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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Visiting poet promotes peace through poetry

Published: April 12, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc., Top Stories

Long-time social activist and poet Fred Marchant read aloud from his acclaimed work on Tuesday. Professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at Suffolk University, Marchant’s first book “Tipping Point” (1993) received the Washington Prize in poetry. Most recently, in 2009, he released “The Looking House,” a book named by the Barnes and Noble Review as one of the five best books of poetry of the year. Olga Broumas, director of creative writing and the poet in residence at Brandeis, defined Marchant’s poetry as “graceful.”

Marchant made his audience feel at ease, as though he were speaking to a group of comrades and writers just like him. “If you think I should read a poem again, or if you think I should never read a poem again, let me know, either one,” he said, before beginning the reading. Speaking in between orating his poems, he would explain aspects of his life and jest, saying, “It’s hard to make jokes in between, but …”

Marchant began by reading from his first book, “Tipping Point,” as he announced it had recently been re-released by the publisher Word Works. Marchant claims the first Gulf War aided him in writing this particular book. “It takes me a long time to practice the art and figure out the words,” he said, in explaining how the war helped. “I don’t know why, that’s sort of a grotesque thing to say,” he said.

The reason behind Marchant’s unique muse is his staunch anti-war position. A long-time affiliate of The William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, Marchant was one of the very first honorably discharged from the Vietnam War for being a conscientious objector. Marchant’s plea for peace colors much of his poetry. The first set of poems Marchant read was titled “War Time,” and covered subjects from the everyday, such as the paperboy in a suburban neighborhood to corpses in the middle of a bloody war.

Marchant’s poetry is surprising. He is able to weave together multiple threads that seem unconnected, but lined up side by side to bring the listener or reader to a new understanding of the topic. In relating war imagery to the everyday, Marchant illustrates that war is a topic present in each person’s life. He throws in allusion, mentioning the “Agamemnon” and the storm in the great play. He even recollects his own life in a line, saying, “I’ll leave the conscious objector off the resume.”

Another wonderful thing about Marchant’s poetry is its cascading nature, how one aspect builds off another. In another of his poems, Marchant discusses the Gulf oil spill using words that relate to each other. The poem begins with human fluids, such as semen, and travels through the word “well,” and “vulva” before reaching “gulf.” Describing “gulf” as “a verb with a noun hiding inside history,” the poem moves on to “oil,” “spill,” and finally “drill.” Even while examining the history of words, Marchant relates it to pop culture and the everyday, for the poem has references to Bob Dylan.

Marchant’s reading voice was rhythmic, getting faster as his poems increased in intensity. A clearly practiced reader, he would pause for effect and read at a pace conducive to understanding the core of the poem. Marchant would also often point out his own style, illuminating for audiences times when he used slant rhyme. Mainly reading narrative style poems, Marchant referenced that some of them were “poised on the edge of prose, which allows you to be lyrical if you want.”

Marchant is also very interested in cultural exchanges. While he was in the Marine Corps, he did not actually go to Vietnam, because he was not a combat veteran and was eventually discharged. Despite this, Marchant has an intense attraction toward the country and its culture. During the reading, Marchant discussed his experiences while visiting Vietnam, introducing it by saying, “It’s a small group, so I’m going to be very intimate here.” He told a tale about how when he visited, the man hosting him said something about him being heroic, a phrase that, when translated, praised Marchant by saying, “Fred decided he wasn’t going to kill Vietnamese people.” Marchant’s second book is heavily influenced by his encounters with Vietnamese culture. He accounts for this, saying, “Your unconscious works in mysterious ways.” Marchant also spoke about a Vietnamese friend of his, the child prodigy of a poet, who wrote about the Vietnam War from a standpoint that we in the United States are not used to. He read a poem that he aided in translating, which he described as a “self elegy by a 17-year-old,” a poem about a son off to war writing a letter to his mother.

While the reading by Marchant may have not been well attended, Marchant is a true and gifted poet. Inspired by his commitment to political activism and spreading peace, Marchant combines his gift for poetry to move readers and listeners to actively think about changing the world for the better.