Lily Myers (Wes ’15) Shreds National Poetry Slam

This week I received the following message from Evan Okun ’13.

During the semi-finals of the Collegiate National poetry slam (in NYC) last spring, Lily Myers (Wes ’15) performed a poem about her family.  It was video taped, uploaded to youtube, and currently has almost 150,000 VIEWS!!!!!!! Her piece exemplifies Wesleyan’s progressive thinking, innovative writing, and emotional honesty when it comes to Slam Poetry.

Now since Evan was such an exemplar of passionate, practical idealism, I couldn’t wait to hear Lily’s poem. I think he’s absolutely right. No?

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Mad About Wes

Last night a few hundred Wesleyans gathered at the Director’s Guild Theater in New York to hear from Matthew Weiner ’87, creator of Mad Men. This was one of the kickoff events for our THIS IS WHY fundraising campaign, and the energy was terrific. I met some recent graduates who were eager to hear how Matt went from being a College of Letters major to a film and television writer. Older alumni were comparing notes with me about how the mania for period detail in Mad Men got the epoch just right.

Matt told a hilarious story about his poetry thesis and spoke warmly of the creative friends and teachers at Wesleyan who helped launch him into the world of ideas and media. Was it the Freud seminar taught by Elisabeth Young-Breuhl and Paul Schwaber, or the work in writing seminars with Anne Greene? COL director Kari Weil seemed to think that it was all those discussions about books that matter, and Matt provided plenty of evidence for that when he talked about Don Draper’s tenuous existentialism. It was a wonderful evening, and at the end we announced a new $600,000 donation to financial aid from an alumnus who wanted to celebrate the occasion. It was a great night for alma mater!

I’m heading back to campus today. There is so much happening on campus this weekend — from music and public life in Indonesia to great international theater at the CFA (not to mention Company at the Second Stage). Lots of great athletic action, too! Check out the calendar and find out why we keep saying, “THIS IS WHY.”

Conversations, Consultation and Feeling Thankful

This past weekend, the Board of Trustees was in town for its annual November meeting. Some trustees arrived Thursday to attend classes, and in the evening they met with a group of faculty over dinner to discuss skill building and career preparation. I had the pleasure of seeing a group of inspired students and Rinde Eckert in the Theater Department’s production of The Last Days of the Old Wild Boy. I went with Kari, who had been in conversation with Rinde about the human/animal distinction for the last several months. It was an extraordinary evening, the product of great teamwork, extensive preparation, and intense performance. I was so thankful to be there and to be part of a university where this kind of work takes place.

On Friday morning, a group of women on the faculty got together with the women on the Board of Trustees. I’m told that they had very productive conversations about the challenges facing women on our campus, and that they will continue to try to find ways to make our campus a place of true gender equality. During the day on Friday, trustees, along with faculty and student representatives to the Board, worked in committees on topics ranging from energy to the honor code, from fundraising for financial aid to the use of online courses to expand the reach of our educational mission. At the end of the afternoon, several board members met in an open meeting with a few dozen students to discuss financial aid. There were good questions raised, I thought, that clarified many of the issues we’ve been discussing since February. Over dinner that night, we celebrated newly elected trustees emeriti, and student, faculty and staff accomplishments. It was a joyful evening. Reading through the remarkable work that students were doing, I felt thankful that Wesleyan continues to attract and nurture such talent.

The Board concluded its work on Saturday, and we spent a good deal of time talking about the issues that had arisen at last week’s forum on diversity. We didn’t come up with a magical solution, but there was a commitment to continue to make our campus more inclusive. I headed to the gym with Sophie to get a little exercise, and then to watch the men’s basketball team (led by Derick Beresford ’13) win the Herb Kenny Tournament in convincing fashion. Dreisen Heath ’15 powered the women’s basketball team to a big win at St. Joseph’s tip-off tournament. The men host Williams tonight (Tuesday).

On Sunday evening, I was able to attend the first half of the African Students Association’s fall presentation. There were stirring performances of poetry, drumming, music and dance. I also learned a lot from the presentations. I left to attend the WSA meeting to go over our Board of Trustees discussions with the students gathered there for their weekly meeting. The student representatives spent hours (after I left) discussing key issues facing the university. We should all be thankful for their efforts.

My final meeting Sunday night was with more than 70 high school juniors and their alumni, staff and faculty parents, who are beginning the college search process. I could see the anxiety in some faces, and in some the hopeful anticipation of young people ready to begin a new stage in their lives. I extolled the virtues of liberal arts education today, and I emphasized that in our changing economy and culture this form of learning is more relevant than ever before. Looking around the room and thinking about my interaction with students over the last several days, I told the high school students that I hoped they would find a campus community where they were able to thrive, NOT because they were with people like themselves, but because they were in a diverse, dynamic and affectionate community from which they could learn. When they found such a community, I concluded, they would be very thankful. I know I am.

There will be plenty of work to do when we come back from break. For now, Happy Thanksgiving, Wesleyans!

Adrienne Rich: Writing as Social Practice

I read with sadness this morning that the great American poet, Adrienne Rich, died this week at her home in Santa Cruz. She was a brave and ardent writer, a gifted teacher and a powerful voice of conscience. This is no one quite like her in American letters.

Coming of age as a poet in the 1950s, she honed her craft within the formalist aesthetics of the day. Moving to New York in the 1960s, and soaking in its political and artistic transformations, she remade her poetics and critical writings in the service of reshaping consciousness and society.

Rich’s poetry was at once deeply personal and broadly political, and her essays throughout the 1970s and 1980s were sharp, precise instruments for unblocking thought. I remember reading “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (as a young professor at a women’s college) and suddenly realizing how cruelly oppressive conventional assumptions could be. I also remember Rich reading poems at Scripps College that explored the tangled legacies of her father — a poetic exploration that brought me to tears.

My office was next to Adrienne’s at Scripps, and I was too intimidated by her fame and presence to approach her directly. Instead, after her reading I slid a note under her door — a fan letter, really. The next day, she knocked on my door and asked if we might chat. It was, for me, an exhilarating conversation. She listened to my questions with intensity, though she had surely heard these kinds of remarks before. She didn’t exude the certainty of dogma or the privileges of fame. Instead, in talking with her one felt that inquiry and creation had become everyday dimensions of her life.

Poetry, Rich wrote, “has the capacity … to remind us of something we are forbidden to see.” In dark times, poets continue to recollect visions of freedom, to offer “a journey to reclaim the fullness of the senses,” to restore a legacy that can give birth to new exchanges of energy. When I reviewed The Human Eye for the San Francisco Chronicle (which I’ve drawn on here), I was reminded of the “clarity and freshness” of the Rich’s thought and artistic practice.

Writers, readers, artists and citizens will miss that clarity. May we strive to build on her practice to “give birth to new exchanges of energy.”

Congrats Rae Armantrout and Wes Press!

The National Book Critics Circle award in poetry went to Rae Armantrout’s Versed. The announcement praised the book “for its demonstration of superb intellect and technique, its melding of experimental poetics but down-to-earth subject matter to create poems you are compelled to return to, that get richer with each reading.” Rae Armantrout has been celebrated as a great American poet, and we are proud to publish her at Wesleyan University Press.

Our small but mighty Wes Press has been making a distinctive and powerful contribution to American poetry for decades. Congratulations to all for this latest recognition of the extraordinary quality of Wesleyan University Press!

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