Community gathers to share affection for poetry

The Student Union Den transformed into a mellow, candle-lit poet’s corner Oct. 21 as UAA students, faculty and members of surrounding communities came together for an evening of poetry. Twelve people, including Chancellor Elaine Maimon and her husband Mort, were chosen to read aloud one of their favorite poems and explain the significance of that poem in their lives. The event, sponsored by Alaska Quarterly Review, the Department of Creative Writing and Literary Arts, UAA Student Activities and University Advancement, concluded UAA’s Favorite Poem Project, which started at the beginning of the semester.

The Favorite Poem Project is a nationwide phenomenon organized by former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky to reestablish the love of poetry in America. Pinsky visited UAA Oct. 8 to celebrate the dedication of the Consortium Library and to generate enthusiasm about his project. Maimon said the project has been very effective.

“This project is very dear to my heart,” Maimon said. “It has made poetry cool.”

Maimon opened the evening by comparing the event to ancient readings of epic poetry such as Homer’s “The Odyssey,” where whole communities would gather together to share and celebrate literature. It is Maimon’s goal to create a sense of community at UAA where all people feel welcome.

“I really want this university to become a public square,” she said.

The Den resembled just such a forum as it opened its doors not only to English buffs and poetry aficionados but to all people from every corner of the community. Alaska’s cultural diversity shined brightly throughout the evening. Gopakumar Venugopalan, UAA psychology professor, shared a poem reflecting an immigrant’s love of two homelands. Anna Ermak-Bower read quietly in her native Russian to an appreciative audience. Jason Marvel, a Wasilla English teacher and head basketball coach, shared his favorite poem with the aim to dispel the myth that sports fans can’t also be poetry fans.

Perhaps the evening’s most moving selection wouldn’t have stolen the spotlight had it not been for the voice behind it. Carl Seaver, a 61-year-old asbestos worker, spoke with passion and emotion about a childhood poem his mother used to lull him to sleep.

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“I used to love having my ma read it to me,” Seaver said.

The audience members listened with reminiscent smiles as Seaver delivered his poem from memory. Even the most fluent and dynamic of storytellers would envy Seaver’s inflection and interpretation.

For people who feel intimidated by poetry or can’t seem to find an understanding or appreciation of it, Maimon challenges them to think back to their early years growing up listening to Dr. Seuss and bedtime stories.

“I would say to them, think about a favorite song or nursery rhyme,” Maimon said. “They’re all poetry. It is a very broad category of language. Kids will never be able to remember a time when they didn’t love poetry.”