‘Top-drawer’ poetry for everyone
British poet Seni Seneviratne engages Cal State L.A. masters students in an Black British Writing seminar in a conversation about her poetry, techniques and the writing process.
Jean Burden may never have walked the hallways of Cal State L.A. as a student or a professor, but her legacy thrives on campus nonetheless.
The late, renowned poetry editor, essayist and writer left a lasting impression on the hillside campus through her support and help in creating a widespread appreciation for poetry education.
Burden, who died in April at the age of 93, is credited with, among other things, helping to create a laureate-attracting poetry program and being the initial impetus behind the University’s Center for Contemporary Poetry and Poetics.
“Her legacy is hugely ongoing,” said Lauri Ramey, the director of Cal State L.A.’s poetry center. “Jean Burden did more than any other person to make Cal State L.A. a major poetry center.
“She extended her reach to Britain, to high schools, to grade schools, to the Huntington to scholars all around the world. And she did this through Cal State L.A.,” Ramey added.
“I am not sure of any other poetry center like us,” Lauri Ramey said. “We are sending a message that poetry is for everybody. We are offering top-drawer poetry and prose to an underserved population that is thriving on it.”
Burden became formally connected with the University in 1986, when a group of students inspired by the poetry workshops she ran from her Altadena home decided to establish the Jean Burden Annual Poetry Series. The series, which is today one of the longest running and most prestigious readings in the country, has brought the likes of British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion and Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove to campus and classrooms. Most recently the University welcomed British writer, singer, photographer and performer Seni Seneviratne onto campus.
Poets who visit for both the reading series and the British Council’s Poet-in-Residence Program visit classrooms, field students’ questions about the writing process and share their own experiences, to engage students and the University community.
“It’s wonderful to have access to these great people,” said David Crittendon, a Los Angeles high school teacher who is pursuing his master’s in an interdisciplinary program. “I mean, where else do you get that?”
Crittendon and his classmates have said that they have been inspired to pursue their own writing dreams and even discovered their inner-poets through readings and events hosted through the poetry center.
“I am not sure of any other poetry center like us,” Ramey said. “We are sending a message that poetry is for everybody. We are offering top-drawer poetry and prose to an underserved population that is thriving on it.”
The center’s influence on the surrounding community is expected to continue to grow in coming years, Ramey said. Plans for the near future include establishing a Jean Burden Reading archive in the library with a series of taped readings and workshops that Burden left to the University. The Center will also host Victor Hernández Cruz, the first Latino poet to be featured in the series, in April.
“We are the place for poetry, that is really the idea,” Ramey said.