This post was written by Hatchet staff writer Tatiana Cirisano.
Forced inside by the heavy rain, 13 poetry students huddled around a small table on the entrance floor of Gelman library Tuesday afternoon, eagerly punching out poem after poem on a time-worn typewriter.
Though partially hidden by the small herd of poets, a sign was taped to the edge of the table, reading “RENT-A-POET: Free poems on the spot!”
“I’m looking to get into the fortune cookie business,” joked junior poetry student Gabriel Simon.
Although the poems surpassed fortune-cookie quality, the students had an alternate purpose in mind. By writing on-demand poems for other students on the subject of their choosing, the poets celebrated National Poetry Month and the ability of poems to add calm to stressed lives.
This community project was the brainchild of English professor Jennifer Chang, who put on “Rent-a-Poet” and other events with the help of the students from her Poetry Writing course. As a new professor to GW, Chang saw an opportunity to bring her love of poetry outside of the lecture hall and into the minds of students across campus.
“I wanted to make sure that poems didn’t just happen in your notebook or in your room or in classrooms, even. I wanted to make sure that they happened outside,” Chang said.
Chang’s idea for the project dates back to her college days and an assignment she received studying poetry at the University of Chicago. Her task was simple: To go into the community and interact with strangers to find out where people in Chicago find poetry.
The answers she found were varied, with some people finding poems in magazines and songs while others had poems from their childhood ingrained in their memories. Yet what surprised Chang the most was the enthusiasm for poetry that she found.
“I remember being really shy and kind of jaded and angry as teenagers are, or at least I was, and being very scared by the project. And when I did it, I felt really energized and excited that everyone had some kind of curiosity or interest in poems,” she said.
Chang and her students aim to spur the same curiosity in GW students through Rent-a-Poet and other events like Donate-a-Word, in which students “donate” random words to a pile, which is later assembled into a massive poem by the class.
Sophomore poetry student Brendan Kiviat, who composed four of the poems for the Rent-a-Poet installment, sees the project as a way for students to gain perspective. When Kiviat is given a subject for a poem, the final product is usually something far different from what the student “customer” expects.
“People give you just some broad idea and you try to give them something back that’s even more than that. That’s a way for people to understand something that they had explained in a whole different way,” he said.
Chang agrees, calling her poetry class an “education in empathy.” But aside from letting students see other perspectives, Chang also finds value in the way poems add a different “rhythm” to our own lives.
“A line break stops a sentence before it can be finished, and that’s not the kind of time that we’re used to. It’s slower in many cases. So if you have a poem, if you run into a poem that we had stuck on a wall somewhere, and you read it, you are suddenly taken out of your busy schedule and you are forced to pay attention in a new way,” she said.
Chang and her students will also participate in Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day on April 24, a day on which the Academy of American Poets urges people to carry their favorite poem throughout the day and share it with those around them.
Throughout this month, the students will post their favorite poems daily on the GW English News blog, and continue to promote National Poetry Month through their class Twitter, titled ‘Random Acts of Poetry.’ And if Chang and her students can dream up any more ways to support poetry, they surely will.
“I feel that we have a responsibility to the history of poetry, to readers of poetry, and also just to our culture so that poems don’t get forgotten, and this is another way to share language and experiences with each other,” Chang said.