Experience has taught Tom Rockson that the odds of a new venture succeeding on a college campus are better if students instead of faculty generate the idea. So it’s understandable he had reservations a few years ago when asked by a pair of co-workers if he would be interested in starting a poetry series at Thomas Nelson Community College. But now he has reason to believe it can work the other way also.
“I was pleasantly surprised by the turnout at that first ever Poetry Coffeehouse meeting on the Hampton campus,” he said of the Feb. 1 event held in Room 158 of Diggs Hall, which drew about 30 students. “We had standing room only at some points … Overall, I haven't seen that kind of enthusiasm at a poetry reading in a long time. And it leaves me feeling very encouraged to continue promoting and sponsoring literary events at Thomas Nelson.”
Rockson’s initial hesitation stemmed from his earlier failed attempts at Thomas Nelson and another Virginia community college.
“What I took away from it was that usually things like this are going to work if they come from the students,” he said. “If students had come to me and said, ‘We have 10 of us here, we want a poetry club. Will you sponsor us?’ That’ll work because those students want the club.”
This time, though, Rockson, fellow English professor Janice Hoffman and Distance Education Librarian Bob Harrison were the initiators.
“I said, ‘How would you feel about starting a poetry coffeehouse?’” Harrison recalled of an early conversation with Rockson and Hoffman. “Folks come out for readings, we would enjoy a little coffee, a little pastry and share our work.”
The series started at the Historic Triangle campus in fall 2016 because of logistics. Hoffman teaches there; Harrison, who moved to the Hampton campus for the start of the 2017-18 academic year, was based there at the time; and Rockson teaches at both campuses.
Rockson said the thinking was, “Let’s test the waters at HT, see how the students respond, and if we get a good showing, then we’ll look at expanding it to the Hampton campus.”
At the onset one reading a month took place in the fall 2016 and spring 2017 semesters at the Historic Triangle campus. More than 40 people showed up for the first evening event, and now the series takes place midday. Each event has a theme, but all topics are welcome, as are original poems and personal favorites. As Rockson encourages a laid-back atmosphere, one student at the initial Hampton event read Dr. Suess’ “One fish, Two fish, Red fish, Blue fish.”
“We definitely wanted to pair poetry with coffee and refreshments and create … the same sort of atmosphere you would have had in a coffeehouse somewhere during the Beat Generation, not that we have actually pulled that off,” he said.
At the first series on the Hampton campus, about half of the people who showed up read a poem, many of them original works. Among those was Emma Vallet, a 25-year-old Newport News resident majoring in social science and administration of justice.
“I thought it would be kind of a neat thing to explore,” she said. “I personally enjoy taking part in everyone else’s creative abilities. But it also gives [me] and other people an outlet to share the things that you wouldn’t generally share with a class.”
The students’ enthusiasm was refreshing to Rockson as many, including Vallet, took more than one turn at the lectern.
“Even more pleasing to me was the eagerness of students to jump up and take the lectern,” he said. “It seemed we almost couldn't stop them from stepping up, one by one, to read.”
It appears the Poetry Coffeehouse Series is on its way to being successful at both campuses, even if it wasn’t started by students. Also coordinated by faculty, open-mic poetry gatherings at the Historic Triangle campus on annual occasions such as Halloween and Valentine’s Day were the precursor to the coffeehouse series.
“We knew there was a hidden [sector] of students there who were interested in poetry and were probably looking for outlets to share their poetry,” Rockson said.
Harrison agreed the students’ passion for poetry just had to be cultivated.
“Three people got together who really, really love poetry and wanted to share that love with students,” he said. “Surprisingly enough, a lot of them already had that same love, just didn’t really have an avenue to express it.”
While students are participating in good numbers, the open-mic poetry readings are open to faculty, staff and community members who want to showcase their creativity. All are welcome to participate or simply attend to listen and enjoy refreshments.
Unless otherwise announced, the series continues as follows:
Poetry Coffeehouse Spring 2018
The one-hour gatherings begin at 1 p.m.
Hampton (Room 158, Diggs)
Historic Triangle (Library 100-M )
Feb. 22 “Black History Month”
Feb. 21 “Black History Month”
March 22 “Spring has Returned”
March 21 “Spring has Returned”
April 19 “National Poetry Month”
April 18 “National Poetry Month”