An Umbrella Confection
Gossip Is Good
Overheard at the West Chester Poetry Conference 2010
by Linda Stern
R hina Espaillat, keynote speaker at West Chester University’s 16th Annual Poetry Conference, opened her reading on June 9 with a personal anecdote about fame in the electronic age. Encouraged a few years ago by a friend who said “You’re all over the place,” she did an Internet search for her name. But in addition to all she found that was “ego-stroking,” Espaillat also came across one blogger who called her “a real yenta.”
At first, she was bothered by that. But then she fell to musing on the implications of yenta—a Yiddish word meaning “a gossip” —and she started to wonder whether the term wasn’t ultimately a compliment. Indeed, she speculated, the word might actually describe poets quite well. Poets, like yentas, are “devoted, passionate observers” of the human scene; like yentas, they are fond of listening in on the conversations around them; and like yentas, they aren’t reluctant to “make things up.” Indeed, like yentas, poets are essential for spreading the news around, for telling it all.
Here, we take a cue from Espaillat and offer, in the service of spreading the news, a few select tidbits overheard at panels and workshops during the four days of the conference.
Rachel Hadas, a co-editor of the newly published anthology The Greek Poets, reading, at the “Greek Anthology” panel, a grisly scene from Callimachus and Chrysorrhe, an anonymous fourteenth-century poem about a dragon: “Now I’ll skip to my favorite line in this passage: ‘To call this room a torture chamber would not be amiss!’ ”
David Sanders, director of Ohio University Press and Swallow Press, during his one-day workshop “Assembling Your First Manuscript”: “It’s not about being better. It’s about having something unique to say.”
David Rothman, president of the Robinson Jeffers Association, introducing a letter written by Jeffers’ wife, Una: “What this august meeting needs is sex. Fasten your seatbelts.”
The scholar Timothy Hunt, at the “Robinson Jeffers” panel: “Students are convinced that fiction is easier to read than poetry. They’re wrong.”
Bill Coyle, the first reader at “A Swallow Anthology Reading”: “I’ll start off with the title poem of my first book—well, my book . . . I already feel as if I’m jinxing myself.”
Kim Bridgford, new director of the West Chester Poetry Conference and editor of the online journal Mezzo Cammin, describing the launch of the Women Poets Timeline Project: “We’re [nothing if not] ambitious. We’re trying to establish a database of all women poets ever from all countries.”
Leslie Monsour, at the panel “The Achievement of Rhina P. Espaillat,” quoting an an epigram by Frank Osen for his poem “Cover Memo” (read it here in Umbrella!): “Engaged at the office all day on a sonnet—surreptitiously.” That is a quote from a journal entry of August 3 by Wallace Stevens and Osen’s poem makes a case for declaring August 3 Surreptitious Sonnet Day.
David Yezzi, explaining why his Critical Seminar had studied Yeats this year: “If we were going to write a visionary poetry today, how would we go about it?”
And finally, Rhina Espaillat again, asked at the Rhina P. Espaillat panel how she felt about listening to people talk about her: “I’m going to make a confession: I’m not suffering one bit.”
Other memorable moments:
Aaron Poochigan, upon request, reciting the first ten lines of the Iliad—in Greek, from memory.
Leslie Monsour, at the Rhina Espaillat panel, reading Espaillat’s Spanish translation of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
A. E. Stallings reading the anthologized work of Craig Arnold, who was reported missing during a solo hike on a Japanese island in 2009.
Lisa Williams, Charles Martin, Chelsea Rathburn, Dick Davis, Rachel Hadas, and Timothy Steele reading at the first faculty reading, Thursday evening.
David Mason, Molly Peacock, H. L. Hix, Andrew Hudgins, A. E. Stallings, Mark Jarman, and Dana Gioia reading at the second faculty reading, Friday evening.
Michael Peich, retiring director of the conference, being presented with, among other gifts and honors, a commissioned sculpture by Meredith Bergman.
Dana Gioia announcing that Wendy Cope had been appointed an OBE—Officer of the British Empire.
Gerry Cambridge, editor of Dark Horse, graciously agreeing to read Edward Lear poems in his Scottish accent (how else?) on stage at the Natalie Merchant concert.
For more conference coverage, including interviews and video, go to: