An Evening of Poetry With a Community Vibe

It’s a Friday evening in November and I’m sitting with a mixed group of smooth-faced students and stately adults. We might all be at a bar, or at one of Durham’s many popular restaurants, celebrating the end of a long week. Instead, we’re gathered in straight-backed seats in Rubenstein Library and our celebratory medium is poetry, courtesy of The Archive, Duke’s student-run literary magazine. The event is the journal’s annual Salon, a gathering of undergraduates, graduate students and professors who want to share their work.

Up at the podium, co-editor Chris Fiscella introduces the first reader, senior Georgia Parke. “When I wrote this poem,” she says, “I tried to capture some of the intense feelings you have that aren’t so intense when you grow up.” She begins to read and the crowd listens intently.

The poets take the stage three at a time, each bringing their own interests and themes. Over the course of the next two hours, students seem uninhibited as they share their inspirations. Senior Jazlyn Williams talks frankly about poetry becoming a way to process her anxiety and mental illness. “This one is about a girl,” announces second-reader Dimeji Abidoye. Graduate student Brenna Casey enlightens the audience on the truth behind the words “I like your dress” at parties.

Older masters of the craft read, too, on themes less personal and more rooted in their creative interests. Professor Joseph Donahue of the English department shares a favorite poem that spins the age-old story of Judas’s betrayal. The event culminates with Reginald Price Creative Writing Professor Nathaniel Mackey, dressed in black with gold-rimmed glasses, calmly taking the stage. There is no pomp and circumstance, and one might almost forget that this reader has won a National Book Award, among other accolades.

By way of introduction, Mackey acknowledges the emotional roots that birth many great poems and the changing relationship of poets to those roots. “We keep trying to disavow love poems, the older we get as poets,” he says. “A man moves on from writing about love to writing about economics. This is called growing up.” The audience laughs.

Mackey reads two poems from a recently published chapbook. As he reads, there is a curious sense of an arc. We have heard the rudimentary form of the poet, immersed in the intensity of personal experience. Now we’re hearing it broaden outward, that feeling invested in other textual inspirations. Yet they have all stood on the same stage, under the same lights. And it works. At an institution that is known more for cutting-edge research than humanities immersion, tonight is not about accolades or achievement in the conventional sense. Instead, there is a feeling of celebration, of people coming together purely for the love of the sounds and the meaning.

According to Archive co-editor Lauren Bunce, the community vibe is exactly what she hoped to achieve. “We wanted to present these prominent creative writing professors in a way that makes students feel like they are just as expressive.” In a tradition they hope to continue next year, the evening became an expression of Duke voices, not just student voices.

The professors agree. “It’s a chance to hear the art,” Professor Joseph Donahue tells me during intermission. “This kind of thing pulls people together and it reminds us that poetry is a musical art.”

Not all who’ve come are students, either – a surprising percentage of the audience are Durham residents. Phil Hoover, for instance, heard about the event from a friend of his who is a graduate student in the English department. “It seemed it was open to everyone, and for everyone’s enjoyment,” he says. “The night could have been overly academic but it wasn’t.”

Professor Mackey agrees that the evening was enjoyably accessible. When I asked him whether he thinks the evolution of the poet will ever stop, he aligns himself with the evening’s younger readers. “I think we’re all recovering teenagers,” he laughs.