Laughter drifting through the hall, cookies and cupcakes piled high on tables and the spirit of poetic genius filled the air. This was the scene in Villalobos Hall on April 7, where poets Willis Barnstone and Andrei Codrescu entertained both students and faculty with their latest lyrical lines. A craft talk proceeded the reading where students were able to engage in conversation and ask the poets questions regarding their creative processes in an informal setting.
Barnstone and Codrescu had a brief moment of friendly banter before Barnstone pointed out to everyone that this would be their third time doing a poetry reading together. Their friendship was visible throughout the reading to every individual in the room. He began the evening by reading from his most recent book, Mexico in my Heart, which is a collection of new and selected poems. The collection includes some of the works Barnstone read, such as “Beatles in Auschwitz-Birkenau,” and “The Camp near Krakow.”
Codrescu read from his newest book The Art of Forgetting, which is set to be released this May. The title of these selections were “Uplift,” “New Golden Ratchet,” “Last Words” and “Grow Up.” Throughout these poems, Codrescu tackled a range of subjects such as death and interestingly enough, Walt Whitman. “For me, Whitman just let me out of the cage,” Codrescu said when asked why Whitman is important. “He was a great influence, he did this for every poet. I learned a kind of horizontal freedom from Whitman.”
Barnstone also weighed in on Whitman’s book Song of Myself, which he claimed was so original compared to what had come before that it meant that readers and authors alike could experience poems unrelated to the past. “He allowed us free verse,” Barnstone said. “He’s a great spirit and what can I say, a great poet.”
While many of the poems addressed subjects that forced the audience into silent contemplation, the poets themselves had the opposite effect, causing members of the audience to break into uncontainable laughter during the breaks between poems. One of these moments came when Codrescu read the title of his poem called, “To A Young Poet.”
“Can you believe I’ve gotten old enough to write a ‘To A Young Poet’ poem?” Codrescu scoffed as the audience, largely made up of an older generation, laughed in understanding with him. Humor also came up as a topic of discussion after Assistant Professor of English, Jonathan Burton, inquired about the function humor served in Codrescu’s work. “It’s certainly not purposeful, I mean it’s just I find things amusing and painful,” Codrescu said. “If there is no pleasure, there is no reason for it. I would rather not try, frankly. It’s work.”
Following the reading was a Q&A session where the poets sat amongst the audience and answered questions in the form of open conversation. When each poet was asked if they were active on social media, their answers varied. Codrescu described how Twitter was a great medium for being brief, but Facebook on the other hand was unnecessary, what with all the words and pictures. Barnstone added that for him it was all a waste of time and that it would take even more time away from his creative process.
When asked what it was like reading at events on college campuses, Barnstone described it as a learning experience where each time you read a poem, you gain a new experience from it. “For me it’s a high point, to be able to read poems. And I don’t get to do it as often as I did,” Barnstone said. “It’s a great feeling of happiness for me to connect.”
Codrescu, on the other hand, gets a much more personal success from these experiences. “I feel like I’m kind of sabotaging the education system,” he said half laughing. “Higher Education or whatever you call it. There’s a perverse pleasure in it.”
First-year film studies major Rebecca Grenier was one of the numerous students in attendance at the reading. “It’s kind of surreal that they know so many famous poets and that they were friends,” Grenier said of her initial reaction after attending the craft talk and poetry reading. “It’s always interesting to see how they interpret their work and interesting to hear how they want their work to be interpreted.”
The event was one of three events for the 2016 Whittier College Writers Festival that began on March 29. Patricia Smith started the event with a craft talk and poetry reading with several other spoken-word poets such as Sam Sax, Anis Mojgani and Angel Nafis. The Festival ended on April 9 with a craft talk and an evening centered on a live musical performance in the Shannon Center by singer/songwriter Stan Ridgway.