Cornell's student poets 'fill verbs with gasoline' as a rain-soaked Manhattan audience cheers them on

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NEW YORK -- An homage to Harry Houdini. A collection of haiku written from the perspective of zombies. These were just some of the poems read by six M.F.A. students from the English department's Creative Writing Program at "Poem in Your Pocket Day" in Manhattan's Bryant Park on April 27.

The Cornell students joined poets from the Academy of American Poets (AAP), the City University of New York and New York City high schools to read and discuss their work with a rain-soaked but enthusiastic Manhattan audience at the event, which was co-sponsored by Cornell.

"It's just great to see so many young people picking up poetry and being willing to read it," said Julie Phillips Brown, M.F.A. '08.

As she took the stage, Dawn Lonsinger, M.F.A. '08, praised the crafting and delivery of all the students' poems. "You guys are really powerful," she said. "You've been filling a lot of verbs with gasoline"

The work read by the six M.F.A. students ran the gamut, from somber memories of deceased family members to love seen through the eyes of animals. From her piece, "Honey Me, Honey Hunting," Lonsinger read;

if only we could walk, fly, & sting
without our pitch-dark firebrains,

but traces of loving gum
in the pollen-basket of our optic nerve,
our ordinary nerve, as if useful,

honeyready, I walk repeatedly

toward the door that neither nor,
is not a gift or message.

Much of the poetry recited by the Cornell poets and the high school students spoke intensely to the specific location and culture that the poet comes from. "Being at Cornell has taken me away from the place where I grew up enough that I have the distance to write about it," said Dana Koster M.F.A. '08. "I never wrote about California before, and I don't know that I would've done that if I'd stayed there my whole life."

"Poetry is a really small program -- there are just four of us admitted each year," said Justin Souza, M.F.A. '08. Teaching undergraduate classes is part of the M.F.A. curriculum, and the graduate students are always in high demand. "I had 35 students sign up for 18 slots in my creative writing workshop," said Marisol Baca, M.F.A. '07. Said Cori Winrock, M.F.A. '08: "There are a lot of preconceptions, mostly relating to Shakespeare and formalism. You start by breaking that down and giving them exposure to a lot of different poets."

The Manhattan event gave the Cornell's poets the experience of observing even younger writers, the New York City high school students. Praising the passion of their delivery, Baca said, "The kids' presence, at that age, was totally unbelievable -- I don't even have that now. I think you unlearn that confidence. It's just exciting to see poetry so alive."

In their poems, the high school students spoke animatedly about issues of gender equality, cultural identity, love and happiness. "The most common element in the students' work was trying to figure out feelings, which I thought was really nice," said Baca. "Rather than just blurting the feelings out, they were trying to figure out what that feeling was and where it came from."

"I want these kids to hear what a published poet sounds like," said Paul Romero of the Bryant Park Reading Room, an open-air library originally meant to serve unemployed New Yorkers during the Depression. "They've already got the inspiration -- their teachers are helping them through instruction, and they're learning the basics. They can maybe see where there's a possibility to go to a different stage of poetry, and that it means a lot of different things to a lot of people. The idea is to mix it all up."

The event was organized by the New York City Department of Education in collaboration with the Office of the Mayor and its Department of Cultural Affairs, The New York Times and the AAP. The Cornell poets' trip to the Poem in Your Pocket event was organized and supported by Humanities Communications and University Communications' New York City office.

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Steve Rokitka