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Finding the Path to Literary Citizenship

May 9, 2014

BMCC English professor Margaret Barrow had reluctantly boarded a packed subway car last year and wasn’t happy about being pushed and jostled, when she noticed a “Poetry in Motion” sign.

“I had to strain to read the poem over the heads of the people pressed up against me—and when I did, I could feel my entire body smile,” she recalls.

The moment resonated in a personal way for Barrow. The lines were by Billy Collins, perhaps the most critically acclaimed and widely popular living American poet.

She not only knew Collins’ work, she had invited him to speak at BMCC’s first Transitions & Transactions conference, which she created with colleague Manya Steinkoler in 2012, but he’d had another engagement the same day. She decided to reach out to Collins again.

 “When I told him the story, he said, ‘How could I possibly say no to you?’”

All-star roster

Collins thus became the keynote speaker at BMCC’s second Transitions & Transactions conference titled “Literature and Creative Writing Pedagogies in Community Colleges.”

The three-day event featured talks, panel discussions, and readings by an all-star roster of educators, scholars, poets, writers, and creative artists.

In addition to Collins, the featured speakers were Anne Waldman, the celebrated poet and cultural/political activist, and Keith Kroll, who has taught writing, literature, and literary criticism for nearly three decades at Michigan’s Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

The Transactions and Transitions conference has its origins in a continuing dialogue between Barrow and Steinkoler about pedagogical theory and practice—and, specifically, about teaching literature at a community college.

“At BMCC, there is a broad diversity of students working hard to cultivate their skills and work with difficult texts,” says Barrow.

“Given the challenges they face, and how much Manya and I have learned from each other, we thought there might be some interest in broadening the conversation.”

Overwhelming response

With support from the English Department and the college administration, Barrow and Steinkoler designed and coordinated the first conference in April 2012.

“The response was overwhelming—and even more so this year,” says Steinkoler.

That first conference focused specifically on the teaching of literature. This year, the scope was widened to include creative writing as well.

“As teachers, our objective is to use literature to make students into literary citizens,” says Steinkoler. The path to that goal is neither direct, smooth or clear—nor should it be, she says.

“Teaching literature and creative writing have to do with tolerating and embracing complexity and ambiguity,” Steinkoler notes.

“We want students not to have the answer; we want to encourage them to read, think and ask questions, rather than to know. That’s always been a challenge for Margaret and me—and then, through the conference, we found that it’s a challenge for everyone. But continuing the conversation makes us better teachers.”

Championing community colleges

In his remarks, which opened the conference on Friday, Kroll decried the chronic devaluing of community colleges by a steady chorus of politicians, prophets of academia and others.

“My teaching career began in the 1980s, paralleling the unprecedented political and economic attack on community colleges that started with the election of Ronald Reagan,” he said.

Kroll listed three assumptions about community colleges that he—and the audience—considered axiomatic: That community college English teachers constitute a profession; that the humanities matter; and that not all community colleges are alike.

“No one here would argue with any of these statements,” he said. “Yet they have been attacked time and again.”

On Saturday evening, the action moved off campus to the nearby Poets House, a library, educational resource and arts center where students and faculty shared their work at an open-mic session.

Among the readers was graduating Liberal Arts major Sumaiya Sarwar. At Women’s Herstory Month this past March, Sarwar told of finding the courage to extricate herself from an abusive relationship and rebuilding her life.

That experience was reflected in her poetry: “A game of push and pull and endless arguments...the words that can’t be taken back but she can’t forget them. She tries and tries. She cries and cries.”

Cheryl Fish, an associate professor of English, read “Towering Crater,” which drew parallels between the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State, and the September 11 attacks.

 In both instances, opportunists moved quickly to extract commercial gain from tragedy, with corporate interests in Washington demanding “rights to drill or spill” and construction foremen in Manhattan saying, “You mourn, we own.”

A plea for playfulness

In his keynote remarks, Collins read from his own poems and those of others and expanded on his views about literature and creativity and their role in education.

During the Q&A session, he spared no words in his judgment of the Common Core initiative, which seeks to establish nationwide baselines for what students should know at the end of each grade.

“You are the salt of the earth, with so many challenges to contend with every day,” he said, addressing faculty members in the audience.

“All the rules and restrictions now being imposed on classrooms, it’s harder and harder to find way for teachers to play—not in the sandbox sense, but in terms of helping their students open up to imaginative possibilities.”

That kind of creative playfulness, he said, is a vital element of teaching—one that would be compromised by Common Core requirements.

Invitation to the dance

Collins also spoke of the unique rewards of writing, reading and teaching poetry and what he called “the pleasure of the dance.”

He suggested that teachers might ask a student to read aloud a traditionally rhythmic poem and then follow with a brief paragraph of prose—“preferably something deadly.” By going back and forth between poetry and prose, he said, “students start to hear the difference—and they hear the dance.”

As a teacher, Collins has found such moments deeply satisfying.

“The students hear that the words actually seem to be enjoying themselves and the company of the words around them in a way they don’t in prose,” he said.

“For once, the words are not part of the linear forward rush of information.”

Billy Collins' Full Remarks

Keith Kroll's Full Remarks

Poets House Open Mic

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  • Three-day conference features a wide array of talks, panels and readings
  • Speakers include poets Billy Collins and Anne Waldman and educator Keith Kroll
  • Focus is on literature and creative writing

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