CCCE puts poetry in motion with arts, humanities outreach

27 March 2018

It didn’t take long for Emily Oliver to get connected at Carleton.

During the first hour of her first day in the Center for Community and Civic Engagement, Oliver received an email from Classics researcher and Northfield poet laureate Rob Hardy. Oliver’s supervisor, Amel Gorani, had sent out an alert to community partners about Oliver’s hiring as the new interim associate director for academic civic engagement. The announcement cited Oliver’s background as a poet and teacher—which was all the motivation Hardy needed.

“Rob wrote me and said, ‘I want to collaborate.’ We met right away. I didn’t even know where the printer was yet,” Oliver says, laughing.

The connections haven’t slowed in the past three months (though at least Oliver knows where the printer is now). With several recent hires on board, including Gorani who started as director in 2016, CCCE is in a unique position to evaluate how its new staff chemistry and expertise can add to a deep history of meaningful work. For Oliver, that means tapping into what is closest to her heart.

As an undergrad at Knox College in Illinois, Oliver landed several grants to begin Knox Writers’ House, a sprawling project that took her across the country to interview writers and poets. “It became my life,” Oliver says, and all told, she recorded conversations with roughly 400 subjects.

After graduation, Oliver pursued a Masters of Fine Arts in poetry at Cornell University. While teaching there, she began to think more intentionally about the civic engagement aspect of Knox Writers’ House and how socially conscious poetic movements could create community.

“Writing gives voice. It enables people to mobilize,” Oliver says. “That work is very direct to me. It’s where I saw the bridge between my poetry life and professional life.”

Oliver didn’t think her poetry emphasis would surface so soon at Carleton. However, a multi-faceted collaboration between Hardy, an English class at Northfield High School, two CCCE student fellows, and St. Paul organization TruArtSpeaks led to a teen poetry slam “under the lights” at Carleton’s Kracum Performance Hall in early February. The communal spirit from that event helped inform Civic Poetics, a CCCE-sponsored forum that brought six national poets from Minnesota—Heid Erdrich, Matt Rasmussen, Gretchen Marquette, Sun Yung Shin, Anders Carlson-Wee, and Michael Torres—to campus a week later.

While Civic Poetics was meant to showcase personal stories about culture, identity, community, and grief from accomplished writers, Oliver says it also served as a reminder that “slow reflection” is needed in a society too often influenced by sound bites. Among the Carleton partners who joined the CCCE mission: Office of Intercultural and International Life, Gender and Sexuality Center, Humanities Center, the English department, and the Distinguished Women Visitors Fund.

“I’m in awe of the amount of people at Carleton who’ve been game to say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re interested in what you’re doing. Let’s work together.’ People are so generous about throwing their time and effort into causes they believe in,” Oliver says.

“It’s become increasingly important for CCCE to look to the arts and humanities as a direct way for marginalized groups to tell their stories in powerful ways,” adds Gorani. “The creative side of community and civic engagement sometimes gets lost a bit. But that’s a really important part of our vision. With the team we have in place, it’s nice to know we have a lot of ways to build broader connections.”

Gorani points to a recent Learning and Teaching Center lunch that featured Julia Dinsmore, a Minneapolis-based poet and educator who has written about her experience with homelessness. After hearing Dinsmore speak at a Higher Education Consortium for Urban Affairs (HECUA) gathering, Gorani thought she’d be perfect for CCCE’s approach to “honoring diverse voices and forms of knowledge.”

“After she was here, we heard from people who said, ‘Let’s have more speakers like Julia,” Gorani says. “Academic knowledge is really important, but different roles and insights also enrich the learning experience. We want CCCE to facilitate more of that.”

The goal, Gorani says, is to build off CCCE’s rich past while moving forward with new initiatives tailored to this specific staff. In the coming months, CCCE will be rolling out a set of strategic objectives playing off those strengths, Gorani says. The overarching aim: Continue to foster student learning and development through reciprocal community engagement.

“There’s a very fun element happening in our office right now,” Oliver says. “Civic Poetics can hopefully serve as an example of what’s to come. Just reaching out to those poets, who were all so happy to be at Carleton, it’s exciting to know what we can do.”