By Joe Bindert
Wednesday, April 1st was the first day of National Poetry Month, and to celebrate, Rutgers University hosted another chapter in its “Writers at Rutgers” series, which brings famous writers from across the country to speak about their work in front of anyone who wishes to participate. To go with the National Poetry Month theme, the writers, who spoke to around fifty people in the Rutgers Campus Center, were Mark Doty, Tina Chang, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Tracy K. Smith, all of whom write poetry. Chang, Shaughnessy, and Smith all met in a class taught by Doty at Columbia University during their undergraduate years.
The first topic put up for discussion was the idea of how and when one discovers when they know they are a poet. Shaughnessy, Smith, and Doty couldn’t exactly come up with a specific time when they realized they were poets, but Chang claims she developed a sense of it when she was in Doty’s class, although another professor at Columbia told her not to throw her work out into the world too soon for fear of getting negative reactions toward her work and killing her “naïve confidence,” as she put it. While the other speakers didn’t have one moment in mind, they reaffirmed their love of reading to the audience and stressed how important it was for each of them to become immersed in the world of books. “I thought I would be considered a poet closer to the end of my life… Not this soon,” remarked Smith.
The second topic discussed was what the authors looked to for inspiration. Chang commented that she doesn’t really like to think of any one particular thing that inspires her to write. She prefers to live her life normally, and when something comes to her that she feels like writing about, she does it. Doty remarked that he kept a notebook during his younger years in which he kept track of what he called “random thoughts and scribblings to basically prevent myself from going crazy.” Shaughnessy agreed with both of those responses, stating that she had a similar notebook, but also that she did not go out of her way to look for material to write about and preferred to write spontaneously.
The third topic brought up was the writers’ opinions on how poetry affects people on a physical and visceral level. Doty claimed that the rhythm and the breathing involved in the words and structure used in poems had a great effect on how poems affect both readers and listeners. Chang expanded that a bit, claiming that the vocabulary and choice of words used by the reader can also have a great effect. She mentioned a specific point during Doty’s class in which he read a variety of poems describing how narrator’s body felt during sickness, stating that the language used in the poems “can translate the bodily experience in a way like no other.”
The remainder of the conversation with the speakers included audience members asking the authors specific questions about their work. After the conversation was finished, audience members were encouraged to come back later for a poetry reading by the authors.
Mark Doty is the author of Fire to Fire, a collection of poems that won a National Book Award, and he will be joining the Rutgers English Department faculty starting in the fall 2009 semester. Tina Chang is the author of Half-Lit Houses, a finalist for the 2005 Asian American Literary Award, and she currently teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and Hunter College. Brenda Shaughnessy is the author of Human Dark with Sugar, winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, and she currently teaches creative writing at Princeton University and Eugene Lang College at the New School. Tracy K. Smith has had poetry published in various journals, including Boulevard, Callaloo, and Post Road, and she currently teaches at Princeton University.