Wednesday, June 23, 2010


In case you missed the very first DWC PRO Graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 19th . . . we're reproducing the commencement speech given by our own Georgia Popoff here. It was an inspiring time, and everyone at the DWC is very, very proud of our first class.

I am so honored to celebrate this first class of graduates from the DWC PRO certification program. Their accomplishments in the past 2 years are admirable and substantial. As I have stated on more than one occasion, each of these writers have given him or herself a number of gifts: those of identity, creative passion, commitment, and determination. Mostly, the gift of indulging in something that they have not been able to escape and for which they may have not been fully lauded or understood by others: the life of the active writer.

As an adult, I have always been outside the standard arenas of writers because I did not remain on the path of academia. I also did not last a long time in that other more “street” crew of spoken word artists and performance poets, although I tried. Throughout my life, I have always felt “outside of,” continuing to write because it is part of my DNA. As an adult, I held two identities: first, a poet with a day job. Then, I gave up the hope that poet would be first, resigned to the fact that I would be poet as hobbyist and would somehow find a way for that to be satisfaction enough. I was wrong and, as I left a 10-year quiet time during which I experienced poetic silence and a crisis of faith, once I was again seeing myself as a poet, introducing myself as a poet first among all the jobs and avocations in which I was immersed, I had to find a title to explain myself. I settled upon that of “community poet.” This became more than a line on a business card or self-designed letterhead, this became a role, a mission, my identity.

Each of our graduates today is somehow first of community and then a writer, perhaps because they are working 50+ hours a week, or managing both job and family, or any other number of activities that do not permit days on end to sit with pen in hand or fingers to keyboard, waiting for the Muses to drop pearls and bon mots.

These writers have to do the laundry, attend to family, deal with sick loved ones, parent youngsters, earn livings, etc. Each has a busy life full of obligations, and each has stepped beyond the occasional writing course to feed their passion for language to embrace a demanding course schedule and volume of required writing that has lasted 2 years. Now that we look back to 2008, when this program was in its final stages of being designed, how quickly it all passed.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, I was the masseuse for the Women’s Fitness Center. I was in the YMCA building at least three times a week and there are still people here who worked here then. Robert at the front desk and I discussed this just the other night, how we have known each other close to 35 years. I felt a part of the Y community and I loved my role, although I didn’t make much money. But people always said poets never make money and I was deeply invested in that lie.

In March of 2000, I returned to the YMCA after nearly 16 years of other career attempts. I was setting my sights on leaving the most recent role of secretary; I was finding a way to live my life as poet first and all the other labels afterwards. Through a network of colleagues, I was referred to the Y to work in an afterschool program of the newly established Y Arts branch. Y Arts was a shot in the dark on behalf of the Y but the Metropolitan School of the Arts had folded and there was a community need to be met that ran parallel with the national YMCA objectives to serve the whole being.

I was aware of the Writers Voice program that Jason Shinder brought into prominence and we set about the process of reaching out to Jason to bring our Y into the fold. In that simple suggestion, a seed was planted that germinated with one subsequent conference call upon which I sat in. The rest has become our history, first with Phil Memmer coming to Central NY and being hired to really formulate a comprehensive arts program and to build the Center, the Writer’s Center being something that we all know is dearest to his heart and interests as a writer. What a fine job he has done. Thanks, Phil.

And look at the remarkable fact that we are not only still open and ready to celebrate our first decade but that we have this graduation today. I have been misty-eyed all week. I have also admittedly been mystified that it has all worked. But this afternoon, this party, is the best of what all of those 10 years represent. Not just in the graduates but in the overall community. We have the best of America’s writers here to read for us and share their craft and angle on the mystery of being a writer.

We have award-winning, publishing faculty who share their talents with our students. We have current faculty and likely future faculty who have come through the doors first as students and workshop participants. We have faculty who have joined first as audience members. We are a community of our own, and we draw from and serve the greater community in the process.

The only regret is that more of our neighbors throughout Central NY do not even know that this resource is available but we can continue to grow our reputation and share the good news of the DWC. We can each be an ambassador for the remarkable entity that is the Downtown Writer’s Center.

To Phil, thanks for all you have done in building these programs and keeping the doors open to create a place for artists of all ages, and particularly for writers, much less envisioning this PRO course of study. How valuable it is and how far it reaches beyond the halls of academia or the workshop weeks of a low-residency program. PRO delivers a very personal experience for each who has embarked upon the journey or are so doing now.

To Jennifer Pashley, thank you for your careful and compassionate stewardship of each of these students, as well as for each of those taking any course we offer. We also thank you for your tireless support and advocacy on the behalf of the faculty. You are the hub of the wheel and we are so grateful.

To the faculty that has mentored these students, job well done. You have been generous of spirit and time and the success of these writers is a reflection of your work as teachers. You have been discerning, even tough when necessary, but you have been kind and have amplified the sense of her/his own capacity in each of these writers. How wonderful to be among you as colleagues.

To each of you graduating, thank you for your talents. The thesis readings were spectacular and equal to any of the “PROs” who have stood behind that fabulous bar to read for us. Plus you did not make the corny joke about wanting to serve drinks; you have heard it enough to refrain.

I hope that you will all continue with your efforts to publish. You are all worthy of the investment of print and the audience that is out there for you. This afternoon is a starting point, not an end. It is time to jump off the high board now that you have worked from the lower, diving into that cool water over and over, presenting new work, flawed work, astounding work, all of it. Each of you has developed differently but all of you are so accomplished today. Embrace it fully and then do not rest on your laurels…get going. Find homes for those words and create more. Bring more characters to life, breathe life into stanzas…do it all… because you love it and because language gifts you many times over.

Lastly, I want to commend you on the way you have supported each other. The bonds among you are touching and true. The way you each recognized the other to support the growth you witnessed, to help each other be the best writer you are all capable of is another generosity that is enviable. It is the heart and center of a community writer, a title I gladly share with each of you. Congratulations and best of luck.

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