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Poetry Fit to Tweet

When the English Department wanted to promote its new Twitter account and Facebook page, it could have touted its accomplished faculty members or investigated the Payne Hall ghost. Instead, with senior Eric Gehman leading the way, the department conducted a contest for poems about the so-called Purple Painting, which hangs on the landing between the second and third floors of Payne. What does that have to do with social media? The poems had to be tweet-sized: 140 characters or less.

“I’m kind of a technology nerd, so I figured I could handle it,” said Gehman of his first assignment, to initiate the departmental social media. He’s the work-study student for the English Department; Suzanne Keen, who chaired the department last academic year, tasked him with the project. He then spent a summer internship doing media accounts for a retirement community—an audience with a different set of technological skills and needs than the recent W&L graduates who are the primary users of Facebook and Twitter.

“I brought a lot of know-how when I came back in the fall,” Gehman said, “knowing that I would be fostering a community of people who are really invested in technology and the community that goes on in social media.”

The notion of a promotional contest also emerged last spring, from conversations among Gehman; Lesley Wheeler, a poet and the Henry S. Fox Professor of English; and senior Max Chapnick, who will take Gehman’s place when Gehman graduates this December.

“What I had was a wouldn’t-it-be-fun idea, with no ability whatsoever to put it into action given my current workload,” said Wheeler. “It became clear that Eric was going to run with the idea. He made it happen—I’m really impressed with him.”

Wheeler suggested the painting as the subject of the poems. “I teach creative writing classes in the building, and every once in a while I’ll do a writing prompt, or I’ll say, ‘OK, go somewhere for 10 minutes and look at something—there’s a lot of art around—and write about what you see.’ There are always Purple-Painting poems that come up.” She and her fellow poets on the third floor of Payne, professors Deborah Miranda and Leah Green, occasionally compare notes on what they see in the abstract, color-saturated painting.

For his part, Gehman wanted to hold “a fun, English-oriented contest.” From Lancaster, Pa., he is majoring in English and minoring in philosophy and women’s and gender studies. He’s worked with the student organizations End It, which seeks to end sexual assault on campus, and Active Minds, which educates students about mental health. A swimmer, he received a Scholar-Athlete Award in 2009.

For the contest, he drew inspiration from Wheeler’s course in creative writing and poetry, which he’s taking this term.  “I thought, ‘What if we had people write poems?’ It would jell with the social media construct. I thought 140 characters is a good way to make it a low-impact creative assignment.”

He agreed with Wheeler about the artwork. “The painting’s perfect because it’s abstract enough that you can read anything you want into it,” he said. “There’s a big window for creativity.”

Officially titled “Mood Indigo,” the undated painting is the creation of Evelyn Dawson Wynn (c. 1909–1990). The multitalented artist had careers as a painter, a dancer with the pioneering Denishawn modern dance company, and a fashion designer for the Suzy Perette label. Her husband, Larry Wynn, of the W&L class of 1934, donated it and many of her pieces to W&L.

The painting graces Payne Hall thanks to Suzanne Keen, now interim dean of the College. As department chair when the Payne Hall renovation wrapped up, she got to select new artwork for the building. “I love color-field images, and the super-saturated violet really caught my eye,” Keen said. “I relished the idea of the students passing into the Purple Zone where the poets are, up there on the third floor of Payne Hall. And the rest is Twitter literary history.”

In addition to social media, Gehman publicized the contest through the old-school methods of talking it up to faculty members so they’d promote it in their classes (“one of the biggest ways to drive turnout”) and slapping flyers on walls and doors. “That’s sort of the great irony,” he noted, “this utopic vision of technology we all have, that we’re all moving into the digital space for all of our communications to take place online.”

Gehman also relied on Jamie Goodin, a 2010 alumnus who handles the University’s overall social media efforts and re-Tweeted information about the contest. “This project is a testament to how quickly and effectively the social media ecosystem has developed here over the past year,” said Gehman.

The contest was open to current students (category one), alumni (category two), and faculty, staff and W&L community members (category three). Gehman, Wheeler and poet Andrea Null, a 2010 graduate of W&L, judged the entries.

“The poetry contest, I hope, ends up being a perfect storm of what makes social media really fun and interesting,” said Gehman.

The department announced the winners on its Facebook page. Here are the first place winners in the three categories.

Student Division – Anne Persons, ’15

It is the night sky
Smattered with my grape
Cough syrup, and I

Pass it en route to
class, forecasting symptoms of
#brainflu and #payneflu

Alumni Division – Jeanne Dillon-Williams, ‘96

Even then I saw her. That plummy
little heliotrope. Mommy’s nymphalid!
Spun up in crimson empyrean,
dreaming of milk and light.

Faculty/Staff Division – Laura Brodie, English Department

Rising from purple fog
The ghost descends to the classroom
To push pale fingers leftward
Yes, yes, yes.
Follow me back to the painted door.

Read the complete list of winners and their poems on the English Department Facebook page.

News Contact:
Julie Campbell
Associate Director of Communications and Public Affairs