Everyone deserves to experience poetry, “whether those people are 6 years old, or 90 years old, or incarcerated or getting their GED at the community center,” said Rick Benjamin, the newly appointed State Poet of Rhode Island and adjunct assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies.
Governor Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 announced Benjamin’s appointment as the fifth State Poet of Rhode Island in a January press release. Benjamin will serve a five-year term, replacing previous State Poet Lisa Starr.
A poetic post
The position, created in 1989, does not entail any specific duties by law. But according to a publication by the Office of the Governor, it “is traditionally held by an artist who represents the highest achievement in poetry” in the state and who “serves as the principal advocate for poetry in Rhode Island.”
“For many years already I have been involved in poetry and community engagement,” said Benjamin, who is the author of “Passing Love: Poems” and a forthcoming collection entitled “Floating World: Poems.” Even so, his selection came as “a big surprise,” and it was an honor just to be nominated, he said.
“Dr. Rick Benjamin is an accomplished and committed poet and educator who has taken his love for and belief in the power of poetry far beyond the classroom and out into our Rhode Island communities,” Chafee said in the press release.
Benjamin has participated in various nonprofit organizations and programs that promote the arts among the wider state community. Through his involvement with initiatives such as Rhode Island River of Words, Project 540 and New Urban Arts, Benjamin has extended his passion for poetry outside of academia.
“I wish that as part of our citizenship here we take seriously the idea that art needs to be in public schools, and that public schools right now are suffering with a lack of the arts,” he said.
One of his goals as State Poet is to “try to circulate more enlightened thinking through poetry,” he said. “I believe this medium is charged with (a) level of transformation,” he said. “It has incited people to change and to think differently.” One of his specific aims is to find a sponsor to fund several classes and workshops for teachers, especially those in Rhode Island public schools. These classes would be geared toward giving teachers incentives to explore their own creativity, he said. He also wants to increase poetry and arts education in general in public schools, he said.
Everyone has something to learn from poetry, he said. Each community has something unique to offer, and any program trying to bring two different groups together through poetry will result in a “rich exchange” for both parties, he added.
Journey back to Brown
Benjamin currently teaches two courses at Brown this semester: AMST 2961: “Poetry in Service to Schools and the Community” and ENVS 0520: “Wild Literature in the Urban Landscape.”
William Serratelli ’16, who is taking “Wild Literature,” called the seminar-style course “informal,” adding that Benjamin presents himself as though he were “just a student.” Benjamin often uses a metaphor to describe the class as “caught in a dense thicket,” Serratelli said. “Our job is to wander through this thicket together.”
Benjamin does not dictate a specific direction for his students to take, Serratelli said. Instead, it is “the fact that we’re all searching together — the journey is what we’re supposed to get out of it,” he said.
Benjamin has taught courses in several departments, including literary arts and English. He is also currently lecturing at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Above all, Benjamin said he is happy to be able to continue doing what he enjoys. “I will always be interested in combining my work as a community practitioner with my life as a teacher and as an artist,” he said.
—With additional reporting by Alison Silver