Literally taking to the streets of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania students found inspiration in parks, museums, subways and street corners for their “Writing Philadelphia” class assignments.
New last semester, the course was designed to engage students with the city as readers, thinkers and writers, said Julia Bloch, director of Penn’s Creative Writing Program in the School of Arts and Sciences. The resulting creative works reflect their personal encounters.
“Rooting a syllabus in a place allows you to study so much more than the place,” said Bloch. “The literature, history, architecture, politics, culture, visual arts, physical geography -- the students are in that place and write about both the history and their direct experience.”
Some of the 11 students in the class were locals, but regardless of their hometowns each had an intense interest Philadelphia, Bloch said.
“I wasn’t totally expecting how passionate they felt about this city,” she said.
A senior majoring in science, technology, and society, senior James Prell grew up in Philly.
“I loved the course because it challenged me to write in ways that I haven't had to otherwise in my years here at Penn,” Prell said. “I think the fact that the class gave me an opportunity to engage with my hometown creatively was a big part of my enjoyment as well. This course helped me develop an even deeper understanding and appreciation of the city.”
Several new courses in the English Department use Philadelphia “both as inspiration and as the object of critical analysis,” said Zachary Lesser, undergraduate chair. “It’s a great experience for students.”
“Writing Philadelphia” also fits into a new critical-creative hybrid rubric that blurs the traditional boundaries between the study of literature, critical writing and creative writing, he said.
“Literature is literature, and writing is writing, and we are offering more courses that decline to draw a strong line between the two approaches,” Lesser said.
Since the course fulfilled a history-of-literature requirement, it started with Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and included poetry by Walt Whitman, fiction by Edgar Allan Poe and the sociological study by W.E.B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro.
Works by contemporary authors were equally important, including long-form journalism, memoir and poetry by authors including M.K. Asante, Sonia Sanchez, Susan Landers and Yolanda Wisher, who employ a sense of place in their writing. Wisher and Landers were guest speakers in class, and students had dinner with Asante.
“Including living writers, meeting and talking with them, was a very important element of the class,” Bloch said. “Contemporary writers like Asante, Landers, Wisher or Jena Osman write about the 18th and 19th centuries, so they helped us create connections across the syllabus.”
Junior Katherine Kvellestad, an English and Philosophy major from Calgary, Canada, who transferred to Penn last year, said her “impression of the course was that it had elements of a choose-your-own-adventure while also on a larger, guided adventure. The readings were captivating and engaged with the subject of Philadelphia from various accounts and angles.”
The course required visits to the Monument Lab exhibit of outdoor installations in the city, and the Speech/Acts exhibition at Penn’s Institute for Contemporary Art. The class wrote about work by artist Sharon Hayes, a Penn School of Design associate professor of fine arts, whose sculpture was included in the Monument Lab project.
“What happens when you notice a monument, when you stop and ask questions?” Bloch said. “What does it mean when we all walk past the Ben Franklin statue on Locust Walk, after reading his work, responses to his work, criticisms of his work? We formulated some serious critiques of Franklin.”
Weekly class meetings were on the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, where the students could access original documents in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.
“It was tremendously exciting to look at the first poem Benjamin Franklin printed, the only known copy of that poem,” Bloch said. “In the autobiography he describes printing Samuel Keimer’s ‘Elegy on the Death of Aquila Rose,’ which makes it very exciting to read about and then encounter the original broadside.”
For an archival project, Kvellestad worked on an edition of William Still's Underground Railroad records.
“It's a unique experience to interact with all the history that we discuss in class and to delve into just what a material object can mean when we're talking about these larger themes of place and identity," she said.
Lauren Drake is a sophomore in the School of Engineering and Applied Science from Pittsburgh, with plans to double-major in English. “I think that anchoring the course in a city allowed us to actively engage with its history,” she said. “I definitely learned a lot about Philadelphia history, particularly its history of racism, violence and injustice.
“It also forced us to look closely at the city we live in,” she said. “We were able to go for a walk to see what we were reading about. We wrote out the structures existing in our day-to-day lives.”
Drake’s poem, “She Came; Alls Well” focused on the challenges of navigating the city streets.
Broad Street ain’t broad enough
For handicapped folks
More than half the time
Gotta span AT&T to
Fern Rock Transportation Center
At a pace that exceeds
Human legs and wheels
Maps figured prominently in one segment of the class, helping the students produce some of their work.
As inspiration, they studied a poem by Yolanda Wisher from her book Notes from a Slave Ship. Each section of poem is based in a section of Philadelphia, the titles specific points like City Hall or Broad Street Line.
Bloch spread out a stack of Philadelphia maps on the large classroom table: “modern, AAA, touristy and plastic-y, historical, hand-drawn, one from W.E.B. Du Bois, a map from 1797, another from 1681, a 2012 map showing all public school closures, a SEPTA map.”
The students then chose three maps from the pile.
“I told students: hold them in your hands, choose a spot on each map and write a section of a poem for each spot,” she said. “Some spots were familiar, others unfamiliar. And even if you know a spot on a map very well, it is open to imaginative possibility.”
The results were varied: some students wrote straightforward narratives, others a fictional tale.
“Taken together they show an amazing range of imaginative situations in Philadelphia that are rooted in actual detail,” Bloch said. “It was extraordinary.”
The poem “i’ll see you tomorrow” by Maya Arthur, a senior English major from Maryland, describes physical and personal space.
I try to tell everyone I know that
the African American Museum on 7th
lies next to the Federal Detention
Center and when i wait in the cold,
i sit on a bench, edged into
Prell’s poem, “It’s Right Off of Germantown Ave by GFS,” was an examination of his hometown.
Where I invite my friends, see family
But look at a map from 1797,
the house wasn’t built yet
Look at a map from 1854
the foundations were set, but the place is a stranger.
On the bus, I pass through Bristol Township.
Or at least I would, but I missed it by a century or so, I’m driving down Olney Ave.
I call it Germantown but my map calls in Logan.
Kvellestad’s final project was a creative portfolio that wove together the ideas of place and home.
“As a rogue Canadian living in Pennsylvania, the class has given me a lot to think about and made me more aware of how ‘place’ is informed and developed for the individual through our own histories, as well as the history of the place itself,” she said.
Kvellestad’s poem “Legend” was based on her experience on a SEPTA train ride, ending with:
30th street station
NOT ON CAMPUS
BUT STILL NOT FAR ENOUGH
BUT STill not far enough
to be home
Ill catch ya
on the flip side, Philly.