Many big things happened during Homecoming last weekend. The football team had a big victory over Northwestern Oklahoma State University. The musical “Big Fish” made a huge splash on the Benson stage. Elijah Anthony (class of 1968) received a distinguished honor. The late and beloved professor Dr. Betty Watson had a striking portrait unveiled in the Cannon-Clary College of Education.
Amid all these big moments, one small thing happened. It was listed in the schedule of weekend activities, but as one of so many, it was easy to miss. Harding’s poetry club marked its 15th year with a reunion. Size-wise it was a wee event, with only 13 people. But fittingly for a group of poets, the symbolism was huge.
In 2003, two English majors had a crazy idea. Tim Nance and Andrea Zahler decided to meet three times a week and recite poems to each other. Committed to the old-fashioned but mind-sharpening practice of memorizing verse, these die-hards invited others to join them. Passionate as they were, though, it did not take long to realize that the goal of three poetry recitals a week was unsustainable.
So they settled on just one hour. In a fit of eccentricity, Tim came up with the name “Cultic Goat Wednesdays.” Later fearing that the club’s activities could be misunderstood, he wisely changed the name to “Souvenirs” — the French word for “remember.” Week after week, the members met to read, recite and reflect.
To become official, the group needed a sponsor. I was a new faculty member that year and happily agreed to join this quixotic adventure. As a teacher who has labored — often in vain — to convince skeptical students that they need poetry in their lives, I was thrilled to find young adults who didn’t need convincing. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder how long it would last.
After all, if you have a football game, people will come. If you hold a concert, people will come. If you put on a musical, people will come. But if you announce a poetry reading, crickets will come. Even though poets have had mass appeal during many ages of history, we are not living in one of those ages. So as the British cockney would say, “I ‘ad me doubts.”
That was 15 years ago, and over a decade after Tim, Andrea and other charter members graduated, we are still here. Every fall it seems that new people wander our way, discovering a community of kindred spirits. Like the French Club, or the Dactylology Club, or the Classic Film Club, what we lack in membership, we make up for in enthusiasm.
What’s not to like? We have hot tea, served in mis-matched mugs. We pick a poet each week and check out a towering stack of books from the library. We sit in a circle in the Sears Honors House on Tuesdays, with piles of Browning, or Frost, or Angelou, often reading silently for long stretches of time before someone finds a poem to read out loud. And if you’ve never watched people read silently before, you can’t really claim to have lived.
Unashamedly nerdy, we embrace those awkward silences. In a noisy world, where opinions are often shouted rather than shared, there is something refreshing about the quiet. Especially when it is followed by a poem — one read out loud by people who are training themselves to pay attention to rhythm and rhyme and sound. People who treasure language and want to do it justice, even as we stumble over the occasional unfamiliar word or odd line.
Souvenirs has a colorful history. We’ve held fundraisers on Feb. 14, where students could rent a member to recite a poem to their Valentine. We’ve held “Poetry Showdowns,” where two people memorize the same poem and recite alternating lines to see who makes the fewest mistakes. We’ve had “come-as-your-favorite-poet” Halloween parties, only to realize that Walmart has a rather thin selection of poet costumes.
We’ve made road trips to nearby bookstores until most of them closed. We’ve recorded CDs. We’ve read poems in nursing homes. We’ve held all-day public readings of epics such as “Paradise Lost” and “The Iliad.” And we’ve gone down in defeat when we realized 12 hours too late that “The Iliad” takes 18 hours to read out loud.
We retold these stories at the reunion. Tim Nance was there, making the drive from Tennessee. Others came from as far away as Iowa and as nearby as Little Rock. As a tiny band of past and present members sat in a circle for old times’ sake, our current president spoke for us all when she thanked the founders for creating a place for poetry lovers to belong.
We are unabashed at being a little different. We love beauty and old words. We cherish time with people who share these things in common. Souvenirs is simply a microcosm of what Harding and Homecoming are all about.