Extending and exceeding the idea of a writing center
Our work as collaborators on the BWCP engages the possibility that writing center practice necessarily is community practice, constructed through and by individual and collective (counter)storytelling. By reading, writing, and talking among ourselves, talking back to scholarship and theory, and talking with guest scholars and Baltimore community members, we embody writing and writing center work through figurative as well as literal acts. What we do and say on the page and in the presence of those who inhabit the written text-based, scholarly, academic, institutional, and neighborhood communities with whom we interact has already existing meaning and generates new meaning.
There are implications—some intended and some unintended. What does our presence mean to the people who work and visit our writing centers? How do we view them, and how do they view us? How do we view ourselves and how did our views come to be what they are? What assumptions do we bring to these experiences? What assumptions do we have about the writing center as a space, an idea, a place, a belief? Are those assumptions accurate or just? What seemingly insignificant events, words, actions, or objects take on significance or urgent meaning in our work in centers? How is this work interrelated with the streets of Baltimore, the lives of neighbors, university writers, and the social, economic, and political regimes of life in the U.S.? How does engaging these lives and regimes change us? How do we change the people in and space of our centers?
Drawing on poetry to explore and examine writing center meaning and significance
We will explore these questions in poetry because it offers us
- Compressed language: poems are usually fairly short (at least in the class) and aim for only the most essential words and the most significant details and images
- A basis in figurative discourse: poetry’s basic units—its building materials—are metaphor, simile, rhythm, and image. They help us discover and create figurative meaning about the world around us
- A text-as-space to arrange, discover, and invent ideas: any strong critical reflection of a community experience demands thoughtful questioning of assumptions—yours and others—as well as close attention to the details of the experience and the pathos—what the poet William Stafford (1980) calls the “felt life” of your work. So, your poems serve as a space to initiate your critical reflection, working toward the development and possibly even revision of what you think and believe about your role as community-engaged writer and writing center consultant.
But what about…?
You might worry that your poems will end up too focused on or controlled by issues of theory, practice, etc., thus alienating most of your readers to whom writing center work is unfamiliar. But in “On Being Local,” Stafford (1980) insists that our poetry writing choices can be specifically local and appeal to a wide audience. In fact, poetry that emerges from local community necessarily attempts to evoke that universally “felt life” and serves to bring people together through recognition of common experience. Consider some of Stafford’s points:
- All events and experiences are local, somewhere. And all human enhancements of events and experiences—all the arts—are regional in the sense that they derive from immediate relation to felt life.
- It is this immediacy that distinguishes art. And paradoxically the more local the feeling in art, the more all people can share it; for that vivid encounter with the stuff of the world is our common ground.
- Artists, knowing this mutual enrichment that extends everywhere, can act, and praise, and criticize, as insiders — the means of art is the life of all people. And that life grows and improves by being shared. Hence, it is good to welcome any region you live in or come to, or think of, for that is where life happens to be, right where you are.
Poetry as a tool for critical reflection
Let’s clarify, too, that the poetry emerging from our experiences with local communities in our writing centers and beyond is not essentially sentimental or empty of argument. The Poetry Foundation offers us a defense of poetry as a kind of dialectical and argumentative text:
In “The Poet,” Ralph Waldo Emerson states that good poetry is not solely a matter of technical prowess: “for it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” The poet speaks most “adequately…when he speaks somewhat wildly . . . not with the intellect.”
This “new thing” is your poem, every time your write one. The structure—or architecture—of each poem depends upon your willingness to read—that is, to participate actively—in the life of the BWCP and render your thoughts “wildly…not with the intellect.” This does not mean, “write nonsense.” Instead, it requires that you resist the temptation to avoid the uncomfortable, strange, or irrational ways in which poetry makes meaning as a text and upends your assumptions by surprising you (and your readers) with fresh ways of viewing your experiences.