Lecture Hop: Female Poetry Reading
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog Balladry Groupie Anna Kelner dropped in on Tuesday night’s Woman Poetry Reading in Sulzberger Hall.
Estrogen levels rose on Tuesday night in Sulzberger parlor, where only a few men joined students, faculty, and alumni to hear female poets Katha Pollitt, Evie Shockley, and Rachel Wetzsteon read. Aspiring Barnard poets introduced each speaker, whose pieces covered subjects as diverse as the complexities of African-American identity to a mother’s internal dialogue on the playground. Although the poets lacked the star power of many Columbia lectures, their energized presentations and distinct styles invigorated the event.
Wetzsteon presented first, reading largely from a collection that transformed our own Morningside Heights into, as the Barnard student exulted, “a theater of romance.” A local resident, she shared poems that focused on locales as diverse as Low Library, Sakura Park, and a Buddhist monastery in Upstate New York. Wetzsteon celebrated the close link between her work and her listeners, joking, “The great thing about reading in this neighborhood is that I don’t have to explain locations.” Wetzsteon capitalized on this connection; she read in a theatrical tone with wild hand gestures, often peering behind her hair to stare at the audience.
Shockley followed with a series of poems and prose poems that focused on issues of metatextuality, identity, and influence. The Barnard presenter confessed that, along with storied figures like E.E Cummings and T.S Eliot, she counted Shockley as one of her major influences; she exulted Shockley’s “gift for pairing sound and image,” an innovative style that permits her to “criticize other systems.” Despite her esoteric aims, Shockley’s poems were remarkably comprehensible. As she read pieces ranging from mediations on her relationship to South Africa to tributes to admired female poets, Shockley consistently poked fun at her grand aspirations. “This poem,” she deadpanned, “is titled, My Last Modernist Poem…#4.”
Pollitt concluded by reading works with a decidedly straightforward style and overtly feminist aims. The Barnard poet put it best when she explained, “In Pollitt’s poems, history is a woman who grinds men up like meat.” Although Pollitt’s subjects remained diverse—she read pieces about her teenage body, poetesses, and Biblical heroines—her sarcastic tone and unique perspective shed a new light on women’s issues.
Despite the series’ gender bias, the stylistic prowess and confidence of each poet allowed her to emerge first and foremost as a poet, not just as a woman.