State of the Arts: The divisions in our poetry communities

By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Executive Staff

At a poetry event on campus, Jackson Harwell (C’22) heard a poem written and read by a community member. After the event, Harwell approached him, and heard, for the first time, the existence of a recurring literary event at the Blue Chair Tavern that he could potentially participate in.

The community member was Brooks Egerton, and the event was Sewanee Spoken Word (SSW).

“Sewanee Spoken Word is one of my favorite things about living here,” said Egerton. “It’s almost always surprising and energizing. The artists who participate take risks; audience members back them up.”

Egerton co-hosts the biweekly event with two other community members, both of whom are writers. Naomi Buck Palagi is a poet and the most recent addition to the team. Her and Egerton’s job is to seek headline performers. Their third co-host, Michael Cimino-Hurt, who writes poetry and music among other things, handles the electronic equipment.

SSW started in early 2015 as Community Poetry Night. The name was changed to Sewanee Spoken Word in early 2017, to better reflect the diverse creative enterprises that writers, artists, and performers showcase during the events: poetry, music, fiction, memoir, essays, and drama, to name but a few. SSW gathers on the second and fourth Tuesday of most months, with some nights featuring more poetry and other nights unique blends of different genres.

“It’s a seat-of-the-pants operation, run in our so-called spare time,” said Egerton. “We have no budget or formal organization. The Blue Chair Cafe & Tavern’s managers donate the space and don’t fret about edgy content.”

Most recently, they have hosted two published authors reading from their yet unpublished work. An alum-turned-professor, at one iteration of the event, recounted the sex trade that once flourished near the Piggly Wiggly in Monteagle.

After speaking to Egerton, Harwell attended an SSW event, and found it “really cool.” However, he has not returned to the Blue Chair Cafe and Tavern for similar events. But then again, Harwell has his own set of poetry-related problems.

Now the co-director of Sewanee’s own Poets’ Society along with Briana Wheeler (C’20), Harwell is charged with the task of running and maintaining a small group of poetry aficionados. However, with no permanent space for them to meet and with the turnouts for the meetings being “a little spotty,” Harwell and Wheeler are looking forward to the warm weather, hoping that the joy of being outside will inspire poets to write and to share their poems.

“It’s a difficult thing,” said Harwell. “A lot of people aren’t particularly passionate about writing poetry and sharing poetry and discussing it. What I would love to do is to bring in people who wouldn’t consider themselves either good at poetry or interested in it and have them come into our space and feel free to explore those creative enterprises.”

Harwell makes a good point. Writing and sharing poetry is both vulnerable and intimate, and therefore approaching a society which asks at least for a little vulnerability and intimacy can understandably be daunting to newcomers.

The other problem, according to Harwell, is the stigmatization of collegiate poetry societies nationwide. The portrayal of spoken word poetry in mainstream pop culture is rare, but when it occurs, the portrayal sticks in human consciousness.

“I’ve invited several of my friends to Poets’ Society and they always reference 22 Jump Street and the spoken word scene,” said Harwell. “There’s this kind of cringe-inducing, gross image of poets’ societies at large and I think that it’s hard to break out of that.”

“But that’s part of our job as co-directors,” he continued, “to show that it is this very fun, important, interesting, and cool thing that when practised honestly, openly, and genuinely, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to participate in. It’s not cringey or 22 Jump Street.”

Sewanee Spoken Word has similar problems. Egerton noted that fewer University students have participated during this academic year, which does not come as too big of a surprise, since the number of undergraduates at SSW have never been high. He mourns, however, that “it’s probably as low as it’s ever been,” stating, too, that there have not been participation from University faculty and staff either.

As to the reasons why, Egerton conjectured that the fact that none of the three co-hosts works for the University, as well as the busy schedules of faculty members and undergraduates during the school year, contribute to the lack of participation. Additionally, although historically Egerton has organized carpools to get more people to SSW, the Blue Chair Tavern can seem like an interminable trek downtown, particularly in the colder months.

Wheeler believes, too, that the problem is that the on-campus literary organizations are student-centered. Poets’ Society serves primarily as a creative outlet among students, just as The Mountain Goat Literary Journal is for student work, just as The Sewanee Purple is a student-run newspaper.

“As we continue to imagine ways of expanding the ‘Sewanee Bubble’ we hear so often mentioned, it might be beneficial to consider broadening our efforts to help facilitate expression,” she said. “Community events emphasize their open door for all (including students), but that door does not seem to operate for both sides.”

Even so, Wheeler, Harwell, and Egerton all expressed a willingness for collaboration, to bolster the existing – yet divided – poetry communities.

“I would love to host readings and spoken word performances on central campus,” said Harwell. “I’m up for anything that promotes both of our organizations and really just contributes to the student literary culture on this campus.”

Wheeler, in turn, suggested structuring a few of their Society meetings as workshops for those who wanted to take their work to SSW and share their work with the community.

But the question still remains: is willingness enough? At least for now, Egerton is making strides to bridge the gap with a special SSW session on April 23. Most performers at this event will be Sewanee undergraduates from visiting professor Caroline Randall Williams’ “Writing the Blues” class. Williams will also read at this event.

At the end of the day, Egerton believes that “closing the gap between worlds is probably just a matter of a couple people taking it on as a priority and expanding their circles.”


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