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Penn State Altoona community pens poem

Inspired by a poem recited at President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January and the outpouring of support it received, Penn State Altoona English professor Erin Murphy came up with a unique way to keep the conversation flowing. The result is a written work about America, the challenges the country faces and the hope many have for a better tomorrow.

Written by Penn State Altoona students, staff and faculty, the collective poem “In My America,” also celebrates April’s designation as national poetry month.

Murphy said she was inspired to start the project after she heard Amanda Gorman recite her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at the inauguration ceremony.

“Right after (Gorman’s) performance at the inauguration, my cellphone just lit up with so many texts from friends and family and neighbors and even my cat’s veterinarian,” Murphy said. “They texted me to say how moved they were by her poem, and so I thought I could take advantage of that moment and develop a collegewide, collaborative poetry project at Penn State Altoona.”

From there, Murphy began the process of making such a project some to fruition.

“I created a video workshop and came up with this idea of having the initial line ‘In My America,’ and then people could contribute their own lines,” she said. “I presented the workshop to various groups and classes and colleagues.”

Receiving “well over 100 submissions,” in just more than a month, Murphy said, the project took off quickly, garnering the support and enthusiasm of the university community.

“The submissions far exceeded my expectations,” Murphy said. “They were just amazing images, very thought-provoking ideas. It was a challenging project but also a very rewarding project.”

The poem, while bright and optimistic at times, has a sociopolitical aspect to it that highlights various societal issues that affect our nation, including racism and other forms of injustice.

“I read through all the submissions, and I noticed some recurring themes,” she said. “I created a final poem using these contributions, and the final poem is in three movements: beauty, darkness and hope. I thought it was important to end with hope.”

While the darkness movement explores the uglier aspects of society, and the pain experienced by many, the message is a positive one that aligns with the university’s mission toward progress, according to Brian Black, head of the Division of Arts and Humanities at the Altoona campus. The poem, he said, elicits hope and is a positive step toward an improved nation.

Power of a poem

“The power contained in this poem — similar to the project itself — derives from multiplicity of visions that it contains,” Black said. “It perfectly represents our efforts at Penn State Altoona to empower through inclusion. Together, we strive to form a collective future for our college and our society, and this poem is a great step in that direction.”

The poem’s first lines talk about America’s snow-covered mountains, the white flakes of snow and spring greening.

“In my America, simple beauty can be observed in the kindness of a stranger, the vibrant shades of a sunset, or the expressive gaze of a dog,” one line reads.

As the poem continues, the reader sees a change as pollution, drug addiction and social justice issues are faced.

“In my America, we are divided when we should be united,” one line states.

Then, as the poem transitions to a new beginning, “In my America, we dream again, waking up humming What if?, not gasping Why?”

As the poem concludes, hope takes over as “In my America, we’d rather understand than overthrow.”

It concludes with “In my America, kindness is the new reality show.”

Performance planned

Murphy said she hopes to have a live performance of the poem, accompanied with some aspect of dance or “movement” when the pandemic eases more toward normalcy sometime next academic year.

“That’s what we’re hoping to do,” Murphy said. “I’m in talks with some of my colleagues in the Integrative Arts major to figure out what we can do. In the meantime, we have the printed and recorded versions, and it was important to us to premiere those this month because it’s National Poetry Month.”

Murphy’s efforts, and the project itself, were well-received at the university. Chancellor and Dean Dr. Lori Bechtel-Wherry is impressed with the work and Murphy’s leadership of the community effort.

“The ‘In My America’ poetry project was a terrific idea by our faculty member, Erin Murphy,” Bechtel-Wherry said. “Considering the divisiveness of the election, the tension in our country and the alienation we’ve all experienced during the pandemic, engaging in this creative and communal process was cathartic.”

The poem can be found at altoona.psu.edu/academics/divisions/arts-humanities/in-my-america.

Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.

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