Staff Writer Julia Tolda attended “The Fifth Annual Alumni Poetry Reading”, the event’s first-ever online edition. She writes about the breathtaking experience below. (Content warnings: death, suicide.)
After a full day of online classes, I sit on my bed and open my laptop for the hundredth time. My sixth Zoom meeting of the day is Columbia University School of the Arts’ “Fifth Annual Alumni Poetry Reading”, with works read by five poets — Adam Davis, Diana Marie Delgado, Elizabeth Metzger, and Diana Khoi Nguyen. The atmosphere on the call is almost reminiscent of events from a past campus, a pre-COVID Columbia. The names popping up like heads bobbing up and down in a room, the texts on the chat like the quiet hum of conversation before the magic begins.
Our host, Timothy Donnelly, playfully reminisces about teaching Adam Davis ‘08 and Diana Marie Delgado ‘08 during a thesis workshop 15 years ago. “Adam and Diana were besties then,” he says, and they smile. “They used to sit together every class.” There is a natural rhythm to their rapport, ranging from playful banter to memories from their days at Columbia. Quickly, the tie that binds the three of them to Elizabeth Metzger ‘15 and Diana Khoi Nguyen ‘12 comes to light: Lucie Brock-Broido. The conversation frequently steers to the late Professor and Director of the Poetry concentration, her words of wisdom, gorgeous poems, and unforgettable presence.
“If all it took to come back to Columbia was publishing a book, I would have done it years ago!” exclaims Adam Davis. He recalls Lucie’s stern words during one of their classes, telling the ‘“fresh poets” that it would take at least 10 years for any of them to publish a book. “More like 5 years,” thought Davis. It took him thirteen. Published in early 2020, Index of Haunted Houses earned Davis the Kathryn A. Morton Prize. In it, only one poem from Donnelly’s workshop remains, a negative image exercise titled “Ghosts of Polaroids”. When he reads from it, his voice turns serious and melodious. “No one feels sick, no one,” he says, and I feel haunted.
Between a quick drink of rye, Davis tells stories of Richard Howard, a professor who asked students to call his landline for an invitation to his apartment instead of hosting workshops, and of a fellowship in honor of Lucie’s cat, William, which one student received by having their name drawn from a hat. He read us “The Bell’s System,” speaking of dial tones and the continental voices of “Mary, Jane, and Pat,” those “sweet operator of America”, a Greek chorus he invokes throughout the book. Davis writes of an all-American wasteland of “motels and lights”, “horse’s ant-eaten skull”, and asks “when will the stars rain down like cheap plastic?” It is all so beautiful and desolate, anxious, and lonesome. It is all eerie.
Inspired by the Ghostbusters ruling, a groundbreaking rescission in which a house was legally ruled as haunted, Davis presents us with his longest and last poem — “Steps in Retrograde”. “If the house is haunted…” the poem begins. What follows is a flurry of emotions and thoughts in six parts. There is money, math, teeth, termites, ledgers, dentists, lovers, coins, names, convenience stores, blood, and green. “If grief is a cup let me drink from it and be drunk”. “If desire is the body we give the past”. If, if, if.
Diana Marie Delgado smiles brightly through the screen, her laughter a breath of fresh air. She speaks warmly of Lucie, whose work inspired one of the poems she reads us tonight. Delgado’s 2020 debut Tracing the Horse, a New York Times “New & Noteworthy” selection, deals with her experience as a young Mexican-American woman with astounding vulnerability and life. She proudly mentions her work as the Literary Director of the Poetry Center at the University of Arizona, which boasts one of the largest poetry collections in the Southwest. Delgado wishes she could take Donnely on a tour. Davis comments on the chat, “The place is incredible. And Diana will take you out for homegrown mescal after the tour.”
“In church, the boys have so much light, the plants grow towards them,” begins Delgado in “The Sea is Farther than Thought,” and the whole meeting feels holier. The images she describes are gritty and pure, from “a pitbull that had just won a fight,” to the “suede horses and a hairbrush [kept] inside a blond toy-box.” There is so much truth in her words, in the situations she describes. “To be honest, I called because there was snow in my glove, not because I missed you,” she says, making me think of my first winter in New York. Delgado was inspired to write this poem after reading Lucie’s, “I Wish You Love,” from her debut book. “She would have been so proud of you,” says Donnely, and I agree.
Delgado’s short and biting style lingers in my mind long after the reading is over. The poems are full of color and light, the words carry an impossible weight. “I want to wear a yellow sundress in the hallway of a pink house where I hold the letters I meant to send you, prayers for what’s in me to finally come out,” she writes in “Wish.” I want to follow her into the house.
Elizabeth Metzer’s calm voice conceals some of the most powerful imagery I’ve heard. She talks about death, New York, and baked potato in the same breath, making all ideas fit together perfectly. Her 2017 book, The Spirit Papers, won the Juniper Prize for Poetry and Metzger has been featured in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Guernica, and many others. Tonight, she reads us only new poems, written in a period of self-quarantine pre-pandemic. In the first 40 days after her childbirth, Metzger observed the period of lying-in, shutting visitors out, and shutting herself in. In “Desire,” she writes of motherhood and marriage as clear as a bell, as “the floor is fluttering with tongues”. She addresses her partner throughout the poem, telling them “It is for you I put the children to bed, for you, I keep the house awake.” But there is tension in their relationship. When she is lying-in, she asks “what could [they] possibly do to my body, when I’m in two rooms, breathing?”.
“My relationship with God is much like my relationship with baked potato…” she jokes, sounding almost like a stand-up comedian. But the punchline never comes. It is instead, a punch in the stomach. “I’ve tried so hard to like it but I have always been neutral.” In “The God Incentive,” Metzger “brings Him down once in a while” and feels “something other than science is pressing down.” But when the poem fades into nothingness, when her words finally stop, so does God.
Before reading “The Impossibility of Prose,” a eulogy for Lucie, Metzger tells us how they met through a friend who passed soon after. They had been bound by loss, which made Lucie’s death “not seem like the real distance.” For Metzger, it was sacrilegious to write to her in Los Angeles, when they had always been together in New York. The line “The edges of your death are smudged and round like a watch” makes me shudder.
Finally, Diana Khoi Nguyen takes center-stage, after replying to her fellow alumni in the chat all night with words of encouragement and her favorite quotes. A poet and multimedia artist, her 2018 release Ghost Of was a finalist for the National Book Award and the L.A. Times Book Prize and received both the 2019 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Colorado Book Award. Having recently joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh as an assistant professor, Nguyen happily informs us how excited she is to take classes again. “I’m so happy to be here in the spirit of Dodge Hall”, she says in a peaceful and cheerful tone, tears well up in my eyes. “Thank you for sharing in this rectangle space! I will share my screen and say some words.”
Nguyen cannot forget the archive, the photographs from which her brother cut himself out two years before committing suicide. In the pictures, there is a space where he used to be, his shoes and hands stand in his place. She asks herself “What remains?” in “Beside,” her latest series. Lucie would call them child coffin poems. On the silhouette of her siblings as children and her mother as a young woman, Nguyen uses words to fill the contours left by the pictures. Her voice is now dark and heavy. About her mother, she says “Who keeps her? What keeps her anchored in this space?,” and, “If we accept the camera record, let it be known how she staged each of us”. There are no faces, only words, but I can picture the children. Nguyen asks the audience, “What did she do to deserve such wretched children?,” and there is so much I wish I could ask her.
In “Tug,” she presents us with another image. This time an archive of her mother’s side of the family from Vietnam. Her eldest uncles fight in a picture taken in the early 1960s, her mother and aunt holding them. Nguyen thinks both of the war on the image and the war beyond it. The long-standing rivalry between the two eldest brothers, which was passed down to all of their children, the legacy of a colonized country devastated by war. In a white box in the shape of the picture, Nguyen writes, “Upon my childhood 30 years later can I map this terrain… when your country is at war you do not have time to consider how to love your brother cautiously.” She is interrupted by fragments of the arms of the fighting children, which silence parts of the piece. She stays quiet for as long as it would take her to read the obscured words, a power choice. In the next image, the obscured words come to light, out of context.
The silence after Nguyen’s magnificent words was broken by Donnelly, an abrupt end to the moment of reflection. The tone shift in the event was palpable, moving too fast from the beautiful readings to a conversation between the poets which felt a bit contrived. The Q&A portion that followed was lackluster, with unengaging questions and jokes about potatoes which fell flat. A poor job was done filtering questions from the audience, which led to painfully awkward silences and a long detour into an audience member’s own novel.
When asked what advice they would give to their younger selves, the poets beamed. Adam Davis should have read more and realized sooner the work begins once you leave the MFA, once you figure out your kind of writing practice. Diana Marie Delgado wishes she had been reckless and wild, stating that “ if you want to write poetry you have to be a poet in your life”. Emily Metzger wanted to tell herself writing is much easier after the MFA, in a world where poets don’t exist and you are alone to write. Diana Khoi Nguyen should have given herself permission to relish and play in other media. I have much to learn from them.
Poetry on Paper Illustration by Evelyn Van Ness