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Vol.25, No. 02 Sept. 10, 1999

Pursuing Poetry in a Community of Young Writers

By Abigail Beshkin

Amine Tourki describes himself as a "scientific guy"—so successful in his high school stockbrokering team that he was offered a choice summer internship on Wall Street.

But Tourki is also a poet. So instead he spent his summer at Columbia, in a community of young writers.

Tourki was one of 135 teenagers in the writing division of Columbia's intensive Summer Program for High School Students. They began their days—which went from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.—dissecting texts by master writers, such as Chekhov, and ended them critiquing each other's work. Together, they went through the often agonizing process of having their cherished writing scrutinized by peers.

The program, run by Continuing Education and Special Programs in Lewisohn Hall, attracts bright young writers from around the world. Eighteen-year-old Tourki, an incoming senior at John Dewey High School in Coney Island, was no exception.

Last spring, he attended Columbia's after-school program for high school students called the Academic Year Program. Still, Tourki is relatively new to writing in English. He grew up in Casablanca, Morocco; thus when he began writing poetry as a fourth grader, he wrote in Arabic and French. It was only after his parents and three sisters moved to Brooklyn three years ago that he took up writing poetry in English.

The summer writing program was particularly appealing to Tourki because it offered one-on-one guidance from instructors who are themselves published writers, the chance to experiment with new forms of writing and, most exciting for Tourki, the opportunity to meet other writers from around the world with fresh perspectives.

"Each person brought his own culture, beliefs and ways of doing things, from which you can learn," Tourki said. He met one student who had lived her whole life in the Bronx, and another who came to Columbia from Italy.

Leslie Woodard, who taught the summer courses with instructors Geoffrey Nutter and Raul Correa, said one of the main goals of the program was to encourage students to experiment with different genres. They studied playwriting, poetry, fiction, the ins and outs of publishing and even spoken word performance.

"It's a lot of work," Woodard said. "Of course, I never tell them they have to do everything. It's up to them. But they're so motivated, they always do it anyway."

Paul McNeil, associate dean of Continuing Education and Special Programs, said Tourki's level of enthusiasm is not uncommon in the program. "The young men and women who attend our summer program are bright. They're motivated. They're passionate. Amine was a wonderful kid in an outstanding community of young writers."

Tourki is used to making sacrifices for his writing. Last spring, while in the after-school program, Tourki made the trip every Wednesday from Coney Island to Morningside Heights—nearly two hours each way by subway—just to take a creative writing course taught by Woodard.

This summer, even though he was in the classroom all day, he still made time for his own creative work.

"I tried to write late at night, or in the subway," he said. "It depended on when I felt enormous energy."

He counts among one of his favorite poems a piece he co-wrote with his three younger sisters about the changes his family has experienced in moving to the United States. "It's one of the best poems I've ever written," he said.

Tourki is not sure what his future holds. Even if he does enter the worlds of business or finance, he knows that writing will always be a part of his life.

"I still want to be a poet," he said. "Poetry seems to me like the highest place in language."