In the third episode of the Rhode Island Council of the Humanities podcast celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize, Margo Jefferson considers the intersection of journalism, the humanities, and the environment. Topics in the interview cover the tension between scholars and journalists, the possibilities for the 21st century essay, and the cultural environments that inform Jefferson’s work. From the traditional essay published as a book to an online version scored to music, the possibilities for this “theater of the mind” have expanded greatly in this last century. A keynote speaker at this last year’s Ocean State Summer Writer’s Conference, the meeting of academics and creative writers is also given attention towards the end of this insightful conversation.
In a small library near the Bay Campus, the poets of the URI graduate program shared their work of the last semester on Wednesday, Dec. 9. As I settled in to my child-sized chair, I was just glad that I had gotten a seat, because other attendees were left to find seating between book shelves and mill around counters. The Willet Free library was packed with both books and people and the cozy atmosphere was just right for this reading organized by Alyssa Taft and Laura Marciano, featuring the nine students of Peter Covino’s seminar this fall.
After Peter thanked all the attendees for coming, the reading got started with Alyssa Taft, who gave a short presentation. Rather than sharing poetry, Alyssa, who worked on a seminar paper for the course, introduced us to how poetry and children intersect, and in particular the benefits of poetry in education. Poetry, besides increasing reading fluency and encouraging reluctant readers, creates mindfulness in children. It gives readers silence and space in which to interpret and allows them to read into others and the world, promoting a “wide awake-ness.”
Though Alyssa was talking about the benefits for children, the eight poets who shared their work after her certainly encouraged this feeling of being awake to the world for the audience. The array of poetry was vast, even within one poet’s reading. Julie Hassett started with “Forest,” which was connected to local food banks, and ended with a poem that attempted to capture the feeling of numbness after being told her sister had died, and in between were poems written in response to art, such as “Procrastination Has Already Been Sold.” Elizabeth Folke wanted to focus on the intersection of humanity and technology, how science and invention has changed our lives. Her poems, which sometimes included a bit of a science fiction flair, asked us to probe our own lives. Others, like “Creature” which considered the situation of the burn victim who was recently the first recipient of a full-face transplant, asked us to inhabit others’. We were also asked just to listen. Francesca Borrione read two of her poems in the Italian they were originally written in, sharing the translations of more. In the Italian, I could catch a word here or there, but beautiful in both languages was her line, “I inhabited the cartography of my imagination.”
After a short break, Andrew Merecicky declared that his chapbook was entitled “Pornography of Light and Flood,” and that was “all the explanation I’m doing.” With a forceful reading voice, Andrew let the poetry linger, keeping true to his opening declaration. Susan Munson offered more context, happily as her first poem was about Bob Leuci, who once asked her “Are you a writer?” Susan used her reading style to emphasize the content of another poem “Hypervent” which was about OCD and social anxiety. Alex Trubia’s poetry included sly humor in lines such as “I’ll keep it for the sequel, something holy part II,” along with more haunting lines such as “when the winters at their frigid worst draw moisture from the timber.” Laura Marciano followed with poems that had a bitingly smart feminist viewpoint, asking the important questions like “If I sleep with myself, will I be famous?” The reading ended with Luisa Murillo, who addressed domestic violence in Bolivia in her opening poem “She Never Took Back the Night.” Luisa also included more personal poems, such as about moving to Queens from Bolivia, and poems which mixed myth with reality, putting a finishing touch on the night.
The readers also shared their experiences in the class and preparing for the reading, some at the reading and others with me afterwards. Julie Hassett gave an anecdote during her reading about wanting a heart from Alyssa on her paper during critique, apparently these hearts were a hot commodity. Alyssa saw her presentation as a “mini-conference paper” and later told me that she was glad that the audience connected to her research and understood her ideas. Susan shared that poetry has made her who she is, and that the semester was more about taking herself seriously as a poet. For her, preparing included getting ready for her “Lady Gaga moment,” as Peter calls it, by singing along to the radio on her way to the reading. Elizabeth thought about reading as a different skill than writing, and tried to consider the rhythm and inflection she would use. She shared that the class had given her space to access her creativity. Andrew, of course after the reading, told me that Peter emphasized performative reading this semester and that practice had helped him, as well as a glass of wine and some deep breaths. I think the others would agree with Andrew on this as well, “the fact that a few dozen or so people showed up to listen to poetry is always a special experience,” which this reading definitely was.