As a sophomore at the University of Maryland, I joined the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House, a living-learning program that puts students interested in creative writing in one dormitory and conducts workshops and classes in the same building. The people I met there, staff and students alike, not only dramatically improved my writing but catalyzed a mental revolution in how I thought about language and art, all while fostering close friendships (in New York I still live with two of my friends that I met through Writers’ House).
Writers’ House also afforded opportunities to explore other aspects of writing by providing support for programs like a regular open-mic night (the previously mentioned TerPoets) and a literary journal, and taking on the roles of performer or editor also expanded my view of the literary word. The woman who continually protects and develops this magical space is Johnna Schmidt, who recently led her students to the 2014 Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Johnna talks about this experience:
Priya is in my office, explaining that she regrets not being more involved in the Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House. She wishes she had more time, she’s been overcommitted. And it’s true that I have had almost no contact with her. I tell her (a) the door is open, and (b) she owes me nothing. When I look up her record after our meeting I see she is a BIO SCI: PHNB major and I don’t even know what that means, other than that she must have a skill set much more lucrative than mine. This is how it is with college students these days. Having gone through K-12 with the emphasis so firmly set on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math for those of you who have somehow been spared the acronym), many of them reach college starving for artistic or literary engagement but remain too busy putting together their resumes to be able to carve out the room in their schedules for something so unnecessary as art. After all, it won’t lead to a real career, right? And their parents, who are probably sacrificing quite a bit to foot the bill for college, are firm on this point: You better major in the sciences, business, or technology.
And here am I, teaching poetry and fiction writing at University of Maryland, insisting that such a pursuit is worth your time. I suggest to Priya that she might want to attend the field trip to Split This Rock. I’m only being practical; I have purchased 20 student passes to Split This Rock and am trying to make sure they get used.
A few weeks later Priya is on the Shuttle-UM bus to the metro, surrounded by 19 other students. She is reading Natalie Diaz’ book of poems When My Brother Was an Aztec. We are on the way to meet Natalie and I’ve offered my copy around. I love watching the students read and write. Their attentive bodies. They way everything stops and they become so focused. It’s almost like they enter a different world. I suppose they do.
Downtown, in the conference room at the Institute of Policy Studies, Natalie Diaz is suggesting that we need to explode our language. She suggests we crack things open. She confesses that she has tried to write sestinas several times but hasn’t figured out how to break the form yet. She says if we use the word “apple” we need to be aware not only of the etymology of the word but also the mythology, the aphorisms, common usages, and associations. “Apple” is carrying all of that and more to the reader. She finally suggests that we only really know things when they are broken. How many times have we heard some version of “I didn’t know how much I used my right index finger until I broke it.” Even with family members who die or become very ill, we understand their place in the family better when they are absent. It strikes me now that we seem incapable of fully understanding the interconnectedness of things while they are fully functioning.
All of us are listening intently. Priya keeps asking questions, even after our time with Natalie is supposed to be over. It’s turning into a tete-a-tete between Priya and Natalie. I’m sorry I have to cut them off and let everyone go. Natalie offers that anyone who has additional questions for her can email her.
Waiting for me at my office on Monday is a thank you note from Priya for giving her the opportunity to attend Split This Rock over the weekend. She’s had several conversations with writers she admires over the weekend, and she uses the words “incredible” and “awesome.” But my favorite phrase is this one: “this festival was one of my first exposures to spoken word/slam poetry, and I’ve completely fallen in love with it.” She also asks for Natalie’s email address.
Is there any better pursuit for a college student than to fall in love? Reason tells us yes, there are better pursuits, skills to learn, career enhancements, work to be done. But, dear reader, who I am assuming to be middle-aged like myself, do you remember your body, back before it was broken, when you were 18, 19, 20 years old? The body will not be denied ecstasy. Do you remember the urgency of youth, how we pursued things so impatiently, how passionately we loved and believed? I have no doubt that Priya has experienced a turning point. That she’s coming away from the festival with more interesting thoughts than ever and perhaps a new set of antennae with which to gauge the changing environment.
Perhaps it has always been this way, the vitality of the arts spilling into our lives and making converts of us one by one, when we all had more practical uses planned for our time. Art the inevitable interruption; in the face of something really great we drop our Excel spreadsheets. All the parents and administrators in world pushing on the younger generation can’t stop them from falling in love.
My feelings mirror Priya’s. Not only do I feel incredibly grateful for the program that Johnna has shaped, but Split This Rock in particular is an incredibly charged and thrilling way to experience language. It was at the 2012 Split This Rock Poetry Festival that I was first blown away by the DC Youth Slam Team and first learned about June Jordan. At Split This Rock I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court and delivered one line of poetry in a cento of protest. I went home feeling like language and reality were more closely bound together than ever, and that we were all engaged in building that language, that reality. If you haven’t been to the poetry festival yet, be sure to go in future years. Thanks also to Sarah Browning and her staff.