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You Don’t Have to Be Shakespeare: Write a Poem with U of T’s Poet in Community

“Poetry is a response to the world, whatever is the clearest most direct and urgent response possible at the moment. Everything feeds poetry whether it’s something you say to your neighbour or something you write on a piece of paper.”

-Ronna Bloom, University of Toronto’s Poet In Community

Sometimes there is an event or an occurrence that really affects us. And we don’t always know why. It can be irrational, like a surge of self-righteous anger after an imagined slight from a friend; or a random experience of happiness at the sight of a beautiful thing normally overlooked. And how do you explain, or even understand this kind of occurrence? Imagine chatting to a friend about how you feel that you’ve reached some kind of emotional truth by watching the early morning sunlight filter through the trees. Your friend is more likely to look at you oddly and ask if you’re sure you didn’t take too much cold medicine before going to sleep last night than to understand and appreciate the emotional significance of your experience.

According to Ronna Bloom this is the purpose of poetry: to express that which cannot be otherwise articulated. As University of Toronto’s Poet in Community since 2008, she believes that the importance of poetry is not necessarily related to the strict, analytical approach of academia. Basically, you don’t have to be Shakespeare to have the ability to express yourself through poetry.

The Poet in Community program is rather unique in scope: Bloom works with Hart House and the Multi-Faith Centre, as well as with various academic departments and faculties to create unique poetry workshops that range from “The Spontaneous Poetry Booth” that was hosted at both Hart House and the Academic Success Centre to a workshop called “The Four Truths: Writing as a Spiritual Practice” that was hosted by the Multi-Faith Centre.

A writing workshop that took place at Hart House called "A Writer's Process."

A writing workshop that took place at Hart House called "A Writer's Process." Photo courtesy of Ronna Bloom.

I spoke with one student, Desmond Watts, who helped organize the programming at the Multi-Faith Centre with Bloom and has participated in quite a few workshops. In general, programming can range from a one-off event to a four-week long workshop with one hour-long session each week. Events and workshops are always free. Desmond explains that at the Multi-Faith workshops there were generally around 15 people in attendance. Bloom will introduce a topic or a prompt, and attendees are given some time to write down something on the page. There are a few rules, the most important of which being: in the allotted time period you’re never allowed to stop writing. Once the time is up there is an opportunity to share your work, but you don’t have to.

“It’s really good sometimes to just stop thinking and write,” Desmond says, explaining that it’s also a really unique way to get to know people. “What you’ve written isn’t that polished image that you show to the world. I can walk by someone from the workshop on the street and say ‘hey’, but it’s cool because you still feel like you still know them differently than even their best friends might.”

To me, this all sounds completely terrifying. Taking a topic and writing in a completely uncensored stream-of-consciousness style is fairly alien to me, even though I’ve written my fair share of essays, articles, short stories and poems. (And blog posts!) I’m not sure if I could share something I’d written about a deeply personal experience without obsessing over my comma usage for at least two hours.

But, then again, there’s also something liberating about the idea of sitting down and writing without having to worry about the consequences. As my fellow humanities students will know, you don’t ever write into a vacuum. Every paper that you write will be judged, graded and qualified. It can be hard sometimes to get any words out onto the page at all without imagining some kind of ghastly editor hovering over you with spectacles and a giant red pen. (Which, incidentally, is the plot of one of my recurring stress dreams.) And these workshops aren’t a classroom, nor are your fellow attendees editors. You’re able to work and to learn, but you don’t have to worry about the dreaded red pen.

The program will continue in September with plans for 12 workshops that will be open to anyone in the university community. The first planned series is “Where Desire Meets Spirit” starting September 28th at the Multi-Faith Centre.