As a grad student, it can be easy to feel as though you and your classmates are the only ones attending the school. With such a small program, my six classmates and I see a lot of each other. There are variations with students from other years, and students from other cohorts, but when we are in the midst of a densely busy semester, it can be easy to feel that we are the only people in the world, much less Columbia. However, this last week taught me that there is a world beyond my cohort, and even beyond the graduate program.
As I write this, I have just returned from a book release party, for Columbia grad, Doe Parker. His book, The Good House & The Bad House recently came out on Recenter Press. (You can purchase it here. And you should, just the few poems I heard him read were phenomenal.) I had the privilege of working with Doe Parker when he was an editor for Columbia Poetry Review, an undergrad of sparkling ability and a sharp mind in a class made up of mainly graduate students.
And again, I was able to work with him when I was a teacher’s assistant for Lisa Fishman’s “Topics in Creative Writing: Death & Dying” class. Doe was an exception in that class; the majority of the students were not Creative Writing students, but average undergrads, looking for a unique way to fulfill credit requirements. It was an emotionally heavy class (as one might expect with a name like “Death and Dying”), but Doe and the rest of the class produced work that floored me in its quality. Students at Columbia are allowed to push boundaries, to think differently, and to write well.
This week has been an exceptionally busy one. My first final draft of my thesis was due to be turned into the department. (Yes, that is confusing. But it means that my thesis advisor thinks I’m ready to turn in my thesis, and I can make final edits before I turn in a draft for Columbia’s archives.) Celebrate with me, friends—this is the culmination of about ten years of writing, and those 54 pages feel astronomical.
And then, Thursday evening, an entire semester and a half culminated in a joyous event, the City Wide Undergraduate Poetry Festival. This event featured ten readers, each one from one of Chicago colleges that have Creative Writing or English programs. These readers represented the best that Chicago colleges have to offer, and they most certainly proved that young poets in Chicago have so much to offer.
I had the opportunity to function as the events coordinator for this reading. I emailed with students, designed posters, ordered catering, and did plenty of other things to help ensure that this event ran smoothly, so that the mechanics of it would be completely invisible to the readers. I worked closely with Professor Tony Trigilio, who started the reading in his very first year of teaching at Columbia. This year was its 19th, and we’ve already started preparations for the 20th anniversary.
After months of hard work for those of us working on the event, it felt wonderful to hear the students read. We got to hear what made any of it possible. These were young people with a passion for poetry, a passion which is so easy to resist in a world that values the arts less and less, as it seems. As Tony said when he welcomed the readers, “In today’s world, in today’s political climate, it’s so important to make voices heard. I want to thank you for choosing poetry as the way to make your important voices heard.”
Students like Doe and those who read at City Wide often make me jealous because of how assured the are of their art and their right to make art. People in creative fields are often required to justify their career and life choices because of the desire to put monetary values on absolutely everything. Doe’s book is an assertion of self-hood that requires you to pay attention, to listen, to feel. Young artists are shaping our worlds. I know I’m young, but I am still so proud of that drive that I see from my students, and from those students I’ve been privileged to work with at Columbia.