Twenty-one students, their families, friends and Professor Elmaz Abinader packed the World Ground Café on the night of Dec. 3 to celebrate their poetry and their experience as the first group to complete the Outsider Poetry Movement course at Mills.
This split level English course starts with writing from the Harlem Renaissance and travels through the literary contributions of several movements in the racial, cultural, social, political and historical heritage of poetry. So it stands to reason that this course would move its students “outside” the walls of Mills Hall and into the World Ground Café for a final reading and celebration through spoken word.
“I wish we had more events like this-where we could pack the house,” said Cassie, the shift manager at World Ground.
The locally owned café remained open beyond its normal hours of operation to accommodate the standing room only crowd. This allowed the Mills students to assemble, read, and in some cases, perform, the poetry they were inspired to write while in the course.
“We have the ability to make positive change and add to the literary community of writers and poets,” said Nathan Jones, a first year MFA student.
The reading, a culmination of an ongoing project that the undergraduate and graduate students worked on throughout the semester, was emceed by graduate student Jessica Dailey and undergraduate Chenelle Simington. As they introduced their fellow classmates, the audience listened to poems about home, family, politics and revolution.
“I am beside myself in excitement about the final performance. I have been creating rhymes in Italian,” said Natascia Tornetta Mallin, a graduating senior who began her poem by singing the words Ava Maria, to pay homage to her mother.
The students studied poets Suzie Wong, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Gwendolyn Brooks, Joy Harjo, Juan Felipe Herrera, Lawson Inada, Langston Hughes and Joseph Bruchac, to name a few. They read from multicultural poetry anthologies, collections by the Bay Area’s own, June Jordan, and various other books that highlight the work of the Black Arts movement, the Last Poets, the NuYorican writers and a multitude of spoken word artists.
Using critical analysis, blogging, open discussion and a free exchange of ideas, this special topic class inspired MFA students Muthoni Kiarie and Indigo J. Eriksen to write short stories and inspired Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner to read a piece that asked a question that was essential to the course, “What about us?”
In addition to the live reading, three students (Natascia Tornetta-Mallin, Chenelle Simington, and Indigo J. Eriksen) also organized, designed and edited the class anthology, which sold out during the event.
“This class is important to Mills because it further encourages dialogue around different ways of interpretation and around what it means to use writing as a way of understanding those groups ignored or marginalized within the mainstream writing community,” said second year MFA student Jessica Dailey.
By designing a special topics course that focuses on the non-conventional voices of poetry, Professor Abinader attracted a community of student-poets who wanted to examine poetic style and form through reading and writing about the poetry (and poets) whose voices don’t always appear in the current course offerings. This week, the course was unanimously approved by the College faculty and officially added to the Mills curriculum.
Students who want a “global poetry experience,” according to Jones, “should take this course and be prepared to have a life changing experience.”