Hammer Will Sing: Building Poetry Community in South Jersey

A Poetry Squawk
By Emari Digiorgio
Author of The Things a Body Might Become

headshot_digiorgioI learned early that one does not bring poetry to people. It’s already there. Or here in Atlantic City, backlit by casino glare, it’s a silver dollar wedged in boardwalk pilings.

Even if people don’t call it poetry, they’re writing or singing or making music. They’re telling stories and delighting in language.

When I lived in New York, I could find a reading, or five, any night of the week, and because I was in a graduate creative writing program, people who read and wrote and valued the life of the creative mind surrounded me. Members of my MFA program were my community.

When I graduated and moved to southern New Jersey, I grew nostalgic about readings at the Bowery and late night poetry conversations at the Kettle and brunch workshops at my friend Gavin’s apartment. I was quick to assign my longing to New York, as if the place itself fostered community, but then I remembered being invited to a workshop in the East Village and being patronized and attending lots of readings where I was not treated as part of the in-crowd. So it wasn’t New York that I was missing but the people who supported my writing.

I was returning to South Jersey and Stockton University, where I had completed my undergraduate degree, so I knew the literary landscape. If I am honest, I will admit that I had my doubts about the no-scene scene. True, there were pockets of activity: a visiting writer series at the University that brought in four to six writers throughout the year and a few inconsistent open mics at local coffee shops. The region’s literary highlight was/is the long-standing (and fantastic) annual poetry and prose retreat The Winter Getaway, organized by Peter Murphy.

Instead of retreating to my apartment with my then twenty-year-old cat, I attended the inconsistent open mics, and at some point, I quieted my own wistfulness long enough to listen to what the members of the preexisting communities wanted. People wanted to share their work. They wanted writing prompts and workshops. They wanted these events to be free and well organized. They wanted to feel welcome and to improve their writing. I wanted the same.

The primary thing that separated us was that I had access to resources: I taught at the local university and could book space on campus or at any of the satellite sites, I knew poets I could invite as featured readers or to teach workshops, and I had experience teaching poetry outside of the academy.

Why not use these resources to help build the community we all wanted? But where and how to begin?

I chose to start in the classroom.

I have taught creative writing in community settings since 2004 to a variety of populations, including disabled adults at Goldwater Memorial Hospital; youth in the pediatric units of Weill Cornell University Medical Center; cancer survivors and caretakers at the South Jersey Chapter of Gilda’s Club; and elementary, middle, and high school students in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island, Newark, Middlesex, Bridgeton, Galloway, Atlantic City, and Cape May Court House, among others. In 2005, I was formally added to the roster of New Jersey’s official Teaching Artists.

These teaching experiences, Stockton University’s “undisciplined” liberal arts tradition, and June Jordan’s Poetry for the People program led me to create GIS 3307, Why Poetry Matters. As a capstone General Studies course with a mandatory service-learning component, undergraduate juniors and seniors of all majors study international and American poetry, learn how poetry can be used as an agent of change (socially/politically/medically), and examine the ways in which poetry has been taught to foster a love of language and writing. Working in pairs or small groups, students offer one-hour poetry programs to underserved populations for six weeks.

Over the past nine years, my undergraduates have facilitated 65 six-week community writing workshops in Atlantic and Cape May Counties, working with a variety of populations including homeless youth at Covenant House; incarcerated teens at Harbor Fields Correctional Facility; children and teens through Family Service Association’s Partial Care Program; and youth at Stanley Holmes Community Center, Martin Luther King School Complex, and the Atlantic City Police Athletic League. As much as these programs offer young people an opportunity to express themselves and to share their stories, they also serve as a bridge, establishing true relationships between the undergraduates and the workshop participants. Everyone emerges a little changed.

While I was starting my literary citizenship mentoring undergraduates and providing free community workshops during the academic year, a local librarian, Aubrey Rahab, was starting her own open mic. Though the series was evicted from multiple sites, she was committed to finding it a home, and her passion and perseverance for creating a safe space for writers of all stripes was exactly what I was looking for. I committed myself to attending that series, even when it was held on the playground behind Ventnor City Library. When the series finally found its home at Stockton’s Dante Hall Theater, it was renamed World Above. As Aubrey accumulated additional duties as Director of the Northfield Library, I gradually found myself introducing the guest poets, hosting the open, and soliciting readers for the series. As I become more involved in planning the events and hosting them, I realized we could do a better job welcoming new voices and bringing in more diverse guest poets. In January 2015, Aubrey gifted me with the series.

To attract guest poets and to appropriately reward them for their travel and talent, I started asking the University and private donors for money. I began advertising the series in the local paper, through social media, and on the Poets and Writers calendar. I also restructured the reading itself, starting it with the open mic (and requesting that everyone read only one poem less than two minutes long). This order ensured that the feature would have time to answer questions and sell books and that individuals wouldn’t feel intimidated by the guest poet or arrive later to only participate in the open mic. I enlisted the help of the wonderful poet and teacher Barbara Daniels to write a monthly take-home writing prompt that we could distribute between the open and the feature, encouraging everyone to stay and to give everyone a literary parting gift. And I started inviting the guest poet out to dinner before or after the reading.

My hope is that each of these changes has made the space more inviting for monthly participants and for guest poets. Offering guest poets a modest honorarium and dinner (and my air mattress, if necessary) shows that we value their work and time, and more poets are willing to travel to Atlantic City for a two-hour reading. A more diverse group of guest poets has led to new attendees, and the stricter open mic rules curbed any of the over-sharers and encouraged more individuals to share their work. Similarly, the monthly prompt provided a mini-lesson for those who were interested.

While I was working with Aubrey Rahab on the World Above series, she and I met to talk about running a monthly intergenerational poetry workshop at the Northfield Library. The library had a vibrant programming calendar, and I knew from my own experience offering creative writing workshops to older adults that there was demand for a monthly program. Again, I wanted to secure funding for the series and applied for and received internal funds through Stockton’s Center on Successful Aging. Not only have we been able to host fantastic guest poets each month (including Diane Lockward and Lois Harrod), but we’ve also been able to assemble participant work into a perfect-bound anthology and to celebrate their writing with a reading and book release party. In the three years I’ve facilitated the series, monthly attendance has increased by 40%, several participants attend the World Above open mic and featured reading in Atlantic City, and two individuals have started submitting their work to regional/national literary journals.

No one encourages you to be a good literary citizen. In fact, many writers and my own mentors have warned how service to the literary community can and will distract from your own writing time. This is true. But I’m also capable of distracting myself from my writing with activities that don’t sustain my creative life (i.e. Facebook or a multi-step process for dry-frying tofu). I can’t tell you how many hours I spend mentoring students and helping them with their community poetry projects or facilitating World Above and A Tour of Poetry. I don’t need to know; for me, the trade-off is a community of which I am excited to be a part.

Emari DiGiorgio’s debut collection, The Things a Body Might Become, is forthcoming from ELJ Editions. She is the recipient of the 2016 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize Honoring Jake Adam York and has received residencies from the Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Rivendell Writers’ Colony. Her poems are forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, Compose, Glass, The Indianola Review, Opossum, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, Redactions, RHINO, Southern Humanities Review, and Split Lip. She is an Associate Professor of Writing at Stockton University, a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Poet, and the host of World Above, a monthly reading series in Atlantic City, NJ.