Left to right: Mei-mei Berssenbrugge '73 and Campbell McGrath '88

Alumni Poetry Reading Series Welcomes Mei-mei Berssenbrugge '73 and Campbell McGrath '88

BY Angeline Dimambro, February 23, 2021

The Writing Program welcomed Mei-mei Berssenbrugge '73 and Campbell McGrath '88 to their Fifth Annual Alumni Poetry Reading Series. This marked the Poetry Concentration’s third reading of the 2020-21 academic year and was again hosted by Professor and Poetry Concentration Head Timothy Donnelly.


Opening the event, Donnelly said, “While I do wish we could all be together in Dodge Hall right now, I know too that this newly normalized platform has made it so much easier for people spread far and wide to come together like this.”


First-year Poetry student Rebecca Tseng had the opportunity to introduce Berssenbrugge. Berssenbrugge was born in Beijing and grew up in Massachusetts. She is the author of fourteen books of poetry, including Hello, the Roses; Empathy, winner of the PEN West Award; I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems. Her most recent book, A Treatise on Stars, was the recipient of the 2020 Bollingen Prize in Poetry as well as a finalist for the National Book Award. “When spending time with A Treatise on Stars,” Tseng said, “I too was enlivened with the awe and radical recognition of how my own human communications and perceptions are interwoven with the light and energies of the universe.”


Among the poems Berssenbrugge read were “Jaguar,” “Singing,” and “Wonder,” all poems from A Treatise on Stars that are composed in multiple parts. To Donnelly, these multi-part poems struck him as “units of meditation” as he read them. Berssenbrugge shared the process behind her compositions. “The poems start out as notes. I copy sentences out of books and notes, and I cut them out. I’ll have a few hundred on a table, and then I work with them to make the first draft.” For Berssenbrugge, the first draft is a very intense period that typically lasts four or five days. “It takes a tremendous amount of effort to polish that work, and I think the structure, the intention—everything is unconscious. I’m very grateful to have that.”


Another first-year Poetry student, Catherine Fisher, introduced McGrath. He is the author of eleven books of poetry, including Spring Comes to Chicago, Seven Notebooks, XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century, a Finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, and most recently, Nouns & Verbs: New and Selected Poems. He has received numerous awards and prizes for his work, including a MacArthur Fellowship, the Kingsley Tufts Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a USA Knight Fellowship, and a Witter-Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. “As students of poetry,” Fisher said, “we have much to learn from McGrath’s breadth of writing. His intellect spares nothing...To young and old poets alike, McGrath reminds us of the enduring reality that for the observant speaker, even Jiffy Lube holds a poem waiting to be written.”


As Fisher noted in her introduction, McGrath is an expert of the long-form poem. During the Q&A portion of the event, one student asked McGrath what, if any, craft strategies he has for sustaining the long poem. “It is very different writing a longer poem...the lyric impulse that sustains your poem, whether it’s a sonnet or a hundred-line poem, there’s an energy level to it.” However, as McGrath noted, that lyric impulse is often not enough to carry a long poem to the finish line. “You kind of have to reboot the poem at some point...One strategy I often use is bringing in externalities...it’s hard to get externalities into the tight box of a lyric poem. It’s hard to get data or information into the short lyric.” Expanding his poems allows McGrath to incorporate the kinds of historical explorations and observations that compel him, and lend his poems an energy as they move from movement to movement.


You can find the Berssenbrugge’s and McGrath’s  books for purchase through Bookshop or at your local bookstore. The next Alumni Poetry Reading event will take place on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.