×

Poems for people: Volunteers write poetry as fundraiser for Northampton’s Center for New Americans

  • Amy Rothenberg of Amherst says her family’s immigrant background drew her to contribute to this year’s “30 Poems in November” fundraiser for the Center for New Americans.  — Image courtesy of Amy Ronthenberg

  • Center for New Americans teacher Linda Neas works with her students learning English as they write for the "30 Poems in November" project at the education and resource center for immigrants and refugees in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Vary, a student in Linda Neas' English class at the Center for New Americans, works on a verse for the "30 Poems in November" project at the education and resource center for immigrants and refugees in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Vary, a student in Linda Neas' English class at the Center for New Americans, reads her poem for the "30 Poems in November." GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Center for New Americans teacher Linda Neas and student Juan share a laugh while editing one of his works for the "30 Poems in November." GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Juan and Ruth, students in Linda Neas' class, read their poems aloud. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Juan and Ruth, students in Linda Neas' English class at the Center for New Americans, take turns reading aloud their works for the "30 Poems in November" project at the education and resource center for immigrants and refugees in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Tom Clark is the chair of the 2016 "30 Poems in November" project and fundraiser for the Center for New Americans. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Tom Clark is the chair of the 2016 "30 Poems in November" project. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Tom Clark is the chair of the 2016 "30 Poems in November" project and fundraiser for the Center for New Americans. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING



Staff Writer 
Thursday, November 17, 2016

There are all manners of fundraisers — bake sales, talent shows, special dinners, even  traditional door-to-door canvassing.

At the Center for New Americans, it’s done with words — poetry, to be exact.

For the past eight years, the Northampton nonprofit group, which offers education programs and other resources to immigrants and refugees, has held a special fundraiser in November in which volunteers pledge to write a poem each day of the month. By enlisting sponsors to support their writing, the poets — professional, occasional and everything in between — have raised as much as $20,000 for the center’s programs.

This year, the “30 Poems in November” project, started by former Northampton Poet Laureate Lesléa Newman, has taken on deeper meaning, given the election of a new president who has pledged, among other things, to deport all illegal immigrants and build a wall on the Mexican border.

Tom Clark, a Northampton poet who chairs this year’s “30 Poems” effort, says people who are distressed by Donald Trump and his anti-immigrant rhetoric can take direct action in response.

“You can go to bat for the immigrant community by making a contribution to your favorite local poet,” said Clark, a retired Northampton firefighter and a co-founder of the Florence Poets Society.

As the project chairman, Clark said his primary responsibility has been to recruit volunteers to write poems, a task made easier because of his own connections to area writers. Under his nom de plume, Tommy Twilite, he’s been writing poetry seriously for about 15 years, and he makes regular appearances at open mics and readings.

How it works

For “30 Poems in November,” volunteers create an online campaign page to explain why they’re writing, how much they hope to raise, and sometimes to post samples of their work. Last year, about 60 people took part in the project and raised $20,000; this year, 70 have signed up, and the goal is to reach $30,000, which the Center for New Americans devotes to its literacy programs.

“Immigrants bring so much to our country, and all of us, unless you’re a Native American, trace our ancestry to someplace else,” Clark said. He and his wife, Jeannine, adopted and raised two sons from South America and have also hosted a number of exchange students over the years. 

Clark said the “hearbreaking” immigrant bashing that took place during the election campaign offered this year’s volunteers an added incentive to participate.

The task at hand 

The goal of writing poems to raise money is both laudatory and unique. But what’s it like to sit down and actually have to compose one every day for a month?

Linda Neas, who teaches English classes at the Northampton center, says the process is challenging. But it can also give writers a real sense of discipline, she notes; as a contributor to “30 Poems in November” herself, she sets aside time each morning before work to write.

“For me, writing is kind of a spiritual process,” Neas said, noting that’s she fresher and more open to ideas and inspiration in the morning.

The project’s guidelines are wide open: writers can try their hand at anything, from haiku to free verse to iambic pentameter, and on whatever subject moves them. They also work on an honor system to produce a daily poem.

“There are no poetry police,” said Laurie Millman, the center’s communications director. “People get involved with this because they want to contribute, and because it forces a sense of discipline on them.”

And that kind of rigor is important, Millman adds: “This is a fun project, but as a nonprofit and community organization, we rely very heavily on donations.”

On the morning after the presidential election, Neas was working at the center with students on their own poetry, leading a lesson on acrostic poems, in which the first letters in a word written vertically are used to begin separate, horizontal lines of verse.

On a whiteboard, Neas had written a number of words students might use — freedom, hope, relax, equality, diversity — that spoke to some of the anxiety people were feeling after Trump’s victory. Vary, a mother, used “Hope” for her acrostic, writing “Help my son do his homework” for her first line and “Overtime at work” for her second.

“Very nice job,” said Neas, as she examined Vary’s work and that of other students.

Though her students might struggle at times with writing in a new language, Neas added, they sometimes can construct poems with basic words that cut right to the heart of an idea or image: “They can be absolutely lovely.”

The immigrant experience

Amy Rothenberg, a naturopathic doctor from Amherst, has contributed to “30 Poems” before. She’s back this year, after a short hiatus, given her respect for the work the Center for New Americans does, and because of the xenophobia that was at issue during the presidential campaign.

Her grandparents came to the United States in the early 20th century from Germany and Russia, she says, and her husband was born in Romania, so the immigrant experience is very much a part of her life.

“My family came to this country as strangers,” she wrote in an email, “not speaking the language, not knowing the ways, for all the same reasons: religious freedom, economic opportunity and the promise of the American dream.” Taking part in “30 Poems,” she added, “is a tiny way of honoring that history.”

And when it comes to writing poetry, Rothenberg says she loves the discipline the project imparts — a discipline she readily brings to other aspects of her life but sometimes struggles with in her writing (she also writes prose). The free-form poetry she creates, she says, helps her to “tune in with my surroundings.

“I am moved by language, by using words to create images, and by expressing myself and working out my understanding of the world around me through writing.”

Rockin’ the poetry

A newcomer to this year’s “30 Poems” roster is Phillip Price of Hadley, who’s better known for his guitar work and lead songwriting duties for Winterpills, the local folk-pop favorites.

In an email, Price said he studied poetry pretty seriously at Bennington College before channeling much of his energy into writing pop songs: “Which is weird because the early poetry was not-too-awful but the early lyrics were truly-so-awful. Whatever. Rock ‘n’ roll.”

But, he added, “Writing in a way that doesn't fit into strict song structures is not alien to me. Poetry is liberating, when I'm on a roll. I took this on because a friend invited me to do so, and I sometimes really need challenges like this to be productive.”

Price has also been posting his free-verse poems on his Facebook page and on Winterpills' Instagram site — not out of vanity, he said, but because “I figured some sense of continuity and activity would generate more donations to the Center for New Americans, which is obviously the whole point.”

Clark, the Northampton poet, says he typically has a number of poems going at any one time, as well as older ones that never quite got finished, which might give him an advantage when it comes to meeting his daily quota.

“If I’m struggling, I can reach into my vast back catalog and pull something out to meet that deadline,” he said with a laugh.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“30 Poems in November” will be celebrated Dec. 13 with a reading at the Poetry Center at Smith College in Northampton. The Center for New Americans will also publish an anthology featuring a poem from each participant in the project who has raised $50 or more.

To see which writers are participating in the project, or to make a contribution, visit civi.cnam.org/30poems.