By DONNA URSCHEL
Community colleges are garnering attention these days for a number of reasons: their booming enrollment nationwide, Jill Biden’s devotion as a community-college professor, and even the successful new NBC comedy called “Community.”
On Oct. 21, Poet Laureate Kay Ryan turned another spotlight on community colleges with her announcement of “Poetry for the Mind’s Joy,” her new national poetry project that embraces community colleges through a poetry-writing contest, an online poetry page and the designation of April 1 as National Poetry Day on Community College Campuses.
In her remarks in the Coolidge Auditorium, Ryan proved to be an eloquent advocate of community colleges, which enroll more than 6 million full-time students across the country. Ryan has taught remedial English at community colleges for more than 30 years. She is a faculty member at the College of Marin in Kentfield, Calif.
“I want to say that community colleges are a great, distinguished—ignored, pretty much—American institution, constantly taking people from their communities, enriching them and returning them to the communities,” said Ryan. “If this were farming, I’d call community colleges nitrogen-fixing agents.”
Ryan continued, “I know what’s great, but I don’t know where great comes from. I’m suspicious of our slavish infatuation with great schools and the idea that our next great writer or discoverer is going to spring from them. I’m just sure the chips of greatness are lodged everywhere, pretty evenly, and a whole lot of them are therefore in community colleges and their teachers.”
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington told the audience, “We are very pleased and honored Kay has come up with this wonderful project with community colleges, which serve a truly valuable and uniquely American role in education.”
Billington also commented on the title of Ryan’s project “Poetry for the Mind’s Joy,” which he called “wonderful.” “This is typical of Kay Ryan,” he quipped. “We don’t think of mind and joy often enough together.”
Ryan’s poetry project will be administered in conjunction with the Community College Humanities Association. In January 2010, the association will invite community colleges to conduct poetry contests. The winning poems will be sent to the Library of Congress for display on the poetry page “Poetry for the Mind’s Joy.” The poetry page, which will be launched in early 2010, will be found at www.loc.gov/poetry/.
On April 1, 2010, the National Poetry Day on Community College Campuses will include a video conference of Ryan talking to students and teachers from seven community colleges across the country. The participants will discuss the process of writing poetry. The videoconference will be streamed live to the web, enabling all community colleges to view the discussion.
“We’re delighted that Kay Ryan has initiated this project,” said David Berry, executive director of the Community College Humanities Association. “It is truly extraordinary, because it will reach large numbers of students and will bring those students to the world of poetry. Many of them are already there, but I think it will reach more.”
The evening included a poetry reading by Ryan. Billington, in his introduction of Ryan, called her poems “a reflection of a remarkable person.” He said she was “a person who was lively, with a thoughtful intellect and a quick wit,” and she was “a gentle and gifted observer of the world and its various creatures.”
Billington continued, “Kay’s poems are spare. She once remarked, and I am quoting, ‘an almost empty suitcase, that’s what I want my poems to be.’”
Before Ryan started reading her poems, she paid tribute to her long-time partner Carol Adair, who died of cancer in January 2009. “Carol was a lifetime, full-time community college teacher and an artist at it, and I would say great. She was not obsessed with greatness. She was obsessed with freeing people, being an agent of freedom.
“There isn’t, as we know, a lot of public glory attached to community college teaching. These are teachers in the trenches teaching five courses a semester, working with students however they come,” Ryan said.
“I got the laureateship for my work in poetry. Carol got this whistle,” said Ryan, holding up a whistle on a lanyard. “She got this whistle. It says ‘Carol Adair’ on it, ‘Teacher of the Year.’ This was her prize for being a great teacher.
“Tonight I’d just like to blow this whistle for Carol, and for a myriad of teachers like Carol at community colleges, for their hard work and for the hard-working community colleges across this nation, and for the students of such great promise all over this country in those schools.” Ryan blew the whistle. The audience broke into thunderous applause.
Ryan read 28 poems, from old to new. A book-signing and reception in the Great Hall followed. In March 2010, Ryan’s new book, “The Best of It: New and Selected Poems,” will be published.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.