A visitor on one of my campus tours once asked, “Doesn’t liberal arts mean that you all frolic around in long skirts and write poetry all day?” At the time, I kindly gestured to the engineering building and cited the fact that computer science and economics were actually the most popular majors at Swarthmore. Nonetheless, as somewhat of a poet myself, the comment has stuck with me. Although you’d be hard-pressed to find one of us skipping down Magill Walk reciting Yeats, it’s true that there’s a vibrant amount of poetic talent on campus. In order to put the spotlight on this semi-underground community, I caught up with six poets who agreed to share their thoughts on their relationship with writing poetry and how they get their creative spark. As expected, the responses were eloquent, contemplative, and always tinged with hint of signature Swarthmore modesty. These are my favorites.
When did you realize you had a talent for writing poetry?
Vanessa Meng ’19: I can’t really say I ever realized I had a talent for writing; it’s more so that I’ve always loved writing. I never even liked reading as a young child. I was like, “I’m a writer; I don’t have to read!” Obviously that changed as I grew older, but writing is something that always seemed necessary for me to keep doing.
Professor Nathalie Anderson of English Literature: I’m going to answer that in a slightly different way. I got interested in poetry when I was pretty young. My mother died when I was three years old. When I was in sixth grade, my grandparents gave me her college poetry textbooks, including these big British and American poetry anthologies. As I began reading those, I started feeling that I might want to do something like that, too, which led to some amusing events. In eighth grade, we put together our own poetry anthology, and I put in poems like Oscar Wilde’s “The Harlot’s House,” not knowing what a harlot was! I started writing more seriously in high school, and I don’t know when you decide you have talent or when other people decide you have talent, but I won some prizes in high school and college and that set me on my path.
What do you like to write about?
Nader Helmy ’17: A lot of good poetry is about personifying things that don’t have a voice, like the bananas that don’t get picked at the grocery store – what’s their internal dialogue? It’s a silly example, but a lot of poetry is asking, “what if we give a voice to this idea that doesn’t get usually to speak?” In my writing, that concept can extend to topics that are very personal, like body image, masculinity, racism – these are things that are always affecting my life.
Anderson: In a book on art called “Ways of Seeing,” John Berger says, “A woman must continually watch herself.” There’s this idea that, historically, women have been thoroughly policed by society and by themselves. A lot of what I wrote about early on circled around the idea that there are not only physical threats in the world, but also threats to autonomy and sexual identity. As time has gone on, I’ve written about what it was like to grow up in the Southern United States when segregation was giving way to integration. More recently, I’ve written about ideas on growing older and maintaining autonomy in a society that seems to be closing that off.
Colette Gerstmann ’18: I write a lot about beauty and femininity and what it was like to grow up as a girl among a lot of other girls. I also write a lot about mirrors and what it’s like to look at a reflection of yourself. A mirror can stand as a reflection on something you’re thinking about, or as a way to view yourself as another person.
What is your creative process like?
Professor Peter Schmidt: I don’t know and don’t understand it. Some days (most days) nothing. But then something speaks (surprise!) and a poem nudges its little tendril out of the earth. Then more stuff emerges. I water it, mulch it, grow it. Lots of surprises happen–look, leaves and fruit! Sometimes a poem comes together quickly, especially now that I’m more experienced. But other poems take months and lots of painful failures before their words and movements finally feel inevitable and right.
Gilbert Orbea ’19: I won’t write a poem if I don’t have a title for it. It gives me an idea of where I’m going with it – whether it’s short, or whether it’s going to be abstract or concrete. It’s like an anchor. I structure a story around what the title conveys. I guess I kind of go backwards from what most people would do.
Anderson: In high school and college, I would know exactly how I wanted to tie a poem up. I would write hurriedly to get to the end, but over time, I realized that the ideas I had were not getting to the page. It was like an epic moving into a shape that was too small. Now, I write around the poem. I almost never sit down and write something that looks like a poem; I free write. I make lists of words and walk outside to repeat the words of the poem out loud. I might look for sense impressions in old photographs, or try to evoke smells and noises. I try to fill up the idea of a poem as I write it.
What poets do you draw inspiration from?
Helmy: I’m mostly inspired by peers and by folks I’m getting to know more and more who are from this generation of people who’ve graduated in the past three years, or maybe those a little older. This generation of poets, especially those who are POC and trans/queer poets living on the east coast, inspires me.
Orbea: I get more inspiration from individual works of poetry than a specific poet or a type of poetry, but I really loved poems we read in Spanish literature by Federico Garcia Lorca or Jorge Luis Borges.
What Swarthmore communities and groups have inspired you?
Helmy: Because of the heavy influence of rap in my life, a lot of my early poetry was too constrained to some rhythmic pattern, and it took me a long time to get out of that freshman year, but it was really liberating when I did. Then, I got on the CUPSI team, and the process of preparing for the national poetry slam competition was the most formative writing experiences of my life. I grew so much in two and a half months. When you have an idea, it’s really exciting, but I learned that the grueling part is the refining process, which is how to take a half-baked idea to the next level.
Gertsmann: As a poetry editor [for the Swarthmore Review], looking at other people’s poems and having a conversation with them about what I think is working and what can be fixed helps me to think about how I can improve my own poetry. I’m also on the board of the Kitao Gallery, and I really like helping to shape more of an arts community on campus and being exposed to other forms of art.
If you had to call yourself a [blank] poet, what would go in the blank?
Meng: I think this is something a lot of poets think about, especially in the slam community where there are a lot of activist poets. My teammate George on the CUPSI team once introduced me at a show, and he was too nice about it, but he said, “Vanessa is a fierce and powerful poet, not in the loud sense, but in a strong feminine way.” For now, that’s where I’m at.
Gertsmann: A musical poet: someone who is actively trying to use music and poetry in similar ways. I play guitar and I sing and write songs, so I like to use rhythm and sound play in my poetry.
Orbea: I would probably say I’m “no” poet, honestly! I love poetry, I love writing, but I wouldn’t want to use that term “poet” because I feel like it would cast preconceived notions on me. It’s very much a part of my life, but it’s not something that I consciously try to do. I write poetry just cause, whenever, for whatever reason.
Special thanks to Professor Nathalie Anderson, Colette Gertsmann ’18, Nader Helmy ’17, Vanessa Meng ’19, Gilbert Orbea ’19, and Professor Peter Schmidt.