As students, faculty and staff slowly return to Thomas Nelson campuses in Hampton and Williamsburg, clubs and activities also are making a return. That includes the Poetry Coffeehouse, monthly open-mic gatherings at each campus.
In spring 2020, the pandemic put a halt to the previous incarnation of the coffeehouse, which was organized by head librarian Bob Harrison, and English professors Tom Rockson and Janice Hoffman. The three realized many students, faculty and staff still love poetry, so they wanted to bring back the gatherings. At the Historic Triangle campus, however, English Professor Richard Dollieslager is the contact new person.
“We know once the kids come out and they realize they have a voice and they’re going to be heard without judgment, they absolutely love it,” Harrison said.
One of the aspects Harrison is most proud of with the coffeehouse is no subject is off limits.
“We don’t censor, all topics are open to be discussed,” he said, noting some students at past readings created their own rap songs, and some performed a rap song from their favorite artist.
“Some were kind of nervous at first because some of them can be a little profane,” he said of the lyrics. “This is an age of free speech where if this is what’s in your heart, this is all about sharing poetic talent, and sharing your ideas. And maybe even finding a way to come together as a species, imagine that.”
The most recent coffeehouse was held in spring 2020, right before the pandemic. They usually lasted from an hour to an hour and a half, and each month’s gathering had a theme. At least to start with this time, there won’t be a set theme, according to Harrison. (He did say a biology instructor wants to have a poetry night based on biological topics, and some of her students expressed an interest.)
“Everyone who wants to read has a chance to share their poetry,” he said.
However, if you just want to listen to poetry, you also are welcome. No one is forced to recite any piece of work.
At some of the coffeehouses during the 2019-20 academic year, there were two dozen or more people.
“They read on various topics, sharing their personal experiences with life,” he said. “It was actually really, really good.”
He noted a bond appeared to be built among the attendees, and the teachers and students often would acknowledge each other on campus and talk about poetry outside the classroom.
The first coffeehouse of the semester, Nov. 2, is critical, according to Harrison. He said it’s important to encourage everyone, and not judge them.
“You can speak your mind,” he said. “This is your chance if you have something on your chest, got something about the world that really has you deep in thought and you want to express yourself where you stand on it, this is your opportunity to do that.”
For Harrison, these things add to the collegiate experience. They also are meaningful.
“For us as faculty, we can’t imagine being in an institution of higher education without poetry and prose and student self-expression.”
This semester, the meetings will be Nov. 2 and Dec. 7 from 2:30-3:30 p.m., in Room 158 of Diggs Hall in Hampton, and in Room 110 at the Historic Triangle campus. Spring semester will be announced.