It was a joy to host a terrific reading tonight at Rutgers. Partly because it was my first "official duty" there, even though my new job doesn't begin until the fall semester. The school's been the most welcoming place, and that warmth and interest continue to shine, and really make me look forward to the fall.
It was also a great night because I was introducing three terrific women whose poems I love. Tina Chang, Brenda Shaughnessy and Tracy K. Smith were all members of a graduate workshop I taught at Columbia in 1996. They were remarkable presences then -- in an unusually bright-spirited, warm class -- and each has gone on to produce work that's distinctly her own. Tina's first book is HALF-LIT HOUSES, from Four Way, and she's recently co-edited an anthology for Norton, LANGUAGE FOR A NEW CENTURY, a gathering of world poets, often from places and people we hear far too little from. Brenda's two collections are INTERIOR WITH SUDDEN JOY and HUMAN DARK WITH SUGAR (such titles!), and Tracy's two collections are THE BODY'S QUESTION and DUENDE.
Some occasions of delight:
-- all three of these poets seem refreshingly unpredictable to me. I don't know what they'll be writing in ten years, but I know I will want to pay attention.
-- all three answer questions from student writers with a combination of humility and a genuine weighing of the question; you can almost hear them thinking, Well, what DO I think about that? And speaking straightforwardly accordingly,
-- although the three poets are committed to emotional availability (by which I mean that every poem they write seems alive with feeling), they're notably different stylistically. Chang's poems seem to arise out of the body, a felt sensuous connection to the world. Shaughnessy's poems come out of talk, the wry turns and twistings of the internal monologue or the public address. Smith's work is idea-driven, and in particular it seems fueled by a desire to understand cruelty, the strange failing that is human violence, and what it is that allows us to survive.