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Sharing a passion for poetry

By Lara Palmquist '13
September 5, 2012

Members of the Poetry Honor House include (from left, starting with top left) Thomas Churchill '14, (bottom left) Tommy Dolan '14, Brody Halverson '14, Paul Berg '14, Jon Erik Haines '14, Braden Larson '13, Tim Patton '14, and John-Michael Verrall '14. House members not pictured include Patrick McWilliams '14, Rob Ayers '14, Isaac Rysdahl '14, and Ben Van Howe '13.

Author Salman Rushdie once said a poet's work is "to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and to stop it from going to sleep."

And this is exactly what Jon Erik Haines '14 hopes the new St. Olaf College Poetry Honor House will accomplish.

The idea for the house began with 12 St. Olaf students who have a passion for poetry. After spending late nights swapping favorite poems and continuing philosophical discussions started in the college's Great Conversation program, the group of friends realized that poetry is an effective means of exploring otherwise complex ideas. They soon began to discuss the possibility of an honor house with a poetic theme.

"We envision the Poetry House as a place where diverse individuality is appreciated, creative expression is encouraged, and thought-provoking questions are embraced," says Haines.

Campus and community connections
Each year St. Olaf students can apply to live in one of 18 on-campus honor houses. Following a competitive application process — author and humorist Garrison Keillor, for instance, wrote a recommendation for the Poetry House — these houses are granted to select groups of students who assume responsibility for activities and programs that support the college community.

While each honor house maintains a unique theme (others include sustainability and global awareness), they share the common mission of providing the student body with connections, services, and education that may otherwise be unavailable. The honor houses also provide their residents with a focused environment from which they can pursue a deeper involvement with others who share similar interests.

Fostering community will be a large part of what the Poetry House strives to achieve in the upcoming year. Members hope the house — located south of Regents Hall of Natural and Mathematical Sciences and near Norway Valley — will provide students with a gathering place to transform academic and social stress into creative energy.

"The Poetry House will serve as a reminder for students to slow down and contemplate life's incredible beauty, brevity, complexity, and their own direction in it, and to do so together, as a real community," says Rob Ayers '14, one of the house's presidents. "We believe that sharing poetry pushes the individual toward all of these things, and does so while providing great enjoyment."

The Poetry House will host a variety of events throughout the year, ranging from Shakespeare Nights and poetry slams to acoustic concerts and theater performances. The residents also plan to maintain an ongoing literary blog and radio show, and hope to partner with other St. Olaf organizations for certain activities. In addition, the house will maintain a space for students to display artwork and participate in open-mic nights.

"If St.Olaf students want a venue to show off their talent, this is the place," says Isaac Rysdahl '14, a founder of the house.

The Poetry House will also reach out to the Northfield community. The group plans to host sessions twice a month at the public library that will encourage poetic and artistic expression for local youth, and members of the house will partner with the Northfield Youth Union to offer a writing workshop for teenagers.

The potential of poetry
Associate Professor of English Colin Wells will serve as a faculty advisor throughout the year for the house, while also serving as an avenue for the group to collaborate with the English Department on hosting special events.

Incorporating faculty is part of the design of the Poetry House, where the residents hope to provide a gathering place for students and professors to engage in discussion beyond standard classroom interactions and coursework.

"The majors of the residents in the house vary from sociology to chemistry to English to music," notes Poetry House member Patrick McWilliams '14. "All of us have developed close relationships with the professors in our respective departments and would love to have them participate in the goals of the house."

The Poetry House offers a promising future of exciting dialogue, personal exploration, and creative inspiration for both on- and off-campus communities. "Through the Poetry House, our fellow Oles and Northfield neighbors can celebrate life and the human spirit and come to see each moment through the careful, articulate, questioning eyes of a poet," says Ayers.

The residents hope that what the Poetry House accomplishes in its pilot year will provide a strong foundation for the project to continue in the future.

"The Poetry House fills an important need for the St. Olaf community," says Haines. "I hope this can be the first year of a powerful St. Olaf tradition."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or