Poetry at Bennington: Expanding the College’s Literary Network
A generous gift to endow Poetry at Bennington extends the College’s literary legacy
Bennington has, in its 86-year history, been a place for continuous experimentation and creation in the world of arts and letters. In the 1930s, Bennington was where modern dance was born. In the 1940s, Bennington was a laboratory for radical new ideas in the social sciences. In the 1950s and 1960s, the campus was one of the centers for the New American art movement. And from its very first days, Bennington has been a home to some of our nation’s most compelling and renowned poets and writers. It is this literary legacy that drew Henry Dale Smith, Jr. and Deborah Klang Smith, parents of a 2005 graduate, to make a gift seven years ago to establish a new program called Poetry at Bennington. This program has enabled the College to bring new and established poets to campus and deepen Bennington’s reputation in the world of letters. In December, the Smiths made another significant gift to fully endow the program. “The Smiths’ incredible generosity in first creating—and now endowing— Poetry at Bennington allows us to build on both Bennington’s extraordinary literary tradition and its distinctive pedagogy, centered on the relationship between reading and writing,” said Isabel Roche, provost and dean of the College.
The Smiths were inspired to give, naturally, by poetry. Specifically, the last stanza of a poem by Wisława Szymborska, “Some People Like Poetry,”:
Poetry— but what is poetry anyway? More than one rickety answer has tumbled since that question first was raised. But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that like a redemptive handrail.
Said the Smiths: “Wislawa Szymborska expresses so well the feeling that led us to make the gift to endow Poetry at Bennington. At Bennington there is recognition and appreciation of the power of ‘not knowing’ to spur continued exploration. We believe firmly that the world needs more Bennington— and we are delighted to make this gift to ensure that generations of students have the opportunity to explore in this way.”
Since 2012, the program has brought more than 65 poets to campus. The guest list is expansive and impressive, drawing to it poet laureates, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners, as well as MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award” fellows. Poets come to campus to participate in a series of intimate, multi-day residencies that have them working closely with students—and many leave with connections to students that live long beyond the visit.
The operative and key phrase, says Director of Poetry at Bennington Michael Dumanis, is working closely. “The one-on-one meetings and public Q&A sessions humanize our visiting writers, because students can ask them anything,” said Dumanis. “We want our students to imagine what is possible and that includes how they can have an active writing practice.”
These close encounters include meals with poets, many of whom, such as former State Poet Laureate Marie Howe, are known equal parts for their work and the mystique of their internal lives. Understanding this is a felt experience, one that students more deeply grasp with each meeting. One student describes such an encounter for the Literary Bennington blog, following her lunch with Howe.
“Later, Howe speaks openly about the sources for her poems, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, she tells us that she borrows heavily from her own life—a scene with her niece in a Wegman’s parking lot, or her own issues with a plumber. This is the substance that our lives are made of, so why shouldn’t a poem be cut from the same cloth? She disperses bits of advice for the poets in the audience, all still eating their sandwiches.”
The vision for the program initially began with former Poetry at Bennington director, poet, and now Director of the Master of Fine Arts in Writing program, Mark Wunderlich. He hoped to use the initial four-year commitment made by the Smiths in 2012 to develop an incubator for new literary talent. Wunderlich aimed to make this incubator one that would have as its foundation the fact that poetry is not just a craft, but also a career. So while the conversations, readings, and mini-residencies focus a great deal on the text, they are balanced with a view of what the working life of the page looks like and what it could be. To get to that place though, readings by prominent poets would not be enough. Students and poets would need to be more closely connected, more profoundly in the conversation than out of it.
At Bennington there is recognition and appreciation of the power of ‘not knowing’ to spur continued exploration. We believe firmly that the world needs more Bennington— and we are delighted to make this gift to ensure that generations of students have the opportunity to explore in this way.
And that structure has given way to what has become more akin to mentorships. For many students, this contact lives beyond campus. The visiting poets not only maintain contact and have advised students about where to try publishing their work and encouraged them to apply to highly selective graduate programs. Ever since the program began, the number of students applying and gaining entrance into the country’s most selective poetry graduate programs has notably increased. And the impact is evident. Recent literature graduates have gone on to master’s programs at NYU, Brown, Cornell, Warren Wilson—five alone to the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Alumni are publishing books of poetry as well as being included in journals from Boston Review to the Denver Quarterly.
Individual successes abound. Two recent graduates have already gone on to teach poetry—one at Columbia and another at School of the Arts in Philadelphia. One had their poetry featured on NPR. Recent graduates have also won public recognition, from serving as the 2018–19 Margins Fellow of the Asian American Writers Workshop to receiving the 2017 Aliki Perroti and Seth Frank Most Promising Young Poet Award.
While the student and alumni successes speak volumes about the program’s power, Dumanis is often struck by stories of visiting poets’ generosity and willingness to continue mentoring students. “Writing poetry is a lonely practice— you do it alone in your off hours and it is deeply personal. There is a community that forms through these visits,” he says.
Because of the intimacy of the program and the urgency in cultivating the most transformative, illuminating experience possible, Dumanis does not invite poets based on their professional stature alone. Instead he looks to bring poets who have written on the themes and issues in the culture; poets who are likely to give new voice or urgency to conversations of our time.
“During the selection process I ask myself, ‘who would excite students? Who would shift the paradigm?’” Dumanis reports. “We want writers who write in multi-genres. We want writers who have won accolades and those who have published books without a lot of national attention.” Drawing from all sectors of poetry to purposefully create a transformative experience for both the poet and the students has also benefited literature at Bennington broadly. In fact, Poetry at Bennington guests—Alex Dimitrov, Dorothea Lasky, and Monica Youn—have also come to teach at Bennington for a whole term.
National Book Award for Poetry finalist Monica Youn was one of the early Poetry at Bennington visiting poets to be invited to teach as a visiting faculty member in 2013. Youn, who now teaches at Princeton, still returns to campus for readings. For her, it’s about the quality of Bennington’s program and the willingness of its students to give themselves to their work in undistracted ways.
The dedication to studying poetry seriously, coupled with deep work with underrepresented poets and voices, exposes students to a multitude of voices and styles. This, in turn, has made studying poetry at Bennington a highly desirable subject for students from underrepresented backgrounds. A large number of students taking poetry classes are now students of color, students from immigrant backgrounds, and international students.
Because the College is more diverse now than ever before, Dumanis believes the changing campus dynamics inspire an even greater need to recruit unique literary voices. “We aim to bring a culturally varied range of voices,” said Dumanis. “Our program is interested in bringing a real cross section of writers that showcase aesthetic breadth.”
Dumanis is proud of the work Poetry at Bennington has done to advance literature both on campus and across the region and its history of inclusion. In the future, he visualizes the series incorporating poets from different corners of the globe and more writers who translate. “It feels like the Golden Age of poetry,” said Dumanis. “I am interested in making this series feel more global.”
A Sampling of Guest Poets 2012-18
MARY JO BANG
DON MEE CHOI
ROBIN COSTE LEWIS
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN
CATHY PARK HONG
MAI DER VANG