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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Poets visit, display innovation and creativity

Published: October 17, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

Students, faculty and staff packed into Pearlman Lounge for a poetry reading that celebrated peace and connected people from diverse backgrounds on Monday, Oct. 13. Two poets read their work.

The first, Marilyn Hacker, is a Jewish, award-winning poet with a career that has spanned over 40 years. To create a book of poetry titled “Diaspo/Renga,” Hacker joined with Palestinian-American poet Deema K. Shehabi, who is also an editor of the anthology “Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here.” Hacker and Shehabi overcame drastically different backgrounds in order to work together as partners. They created an entire book full of rengas, a Japanese style of poetry that is collaborative.

Professor Mary Baine Campbell (COML/ENG), who was extremely influential in bringing the two poets to campus, gave introductory remarks. She stated that the renga form “encourages a very special type of stream of consciousness” and also allows for multiple people’s voices to join as one. Campbell currently teaches “Introduction to Creative Writing” where her students are attempting to create their own renga masterpieces. All members of Campbell’s class were present in the audience.

Campbell introduced “Diaspo/Renga” as “poetry of the very first order” and stated that the authors wrote the text as if they were “one mind, with two sets of memories.” The text was a project that began in 2009, prompted by the Israeli siege of Gaza. It was only just recently published in June of this year. Over the course of five years, the authors responded to each other’s poetry lines via email. Often, a theme or word brought to life in one section of the poem by Shehabi was picked up, manipulated and changed by Hacker. In this way, the authors explored an incredible range of themes throughout the work—including love, unrest, exile and beauty.

Shehabi and Campbell both read “Diaspo/Renga” out loud, though the reading was interspersed by sections where each author read their own individual work. The poems in “Diaspo/Renga” had lines that bled into other lines written by the other author (in the true style of the renga), and thus Hacker and Shehabi switched off speaking. Both authors managed to bring the text to life, carefully pronouncing each verb and every adjective. Shehabi used many hand gestures, while Hacker appeared to be a very practiced reader. Both used strong voices that were impossible to ignore, and drew the audience in—almost as if they were listening to a spoken-word performance. Hacker and Shehabi just met in the flesh about a month ago, an incredible fact, given the great chemistry they had while reading out loud.

“Diaspo/Renga” brought to life images of families torn apart by war, forced into exile and sisters who cried out in their sleep. Because of the style and the beautifully chosen words, each line flowed into the next. While Shehabi and Hacker were equals on this project and got along very well, they still advocated for their own identity within the poems on the page. Each author strived to stay true to their people, their past, their homeland and their identity. “Sister, don’t forget, Iraq and Palestine are one wound,” said Shehabi, in one of the lines she read out loud.

Shehabi, who is the author of a book of poems titled “Thirteen Departures from the Moon,” read her own poetry, which centered on family life. Her well-crafted lines also discussed memory and how multiple generations can share in the memories of both the living and the dead. “Memory always fractures,” she said.

Hacker, who has produced over ten books of poetry, also read her own work. Hacker has received an incredible number of awards, from the National Book Award to the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry. This praise is entirely deserved, as Hacker proved throughout the reading that she is an excellent poet. The poem she read centered on Judaism, and it seemed entirely personal and close to her heart.

After the reading ended, Hacker and Shehabi looked at each other, laughed and then embraced. The floor opened for a question and answer session, and many students raised their hands. The event was very well attended and well received—primarily because of Hacker and Shehabi’s incredible talent.