Penn State Abington students stoked for arrival of U.S. Poet Laureate

The Poet Laureate for the United States will read here. A prestigious National Poetry Series Prize winner is writer-in-residence here. And the school's literary magazine is back in publication after a lengthy hiatus, in great part due to an increased interest in poetry among students. Suddenly, it has become cool to dig poetry at Penn State Abington.

Part of the reason for the renaissance has been the result of the tireless efforts of Ann (A.V.) Christie, writer-in-residence at the campus for the past two years. Christie, a Chester County resident whose collection of poems, Nine Skies, won a National Poetry Series Prize in 1996, has done something that many contemporaries in ivory towers eschew: she has brought poetry down from those ivory towers.

Whether its collaborating with other faculty to host Poetry Slams -- during which students can do a simple reading of their poems, rap them to a funky beat, or incorporate them into rhythm and blues music -- or having students decorate the campus and write their favorite works on classroom blackboards to celebrate National Poetry Month in April, Christie wants students to enjoy poetry in ways that move them.

"There's no surer way to kill poetry with most students than to get up there for an hour and talk about the mechanics of it -- rhyme scheme and stressed and unstressed syllables," said Christie. "I've been here for two years now, and the number of students writing poems or creative prose on their own -- taking time for their own creative writing above and beyond course work -- is way beyond what I expected."

Students and the community, alike, will have the opportunity to hear from one of the best 'everyman' poets to ever pick up a pen when U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins reads a selection of his poems on campus Monday evening, March 3, as part of Penn State Abington's Cultural Arts Series. Collins -- a poet known for his down-to-earth poems on such mundane issues as jogging and having a bad day -- has heard his share of criticism from contemporaries who find his poetry almost too accessible. Still, he has sold more poetry books than any author in U.S history.

Collins will share the stage with Eamon Grennan, an Irish poet and close friend of Collins. Grennan, who helped mold Christie's style while at Vassar College, has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and NEA, and has had his works published in many American and Irish journals, including New Yorker. Christie thinks the style of the two men -- one straightforward, the other more layered and associative -- will compliment each other nicely on stage.

"Sometimes poet laureates are elite, obscure, impossible-to-understand-anything-they-say-type poets. Collins writes about the day-to-day, and readers really seem to connect to his subjects," said Christie, who teaches from one of Collins most recent offerings, Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems, in her current poetry workshop. She worked hard to get the men together for one night on campus. "Eamon's poems are stunning for their work with sound and image, with the real guts of our language. One of the great things is the lack of attitude of these guys -- they're not highbrow academics, they're very unassuming. I can't imagine a better opportunity for our students and the community to appreciate the best of poetry."

Justin De Senso, 21, a senior from Howell, N.J., and organizer of a previous Poetry Slam on campus, said that 'a blank piece of paper equals freedom' of expression for him. He said the appearance by Collins and Grennan is a real coup for students.

"I plan on attending, and I am very much excited by this," said De Senso. "I can say this much -- the love of poetry and language is here on campus. All we need to do is shine the light and those in the shadows will come out and share how they are feeling, and I feel Billy Collins and Eamon Grennan can provide such a light."

For those who want some light shed on the poetic pair before their appearance, Christie will host a discussion of the works of the two men as part of the Jenkintown Barnes and Noble 'Cappuccino Academy,' the day before they hit the stage at Abington. The event is set for 3 p.m.

The wave of poetry on campus helped re-launch publication of The Abington Review literary magazine last spring after a multi-year hiatus. Christie and colleague, Assistant Professor of English Karen Weekes, received more than 100 submissions of student poetry and creative writing for the issue last year, and they will oversee another issue due out in April.

"It was after we started the Review up again and saw the type of response that we got, that we thought, 'wow, more needs to be happening to meet this need on our campus,'" said Christie. "For a poetry instructor, there's nothing better than seeing how awakened students are when they're expressing themselves forcefully and uniquely to their peers. It's tremendous."

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If You Go: Penn State Abington's Cultural Arts Series Presents, 'A Poetry Reading by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins and Eamon Grennan,' on Monday, March 3, beginning at 7:30 p.m., on the Helen Buck O'Neill Stage in Sutherland Auditorium. The event is free to the public, but those who would like to attend must pre-register by calling 215-881-7368. The campus is located at 1600 Woodland Road, Abington.