Brooklyn College is a poet’s campus. Walt Whitman’s first known portrait hangs in the Brooklyn College Library. Renowned educators like Julie Agoos, Louis Asekoff, John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, Ben Lerner, and Marjorie Welish have passed the benefit of their poetic genius and skill to generations of eager artists. Award-winning poets like Paul Beatty ’89 M.F.A., Sapphire ’95 M.F.A., Matthew Burgess ’01, Gracie Leavitt ’11, and Ocean Vuong ’12 honed their craft in these classrooms. The college is home to a poetry slam team. And, every semester, the vibrant English Majors’ Open Mic features emerging writers telling stories of the untold beauty—and sometimes, the ugly—that the world has passed on to them.

Students, faculty, alumni, and staff alike are inspired by the importance Brooklyn College has historically placed on the arts. For National Poetry Month, poets from each area of the campus community discuss what inspires them and how they hope to transform the world with their art form.

Jennifer Stella

We fault the not-quite-
Mexico river and salt
balconies. Phoenix
child, the ash will
sink in lemon-like
tubs. Look—your
license. And what a picture. Most learn
to waltz with shattered

Jennifer Stella, Your lapidarium Feels Wrought (Ugly Duckling Presse 2016)

What does a medical doctor have in common with a poet? Is there any similarity between understanding the inner workings of the body and the inner workings of the creative mind? M.F.A. Program in Poetry student Jennifer Stella is probably the best person to ask, since she is both a medical doctor and a poet.

Stella first enrolled in the college’s poetry program in 2011, taking time off from medical school to complete her first year. She returned to the M.F.A. program in 2016 to complete her second year. She currently works as an HIV specialist and primary care physician at Rikers Island, after having recently completed her residency in primary care and social medicine at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx.

“If I reductively address this through my lens as a physician, even medicine is a very small part, a very small factor in ‘health,'” says Stella, who will be graduating from the M.F.A. program this May. “Medicine, at its most basic, is just band-aids, and it’s very rarely ‘life and death.’ The rest of life, which we partly talk about as the social determinants, is more the point, and for most people this includes some sort of art. I’m a primary care physician, which is really about the longitudinal relationships, the stories, and how I can contribute to their enactment and fulfillment. I often compare poetry, both the writing and the reading of, to breathing. And every person, physician or not, I’ve introduced to poetry has found something in it to relate to and appreciate. The truth of the ‘art of medicine’ (it’s not really a science) is that it can learn a lot from poetry.”

Despite the myriad of ways in which her life is already captured by the responsibilities of being a physician, Stella has carved out a moment to publish Your lapidarium Feels Wrought, described by the publisher as “an exhibition of jeweled fragments in the form of language and experience.” Here, Stella’s synthesized background serves as the foundation for her to explore poetic communication.

“I’ve always been involved in both science and writing, understanding the healing power of both. In undergrad, I majored in biology and creative writing/poetry and completed a thesis in each, simultaneously. Since college, I thought I would pursue an M.F.A. at some point, the only question was when. My first mentor in medicine, Rafael Campo, is an HIV doctor and a poet. And I have had many wonderful physician-writer mentors (Louise Aronson and David Watts) who have M.F.A.s, either done in a break during med school or as a low-residency program while working as a physician. I wanted something more immersive than that, and the year between my third and fourth years of med school was the best opportunity.”

Stella will be graduating from Brooklyn College this May and has one goal in mind beyond that.

“To keep writing! Within medical contexts, I’ve done some teaching and curricular design in both med school and this year, for residents, about writing for advocacy and the place of physicians as writers. Several actually wanted to discuss poetry rather than medically-related articles. As my physician-writer mentors have been able to do, I hope to work in places that are supportive of my writing. I don’t see the M.F.A. as an ending, in and of itself.”

Rosamond King

each clump of grass or stone holds heat
(like) every imprint of my wide foot
smiling broadly at no one
look up; look up the view
from there is vast
and you do not know more than any stone.

Rosamond King, Rock | Salt | Stone (Nightboat Books, 2017)

“Poetry can do anything,” said Associate Professor of English Rosamond King. “Poetry can be anything. Poetry can take you inside of someone’s flesh and muscle. It can give you a different perspective: an aerial perspective. It can take you underneath, around, or through.”

King, an award-winning writer, who melds graphic art, performance, and song into poetic form, is preparing to release her latest poetry collection, Rock | Salt | Stone. The book explores the lives of the marginalized, examining the ways in which one can be an outsider, whether it is through the lens of gender, gender identity, sexuality, geographic origin, or immigration status.

On the campus, King serves as both an educator and a mentor to scores of students, investing her creativity into new generations of artists, particularly among those whose voices and works might not be readily acceptable to the mainstream. She previously served as director of the Brooklyn College Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, a program designed to give minority students with a demonstrated commitment to eradicating racial disparities the training and resources to pursue a Ph.D. in a wide variety of fields. She is primarily concerned with instilling a sense of civic awareness and a social justice, giving students the foundation necessary to use their talents, in their own ways, to advocate for positive change.

“Poets, like all human beings, have responsibilities to their communities and societies, and to the human family,” said King, who speaks five languages including French, Spanish, Krio, Wolof, as well as English. “But these are our responsibilities as human beings.”

There is a notion in some circles that poetry has outlived its usefulness, that it is a dead art or one that is strictly vain in its pursuits. King believes this position stems from a lack of education about the transformative, revolutionary power of the poet who chooses to speak truths against all opposition.

“Poetry is alive and relevant everywhere,” she said. “Poets are responding individually and collectively to the wars, conflicts, and crises around the world. There continues to be a standing-room-only crowd at the Nuyorican Poets Café, for instance, and poetry appears as advertisements on New York City subway trains and buses.  It’s ubiquitous to Brooklyn College’s campus as well. We have a popular undergraduate student creative writing journal called The Junction, and a top-ranked M.F.A. Creative Writing Program. And poetry continues to be relevant around the world: When I travel to Africa or the Caribbean and I tell someone I’m a poet, they don’t yawn and they don’t change the subject. They say, ‘Great! Give us a poem.'”

Visit King’s website to learn more about her works as well as her upcoming public appearances.

Tom Haviv

Now, my mind is white
mine of white mine of silver

The un-silvered said: why silver.

the silver was a
way of having specific
strength in reflection – to feel control

Tom Haviv, “Dialogue” from the long poem “Island,” the opening poem sequence of A Flag of No Nation (Kaf Press 2018)

At the center of his being, Tom Haviv ’16 M.F.A. is a poet.

That sensitivity informs each and every part of his life, whether it is his position as adjunct lecturer in the Brooklyn College Department of English, his film making, his teaching and mentoring of students across the borough, or the interrogations into his own history as someone born in Tel Aviv as the child of an Israeli fighter pilot who also wrote poetry, and raised in the Bronx. And for Haviv, poetry is the most suitable space for working out the complications and contradictions of one’s own identity, and for devising the solutions that are evidence of compassion.

“I am compelled by the idea that poetry has a historical responsibility,” Haviv said. “The poet—whether the poet is working with language as such, or other materials like sound, paint, or the body—is a witness to their historical moment, someone who is witnessing the possibility of change and perhaps a guide for changes that happen through their medium.” He added: “My poetry is engaged with the horizon of emerging culture and emerging communities, whether they are families or nations. I’m shaped by the history of my family and its story of displacement, and its experience of several kinds of transformation.”

At the crux of those transformations is a confrontation that Haviv does not wish to avoid: which traditions can or should be embraced and transmitted, and which should or must be altered or laid to rest? His first full-length book of poetry, A Flag of No Nation, which will be released in 2018, sees Haviv wrestling with these ideas of how cultures, peoples, families, communities, and nations form and disintegrate.

“My great-grandmother spoke Ladino (the language of the Sephardic Jews, descendants of the Spanish Inquisition). My grandmother spoke Turkish. My father spoke Hebrew as his first language. And I speak English as my first language. So in four generations, there was no real continuity. There was invention and shift, and the forces of historical calamity and expediency. These things made it impossible to have the sense of coherence that my culture had for hundreds of years prior. So I’m meditating on this, on how culture is altered, or disrupted, by language.”

Haviv credits the Brooklyn College M.F.A. in Poetry Program with giving him the guidance and freedom to explore poetry in on the more experimental side of the spectrum. He also appreciated being able to walk the halls and sit in the same spaces as many of the luminaries of the genre have, and harness that energy for his own accomplishments.

“The faculty told me that there are no rules; that each poet decides for themselves their own territory, that every poet is a territory unto themselves. Being with this handful of incredible artists with incredibly powerful practices, I saw that the more profound the poetry, the more idiosyncratic, and the more fleshed out the idiosyncrasy was. The more I wrote in the poetry program, the more it deepened the question of what is my language, what is my linguistic contingency as a poet.”

To learn more about Tom Haviv’s, and to view his past, present, and upcoming works, please visit his website.

Keisha-Gaye Anderson

sinking into
cemented as fragments
of discontent
in your blood
a war
spelled like your name

Keisha-Gaye Anderson, “Refugee”

Keisha-Gaye Anderson hears voices.

Not in the cryptic sense that one sees in media, for example, signifying a spiraling out of control, and into madness. No, Anderson is communing with something much larger and much older than herself. Something that travels through her veins in what some cultures would call blood memory, back to a time when her mother’s mother’s mother might have chopped sugar cane in a Jamaican field (Anderson was born in Jamaica and emigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was three). It is out of this lineage that Anderson writes, as a healing, as a balm, but also as a call to action and a search for solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. Those muted voices that she seeks to make heard are those of her ancestors. They bring poetic inspiration in dreams and visions, guiding her down a mystical and righteous path.

“Poetry takes the mundane and elevates it, and makes you look at the ordinary and see the ways in which it is extraordinary.” Anderson said.

In addition to serving as the director of news and information in Brooklyn College’s Office of Communications and Marketing, the Syracuse University and City College graduate is still able to fulfill her artistic life as a poet, performing at events, delivering public readings, and leading writing workshops in New York City and beyond. She published her first full-length book of poetry, Gathering the Waters (Jamii Publishing 2014), amidst the great tumult and upheaval in the country relating to police brutality and other forms of institutionalized, social, and systemic racism (all of which informed the current Black Lives Matter movement). Gathering the Waters, which weaves Jamaican patois and African American parlance through some of the poems, seeks to lay out a path to healing by invoking collective memory—in the contexts of race, gender, and culture—to remind people of their intrinsic ability to overcome even the greatest of obstacles.

“The artist’s work,” Anderson said, “is often to interpret the world in which she finds herself, using a lens that holds resonance for her contemporaries. I am particularly concerned with translating and distilling universal experiences in ways that are meaningful and useful to all people, but particularly to the African and Caribbean Diaspora. The use of water as a trope in Gathering the Waters was meant to evoke ancestral wisdom as a cleansing force, clearing the path for self-reinvention, opening the road for actualization of the highest self, and washing away all that no longer serves us.”

Anderson currently has two new poetry manuscripts under review with different publishers. Both collections include her original artwork. She is also in the revision stages of her M.F.A. thesis, a collection of interrelated stories about migration and Caribbean identity. Anderson was recently chosen as an Institute Scholar for the upcoming Writing From the Margins Institute at Bloomfield College in New Jersey. She will be a featured reader at the Queens Literary Festival at the end of April.

Whether poetry, fiction, playwriting, or journalism, the Brooklyn College Department of English offers a full range of creative writing options for artists seeking to develop and hone their skills. For more information, please visit the Department of English website.