Alice Sholto-Douglas, a Global Liberal Studies (GLS) major studying at NYU Florence this year, conceived of and organized a session on the communicative powers of poetry for La Pietra Dialogues(LPD). LPD convenes leading scholars, policy makers, artists, and professionals from around the world at NYU’s Villa la Pietra to confront today’s most challenging issues through the exchange of ideas and perspectives. Sholto-Douglas’ session, Hyacinths and Biscuits: The Power of Poetry in Contemporary Global Society, will bring together poets and spoken word artists from France, Australia, Georgia, Italy, and the USA on May 7, and in doing so, will contribute to the global cultural discourse that LPD fosters. Sholto-Douglas, who is originally from Cape Town, South Africa, spoke with Liberal Studies about her longtime affection for poetry.
How did you become interested in poetry?
Growing up, I always enjoyed reading and writing, and I had an affinity for words and sounds, so I liked jotting down my own little poetry attempts now and again. The summer before my senior year of high school, I began discovering poetry online through blogs and on YouTube, and, especially as a lot of these internet-savvy poets were around my age, I found a sort of reassuring, albeit mind-stirring, sanctuary in how I could relate to the words of others from all over the world.
When did you discover Spoken Word poetry?
During my freshman year in Paris, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by the city's extraordinary literary and poetry resources, as well as creative and inspiring friends. When I think back to this year, I remember the discovery of a lot of music, art, and books that inspired me to cultivate a collection of artists I followed. Above all, though, there was the discovery of Spoken Word Paris. Sometimes, on Monday nights, my friends and I would join a collection of expats and Parisians beneath the floorboards of Au Chat Noir to be lulled by words in a multitude of languages. Each time, I left with a growing love of poetry that ultimately inspired me to write and read more.
What do you believe is unique about the power of poetry to communicate?
Poetry is paradoxical, because it is a creative medium based in language, yet it still bridges barriers between people from a plethora of mother tongues who philosophize and perceive things differently as a result of cultural nuances. It appeals to our emotional commonalities enough that there becomes a heightened fervor and attention to words and their meaning. Poetry demands focus through carefully selected words, doesn't beat around the bush, and directly addresses important sociocultural and political issues that may be too taboo or complex to be addressed directly or with as much poise in everyday conversation. Especially in today's increasingly connected world, poetry is a medium that can reach a widespread audience, and I believe it has enormous potential to rally and unite people while unraveling misconceptions, stereotypes, and injustices in contemporary global society.
Describe what it means to you to be a part of LPD.
It has been an honor working with LPD's phenomenal staff and students this semester, as they have all been incredibly helpful and hardworking. LPD has given me opportunities to meet and engage with leaders, politicians, artists, and scientists, and the organization played a fundamental part in helping me secure my internship with the Middle East Now Film Festival this semester. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to expand my knowledge and work ethic with a group of people who are so encouraging and supportive.
What has been the biggest challenge in organizing your LPD?
It is difficult to define one specific aspect of the organization process that was the biggest challenge, as I was new to all of it. I found that organizing a dialogue requires a lot of attention and time, budgeting, logistics, and flight coordination, so there is always a lot to think about, mixed with the waiting game that is getting in touch with participants. It was all a wonderful challenge, though, as I got to test my Italian and become prepared for what I hope will be future experiences. And my experience was made easier by the support I received, so I would like to thank everyone who helped make this dialogue a reality.
What is the meaning of the session title, Hyacinths and Biscuits?
A key part of this dialogue is the underlying question: What is poetry? Carl Sandburg once made a list of the definitions of poetry, and one of those definitions declared, "Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits." I liked this whimsical explanation for something none of us can really define. That's poetry, I think--words used differently in order to create this shroud of emotion and feeling that hints at something greater. It is also just one of a list of definitions, and that is enticing too, because poetry isn't a static, one-answer explanation. It can be interpreted, discussed, and appreciated for different reasons and in different ways.
What will you miss most about Florence when you depart at the end of this academic year?
I will miss how the rain saturates the city, deepening its blue and red skyline peppered with deep green cypresses. I will miss figs, gelato, and good coffee. I will miss the hum of the Italian language, the warmth of Italian people, and the dynamic of the friend group I have made this past year. I will miss trains.
Updated on 03/20/2015