Ever since being in a room with more than six people and human contact were substituted by life through a screen, culture has sought ways to continue blooming despite the circumstances. The Zell Visiting Writers Series has found a way to keep literature alive by switching real-life interactions between writers and readers to remote Q&As with authors from the University of Michigan community and beyond.
This past Thursday, the program hosted author Kathleen Graber, whose last poetry collection, The Eternal City, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Graber came to talk about her 2019 book, The River Twice, a collection of poems described as “lyric philosophy, and a supreme consolation” by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith.
While she sat in front of her bookshelf (a very nice bookshelf, by the way), I sat on my balcony with a cup of Rooibos tea in my hand, as I’ve been doing ever since Ann Arbor started teasing us with warmer weather.
The event began with University of Michigan graduate student and Poetry MFA candidate Sara Afshar, who softly set the scene by introducing the author and her writings: a river, America and the flux of all things.
As a poetry lover myself, I was hooked from the beginning. The tea tasted sweet on my tongue as I was brought back to a topic from my favorite philosophy class in high school: the pre-Socratics. These ancient Greek philosophers thought that changelessness is the nature of all reality and that all can be explained within the realm of rationality and the physical world.
After that prelude, Graber began reading off of her latest collection of poems, which takes on the ancient philosopher Heraclitus’s protean notion of change in the title and the opening epigraphs: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” According to him, change isn’t a part of life: It is life itself.
Her first poem placed the listener in a Richmond, Va., thrift store where everything costs a dollar, except on Mondays and Fridays, when everything costs only 50 cents. She talks about an interaction between a mother and a child in one of the aisles, about unemployment and about the melting ice caps, or, in her own words, “a harmony of tensions.”
She then picked up The Eternal City, her 2010 book inspired by yet another historical figure: Marcus Aurelius. I found these selections especially delightful as the vivid storytelling transported me to every curtain she rose. I loved the simplicity in some of her lines, which I have always preferred to a pretentious concatenation of words, deluged with the author’s hopeless hyperbolizing. You hated that last bit, right? My point exactly.
“After my mother died, I expected to die myself,” “We were not written to be saved,” “How slowly time seems to pass when you are waiting.” These are some of the lines that I noted to savor after the webinar ended.
I was surprised to find out that Graber had only embarked on her journey of publishing poetry twenty years ago, at the age of forty. She recalls having low expectations for herself, thinking she was likely to fail. But it was precisely this that allowed her words to flow unrestrained, like a liberation. Graber also mentioned the familiar feeling that you are writing the same thing repeatedly, but it was Heraclitus’s notion that salvaged her unease: The topic may be the same, but the context and yourself have undergone some sort of change since the last instance. In other words, it will never intrinsically be the same.
This made me smile and simultaneously served as a reassurance. I like to write songs, but lately, I had been getting stuck in the conviction that what I was writing wasn’t any different, or any better, from what I (and others) had written before. Heraclitus came back into my life when I needed him most, and I have Kathleen Graber to thank for that.
The webinar turned to a Q&A with the audience, orchestrated by MFA candidate Julia McDaniel, who began with some questions of her own. These questions revealed more about what went into the process of writing The River Twice and served as an insight into the more intimate aspects of Graber’s life and psyche, like the enduring “love” for Heraclitus she’s had since she was a teenager, for his illuminating Buddhist overtones and for leaving her with things to write about.
Attending the Zell Writers Series was a nice way to break from the mundanity of my academic routine. From my small Ann Arbor apartment, in between my last class of the day and the gym appointment I booked days in advance, I was able to indulge in the witty words of Kathleen Graber, a poet I was unfamiliar with but one I look forward to discovering more about.
I took away many thing, but most importantly, solace for my lingering solipsistic thoughts. As Graber said, “the self is a nebulous, shifty thing.”
Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.