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Polites Recognizes the Power of Place

Polites Recognizes the Power of Place

An interview with Literary Arts and Studies faculty member Taylor Polites, who encourages students to engage with Providence’s rich history and diverse community.

Writer and Literary Arts and Studies faculty member Taylor Polites draws inspiration from historic scenes like this one of Providence’s Market Square—now at the heart of RISD’s campus.

In Pond Street Project, a Wintersession course introduced this year by Literary Arts and Studies faculty member Taylor Polites, students tapped into Providence’s rich history to develop multifaceted community-building strategies. As a writer of historical fiction, the author is best known for The Rebel Wife, a novel set in Alabama during the Reconstruction era. In addition to holding three degrees—in Creative Writing, History and French—Polites is also a maker (of knitwear, screenprints and more) and a devoted dog lover. Here he reflects on what it means to teach humanities to artists and designers and why he loves working with RISD students.

What were you hoping to bring to the curriculum with this new Wintersession course?
I’ve been conducting research on the city’s West Side and working with the Providence Public Library to build a web archive of historic materials that’s free and open to the public. I keep coming back to the Pond Street area because so many interesting things happened there—including the first statewide anti-slavery convention, which was held in a church on Westminster Street in 1836.

The story of the city is the story of the country: industrialization, immigration, social reform…. And the history of one neighborhood becomes a lens through which you can examine all these issues we’re still talking about today.

Polites accepts the 2018 Public Humanities Scholar Award from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. / photo by Matt Ferrara

What did you ask students to do?
Students were invited to design research and archival programs that respond to questions about community, diversity, access, inclusion and connection.

What are some of the most interesting ideas they proposed?
One project brought neighbors together to celebrate triple-decker houses built in the late 1800s to house millworkers. Students envisioned a “museum of three” and a community mural project.

Another team proposed a fiber arts festival tied to B.B. and Robert Knight, the 19th-century textile mill owners who created the Fruit of the Loom brand. They also envisioned a related panel discussion (led by historians) about immigration, child labor and life in the mills.

“The story of the city is the story of the country: industrialization, immigration, social reform... issues we’re still talking about today.”

Did these responses exceed your expectations?
Seeing people at this age having these discussions was really impressive. Creative place-making is a way to transcend the barriers that divide us and bring people together. It’s a unique way of seeing the world that I hope students will take with them when they leave RISD.

How do you shape liberal arts classes to meet the specific needs of art and design students?
I try to cultivate a sense of play in the classroom that allows students to take risks in their writing just as they do in their studio practices. One of the amazing aspects of the work students did in the Wintersession class is using play and playfulness to minimize risk for participants. They saw real-world examples in working with local organizations.

For example, Rhode Island Black Storytellers runs a liars contest encouraging people to stand up and tell tall tales without worrying about being great storytellers. The emphasis is on self-expression and experimentation.

“I try to cultivate a sense of play in the classroom that allows students to take risks in their writing just as they do in their studio practices.”

Do you enjoy that same freedom to experiment as a faculty member at RISD?
Absolutely. RISD is a place where I’m able to work through ideas and have the freedom to create a class like this. It’s a real privilege.

And I’ve been surprised by how much I get out of teaching. These students are putting their work out there and taking risks. It motivates my practice as a writer.

How do you help RISD students apply their talents as visual artists to the medium of writing?
I encourage students to bring the narratives they’re addressing in studio into my classroom. Their artwork and writing overlap, and that back-and-forth helps ideas evolve.

I’ve also had great experiences working with students in independent studies. I co-led a Collaborative Study Project with Kikuo Johnson 03 IL in Illustration with five students who created short illustrated anthologies, building characters, plot and conflict and translating those elements into a visual medium. The work they created was extraordinary.

I understand that you also work with younger students in Providence as part of the Goat Hill collaborative. What’s that about?
Goat Hill is me and fellow writers Ann Hood and Hester Kaplan, who both have taught at RISD as well. The three of us organize events and workshops that cultivate writing community. One such project is the Write Rhode Island! short fiction contest, which is open to Rhode Island students in grades 7–12. It’s wonderful to bring young writers along. I feel like I’m really making an impact. (I wrote short stories in secret at that age.)

Since you’re primarily known as a writer of historical fiction, do you think the history of Providence will turn up in your next novel?
I grew up in Huntsville, Alabama and was fascinated by the history of the south—the myths and the darkness. My first novel [The Rebel Wife, Simon & Schuster 2012] is based on all of that. To get to that level of feeling about a place takes a long time, but the Pond Street Project is giving me a deep granular understanding of Providence’s history. I can imagine walking down Broad Street in 1890. And that insight is just beginning to spark story ideas.

interview by Simone Solondz

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