Last Friday, the Culbreth Theater hosted Charles Wright, the 2014-15 U.S. Poet Laureate, and National Book Award winner Mary Szybist. The night featured his "Shrines to Longing," a poetry reading and Q&A. The event was held in conjunction with the Virginia Festival of the Book, a "celebration of books, reading, literacy, and literary culture" according to the website.
Wright and Szybist were introduced by Kevin McFadden — poet and chief operating officer of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities — as poets who emerged from the “Silent Generation,” or the period between the Great Depression and the start of the Baby Boomers. The two poets read some of their shorter works and spoke about their relationship with silence. In the poem "The Silent Generation," Wright asks, "What was it we never had to say?"
Wright spoke first, announcing, "I always like to start on the wrong foot," after he mispronounced a line. This set the tone for the rest of his reading, as he constantly interrupted poems with his own interjections of "whatever that means" or "actually I think that’s true."
Second-year College student Hannah Beaman said, "His poetry really made me smile, as did his personality. I was surprised by how candid and unaffected he was on stage. [He seemed] approachable ... I would be his friend."
The audience of adults and students seemed to agree, as they constantly laughed at his side comments and applauded long after he left the stage. His poetry mirrored his personality — approachable and captivating. Beaman said, “The metaphors he used were really fresh and elegant and…evocative."
Szybist took a more serious approach. She introduced poems from her award-winning book, “Incarnadine," not just with anecdotes, but with an explanation of their themes. Many of her poems were inspired by her "mixed feelings" about the annunciation scene from the Bible. She asserted that you have to "risk things to get anything that mattered" and proceeded to read sincerely. When reading a poem about a mother who threw two babies off a bridge in Oregon her voice began to quiver.
In the Q&A portion of the evening, McFadden started by asking about the poets’ imagined audience, "Who are you talking to?" Both writers paused, and finally Wright said, “What kind of question is that?" The poets explained that they often write for themselves and then hope someone will want to read it.
The audience's questions were better received and the poets talked about inspiration, what they're reading now and the role of silence. They came to the conclusion that poetry is prayer and true prayer is silence. The night ended with a thundering of applause for Wright and Szybist.