The Poem Is a Bridge: Poetry@Tech

Thomas Lux

The Spring 2010 commencement ceremony took place in the Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Thomas Lux, professor in the school of Literature, Communication & Culture (LCC)

The Spring 2010 commencement ceremony took place in the Alexander Memorial Coliseum. Thomas Lux, professor in the school of Literature, Communication & Culture (LCC)

It began like this. In the late 1990s, Henry and Margaret Bourne decided to endow a chair in poetry at Georgia Tech “to ensure,” as Dr. Bourne said, “that Georgia Tech students will always have an opportunity for first-rate instruction in the great poetry of the world.” He considered it “especially important that, in the highly specialized and technical areas of engineering, science, and management, students’ aptitudes are nurtured and supported as a foundation for lifelong learning.” Dr. Bourne was an electrical engineering professor at Georgia Tech for many years, was the provost for a while, and served as an interim president in the late 1960s.

At about the same time, unbeknownst to the Bournes, another man, Bruce McEver, also decided to endow a chair in poetry at Tech. He’s a Georgia Tech alum, Navy ROTC, a born and bred Atlantan, CEO of Berkshire Capital, and a poet who has published two full-length collections and a few chapbooks and whose work has been printed in several national literary magazines. His reasons were essentially the same as Henry and Margaret Bourne’s: Georgia Tech is a great university, I want to give something back to it, and poetry—both the reading and writing of it—should be part of the curriculum, an option. Two endowed chairs in poetry: this was new to Georgia Tech. (As far as I know, no other university in the US has two endowed chairs in poetry.) The university didn’t quite know what to do with them.

The making of art (let’s use poetry as an example!) is a task that requires a kind of engineering, a kind of architecture, and very real and complex technical skills. 

I was invited, for one semester only, to inaugurate what came to be called the McEver Visiting Chair in Writing and at the end of that semester was offered the Bourne position. I wrote a mission statement. Here’s part of a paragraph: “I see nothing antithetical in a major university known the world over for its engineering/architecture/computational science/management, and other related subjects of study, also making available to its students writing, literature, and the arts in general. The making of art (let’s use poetry as an example!) is a task that requires a kind of engineering, a kind of architecture, and very real and complex technical skills. Good poems, historically, are made; they don’t flow down the arm of the dreamy poet to the page. Good poems are the result of planning, rigor, attention, intuition, trial and error, discipline, and the luck that sometimes comes when all of the above are applied. A flawless architectural design, an elegant chemical equation, a good poem is supposed to seem simple, spontaneous, fluid. To achieve his or her goals, that precision, that truth, the engineer, the chemist, the architect, the poet usually must work diligently, must sweat blood.”

The making of art (let’s use poetry as an example!) is a task that requires a kind of engineering, a kind of architecture, and very real and complex technical skills. 

In other words, good poems are engineered. When representing Georgia Tech at a function on or off campus, I most often compare the making of a poem to the making of a bridge, which falls under the category of civil engineering. A bridge and a poem. They both make important connections, they have all sorts of things going on inside them that make them stand, they allow us to span the deepest chasms, and the best of them are even beautiful.

Most of the above is from an essay about Poetry@Tech, published in Blueprints (The Poetry Foundation/Univ. of Utah Press, 2011).

Since Poetry@Tech started in the fall of 2002, our main purpose has been to honor the spirit of generosity explicit in the Bourne and McEver endowments. We offer five classes for Tech students each year, two taught by myself each semester, and the other by the visiting McEvers (let’s call them that). This course, taught by three or four different poet/teachers, is one of the most unique writing/literature classes offered anywhere in the country. I teach poetry reading classes and poetry writing workshops.

We serve Tech students first, but we also offer community outreach classes: six all-day classes each spring taught by myself, and the two indispensibles: Ginger Murchison (former Associate Director) and Travis Denton (current Associate Director), the Visiting McEvers, and, this spring, Katie Chaple and David Bottoms (former poet laureate of Georgia). Katie is teaching a year-long community workshop, and David will teach classes at Tech.

We’ve given a class in a retirement home; I’ve been to prisons a few times (but, unlike the students, was allowed to leave after class); and in 2014 we sponsored a workshop at Positive Impact, taught by Teresa Davis who previously was a McEver and is a nationally and internationally known spoken word artist, as well as a highly skilled and experienced teacher. We now sponsor the literary magazine Terminus, already established (tenth issue; average life of a literary journal: three issues) and edited by Travis Denton and Katie Chaple. Each issue will contain poems by all the poets coming to read at Tech in any given year as well as poems, stories, essays, and translations from all over the country and world. I use it as one of my textbooks. We’re working on bringing in Lisa Yazek of LMC as science fiction editor/curator.

We continue to host one of the largest and best-known reading series, not only in the Southeast, but in the country. So far, we have brought approximately 125 poets to Tech from all over America (and several foreign countries) to read their work. In spring of 2014 we had a special reading by a German poet and an Irish poet. In 2015, we plan to bring a Finnish poet and a Vietnamese poet. A full list of all our readers can be found on Poetry@Tech’s website: www.poetry.gatech.edu. In respect for our origins, and because of a great deal of regional literary talent, about a third of these poets (and many of the McEver Professors), live in, and/or are from, Georgia.

Poetry doesn’t need to be defended as part of the curriculum at Georgia Tech. It is part of the curriculum at all great colleges and universities. Georgia Tech is a great University, ergo, it gives its students the opportunity to study poetry and, of course, all forms of literature.

There is another advantage for a student who might take a poetry reading or writing class, if it is taught properly: it’s practical. There is no reading or writing that is more concise, lucid, compressed, and sonorous. Learning the fundamentals of poetry can make one a better listener, and more articulate in every way: any kind of writing, speaking, or imagining.

Onward.

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