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LectureHop: Now For Something More Poetical

This Thursday, Barnard hosted the world-renowned classicist, essayist, poet, feminist, playwright, translator, and all around badass Anne Carson for a reading of really whatever she wanted to read. Guest Writer and aspiring Bwoglet Josh Tate decided to write a post covering one of the greatest writers of the 20th and 21st centuries as well as discover Carson’s favorite word.

You can tell how anticipated an event is by how packed the room is fifteen minutes beforehand. I say this because me and my two fellow amateur poet friends accompanying me had to sneak in and grab the last three sitting spaces a full 20 minutes before the 7 PM start. By 15 minutes before seven people were standing wherever they could, packed in and shuffling around the fringes of the room, eyeing window sills and upholstered decorative chairs in the Sulzberger Parlor greedily for places to at least lean.

This was part of the Women Poets at Barnard program in which the Barnard English department hosts poetry readings with notable poets and occasionally student readings. Anne Carson was the poet this week, and as such the room had an air of mystery and reverence.

For those of you who don’t know, Anne Carson’s work spans from translations of the fragments of Sappho (now available in a LitHum class near you) to a modernized teen romance between Herakles and the monster Geryon in her verse novel Autobiography of Red. She’s one of the foremost translators of Greek plays and poetry and has taught at McGill, University of Michigan, and Princeton. In short, she’s what first-semester LitHum has been training you for without the raging misogyny. In shorter, she’s a big deal.

As a freshman planning on majoring in Creative Writing Poetry, I had to go. Not even my UWriting research essay due in two days could stop me.

The room was silent as she strode up to the front with a calmness and a casualness that quelled whatever shuffling and murmuring was happening in the room. She prefaced the reading by saying that she was “going to read a lot of different things, completely unconnected, without regard for coherence.” A little chuckle rippled out through the crowd, cracking the atmosphere in the room that seemed awestruck.

What followed was an hour of otherworldliness. She began with an excerpt from her Off-Broadway play titled “Norma Jean Baker of Troy,” a reimagining of Marilyn Monroe as Helen. Her delivery was quiet and casual and yet captivating as she had a cadence that was without a hurry or a worry: gliding. Everyone in the room sat stone-still except for the small jokes that pulled life and laughter out of the crowd.

At the end of the first excerpt, I awkwardly attempted to snap as I’d been conditioned to do in my workshops and limited experience at poetry readings, but the room didn’t move. They just sat in anticipation.

The only word I can use is reverent. The feeling in the room was mostly awe with the sporadic whisper, sigh, and penfall. I felt that this reverence was earned (but maybe I’m biased). Carson owned the room with her words and her delivery. Her poems would cut with commentary on feminism with “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy” and “Pronoun Envy.” Others looked at the world as an odd and funny and beautiful place, as seen in a poem about her impromptu marriage and honeymoon in Iceland, “Wildly Constant.”

And out of seemingly nowhere, she said: “Thank you and goodnight.” She stepped away and for a few confused seconds, the silence remained before the spell broke and clapping erupted from all sides of the room.
I was lucky enough to get my copy of If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho signed by her in its bent and bookmarked shape and was able to ask her her favorite word. Her reaction was a bit of surprise, saying it changed day to day and asking mine first. Savor was the only word I could think of, which I thought was a clever enough answer until she looked up with a smile and handed me my book back, now somehow more valuable to me than it had been despite warming my bedside for months.

“Milk,” she said with a knowing smirk. She maintained that it wasn’t because of any meaning, and that it was just a good word. I nodded, said thank you — unable to top that — and walked back home feeling fulfilled for the day.

photo via Barnard Events; by Peter Smith

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