Wordsmiths, Helicon platforms for poetic expression

Vassar students have many opportunities on campus to experiment with and showcase their poetry. Among these are Wordsmiths and Helicon, which allow for writers to receive feedback from their peers. Photo By: Spencer Davis
Vassar students have many opportunities on campus to experiment with and showcase their poetry. Among these are Wordsmiths and Helicon, which allow for writers to receive feedback from their peers. Photo By: Spencer Davis
Vassar students have many opportunities on campus to experiment with and showcase their poetry.
Among these are Wordsmiths and Helicon, which allow for writers to receive feedback from their peers. Photo By: Spencer Davis

For many writers on campus, the importance of poetry cannot be stressed enough. “People write poetry to survive,” said Leonel Torres, co-president of Wordsmiths, a campus group that promotes both written and spoken word poetry through hosting open mics, writer’s workshops and guest speakers and poets. A poem—whether it is written on the page or performed on stage—is an utterance of one’s humanity. Enclosed in verse is the individual and collective yearning to understand the self in all of its complexities. Poetry is experiential, but, above all, poetry is communication, and Vassar students seem to be yearning to participate in the art form due to the many qualities poetry has to offer. “[The desire to write poetry] is to desire to get to know people on a level that is very different than any conversation that the general body would have,” said Torres. It comes as no surprise that Vassar, a college that supports and values the arts, provides students with a robust poetic outlet. Students can submit their work to Helicon, an on-campus group that publishes a literary magazine and hosts events for Vassar writers, and can perform and write slam poetry with Wordsmiths. There are also ample opportunities for campus writers to listen to professional poets read and discuss their work, whether these poets are brought in by student-run groups or the English department. Students can even read original works as a part of Modfest. Many student organizations often work to bring poets to campus–this year Vassar hosted, among others, the likes of spoken word troupe Strivers Row and poets Anthony Madrid and Remi Kanazi. Wordsmiths will host slam poets Phil Kaye and Sarah Kay on Sunday, Feb. 15 for a poetry and creative writing workshop. “The poetry scene [on campus] just exploded. It’s growing a lot more than I anticipated. There are so many people interested in poetry, specifically poetry and activism because it has a large impact on how we see ourselves in society and at Vassar in particular,” said Torres. And in a world where social media outlets constantly remind today’s society of current events, activism in particular has played an important role in many of the visiting poets’ works and inspires student’s own poetic verses. The poetry of Strivers Row, a troupe of spoken word artists who tour the country, focuses upon the experiences of minority students. Palestinaian-American poet Remi Kanazi works address human rights issues and the occupation of Palestine in particular. Even though poetry at Vassar is currently flourishing, some students worry about poetic over-saturation. Perhaps organizations bring in too many poets to speak on campus and as a result some begin to feel dulled at the repetition. “Although, there is never be enough poetry,” said Torres. One of Torres’ responsibilities as Wordsmiths co-president is to provide students with a platform to explore their craft as writers. He wants to help student-poets to find honesty and identity in their works. “Each poet has their own story. Each person on this campus has a story to tell and that’s the most important thing that we [Wordsmiths] have to get out,” said Torres. Editor-in-Chief of Helicon Veronica Peterson believes reading and showcasing student talent is an incredibly rewarding experience. Reading student poetry connects her to the community on a more personal level; beneath the stanzas of student hope, fear and unrequited love is perhaps a significant part of the heart of Vassar. “You may sit next to someone in class and then discover that they have a hidden talent for writing,” said Peterson. And while Helicon is distinguished for its high-quality pieces, its reviewing process sets it a part from many other college literary magazines: all of its submissions are reviewed anonymously. Students whose works are accepted into the literary magazine know that their pieces have merit in their own right and are chosen with little to no bias on the part of the reviewers. Peterson cites one of her current goals as Editor-in-Chief: improving publicity. Helicon often has trouble getting enough submissions partly because some students send in work that is later rejected by the magazine. As a result, some students’ first interaction with the magazine is facing rejection. Every writer knows how crushing that can be. “I wish I could write a disclaimer saying this is what the literary world is like. There’s a lot of rejection,” said Peterson. But facing rejection is integral to the craft of poetry. Peterson believes that rejection should be treated as a kind of creative springboard. It should encourage writers to persevere. Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of Vassar’s poetry scene is the supportive and dedicated faculty. “I came to Vassar thinking that writing would be a hobby. The professors here are intellectually flexible and eager to work with young people. My professors have given me the confidence to give a career in writing a real chance and I will be forever grateful,” said student poet Elizabeth Rowland ’14. Although for Rowland there is one clear setback for Vassar’s poetry climate: the rise of social networking and its deleterious effects on student poetry. Social media often rears vanity and perpetuates the hackneyed word. “I’m not one for poorly written, dismissive trend-pieces about the failings of our generation, but I do think the emergence of the Internet has created an environment where everybody thinks they can write,” said Rowland. Rowland offers some advice to hopeful poets out there. “Avoid cliché. I guarantee everything you or I or anyone else is saying has been said before. It’s the writer’s job to make it feel fresh. I’ve noticed a sort of maudlin sensibility around campus. Ditch the slogans; your readers will get it, I promise.”

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