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Kent State’s Traveling Stanzas poetry exhibit aims to create connections across borders

January 30, 2019

Kent State’s Traveling Stanzas poetry exhibit aims to create connections across borders

KENT, Ohio – Nearly a decade ago, Valora Renicker, an associate professor of visual communication design at Kent State University, invited her colleague David Hassler, director of Kent State’s Wick Poetry Center and a former Ohio Poet of the Year, to contribute some great poems that her students could illustrate and illuminate with their visual design skills.

Inspired by Poetry on the Underground, which curated poems for commuters in the London Tube in the mid-1980s, they called their collaboration “Traveling Stanzas.” When the poems were combined with the students’ bold fonts and striking graphics, they became instantly more accessible and visually appealing.

What began as an exhibit of colorful posters displayed inside public buses around Cleveland and Akron has now become an expansive multimedia exhibit that has traveled internationally and been featured at the Chautauqua Institution’s Poetry Makerspace and as part of the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.

Traveling Stanzas’ current exhibit, “Writing Across Borders,” spotlights more than 30 poems, tributes and remembrances created by Akron-area refugees and immigrants. Many of them live, work, and attend school in Akron’s ethnically diverse North Hill neighborhood, whose residents come from 26 countries, Renicker said.

“Writing Across Borders” opened at Kent State’s Taylor Gallery last Thursday and runs through Feb. 21. Admission is free from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, at 300 Midway Drive on Kent State’s main campus. After that, Traveling Stanzas will move to the Lakewood Public Library, and then back to Chautauqua.

Supported by a major grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Wick Poetry Center elicited poems from some of the most unlikely poets: schoolchildren, retirees, displaced refugees, and recent immigrants learning English as a second language. They conducted simple poetry workshops giving people English flashcards and open-ended prompts such as “My heart is…” or “My voice is…” Even those who struggled to converse in English found it easier to express themselves in poetry, Hassler said.

“We see this project as a great way to democratize voice to make poems,” Renicker said.

In the current political climate, when those who are different are “otherized” as people to be wary of or feared, Hassler said these stanzas offer a way to recognize their human dignity. He quotes American poet and refugee Li-Young Lee: “Poetry is the inner voice of one person speaking to the inner voice of another.”

The idea was to expand the number of people who could create the poems, as well as increase the potential that others would encounter the finished creations. They wanted to highlight the poems and create a lasting impression on readers, Renicker said. “Poetry has the power to change a conversation, to take people’s imaginations wherever they are,” Hassler said.

In English, we think of a stanza as a piece of a poem, Hassler said. But the word comes from the Italian word for “a small room, a moment of pause, or a pocket of time” in which to reflect on what has been shared.

Although composed by people who may have been displaced by violence or persecution, they write of universal themes: “My Mother: Whose eyes were like the surface of a quiet sea/ Whose words were like pure water irrigating thirsty fields/ Whose advice gave clarity like eyeglasses/ So I could see the right way…”

Luwela Esebe, originally from Congo, wrote: “My grandfather, whose stories were large/ like a tree’s shadow, under which many people could rest.”

Another one, from Usama Hulak of Syria: “My heart is a big book/ that I spend all night reading./ I cannot stop turning its pages./ I want to know the end of the story.”

“So many of us are recovering from how poetry was taught to us in school,” Hassler said. But Thoreau said that “Poetry is the means by which a place comes to know itself.” And in this context, by which the community hears the hearts and voices of Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.

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