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Writing from Life: Poetry as Story

In a new writing workshop designed to elevate diverse voices, Writer’s Studio instructor Dr. Dipika Mukherjee champions poetry and the too often discounted value of personal experiences.

Dipika Mukerjee

In her new writing workshop for the Graham School, veteran Writer’s Studio instructor and award-winning author Dr. Dipika Mukherjee promoted the power of poetry, the value of lived experiences, and the importance of elevating marginalized voices.

During the Feb. 17 workshop titled “Writing from Life: Poetry as Story,” Mukherjee used her own recently released poetry collection, Dialect of Distant Harbors, to explore how compelling poetry can blossom from life experiences.

“I’m a great proponent of the powers of poetry,” Mukherjee said. “It’s an accessible way for people to come into writing, particularly those who are hesitant.”

 And that hesitancy, in particular, was something Mukherjee wished to address in her first poetry offering for Graham after five years of teaching fiction writing at the Writer’s Studio.

Connecting with new voices

Spurred by an Esteemed Artist Award from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events and its push for outreach programming, Mukherjee teamed with Graham and the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement (OCE) to create this original writing workshop aimed at residents of neighborhoods around the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus.

“Graham’s continuing partnership with the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement was a perfect place to seek support in connecting with residents from the local area,” said J.M. Conway, manager of innovation programs at Graham. “The more we can partner with OCE to attract new learners, the stronger and more fruitful our classroom spaces will be.”

But to be accepted into the free workshop, prospective participants first had to detail their interest in attending the event. With a flurry of applications, the workshop quickly reached capacity.

“We received applications from a range of varied backgrounds – young people, retired individuals, new immigrants, and people who had never written poetry – but there was one common thread: people who felt they had a story to tell and were eager to share it,” said Mukherjee, who wanted to engage voices typically underrepresented in mainstream publishing.     

An enthusiastic workshop

During the two-hour workshop, students introduced themselves in haikus before Mukherjee showcased poetry forms like the haibun, a Japanese form that combines a prose poem with a haiku, and provided writing prompts to help participants develop their own pieces. Mukherjee also shared examples from Dialect of Distant Harbors to illustrate how real-life events can stimulate one’s writing. Mukherjee’s “Bangkok 1959” poem, for instance, recounts a conversation between her parents in the years before her birth.

“People often make the mistake of thinking their life is too normal, that they are ordinary persons with nothing remarkable to say, but the emotional resonance of an experience can resonate and spark an epiphany for both writer and reader,” she said. “No one’s life is inconsequential.”

Student responses to the workshop noted its dynamic energy and Mukherjee’s enthusiasm. One student, Joanne Telser-Frere, said she was fascinated to learn about novel forms of poetry and relished the freedom of breaking away from conventional literary forms.

“I was blown away by the workshop and how [Mukherjee] talked about poetry as a way to explore our lives,” Telser-Frere said. “And the experience of beginning a piece and not knowing where it was going was absolutely invigorating.”

Aiming to inspire

Mukherjee hoped her poetry workshop empowered participants to write about their lives and encouraged them to embrace poetry as an accessible and joyful way to examine and detail past experiences.

“I hope it was two hours of soul-nourishing joy,” Mukherjee said. “As writers, we write about what [American novelist William] Faulkner termed, ‘the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself,’ and that shared humanity is what makes literature exciting.”

And with Graham eager to serve as the “front door” to the University of Chicago, Mukherjee’s workshop also offered Graham another lively opportunity to engage with local residents and invite them to enjoy a deeper relationship with the School.

“It’s our hope that the participants noticed a sense of belonging that will lead them to return to our learning community time and again,” Conway said.

Daniel P. Smith

Freelance Writer

Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer at the Graham School.

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