UW News

November 17, 2010

Poetry out loud: Bringing the Common Book to life

UW News

Student Jillian Skeen and the flash mob she organized read out loud the poem 'An Experiment in Noise, in A Sharp Major,' by Ken Arkind -- one of the poems in the UW's 2010 Common Book, 'You Never Are Where You Are.' | Photo by Mary Levin

How do you engage people with a poem? Speak it, sing it, scream it, scrawl it. Discuss it, argue over it, dance to it — anything to launch the words off the printed page and into the world.

Thats the approach to this years Common Book being taken by Anis Bawarshi, associate professor of English, and the 14 independent study students in his fall English 492A class. The 2010 Common Book, titled You Are Never Where You Are, is a UW-compiled book of poems featuring pieces by UW writers Theodore Roethke, Heather McHugh, Colleen McElroy and Richard Hugo among others.

“Im not a poetry teacher, Im a rhetorician and compositionist, but I think for me it has to do with making the Common Book relevant to the UW,” said Bawarshi, a member of the books selection committee. “For the last three years weve been trying to find ways to get the Common Book to be implemented on campus. This year we made the choice to go with poetry … we wanted the Common Book to be an occasion for the celebration of student voices.”

You may already have seen or heard the results. It was Bawarshis students who arranged a lunchtime “flash mob” on Red Square Nov. 17, simultaneously calling out the words to one of the books most evocative poems, An Experiment in Noise, in A Sharp Major, by Ken Arkind.

Maybe you heard as scores of voices came together on the square to call out one of the poems key lines: “You were born screaming.”

Bawarshi — who gives his students credit for the real creativity here — said he got to thinking about the book last spring when he was with the English departments study abroad program in London. “I thought it would be a great idea to look at what we did in the London program — use the city as our classroom. I thought, why dont we have a class where students take poems and place them in the city, bring them to life in different parts of the city and the campus?”

His students loved the idea. So he formed an independent study class. Then, starting in early fall quarter, he had them read the Common Book, select a poem from it that resonated for them and write a paper on what the poem meant to them, why it matters, and why they think it should matter to others. Next, they looked for locations to bring the poem of their choice to life.

UW Womens Softball player Maggie Wagner, left, takes a swing at a poem from the Common Book as Colleen Larsen (center), a student in Anis Bawarshis independent study class working on the Common Book. Filming at right is Larsens friend Caitlin Sweeney.

UW Womens Softball player Maggie Wagner, left, takes a swing at a poem from the Common Book as Colleen Larsen (center), a student in Anis Bawarshis independent study class working on the Common Book. Filming at right is Larsens friend Caitlin Sweeney.

Now theyre all over the place, or so it seems.

Student Colleen Larson said she grew up loving sports and thought shed visit the UW Womens Softball team and get some footage of them reading An Experiment in Noise, and even yelling out together the line about screaming. Another student is filming fraternity and sorority members reading the same Arkind poem. The various films related to the Arkind poem will be edited into a single documentary-style film about the poem.

Another of Bawarshis students will go to downtown Seattle to film folks reading and discussing the poem Famous by Naomi Shibah Nye. And still another will ask busy people to stop and read a stanza of I Saw You Tomorrow by Roberto Rios (which contains the Common Books title line and is, Bawashi said, “about losing track of today”).

Student Jillian Skeen arranged the flash mob on Red Square, which she promoted on Facebook and as of late last week had attracted between 200 and 300 people. She planned to start the mob off by reading the first few lines of the poem over a megaphone, and hoped the gathered crowd would take it from there.

“A lot of the pieces are intensely personal,” she said. “Its an awesome thing, after reading (a poem), seeing it performed. Those pieces need to be performed.”

Skeen was uncertain how many people would join in Wednesdays flash mob, but said shed be happy “if even 100 people show up. The more people the better, in this situation. We really just hope we get as many people as possible to make viewers stop and listen to it — and to surprise them.”

The projects go way beyond simply reading poetry. Another of Bawarshis students will film someone reading Hugos Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg (with that signature line: “the car that brought you here still runs”) being read while driving through an old Washington mill town. Another is writing poem stanzas in chalk along the Burke-Gilman trail for runners and bikers to read as they pass. Another will celebrate McHughs poem A Physics by “sending pieces of paper with the poem floating down the Waterfall Garden in Pioneer Square and then photographing or filming this process.”

Bawarshi said its been challenging to generate interest in the Common Book what with all the other requirements students face. “Im thinking, too, beyond this year. Were hoping whatever comes out of this will be a kind of example” for future engagement with Common Books.

“The poetry coming to life is secondary,” Bawarshi said. “The bigger picture is about getting the Common Book to come to life. The greatest thing is to put the Common Book in students hands and make it their text, not the Universitys text or the authors text.”

Learn more about the UW Common Book online here.