Students, staff celebrate poetry

By LauraNalin

Eleven Chicago-area schools came to Columbia as the college held its 11th annual Citywide Undergraduate Poetry Festival on April 1. The festival, which is held in honor of National Poetry Month, is the first intercollegiate poetry festival in the Midwest.

Columbia English professor Tony Trigilio founded the event in 1999 in hopes of bringing together the schools to create a sense of community among the poetry and creative writing students. One student from each of the participating schools who is considered to have excelled in their craft was selected to read one of their pieces.  The idea is to give  the audience a cross-section of what is happening in the creative writing programs around the city.

The students selected to read their work were: Columbia creative writing and poetry major Abigail Stokes; Chicago State University Pan-African studies major Ra Perre L. Shelton; Loyola University Spanish language and communications major Mary Nash; Northwestern University journalism and poetry major Christopher J. Adamson; North Central College biology major Weien Wang; Roosevelt University’s Susie Swanton; School of the Art Institute of Chicago fine arts major Rebecca Cooling-Mallard; and University of Illinois at Chicago English and poetry major Justin Sherwood.

Stokes said she originally came to study interior architecture at Columbia but found her niche in poetry.

“I always have my hands in several cookie jars, so it was nice doing poetry because I can do other things still and write about them,” Stokes said. “Columbia is a good place to do that because there’s so much here.” Stokes said the poems read at the event connected science and reality to personal life. She added that reading in the event was interesting because she rarely has the opportunity to read.

“I do a lot of images in my work, so it’s always a little bit difficult for me to try to perform it.”

After each student read various pieces they personally selected, they introduced the following participant. Shelton said he gets his inspiration for his poetry through everyday life and “lots and lots of reading about the Pan-African struggle.”

“I get my inspiration through the struggle of two groups: people of color and women,” Shelton said. “I think those are the two most oppressed groups in the world, and when you put those two together—women of color—whoa. I firmly believe that for [my writing] some sort of purpose should be made in contemporary life that we can relate [to]. That’s part of my struggle through writing. To be able to liberate the woman of color and anybody else that comes in between.”

Shelton added that after performing on HBO’s “Russell Simmons Presents: Def Poetry,” he received multiple phone calls asking him to read his work.

“A lot of my work deals with reading reading for the sake of uplifting some sort of marginalized community,” Shelton said. “So I go to a lot of Chicago Public Schools because that is a marginalized community [children in the inner city]. Other places I go to are women’s shelters and a lot of works in the LGBTQ community.”

Other students who participated expressed similar mindsets in their readings. Swanton said there is no base layer of inspiration for anything she writes. Swanton read three poems; one focused on the impact of the corn industry on the American diet, one focused on World War II and one centered around a dog in her neighborhood.

“The inspiration for the ‘Corn Prayer’ was specifically from ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ about the way that Americans have been sacrificing their health for cheap corn and the way corn exploits people just for evolution,” Swanton said. “The ‘My Grandma Speaks of War’ [was] inspired directly from a story a classmate of mine told me about her grandfather, who was a top-ranking Polish army [man]. They gave him an ultimatum and he didn’t do what they wanted, so they took him into the woods and shot him in the head.”

This event’s main goal is to benefit the students. Trigilio said he thinks the event is extremely valuable to the students not only personally, but also for their future readings.

“I think it’s really good for students to get practice reading their work in front of such a large audience,” Trigilio said. “First time reading can be really intimidating and it gives them chance to figure out how to read to large crowds. It’s also really a great confidence boost for undergraduates. When I was an undergraduate, I won a poetry award on campus and it’s hard to put into words what it did for myself as a writer.”

Trigilio added that he has seen significant progress come out of the work of the students after participating in the event.

“What’s been nice is being able to see students who read in the past have gone on to MFA programs in creative writing,” Trigilio said. “It’s really great to see students who read in this tend to go on to really good things and it’s been fun to watch them grow.”