Project Poet Underway

Release Date: 10/23/2009

Clarksville, Ark. --- To quote Glade Byron Addams, "Poets are like magicians, searching for magical phrases to pull rabbits out of people's souls."

Rabbits have begun popping out regularly at 9:30 on Tuesday nights with this year's 4th annual Project Poet, held in the Black Box Theatre in the Walton Fine Arts Center.

Like television's "Project Runway," there is one winner each week, chosen by a rotating panel of three judges, with the overall audience choice counting as a fourth "vote." The weekly winner gains automatic immunity from being voted off the following week, and with each passing week more and more poets will go "out of print" at evening's end, until finally there are only the top three winners – first, second, and third place. And there's cash involved: The first place winner will receive a check for $500, the runner-up gets $250 (along with a Chicago Cubs t-shirt), and the third place poet receives $100 for his or her efforts.

Each week presents fresh challenges, with poets given specific rules or limitations for the subject or form of their verse. In the second week, for example, poets were asked to produce works based on an historical or pop cultural figure, placed in an unusual situation, as well as a list poem (also known as "catalog verse"), which is a poem comprised of a list of persons, places, things, or abstract ideas which share a common denominator.

"Young poets tend to get in a rut," says Dr. Strain. "They find their schtick, they fall in love with it, and everything they write sounds the same. Forcing them to explore forms they don't know, themes they haven't considered, styles they haven't mastered, expands their range and, we hope, helps them to discover different voices. In my view, it's the truly educative portion of the entire experience."

Robyn Crow, the first week's winner, is enthusiastic about the competition. "I really enjoyed it. Looking out in the audience, I saw all sorts of people; I loved the diversity of it all. And I think all of the contestants would say they were encouraged by the positive energy that was there. I didn't know if I was going to win; I was hoping just to make it to the next round. After they had called all but one of the returning contestants, I was prepared for the worst, but I'm very flattered and really glad to move on. I can’t wait to see what the other poets are up to for next week."

Robyn says sharing her work is one of the most important aspects of Project Poet. "It’s great to be able to share your work, but even greater when someone comes up the following week and says they really enjoyed or identified with your poem. I think that’s what it's all about -- the common human experience that poetry seems to capture."

Jack Rossmaier, who won the second round, says the competition helps him prioritize his work. "Probably the clearest effect the competition has on my writing at the moment is that it keeps me writing at all. I certainly love to write, but when so much of my week is occupied by school and work, it can be difficult to find the time. Involving myself in Project Poet forces me to make the time. Also, the kinds of challenges that issue from the horrifying mind of Dr. Strain often result in my writing on subjects and in styles that I otherwise wouldn’t have gone near."

He adds, "As for the competition itself, I think it's brilliant. I'm very encouraged by the kind of response it gets from the campus. Even if someone just shows up for the convo, I honestly feel like there's an opportunity every week for him to be moved by something, anything that takes place in competition that night, and for him to walk away with something unexpected and worthwhile. Whatever content or form the poems might have, there's something powerful in a group of people gathering to perform their original work for an audience, and for that audience to have their input in the competition as well. There's a nice sort of connection that happens. Oh, something else I failed to mention. It’s a whole lot of fun."

Dr. Kendrick Prewitt, who is hosting this year's series, adds, "The point of the challenges is, first, to challenge them, and second, to get all the contestants writing some sort of comparable poems, which helps in evaluating the results."

Zyanya Sanchez, a repeat contender, says, "It's fierce. It's very unique to hear everyone express themselves in such a way. It pushes me to think twice about what I say. My motivation? It isn't the money that motivates me – the fact they challenge you, you can throw your ideas and creativity out there. I think it motivates us all."