Yesterday the U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, visited campus. You can read coverage of the public events here and here; both the afternoon discussion and evening reading were inspiring, engaging, and meaningful to students — those who are writers themselves and those who are “merely” readers and lovers of poetry.
But here’s part of the story you won’t read about in the press. Before the reading, the dinner table at Sweet Briar House was surrounded by Trethewey, student writers, poet/professor John Casteen, and me. As president, one of the privileges I most enjoy is bringing students together with distinguished visitors and faculty mentors in that lovely home. Sometimes it takes my breath away when I realize that yes, these students really are eating dinner with the Poet Laureate and discussing complex and sophisticated matters. It was a treat to hear the conversation:
Is there any ground to the stereotype that artistic ability is inherently associated with mental illness, addiction, and social eccentricity? (One of the students offered a very astute comment, pointing out that creative thinking is essential in many fields and not just in the arts — yet we do not have the same romantic stereotype about, say, economists. Good point!)
Might a poet whose reputation has been built on social media and digital publishing be named as poet laureate anytime soon? (The consensus was no, probably not.) Why have so few poet laureates been young? (This led to an interesting set of reflections on the difference between early and late career work.) Why do many women who write poetry as undergraduates choose not to pursue graduate school or fellowships? (We were a little bit stumped.)
Why do so many people think that art that is popular is by definition of lesser quality than work that nobody actually reads for pleasure? (Again, a little stumped: isn’t the point of writing poetry for the poems to be read?)
One of the students who attended had this to say this morning on Facebook:
“Best day ever. I am so blessed to have been able to have dinner with the United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey this evening at President Parker’s house.”
She’s right. It was a pretty great day.