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Writers@Grinnell goes online “In Search of A Healing Curriculum”


Writers@Grinnell kicked off this semester’s event series, co-produced by Iowa City’s Prairie Lights bookstore, with an intimate and thought-provoking virtual conversation between writers and friends, Gabrielle Calvocoressi and Dean Bakopoulos, titled The Civic Imagination: In Search of A Healing Curriculum.

Bakopoulos is a Grinnell English professor and the director of the Writers@Grinnell program with Professor Alissa Nutting, English. Calvocoressi, winner of the 2018 Audre Lourde prize for Lesbian Poetry and author of three books of poems, is a professor of Creative Writing at UNC Chapel Hill. Calvocoressi met Bakopolous a decade ago when they both started teaching at the Warren Wilson MFA program in North Carolina. Last week’s event, held over the video conferencing application Zoom, made obvious their close friendship formed around writing and its teaching.

The webinar began with energized chatter. Calvocoressi and Bakopoulos discussed the melancholic beauty of students waving as they leave class Zoom calls, like disappearing stars, and voiced their excitement for the Golden Girls reboot. As audience members joined the webinar, Calvocoressi then addressed the 134 members of the audience, asking them to describe what they saw outside their window in the Zoom chat. The audience members were included in moments usually reserved for backstage, making a virtual medium that can often feel sterile warm and comfortable.     

As the conversation continued, the fellow writers and educators discussed what it is like to be teaching classes when the world outside of the classroom is changing so rapidly and students are facing a myriad of social, political and personal challenges. The two discussed with admiration the students on Calvocoressi’s UNC campus who removed a confederate statue, as well as voiced their support for professors participating in the scholar strike at University of Michigan.

Bakopoulos then posed a question that has apparently been on his mind for some time, one that he and Calvocoressi had been texting about for the last few months: “Do we really believe that workshopping a poem or a story is speaking to the injustice, the violence, the suffering?”

Calvocoressi paused for a moment, and then replied: “My job … is teaching students how to think about making choices, how to look at the world from every single different angle, how to take in the details of their everyday life.” They asserted that teaching “students to take a walk every single day would be much more important to [them] than having them learn to memorize a poem.”

Both Calvocoressi and Bakopoulos, in this way, stressed the rigorous compassion they attempt to bring to their classroom, providing a space for students to think deeply and feel strongly.

Calvocoressi also read one of their poems, “Hammond B3 Organ Cistern,” which describes in bright joyful detail a day without suicidal thoughts:

It’s like being / in the armpit of a Hammond B3 organ. / Just reeks of gratitude and funk. / The funk of ages. I am not going to ruin / my love’s life today. 

While Zoom Webinars make clapping ineffective, the thoughtful silence shared between Bakopoulos and Calvocoressi following the poem, as well as the comments of appreciation in the chat, felt pregnant with the desire to hoot and holler, and perhaps even share a hug.

Bakopoulos told The S&B that the intimate, conversational nature of this last event was not by accident, commenting that for “anyone engaged with the world it is a lonely time.” In putting together the program, he wanted to highlight friendship and solidarity among writers, and also friendship in general. When institutional and governmental bureaucracies are falling us, Bakopoulos said he believes that one thing we can do is nurture “friendship among people who care, among creative people, among engaged people.”

Grinnellians will have access to many more intimate conversations like this one in the upcoming semester. Writers and close friends Hieu Minh Nguyen and Angel Nafis will be virtually visiting on Sept. 17. Jenny Zhang will be speaking with her friend and Writers@Grinnell program coordinator Nutting on Sept. 29. During Fall Term 2, Dean Bakopoulos has even planned to interview his own sister, Natalie Bakopoulos, who published a novel this past July.

To attend these Zoom events, you must register on Prairie Light’s website, this semester’s Writers@Grinnell partner organization. This collaboration also allows audience members to purchase the visiting authors’ books from an independent bookseller. Writers@Grinnell also hosted a WebEx roundtable with Calvocoressi, and will do the same for future visiting authors, to provide an informal space open only to the Grinnell College community.

Bakopoulos said that his goals for Writers@Grinnell this semester were to make virtual events as good as they could be and to pay writers the same amount as he would have if they were coming to campus. Planning this semester’s lineup Bakopoulos was particularly focused on inviting writers who do not hold academic positions, and whose income is reliant on events that have now been canceled due to the pandemic.

Writers@Grinnell is able to continue supporting the literary community because of endowed funds from alumni that are earmarked for literary events. During the pandemic, an anonymous donor gave the program 10,000 dollars to help transition its events to an online format. This endowment has allowed Bakopoulos to invite even more writers than usual, with Zoom conversations and WebEx roundtables occurring each week.

Although the format of this event series is casual and friendly, Bakopoulos said that they will not shy away from the inequality and racism of this moment. In the six months since the last Writers@Grinnell event held on campus, a global pandemic has arisen and activism against police brutality has sparked a major cultural reckoning with racial injustice. Not to mention, the November 3rd election is quickly approaching.

Do we really believe that workshopping a poem or a story is speaking to the injustice, the violence, the suffering? – Dean Bakopoulos

“These events aren’t going to change a ton of minds,” said Bakopoulos. “It’s not like people who are okay with a descent into fascism are going to go to an event and change their mind, but I hope it sustains people that are fighting.”

“It’s this huge unknown that I think is starting to feel like its contributing to that ambient anxiety we are all feeling,” reflected Bakopoulos. “So, I want to make sure that we have spaces to gather.”

For the foreseeable future, that space will be a Zoom webinar, made intimate by the friendship of writers as they discuss the personal and the political.

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