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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

100,000 Poets for Change Comes to Oxford, Visits Schools

On Sept. 24, the master of fine arts poetry program at the University of Mississippi chalked up sidewalks, handed out poems, put broadsides in windows and even hijacked classrooms, all in the name of promoting social, environmental and political change.

The event 100,000 Poets for Change was started by Michael Rothenberg, a Berkeley professor of poetry, as a project to get his poetry students involved in the outside world. Poets for Change now boasts 700 events spread over 550 cities in 95 countries. Oxford can now be counted among those cities.

Ann Fisher-Wirth, a professor in the MFA creative writing program, acted as the unofficial faculty sponsor. 

“This is the first time that this event exists,” Fisher-Wirth said. “I have taught creative writing for a long time and have done various types of environmental activism and different kinds of social activism, and this is the first time I have been in something that brings the poets together like this.”

The purpose of this event was not only to raise awareness for different causes, Fisher-Wirth said, but also to put the poet, usually an insular artist, out in the public engaging the community.

MFA poetry student Josh Davis helped organize the event.

“My idea is that we wanted poems whose focus was outward rather than inward,” he said. “The point of an event like this is to try and expand that focus.”

The Poets for Change event was held around the world, but MFA students got a head start on the event the day before by infiltrating high school classes and bringing poetry to the students. 

“We went to Oxford High School and crashed and read poems,” Davis said. “It didn’t matter whether or not they were paying attention; standing in a strange place, like a math classroom, is a bizarrely radical thing to do.”

The goal was to make an impact, however minimal, on the students, according to Davis. 

“Even if it wasn’t getting burned on their retinas, they will remember these things,” he said. “That poets are living and breathing people.”

On the day of the event, the poets chalked up the sidewalk around the fountain in front of Bondurant Hall with lines and stanzas of poetry. Many early risers stopped to look at the poems, Fisher-Wirth said.

The Square was also taken over by MFA poets. Southside Gallery had broadsides in its windows with poems written by the students.

However, the plan wasn’t always to bombard Oxford residents and Ole Miss students with poetry. 

In the beginning, ideas were tossed around about having an event at locations like the Powerhouse or Off Square Books. Holding the event at either place didn’t pan out, so the direction of the event changed.

“There are poetry readings that go on all of the time in the Powerhouse and Off Square books and on campus,” Fisher-Wirth said. “There is plenty of that. The deal with that of course is how to get people who don’t ordinarily read poetry to come to our readings. So this is kind of turning that around.”

This being the inaugural event in Oxford, there is talk about future plans for Poets for Change and what could be done to reach more people.

“It became clear to us that we really ought to work hard in future years to get more people involved,” Davis said. “If we had more man- and womanpower, we could achieve more. The private effort is not enough. The public effort is something poets can do.”

from DM by Ross Cabell