Random Acts of Poetry

February 26, 2013

Guest blogger Rick Benjamin, Adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies and public humanities, was recently appointed state poet of Rhode Island. The state poet is “an artist who represents the highest achievement in poetry” and serves as an advocate for poetry in Rhode Island.

Benjamin has dedicated much of his career to the intersection of poetry and community service. That’s the topic of “Poetry in Service to Schools & the Community,” a course he is teaching for the Brown Center for Public Humanities this semester.  

Not long ago, during an Arts-Mentor Exhibition at New Urban Arts— a community arts organization where I am also serving as an arts mentoring fellow for the next two years— I sat behind a table that said Random Acts of Poetry, armed only with my old Royal manual typewriter & slim pieces of paper that resembled something you might find in an adding machine. It was poetry demystified, poetry on demand: all night long I created & typed poems on request, on subjects of my clients' choosing, fast & loose, each poem taking ten minutes (& 53 years) or so. Demand was high; my fingers & thoughts never really stopped moving. I have always dreamed of being a public poet, one whose process was wholly transparent, & that evening at New Urban Arts was a try at this. The poems weren't bad, by the way, or at least they were as good as ones that I typically devote more time to in the drafting process. Though I had approached the evening with some trepidation, it was altogether a lovely experience.

Some version of this perverse poetic & public transformation is what we try for in the course, Poetry in Service to Schools & the Community— which has finally found its rightful home, after fifteen years, in Public Humanities. The class is a juggling act, requiring of all of us the agile & supple movement between studying, thinking about & writing poetry, & the subsequent passing on of what we are learning together to sites elsewhere: schools, community & assisted living centers, sometimes both adult & youth detention facilities. The point is to make of our scholarly & creative inquiry here at Brown something resembling community outreach, to round out our own learning by simultaneously being of benefit to others (who range in age from 6 - 96 years old). So my own practice at the moment engages elders, thirteen year olds and high school students, so some of my students here will be working with kindergarteners, first graders, or students at Hope High School, or with refugees in the Mt Pleasant neighborhood of Providence. The course, in other words, really happens both at Brown & all over the city of Providence; it offers up the possibility of both giving & getting support through public service (because the two, of course, are inextricably linked in any genuine exchange among human beings). The lines between service purveyor & recipient are entirely blurred, & relationships fostered through the wisdom medium of poetry turn out to be remarkably deep & durable. In Public Humanities, we are, as I noted earlier, entirely at home, fully engaged in our citizenship in the city & in our humanity as both scholars & artists.


To Make a Prairie it takes

One Clover and a Bee,

A Clover and one Bee,

and reverie.

The reverie

Alone will do

if Bees are few.

                          Emily Dickinson

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