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College of Arts and Sciences

Collaborative venture helps women produce poetry from trauma

By: Kathy Hovis
A&S Communications
March 1, 2019

An upcoming multimedia event will showcase the collaboration of a Cornell English professor and a local filmmaker, who worked with local women to tell their stories of trauma and joy through poetry and film.

“Other Powers: Trauma Survivors Reclaim Joy,” is scheduled for 7 p.m. March 12 and 13 at Cinemapolis, 120 E. Green St. It will include a film, a talkback and readings by performance artist Leeny Sack and community actor Sherron Brown.

The project sprung to life last year when poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, a professor of English, happened to sit next to  filmmaker Sue Perlgut, on a bus from New York City to Ithaca. As they chatted about their work and their lives, they realized they had common interests in telling women’s stories in creative ways.

“We decided we were going to make some kind of art together,” Van Clief-Stefanon said of that trip. So, they applied for funding — which they received from Ithaca’s City Federation of Women’s Organizations, an Engaged Opportunity Grant from Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives and funding from the New York State Council on the Arts, administered by the Community Arts Partnership — and began planning for two poetry workshops for Cornell students and women in the community.

The pair created the workshops encouraging survivors “not only to tell their stories, but also thinking of some way to move toward hope, move toward a space of empowerment around their stories,” Van Clief-Stefanon said. The title of the project, “Other Powers” comes from one of Van Clief-Stefanon’s poems, “Eight,” which deals with her own experiences of sexual abuse.

Workshop participantsEighteen women took part in the workshops – ranging in age from college sophomores to women in their 70s, Perlgut said. At the end of the three-hour workshops, each woman had written and shared several poems and created a list of 21 things that bring them joy.

“It’s not a difficult process once you get past that initial terror that people have about writing poetry,” said Van Clief-Stefanon, adding that part of her vocation is to expand public engagement with poetry and invite people to write their own complex and difficult poems.

One of the workshops happened to take place during the hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which some of the women address in the film.

“It was powerful to see the courage of those women, not only Dr. Ford and Dr. Hill, but the women who stopped Senator Flake in the elevator to try to get him to pay attention to women’s stories,” Van Clief-Stefanon said.

Cornell student Saki Wang ’19, Ithaca College student April Carroll and high school student Jaden Demarest helped coordinate the workshops.

“The workshops were fascinating and inspiring,” said Wang, who also participated in one of the workshops. “We drew the paths we went through from a place of trauma to a place of joy and then wrote poems about that journey.”

Perlgut filmed the workshops and also interviewed most of the women afterward.

“Whenever women see real women talking about their stories, they leave feeling empowered,” she said. “The community that was formed in the process of writing this poetry was also very important to them.” Readers Sack and Brown both took part in the workshops. Along with the Cinemapolis showing, Perlgut plans to make the film and the individual interviews available online and may put together an installation of the work at a local community center such as the Tompkins County Public Library.

Perlgut worked on a similar project in 2017, The Women’s Wisdom project, where she interviewed more than 70 women who live, work, or have visited Tompkins County, about their advice and wisdom.