In my twenties, I used to dread having strangers ask me the question, “What do you do?” When I told them I was a graduate student in poetry, my cynical self rolled her eyes inside as they regaled me with how they loved Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss, or how they used to love to rhyme when they were a kid. One man even reached into his pocket to fetch a copy of a poem that he had written nearly twenty years ago and still carried with him. Back in a time before smartphones, a conversation on high school poetry could last for an entire plane ride if I wasn’t careful. I started telling people I studied accounting.
    Now, I see those moments for what they were—people yearning to come back to art. People trying to connect with me over a time when they felt they could be vulnerable, when they could see the world with new eyes, when they could prioritize beauty. I also realize my own privilege in those spaces, having had the ability to center my own love of the literary arts instead of having to feed my children, care for my aging family, or major in business as my grandfather had forced my own father to do. 
    Over and over, at readings and at events, I asked people, “Do you like poetry?” So often they would say, “Oh yes, but I haven’t written since I was in college” or “I used to write all the time in high school, but I haven’t been able to find time in years.” In my role as the poet laureate of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, I wanted to focus on giving people an opportunity to come back to what they love, to create communities of support and joy that could buoy folks long after my time in this role. As adults, we often grow detached from writing, being told it’s frivolous or childish, or, maybe worse, that you can’t make money from it. In a culture where we are asked to turn what we love into our side hustle, I wanted to create a space where writing was there for expression, joy, and community. As such, I created the Write Edit Share program, which met once a month at the local library. 
    The first event (Write) was a play on Poetry Xfit, a game that I came up with back in the 2010s. In it, writers give the group “rules” that participants  can follow during the generative writing time. This can be structural (write a poem only in couplets, write a prose poem, give a poem a title with eight or more words, don’t include the letter “I”), thematic (write a love poem, write a poem with aliens, write a political piece), or simply fun (include your state bird in a poem or write about a weird shade of red, an artichoke, or a fire hydrant). Once you have five to six rules, writers then have twenty-five to thirty minutes in which to write something new following as many (or as few) of the rules as they’d like. At the end of the thirty minutes, writers can share their work with the group. 
    One of the things I love about Poetry Xfit is that it gives folks an opportunity to generate poetry collectively in a low stakes environment. Because so many of our participants had not written in years, having the rules gave them structure, and having only thirty minutes lets them not overthink it. It’s enough time to put something on the page and read it over once or twice. Plus, who doesn’t love being able to read new work in the space where it’s first written? The excitement of creation as an act of sharing is exhilarating, especially in a supportive space wherein you’ve done something you didn’t think you could do—write something that you love.
   In the second event (Edit), the group came together for workshops after taking the work that they wrote at the Write event home to read over, edit, and ponder. In the workshop setting, we read the poem and offered suggestions for further revision, gave the author both an audience and second readers, and celebrated the creation of the poem. These curated spaces give writers enhanced language to talk about their own writing while also helping them to see that they are indeed real writers who are engaging with other real writers in our community.
   The final event in Write Edit Share was an open mic, where participants shared their work—not just the work created and edited in the program (though that’s always a bonus!), but work that they may have written since then, or even that poem that’s been kept in their pocket all these years. What we all want from writing is to be heard, to be seen as more than our jobs or our labor and as the human beings that poetry makes us. We want to be part of a community that prioritizes language, communication, and the beauty within this difficult world.

Erin Elizabeth Smith, poet laureate of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, most recently DOWN (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2020). Smith serves as the executive director of Sundress Publications and the Sundress Academy for the Arts. In 2023, she was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Smith will host a two-day survival and healing retreat for survivors of sexual assault. Open to writers of all backgrounds from Oak Ridge, the retreat will connect survivors with poets and writers from across the country who use trauma-informed teaching techniques and focus on healing, safety, and comfort