Student poetry gets a notoriously bad rap. Much of that is deserved — teenagers going through adolescence do tend to write about trite things: breakups, emotion, botched sex, emotion. But on Wednesday, the Connecticut Poetry Reading Circuit proved that some student poetry is worth paying attention to. The event, in Morse Common Room, featured poets from the state who had been selected by their colleges to participate in a series of readings around Connecticut. Four writers took to the podium and were joined by four undergraduate Yalies.
Standards varied. The first reader settled the audience in nicely, inflating expectations perhaps a little cruelly. Justin Greene, a junior in Anthropology at Wesleyan University, gave a lively reading of his very anecdotal and sharply-observed poems. He performed as much as he read, pausing between poems to throw optimistic questions at a stolid audience that seemed reluctant to laugh.
The next two poets — Nikki Byrne from the University of Saint Joseph and Lisa Gaudio from the University of Connecticut — were less flamboyant in their presentation. Byrne’s poetry was strewn with clichés — a lover’s freckles formed “constellations,” his back was a “landscape,” his spine a “valley.” If Emily Dickinson had indeed been an influence, as Byrne intimated, the older poet was keeping a characteristically low profile, as Byrne didn’t seem to pursue Dickinson’s subtlety and restraint.
Gaudio followed Byrne and delivered a change in tempo. In one powerful poem, the speaker articulated the tension between her wish to remain a grease-elbowed tomboy, and the desire of her “momma” to have a recognizably feminine daughter. But standards slipped once more in Gaudio’s last poem, a cumbersome ode to endangered elephants. Sounding like a Greenpeace tirade, it was bookended with maddening archaisms (“I bid you not that way,” etc.) that clashed with the tone elsewhere, as well as the youth of the reader herself.
Katherine Rose Monica, of the University of Connecticut, blew the rather limp competition out of the water when she finally took to the stage, having arrived late after getting stuck in traffic. Vivid and fluid, her poems were remarkably songlike, featuring anaphoric patterns that the writer wove and unpicked expertly. Like that of her peers, Monica’s poetry also tended towards the confessional, but it was still fresh and, at moments, unexpectedly moving.
The Yale poets were accorded less reading time than the others, with the exception of Jessica Yuan ’15. Her background in architecture came to the fore in her meticulously constructed poems, which were at their most effective when grappling with her family’s immigration narrative. One poem, for instance, took aim at the notion that a “mastery of speech” would offer a failsafe weapon against cultural and social alienation.
It would have been nice to hear more from the other Yale writers invited to the podium. Margaret Shultz ’16 offered a brilliantly dry piece about sisterhood, entitled “Ghost Poem”. This teetered dangerously — and successfully — on the edge of banal anecdote,but was repeatedly brought back from the precipice by abrupt changes of rhythm, time frames and moods. The unusual poem of Austin Carder ’15 was accompanied by a photograph of the YUAG sculpture his verses were about. And although the poem relied a little too much on the picture, it was an elegant, well-written response to an object Carder sees regularly, as a member of the YUAG workforce. The singular offering of James Orbison ’16, “Beauty Supply,” was luminous: short and sweet enough to leave me wishing he had been accorded considerably more stage time.
This mismatch between stage time and ability was a theme throughout the evening. Although the poetry reading offered its share of delights, some writers walked off the stage with lots left to say, while others seemed to be gasping for air by the end of their set. After all, student poetry is nothing if not inconsistent. But even in a mixed bag, there are some things worth holding on to.