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Creative Writing Student Co-writes/Co-Produces Powerful Poem

Autumn Matthews has been writing poetry since she was seven, but the York College senior may have really hit her stride in a spring semester 2021 class.

It was during English Adjunct Professor Jillian Abbott’s creative writing class, English 384, that happenstance led to a most powerful and poignant poem and video presentation. The students, both English majors and Political Science minors, were given an assignment to create a poem or piece of fiction. Matthews was writing a short story and Shaquille Profitt, was working on a poem. They soon came to realize that while they were creating in different genres, their subject matters were very similar.

The classmates were addressing the subject around Black Lives Matter (BLM) and how painful the injustice of racism is. They thought they should collaborate and do something unique. But first they had to get Professor Abbott’s permission to do a joint project rather than individual ones as the assignment was. Professor Abbott was reluctant at first, but she relented and the two literary artists went to work.

According to Prof. Abbott, students are drawn from journalism and communications as well as creative writing, so she lets them choose the genre which might be essay, poetry or short story. 

Asked what made them decide to present the poem, not so much from the “speakers’” perspective, but from their mothers’ admonition on the realities of life as young Black people in America (hence the title, “Mama Says,” Matthews explained the inspiration.

“Shaq and I are both close to our moms and talk to them all the time,” says Matthews. “So we said ‘maybe we should do it that way.'”

And so they did and it renders the piece more poignant and more urgent. Matthews’ and Profitt’s vocal interplay as she speaks the names of the women victims of police and racist civilians, while Profitt name checks the male victims. It is a visceral reminder of all that has been lost in the African-American community.

But it’s not all spoken word, there are graphic images culled from America’s history of racial abuse from slavery to present-day America. The poets reel off the names or give reference to them: Emmitt Till, Tamir Rice, Breona Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Georg Floyd, et al. 

Matthews, the middle of her parents’ five children, says she and Profitt stayed in touch with Professor Abbott via Zoom throughout the process and she guided and encouraged them. When they had completed the writing they took to Brooklyn Bridge Park, outfitted in Black Lives Matter tees to shoot scenes for the video.

“The video part took three days to film, Matthews says. “Voice over took one day and we also had to edit it.”

She also has high praises for the dedicated professor who guided them. “Professor Abbott is great, says Matthews. She’s amazing…a great professor.”

The powerful poem was presented by Profitt at a Bath University (England) conference this past summer 2021 and was very well received, according to Abbott, who provided him the opportunity and was herself a presenter. The timing of this video poem was perfect as the “racial reckoning” in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder was among the graphics used in the video; and  underscores the urgency of “the conversation.”  

The York College Department of English has always been a place where creativity and truth are encouraged and indeed, demanded; and none more so than the reality of the Matthews and Profitt collaboration. Their professor couldn’t be more pleased.

"Autumn is a talented and hardworking [student] and it was a pleasure to work with her," says Professor Abbott. "What drew me to the joint project was the underlying truth that women and men experience discrimination and violence differently. I love Autumn's voice, it was just perfect to convey black women's vulnerability."

Experience the spoken word poem.


**Mr. Profitt was already profiled on this topic in this space following his presentation at Bath Spa University. This story gives equivalent coverage to Ms. Matthews, an up-and-coming voice in English literature. Kudos to them both and to their dedicated professors!