Ten years ago, as San Jose State University celebrated its 150th anniversary, a new tradition was born.
“It’s kind of amusing,” said Alan Soldofsky, a poet who founded the San Jose State master’s in creative writing program in 2000 and continues as director. “This is the 10th year of what we call Legacy of Poetry Day. It started at the initiation of a colleague, whose name is Annette Nellen, who happens to be a tax professor at the college of business. She has a hobby that involves looking at the history at San Jose State, and she became very interested in Edwin Markham and California’s second poet laureate, who taught at San Jose State, named Henry Meade Bland.
“She got excited about them and contacted me, and said we have to have an annual day during National Poetry Month when we celebrate and remind people how far back poetry on our campus goes,” Soldofsky said. The next sentence makes him laugh: “So we started a committee.”
That committee organized a reading of more than 20 alumni, students, faculty and staff, including special guest Al Young, who was then California’s poet laureate. Young wrote a poem for the occasion, the title of which has been chosen as the theme for this year’s Legacy of Poetry Day: “Ways and Ways to San Jose.” The event helped the committee inspire the university to pass a resolution to create an annual celebration of its poetic legacy — one that already lives on in lines by Markham and Meade that adorn plaques throughout the campus.
The committee has organized an event every year since, with some celebrations larger than others, but this one is special: In addition to the faculty, student and staff reading, there will be a poet laureates reading featuring many local laureates and culminating with a reading by U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.
Any chance to hear the nation’s poet laureate is a special occasion, but this event is historically significant. The legacy at San Jose State essentially begins when Markham’s 1899 poem highlighting the brutality of farm work, “The Man With the Hoe,” was printed in the San Francisco Examiner and promptly reprinted around the world. Markham became famous and gave lectures to labor groups as often as he gave poetry readings. He would go on to establish the Poetry Society of America in 1910, and his poem “Lincoln, the Man of the People” was selected to be read at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial.
Markham’s legacy helped establish at San Jose State an enduring connection between poetry and the working class — a connection encapsulated by Herrera’s poetry, which is heavily influenced by his experiences as the child of migrant workers. Born in the San Joaquin Valley, Herrera is the first Latino to be appointed U.S. Poet Laureate.
Among those joining him are Young; San Francisco Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguía; Nils Peterson, founder of Poetry Center San Jose and the first Santa Clara County poet laureate; and San Jose State faculty member Sally Ashton, who recently completed her term as Santa Clara County’s second poet laureate.
IF YOU GO
Legacy of Poetry Day: 5 p.m. Thursday, May 5. Free. Hammer Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio Walk, San Jose.
Photo by Geoffrey Smith III
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