This post was written by NCTE member Carrie Conners and guest author Bethany Holmstrom.
Over the last two years at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY, we have embarked upon campus-wide collaborative writing projects to emphasize our shared connection as writers, no matter our discipline, major, or position at the college. We wanted to celebrate the ways that writing is vital to all of our lives through collective efforts.
In the fall of 2019, LaGuardia Community College celebrated the National Day on Writing for the first time. As part of the celebration, students, faculty and staff at the college were asked to respond to the prompt #WhyIWrite on posters across campus, the Library’s “Question of the Week” board, Twitter, or emails sent to Carrie Conners, the event organizer. Conners took the 365 responses and composed, “Why LaGuardia Writes,” a collaborative list poem divided into 33 sections of 11 responses each, in honor of the 11th annual National Day on Writing.
Sections of the poem were read aloud by students at a Writing Open House—students could choose from stations of writing activities, including six-word short stories and surrealist language games—on the day of the celebration and shared with the rest of the college community afterwards.
The responses range from pragmatic (“If I write, I remember more”) to romantic (“To say, ‘I love you,’ to my girlfriend”) to therapeutic (“To heal our scars”) to funny (“For a cramped hand”) to profound (“To remind myself that I have a purpose”). On the posters, people began commenting on other’s comments; those comments and the collaborative poem as a whole demonstrate how writing connects people and has the power to build community.
In October of 2020, LaGuardia had its second annual National Day on Writing celebration. Bethany Holmstrom organized the celebration, and the theme of the collaborative poem was “How Does Writing Keep You Connected?” to reflect distance learning and the power of writing to sustain relationships while physically separated. After gathering responses from over 100 students, faculty, and staff using GoogleForms, Holmstrom stitched together lines and phrases to create five stanzas, loosely clustered around themes.
Even in the midst of a public health crisis, the contributors found solace in writing, saying that it kept them “Sane, whole, and connected to humanity: / grounded, reminding me to breathe / at times when I am not able to.” The actual celebration occurred—like so much else during the pandemic—virtually. At the Zoom celebration readers shared the first five stanzas of the collaborative poem. Celebration attendees were then asked to contribute more thoughts on how writing kept them connected, in the group chat or verbally. A sixth celebration-stanza was created from these contributions, with a final reminder to our community that:
words are my eternal power
though there are many languages
feelings and ideas connect everyone—
a reminder that history is vast
and my griefs and joys join me
to a universe that continues to unfold.
Holmstrom also created a website which features both the 2019 and 2020 poems, as well as readings from LaGuardia’s Creative Writing faculty and alums, video writing workshops led by Creative Writing faculty, and writing prompts to provide students and faculty a toolbox of inspiring writing resources whenever they want to access them. This page features both collaborative poems.
Although these collaborative poems were college-wide projects, faculty at the college have also used them on a smaller scale in their classrooms. As a beginning-of-the-semester ice-breaker, one faculty member shared “Why LaGuardia Writes” with students and had them write and share their own reasons for writing. Another shared “How Does Writing Keep You Connected?” to energize a composition class at the midterm and to encourage them to think about the importance of writing beyond the classroom.
After the college moved to remote learning in March of 2020, Conners used the collaborative writing technique with her Introduction to Creative Writing class to help sustain a sense of class community by creating a poem together. The course emphasizes observational writing, but since the city was the epicenter of the pandemic at the time, most New Yorkers were staying home as much as possible. So the students were asked to write a line about something that they observed from their window to compose the collaborative list poem, “Out the Window I’ve Seen.”
Here are its closing lines:
People trying to live normal lives in abnormal times
A spring that never sprung; the leaden sky wrapped around the Sun like an N95 mask
An empty street filled with the sounds of birds chirping and squirrels scurrying about
A mural with the words Love and Hope graffitied onto it
My Earth, looking back at me.
To read the poem in its entirety, see The LaGuardia Community College Library “COVID-19 Story Project” in its Institutional Archives.
Collaborative writing can build community, across campus, in a traditional classroom setting, or when physically distanced and learning asynchronously. The practice emphasizes that writing is not a solitary, isolated endeavor, and that one of its highest purposes is to help people connect with one another.
Carrie Conners is a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College-CUNY where she teaches composition, creative writing, and literature. Her research focuses on contemporary American poetry, and she is also a poet. Her poetry collection, Luscious Struggle (BrickHouse Books, 2019), was selected as a 2020 Paterson Poetry Prize Finalist.
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