Music and poetry event to commemorate 50th anniversary of May 4

As the spring semester begins, it brings with it the 50th anniversary of the May 4 shootings. The Wick Poetry Center issued a national call for poems centered around the themes of peace, conflict transformation and student advocacy to commemorate this event.

The contest was free and open to the public. The Wick Poetry Center accepted submissions from Sept. 21 until Dec. 15. During these three months, the contest garnered nearly 600 submissions from across the country, said David Hassler, director of the Wick Poetry Center. These poems were organized into three categories: adults, adult students and youth students in grades three-12. Three winners and two honorable mentions were chosen.

Among the winners is Carrie George, a graduate student in Kent State’s Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program. Her poem, “The Man Says Kent State Means Something Different to his Generation,” is about a conversation George had with someone who claimed the May 4 events carry different meanings for older generations. Although current students did not live through May 4, they still feel the culture of the event and are surrounded by it, George said.

“I think we need to remember that it can be dangerous to share your voice, but it’s definitely important,” George said.

Another winning poem called “Legacy” was written by Megan Neville, a high school teacher in Cleveland who has a personal connection to the events of May 4. As a Kent State graduate, Neville remembers walking around campus her freshman year of college as her father, another Kent State alumnus, walked through her schedule with her. It was not until they reached Taylor Hall when Neville’s father pointed out where he had been on May 4, that she learned of his experience.  

“It was this huge bonding moment between my father and I,” Neville said. “I intended the poem to be about the legacy left behind where, yes, it was a tragedy and it’s horrible that people died. But then the people who went through that experience and lived, lived their lives in a certain way and taught their children certain things.” 

Having “Legacy” picked as a winner meant a lot to Neville, whose father died near the end of December. This poem honors his memory and reinforces the value of learning from those who have lived through important historical events, Neville said.

“That’s why it’s called ‘Legacy,’ because the legacy of both a child going to the school that their parent went to, but it’s also what that whole generation leaves behind and what we’ve hopefully learned from them,” Neville said.

The call for poems was in partnership with the Academy of American Poets, a nonprofit organization based in New York. This collaboration gave the contest greater exposure through the use of the Academy of American Poets’ social media channels and website, Hassler said.    

The Wick Poetry Center chose poet and novelist Naomi Shihab Nye as the contest’s final judge. Nye, who has come to campus multiple times and led community workshops, explores issues of conflict in the Middle East and other global themes in her work.

“She’s really evolved as a kind of cultural poet, a global ambassador for poetry and for the use of poetry as a tool to bring people together and to find a small patch of common ground,” Hassler said. “We’re thrilled that Naomi chose the winners and two honorable mentions and will come to the campus and give a reading.”

The works collected from the contest will be used as part of the May 4 Music and Poetry Event, a two-day event that starts on April 21. Wick Poetry Center and Kent State School of Music are partnering to honor the anniversary by setting the winners’ poems to musical compositions. The event was spearheaded by H. Gerrey Noh, assistant professor of music theory and coordinator of undergraduate and graduate music theory, who has worked with Hassler on past collaborations between Wick and the School of Music.  

The event will give local composers the chance to demonstrate their abilities, which is something Adam Roberts, assistant professor of music composition and music theory, said he wants to focus on. Two composers are faculty members at the Stark campus, two are current students and one is a recent graduate. Roberts will also be composing a piece using the text of one of Nye’s poems. The event will combine written word and music through poetry readings, musical performances and other creative methods to engage all of the senses, Roberts said.  

“The students and other composers who are using this poetry to write music have a lot of freedom in how they do it,” Roberts said. “I mean, music to me is complete on its own and poetry is complete on its own. One doesn’t necessarily need the other one, but I think it is a really powerful kind of set of meanings that can happen when you combine words with music.”   

“Poetry can help give voice to some of these intractable problems of conflict and give people a sense of agency to share their own emotional truths,” Hassler said. “I think poetry can invite the conditions to give voice and to create a kind of opening for our own working out of those issues.”       

The May 4 Music and Poetry Event begins on Tuesday, April 21 at 7 p.m. in Ludwig Recital Hall in the Center for the Performing Arts. The second day of the event, which is co-sponsored by Kent State University Libraries, is on Wednesday, April 22 from 7-9 p.m. in the Kiva Auditorium, where Nye will be doing a poetry reading.

Contact Abigail Mack at [email protected].