Left: Rick Benjamin, former state poet of Rhode Island, will read from his works at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 on the Leonardtown Campus. Right: Poet Evie Shockley visits the Prince Frederick Campus at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30. Her influences include Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton and Harryette Mullen.
LA PLATA, Md. (Sept. 26, 2016)—The College of Southern Maryland continues its tradition of bringing engaging writers to its campuses this fall with the annual Connections Literary Series. The series will showcase two nationally recognized poets. Evie Shockley, a Holmes National Poetry Prize winner, will visit the Prince Frederick Campus on Sept. 30, and Rick Benjamin, former state poet of Rhode Island, will be at the Leonardtown Campus on Nov. 4.
Neal Dwyer, coordinator of the Connections program and a professor in CSM's Languages and Literature Division, believes Shockley and Benjamin will be a good fit for the series.
"I was struck by their commitment to using poetry as a way to build bridges and break down barriers," he said.
Shockley will read from her collection titled "the new black" beginning at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 30 in Building A, Room 119 on the Prince Frederick Campus, 115 J.W. Williams Road.
Born and raised in Nashville, Tenn., Shockley earned a bachelor's degree at Northwestern University, a juris doctor degree at the University of Michigan, and a doctorate in English literature at Duke University. She is currently an English professor at Rutgers University.
The author of several collections of poetry, including "a half-red sea" (2006) and "the new black" (2011), Shockley is also the author of the critical volume "Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry" (2011). Her poetry and essays have been featured in several anthologies, including "Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry" (2009), "Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook" (2010), "A Broken Thing: Contemporary Poets on the Line" (2011) and "Contemporary African American Literature: The Living Canon" (2013).
In preparation for Shockley's visit, Dwyer has introduced his students to her work. He recalled a recent class where his students were responding to the poem "improper(ty) behavior."
"The topic of the poem is racism in America. We discussed how a poem can speak to issues in a way that news reports or other media cannot. What I realized early on in our discussion is that her work spoke to my students in a very personal way," he said.
The poem ends with "I sometimes wonder how I get away with living while black." That opened the floodgates of intense reflection and sharing, Dwyer said.
"Not only were they responding to Shockley's words, they were responding to each other. It really kicked in when they were asked to share their personal stories. Students need to be encouraged to believe their lives matter, it's hard for them, but once they buy-in, you find it's like they're just waiting for someone to ask them to share their story, that's all it takes, and that's when learning begins."
Dwyer hopes Shockley's presentation will serve as an opportunity for the larger Southern Maryland community to join in the conversation, not only about racism, identity and society, but about the role poetry and storytelling can play in transforming conflict.
Benjamin will read from his work at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 4 at the Leonardtown Campus, Building A, Auditorium, 22950 Hollywood Road, Leonardtown.
He has taught at Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, the MFA Program in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College, in many schools and in community and assisted living centers — where, he said, "I have passed good time in the company of people who range in age from 6 to 96."
Benjamin also served as a Fellow at New Urban Arts, an afterschool arts mentoring program for Providence area high school students. His poems and essays have appeared in "PRØOF," "Watershed," The Providence Journal, "Tongue," 350.org, "The Writer's Circle," "American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics" (Wesleyan University Press), "Urthona: An International Buddhist Journal of the Arts, Poem, Home: An Anthology of Ars Poetica" (Paper Kite Press) and "La Petite Zine."
Benjamin believes that poetry can play a primary role in creating vibrant and connected communities. Dwyer said that is what drew him to Benjamin's work.
"Rick is about building community and using poetry as a way to bring people together. That could be the theme for this season of Connections: Poetry's role in bringing people together," Dwyer said.
Benjamin's poetry classes at Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design always included a community component so that his students could more fully experience what it means to circulate in communities outside of higher education, and his own creative practice includes work in many schools, community and senior centers.
Dwyer is excited about the upcoming fall Connections authors and the prospect that poetry could be the force to ignite a community dialogue on important issues.
"We can try it in many ways but, unfortunately for us in this culture, poetry has such a reputation," Dwyer said. "Most people would not think of it as a way to deal with a concern like racism, as Evie does, or in Rick's case bringing communities together."
The work these poets are doing is important and relevant, Dwyer said. He has seen the extent to which a poem can actually be "a direct connection to the lives that my students are living. These poets can inspire an audience to believe that there are other ways of dealing with conflict, trauma and division — at very least, their works can serve to begin the conversation."
"As an educational institution, that's a big part of our job," he said, "… to begin the conversation, to bring people together over issues that matter, to share stories, to employ words, poetry to engage the larger CSM community … in terms of how we give back to the region, that's what we've been doing through the Connections series and the literary magazine for years."
In addition to the Connections readings by Shockley and Benjamin, the Connections Magazine is soliciting submissions. The magazine is a regional literary journal published twice a year that features poems, stories, artwork and photography of Southern Maryland residents. A reading by contributors to the magazine will take place at 7:30 p.m., Dec. 2 on the La Plata Campus Center for Business and Industry (BI) Building, Rooms 103/104 at 8730 Mitchell Road, La Plata. The event is free. Another reading will be held in May. To be considered for fall 2016's issue, the deadline for submissions is Oct. 31.
Since 1990, the Connections program has featured writers such as National Book Award winners Tim O'Brien and Robert Stone, Pulitzer Prize winning poets Yusef Komunyakaa and Henry Taylor, and Maryland Poet Laureates Lucille Clifton and Michael Glaser. Connections readings offer the Southern Maryland community a chance to hear from and meet established and emerging writers up close and personal.
Shockley's reading is sponsored in part by a grant from the Arts Council of Calvert County and the Maryland State Arts Council. Benjamin's reading is sponsored in part by a grant from the St. Mary's County Arts Council and the Maryland State Arts Council.
The spring literary series will include visits to CSM by author Michael Archer on Feb. 17, novelist Sunil Yapa on March 3 and Affrilachian poet Frank X. Walker on April 7.
Tickets for the Shockley and Benjamin readings are $3 in advance at the CSM box office, $5 at the door and $3 with a CSM Student ID. For tickets, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-934-7828.
For information on Connections, study guides and author links, visit www.csmd.edu/connections. Featured books are available at any CSM College Store or online at www.csmd.edu/CollegeStore.