Poetry duo kicks off Saint Mary’s creative writing, reading series
By Lou Fancher
There is a place that is thoughtful, vital, expressive, honest, contemporary and lacking in sensationalism. Awards and trophies are often won but not worshipped more than the deeds that earn them, and thoughts and emotions are sculpted into verbal music and communicated broadly. It is known as literature.Best of all, it is free of charge online or in the pages of a book — or live, at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga.
SMC’s Creative Writing Reading Series features free public presentations by award-winning poets, and fiction and nonfiction writers. Sponsored by the MFA Creative Writing Program, the 2017-2018 season showcased a double bill at the launch in September: Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass and poet, SMC associate professor and former New York Times poetry editor Matthew Zapruder.
In months to come there are: 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tyehimba Jess (Oct. 25); author and art critic Gabrielle Selz (Nov. 15); Shanthi Sekaran, author of Indie Next Great Read, “Lucky Boy” (April 4); and award-winning poet Brynn Salto (April 25).
Saint Mary’s English professor Lysley Tenorio directs the program.
“We feature our visiting writers, who fill three spots in the lineup,” Tenorio said following the Sept. 7 event. “Matthew and Bob were a great way to kick off the series. They both had well-loved books about poetry published this year.”
The title of Hass’s doorstop collection of essays describes its contents, if not it’s actual size: “A Little Book on Form: An Exploration Into the Formal Imagination of Poetry.”
Hearing Hass read from and talk about his latest book is an invitation into the private, often amusing anecdotes behind the stories that are his poems. An essay on form begins with multiple contemplations: people as pattern-seeking creatures, sentences and how they unwind like musical phrases, the origins of literacy in prayer; speech that is magical, mysterious, polyrhythmic
“Delicious” is a term Hass applies to language and to his grandson’s simple words, “You can come too,” that he hears as radiant with hope.
“Poetry is an incredible archive of what people actually feel inside,” he told the audience of approximately 100 people, mostly students and SMC faculty. “If you walk into the homes of people who like reading … they’ll have (books) they treasure because of delight — or to touch home with the quietest part of yourself, the relationship with your own meaning.”
Humor comes understated and with a touch of regret: “I vaguely wanted to be a writer from the moment I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional baseball player. I was interested in poetry and came to seriously writing it late, 23 or so.”
Similarly, Zapruder at age 24 while working on his Ph.D in Russian studies at Cal discovered he wanted to be a poet.
“My hair was dyed an oceanic sickly green blue color and I marched into Bob’s office (Hass was and is a professor at UC Berkeley) and declared I wanted to be a poet.”
Hass lent Zapruder several poetry books and became what Zapruder thanked for being “a teacher who changed my life and likely (that of others).”
Asked by a student during a Q&A if poems were meant to be noble works of art that inspire people to do grand, extraordinary things, Zapruder said, “That’s a wrong idea. Language and feelings abstracted is part of the task of poetry (which is) to focus us back in on ourselves and ordinary life.”
Hass said novels do something huge with character and narrative, but poetry is an effort at “enough-ness.” Life on its own, he suggested, does not necessarily supply significance.
“If you want order, beauty, clarity, wisdom and compassion in your life, you have to make them. Find your way with art, fashion, dance, poetry and (more),” he said.
Poet and SMC English professor Brenda Hillman moderated the conversation. She said poetry is not writing in codes or employing trickery, a point driven home in Zapruder’s book, “Why Poetry.”
Perhaps because Zapruder as a teenager thought of poetry as “something you did in school that was old and boring,” before discovering its pleasures, he is unencumbered by thoughts of exclusivity when it comes to language.
He read a poem he wrote as a younger man, an ode to Diet Coke, chocolate and “secret despair.” Poets, he said later, must be attracted to creating a way of convincing others — without forfeiting the literal meaning of words — that the fight for beauty in our existence and imaginations is worthwhile.