Poetry @ Bennington: James Allen Hall MFA ‘00 and Safiya Sinclair ‘10
Rachel Arone '20
The tiered seats of Tishman lead down to its stage, illuminated in a golden light. There is commotion--people pace in the walkways, exchange exclamations and shows of affection when meeting old friends. But there is also a hushed sense of anticipation, radiating from students sitting silent in their seats, hunched forward, eyes forward, waiting. Though exhibited in different ways, everywhere there is excitement and eagerness. This is Poetry @ Bennington.
The poetry reading at Tishman on Wednesday, September 21st was the first installment of the Poetry @ Bennington series for the year. This reading was unique in that both poets were Bennington alums, in some sense: Safiya Sinclair spent her undergrad years at Bennington, while James Allen Hall pursued his MFA here.
In introducing Hall, event curator Michael Dumanis listed Hall’s seemingly endless accolades, which included a Lambda Award for Gay Poetry for his collection Now You’re the Enemy, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Dumanis characterized Hall’s work as powerful portraits of people and places and events, painted in such a way as to reveal their essence. When Hall took the stage to a wave of applause, he was clearly humbled. He addressed the crowd as he would address a close friend: genuine and down-to-earth. Before reading his first poem, he shared an anecdote from his MFA days, involving former literature faculty April Bernard, which took place at Tishman itself. “‘It’s very good to be back,’” the poet said.
Hall’s first poem of the evening, “Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas,” was a perfect example of his skill as a poetic portraitist. In this poem, Hall’s mother takes on the persona of Texas, solid and harsh, tough and larger-than-life. Hall’s mother as Texas is also deeply flawed: prejudiced--she “insists visitors speak American”--and, displayed as she waits in a lone phone booth at the end of the poem, fragile. Throughout, Hall fuses snippets of Texas’s history with memories of his mother, and in relating aspects of her persona to something so recognizable in our culture, she becomes understandable, more relatable and more human to the audience.
Throughout his reading, Hall exhibited expertise in balancing conviction and modesty. There was a gentleness to his speech, which was yet coupled with a powerful undercurrent. He addressed subjects such as family, as shown in the first poem; sexuality, and sexual identity in relation to family and society; and race, as is explored in his last poem, “A Fact Which Occurred in America.” This piece juxtaposes one of Hall’s former teachers’ resentment about the South losing the Civil War against a painting in the classroom of a Black man wrestling a buffalo--in this piece Hall alternatively identifies with the buffalo, the dust on the buffalo’s lips, the chalk on the chalkboard, and other images, as he acknowledges and mentally does battle with the racism in that classroom and in his society. Perhaps what was most powerful was Hall’s discussion of trauma, and rising above his own trauma. In one nonfiction autobiographical piece, Hall reveals he was raped as a teenager. He then discusses how his family initially dealt with this revelation, and how he himself was able to come to terms with it and rise above his traumatic experience. Hall’s strength and sincerity come through clearly in this piece: it is simultaneously an exploration of trauma and a vehicle through which to reconcile with it.
After Hall finished his performance, Dumanis introduced the next poet, Safiya Sinclair, with a similar volley of accolades. She has been published in the Kenyon Review, the Bennington Review, Poetry Magazine--“and others,” said Dumanis after rattling off the long string of prestigious titles, prompting laughter from the audience. She has also received a fellowship from the Poetry Foundation.
As for Sinclair’s style, Dumanis described her poetry as “lush with mysterious images”--a statement I wholeheartedly agree with after hearing her work. Her first poem, “Home,” is replete throughout with powerful and enticing illustrations. Broken glass walls and bright red Sargassum permeate the text, beautiful yet unstable images that communicate Sinclair’s longing for Jamaica, the home she left behind to attend Bennington.
Something I found remarkable throughout Sinclair’s performance was how the power behind her words paired so perfectly with the beauty of her images. “Portrait of Eve as the Anaconda”--written about how Victorian women were forbidden to practice botany since, at that time, flowers were thought to resemble female genitalia--weaves vividly sensual descriptions of flora with powerful declarations, such as the recurring, hungry demand: “Let me have it.” This combination aptly creates an atmosphere fit for the Victorian botanist women of the poem, rebelling against societal expectations through work with fascinating (though societally uncouth) plants. The power and beauty of Sinclair’s words were strengthened by her reading of them--she spoke her descriptions and declarations boldly and confidently, but yet with a lingering delicacy in her voice, as if in reverence of the beauty she was bringing to life.
Some of the themes Sinclair tackles in her poetry include family, myth, and the concept of home. Her “Pocomania” addresses her father, calling out to him to acknowledge her existence, where he would otherwise be aloof, absent. As usual, the poem is full of luscious imagery, for all of the senses: sights, sounds, and even smells--Sinclair describes the father’s scent as “rumfroth” and “seadark,” expertly pushing the limits on our concept of olfaction. Through these images Sinclair reveals a mythic history of a family and a childhood, all while she searches for her own place in the mix.
Sinclair also often addresses race and gender, and uses her poetry to confront racism and sexism. Two of her poems were from a series entitled “One Hundred Amazing Facts About the Negro, With Actual Proof,” part of Sinclair’s project to engage with racism in America. These poems bring to light racist stereotypes and histories--the first installment reads almost like a journal entry from some grossly prejudiced, White-Man’s-Burden-type imperialist from the nineteenth century--which we still continue to nourish as a society, sometimes in ways, as Sinclair points out, we don’t even realize. Before reading “Center of the World,” one piece confronting sexism, Sinclair shared an anecdote about a white male professor she had to work with in the course of her studies, whose attitude, in short, aptly fit the poem’s title. In it, Sinclair rises above men like him, triumphant and strong like she is throughout all her writing--as she declares, she “wear[s] your men across [her] chest like furs.”
This first installment of Poetry @ Bennington was very enjoyable for me--I was blown away by the perfection of the poets’ words, even as I fervently scribbled notes--but even more than that it was inspiring. Since I was young, I have always wanted to be a writer. So seeing two former Benningtonites succeeding in the world of poetry and writing--my dream--was a lovely and empowering experience. It reminded me that a Bennington education lends strong foundations to its students. Even if you want to try and create worlds out of words, images out of air, there is a place here for you--and because you found your place here, you will find your place in the world.
One Wednesday a month, Bennington brings poets to read at Tishman Lecture Hall. The next poetry reading will be on October 5th at 7:00 PM, with Mary Ruefle ‘74.