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VCU's collection increasingly mirrors poetry's international diversity

January 21, 2016

Poetry is crucial to cultural life. VCU Libraries' poetry collection, already strong, is now a strategic priority. It has been identified as a "Collection of Distinction." This initiative focuses on significant investment and enhancement of holdings important to the university and its programs. These collections have the potential to garner national or even international recognition while they support and foster teaching, research and discovery by VCU's faculty and students.

Humanities Collections Librarian Kevin Farley is leading the effort to enhance VCU Libraries' poetry holdings. Farley, who holds a doctorate in literature, brings years of the study of poetry and literary culture to this task. Emily Block, a student in VCU's MFA in Creative Writing Program, is helping Farley search for new, emerging and important voices in poetry.

For 2015-16, the investment has fostered the growth of the collection by about 175 titles. As the poetry collection continues to grow through the Collections of Distinction investments, more titles will be added each year to create one of the most comprehensive university collections of poetry in the United States.

As the spring semester begins, humanities research librarian and fiction writer and poetry aficionado John Glover interviewed his colleagues about the scope of and thinking underlying this work.

JG: Kevin, what excites you most as a collections librarian about this project?

KF: This project is part of the VCU Libraries Collections of Distinction, areas that are really central to the mission of VCU, and which fulfill our goals as the library is moving into the future of teaching and research. Contemporary poetry is often a multimedia experience; it's dynamic, engaged with social issues and one of the most important forms of cultural expression across the world. This is the kind of diversity and creativity that distinguishes VCU itself. You can find voices in contemporary poetry that you don't hear in other parts of society, and you can see where the world is going and would like to go. VCU has a long, rich history of poetry, and that's true for Virginia as a whole, going way back in the history of the commonwealth. And it's exciting to keep that going into the future in the poetry collections.

JG: Emily, how does this work relate to your study of poetry?

EB: On a few levels. The poets I've discovered working at VCU Libraries connect this project to my studies in a really productive way. In researching poets from marginalized communities, international poets, poets whose works aren't available at commercial bookstores, etc., I've found stellar literature that already has begun to influence my thinking as a reader and future cultural producer. Thanks to VCU Libraries' commitment to the poetry project, this effect won't end with me. Students will discover these collections on the shelves long after I've graduated.

To have a hand in introducing future readers to poetry outside the canon is exciting. I feel lucky to be in this position, a behind-the-scenes influencer. And I feel responsible, too, to a lot of poets. That balance of passion with function—a love of poetry with a commitment to its readers and writers—is the sense I've picked up most while working at VCU Libraries. It's inspiring, an encouragement to see faculty so dedicated to the libraries' future.

KF: Emily has really helped us understand how poetry has become an amazing resource for learning how to think about oneself and the problems of the world, to work through identity and one's relationship to others through art. This fits in with how diverse VCU is, and the diversity of those voices in the world will be here in our collection. Emily is working on something that will be here for our future students, preserving important voices for the VCU community for years to come. She's very knowledgeable, and we're very lucky that she's come to advance this project with us.

JG: How do you see this project fitting into the history of poetry at VCU, and in the area generally?

KF: We have a very vibrant creative local community, and a lot of important authors here with loyal readers. The legacy of poet Larry Levis, who taught at VCU, is important to think about—he's emerged as an important contemporary voice and inspiration. Just over the summer, picking up The New Yorker, there was a Larry Levis poem. His poems continue to engage readers and new poets, and the annual Levis Reading Prize at VCU recognizes the work of groundbreaking poets.

For the future, I see this as tied to the mission of VCU as a whole, to the world and to our students' creativity. The future of our poetry collections will be a very strong expression of what that means for VCU and for our nationfor all nations as they try to understand each other. Our poetry collections will increasingly mirror the international diversity of poetry. The future of creative expression may not happen between pages; it may happen through digital means, here at the library and elsewhere. It will happen through all the means that we use to engage with the world itself.

EB: I agree, the literary landscape is shifting. It's opening space for new media, and readers have a choice to resist or embrace that. The library has been exemplary in embracing change; in taking steps, for example, to make sure we have access to electronic books, digital archives and other online resources. There's so much digital content available to us today (not all of it good), so it's key to have some sort of middleman to not only introduce us to new literature, but to also evaluate and distill these materials as objectively as possible.

KF: Emily, you've talked about the experience of poems in the book format, and about how that remains a very important feature to poets. How is the book important for poets?

EB: Great question. Valuing books as physical objects and embracing digital media are not, of course, mutually exclusive. As important as it is stay open to change and new media, it's equally important to remember what's brought us to this point. I don't mean that in some curmudgeonly or didactic way; I mean that readers experience content differently in physical books, and that experience can lend to a fuller understanding of what literature can do and what it has done over the course of history. I think I can speak for a lot of readers when I say we develop connections to our books as objects. That isn't to say e-books are any lesser, but we can't abandon the book entirely. Some literature exists only in physical forms. Chapbooks printed in small numbers, special edition volumes, rare facsimiles: without physical copies, this content could be lost forever. It's important to hold on to that.

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