Staff Writer Grace Novarr attended the School of the Arts’ showcase of two of its notable alumni, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and Campbell McGrath. 

On Wednesday, February 10th, at 7:30 p.m., the fifth installment of the annual Alumni Poetry Reading Series hosted by the School of the Arts took place. The featured poets were Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, CSA ‘73, and Campbell McGrath, CSA ‘88. The event, which took place over Zoom, was moderated by Timothy Donnelly, a fellow poet and a professor at the School of the Arts.

To open the event, each poet was introduced by a first-year student in the graduate writing program. Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, who attended Barnard College for a year before later going to the Columbia School of the Arts, was the first to read. Her introduction focused on the cosmically-oriented nature of her work, and indeed, the three poems that Berssenbrugge read were each full with the imagery of stars and galaxies.

Her voice is soft, slow, and gentle, and I found that the best way to enjoy her poems was to close my eyes and picture the vivid skies that she painted with her words. 

The first poem Berssenbrugge read was “Jaguar”, a meditation on consciousness and the galactic. She lives in northern New Mexico, having moved there almost as soon as she graduated from the School of the Arts, and the sparse yet grand landscape of the desert features prominently in her poetry.

In the last poem she read, “Wonder”, she lists a chain of natural imagery – “coyote, snake, rainbow and rain, spider and hummingbird” – and then declares that “wherever we go there is company, nurture, from every star in our regard”. This final line struck me as a sort of thesis statement for Berssenbrugge’s work: animals are earthly manifestations of stars, and the landscape of New Mexico is the perfect place to be in the company of both.

The next poet was Campbell McGrath, who is currently a professor of creative writing at Florida International University and has previously been the recipient of both a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Genius Grant.

In contrast to Berssenbrugge, McGrath is quite the urbanist poet; the student who introduced him described his poetic style as a combination of Whitman, Rilke, and O’Hara, and there is even a line in one of McGrath’s poems where he exclaims “I fear the desert instinctively and would never want to live there.”

Also in contrast to Berssenbrugge, McGrath’s reading style was much more lively and dynamic; his subject matter, likewise, was more urban and immediate. The first poem he read, “Capitalist Poem #5,” was written while he was a student at Columbia, and he describes it as the first poem that he wrote that made him feel as if he knew what his purpose as a writer was going to be.

The next poem McGrath read was a tribute to Czeslaw Milosz, who had been his instructor at the School of the Arts. This poem ended with the line “I will never escape the twentieth century,” which was fitting, as that poem came from McGrath’s book XX, in which each year of the twentieth century, from 1900 to 1999, gets its own poem. The poems for Czeslaw Milosz represented 1980, a year in which McGrath was a student at the School of the Arts. 

Next, McGrath read his long poem “At The Ruins of Yankee Stadium,” an urban landscape that transports the reader around New York City and across the past century, as many of McGrath’s poems do. McGrath’s poetry is a mix of stream-of-consciousness and carefully planned turns of phrase – he is unafraid to put “Ahh, I’ve lost my train of thought…” in a poem, but he also has lines in which he describes New York as “an empire of rags and photons.” In the final poem he read, “The Everglades,” McGrath returned his listeners to Florida, his current home; indeed, this poem felt more tranquil and serene, almost Berssenbrugge-esque.

After the readings were concluded, Timothy Donnelly asked the poets a few questions and allowed the audience to participate in the Q&A as well. Donnelly pointed out the amusing contrast between the two poets’ attitudes towards the city and the desert; in response to this, McGrath professed his admiration for the desert, but added “the desert is beautiful, but I don’t know how I would fashion a life there.” Berssenbrugge protested that “it doesn’t take any more courage to live in the desert than in the city,” but described the unavoidable pull that she had felt towards living in the desert, even while she was a Columbia student.

The poets discussed how the themes of climate change and natural disaster were present in both their works, despite the different settings – the rising sea levels that threaten McGrath’s metropolis, and the drought that threatens Berssenbrugge’s beloved desert. 

Donnelly next asked if the poets felt a shifting relationship with the concept of truth versus fiction in poems, especially in the current political age (the word “Trump” was not spoken but was heavily implied). Donnelly wondered if the poets felt an ethical responsibility to represent the “truth” in their work.

McGrath answered that it’s important for poets to follow their sense of comfort, and to “draw back” if they find themselves crossing any lines of truth in their poetry that make them feel dishonest. However, it’s important to note that poetry is a combination of truth and fiction, and “honesty” in a poetic sense is a construction. McGrath added, “If I wasn’t a poet, I’d be a historian,” indicating his draw towards including historical fact and detail in his work. Berssenbrugge reminded listeners that writing is an “assemblage of things you select, and that selection is a kind of fiction.”

The poets were then asked about their standout memories from being in the graduate program; Berssenbrugge mentioned Pablo Neruda’s visit to the program as well as Jorge Luis Borges’, and McGrath spoke again about his relationship with Czeslaw Milosz.

Berssenbrugge was asked by an audience member to speak about her Asian-American poetic influences, and she described how she felt lucky to have “emerged onto the scene” at a moment in which multiculturalism was becoming a big movement in the literary world, and mentioned her relationships with Frank Chin and Kathy Change as particular influences. 

Finally, each writer was asked about their writing processes; McGrath described how he sustains his poetic impulses for long poems by turning the poems into “movements” and by constantly referencing “externalities” such as historical facts and sensory details.

Berssenbrugge described cutting her poems out and having them sit on her desk as she rearranges the lines into drafts, a process that she described as “very intense”, spanning several days. She explained that most of her writing process happens below the conscious level.

Throughout the event, the participant chat was lively, as the event attendees, many of whom had been in the program at the same time as Berssenbrugge or McGrath, reminisced, asked questions, shared anecdotes, and celebrated the featured poets for their accomplishments.

Overall, the event was inspiring in more ways than one; not only was it a showcase of superbly crafted poetry, but also an example of how the literary community survives and thrives, perhaps aided more so than hindered by the communal nature of the platform of Zoom. 

Image via event website.