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Lucie Brock-Broido Tribute Honors Revered Columbia Poetry Director, Poet, Friend

BY Zoe Contros Kearl, October 4, 2018

The extraordinary life of poet and educator Lucie Brock-Broido was honored this past Wednesday with a tribute held at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Brock-Broido served as the Director of Poetry in the Writing Program of the School of the Arts from 1993 until her death on March 6, 2018.

 

The evening began with Bach’s Cello Suite No 1. In G Major: Prelude, recorded by Yo-Yo Ma. As the recording played, the theatre—filled with friends, colleagues, and students gathered to hear memories of and readings of poems by the late Brock-Broido—fell silent and still.

 

Dean Carol Becker spoke first, setting the tenor of the evening by saying of Lucie, “we still feel her enormous spirit … She was, is, will always be loved.” Longtime friend Alice Quinn, who serves as the Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America, echoed the feeling of always in the room, saying of Lucie, “We have more to look forward to, to receive and cherish from Lucie.”

 

Following Quinn, Kevin Young, the current Poetry Editor at The New Yorker, spoke of Brock-Broido’s aptitude and singular talent for teaching. Brock-Broido was Young’s first poetry professor at Harvard University and asked him, upon his telling her of a poem that he liked, “but, are you jealous of it?” Brock-Broido’s obsession and inspiration with poetry was the first time that Young realized poetry could be “envy-making.”

 

The night’s speakers offered funny and charming anecdotes befitting the humor and tremendous generosity of spirit that Brock-Broido gifted to those in her life.

 

When Dorothea Lasky took the stage, dressed in red, she spoke of Brock-Broido’s spirit, of her fervent devotion to poetry, of her belief in the poem, “Give your whole self to poetry, she seemed to be suggesting. Give it all away.” Lasky touched on Brock-Broido’s love of red and told of a final text message from Brock-Broido that she received this past winter solstice, on December 21 a little after midnight, which read only, “Let there be light.” 

 

Former student, Poet Laureate, and Pulitzer winner Tracy K. Smith came to the stage next. She said, “Hearing her voice tonight is fortifying, is heartbreaking … she contained universes.” Smith was followed by poet and close friend of Brock-Broido's, Sophie Cabot Black, who read Brock-Broido’s “After the Grand Perhaps.” Cabot Black left the audience with the unending nature of knowing Lucie, saying, “Our dead have much to tell us.”

 

The room felt haunted, full of love, admiration, ache.

 

Columbia School of the Arts Professor Timothy Donnelly, for whom Lucie had named one of her beloved Blue Maine Coon cats, read an elegiac poem Brock-Broido penned in honor of her mother titled "Still Life with Aspirin." Donnelly told the audience about his relationship with Brock-Broido, of how they loved to talk on the phone for hours. Donnelly said, “I feel like I’m still on the phone with Lucie Brock-Broido and I am never hanging up.”

 

Close friend, colleague, and fellow cat lover Emily Fragos spoke of Lucie’s tremendous love of her male muses, those felines of her life. Fragos, before reading “A Lion in Winter,” told a story of a dinner at which Lucie appeared in the brightest of red lipstick and in fine form, and was “voguing in Le Monde.” She remarked upon the nature of Brock-Broido’s heightened existence: “Hypnotic, mesmerizing, spellbinding, that was Lucie.”

 

Longtime friend and poet Marie Howe spoke of her first years of friendship, in the early 1980s in Boston. She shared a story of how one night, after a phone call introducing herself and asking to visit Howe in her home, Lucie arrived and said, “Let’s tell each other everything.”

 

“Let’s tell each other everything” was an unspoken theme of the night, as Brock-Broido's openness and candor was remarked upon over and over again.

 

The final poem of the evening was delivered by Brock-Broido’s best friend and colleague Binnie Kirshenbaum, who read “Giraffe.” Kirshenbaum spoke with grace, “Lucie was strong in ways that were unexpected.”

 

As the lights fell, Lucie Brock-Broido’s voice filled the room, a recording of her reading “Infinite Riches in the Smallest Room” at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown on January 10, 2015. As her voice washed us all in deep red, the screen filled with images of Lucie’s notes, of poems she had handwritten and reworked, of napkins with a single phrase penned upon them. In those moments, we were all on the phone with Lucie Brock-Broido, not wanting to ever hang up.

 

Born in Pittsburgh, Brock-Broido earned degrees from Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University, and published her first groundbreaking book, A Hunger, with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in 1988. Brock-Broido went on to receive fellowships from the NEA, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as awards from the American Poetry Review and the Academy of American Arts and Letters, to name a few. Widely acclaimed in the United States and abroad as one of the most distinctive and influential poets of her generation, Brock-Broido published three further collections with Knopf, namely The Master Letters (1995), Trouble in Mind (2004) and Stay, Illusion (2013), which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Books Critics Circle Award. As well as for her lasting achievements as a poet, Brock-Broido will be remembered as an exceptionally passionate and brilliant teacher, having received the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award in 1989 and 1990, the Harvard-Danforth Award for Distinction in Teaching in 1991, and Columbia University’s Presidential Teaching Award in 2013.

 

The tribute was co-presented by the Academy of American Poets, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., The Poetry Foundation, Poets House, and the Poetry Society of America and featured readings and commentary from Mary Jo Bang, Sophie Cabot Black, Henri Cole, Timothy Donnelly, Emily Fragos, Harmony Holiday, Marie Howe, Binnie Kirshenbaum, Dorothea Lasky, Robert Polito, Srikanth Reddy, Tracy K. Smith, and Kevin Young.

 

She will be missed terribly.

 

In addition to last night's event, Columbia University School of the Arts has kicked off a crowdfunding campaign in remembrance of Lucie Brock-Broido. The funds raised through this crowdfunding effort will directly support students in poetry. Lucie's sister Julie Brock-Broido is quoted on the campaign website: "Lucie dedicated the last quarter century of her all-too-short life to the Writing Program, nurturing it day by day, month by month, year by year. We need to honor and support her legacy so that the magic she worked as a poet and teacher can continue into the next generation."

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