Poetry Project Origins

October 2017:  Despite the terrible California fires, and after reminding myself that my 2017 New Year’s resolutions were to be brave, speak up and take chances, I decided to, in fact, take a risk and accept a wonderful opportunity from LCC’s Provost’s office and go to UC Davis for the Imagining America Conference along with three other adventuresome colleagues.

LCC had just become one of the few Community College member institutions of the Imagining America consortium which has this as its amazing mission statement:

“The Imagining America consortium (IA) brings together scholars, artists, designers, humanists, and organizers to imagine, study, and enact a more just and liberatory ‘America’ and world. Working across institutional, disciplinary, and community divides, IA strengthens and promotes public scholarship, cultural organizing, and campus change that inspires collective imagination, knowledge-making, and civic action on pressing public issues. By dreaming and building together in public, IA creates the conditions to shift culture and transform inequitable institutional and societal structures.” https://imaginingamerica.org/about/

The California winds blew in ways that kept the smoke and fires away from the UC Davis campus while other winds pushed me toward choosing one particular conference session that would change my professional and creative life. I continue to appreciate that powerful combination of chance and choice.

For my first IA conference session I attended “Constructing a Community-generated Poem” by Andrew Sullivan, a poet and High School teacher. The session was a wonderful mix of creativity, connection, and potent fertilizer for my own ideas. Andrew showed examples of community-generated poems he had written using responses to questionnaires he had developed.  For example, a beloved teacher at his high school had passed away and as a way to celebrate and mourn this person, Andrew had gathered responses to questions from the students and then crafted a poem of remembrance from those responses.  Another example of a community-generated poem Andrew had written was from gathered responses to an art show. To end the session Andrew asked for volunteers to craft a community-generated poem from the questionnaires he had distributed to all conference participants in our welcome folder. The focus of the questionnaires was “Imagining America” and they were filled with provocative, imaginative questions intended to elicit specific, creative language.  Despite nerves, it was the perfect time for “no one knows me here…” courage 🙂 so I volunteered.

Early morning poets — l to r: Nitya Kimaran, Hilarie Spangler, Anita Lorentzen, Andrew Sullivan, Barb Clauer

We met early in the morning of the last day of the conference, Andrew gave the four volunteers equal but random stacks of returned questionnaires and we set about writing our own stanzas without an overall plan or any direction from Andrew, thankfully.

My handwritten a.m. stanzas

After we had finished, Andrew took all the stanzas and did very little to them beyond finding an “order” and then he read our finished poem titled “Imagining America” at the closing plenary. It was exhilarating.

Link to the full poem titled “Imagining America”


Fall 2017: Let’s try this community-generated thing!

Upon returning to my classes after the Imagining America conference, I was compelled to try some small version of community-generated poetry with my ENGL 201 Introduction to Poetry class. They were game!

I provided the students with very simple prompts around two different subjects: America and Poetry. The prompts were: “America is…” and a charge to attempt an acrostic with the word AMERICA (an acrostic is a poem with each line beginning with each subsequent letter of the given word); and “Poetry is…” and an acrostic with POETRY.

Some example student responses:

America is…prompt:

“America is like the gusts of wind that beat the life from its flags on a stormy night”

“America is like a lake, full of bright fish and rippling anger, slow to change.”

“America is like alternating between a hot tub and a cold lake.  There is no middle ground. You are either inside or outside your comfort zone.”

“America is like a mirage; a beautiful dream to everyone on the outside looking in, and nothing but a muddy puddle of rainwater to the discontent on the inside looking out.”

“America is like an empty beach in calm waters, open to the prospect of development and recreation.”

“America is like a moody teenager always pushing away the adults but still asking for dinner.”

“America is like those who once thought the sun revolved around the Earth.”

AMERICA acrostic:



Everyone no harm




A home for exactly that


Arguably the best country in the world

Mounting medical costs

Every man for himself

Run by white men

Immigration (some restrictions may apply)

Carried on the backs of the marginalized




Meddling in


Regardless of




Poetry is…prompt:

“Poetry is words at your fingertips, screaming to be put on paper.”

“Poetry is another door to be opened, & behind that door its own experiences wait.”

“Poetry is both a flying and flightless bird.”

“Poetry is a park in the walk.”

“Poetry is a cruel mistress sneaking into your dreams…inspiration always gone by morning. Taking flight before you can show anyone the evidence, before you can prove you are the poet you see in your dreams.”

“Poetry is life.  It sounds cliché but clichés are poetry too.”

“Poetry is playing the game. It’s the pawn and sometimes even the excused rules…”

POETRY acrostic:

Playing with words

On a language jungle gym

Everyone involved neglects reality

Time travel is possible

Rhyming rules the rhetoric

Young at heart are those who play


People float through stanzas

Opulence of words

Epigraph for meaning

Though always inexplicable

Rekindle old feelings

Years were lost, but always there


Purposeful &

Opening of the





The Poems:

Below are the two poems I collaged from the students’ responses (it was way too much fun!).  On a day where the students shared some of their own writing, I gave them the poems I had written from their words on a document I titled: “Your Words/My Weaving”:

America Is

America is a contradiction.
Arrogance + ignorance
like those who once thought
the sun revolved around the earth.
A meddling klutz who means well,
but falls in the pool
just dipping its toes in.
A moody teenager pushing
away the adults,
but still asking for dinner.
A pep squad: shouting, shouting, shouting
tossing each other in the air,
smiling through a pulled muscle.

America is the gusting wind
fraying its own flag.
A dog snapping and barking to be loved.
The shock of a cold lake full of bright fish
after a hot tub of rippling anger.
Apathy catcalls empathy.

An illness chokes America,
rectangular like money.
Always open to the prospect
of development,
merchandise everlasting
absolved of accountability.

America is a mirage,
ephemeral as a cloud floating away
blocking the sun even as it evaporates.
Poetry Is

Poetry is a park in the walk
playing with words
on a language jungle gym.
Parades of flying and flightless birds
riding a free breeze
purposefully overlooking
excused rules.

Poetry sneaks into your dreams
through the open door
to gaze upon the poet you are there
and steal the opulence of words
screaming from your fingertips.

Poetry allows reconciliation and yielding,
room to pretend and play with cliché.
Years are lost but always there.
Everyone involved neglects reality,
time travel is possible.


I did not conduct or plan for any formal feedback on this experience – I wish I had!  However, I do have the student reflections on the overall course (ENGL 201 Introduction to Poetry), written on the last day of class. In those, several students wrote about the strong feelings of connection forged through experiencing poetry together. I hope the community-generated poetry experience, specifically, was part of that overall feeling – I know it left me with a lasting connection to this group of students who were game to give this new thing a try with me.

What Did I Learn?

What I learned from this first community-generated poetry experiment was how creative our students are, how quick they are to try something new/collaborative/meaningful, and that I couldn’t keep the creative value (and fun!) of collaging and weaving the poems to myself.  I decided that the next iteration of what was to grow into the LCC Community-Generated Poetry Project had to focus on the students creating and collaging all the language as well as the poems: their words, their ideas, their truths. And so began the next chapter in the story of this project.  Spring 2018 (Inaugural!) LCC Community-Generated Poetry Project