In My America ...

"In My America" live!

A collaborative poetry project comes to life on stage, combining dance and recorded video performances by students, faculty, staff, and community members.
By: Therese Boyd

Poetry has certainly had its moment in 2021. After Amanda Gorman performed her poem “The Hill We Climb” during the Biden inauguration, Erin Murphy’s cellphone “lit up,” she says. An award-winning poet and professor of English at Penn State Altoona, Murphy was surprised by the volume of texts and calls she was receiving: “I have a lot of writer friends, but what was interesting to me was there were all kinds of messages—neighbors, former neighbors, my cat’s vet—saying, ‘Wasn’t that amazing?’ These are people who don’t necessarily spend much time thinking about poetry.”

Murphy, though, thinks about poetry a lot. And the reaction to Gorman’s poem started her thinking about how to utilize that enthusiasm for poetry into something positive. “It was our second semester of virtual teaching and people were feeling alienated from each other. A collaborative project would give us something to work on as a community.”

In search of an idea, Murphy says, “I decided to create a project based on ‘anaphora,’ a literary device in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of each line. I came up with a good beginning phrase, ‘In my America,’ which allows people say whatever they want to say about this country at this time.”

Naomi Baker recording Erin Murphy reciting a line from In My America.

Naomi Baker recording Erin Murphy reciting a line from “In My America”

Credit: Penn State

The next step was to get the word out: Strategic Communications director Jonathan O’Harrow “created an interactive web page for the project with a video of me leading a workshop available to anyone who wanted to write a line,” Murphy explains. She led prospective writers “through the process of writing a line like this. I conducted the workshop in classes, in meetings, even the Chancellor’s Council—the idea was to get as many people involved as possible.” The response was very positive with some acknowledging, “Wow, I never knew it could be so hard to write half a sentence!” Murphy understands that reaction: “It takes bravery to share a line like that when it’s not in your job description. It was rewarding to see how proud they were of their contributions.”

Once she had the contributions, Murphy then turned to the task of putting them together. “It was really interesting—and a little overwhelming—to read all of the lines and arrange them so that it felt like a single, organized poem.” Three categories of themes emerged: beauty, darkness, and hope. “People were very open about expressing how they felt. I decided it was important to end on a feeling of hope. While not shying away from the reality of the challenges our country is facing, these final lines offer hope for a better tomorrow.”

The poem was released on April 1, the first day of National Poetry Month, and posted in written and audio form on the website. An article in the Altoona Mirror about the poem inspired a similar project at Glendale High School in Flinton, PA. But “In My America” was far from over. Murphy began talking with colleagues KT Huckabee, teaching professor of integrative arts and dance, and Naomi Baker, assistant teaching professor of theater and integrative arts, about incorporating the performing arts into the project.

“It was all Erin,” says Huckabee. “She conceived of the poem and then she felt that the project was so successful it shouldn’t end there. There should be a way to create an opportunity for everyone to experience this in a more performative way. Reading it is great, hearing it recited is wonderful as well. The three of us started talking about taking this to the next level. I’m always up for collaboration.” They decided to hold a performance incorporating both video and dance built around the “In My America” poem.

Huckabee brought physical movement through dance into the project. “I work with both the Ivyside Dance Ensemble and Allied Motion Dance Company,” she says, and both companies are performing during the event. While Ivyside Dance Ensemble and Allied Motion are both extensions of the dance program, Ivyside Dance Ensemble is comprised of students and Allied Motion company members are students, faculty, some staff, alumni, and the larger Altoona and State College communities. “When you’re [a dancer and] still in this area, you age out,” Huckabee explains. “Allied Motion continues the life of a dancer.” When the “In My America” performance became a reality, “we decided to share. Ivyside Dance has their section, Allied Motion has their section, and the final section is performed by both companies. It’s a great opportunity for community building.”

Ivyside Dance Ensemble performing at the Student Expo

Ivyside Dance Ensemble performing at the Student Expo

Credit: Penn State

This performance will be different in that the dancers “will be working with the spoken word instead of using musical accompaniment,” Huckabee says. “Most of them only dance to music and only dance to music they know,” but with the spoken word “phrasing and wording are constantly changing” and that requires a different reaction from the dancers. In creating her choreography, she explains, “Sometimes if I have a certain theme or emotion, I look for movement that supports that theme or emotion.” What emotion does a live performance of “In My America” bring? “It feels like a celebration of rejoining the world.”

Baker, who became the videographer for the project, was on board immediately. “Collaboration is my middle name. I’m all about working with other people,” she says. “This is the kind of thing I love to do.” For a poem of 127 lines, she needed 127 people to speak a line. “I crafted an email to send to all faculty, all staff, all students.” That brought some volunteers but not enough. “Literally there were times when I hunted people down, I said, ‘you need to do this.’” Baker really “wanted to include athletics somehow” and so approached the men’s soccer coach Fraser Kershaw. “He was like ‘cool!’ So I went to soccer practice.” She thought the Arts and Humanities division “should be supporting this” so “I brought my camera to the monthly meeting and filmed them saying one line.”

Not all readers were easy to find, Baker admits. “When I would go out on campus to film one person, I would stop students or faculty as they were walking around campus and say, ‘Hey, you want to be in a film?’ A lot of people I just randomly stopped. Some of them were just awesome.” She also inserted a new element to the videos. “The poem is written in English. I came across a young lady who was having trouble with the line. I asked her ‘What’s your first language?’ She said Spanish. I ended up having one person so I asked several other people to do their line in another language.”

Changing the language “was a carryover from a previous project,” Baker explains. “When COVID first hit, I did a project called "Stories of Hope." Ivyside Pride, Ivyside Dance, and the theatre program collaborated. I asked all of the poets on campus if we could use some of their poetry about hope. We recorded different poems about hope.” While “Stories of Hope” and “In My America” were both video projects, for the former, Baker notes, “I was using actors. For ‘In My America,” the people who speak the poems are students, faculty, and staff from all over the campus.”

She is grateful for their participation. “I truly appreciated the speakers I got, their willingness to say some of the stuff they said. Very few said anything they actually wrote. I find it really interesting that it’s easier for people to send in a line than for them to look into a camera and speak a line from a poem. That’s a brave thing for them to do. Generally, if they didn’t like a line, they didn’t choose it.”

After viewing a preview of the performance during the Altoona Student Expo on Oct. 7, Murphy said, “It’s thrilling to see this project coming together. I am so grateful to everyone who has contributed: those who wrote and recorded lines of poetry, the dancers who are performing, and my colleagues KT and Naomi who took my original concept and transformed it into a stunning interdisciplinary piece to share with our community.”

The end product will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on November 11 and 12, at the Misciagna Family Center for Performing Arts. Admission is free thanks to support from Chancellor and Dean Lori J. Bechtel-Wherry and Timothy L. Wherry. Murphy’s idea for the project is “brilliant,” says Chancellor Bechtel-Wherry, acknowledging that it “was cathartic for me, and it inspired many at our college during a time of angst and concern. Tim and I are delighted to sponsor the live performance. I look forward to seeing how the production will be staged, and I am confident that it will be inspiring.”

All three faculty members are excited about the live performance and the collaboration between faculty, staff, and students, between campus and community. “I’m hoping that all who are involved in the writing and filming of the poem will come to see the final iteration of what this project and take pride in that they were part of the process,” Huckabee says. “We are all part of something bigger.”