This academic year, I’ve enjoyed attending several of our public programming events – poetry readings, exhibition openings, symposiums. At each event, I’ve been thrilled to see the room at or near capacity and to converse with people who tell me how much the work we do means to them.
During these events, it’s obvious that Library programs and MARBL’s holdings are not just wonderful collections for their own sake but they serve as a way of engaging community both within Emory as well as Atlanta and far beyond. In some ways, these events are a reaffirmation for me. We have a goal of engaging the community, and this is one way you get to see that happening.
At the Art, Artists, and Archives symposium on Nov. 3, we announced the addition of two collections, from the late African American artist John Biggers and the late art collector Paul Jones. The room was filled with friends of the Libraries, donors, and members of the community. I had the opportunity to talk with many people, some of whom likely had not attended one of our public events before, such as Atlanta-area art collector James W. Jackson.
Prior to that event, James might have had little reason to engage with the Emory Libraries, other than his interest in the Billops-Hatch art collection. He told me he was a fan of John Biggers and admired his work. He was glad to see the Biggers papers come to Emory, and he clearly was touched by how serious we are about collecting the works and papers of African American artists and literary figures, as well as our commitment to sharing those resources through our public programs with the community.
When people see that there’s a sincere effort to curate, to exhibit, to offer programs contextualizing our collections in ways that are constructive, respectful and engaging, that’s when you see how it affects people. They’re excited, and it’s deeply moving to hear how our efforts have personally touched them.
The opening reception for the “Shadows of the Sun” exhibition on Sept. 27 was another successful event that stands out in my mind. I had the chance to speak to several faculty members about our shared areas of interest in the library, and I noticed many students and community members examining the exhibition. I was pleased to see the number of library staff who stayed after work to attend the opening reception – it was really nice to see both staff and faculty enjoying themselves and appreciating the exhibition.
Several of our resident faculty-poets attended as well. As you know, we are very fortunate to have some spectacular poets on our faculty. Natasha Trethewey is already a Pulitzer Prize winner, and she recently was named Mississippi’s poet laureate. Kevin Young has been widely recognized for his extraordinary work, and he’s done a spectacular job with the variety and stature of the poets he’s brought to the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library Reading Series.
Reflecting on the caliber of poets (both visiting and on our faculty), and the turnout at the readings we host, as well as other poetry readings that happen across campus, you can see how Emory has become an epicenter of poetry and poets in the South. (We even have several poets among our staff; check out the After Hours profile on Karen Garrabrant.)
I think that status comes from a convergence of several things: a city whose residents show an appreciation for poetry and poets; Emory’s talented faculty and their ability to bring in outstanding visiting poets on the national radar who can fill a room; our remarkable library staff who are deeply engaged in enabling the many dimensions required to make these collections come alive, and the raw materials of our own special collections filled with drafts and other personal items of poets, from Phillis Wheatley to D.A. Powell.
There’s really something special going on right now in Atlanta when 75,000 people turn out for the Decatur Book Festival, and when 800 people come to hear Mary Oliver on a beautiful Sunday afternoon last January, and another 1,100 turn out this past weekend to hear Billy Collins. There’s something extraordinary going on in this city, both out in the community and in the programs we offer here. As our featured guest poets have said, there are not a lot of places in the country where this kind of response would happen.
This hasn’t suddenly occurred; we’ve been a leader in this arena for years. Since 2005, the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library Reading Series has brought such acclaimed poets as Mary Oliver, Robert Pinsky, Elizabeth Alexander, Rita Dove, Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton to Emory to read for the community. I also think back to A Fine Excess, a three-day poetry event we had in 2008 when we brought Pulitzer Prize winning poets such as W.D. Snodgrass, Mark Strand, Richard Wilbur and other award-winning poets to Emory.
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