Notable alum brings the bliss of poetry back to campus

Rachel Williams

Photo courtesy: @iwutributaries on Instagram

Tributaries, the creative arts journal on campus, recently hosted Illinois Wesleyan alum Dan Smart on Thursday, November 11th in the basement of Evelyn Chapel. Smart graduated from IWU in 2006 with a major in Creative Writing, Smart is a freelance poet and operates a blog called Rhythm Is the Instrument. His work has been featured in The Los Angeles Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Little Stone Journal to name a few. Smart also contributes to the website Tiny Mix Tapes. 

This was not Smart’s first time back at IWU as a guest speaker. In 2016, Smart joined English and Head of the English Department Mike Theune in presenting at IWU’s Artistic and Scholarly Sessions. 

Their presentation focused on poetic turns. Smart and Theune, along with other student contributors, examined the “volta,” or point in which a poem takes a turn in mood or thought. Smart mostly used the session to explain to the group how he makes use of the volta in his own writing.

At this event, Smart began by reading some of his poetry. The poems came from his blog, interestingly subtitled “Ministry without religion,” where he has featured an original poem every day since 2013. Over the span of eight years, Smart has written nearly three-thousand poems and counting.

Smart recited about thirty poems. Instead of clapping after each poem, Smart’s recitation was continuous and the entire reading felt seamless. “Everyone there forgot about reality and immersed themselves in Dan’s world. To see themselves in the poems, to digest what he was saying,” senior Carlo Chavez Linares said. 

Many of the poems were centered on the season of autumn. “His poems portray an interesting type of biography and story, a transparent sharing of his life. We truly explore his personal philosophy and sincere worldview,” Chavez Linares said.  Some poems proposed serious questions, like the purpose of life. Each poem was more profound than the last. Attendees were entranced by Smart’s words, still contemplating the last line as the next was read. 

After forty-five minutes of recitation, Smart opened the floor for questions. Many of the audience’s questions focused on Smart’s daily creative process, which is challenging to most creatives.  

Smart explained that one day in 2013 he committed himself to writing a poem every day for one week and the practice became habitual. Just as he brushes his teeth in the morning he also sits and writes a poem before he begins his day. “It was cool to see a person who used his creative skills in his adult day-to-day life,” junior Abby Nytko said. 

Smart also emphasized his intentions of writing for the sake of writing. He told students that his goal is not perfection, but rather completion. This message resonated with students who oftentimes revise their work a million times before they are remotely content with it. 

Tributaries editor, junior Em Ottinger, found Smart’s advice valuable,“My biggest takeaway was that you have to learn to let go of the fear of writing something you won’t like. You might accidentally invent your favorite work on a whim, without realizing it in the moment. And, if you really don’t like what you’ve written, you can and should be proud to have at least written something at all.” 

Roughly 30 attendees showed up for the event, a high number for guest speakers. “Everyone who showed up seemed like they genuinely wanted to be there. While we’re all as busy as we are, that feels special,” Ottinger said.

Smart is a testament and inspiration to those, like myself, who may feel their future career path is less creative. “I learned from Dan that even if I am not able to get a job that employs my creativity there are still plenty of opportunities to do so later on after graduation,” Nytko said. By making writing a daily habit, no matter what job one may find themself working, imagination is still exercised. 

Instead of watching Netflix or TikTok at night, one might instead sit down with paper and a pen. Smart’s story encourages others to simply start without any expectations and take pride in whatever the result may be. Just as one practices a sport everyday and sees improvement, so, too, will the writer.

At the end of the day, IWU was lucky to host Smart again. He is a noteworthy alum and deserves more recognition for his poetry than he currently receives. Readers interested in his poems may visit rhythmistheinstrument.com.