Poetry and Fiction Series: Bringing Words to Life

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by Quille Chayes ‘12

Salgado Maranhão

Nine students sit around a table, straightening their papers, a printout from a hot-off-the-press book of paradigm Brazilian poetry in front of them. The author is Salgado Maranhão, a man who won the highest award for poetry in Brazil, the Premio de Poesia da Academia Brasileira de Letras, in 2011. Then the man himself strides into the room, his translator, Alexis Levitin, grinning in his wake. He shakes the hands of all the students before situating himself at the head of the table, glancing around expectantly. Peter Filkins, faculty in languages and literature, begins the introduction as the students lean forward, and the translator murmurs after every other line.

In this unique setting, minds from across decades, across the borders of countries and cultures and languages, come together for an hour-and-a-half to discuss the nature of poetry, language, translation, and what it means to be human. We contemplate what it means to give “viscera to verse,” and how to give verse back to what we experience. We talk about the creation of words, and the tradition of wandering bards, and how poetry gives a voice to the oppressed.

As our time expires, we all bite back our disappointment, satisfied in the knowledge that we’ll get one more fix at the poetry reading. And we do indeed receive fantastic poetry: both the original Portuguese and its English translation from a collection entitled Blood of the Sun. The students return to their dorms that night with their tastes whetted for four more once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to meet and converse with authors in such a close and personal setting.

Peter Filkins, a beloved professor at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, has been running a Poetry and Fiction series for twenty-five years now. This workshop consists of popular contemporary authors coming to campus to talk about their most recent works. The reading is open to the larger community as well. The process itself has evolved over the years. At first, three authors came to speak in the fall semester and three in the spring semester, usually an equal mix of poetry with nonfiction or essays thrown in every once in a while. Now, however, four authors come every fall semester, and students have the option of taking a 2-credit Guest Writers Workshop. The workshop meets prior to the authors’ arrival to discuss their works in-depth in preparation for the public reading.

This Year’s Line Up

This year, Simon’s Rock lined up a fascinating and diverse selection of authors : Salgado Maranhão, Jim Shepard were here in September. Rosanna Warren and John Koethe visited in October, and Debra Spark is here on November 1.

Jim Shepard

Jim Shepard is an award-winning author of six novels and four short story collections that he jokingly attributes to his attempt to limit his audience and make no money. His skill, however, speaks for itself. He delivers fantastic, thoroughly-researched settings through distinct, unique voices of characters whose worlds are plagued with catastrophe in the must-read You Think That’s Bad.

Rosanna Warren

Rosanna Warren, a renowned poet, is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She came to speak of her latest book, Ghost in a Red Hat. She related insights from the personal nature of poetry to adding political commentary and tying her work together with various themes, an elemental theme in her latest collection. She is a Professor of Humanities at Boston University.

John Koethe

John Koethe is a fascinating man. He is a philosopher and retired professor with eight books of poetry to his name. His numerous awards, such as the Frank O'Hara Award, the Kingsley Tufts Award, and recognition from both the Guggenheim foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts speak to his skill. Students will study his latest book of poems, the title derived from a poster protesting the Vietnam War: ROTC Kills!

Debra Spark

This year’s Fiction and Poetry series concludes with Debra Spark, a novelist, journalist, and short-story writer. Her work appears in famous anthologies such as Twenty Under Thirty: Best Stories by America's New Young Writers. Her latest novella and collection, pulled together under the title The Pretty Girl, delves into the subjects of art and deception in seven different characters, seven different settings, and seven different conflicts. She is as a professor at Colby College.

The Fiction and Poetry series reminds us of what a vivid and fluid landscape contemporary literature is. It involves not only students in the course, but the campus as a whole, and the vaster Great Barrington community, challenging them to read, to think, and to discover the stories behind stories. Eleanor Cardell (‘11), a student currently in Guest Writers and Creative Writing, sums up the essence of the series: “It’s wonderful to meet authors because not only do I get to hear their perspective on writing, but also they’re wonderful, interesting people.”