“One of the things a good poet seeks is authenticity of voice.” —Patricia Jabbeh Wesley
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, professor of English, creative writing, and African literature at Penn State Altoona
Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, professor of English, creative writing, and African literature at Penn State Altoona, had plans. The recipient of a Penn State Humanities Fellowship, she intended to spend her 2020 summer as she had 2019, traveling to her native Liberia to teach poetry as part of her Young Scholars of Liberia (YSL) program. But then, in the middle of the spring semester, the pandemic hit. Her first order of business was getting her Penn State Altoona students through the rest of the semester. But—as is always the case with Wesley, who never does only one thing at a time—she also worked to reconfigure her plans for Liberian students as a Zoom class.
Wesley crafted the syllabus for the YSL to reflect their life experiences with a six-week class “tailored for students writing from the African world-view, with an African lens,” according to the syllabus. “Much of the class will focus on how to write our lives as African writers, how to celebrate the aesthetics of our being as Africans, utilizing the African motifs we were brought up on, particularly, the West African motifs, using images that are relevant to us as a people.” Although this class was not for credit, participation was emphasized; students who didn’t do the readings, have their writing ready for critique, or participate in discussions could face expulsion. In all, 33 students attended the class, aided in part by GoFundMe donations to cover the cost of the Internet connection.
While the students have a Liberian connection in common, their ages and backgrounds vary, from a literary critic/poet/teacher to a doctoral candidate in Caribbean literature and languages. While all the participants count as student-scholars, among them are middle-, high-school, and college-age participants, as well as established adults taking advantage of the opportunity to work with an internationally known poet and professor.
And work they did! Twice a week for six weeks the students met online with Wesley. They wrote, both in class and on their own. They had assigned readings because, as Wesley said to them during class, “You cannot be an effective writer without being a reader.”
A very important part of the class involved critiquing each other’s work. Their professor also read their work and made comments and suggestions. More than merely correcting spelling or grammar, Wesley dug deep in their lines to suggest word changes or possibly cutting something that strayed from the main topic. Maybe a line or two was longer than the rest, or the writer went off-topic. Wesley was always focused on the craft of writing: “When we edit a poem, we don’t just want to edit the words on the page, we want to edit the mind of the poem.”
The reasons for student participation varied. For some, it was about personal expression. Bob K. Queminee, a college sophomore who has had some of his work published, describes the act of writing poems poetically when he says it’s “a unique way of connecting my feelings. Writing helps me to look back and remind myself about the distance I’ve traveled between yesterday and today.” Jee-won M. Arkoi, a college junior and a mentor in the Young Scholars of Liberia program, says, “Life gets tough and sometimes talking about it just isn’t enough. As Ade [Professor Wesley] would say to us, ‘a poet has no boundaries!’ Writing helps me express exactly how I feel.”
The Liberian emphasis suited Essah Cozett Díaz, the only student with an American connection. “Growing up in Georgia, I only heard stories from my family about living in Liberia and the trauma caused by the war,” she says. “I figured that by participating in this class, I would learn how to improve my poems and learn about current experiences or issues in the country ... Taking this class allowed me to connect with younger voices and hear their stories as well as learn from Dr. Wesley on how to use our uniqueness as Liberians to break the silence.”
Any student can relate to recent college graduate Lorpu Vessilee’s reservations about a Zoom class; she asked, “How could an online poetry writing class allow for the same kind of community-building seen in in-person class?” Her concerns were quickly put to rest: “I was pleasantly surprised to find that taking poetry class online means not just writing your own new poem each week, but also reading and giving feedback on everyone else’s. Not only that, but you’ll likely be revising your poems based on all the feedback that you receive each week. It’s hard work, but I enjoyed it.”
Vermon Washington, a senior civil engineering student, is active in YSL and an alumnus of Wesley’s previous classes; he took the class “mainly because I wanted to develop my skills more and continue to connect with Dr. Wesley’s unique poetry workshops and mentorship.” The connection to Wesley resonates at all stages of life. Dr. Bartholomew Akpah (pen name Barth Akpah) is a published writer and member of the faculty at William V. S Tubman University. He says Wesley brings a “down-to-earth approach” to her teaching, as well as “confidence, student-centered criticisms, and motivation to write,” making the workshop “worthwhile and enjoyable.”
Now that her Zoom class is over, what will Wesley tackle next? In August she gave a reading, followed by a Q&A, at the International Poetry Festival of Medellin. In September she will participate in a panel on “The Writer’s Craft in Poetry Writing” during the 2020 Writers Conference of Northern Appalachia. As well, two of her poems are about to be published in The Tribes literary magazine. But Wesley’s main focus—through her fellowship and then a semester’s sabbatical, she says—will be collecting, compiling, and editing “submissions of poetry from Young Scholars of Liberia and others for a new anthology, Breaking the Silence: Anthology of Liberian Literature.”