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April is National Poetry Month in the United States. Here's how different poetry organizations across campus are celebrating it.

May 1, 2023

The Spaces in Between: Poetry Month at Cornell

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Inspired by the success of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, National Poetry Month was founded in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets in order to increase teaching, readership and engagement — 27 years later, Cornell students and faculty are finding their own ways to celebrate.

The Department of Literatures in English hosted its semesterly Zalaznick Reading series this spring, inviting poets such as Ross Gay and Victoria Chang to campus. The Romance Studies department hosted a similar event — Sweet Poetry, a poetry reading dedicated to student poems written in other languages. 

Student clubs and organizations also engaged in poetry programming, with writing sessions at Marginalia, an undergraduate poetry organization, and Mango Poetry, as well as cultural events like Asian Diasporas Poetry Coffeehouse.

Mango Poetry is a South Asian poetry collective for undergraduate students across the diaspora, founded by Kareena Dash ’23. 

In establishing this organization, Dash hoped to bridge gaps between Asian American Pacific Islander diaspora students who often feel disconnected from their own cultures and who also may not be fluent in their family’s traditional languages.

“I founded Mango Poetry as a space for AAPI students to work on writing and also to promote the involvement of Asian diaspora students in writing and the arts, because that’s not something [that’s] very visible for us,” Dash said.

On April 16, Mango Poetry and the MulMul collective — a multilingual literary collective founded to center the voices of non-Anglophone students who speak Urdu and other native tongues — hosted Mushaira, a poetry social.  

Mushaira is the traditional Urdu poetic symposium in which poets gather to recite works they wrote, historically in Urdu, and socialize. It has been practiced amongst Urdu speakers across South Asia and for hundreds of years.

At the event, Dash explained how her organization aims to create space and bridge gaps for South Asians at Cornell. 

“Sometimes I feel so out of place, and I wish to express myself… and be immersed in arts and culture but I don’t know how,” Dash said. “The spaces that exist in the South Asian countries where we would have gotten that stratification, they don’t exist here, and so we are the ones responsible for starting those.”

Dash added that poetry can be a powerful tool for bridging cultural gaps and expressing one’s emotions.

“[Poetry] is a form of expression, personal expression, and it’s also an art,” Dash said. “And there [are] different levels of balance between the two and between the subjectivity of expression. … That’s why [poetry is] so powerful — it can express ideas that simple, straightforward language or prose cannot.”

Shehryar Qazi ’24, an international student from Pakistan and member of Mulmul Collective   explained his struggle with finding literary spaces where he felt seen. Qazi recounted an experience speaking at a Pakistani night earlier this year that drove him to help run the collective alongside founder Pareesay Afzal ’24.

“Last semester there was huge, huge, flooding and absolute rampage, particularly [in the] Southern Provinces [of Pakistan],” Qazi said. “Some of the Pakistani grad students held an open mic night at Green Dragon… [which I think is], mostly, a very white space. The brown people there had to assimilate or be legible through some type of white [relatability].”

Qazi said he was one of few South Asian people at the event and was the only one to perform a piece related to his heritage.

The pressure to conform and lack of understanding white spaces, Qazi explained, can severely impact a person’s sense of self and self-expression — which, he said, is why identity-based groups like Mango Poetry and MulMul collective are so vital.

Noor Jehan Ahmad ’26, also an international student from Pakistan, noted a similar struggle with expressing herself poetically in predominantly-white spaces. 

“I’ve been writing since I was nine, and I would go to open mics in Pakistan, and I would not even think about feeling isolated. But the minute I came here, it was only white people-based open mics, and I felt so excruciatingly alone in those,” Ahmad said. “I thought maybe I could change this, maybe I could bring some South Asians into this but… no matter how much they’re trying to be inclusive, there’s just something that it lacks.” 

Ahmad explained that her discomfort in predominantly-white spaces has impacted her ability to express herself. She added that she often feels uncomfortable sharing her poetry with people who do not identify with South Asian cultures, as others may not understand personal and cultural aspects of her poetry.

“There is space in my South Asian roots that [some people] will not understand. And they don’t even take it as something that is fully [in my culture], but something that is an English alternative,” Ahmad said. “But it’s more than that. It’s a diaspora poem. It’s owned by somebody who is struggling with English and their own language at the same time.”

For Prof. Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, literatures in English, poetry is precisely equipped to communicate gaps in language. 

While researching for a poem she was writing about bitterns, a species of marsh-dwelling herons, Van Clief-Stefanon came across an onomatopoeia attempting to describe the birdcall. Yet, after listening to a recording of the actual bird call, Van Clief-Stefanon felt that words had been unable to capture the full nature of it. This word-alluding quality, she explained, is precisely what poetry is capable of encapsulating.

“If you look up the way they spell the sound that a bittern makes, it’s not really [the same as] when you listen to the sound,” Van Clief-Stefanon said. “It’s almost an untranslatable sound, and that for me is poetry — the things that you don’t really have the language for, and the spaces when language fails.” 

For lecturer Elisavét Makridis M.F.A. ’21, poetry has served as a means to connect to her Greek lineage and the dying language of her ancestors. 

“[In my poetry] I work with my ancestors’ endangered tongue — I’m Pontic Greek. I grew up hearing the dialect… I can understand bits and pieces of it,” Makridis said. “I’m interested in reimagining linguistic fluency as a kind of co-locating space between English and my endangered ancestral tongue — triangulating myself and laying bare my relation to like both of those languages and my work.”

Poetry month, Makridis said, serves an important role in spotlighting talented marginalized and diasporic poets that do not normally get the attention they deserve.

“The implication of having devotional time and space to really inundate yourself with poetry [is profound], especially for those who don’t read or know about incredible poets… that write from and through diaspora.” Makridis said. “Black indigenous poets, women of color — they have taught me everything… and having [poetry month] may be a way to shift the attention, the tending, to those writers.”

In Goldwin Smith Hall, members of Marginalia were also finding ways to introspect and connect with each other through poetry this month. 

Marginalia members took part in the ESCAPRIL challenge, created by writer Savannah Brown, in which poets respond to a poetry prompt for each day of April. The club also hosted events for its members, such as poem in your pocket day and ‘blackout poems,’ in which media is partially redacted and existing words form a poem. 

For executive board members Aidan Goldberg ’25, Jared Klein ’25 and Susan Hickey ’26, Marginalia serves to create an accessible undergraduate community around poetry. 

“[After COVID-19] we wanted to create a safe space for poetry where anyone could approach the subject without creating some sort of pretentiousness in our space,” Goldberg said. “We wanted to be accessible to anyone.”

Like many student poets across campus, Klein and Golberg expressed that poetry serves as both an art and a means of connection. 

“Poetry has a freedom that no other writing styles allow,” Klein said. “I think that freedom allows for a lot more range of expression that you might not be able to express in a different kind of written work. And I think that that is something beautiful — something that can be uniting for us and can bring people together.”

Allyson Katz ’26 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].