Poets Out Loud: Carl Phillips, Lisa Sewell, and the Future of Poetry

The first Poets Out Loud reading of the new academic year took place on Tuesday, September 29th. Students, faculty, and members of the high school outreach program gathered in the 12th floor lounge to hear renowned poets, Carl Phillips and Lisa Sewell, read their work. Heather Dubrow’s enthusiastic introduction immediately established a warm and welcoming atmosphere that lingered throughout.

Reading from his new book, Reconnaissance, Carl Phillips spoke in a voice not unlike his poems: soft, compelling, almost dreamlike. The thirteen poems he read touched on myth, on love beginning and ending, on desire and dreams. He filled the pauses between poems with brief, often humorous commentary, such as when he referred to the title of his poem, “Meanwhile and Anyway,” as “the sign of someone struggling with a title.” Recalling that his students often ask how he knows a poem is done, he said, “I think you just know, or I do.” When he finished reading “At Bay,” a poem composed entirely in one sentence, he said he recommends this practice to his students. “Try it. It’s free. And it’s safe.”

Lisa Sewell introduced her latest volume, Impossible Object as a “loose project” wherein each poem was inspired by, and sometimes named for, another book. In a time when more and more people are reading electronically, Sewell chose to emphasize the idea of books as physical objects with a unique ability to transform. Whether recalling her 17-year-old-self reading Virginia Woolf in the poem titled "To the Lighthouse," the aftermath of her father’s death in another titled "King Lear," or the destruction wrought by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in “A Narrow Road,” Sewell’s work examined the intense, “seemingly physical” effect books have on our lives and on the world. A PowerPoint presentation accompanied her reading, displaying illustrations, book covers, and in a segment inspired by the Japanese presentation form PechaKucha, a series of 20 photographs.   

Attendees were encouraged to evaluate the event on a notepad that made several rounds through the audience. One teacher wrote, "This is a wonderful event. It's a treat to bring students for a meeting with the poets." Fordham student, Hend Saad, wrote, "It was very interesting to see how listening to a poem gives it a whole other dimension that is not evident if one merely reads a poem." 

A Q&A followed the reading, and both poets answered questions about how the Internet has affected poetry. Phillips recounted his experiences with Twitter, praising it for helping him discover new poets and literary journals he might not know otherwise. Sewell noted that the Internet has made exciting new forms of poetry, like Flarf, possible, while hypertext continues to revolutionize how people create and study literature.  

When answering a question about whether innovation is still possible in poetry, Phillips and Sewell agreed that innovation is always possible as long as people keep writing. Traditional forms will probably survive, but they might change and transform. “Do variations,” Phillips said. “Create a form, and justify why this form is necessary.” Again, Twitter came up. After all, what is a 140 character limit, if not another restraint, like the kind sonnets are made of?

The next Poets Out Loud reading, featuring Jennifer Michael Hecht and Ron Wallace, will take place on Monday, October 19th at 7pm in Lowenstein's 12th Floor Lounge.  

- Erin Coughlin