There is a figure standing atop a sunset-shaded mountain. The silhouette, with arms outstretched, basks in the otherworldly glow of paint-splattered stars.
This is the cover for Speak a Powerful Magic, an anthology compiling 10 years of the Traveling Stanzas Poetry Project, a program from the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University, devoted to fostering communal experiences through poetry. As part of a collaboration with Chautauqua Institution, the book includes two community poems from outreach writing workshops at Clymer Central School and Jamestown High School in Chautauqua County.
For David Hassler, director of the Wick Poetry Center, Speak a Powerful Magic is not only a comprehensive book of poems, but also a robust example of Traveling Stanzas’ mission in a “beautifully designed and printed” package.
“We wanted this book to celebrate and honor the poems and designs of our Traveling Stanzas project and to help our stanzas travel further out into the world,” Hassler said. “We hoped that people would be attracted to the quality of its production and might display it on a coffee table, open to a page they loved, as you would an exhibit catalog or art book.”
After a special lecture from award-winning poet-in-residence Shara McCallum on “The Role of the Poet” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 24 in Room 101 at the Hultquist Center, the literary arts community will move to the Poetry Makerspace for a reception and celebration of Speak a Powerful Magic, featuring snacks and refreshments. McCallum, who spent time in residence at the Wick Poetry Center when its staff was first developing Traveling Stanzas, is “excited” to experience the new Poetry Makerspace location — a place where poetry and “everyday lives” converge.
“We thought, because (McCallum’s) talk is so precisely about poetry and about the week’s theme (‘The Life of the Spoken Word’), that it would be a great occasion to move right from her talk to celebrating Speak a Powerful Magic and all the work that we do with Wick Poetry Center through the Poetry Makerspace,” said Atom Atkinson, director of literary arts.
Madwoman, McCallum’s most recent collection, is about race, memory, womanhood and rage, reflective of her experience as a black Jamaican immigrant and her contemporary social context: Donald Trump’s presidency, the #MeToo Movement, the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. According to McCallum, the timing of this lecture means she can “talk about her role as a practitioner (of poetry) as well as that of a reader.”
“I am deeply disquieted by the idea that it’s enough to claim our identities, even though that’s something I deeply believe in and something I have struggled with,” McCallum said. “I think it’s possible to use (my identities) as a kind of cop-out from engaging with work outside the poem. When am I making a statement that has more to do with just myself, is it truly a political gesture? But I do recognize that the enormity of (claiming one’s identities) is really all the politics that some people can manage.”
An English professor at Pennsylvania State University, McCallum thinks that “teaching feels like a more active engagement,” and looks forward to learning from her audience in informal discussions after her evening lecture.
“The conversation ends up being some of the most interesting parts of any lecture you attend,” she said. “I want to hear what others have taken away.”
Hassler describes Traveling Stanzas as just the physical spot for such improvised moments of collaboration and creativity. After all, it’s in the name.
“I love that the word ‘stanza’ in English means ‘a section of a poem,’ but it comes from Italian, where it means, literally, ‘a small room,’ ” Hassler said. “So, we like to think of these traveling stanzas as offering moments of pause, or little pockets of time, in which we can slow down and step out of our normal busy lives, and enter into the room of a poem and see what kind of meaning bubbles up and what kind of memories and reflections are triggered in our own thinking.”
Last year, he witnessed a man and woman encounter Traveling Stanzas in a short interaction that exemplified the innovative and democratizing power of the space.
“The husband immediately announced that he was not the ‘creative one’ and couldn’t write a poem,” Hassler said.
The woman played with the wooden block letters on the Stanza Wall while Hassler convinced her husband to sit down at the Emerge iPad station, with an app that facilitates a digital version of erasure or black-out poetry.
“He did not have the anxiety of a blank page, but instead was able to simply tap the words in a text that resonated with the theme of discussion during that week at Chautauqua,” Hassler said. “He made a ‘found poem’ that he liked and printed it as a postcard and displayed it on our gallery wall. So in a matter of 10 minutes he created his first poem and became, in essence, a ‘published poet.’ ”
Looking forward to the next 10 years of Traveling Stanzas, Hassler hopes to replicate and multiply experiences like that of the man at the Emerge iPad station. Continuing the program’s collaboration with the Institution and the literary arts, he wants to bring Chautauqua County students to the Makerspace and create a “writing experience” for students and teachers, as well as brainstorm fresh displays for the grounds and larger community.
“I love witnessing that ‘a-ha’ moment in a visitor to our Poetry Makerspace, when they rub two words together in a new combination and make a spark of new meaning for themselves,” Hassler said. “I believe we all have the capacity for the leaping thought of poetry, and it is available for us all to make meaning of our lives and to share that meaning with others.”