by Haley Thomas
John Cusatis teaches English at the Charleston County School of the Arts, and he's a huge fan of the late poet Robinson Jeffers. So much so that he's traveled across the country to attend conferences honoring the poet, and then he convinced organizers to host this year's conference in Charleston Feb. 15-17.
The theme this year is "Integrity is Wholeness: The Moral, Social, and Aesthetic Implications of Robinson Jeffers's Worldview." A large portion of the conference will be academic in nature; notable scholars of literacy, philosophy, history, and science, including RJA's president, astronomer Ron Olowin, will discuss Jeffers' life and work. During Friday and Saturday evenings, the celebration will showcase a variety of S.C. artists honoring Jeffers through poetry, dance, music, theater, and the visual arts.
Conway native Nikky Finney, a National Book Award winner, is among the featured speakers. She recently accepted a teaching position at the University of South Carolina that will begin in August 2013. "Nikky is one of many native artists currently working who South Carolinians can take great pride in," Cusatis says. Finney will kick off the celebration with a poetry reading Fri. Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m., and then the academic portion of the conference with a keynote address Sat. Feb. 16 at the Academic Magnet High School lecture hall beginning at 9 a.m. Finney will also visit School of the Arts classrooms during her stay in Charleston.
This conference is especially exciting for students because many of the SOA and AMHS students will get to share the stage with international scholars. "One student, Nick Bentz, will conduct a chorus of 24 voices performing a piece he composed based on one of Jeffers' poems, 'Evening Ebb.' It is really a colossal achievement," Cusatis says. The schools have also organized a Robinson Jeffers essay contest among SOA and AMHS students. First and second place finalists will present their papers at the conference, and the top five will take part in a discussion panel focused on Jeffers' relevance to young readers in the 21st century.
A conference of this magnitude reflects well on the Charleston community schools at large, and also shows a passion for the arts that students and community members might not see every day. "I could tell that many in the organization had misgivings about holding the conference in a high school and others were apprehensive about South Carolina," Cusatis says, "They just don't know about the great schools we have and what a dynamic arts culture exists here. It will be fun to watch their surprise."
Aside from the admission fee for the Nikky Finney poetry reading, the conference is free. For more information, visit the RJA website at robinsonjeffersassociation.org or contact John_Cusatis@charleston.k12.sc.us.