Holy Cross Professors Look to Inspire and Unite Worcester and Students Through Poetry

Students and professor stand in front of poet Stanley Kunitz mural in Worcester, MA.
Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Humanities, and student from the College of the Holy Cross pictured in front of a Worcester, Massachusetts, mural of poet Stanley Kunitz. (Photo contributed)

Susan Elizabeth Sweeney and Oliver de la Paz see the city as a muse for future works.

Susan Elizabeth Sweeney and Oliver de la Paz are passionate about poetry — and the city of Worcester. The College of the Holy Cross faculty members are combining the two as a way to inspire the next generation of poets and invite them to be a part of the city’s rich history in poetry.

“Part of my mission is to demystify poetry and not have it feel so strange and esoteric,” said Sweeney, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Humanities. “It should be someone expressing feelings and thoughts in a way that anyone can recognize themselves – their feelings and thoughts - in their words. I want people to think of poetry as something that can and does relate to them and to where they live.”

Sweeney and de la Paz, associate professor of English and poet laureate of Worcester, want their students and the community at-large to use the city as their anchor for their poetry and reflections. Individually, the pair have been part of several workshops to generate new poems about the city. Sweeney’s hope: a series of original, unpublished poems, some of which could be considered for inclusion in a future exhibit at the Worcester Historical Museum.

While the professors are fostering the next generation of Worcester poets, they quickly point to the generations before who helped bring Worcester to life through their writing.

“Worcester has a storied history of having great poets live within the community whose works were profoundly influenced by this landscape,” de la Paz said.

Documenting the landscape, locations and events that poets such as Stanley Kunitz, Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Olson, Frank O’Hara, Etheridge Knight, Mary Fell and Christopher Gilbert captured in their verse is the goal of Sweeney’s Scholarship in Action project, which remembers and celebrates the authors’ connection to the city.

Such a connection left one of Sweeney’s students “thunderstruck” after listening to Fell share a poem about her memories of the city, including the former Denholm department store where the student’s mother once worked. Through partnerships with the Worcester County Poetry Association and a host of Worcester arts organizations, including the Stanley Kunitz Boyhood Home, Pow Wow Worcester and Main IDEA, Sweeney and de la Paz continue to provide a bridge for those connections to be made.

“I want people to think of poetry as something that can and does relate to them and to where they live,” Sweeney said.