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Visiting poets provide unique perspectives on writing

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The writing community at Westminster has grown and evolved substantially over the past few years. To foster student interest, Richard Blanco, James Arthur, and Ron Smith, three well known and highly acclaimed poets, came to work with students in workshops during October. Through their visits, they shared the inner workings of a writer’s mind and editorializing.

At the beginning of October, students and faculty welcomed Richard Blanco to campus. Known as one of the most influential poets and public speakers today, Blanco served as the fifth United States inaugural poet, speaking at President Obama’s second inauguration. Aside from writing, he also pursues a career in civil engineering.

“As a gay Latino man, Richard Blanco holds a very interesting identity,” said Westminster Writers advisor Jennifer Dracos-Tice. “With Cuban roots and ties to Spain and the United States, he has a rich background which both shapes and contributes a unique perspective to his writing.”

During his visit, Blanco met with a small group of students to talk about the composition of poetry. In this session, he helped students edit personal pieces and discuss one another’s works. At the end of the hour, Blanco also talked about some of his own pieces and his writing style.

“Oftentimes a workshop can become very critical, and it can be a demeaning place to put high school students in,” said junior Kensey Cochran. “Blanco’s teaching approach created more of a safe space for students to openly share their poems and get valuable feedback.”

Around mid-October, poet James Arthur also came to work with aspiring student writers. In contrast to Blanco’s story-based personal writing form, Arthur structures his poetry in a contemporary abstract way based on image and sound. Using consonance, assonance, and other sound devices, he first sculpts the poem using different selected phonetic elements, and then he finds a deeper meaning out of the piece as a whole.

In his workshop, Arthur walked students through his writing process, explaining some of his signature techniques and methods. After he performed some of his pieces as spoken word to the group, students had the opportunity to ask questions and offer some concluding thoughts.

“Honestly, I personally found this workshop more effective than Blanco’s because we got to hear more from the poet himself,” said junior Lillie Caravati. “By actually showing us his craft process, it was more helpful to me to see and hear writing advice put into actual effect.”

The month finally ended with poet Ron Smith, who came on Oct. 24. Smith’s workshop lasted for about three hours, about three times longer than the others’. His visit proved to be one of the most impressive and impactful to students.

“Out of all the workshops, this workshop was the most concentrated on the generating process,” said Cochran. “This is personally my favorite part of any writing workshop because that’s what the writers are good at and do for a living.”

Basing his writing on personal experience, Smith incorporates direct images and anecdotes in his poetry. Students found his writing style particularly intriguing and thought-provoking. After reading some of his own pieces, Smith sparked an exciting discussion about more abstract poetic forms and concepts.

“Smith writes in a metaphorical way without really using any metaphors at all,” said Cochran. “Having a deeper meaning completely unrelated to the story physically written was just so conceptually mind-boggling and fascinating.”

At the end of the workshop, Smith helped students generate a piece, encouraging them integrate his writing methods. The prompt was to create a character with a strong backstory: a huge life-changing event that just happened to the character 24 hours prior. The character was then put into a setting where the writer had to express what had happened without actually writing about the event.

“Even though you’re writing about one thing, other elements come through that you don’t expect,” said Cochran. “My character was at the beach and her entire family died in a car crash before. So there was a taint on the picture that was a very sad portrayal of this girl, but the backstory eventually came through without me actually ever explicitly mentioning what had happened to her.”

All three poets were carefully selected through the recommendations of different teachers in the English department and Westminster’s connection with Georgia Tech and their program, Poetry at Tech.

“A unifying characteristic of these poets is that they all have a deep humanity within them to not only craft extraordinary work but also to really connect with a group of kids in a classroom,” said Upper School head Ross Peters. “We want to bring people like this to our campus to expose students to the lives of real people working in the real world. As we thinking about the work we do as a school in creating a more interdisciplinary curriculum, it’s vital for us to see others living engaged lives of passion, conviction, commitment, and devotion in fields where the focus is recognizing things that are greater than ourselves alone. Our education isn’t just for us; it’s a part of how we reveal and contribute our belief to the world around us.”

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Visiting poets provide unique perspectives on writing