Get Versed in National Poetry Month

If your knowledge of poetry is limited, April is the perfect time to expand your horizons and practice your writing. That’s because it’s National Poetry Month, and Assistant English Professor Oliver Baez Bendorf has creatively developed ways for students to hone their skills and develop their interests in poetry to celebrate.

Kayla Park National Poetry Month
Kayla Park read at the Belladonna* Collaborative Reading last spring. She interned with Belladonna*, an independent feminist avant-garde poetry press, through the New York Arts Program during the winter 2018 term at K.

Among his classes, Baez Bendorf teaches an advanced poetry workshop, which is participating in a 21-day challenge to write every day. Students are assigned poetry-inspired aliases and write about their praxis, or practice, of writing. “Writing about writing” might sound redundant, but its purpose is to help students learn about themselves, their influences and their processes to discover what inspires them.

Audrey Honig ’21, for example, is an English and religion major with a concentration in Jewish studies from Elmhurst, Illinois. She is writing erasure poems under the alias Lyra based on what she sees through social media. Erasure poetry erases words from an existing text in prose or verse and frames the result as a poem. The results can be allowed to stand on their own or arranged into lines or stanzas.

“I thought it would be interesting to bring what normally is a distraction into my writing,” said Honig, of the social media she analyzes. “I thought I wrote a lot before this class started, but I really wasn’t creating much. I was working on my writing, but I was mostly working on the editing process. Now I’m doing something small every day.”

Her biggest takeaway from the course has been how to better give and receive feedback to classmates and other writers.

“As students, we’re used to getting feedback when a professor might say, ‘This is a B,’” she said. “In this class, we’re really thinking about the specifics of what we’re doing as writers, so we can give honest and helpful feedback without tearing anyone down.”

For her 21-day challenge, Kayla Park ’19 selects a book at random off her shelf every day and writes a poem inspired by the last sentence on page 21 in that book.

Audrey Honig Recites During National Poetry Month
Audrey Honig presents during a class at Kalamazoo College’s Humphrey House. Honig is is writing erasure poems under the alias Lyra based on what she sees through social media.

Park, who writes under the alias Pegasus, earned a Heyl Scholarship when she matriculated at K to study within a science major, and she double majors in English and physics. She said she can see how a writing genre such as poetry helps make her a better scientist.

“When you continue doing a lot of work in one field and you get used to a certain mode of thinking, that’s beneficial in making you an expert in your subject, although you can also restrict your thought patterns that way,” she said. “In poetry, I’m expressing knowledge under a set of conventions that is different, but no less valuable than in science. Engaging with different modes of thinking helps me to see connections across disciplines and approach all situations from a broader point of view.”

The creativity poetry stirs for Park complements what she does with two a cappella groups at K, Premium Orange and A Cappella People of Color (ACAPOC), as well as with Frelon, the campus’ student dance company. It also helps her deal with her own perfectionism.

“Sometimes when I sit down to write, regardless of the assignment, I get hung up on making it perfect,” she said. “Forcing myself to write every day is beneficial in letting a little of that perfectionism go. It helps me write more freely and produce something that I can always go back and edit later.”

Baez Bendorf also offers an intermediate poetry workshop. That class this month is memorizing poems such as Truth Serum and 300 Goats by Naomi Shihab Nye and To Myself by Franz Wright with the goal of reciting them in May.

“We approach it as a kind of ultimate close reading of the work, and then aim to know it by heart, hopefully for a lifetime,” Baez Bendorf said.

National Poetry Month was inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996. It since has become the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers and poets celebrating poetry, according to the American Academy of Poetry.

The organization drew inspiration for National Poetry Month from Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March, and it aims to highlight the legacies and ongoing achievements of American poets, encourage the public to read poems, and increase the number of poetry-themed stories in local and national media. Read more about National Poetry Month at the Academy of American Poets’ website.