Research in Real Time: Poetry at the College of Staten Island
The College of Staten Island figured prominently in a 2017 New York Times story headlined, “How CUNY Became Poetry U.” The school’s “three amazing poets” — as English Department chairman Professor Lee Papa describes them — are Guggenheim fellow Cate Marvin, Pulitzer Prize winner Tyehimba Jess, and Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award winner Patricia Smith.
With that stellar roster, making the case for the humanities in higher education isn’t hard. The humanities “give people the tools to communicate,” Papa said. “Creative writing is a huge part of that.” He added, “It’s not just the act of writing poetry, it’s the connections to the world that make it relevant.”
Smith’s poems, Papa said, tackle “searing issues” like Hurricane Katrina and the Ferguson riots. In her 2017 prize-winning book Incendiary Art, Smith explores history and headlines, from Emmett Till to Sandra Bland. Her approach, she said, is to “live with the stories, and then wait for them to say something to you that’s out of the ordinary.” Then it’s time to start writing.
Smith grew up in Chicago. Her parents were part of the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South, and that gives her common ground with CSI’s first-generation college students. “I grew up with a lot of the same concerns,” she said. “I grew up with the same working-class family. They’re saying, ‘My grandmother came from Italy.’ Or ‘My grandmother came from Ireland.’ I say, ‘Well, my grandmother came from Alabama.’”
Smith invites working writers to class to show students that writing can be part of their lives, no matter how they make a living. One student, an outstanding writer, was expected to carry on a family tradition and become a firefighter. “You can be a fireman, and write,” Smith said.
Smith loves it when students say, “Now I understand iambic pentameter!” But even more meaningful is when they read contemporary poems and say, “I didn’t know poetry could be like this.”