Alumnae on the Cusp: MARNEY RATHBUN ’16, MEREDITH NNOKA ’14 & ABE LOUISE YOUNG ’99

Tuesday, February 20, 2018
7:30 pm, Alumnae House Conference Hall

MEREDITH NNOKA’s chapbook, A Hunger Called Music (C&R Press, 2016) is a verse history of Black music, from work songs to Motown-era Soul. Her poems have been featured in HEArt Online, Mandala Journal, Riding Light, and elsewhere. At Smith, Nnoka majored in Africana Studies and English and was a Poetry Concentrator. Originally from outside of Washington, D.C., she spent a year teaching English in France and is currently doing graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

MARNEY RATHBUN’s chapbook, I call my father by his name, was a winner of the 2016 Jubilat Makes A Chapbook competition. Her work can be seen in Reservoir Literary Journal and (b)OINK magazine. Rathbun majored in Africana Studies at Smith and was a Poetry Concentrator. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at New York University. 

ABE LOUISE YOUNG, one of the very first interns at the Poetry Center, is the author of two chapbooks, Ammonite (2008) and Heaven to Me (2016). Her poems and essays have appeared in Witness, Verse Daily, Narrative Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, and The Nation. Born in New Orleans, she holds an MA from Northwestern University and an MFA from the James Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin. She has led writing workshops in more than thirty states and worked on a wide variety of story-based social change projects.

Supported by the Program for the Study of Women & Gender


Ellen Doré Watson

Ellen Doré Watson’s fifth book of poems, pray me stay eager, just released from Alice James, was cited in The New York Times Book Review’s “New & Noteworthy column. Commending her “drumming heart and hard-driving mind,” Alicia Ostriker declared that the language in this new collection “leaps, dives, soars, ricochets, lurches and reels, fusing the stubbornly instantaneous and the transcendent eternal.” Publishers Weekly notes: “Towards the end of her poem ‘Hermitage’ Watson writes, ‘This is not strictly a story’—and she’s right, it isn’t. These poems are musical mediations on what cannot be narrated, but must be prayed or sung.” She has said that “at some point, serious play with words became for me not just sustenance, but joy.”

Gerald Stern pronounced the poems in Dogged Hearts (Tupelo 2010) “wild, delirious—they go every which way,” and Tony Hoagland praised the how they “batter their way forward, embodiments of the struggle to keep emotionally alive.” In an interview, speaking of the experience of giving voice to the multiplicity of characters in the book, Watson has said “Metaphor is not only were we live and how we feel, but also how we enter the experience of the other—which might be the most crucial part of being human.” Her earlier books include Broken Railings (winner of the Green Lake Chapbook Prize from Owl Creek Press), We Live in Bodies and, winner of the New York/New England Award, Ladder Music (from Alice James Books, 1997 and 2001, respectively), and This Sharpening (Tupelo Press, 2006). Her many journal appearances include American Poetry Review, Tin House, Orion, Field, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, and The New Yorker.

Hailed by Library Journal as one of “24 Poets for the 21st Century,” Watson’s honors include a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artists Grant, a Rona Jaffe Writers Award, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, Zoland Poetry Fellowship to Vermont Studio Center, and National Endowment Translation Fellowship. Watson is also a noted translator, with over a dozen books from Brazilian Portuguese, including the poems of Brazilian Adélia Prado (The Alphabet in the Park, Wesleyan University Press, and Ex-Voto, Tupelo Press), and also co-translated contemporary Palestinian poetry from the Arabic with Saadi Simawe, most notably in the volume Iraqi Poetry Today (Zephyr Press).

Watson has lived in the Pioneer Valley for more years than she has lived anywhere else. In addition to poetry writing at Smith, she is a core faculty member at the Colrain Manuscript Conference and the Drew University Low-Residency MFA program in Poetry and Translation, and offers a generative writing workshop in Northampton. She also serves as Poetry and Translation editor of The Massachusetts Review. While this marks her 19th and final year as director of the Poetry Center, she will stay on at Smith for several years as the Conkling Visiting Poet.

Poetry Center Readings:

Fall 2000
Fall 2001 – Celebrating the Poetry Center’s 10th Year (with Elizabeth Alexander)
Fall 2006
Fall 2010
Spring 2018

Yours, Lena

Between 6:10 and 6:24 the dream drained like a cup.
But as she unsheathes herself in morning dark, he lingers
as if real, this boy-child burrowed into borrowed warm.
She recalls how a younger self set out at a prance, singing,
but each time as she rounded the curve the gate banged
shut. Whose voice did she erase last night before listening?
Now nothing hammering but the hours. The boy is gone.
She imagines floating across the grass toward barn-smell,
dill makes a dry rain of its seeds. She could pull the sky
close and textured down around her shoulders, but what
a chill shawl it would make. Like bringing miscarriage
into a room. Like finding yourself on the same path again
and there’s that slam, advance echo. Like pain waiting,
already yellow. 6:50. What is there she longs to topple?
Who to wake, what to build? She’ll learn to forgive
the leaf-blower this day and to pray. Bless all who tend
a hurting blossom. And Dear Rash World so far outside
my window, oh fuck, may this third new nub of child live.

From DOGGED HEARTS (Tupelo Press, 2010)

Field Guide to Abstractions

The naturalist says recognition is not seeing; seeing
leaves judgment home, asks questions. Why is grief
a towering cumulus? What are the characteristics
of this or that species of defeat? A doctor who treats

brain injuries watches a woodpecker, asks, why no
head trauma? Learns the tongue serves as shock
absorber and the brain’s not loose like ours. Some
moths disguise themselves as bird shit, bark. Look

at the fish. Look at the fish again. Let’s see if this
works for sanity. Elegance. Choose your abstraction
and observe daily through the seasons, noting change
and pattern. Despair fades to disquiet. Look hard

at humility. Where there’s water, there’s fish, there’s
Osprey. If bitten, determine: by fear or honesty?
Keep calm. Timely administration of the right
serum insures the possibility of recovery. Look again.

From PRAY ME STAY EAGER (Alice James Books, 2018)

April Eclogue

Damned forsythia—ramrod up-thrust intent
on a head start! While we—greedy for color—
haul it into overdrive in overheated houses
and force it to make pretty, and the clump
outside flexes and plots to overtake
the pachysandra, upend the steppingstone.
But so little is all this or that, dead mouse
stiff-crooked in the trap but oh! velvet gray.
The beech tree—guts bored from within, skin
freeze-fissured—a bodybuilder from the waist
up only, is over-stretching its arms, reaching
as if to the next county, as if to buy a few years. 
You say we’re all shameless with it—ongoingness.
I sigh, set my jaw, I mean to green into my wreckage.

From PRAY ME STAY EAGER (Alice James Books, 2018)

Women for the World

She draws crowds or fire. An oak, she towers.
She forewarns, she floors, she’s sieve, she’s oars
—all whirl and brimming—living for the world.
She’s 13, first in her family to say AIDS out loud.
She’s mopping nuclear meltdown at 69. She sun-
screens orphaned elephants’ ears—knows mother
is shade. Thick-armed or reedy, she splits atoms,
invents windshield wipers, white-out. She labors
in the bush the hut the tub the ward. She delivers.
Exponentially. She sisters. She gives us Hospice,
Kevlar, the Mars Rover, the bra. Carriers of water,
keepers of memories or bees. At 10, circumcised,
about to be wed, she spills hot tea in his lap, grows up
to write her memoir from jail—with eyeliner on t.p.
She will not be forbidden the world. Game-changers,
gene-mappers, those who build bridges, who are bridges,
who get the story told. Sharp- or honey-tongued, she
legals, loyals, triages, stops the superhighway. She sings
herself, and everyone. Flecked with paint or pain, knee-
deep in the way out or in. She drives. We women—elected,
reflecting, dissecting, refracting—ignition for the world.

From PRAY ME STAY EAGER (Alice James Books, 2018)
Available as a Broadside


Ocean Vuong

Hailed by BuzzFeed Books as one of “32 Essential Asian American Writers,” Ocean Vuong is a biographer of violence, dislocation, and an immigrant, queer America that carries trauma from other lands, still breathing. Vuong’s debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon, 2016), was named by the New York Times as a Top 10 Book of 2016, and garnered a slew of honors: a Whiting Award, a Thom Gunn Award, the Lambda Literary Prize, finalist for Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award.

Vuong’s poems are whispered prayers of the body that seek a pathway out of trauma in intimacy. He was described by The New York Times as a poet who “captures specific moments in time with both photographic clarity and a sense of the evanescence of all earthly things,” whose work possesses “a tensile precision reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s work, combined with a Gerard Manley Hopkins-like appreciation for the sound and rhythms of words. Vuong was born on a rice farm outside Saigon, and spent a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines before moving, at age two, to Hartford, CT. He was influenced by the Vietnamese oral poetic tradition he grew up with, and calls the ear “his first instrument,” as he internalized the stories and poems his family “carries… inside their bodies.” Reading his poems, writes Daniel Wenger of the New Yorker is like “watching a fish move” through the “currents of English with muscled intuition.”

The poems in Vuong’s blazing debut are searingly metaphysical in their treatment of time, the body, and identity, at once uncovering and resurfacing histories that are interwoven with the present. His Whiting Award citation notes how the poems “unflinchingly face the legacies of violence and cultural displacement but… also assume a position of wonder before the world.” Speaking to the way Vuong’s personal archaeological work with identity moves beyond one body and speaks to the seemingly private anxieties we share, Li-Young Lee describes the collection as “a gift. . .a perfume…crushed and rendered of his heart and soul.”

In addition to the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Vuong is the recipient of fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation. His poems have been featured in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, New Republic, The Village Voice, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He has also published two chapbooks, Burnings (2010) and No (2013). He was also selected by Foreign Policy magazine as a one of 2016’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers, alongside Hillary Clinton, Ban Ki-Moon and Warsan Shire. Vuong holds an MFA from New York University, and in 2016 left New York for the Northampton area. This fall he became an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program at UMass Amherst.

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2018

Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong

After Frank O’Hara / After Roger Reeves

Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.
Don’t worry. Your father is only your father
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement. Ocean,
are you listening? The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
Here’s the house with childhood
whittled down to a single red tripwire.
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon
& you’ll never reach it.
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not
a lifeboat. Here’s the man
whose arms are wide enough to gather
your leaving. & here the moment,
just after the lights go out, when you can still see
the faint torch between his legs.
How you use it again & again
to find your own hands.
You asked for a second chance
& are given a mouth to empty into.
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer. Ocean. Ocean,
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s
the room with everyone in it.
Your dead friends passing
through you like wind
through a wind chime. Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake—
& mistake these walls
for skin.

From NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)

Because It’s Summer

you ride your bike to the park bruised
with 9pm the maples draped with plastic bags
shredded from days the cornfield
freshly razed & you’ve lied
about where you’re going you’re supposed
to be out with a woman you can’t find
a name for but he’s waiting
in the baseball field behind the dugout
flecked with newports torn condoms
he’s waiting with sticky palms & mint
on his breath a cheap haircut
& his sister’s levis
stench of piss rising from wet grass
it’s june after all & you’re young
until september he looks different
from his picture but it doesn’t matter
because you kissed your mother
on the cheek before coming
this far because the fly’s dark slit is enough
to speak through the zipper a thin scream
where you plant your mouth
to hear the sound of birds
hitting water snap of elastic
waistbands four hands quickening
into dozens: a swarm of want you wear
like a bridal veil but you don’t
deserve it: the boy
& his loneliness the boy who finds you
beautiful only because you’re not
a mirror because you don’t have
enough faces to abandon you’ve come
this far to be no one & it’s june
until morning you’re young until a pop song
plays in a dead kid’s room water spilling in
from every corner of summer & you want
to tell him it’s okay that the night is also a grave
we climb out of but he’s already fixing
his collar the cornfield a cruelty steaming
with manure you smear your neck with
lipstick you dress with shaky hands
you say thank you thank you thank you
because you haven’t learned the purpose
of forgive me because that’s what you say
when a stranger steps out of summer
& offers you another hour to live.

From NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)

 

12 Gauge

after Newtown, CT

I don’t know the name of the white mare
swaying in early light, her mane tinged blue

with rain, but my mouth has found
the warmest vein beneath

her jaw—and so what
if my bones were hammered

into the shape of a man’s
regret. I’m only here to increase

the silence, despite music. And it’s hard
to pray with just one word

in the chamber—but I try. Like you,
I try, willing as the hand that holds me.

Like you, I thought I heard the thunder
of a world coming to its end.

It was only the sound of hooves
running nowhere.

First published by the Paris-American, 2013


Five College POETRYFEST

Tuesday, April 3, 2018
7:30pm, Alumnae House Conference Hall

The 16th Annual Reading in celebration of poetry at Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts, featuring two students from each institution: Jonah Davis and Avery Farmer (Amherst); Lazuli Liu and Corrie Owens-Beauchesne (Hampshire); Bennett Sambrook and Becca Mullen (Mt. Holyoke); Janelle Tan and Savannah Tilley (Smith); Stacey Cusson and Cressida Richards (UMass)

Supported by Five Colleges, Inc.


Marie Howe

Marie Howe sees her work as an act of confession, conversation, prayer. She says simply, “Poetry is telling something to someone.” According to the distinguished poet Stanley Kunitz, Howe’s “telling” is “luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life.” Her work glows with light and lightness that bear heavy questions of existence. Alicia Ostriker considers her “among our most gifted poets of trauma and healing.”

Part of the urgency and importance of Howe’s poetry stems from its rootedness in real life. Her latest book, Magdalene, transforms driving, watching television and cleaning kitchen counters into prayer and meditation on mortality. As Mary Magdalene becomes every woman, our contemporary anguish is set on surprisingly common ground with divine and metaphysical preoccupations. As Nick Flynn puts it, Howe “has always come as close as any poet since Rilke to touching eternity, simply by stretching out her hand and believing that something exists beyond her grasp, beyond her knowing.”

Howe maintains that poetry “has the quality of a spell.” It is “incantatory,… as its roots can never wholly be pulled out from sacred ground.” Her language does not simply carry the unsayable—it seems to ask what it ought to do with the pain. Just ten minutes into her 1987 residence at the MacDowell Colony, Howe received a call from her brother John telling her that her mother had had a heart attack. Two years later, John died of AIDS, and What the Living Do is in large part an elegy to him, and was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the five best poetry collections published in 1997. Howe went on to co-edit In the Company of My Solitude: American Writing from the AIDS Pandemic.

Howe’s poetry is intensely intimate, and her bravery in laying bare the music of her own pain is part of its resonance. She received the 2015 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and served as the New York Poet Laureate from 2012-2014. Her poems have appeared in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Poetry, AGNI, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, The American Poetry Review, among others. Kunitz selected Howe for a Lavan Younger Poets Prize from the American Academy of Poets, and poet and novelist Margaret Atwood named Howe’s first collection, The Good Thief, for the National Poetry Series. Recipient of fellowships from the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College and the Guggenheim Foundation, Howe teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University.

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2004
(with Marie Ponsot)
Spring 2018 (with the High School Prize Winners)

How Many Times

No matter how many times I try I can’t stop my father
from walking into my sister’s room

and I can’t see any better, leaning from here to look
in his eyes. It’s dark in the hall

and everyone’s sleeping. This is the past
where everything is perfect already and nothing changes,

where the water glass falls to the bathroom floor
and bounces once before breaking.

Nothing. Not the small sound my sister makes, turning
over, not the thump of the dog’s tail

when he opens one eye to see him stumbling back to bed
still drunk, a little bewildered.

This is exactly as I knew it would be.
And if I whisper her name, hissing a warning,

I’ve been doing that for years now, and still the dog
startles and growls until he sees

it’s our father, and still the door opens, and she
makes that small oh turning over.

From THE GOOD THIEF (Persea Books, 1988)

Watching Television

I didn’t want to look at the huge white egg the mother spider dragged
along behind her, attached to her abdomen, held off the ground,

bigger than her own head-
and inside it: hundreds of baby spiders feeding off the nest,

and in what seemed like the next minute,
spinning their own webs quickly and crazily,

bumping into each other’s and breaking them, then mending
and moving over, and soon they got it right:

each in his or her own circle and running around it.
And then they slept,

each in the center of a glistening thing: a red dot in ether.

Last night the moon was as big as a house at the end of the street,
a white frame house, and rising,

and I thought of a room it was shining in, right then,
a room I might live in and can’t imagine yet.

And this morning, I thought of a place on the ocean where no one is,
no boat, no fish jumping,

just sunlight gleaming on the water, humps of water that hardly break.

I have argued bitterly with the man I love, and for two days
we haven’t spoken.

We argued about one thing, but it really was another.
I keep finding myself standing by the front windows looking out at the street

and the walk that leads to the front door of this building,
white, unbroken by footprints.

Anything I’ve ever tried to keep by force I’ve lost.

From WHAT THE LIVING DO (W.W. Norton, 1998)

The Last Time

The last time we had dinner together in a restaurant
with white tablecloths, he leaned forward

and took my two hands in his hands and said,
I’m going to die soon. I want you to know that.

And I said, I think I do know.
And he said, What surprises me is that you don’t.

And I said, I do. And he said, What?
And I said, Know that you’re going to die.

And he said, No, I mean know that you are.

From WHAT THE LIVING DO (W.W. Norton, 1998)


FAVORITE POEM PROJECT READING

Tuesday, April 24, 2018
7:30 pm, Weinstein Auditorium, Wright Hall

The common thread that brings all of us together on Tuesday nights is simple: We. Love. Poems. We have favorite poems that we carry with us throughout our lives, poems to help us celebrate, grieve, and make sense of the world we share. Where do you, our audience, come in? We want to hear your favorites! Started by Robert Pinsky after he was named Poet Laureate in 1997, Favorite Poem Project readings have taken place across the U.S., giving communities a chance to share and hear the poems that enrich our lives. 

We are in search of readers for our Favorite Poem Project reading on April 24, 2018!

What’s your favorite poem—and why?

Send us a favorite poem and a few sentences about why it has special meaning for you!

Submissions open: February 15 – March 30. 
A dozen readers from across our audience will be chosen to read their favorite poem at Weinstein Auditorium at this celebration that draws our outstanding 20th season to a close; 
Readers will be chosen by early April.