By | JOSH WEINER ’16 » Photos by max guttman ’16
reprinted from The Words

On October 5, Macalester welcomed award-winning poets Sherman Alexie and Robert Hershon for a reading in Kagin’s Alexander G. Hill Ballroom. Alexie is the author of many poetry collections, including the bestselling work The Business of Fancydancing, as well as an accomplished novelist, essayist, editor, and screenwriter. Alexie’s journey to Macalester from his hometown of Seattle began with Macalester English professor Ping Wang. Ping made the connection through mutual friend Robert Hershon, an experienced poet and editor who published early works by both Ping and Alexie. Knowing that Alexie would be difficult to book, Ping reached out to Hershon and invited him and Alexie to read together at Macalester. The response from Alexie, she recalls, came almost instantly: “I would read with Bob anywhere, anytime!” With some help from the rest of the English Department, Ping soon had Alexie on his way to St. Paul. “Their only condition,” Ping laughs, “is that I throw a dinner party for them at my house.”

Ping, who has brought many of influential poets and writers to Macalester, thinks students really benefit from such visits. She says students can learn a lot from poets like Alexie: “His poetry is just incredible. His strength is his raw power.” In addition to his powerful writing, Ping notes that Alexie has shown a lot of courage. She points to an instance when an important poetry collection Alexie was editing became fraught with controversy, noting that Alexie handled the situation with grace. “He dares to tell truths even at great risk,” she says, “and he admitted he’s a human being.”

In the morning, Alexie, Hershon, and Donna Brooks (a poet and editor, as well as Hershon’s wife) spoke to a small group of students in Old Main. Around 30 students attended the lunchtime meeting, including members of Ping’s creative writing course and Professor Anitra Budd’s literary publishing class. The trio told jokes and stories and fielded questions from students. Favorite topics included the motivation to write poetry, the relationship between poets and editors, and the particular challenges of being a poet.

Alexie talked about his journey from wide-eyed college student to professional poet, noting that even though he didn’t always write poetry, “I think I was always a poet, just the way I looked at the world, collected details.” He encouraged students to submit their work to publications and to explore a wide variety of mediums: “If you’re interested in having a career where you can pay bills, young adult fiction is one of those fields that’s really exciting. Kids are still reading.” Brooks added that adults, too, are increasingly interested in reading YA books. Hershon also discussed the difficulties of supporting oneself as a poet. He jokingly recalled being asked what poets talk about at dinner parties. Throwing his hands up in exasperation, he shouted “Money, of course!” The mood was light, and the poets threw some playful verbal jabs at the students asking questions.

In the evening Hershon and Alexie read poems to a full house – more than 450 students, faculty, staff, and community members attended the event. Ping introduced each poet in turn. Hershon read first and joked about old age, his Jewish heritage, and life in New York City. He interacted with the audience, reading a poem containing a catalog of famous poets and telling them he would leave it to them to discover the fake in the bunch. Alexie followed and opened by telling the crowd how happy he was to be in Minneapolis again. Pausing to absorb the audience’s groans, he then corrected himself and chided the St. Paul crowd for being “too sensitive.” He read several poems but spent most of his time sharing personal stories and joking with the crowd. Alexie focused on his life as a Native poet and writer and told several stories about life on the Spokane Reservation. Alexie, whose mother recently passed away, told stories about his family and making funeral arrangements with both somberness and wit. His poems, similarly, told both humorous anecdotes about “stabbing” himself with a nail (he was actually unscathed) and reflected on his (and his late mother’s) deathly fear of water. To the audience’s amusement, Hershon and Alexie cut the obligatory Q&A session short, saying succinctly, “let’s sign books!” The pair chatted with fans and signed copies of their books as a relaxing close to a very busy visit.

October 8 2015

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