Dr. Ewing’s “Poetry in Context: An Encuentro” and Following “Third Encuentro” Prompt Students to Consider the Social Function of Poetry

At 4:15pm this past Wednesday, Dr. Eve Ewing, a Chicago native, social activist, visual artist, self-proclaimed afrofuturist, poet, and educational sociologist at the University of Chicago, spoke to a fully packed Scheuer room full of Swarthmore students, faculty and staff. She read several poems from her recently published poetry book, Electric Arches, “an imaginative exploration of black girlhood and womanhood through poetry, visual art, and narrative prose.” Throughout the reading and lecture, Dr. Ewing invited the audience to engage with contemporary poetry as a form of social activism, social commentary, and creative resistance.

Dr. Ewing was brought to campus for the event, “Poetry in Context: An Encuentro.” The event was organized by Professor Edwin Mayorga, of Swarthmore’s Educational Studies department, and Meghan Kelly ‘18, who was awarded the Andrew K. Mellon Foundation grant from the President’s Office in order to execute the event. Dr. Ewing’s visit was comprised of a series of three events, which Mayorga called “encuentros.” The “First Encuentro” was the reading Dr. Ewing gave on campus, while the “Second Encuentro” was another reading she gave later that evening at a local comic book store. The “Third Encuentro,” and final event in the series, was a poetry workshop inspired by Eve Ewing’s work lead by Alexis Riddick ‘20 and Leslie Moreaux ‘20, co-presidents of OASIS, which took place this past Tuesday, March 6th.

The reading and lecture, which served as the "First Encuentro," was somewhat nontraditional in form. Prior to reciting her poems, Dr. Ewing contextualized them, explaining their cultural, social, political, economic, and historical significance. Throughout the reading, she continued to emphasize the ways in which her sociological research informs her poetry and vice versa. Before reciting her poem, “July, July,” Dr. Ewing discussed the inspiration for the poem, a major heat wave occurring in Chicago in the 90s that resulted in death disproportionately impacting low income communities of color, calling attention to environmental racism.

All of the poems Dr. Ewing recited dealt in some way with themes of racism, racial identity, sexism, social and political issues, and their intersections. The first poem she recited, “Horror Movie Pitch,” published in the online literary magazine, The Rumpus, explored the potential social chaos and fear that could ensue if all black women possessed the “superpower” of invisibility. Another poem she read, “I saw Emmett Till This Week at the Grocery Store,” explores the imagined possibility of Till’s adult life, had he not been murdered. Dr. Ewing’s final poem of the reading, “Arrival Day,” was inspired by a quote from Assata Shakur: “Black Revolutionaries do not drop from the moon. We are created by our conditions.”  The poem, Dr. Ewing indicated, imagines the possibility of black revolutionaries, indeed, dropping from the moon. The conclusion of this final poem was met with thunderous applause from attendees. Following the reading, Dr. Ewing signed various books, notebooks, and other items for those who attended.

It was Professor Mayorga’s idea to invite Dr. Ewing to campus. He had known Ewing from years ago through educational advocacy work in Chicago, IL. Mayorga commits himself to bringing one or two speakers to campus per year, focusing especially, he says, on people of color, women of color and gender non-conforming people of color. He offers that he is committed to bringing “the kinds of voices that are still absent in many ways on our campus. Not to make a spectacle of them but to really center their voices and present an alternative view of what’s really possible here.” He also notes that these voices are here on campus already: “It’s just that they aren’t always visible. For me it’s really about making those voices visible.”

Mayorga hopes that bringing these speakers to campus will create spaces that “force the community to stretch; intellectually, spiritually, culturally, in ways that I am not sure everyone understands that the college and the campus and community are really able to.”

Professor Mayorga’s response to the "First Encuentro," the lecture and reading, was, “Damn!” he continued, “Her [Dr. Ewing’s] presence is warm and inviting but I feel as though her words, at least for me, strike me down to the bone. I hear the pain I hear the suffering I also hear like.. the freedom, I hear the possibilities.”

This is the exact feeling that Mayorga says he experienced while attending the “Third Encuentro,” a poetry workshop inspired by Ewing’s work held on Tuesday at 4:15pm in the Big Room of the Intercultural Center.

Led by Alexis Riddick and Leslie Moreaux, the workshop provided a space for students and faculty alike to delve deeper into Dr. Ewing’s work, exploring themes of memory, childhood, environment and imagination. In discussion, attendees offered their personal experiences and thoughts and worked together to contextualize them within a social justice lens. One of the highlights of the workshop was the creation of collaborative poems, poems that included lines from at least six different people compiled into one narrative around the theme “social justice and poetry.”

“We often don't have the opportunity to work with other people on creative projects on this campus, so I particularly enjoyed the collective poetry writing exercise in this workshop. The final piece with everyone’s different hand writings became really special. It was fascinating to hear how my lines interact with other lines in unexpected ways when hearing people in my group share one of our collective poetries,” says Maisie Yixuon Luo, ‘19, who attended the workshop.

She continues, “(Re)hearing two of Ewing’s poems later in the workshop encouraged me to see the potential of imagination and to speak up for my own stories and identities through forms of art. The experience was inspiring to me as an artist.”

Sydnie Schwartz, ‘20, who also attended the workshop, says that “listening to Ewing's poems today made my own memories resurface, and it's important to stir your insides often so they don't stay all packed away. When they resurface, it feels like a reminder of who I am and how my imaginations and memories manage self. Being in a creative space and just taking in the poems that Leslie and Alexis selected was filling and made me realize I can't just spend my time doing work or relaxing. The workshop reminded me to intentionally engage with others through creation as a form of self-care and reflection.”

The poetry workshop was an opportunity to look at and engage with difficult parts of life, rough edges and unfinished stories; things that, according to Mayorga, “Eve unapologetically looks at.” He continues, “[Ewing] does the really important work of imagining that there is something else, that there has to be something else.”