National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s reciting of her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20 put creative writing on a national stage. Creative writers of all ages were inspired by Gorman’s poem and excited to see the craft receive well-deserved media attention.
Among these writers was Lloyd Schwartz, Somerville’s poet laureate and the Frederick F. Troy Professor of English Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Schwartz was chosen by the Somerville Arts Council to be the city’s third poet laureate in 2019 and was recently reappointed to the position for an additional year.
“I think it was amazing that one of the great hits of the inauguration was the inaugural poet, that people fell in love with Amanda, and people fell in love with poetry,” Schwartz said.
Gorman’s incorporation of her personal experiences into the inaugural poem inspired Schwartz.
“Her poem not only talked about the big issues of the day … but her poem and her reading of that poem opened me up to her experience,” Schwartz said. “I feel that about all the poems I read or that I listen to. I think it is one of the great human sources of empathy, essentially, of allowing you to put yourself into someone else’s place, into their shoes, into their hearts, into their minds.”
Though not a creative writer by profession, Marice Edouard-Vincent, superintendent of Medford Public Schools, along with her staff, was similarly inspired by Gorman’s poem, particularly its message of unity.
“We were really just inspired by the poem and thinking about the inauguration and everything that had happened preceding that, where there was really a lot of anxiety and concern on the insurrection that happened at the Capitol … With the inauguration, it was a new opportunity,” Edouard-Vincent said.
This inspiration prompted Edouard-Vincent to start a poetry contest for Medford Public School students. Medford students are encouraged to submit a poem of up to 10 lines based on the theme of unity.
The contest started on Jan. 22 and submissions are being collected until Feb. 22. Several winners will be selected to receive Amazon gift cards donated by the Center for Citizenship and Social Responsibility in Medford. The winners of the contest will also be invited to read their poems at the school committee meeting on March 8.
Edouard-Vincent finds the message of unity to be especially important for Medford students during the time of hybrid and remote learning when feeling like a unified community has been more difficult.
“A good amount of the district is fully remote,” Edouard-Vincent said. “We wanted to do something that said we’re one district no matter how you’re being educated.”Edouard-Vincent said that her staff received their first poem submission within a day after announcing the contest. The poem was written by Shelby Espinola, a first grader at Brooks Elementary School in Medford. Espinola titled it, “A Poem for the Community.”
“Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the leaders
Kamala Harris is the first woman to be the vice president
Joe Biden is going to help our community by taking care of corona
Let’s hope they help our world.“
Edouard-Vincent thought Espinola’s poem was a great way to start off the competition.
“We know that we’re going to get poems the whole gamut depending on where children are developmentally, but this was what she wanted to write. It doesn’t have to be a rhyming poem. It can be a message,” Edouard-Vincent said. “I think it’s pushing creativity, pushing the craft of writing and poetry, and hopefully some kids will be inspired by this opportunity.”
Tufts students are also engaging in creative writing in a variety of ways. Caroline Vanderlee, a senior studying computer science in the School of Engineering, is the president of Parnassus, a creative writing club on campus.
“Parnassus is Tufts’ coolest and only creative writing circle. We meet every week for an hour, and we bring prompts, or you can work on a project on your own if you have one, and we just make space to write and to share our writing and give constructive feedback,” Vanderlee said. “Mostly, it’s really nice to carve out that space to write and also to meet a community of really cool other writers on campus.”
Vanderlee spoke about the role of community when it comes to creative writing.
“In general, writing is solitary when it’s you and the page, but I think people underestimate how much a community is important to help you get to the finish line,” Vanderlee said. “It’s nice to have people cheering you on, giving you feedback, giving you a push in the right direction if you’re stuck.”
Courtney Sender, a lecturer in the English department who teaches a fiction writing course, also shared her thoughts regarding the role of community in the creative writing process.
“Writing is profoundly about solitude, and you have to be comfortable being by yourself … so it’s similar to the practice of mindfulness — being able to sit with yourself and just accept being with yourself alone,” Sender said. “Conversely, when you emerge out of that solitude, you often really seek community. That’s been my experience. Community is the sort of antidote to the practice itself.”
Sender highlighted an interesting link between community and solitude when it comes to a writer sharing their work.
“The paradox is that the idea is that you’re going to communicate this incredibly solitary act, what’s deeply inside yourself … with, ideally, as wide an audience as possible,” Sender said. “Of course, the art of writing doesn’t require an audience, but many of us hope for one, myself included.”
Poet Laureate Schwartz has built his own community of poetry sharing, a poetry reading and analyzing group that meets once a month, originally in the Somerville Public Library but now on Zoom.
“We have a little group session called Let’s Talk About a Poem. I pick a poem … Sometimes it’s a very famous poem, and sometimes it’s a poem that nobody else knows,” Schwartz said. “I sort of run the discussion, and I have lots to say, but so do lots of other people, and some really interesting people have become regulars, and they do more homework than I do.”
According to Schwartz, attendance has grown since the pandemic caused the group to move onto Zoom. “I think the first month, four or five people showed up, and then the second month six people showed up, and then the third month 10 people showed up … and then the pandemic started,” Schwartz said. “I talked to the librarian … and she said, ‘Would you be willing to do this online on Zoom?’ and I thought, ‘Sure, why not?’ and now we have 50 people, 60 people. It’s just amazing.”
Sender suggests that writing, however solitary an act, is able to bring people together in such a way because of its accessibility to almost everyone. “[Writing is] the kind of passion that requires so little. It requires a mind and a pen and something to write on,” Sender said.