Poetry’s Celebrities

May 10, 2010

BMCC held a campus-wide student contest to celebrate Poetry Month, April 2010. Announced at Open Mic events that were part of National Poem in Your Pocket Day, and selected from over 140 entries, the winners are Joseph Quintela, 1st Prize; David Cuevas, 2nd prize; Antonley Molina, 3rd Prize; Carlos Burgos, 1st Runner Up; Jasmine Alina Pena, 2nd Runner Up, and Christina Zamir, 3rd Runner Up.

Entries were judged by BMCC professors Jason Schneiderman and Lois Griffth. The Final Judge was poet and translator Roger Sedarat, who teaches in the MFA program at Queens College, and is author of Dear Regime: Letters to the Islamic Republic, which won the 2007 Hollis Summers Poetry Prize, and Ghazal Games, forthcoming from Ohio University Press.

The contest—sponsored by the BMCC Barnes & Noble College bookstore and Oxford University Press, who provided prize bags of poetry books and writing supplies—was co-chaired by Professors Zhanna Yablokova and Gay Brookes. Marguerite Rivas was Open Mic Coordinator, and Juliet Emanuel and Dorothea Coiffe were Committee members. Hilario Barrero and Katherine Figueroa were Open Mic Assistants, and special thanks was given to Dean Michael Gillespie, Office of Academic Affairs, and Geoff Klock.

Faculty poets honored in national contest

Not only did students win recognition for their work during Poetry Month, Marguerite Rivas and James Tolan, professors in the BMCC English department, were among 30 poets, nationwide, selected by the Two-Year College Association of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) to have their poems showcased online in audio and video format, in honor of National Poetry Month.

Marguerite Maria Rivas
, born in Staten Island and known as the “de facto poet laureate of Staten Island,” has received the Irene C. Fromer Award for Creative and Performing Arts, the Council on the Arts and Humanities Performing Arts Award, and numerous other honors. Her poems have appeared in many journals, including The Multicultural Review, and Medicinal Purposes.

“My work is both narrative and imagistic in nature, and varies thematically,” she says. “I write about nature, community, domestic life, and cultural heritage.” Rivas’s poem appearing on the NCTE site, “Witness, September 11, 2001,” recounts the events of that day with images both beautiful and frightening: “…and the cloud, not black now but white / cumulo-nimbus to the fiftieth power, / slouching, prowled Lower Manhattan / and crept to The Battery, fanning out to the Island.”

James Tolan, who co-chairs the BMCC Writing and Literature program, has been widely published in journals including the American Literary Review, Atlanta Review, Fulcrum, and Indiana Review, and will appear in the forthcoming Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. He has received fellowships and awards from the Associated Writing Programs, Atlantic Center for the Arts, and New York Department of Cultural Affairs.

Tolan’s winning poem on the NCTE Web site, “The Wind in Time Will Undo Us,” is a lyrical weave of family history and longing: “It does not forget but carries / what it can of my grandfather’s voice, / the music of his words, the faint, / Old Country lays he would hum, / tending the snarl of roses climbing / behind his garage.”

Open mics open doors

A poem is a terrible thing to waste—whether it’s a famous poem or one just written in the cafeteria—and student after student came up to the podium in two Open Mic events, to make sure that didn’t happen.

Emily Dickinson would have appreciated the young man with a Yankees cap pulled low, quietly reading, “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers / that perches in the soul…” Next, an emerging poet read one of her own pieces, admitting, “I wrote this like two seconds ago,” and a student from Tajikistan read his poem with a political theme, repeating the lines, “I see no bravery in your faces.”

Switching centuries, a student read Wordsworth’s famous lines, “My heart leaps up when I behold / A rainbow in the sky: / So was it when my life began, / So is it now I am a man…,” and his friend carefully enunciated Sara Teasedale’s “The Falling Star”: “I saw a star slide down the sky, / Blinding the north as it went by…”

Nikki Giovanni’s “Winter Poem” seemed a good match for the happy young woman who read it: “once a snowflake fell / on my brow and i loved / it so much / i kissed / it and it was happy and called its cousins / and brothers and a web / of snow engulfed me then / i reached to love them all…,” and a student who had just discovered the American classic Howl read Allen Ginsberg’s gentle tribute to his deceased lover, “On Neil’s Ashes”: “Delicate eyes that blinked blue Rockies all ash / nipples, Ribs I touched w/ my thumb are ash…” He then read his own keenly observed poem about a homeless man who stands at the corner of 9th Avenue and 41st Street, in Manhattan.

Poetry: A life-long love

Staff and faculty read work, as well. Assistant Professor Susan Thomas, a BMCC librarian, shared a poem about her deceased cat: “Because cats are like voices / of omniscient narrators, I stretch / before him, waiting. He handles my nose, / leaves the paw there, / smells like loud, salt wind. / I remember a pirate’s hook breaking/my skin accidentally / in a handshake,” and another titled, “Interviewing Seniors in St. Petersburg, Florida, for an HMO”: “Knocking on the doors / of the elderly / who open up / I am flowed in— / it’s not my wave— / to find their worlds / bric-a-brac, deceased others, TV Guide / floating detritus around / arthritis in the morning & at night…”

Professor Suzanne Schick of the Speech, Communications and Theatre Arts department read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” saying “This is a poem I’ve loved since I was a child.” Math Deputy Chair Glenn Miller announced his love for poetry and backed it up with a reading of “Xanadu, Kubla Khan,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, its rhythm rivaling any geometric pattern: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree: / Where Alph, the sacred river, ran / Through caverns measureless to man / Down to a sunless sea.”

Both Dean Gillespie, who attended the afternoon Open Mic event, and Professor Griffith, who emceed the evening Open Mic, acquainted students with Gwendolyn Brooks’s haunting and highly canonized poem, “The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel”: “We real cool. We / Left school. We / Lurk late. We / Strike straight. We / Sing sin. We / Thin gin. We / Jazz June. We / Die soon.”

Reading between poetic lines

Professor Griffith, a poet whose latest collection, Dedications is soon to be published by Tribes press—and who is also one of the founding poets and current directors of the Nuyorican Poets Café–brought her developmental writing class to the evening Open Mic event.

One of her students read the Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “Sadie and Maude”: “Maude went to college. / Sadie stayed home. / Sadie scraped life / With a fine toothed comb,” and a classmate read with careful respect the Amy Lowell poem, “Opal”: “You are ice and fire / The touch of you burns my hands like snow…”

Katherine Figueroa, a professor in the Developmental Skills department was one of several faculty and students handing out the more than 60 different Pocket Poems printed in the hundreds on small pieces of paper, to passers-by in the BMCC lobby.

“Poetry is a creative way for students to express critical thinking skills,” she says. “I think the shorter length of many poems is helpful to them; poetry is condensed, so there’s a lot of thinking that goes into the reading of it—analyzing, interpreting, inferencing.”

The student audience practiced those skills, listening to what at first might seem comic in Victor Hernandez Cruz’s poem, “Problems With Hurricanes,” which describes the death-by-flying-fruit fatalities tropical storms incur, and closes with the lines, “Don’t worry about the noise / Don’t worry about the water / Don’t worry about the wind— / If you are going out / beware of mangoes / And all such beautiful / sweet things.”

Claiming a place in the world of poetry

Shemeka Peters, an employee relations specialist in the Center for Career Development, has a poem coming out soon in the anthology, Empowering Women, to be published by We Learn.

“I love Maya Angelou,” she says, “but also the non-mainstream artists, those who speak from the heart; what I call everyday poets, and friends.” She read her poem “Virtuous Woman” at the Open Mic, explaining, “I wrote it to inspire myself. It’s about moral character, and how you serve in the community.”

Professor Tolan, like Professor Griffith and other BMCC faculty, including Holly Messitt of the English department, see a real benefit to students in experiencing poetry “live”—whether as audience members or performers.

By participating in events at the Nuyorican Poet’s Café or BMCC’s new neighbor, Poets House, students are able to “experience poetry coming to life off the page,” says Tolan, “to have it enter them sensually through the sound of the human voice and sight of a poet’s physical presence before them.”

He adds that when students are “brave and bold enough” to take the microphone themselves, “they are part of a world that now belongs to them as well.”

Good poetry should ‘terrify despots and free slaves’

Professor Rivas, who emceed the afternoon Open Mic, opened with a question: “How does poetry matter?

Whitman tells us, she explained, that good poetry should ‘terrify despots and free slaves’. “Poetry of the political imagination is something you can weave into your lives,” she told the audience. “You have no idea how your experience could touch another person.”

After referring to a controversial Arizona law requiring people to carry immigration papers at all times, she read the well known Martin Espada poem, “Federico’s Ghost,” which tells of a young farm worker maliciously sprayed by a crop dusting plane, and dying of its burning toxins:

“…for reasons of whiskey or whatever / the crop duster plane sprayed anyway, / floating a pesticide drizzle / over the pickers / who thrashed like dark birds / in a glistening white net, /
except for Federico, / a skinny boy who stood apart / in his own green row, / and, knowing the pilot / would not understand in Spanish / that he was the son of a whore, / instead jerked his arm / and thrust an obscene finger.”

Imagine change—to make it happen

“For change to happen,” said Rivas, you have to imagine it first.” As if heeding her words, one of the student contest winners read his poem, “Influence of a Color”: “Imagine yourself. Imagine yourself having four brothers. Imagine one of them being deported.” Another poet bravely re-imagined his own gender: “I’ve glanced in mirrors and glimpsed the girl I should have been.”

Leaving as quickly as he appeared, a tall, deep-voiced man who might have been a student, or might not, walked to the podium, unfolded a weathered sheath of papers and read his poem, “Things I Have to Pass By On My Way to Success.”

Engaging end rhymes (reality / formality) and the spirit of the piece quickly captured the audience’s attention, and he left them with this: “I gotta say, get outta my way. I’m gonna be ahead of you, someday.”

Self-advocacy is part of poetry, and poetry gives change a voice—but the genre itself needs support, as well. Or, as Professor Rivas puts it, “Be a poetry advocate. Keep a poem in your pocket, and one near your heart.”

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  • Poetry month celebrated at BMCC in Open Mic events
  • BMCC honors student poets in campus-wide contest
  • BMCC professors and poets Marguerite Rivas and James Tolan showcased by NCTE

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