Saturday, December 1, 8 p.m., free
Duke Coffeehouse, Durham
When Jessica Q. Stark and Hannah VanderHart, the organizers of the Duke University English Department’s Little Corner Reading Series, started discussing the theme for their bookings this year, their dialogue ping-ponged back and forth, gathering excitement with each volley.
When they struck on the concept of “Excess Women,” they wanted to explore all the iterations of what that phrase could mean—regarding motherhood, appetite, psychology, and more—and they wanted to map its intersections with race, gender, and other points of identity.
“I love poetry where the language seems so easily read, it should be legible, but there’s an interesting illegibility,” Stark says. “It refuses to be understood in traditional forms.”
“Yes, like when [poems] engage anxiety and grief and depression, but in an atypical way,” VanderHart adds. “It’s like they slip into the hysteric woman while moving beyond it.”
“Which it all goes back, unfortunately, to Freud and his question, ‘What do women desire?’” Stark says. “The only way to mark what was unfathomable to him was to call it hysteric, to call it excessive.”
“Excess” concerns that which moves beyond institutions, beyond borders, and beyond a confined idea of what poetry and being a woman is. The goal is to break through a typical patriarchal reading of poetry that privileges and celebrates masculine poets and forms while treating the feminine as a violation of form.
“This theme is very capacious,” Vanderhart says. “People really crave narrowing an idea down to a small, community-size, bite-size idea, but then it neglects a wider context, like what your community does to other communities. It neglects the relations.”
The timeliness of the theme is not lost on VanderHart or Stark. Politically, women’s narratives have been spotlighted in the last year, as the #MeToo movement overtook headlines and women ran in record numbers in the midterm elections. But Stark doesn’t want the theme to be read only as a specific narrative of political womanhood.
“There is a political force behind this, of course,” Stark says. “But I also don’t want to neglect the specificity of these works. There’s a lot of attention to the small. There’s a real political weight behind the miniature. What’s deemed not a part of structures? What is not hashtaggable? There’s some sort of maximalism that I want to resist.”
“Something that we talk about a lot is writing in the margins,” VanderHart adds. “Poetry is this thing that you can fit in at weird marginal times. Like, I can write in bed on my phone while my partner is asleep, and I am curious as to what work is created in that space.”
The series begins at Duke Coffeehouse on Saturday, December 1 with Dorothea Lasky, the author of five full-length collections and a number of chapbooks, who teaches poetry at Columbia University. Lasky’s poetry spans motherhood, witch-hood, and everything in between.
“I think that a lot of the poets we have chosen really do flex beyond the restrictions put upon poets and creative thinking,” Stark says. “Thinking about Dorothea Lasky, she speaks very frankly about being mindful about language for the common man, language that doesn’t have the stamp of intellectual approval. You can see this in her work, especially in Milk. It confronts the idea of the amateur in poetry, which is so feminized.”
Lasky is also half of the duo Astro Poets, a Twitter account known for astrological readings rendered through memes, self-effacing jokes and, of course, poetry. Her oeuvre is more kaleidoscopic than eclectic. Her work seems oriented less around the ejaculatory epiphany than the minute but radiant shifts that happen with a subtle twist of the form, like the turn of a kaleidoscope.
“She resists the kind of revelation that is tied to intellectualism,” Stark says. “She moves against the grain of the dissectible; she’s in excess to that. With her work, I always think of the word ‘magic.’”
Stark and VanderHart are both PhD candidates in the Duke English Department who are writing dissertations on poetry; both are also poets themselves. Their enthusiasm for Lasky and this series in general seems to reflect not only their engagement as readers, but also their fellowship with these poets as sisters-in-arms.
In addition to a reading by Stark, the Lasky bill is rounded out by Ina Cariño, an MFA student at N.C. State. Future programs in February and April will feature Rachel Zucker, a poet and the host of the podcast Commonplace, and Dorothy Chan, author of Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold.
The wide-ranging work of these poets pulls on different threads of the theme, but a current through all of their work is rootedness in the specific, quotidian details of their lives—the blurring of lived experience and the written word.
“Something in that miniscule attention is itself radical,” VanderHart says. “The work invites a change in response. All three of our poets are very much journalers and memoiristic writers. The day I stopped writing in my journal, I started writing poetry. Their work resonates with that part of me.”
“A lot of what these poets are doing is breathing into this strange space that does contain confession, but also contains this really interesting experiment,” Stark says. “They are very strange bedfellows.”