GWEN IFILL: Next: making sure poetry leaves the ivory tower and gets out into the community.
Over the past year, Jeffrey Brown and U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey have been exploring that question in various corners of American life. They recently traveled to Los Angeles to look at how that played out with a graduate writing program at Antioch University.
It’s the last chapter in our series on discovering where poetry lives.
ALEJANDRA SANCHEZ: Choose your words when you hear them.
JEFFREY BROWN: On a recent Thursday evening at a community hall just east of Los Angeles, Alejandra Sanchez led a group of Latina women in a poetry writing exercise.
ALEJANDRA SANCHEZ: So, use five words. Just freestyle with it and write a poem using the five words.
JEFFREY BROWN: Sanchez began the project as part of a requirement to get her masters in fine arts degree from Antioch University, Los Angeles, which was founded as a satellite of the original Ohio campus.
The two-year graduate program demands that all students participate in a community service project to enhance the — quote — “writing life of others.”
ALEJANDRA SANCHEZ: Let go of any trauma.
JEFFREY BROWN: Sanchez set up her field study project to work with low-income women who’d not had access to writing workshops.
ALEJANDRA SANCHEZ: The power of the word is a doorway. And a big piece of my field study is about building community and bridging, bridging between academia and women of color, who, in their communities all of the arts have been cut, so they don’t have access to this kind of stuff.
JEFFREY BROWN: Requiring the community service work was the brainchild of Eloise Klein Healy, the first poet laureate of Los Angeles, who founded Antioch’s MFA program in 1997, before retiring eight years ago.
Current Antioch poetry professor Jenny Factor says that Healy was adamant that poets and writers not ensconce themselves in an ivory tower.
JENNY FACTOR, Antioch University Los Angeles: It’s not just about the work on the page. It’s about where you put your feet when you get out of bed in the morning.
Her concept was that art was participatory, that there was a kind of community engagement facet to a lifelong creative practice.
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s an approach that resonated with Natasha Trethewey, who is just finishing her second and final year as the U.S. poet laureate.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY, U.S. Poet Laureate: I often talk about how I see it as my job as the laureate to bring poetry to a wider audience, an American audience, to promote it, to bring more readers and lovers of poetry.
And that’s not the work that I thought of myself doing in graduate school, when I just wanted to learn everything I could about a sonnet.
JEFFREY BROWN: Gina Loring started her community project four years ago as an Antioch graduate student, teaching workshops at a program for incarcerated youth. The work was so rewarding, she continues to teach there, both in detention centers and at a program for youth who’ve been released.
GINA LORING: I think it’s really important that poets be in the community, be with what’s happening and conscious and connected to what’s going on in the world around us, because poetry can really be a platform for giving voice, giving voice to the voiceless.
JEFFREY BROWN: During the session we watched, many of the young people wrote about the difficulties they still face.
MAN: My body was free, but my mind was still stuck in a cell with such a negative past that, even after my release, I was still walking around in an orange jumpsuit and black shoes to let them know that freedom is only as free as you allow it to be, and that orange will always be your black until you decide to give it back.
MAN: Kindness is not stupid or weak. It is a movement. Kindness is an act of change so powerful and strong.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: I love that poetry becomes a way to foster conversations about justice. That poetry can be used for all sorts of things, personal things, but also the larger idea of the better world that we’re all trying to make and that I see you guys really being involved in.
JEFFREY BROWN: Natasha and I talked to several current and former Antioch students about the link, perhaps the tension, between making poetry broadly accessible and honing one’s individual craft.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: What I tell my students is that I believe that everyone can learn to write a better poem. You have all made the decision to come back and go to an MFA program to work on craft. Why is it important to do that?
JAMAICA HORTON: Just letting my heart bleed on the page, that’s very cathartic and great for relieving stress and getting rid of emotions and that kind of thing, but I want to take it to the next level. And I want it to be this beautiful piece of art that just touches somebody who may not have experienced what I have experienced, but they can get the similarities of it and it will trigger something within them.
GINA LORING: It’s important to acknowledge, though, that everyone has something to contribute. Whether you’re in a jail cell or a dorm room, you have a story to tell. But I also think it’s like any other talent. If you sing or if you dance or if you paint, there’s a natural kind of inclination towards something first. And then you take the time to work on it and hone it and develop the skill and strengthen your muscle.
JEFFREY BROWN: But there’s a question that arises, and it’s arisen in several of our trips, is that just can anyone write? Can anyone be a poet?
MIFANWY KAISER: If you want to talk about the poet, the established poet, no, I don’t think all of us can be that. But the important thing is working with words. It doesn’t matter if it’s messy, as long as they’re approaching the page with words.
JEFFREY BROWN: Whether they’re veterans, children, homeless, anyway, they don’t have to be poets?
MIFANWY KAISER: No.
JEFFREY BROWN: But it’s the working with words that’s important.
MIFANWY KAISER: It’s the working with words in whatever way they do it.
WOMAN: But do you have something you would like to read?
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a project for the homeless, in fact, that’s been the focus for Antioch students Jamie Garcia and Jamaica Horton. Each week in Santa Barbara, nearly a dozen people gather at a coffee shop to write.
WOMAN: What if these poets on the street took over the world, wiped the slate clean like sand on the beach, rewrote the daily news to reflect the street? Would we forget the mentally ill, the homeless, the heroin addict or veteran?
JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, part of what we’re seeing is that these programs encourage all kinds of people to write, right, through poetry. I don’t know if that means everybody is a poet or a writer, per se. Does it matter?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: I don’t think it matters. I think poetry lives in all of us. I think that what might distinguish the people who turn to poetry out of everyday need to articulate something difficult or important vs. people who go out to publish their work, to really hone the craft, to learn to use language in elegant ways, are the people who are devoted to it in a different way, who are willing to practice, to do it again and again, to create a made thing, a work of art.
JEFFREY BROWN: A made thing, yes.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: A made thing through language.
JEFFREY BROWN: The students at Antioch told us they will continue to hone their craft, all the while working to make sure that poetry lives, and even thrives, in their communities.
GWEN IFILL: You can hear a former Antioch student read a poem inspired by incarcerated teens. That’s on our Arts page.
Natasha Trethewey is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.