Creative Voices of Whitman
It is no secret that the Whitman community is one full of passionate people. As a prospective student, I decided to come to Whitman for that reason. Whitties are all really interested in something and they pursue these interests passionately and humbly. Whether meeting environmental activists, artists, nonprofit starters, feminists or musicians, a walk across campus promises encounters with a variety of people who really know a lot about what they love.
Among these passionate people is an incredibly strong culture of creative writers. This culture is fostered through student organizations devoted to the pursuit of literary arts, including blue moon, quarterlife and slam poetry team Almighty Ink. Each year, many Whitman writers submit poetry and prose to campus publications so that they can share their work with other Whitman students. Some of these talented literary artists even work beyond the scope of these campus groups. Creative writing culture may be somewhat of an underground movement, but its members and followers are more active than ever.
One of these creative minds is senior Jonas Myers. Myers is arguably one of the most well-known faces on campus: His involvement in the music department, membership in student band Humans Being and participation in Mr. Whitman have made him and his Buddy Holly glasses a recognizable presence. Writing is one of his many passions. He is currently pursuing writing by completing a novel for his creative thesis in the English department.
Only a small number of students choose to write creative theses each year, and this year Myers is one of five. He has worked on perfecting his style by taking a number of classes fostering fictional writing in the department.
“I signed up for Intro to Creative Writing with [Associate Professor of English] Scott Elliott, who’s now my adviser. I was thrilled to get a chance to finally write what I wanted to write. And then I realized, wait, this is really, really hard. And that only made me want to do it more,” he said.
Courses like the creative writing offerings in the English department allow students like Myers to explore something they weren’t always able to in high school. Many students find opportunities to express themselves creatively only in English classes in elementary and middle school. Ironically enough, when many high school students are overwhelmed with angst and ever-changing emotions, there are rarely any concrete opportunities within a high school curriculum to foster creative expression. Preparing students for Advanced Placement tests and placing emphasis on the perfect essay limits teenage writers in a really important time of development.
Myers recalls some of the difficulties he faced in high school.
“I loved creative writing in elementary and middle school. I would try to write the funniest thing I could to make my friends laugh,” he said. “In high school everything was so focused on working up to the AP tests and writing the formula essay, which, you know, is such crap.”
Having the opportunity to take structured courses about writing and to work with an adviser who has written and published his own novels has helped Myers to become more confident in his own writing. He might even pursue publishing his thesis novel after graduation.
“I really like the idea [of] having guidance from a published novelist … I also recognize that this is my first attempt at a novel. This might have to be a throw-away novel. Like the first waffle.”
Myers is not the first Whitman student to work on a novel while attending school. Alumna Maggie Allen ’12 had two books published before she even graduated. Allen, an environmental studies-sociology major, began work on her first novel after being inspired by a particularly memorable dream in high school. She went on to extend this dream into the creation of a young adult fiction trilogy.
“I actually wrote the first [book] my senior year of high school. It just came from a couple cool dreams I had at night and I wrote them down. I would do that growing up, but these were interesting enough that I was able to write a really long story, long enough to be turned into a short novel,” she said.
Her series revolves around a teenage girl who travels to Africa and is simultaneously caught up in a supernatural world. A boy gets involved, and together they try to figure out how to escape it.
The second novel in the trilogy was released while Allen was a sophomore at Whitman. For Allen, balancing school and writing was often a difficult task. Whitties with many passions sometimes have trouble juggling them between classes and extracurricular activities. Writing was a way for Allen to procrastinate and release her emotions whenever she felt the urge to jot down a plot twist.
“In college, writing often happened when I was avoiding work. Sometimes you get a random inspiration and sneak in a couple paragraphs during class. Really, most of my writing came during the summer and on breaks,” she said.
Her books, “The Return” and “The Revival: Book Two of the Totoboan Trilogy,” are available in the Whitman Bookstore. She is making progress on the third installment, while simultaneously working as an Americorps volunteer in Oregon.
Many Whitties also devote their talents to poetry. Junior Noah Orgish is one of these poets, and he plans to finish a poetry compilation for his thesis in the English Department.
Orgish, a resident assistant in Jewett Hall, has his fair share of excitement. We met in the Jewett main lounge amidst the cries of the men’s lacrosse team outside and the knocking sounds made by lost projectiles against the glass. Because of his RA responsibilities, it is sometimes hard for him to find time to write, but that doesn’t stop him. He explores a variety of interesting and offbeat themes in his work, including that of language as an inefficient means of expression.
“I’ve become very interested in language itself as a tool to express things, and how inadequate it is. But it’s the tool that I still use and feel the most comfortable using,” he said.
His work also fosters his own sense of self. He uses poetry as a medium to explore and enhance his religious background. For Orgish, writing is almost as a religious exercise in itself.
“Judaism also comes into poetry as well, and experiences I’ve had, and thoughts … Poetry has kind of become connected to my Judaism. The act of creative writing feels very Jewish to me. Sometimes I’ll write something that has more explicitly to do with Judaism, but the act of expressing those things feels very Jewish. Sometimes I’ll use Hebrew in my poems,” he said.
Like Myers, Orgish described the creative process as a challenging experience. For him, emotions in a poem are often difficult to convey, especially when words don’t seem adequate.
“It’s definitely hard. I need to work on the revising process, and that is what’s hardest for to me. Getting it to be what I want it to be is sometimes the most frustrating. But that’s also the part that’s the most rewarding.”
Orgish feels that Whitman writers are often fairly quiet about their work, and he’d like to see more discussion and collaboration between them. Viewing Whitman’s writing culture as “underground” is not uncommon. When a new edition of a campus publication is released, many students are surprised to see their peers’ work in print. Just as many Whitties are modest about their academic and personal achievements, many writers don’t speak openly about their creative pursuits, particularly when these pursuits are as personal as poetry.
“Outside of my poetry class, writing isn’t talked about. You see people published in blue moon, and [say], ‘Oh, I didn’t know you wrote.’ I think it would be cool to talk about it more, to work together with someone on your work outside of class,” he said.
Later this year, Orgish’s work will be published in Spillway, a poetry magazine based in Orange County, Calif. After he graduates from Whitman, he plans to continue writing and possibly to explore a career in teaching, but he’s ready to do anything that comes his way.
“I really have no idea what I don’t want to do with my life,” he said.
“Page poetry” like Orgish’s is certainly not the only poetry showcased at Whitman. About a dozen committed students participate in Almighty Ink, Whitman’s renowned slam poetry group.
Sophomore Devyani Gupta is the Almighty Ink president and a poet herself. Although slam poetry is distinct from traditional poetry, she feels that it is important to remember that it’s part of writing culture. She felt impassioned to represent her team, a group of people she obviously cares about.
“I feel like there’s this expectation that poets should all be English majors, or slam poetry is rap, or the reason why it’s not page poetry is that it’s too boisterous. Just because it’s not page poetry, that doesn’t mean it’s not creative writing,” she said.
Many people believe slam poetry is all about hardship and suffering one has endured, presented in a form using the same techniques and vocal patterns and rhythms. Almighty Ink tries to get people to think beyond those classifications by recruiting poets with an incredibly diverse body of work.
“Last year’s president, [alumnus] Elijah Singer ['12], said something I’ll never forget about slam. He said, ‘You stand up on stage, you unload your own personal baggage or the baggage of someone else, [and] then you leave,’” said Gupta.
Because slam poems are performed in front of an audience, the medium makes it difficult for writers to distance themselves from the experiences described in their work. Poets remove all barriers in what can be an extremely emotional and powerful performance on sensitive social and personal issues.
“You don’t have anonymity. Even if I’ve done a poem about a friend, people ask if it’s me,” Gupta said.
At team meetings, the group will use a number of different writing techniques to get thoughts flowing. These can include timed freewrites and team critiques following the presentation of poems. Members try their best to make everyone perform the best work they can perform.
“A lot of times we’ll try to write poems in our meetings where we invent a story that didn’t happen to [us]. It’s easy to write about the baggage. We walk this fine line between nurturing and pestering each other. If you start to disclaim your poem, we’ll scream at you. We’re making each other better, more as a team rather than a club,” said Gupta.
Because other writers on campus rarely do in-person readings of their work, members of Almighty Ink often feel that they are the most visible aspect of writing culture on campus, and there is an element of vulnerability that comes with that feeling. There’s a divide in the page and slam poetry communities, which is unsurprising because poets in each group have vastly different methods of execution. Slam poets often garner more attention from their work because they share it in person with an audience, unlike a writer who is published in blue moon or quarterlife.
“Because the slam poets are there, they become a spectacle. We feel like a spectacle sometimes. There’s a lack of understanding for both sides [at] Whitman as a whole, how they understand page poetry versus slam poetry. It’s like in your face versus underground,” said Gupta.
Still, the slam team has grown significantly in recent years. Almighty Ink has performed not only at campus events, but also at community events, like open microphone nights at the Patisserie and a Planned Parenthood event.
Gupta feels there is something really powerful about watching your peers and friends break away a barrier of civility and politeness to release raw energy and feeling, and that high student attendance at campus events speaks to this. Slam has become a way for creative writing culture to push the boundaries of poetry into the realm of performance art, and it has caught students’ attention.
“We’re really excited the campus has accepted us so much,” she said.