Writing Program Hosts Alumni Poetry Reading Series

Angeline Dimambro
November 26, 2020

The Poetry Concentration continued its Alumni Reading Series with readings from William Brewer '14, Adjunct Assistant Professor Monica Ferrell '02Stefania Heim '04, and Mai Der Vang '14. 2020 marks the fifth anniversary of the annual reading series. Earlier this fall, the Program hosted Adam O. Davis '08Diana Marie Delgado '08Elizabeth Metzger '15, and Diana Khoi Nguyen '12 to kick off this year’s series, which the program hopes to continue into the spring. 

Professor and Poetry Concentration Head Timothy Donnelly hosted the event, which included readings from Brewer, Ferell, Heim, and Vang. Brewer is the author of the debut novel, The Red Arrow, forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf. His first collection of poems, I Know Your Kind, was a winner of the National Poetry Series. Formerly a Stegner Fellow, he is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. Ferrell is the author of two collections of poetry, most recently You Darling Thing, a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Award and Believer Book Award in Poetry, and Beasts for the Chase, which received the Sarabande Books Kathryn A. Morton Prize. Ferrell also teaches Creative Writing at Purchase College (SUNY). Heim teaches at Western Washington University and is the author of Hour Book and A Table That Goes On for Miles. She has also translated the poetry of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico. Vang teaches at the MFA program at Fresno State and her poetry collection Afterland was the winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets.

Vang read new work from her forthcoming book of poetry, which she described as  “a collection that explores allegations of chemical, biological warfare that was used against the Hmong  people following the Vietnam War.” It is often referred to as “Yellow rain.” The collection, which has a “docu-poetics” feel to it, is built on seven years of investigative research that Vang undertook for the project. During the Q&A session, one attendee asked Vang to speak about her process of investigation, and how she transformed her archival research to lyrical poems. “I allowed myself to be overwhelmed. I think that’s the first thing, to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by all this information.” Vang also shared how she didn’t write any poetry at all during this period of research, instead prioritizing immersion in the subject matter, which helped her to “develop language” around the history of this violent tragedy.

Heim’s translation work requires similar research. During her reading, Heim shared her screen to present paintings by Giorgio de Chirico while she read from her translations of his poems. “I wanted to share my private thrill of matching some of the images of his paintings with his poems and seeing how that works.” Heim’s time at Columbia nearly overlapped with Ferrell. At Donnelly’s request, Ferrell read the poem “Of the Irresolubleness of Diamonds.” Ferrell spoke about the genesis of the poem: “I had this amazing, low-tech CD-ROM of the [Oxford English Dictionary]. I would use it all the time looking up words, and that’s how I came across this word ‘irresolubleness’...one of the first usages of the word was in this phrase, ‘of the irresolubleness of diamonds’.”

During the post-reading discussion, Donnelly commented on the animal imagery that appears again and again in Brewer’s work. “I’m very place-sensitive,” Brewer said. “When I lived in New York, I wrote a book about West Virginia, and when I moved [to California], I became mystified by it and the intensity of the natural world here—it’s just part of your life all the time. The last poem in my second book is about the first huge wave of fires that came in 2018.” When an attendee asked if any of the poets write with an audience in mind, Brewer, Ferrell, and Heim all shared they do not imagine an audience they are writing to in their work. However, Ferrell suggested how “all poems have to have a ‘thou’. [Poems] have to have some occasion—they can’t just exist in a vacuum where it’s a private language directed at the self.” Similarly, while Heim doesn’t write to a specific audience, she feels like she “writes into a conversation,” populated with other poets and the works she’s read.

You can find the alumni’s books for purchase through Bookshop.