy efforts underway right down the street from Smith.
Outreach Goals and Dreams
In addition to ongoing relationships with the groups listed above, we dream of having the staff and funding to create some programs of our own, such as training students to bring poetry enrichment to urban schools and offering teachers support for their own creative work.
Funding from a variety of college sources and from alumnae & community donors has grown each year, and we are very grateful to those who have supported us. Our deepest need is for an endowment that will guarantee that the Poetry Center will be here for generations of Smith students and of poetry lovers in the surrounding communities.