Pulling in a taste of culture to an isolated small town often falls on the shoulders of the local community college. It can be a daunting task, as obstacles like funding and resources arise.
But Central Lakes College – a community and technical school serving about 6,000 students per year – is bringing a taste of exceptional poetry to students, staff and the people of Brainerd, located in the center of Minnesota.
It’s through a program called Verse Like Water.
In its third year, the series has brought in eight renowned poets from across the nation to hold readings and a workshop, for the town of 13,500 people. Several of the poets are Pulitzer Prize winners or former U.S. Poet Laureates.
The program is more than just a chance to hear some great poetry, though. It has brought a new dimension to the college, said CLC President Larry Lundblad.
“It shows that the college is really trying to reach out and do some extraordinary things for the students and community,” he said.
It also aligns with one of the strategic directions put out by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, calling upon the schools in the system to provide extraordinary education for students.
Verse Like Water was started by CLC English instructor Jeff Johnson, who, when he came to CLC five years ago, saw the venue as the perfect platform for such a series.
Johnson ran a similar program at his previous teaching job, so he already has some on the contacts and wherewithal.
With the help of literary representatives Blue Flower Arts in New York and The Barclay Agency in California, visiting poets so far include: Billy Collins, Robert Hass, Li-Young Lee, Naomi Shihab-Nye, Richard Blanco, Charles Simic, Tracy K. Smith and Marie Howe.
When the poet flies into Brainerd, Johnson sets them up in his guest home and his English Department colleges come over for a dinner. The next day, Johnson brings the poet to CLC for the reading at noon and a workshop following.
For many people in the audience, it’s their first poetry reading. Johnson has seen newcomers fall in love with the art.
Verse Like Water is an opportunity to open peoples’ heart to poetry, he said.
“There’s nothing like this in Minnesota,” he said. “Poetry is a necessity.”
And it brings a great writer to an unsuspecting place, like central Minnesota, he said.
“There’s a good weirdness to it,” he said.
Parallel to that, Johnson seeks out poets who are “not Brainerd;” the ones who don’t fit the typical stereotype of the surrounding community.
He looks for poets with different backgrounds, religion, beliefs and lifestyles. He looks for those who write on the edge and have a strong body of work behind them.
“I’m trying to show people there are other ways of seeing the world other than our insolated community,” he said.
Sure, there’s a risk in that. But Johnson sees it as an opportunity.
It adds to the culture and artistic scene of Brainerd, he said.
He promotes the reading through TV, radio and newspapers, reaching thousands of people. Some of those who are drawn in to the readings are stepping on the campus for the first time.
There’s a strong appreciate for the arts in central Minnesota, Lundblad said. Verse Like Water fills a void for the Brainerd area and the folks who drive as much as three hours to hear the poets’ reading.
Out of the eight poets to visit the campus so far, Johnson says Hass was the most extraordinary.
“He’s the greatest living American writer,” he said. “There’s no end to his genius.”
Collins, however, was the most popular. The two-time former U.S. Poet Laureate is like “a rock star” in the world of writing, Johnson said.
Bringing in poetry royalty comes as a steep cost. To date, a handful of grants from the Five Wings Arts Council and a $65,500 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board has funded the series.
Johnson is now busy writing grant requests for the upcoming school year. He’s hoping to bring in three or four more poets. One of those is Terrance Hayes, who will hold a reading Oct. 23 at the college.
As Johnson continues his hunt for more unique poets to expose the small community to, he will always tout the pure importance of the art form on campus.
Verse Like Water is part of the poetry legacy he wants to leave at CLC.
“I want it to be part of this college’s fabric indefinitely,” he said.