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Finding Ground in Poetry: The Spring 2015 Kelly Writers House Fellows Seminar

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Finding Ground in Poetry: The Spring 2015 Kelly Writers House Fellows Seminar

By Connie Yu.

Jessica Hagedorn—novelist, playwright, poet—began her evening reading at the Kelly Writers House with two new poems. “Poetry is my grounding,” she related; it’s what made her love language. Our Fellows seminar, led by the incoming Director of the Creative Writing Program, Julia Bloch, and Fellows Coordinator Lily Applebaum, had convened in the Kelly Writers House’s eclectically furnished and perennially cozy Arts Café every Monday this semester for similar reasons—if not for our emergent love of language, then for the appreciation of three eminent writers-cum-Fellows who are immersed in, and craft important work from, their loves of language. In a single semester, we had together consumed and parsed ten books, including the seven-hundred-plus-page Iovis Trilogy, numerous poems and sound recordings, a new yet-unpublished play, and snacks galore.

Through the iterations of writing poetry and songs in Manila, then San Francisco, then New York, where she lives now, Jessica Hagedorn, our third and final Fellow, wrote from this love. In “Homesickness,” a prose passage in Danger and Beauty (1993), she recalls her continual trips to the Philippines, by plane as well as in writing: “It is a journey back I am always taking … I return, only to depart: Manila, New York, San Francisco … Manila again, Manila again, Manila again.” Her history of travel and her affliction of homesickness are imprinted on her, and it is what she draws on in her polyphonic novels—Dogeaters, The Gangster of Love, Dream Jungle, and Toxicology all employ a disjunctive narrative technique, shifting points of view between characters without warning. This seems appropriate: “You can’t reduce the Philippines to a punchline,” Hagedorn says between reading excerpts of her first novel Dogeaters, “there are so many points of view.” 

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    • Jessica Hagedorn and Julia Bloch in conversation at Kelly Writers House on April 28, 2015.

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    • Jessica Hagedorn reading at Kelly Writers House on April 27, 2015.

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    • Kathy Vinogradoff introduces Jessica Hagedorn.

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    • Audience member, Jessica Hagedorn, and Kathy Vinogradoff.

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    • Lily Applebaum presents Jessica Hagedorn with a letterpress-printed broadside featuring an excerpt of her poem "Something About You."

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    • Questions from the Audience.

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    • Book signing by Jessica Hagedorn.

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In our class session with Hagedorn, she spoke in response to our questions about her persistently fluctuating points of view, bringing our focus to her act of writing rather than to a sociological reading of her work. The characters she weaves are part of a fabric, entered into and woven with compassion and curiosity. She is not just a writer of a particular cultural group—a Filipino-American writer, an Asian-American writer, a woman writer—but most prominently, a writer. As our last Fellow of the semester, she harkens us back to Dorothy Allison and Anne Waldman, our first two Fellows, who’ve exhorted us to consider their writing along genre lines, along medium or place-specific or timelines, without the derogation of having them represent a certain cultural body of people. Anne Waldman, our first fellow, performance poet and Outrider, claims a way of writing on the border of history, so as to see the erected and subsumed systems of oppression, and to better understand the Other, the self, the writings within and minoritized by those systems. This way of reading, with consideration for cultural context as well as close analyses of the text itself, our class took as truth. As we wrote quotations from and questions about Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina on posters, circled the room to write on each other’s, and took memorable material and constructed found poems from it, we enacted the kind of ritual Waldman might latch onto. Though our found poems, made from swapping ideas and reconstructing the language, were in tribute to Allison’s work, they recalled in spatial appearance Waldman’s triumphal and symbol-ridden Iovis, and in process, Waldman’s Cut-Up Amendment 2, for which she had ripped up the Colorado amendment against gay rights to strip the conservative “legalese” of its meaning. In a sense, this writing exercise, in which Julia, Lily, and the class all took active part, was a concentrated dose of the sharing and feeling and remapping that we had engaged in, few holds barred, every session.

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    • Dorothy Allison reading at Kelly Writers House on March 23, 2015.

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    • Maura Reilly-Ulmanek introduces Dorothy Allison.

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    • Dorothy Allison and Julia Bloch in conversation at Kelly Writers House on March 24, 2015.

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    • Questions from the audience.

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    • Lily Applebaum, KWH Fellows Coordinator.

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    • Book signing by Dorothy Allison.

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    • Anne Waldman.

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    • Anne Waldman and Julia Bloch in conversation at Kelly Writers House on February 16, 2015.

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    • Connie Yu introduces Anne Waldman.

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    • Anne Waldman reading at Kelly Writers House on February 16, 2015.

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    • Lily Applebaum presents Anne Waldman with a letterpress-printed broadside, created by the Robinson Press.

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After poring through a new novel or collection of poems each week, we came together on Mondays to talk about the vitality of formal innovation, the difficulty of truth-telling, the utmost necessity of storytelling. Looming always was the anticipation of meeting the authors of the works in class, at their readings, during dinner, and at their brunch conversations; we confronted the necessary discomfort of talking about the text as an object for mining sociological, historical, and allegorical meaning while keeping in mind the author, alive and opinionated. We would not resolve this difficulty during the semester, but my mode of reading text would be opened up to include not only myself and the page inches away from me, but a small community of thoughtful peers, the eminent though down-to-earth Fellow, and the characters and words that came inevitably to life during our three-hour discussions.

I had the honor of introducing Waldman for her February reading in the very room in which we had talked at length about her work. Poetry—language—was our grounding, was the grounding of that room and the Fellows seminar, now in its fifteenth year. It was on this hallowed, worn ground that Waldman channeled her ritual spirits, the jaguar and the Buddha and the people; where Allison performed for a captive audience a new piece about old family-deep pain; where Hagedorn talked about new adaptations and mediums for her work and read from her newest novel about “what it means when your writing is consumed and you end up consuming yourself.”

Our Fellows class spoke “provisionally final words,” as Julia termed them, to each other the day after Hagedorn’s morning program. We ate from the pot of chili Lily made for us and shared our thanks for the incredible opportunities the seminar allowed us to partake in. The most special part of my semester arrived to a difficult and incommensurably corny end; we rode out and onwards. That three incredible women could be the subjects of our study, with two women instructors, among a long list of Fellows that included John Ashbery, Joan Didion, and Laurie Anderson, was something of a testament to the power and inclusivity of the Writers House Fellows Program and its ability to bring up close and personal the most important things in an academic and university setting, and in living language: love, accessibility, and community.


Connie Yu is a junior in the College studying English and History of Art. She works at the Kelly Writers House and is the Arts Intern for the Penn Art & Culture Initiative. 

Edited by Kenna O'Rourke. Photos by Arielle Brouse.