In a story published this weekend, The New York Times reported that The City University of New York is home to a number of very highly accomplished poets, including this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Tyehimba Jess, who teaches at the College of Staten Island and joins a long list of winners of prestigious awards and honors teaching at CUNY.
The Times reported that “many poet-professors said they enjoyed working with students who were new to the country, people with jobs and children and full lives outside of the classroom.” The former poet laureate of the United States, Billy Collins, who taught at Lehman College for nearly 50 years, described CUNY as the “academic version of the Statue of Liberty.”
Faculty members are not the only poets at CUNY—before Mr. Jess, Gregory Pardlo, a CUNY graduate student at the time, won the Pulitzer in 2015.
“CUNY has to be one of the most diverse universities in America, and it seems self-evident to me that diversity of all kinds contributes to creativity,” Chancellor James B. Milliken said. “Add to that the fact that we’re in New York City.”
The text of the article can be viewed below and is available online here.
How CUNY Became Poetry U.
The City University of New York is many things. It is vast. It is accessible to students without a lot of money. It is exceptionally diverse. It is not, however, particularly fancy, the kind of place that oozes exclusivity or prestige.
And yet CUNY is home to a surprising number of extremely accomplished, recognized — some might even say fancy — poets.
This year, the Pulitzer Prize for poetry went to “Olio,” a book by Tyehimba Jess, an associate professor of English at the College of Staten Island.
Mr. Jess joins an extensive list at CUNY. Ben Lerner, a MacArthur Fellow, teaches at Brooklyn College. Kimiko Hahn, winner of the prestigious PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry, teaches in the Queens College M.F.A. program. Grace Schulman is at Baruch College, Patricia Smith is at the College of Staten Island, Meena Alexander and Tom Sleigh are at Hunter College. Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States, retired last year after teaching at Lehman College for almost 50 years.
As it happens, poets at CUNY have won the Pulitzer in two out of the past three years — before Mr. Jess’s award, Gregory Pardlo, a CUNY graduate student at the time, took the prize in 2015. And, in a related category, Sarah DeLappe, a Brooklyn College M.F.A. student, was a finalist this year in the drama category for a play about a girls’ high school soccer team.
“I’m not sure that ‘fancy’ is the key to creativity,” James B. Milliken, the CUNY chancellor, said in an interview. “CUNY has to be one of the most diverse universities in America, and it seems self-evident to me that diversity of all kinds contributes to creativity. Add to that the fact that we’re in New York City.”
It is difficult to overstate the city’s draw for many poets. The expense can be daunting, but it is the center of their industry. It is where publishing happens, and where poets from all over the world come to read their work. And since the number of poets who can make an actual living just by their writing is tiny, many of them turn to teaching — though you wouldn’t necessarily know it to read their work.
“There are two things people don’t often write about: wives and teaching,” Mr. Collins said in an interview. “I think they want to give the impression they’ve transcended bourgeois activities.”
From there, it becomes a matter of where: Where can you get a job, and where would you like to go?
“New York is a city where poets really want to live,” said Cate Marvin, the founder of VIDA, an organization for women in the literary arts, a poet and an English professor at the College of Staten Island. “So at the College of Staten Island, for example, when we run searches and hire people, it’s often really competitive because people really want to move to New York.”
“Poets,” she added, “will kill to live in New York.”
Teaching at CUNY in particular appeals to those who like the idea of teaching students who don’t have access to exclusive, cloistered classrooms, Ms. Marvin said. Many poet-professors said they enjoyed working with students who were new to the country, people with jobs and children and full lives outside of the classroom. Mr. Collins described the system as an “academic version of the Statue of Liberty.”
Ms. Schulman, a much lauded poet and a former Guggenheim fellow who has taught at Baruch College for 45 years, said a few years ago an undergraduate in one of her classes won a prestigious award for a poem she wrote about walking through Chinatown.
“I said, ‘Look, Susan, don’t you think we ought to talk about graduate school?’” Ms. Schulman recounted. “And she said, ‘Oh, no, I want to be an accountant.’”
Most students do not attend CUNY for reasons of poetry. A spokesman for the university said the largest majors at its senior colleges were in areas like business and psychology.
Mr. Lerner, who teaches at Brooklyn College, said the diversity of a CUNY classroom, like the diversity of the city itself, was a draw. “The linguistic density and diversity of New York is unlike any place else in the country,” Mr. Lerner said. “With so many languages coming into contact in the classroom, really any undergraduate course at CUNY, no matter what the subject, becomes a kind of poetry course.”
In his work, Mr. Jess, this year’s Pulitzer winner, focuses on African-American history and biography, frequently writing about black artists whose names we should know, he said, but often don’t.
Mr. Jess describes New York as a “literary feast,” and he tells his students that with the readings and poets from all over the world converging here, they can basically go out and get themselves a free education by being active and attentive. But he does have a word of caution for those new to the city: “You can’t succumb to the hype.”
“There is that cartoon about how there’s New York, and then there’s the rest of the planet,” said Mr. Jess, who is from Detroit. “It’s the most international yet provincial place. Some people believe the world will come to them.”
Despite his recent win, Mr. Jess has no plans to give up teaching.