‘Revealing your own inner music:’ IU poet’s Nashville workshop sparks conversation, community

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In spring 2019, Catherine Bowman spoke about the music of writing at the Brown County Public Library. Bowman is a Ruth Lilly Professor of Poetry in Indiana University Bloomington’s creative writing program.

Bowman sat with 10 attendees in a circle, around tables that had been pushed together for the workshop. The workshop was part of Center for Rural Engagement’s Rural Arts Series. Participants spanned all ages. They wore T-shirts, caps, a denim vest. Two dogs—one in a training outfit—walked beneath the table. Occasionally, one barked.

Bowman started with a writing exercise. “Start writing names of everyone you’ve ever met, and just see what name follows what name,” she said. “Don’t think about it.”

The participants leaned over their sheets and pads. A woman in a sun hat walked in late. “Sorry,” she said. “I had a bird in my house.” A calm Bowman asked her what kind of bird it was. “I’m not sure,” the woman said. “I was stressed, and it was stressed.” She set her bag on the floor, pulled her pen and paper out, and squeezed in to sit at the corner of the table. Around the room, acquaintances greeted her with waves and nods.

When the writing portion of the exercise concluded, Bowman asked each participant to read his or her list aloud. She asked the others to listen without judgement. Each list elicited thoughtful responses from the group. Participants commented on one another’s repeated names, on titles paired with names, on the inclusion of last names. Bowman encouraged everyone to listen to the beauty of the sounds as speakers moved from one name to the next.

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[Video: A car rides down a country road in the spring, trees are starting to bloom and the sun is out.]

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[Video: A high schooler is writing down poetry at the table during the poetry workshop.]

[Text appears: Projects like the creative writing workshops]

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[Text appears: These workshops help people to imagine more dynamic stories for their communities.]

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“Did anyone know you were going to write all those names before we started?” she asked. “Did some of those names surprise you?” The participants nodded and smiled.

Jotting down names without a set direction from the start, for Bowman, mirrors the larger process of writing. In starting a draft, a writer never knows where the piece will end up. “In writing these names, we’re telling a story about ourselves, but it isn’t a direct story.” Bowman said.  “It’s not like, ‘I was born here’ and ‘I learned to read when I was three.’ You all shared a story about your life, in the sense that this list revealed your own inner music.”

Bowman asked the class to circle two names with no apparent connection and to write, through sensory detail, about those individuals. The class concluded with readings from participants, as other attendees listened thoughtfully or with amusement.

Bowman has always been interested in community involvement, and was intrigued when she heard about the Center for Rural Engagement’s Quality of Place initiative in 2018. The initiative seeks to connect IU Bloomington’s arts offerings with the artisan heritage of rural communities in southern Indiana. The Rural Arts Series, in particular, connects arts performances and exhibitions to nearby towns, supporting communities as they develop their local cultural resources and infrastructures.

“Writing holds multiple emotions and ideas. It pulls people out of the frozen ideologies we’re living in and adds nuance to how we experience each other.”

Catherine Bowman, Professor, Department of English

The Center for Rural Engagement’s vision coincided with Bowman’s desire to create writing spaces in community centers, public libraries, schools, and senior living centers. She reached out to Ed Comentale, director of IU Bloomington’s Arts and Humanities Council, and the two began planning a series of writing workshops and readings in Nashville, Salem, and Huntingburg.

“Writing holds multiple emotions and ideas. It pulls people out of the frozen ideologies we’re living in and adds nuance to how we experience each other,” Bowman said. The variety of voices she encountered at the Brown County Public Library inspired her. “There were a lot of people who had experienced a lot in life. And they were bringing that to the room. It was fascinating to hear their stories.”

Bowman is delighted to hold space for individuals to experience themselves and their community in entirely new ways. Planning for a series of workshops in Huntingburg and Salem—in addition to the ongoing series in Nashville—is underway. 

The IU Center for Rural Engagement improves the lives of Hoosiers through collaborative initiatives that discover and deploy scalable and flexible solutions to common challenges facing rural communities. Working in full-spectrum community innovation through research, community-engaged teaching and student service, the center builds vision, harnesses assets and cultivates sustainable leadership structures within the communities with which it engages to ensure long-term success.