CORRECTED: A previous version of this story misstated the school at which Andrew Jones is an assistant professor.
The first time Jeannine Pitas encountered poetry, was in fifth grade when she was assigned a haiku — a short, three-line poem — she wrote about the seasons.
From there, Pitas began reading any poetry book she could get her hands on. In middle school, she fell in love with Shel Silverstein and his knack for storytelling through poetry. Throughout the years, she began not just reading other poets’ work but writing her own.
Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., she read a weekly poetry column in a local newspaper, and eventually, she began submitting her work, she said.
“By the time I was 14, I was reading this page every single Sunday,” Pitas said. “I started sending in work, and when I was 18 years old and in my first week at college, I got a call from my mother (who said) my poem had been in the Buffalo news. That was my first publication outside of a school publication. I was thrilled.”
Pitas, who now lives in Dubuque and work as a an assistant professor of English and Spanish at the University of Dubuque, said the poem that was selected to be published in the local paper was one about family conflicts, which did not please some of her family members. But it marked a significant moment in her life as an aspiring poet.
“That was my debut,” she said. “I really started with confessional poetry and talking (about) family roots and heritage. As I have gotten older, I was exposed to many more kinds of poetry. It’s still very much rooted in personal experience and relationships (or) in social concern (and) in concern for the earth.”
During the inauguration for President Joe Biden earlier this year, American poet and activist Amanda Gorman recited a poem that local college instructor Andrew Jones said served an important reminder of the role both poetry and the arts play in America and the shaping of its history.
“I think for a while, with the last administration arts and culture didn’t seem to be something that was represented well,” said Jones, an assistant professor at the University of Dubuque, who teaches a course in poetry. “With this new administration, it felt like they were bringing back that idea that the arts and poetry are a key part of American life and can be inspiring and can help us get through whatever situations we are in whether it’s the pandemic or whether it’s something in your personal life.”
Jones said for his 12-year-old daughter as well as his students, seeing a young woman reading poetry at the inauguration was both surprising and exciting.
“They paid attention to the fact that the youth in many cases looked like them and seemed like someone they could be friends with,” he said. “I think especially with younger people, I think the appearance of someone young was exciting.”
Many of the students in Jones’ poetry course are not English majors but rather what he calls “secret scribblers.” He said his class this semester has 15 students — the most he has had since 2016.
“They have been using poetry as a form of journaling or a way to get their emotions down on paper,” he said. “At some point, they feel the urge to share that and have some peers who are willing to read their work.”
For years, Jessica Stepp has been a “secret scribbler.”
In middle school, she started dabbling in poetry but lost interest for a short period. During her freshman year of high school, an English teacher re-ignited her passion for reading and writing poetry. It became a way for her to express her feelings and share a part of herself she hid from the world, Stepp said.
“It’s a wonderful snippet of who you are,” she said. “Books are long, but poems are often on the shorter side and you get a taste of something. Everyone today doesn’t want to read. It’s little snippets that you may touch base with that can bring you to feel something that you may not have thought possible.”
In high school, Stepp, of Dubuque, loved reading works by Robert Frost and focused her poems on space and time. She recently published a few pieces with Broad Ideas of Galena, an organization that offers a space and online platform for women to share ideas and their artwork.
“I would love for people to take more time to write for themselves,” she said. “Even if they don’t think they are a poet, sometimes just writing how you feel can help relieve stress.”
Like Stepp who fell in love with poetry in middle school, Pitas “caught the bug” early on and said she makes an effort to show her students that poetry is accessible to anyone, of any background.
“Maybe for some people poetry is that hobby, but I feel like for a lot of people who do poetry, it’s a passion,” she said. “It’s a constant presence in the way that my family and friends are and my faith is.”