Eleven students shared stories about their first-year Vanderbilt experiences with five Nashville poets, and the one-on-one conversations were transformed within minutes into meaningful poems during an Immersion/Commons seminar taught by Kate Daniels.
“Deep Dive into the Literary Arts,” designed to help prepare students to conduct a future Immersion project, covers the history of creative writing at Vanderbilt as well as the dynamic presence of today’s creative writers on campus. “We also looked at the influence of collaborative, participatory approaches to art making, which we see in Nashville in the music industry,” said Daniels, who is a professor of English and director of Creative Writing.
During the final class meeting, students were treated to an on-site visit from Nashville Public Radio’s Versify podcast, which converts local stories that are recorded in diverse neighborhoods and various cultural and community events into poems. The podcast is hosted and co-produced by Joshua Moore, a first-year MFA student at Vanderbilt who also coordinates The Porch Writers’ Collective: Poetry on Demand initiative.
“Poetry on Demand is a critical component of Versify,” said Daniels, who has received numerous awards for her own poetry. “I’m amazed at the poets. They display such coolness during the process, while I sweat with nerves just thinking about their task.”
Darius Cowan was among the students who relayed stories about their first-year experience. He talked about attending McGill coffeehouses (open mic nights) in connection with his interest in becoming a resident in the McGill living-learning community. Its members are part of a longtime campus tradition of free expression and discovery.
“They have this thing called the ‘cathartic scream’ in which they go out on Alumni Lawn when there’s a full moon and scream for a minute,” Cowan said. “At first, I thought it was a joke. But they counted to three and told me to scream from my diaphragm. It was actually really freeing. I realized that this is where I want to be—screaming on the lawn every fourth week.”
Cara Dees, a 2014 MFA graduate, responded to him with a set of haiku, a Japanese form of poetry with only three lines. Dees, who teaches English at Vanderbilt, said she was inspired by Cowan’s description of “waiting for that count of 1, 2 and 3 by his friend just before taking a deep breath to scream.”
One – the moon chiseled
into sky, the scream lifting
up. And up. Two – now
a sharper intake –
do it from your diaphragm –
three – suddenly, free.
Elise Harren, another class member who is enrolled in Next Steps at Vanderbilt, spoke of all of the changes—including the climate—that she has adjusted to with her relocation from San Diego to Nashville. Here’s the conclusion of poet Dana Malone’s response:
The importance of challenging myself, but always asking why
The push to read…always more
The building of chapter on chapter
Characters in my life in Nashville,
where I’ve grown accustomed to the weather
Becoming more interesting as the story goes on.
All of the students’ stories and poems-on-demand were recorded by Versify for possible editing and use in a future podcast.
Other course activities included a visit to Central Library, where students were welcomed by University Librarian Valerie Hotchkiss in the Library’s new Poetry Room. Afterward, in Special Collections and University Archives, librarian Kathleen Smith gave a presentation on the Fugitive poets, The Fugitive literary magazine, and the Southern literary renaissance.
Jared Bauman, a first-year student with dueling interests in creative writing and political science, said that his favorite part of the course was learning about the distinguished as well as controversial Southern writers who had studied and taught at Vanderbilt.
And what is Bauman considering for a future Immersion project? “I’m interested in creating a ‘prose version’ of the Versify podcast,” Bauman said. “I would interview people from various walks of life and convert the conversations into fictional short stories. If I stick with this dream, I’m very glad to have the rest of my time at Vanderbilt to pursue it.”