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Poetry and the art of retrospection

Stephen Cushman and Ron Smith read and discuss their works

Last week, University professor and poet Stephen Cushman and Poet Laureate of Virginia Ron Smith read selections from their works in the Special Collections Library.

Cushman recently published an eighty-page poem entitled “The Red List,” which he described as a “rigorous, athletic, demanding read.” Drawing inspiration from the Japanese Haiku master Basho, Cushman punctuated “The Red List” with haikus. The lengthy poem is a meditation about forms of endangerment, beginning with the bald eagle and progressing to other types of social and environmental endangerment.

What is striking about Cushman’s writing is how he appeals to a variety of ages. While reading out a section about the dependence of youth on technology, he earned a few chuckles with the line, “I’m always connected.” However, perhaps the most interesting part of “The Red List” was about finding joy in the form of what Cushman calls “auditory ecstasy.” The hilarious line “Words. Organic. Low fat. Gluten free” recalls some of the unlikely places to find peace and satisfaction.

Ron Smith read a few poems from his collection “Its Ghostly Workshop.” In the title poem, he read the line “Never fail to eavesdrop on the exotic or the eternal,” which makes one think of how to classify what is exotic or eternal before realizing that everything could be. It’s hard to pick one impression from Ron Smith’s collection of poems as they so gracefully juggle a multitude of emotions. His poems deal with subjects such as the confusion of being a jet-lagged American in Rome, his unwillingness to play sports in school and the heartbreaking devastation that accompanied the death of his best friend. However, what resonated the most was the title poem, which held advice for his grandson like, “Let others think outside the hammered boxes they have built. Build no boxes in the first place.”

During the question and answer portion of the reading, Cushman expressed his wish to enter into a state of emergency with his poetry. His constant questioning of “How much can I leave out?” and realizing shamefully how much can actually be left out to create a more brisk poem was backed by Smith, who agreed that experimenting with speed and tumbling words was something he tried as well.

Putting these poets together was an excellent idea, evidenced by how they answered the questions the audience posed. While Cushman is a lively and at many times funny poet, he has the power to make one rethink things taken for granted and look at the world differently. Smith, on the other hand, made the audience feel things from his point of view in the subtlest of manners and led them quietly to the realization that the experiences in our lives are the ones that shape us and that nothing is really permanent. Putting these ideas together left the audience light-hearted about how tangibly beautiful the world is — but also with the understanding that it can change drastically at any moment.