Exclusive Interviews with the LitFest Guest Speakers


Madeline Cohen With readings at gatherings, discussions during free blocks, and events after school, Latin participated in its fifth annual Lit Fest this past Monday through Thursday. The week began with author Laura Van Prooyen reading some of her own poems, each one captivating and equal part truthful, joyful, and dark. Author Kevin Brockmeier joined us Wednesday to read one of his masterfully written short stories, “A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets,” and work with students throughout the rest of the day. One last event on Thursday night concluded the week, featuring more work from Reginald Gibbons, readings from senior Frani O’Toole, as well as several others from the Latin community. By this point, with Lit Fest over, it seems that everyone has already reached their own conclusion on the week, the authors that visited, and the stories that were shared. Latin has, for the most part, reached one general consensus, and we’re all fairly familiar with this perspective. Instead of restating this one, I offer instead a new, unique perspective on the week: one from the authors themselves who came in to speak. Responding to questions, Reginald Gibbons, Laura Van Prooyen, and Kevin Brockmeier present their visitor’s view on Lit Fest. How much do you know about Latin’s Lit Fest? Were you introduced to it at all, or were you simply brought in as a speaker without much background? Reginald Gibbons: I was brought into the Lit Fest by Billy Lombardo and Frank Tempone. I had met Frank before, and also have known Billy for several years, but I did not know very much about the school itself.  During my visit, I was tremendously impressed by the school itself, the students, and the English faculty. Laura Van Prooyen: I didn’t know a lot of the background of Lit Fest before I came. But, I knew about The Latin School. Kevin Brockmeier: I met Billy Lombardo a few years ago, and he and another friend of mine sang the praises of the Latin School, but I knew little about the school beyond its high reputation.  As for your presentation, how did you prepare for it? How did you choose which pieces to read and which topics to discuss?  Reginald Gibbons: I carry more of my own work with me than I need for a reading, because I like to choose pieces to read in a way that responds to the people I’m meeting and the situation in which I’m reading.  So I get a better sense of that after I arrive.  I took poems by other poets, as well, in order to show students some other aspects of poetry.  Those I did choose in advance, based on my teaching experience with undergraduates. Laura Van Prooyen: I thought a lot about which poems I was going to read. Though I teach high school and feel very comfortable with teens, I am aware that my poems address themes and concerns of adulthood. Therefore, I tried to choose pieces that dealt with themes that are universal and could be of interest to high school students (the complexity of mother/daughter relationships and identity as informed by childhood memories). I also think its wildly important to  address not being pigeonholed as a writers into a category based upon one’s gender. I was grateful Billy guided me to talk about (the great poet) Heather McHugh’s dictum to me: “It’s not the occasion that matters, but what you DO with the occasion that matters.” As a woman, I often face the reality that I’m pushing against a tradition that, for a long while, didn’t include women or marginalized us. Kevin Brockmeier: I read “A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pockets” for several reasons: (1) I think it’s one of my best and most accessible stories; (2) there’s a spoken tone to the prose that makes it easy to read aloud; (3) it contains an element of fantasy, which is a form of writing I’m always ready to champion; and (4) it’s short enough to fit nicely into a twenty-five or thirty minute block We often ask questions about the writing process, but not as much about the sharing process. How do you feel about sharing your work, both at Latin and at all public readings? Do you have any tips or suggestions for this part of the process after the writing has already been done, the best ways to share your work?  Reginald Gibbons: I enjoyed giving the reading, as I do generally.  I feel that many of my poems need to be read on the page–sometimes I put complicated trains of thought and feeling into them that can’t be entirely grasped in one hearing.  But for readings, I try to choose poems that do come across well enough when heard rather than read. Laura Van Prooyen: I love sharing my work with an audience. I read the poems aloud while I compose them, and when preparing to read, I read them aloud again and again. Then, I’m not nervous. I’m ready. There’s nothing more rewarding than when you can feel an audience engaging with the work. I am also grateful when people comment on something I read, and they tell me specifically how or why it reached them. That’s the big payoff.  A lot of people are scared when it comes to sharing their work. How important is the sharing aspect and do you have any advice as to how to overcome these fears?  Reginald Gibbons: I see art-making as a communicative gesture, so it doesn’t make sense to me not to offer a poem to readers and listeners.  The trick is to find an audience–to find the right audience–not to avoid readers or listeners.  It’s understandable that some beginning writers are shy about showing their work to others.  That’s OK.  Eventually though it’s helpful to find out how people react–at least sometimes, their reactions can be helpful.  But the helpfulness of this is not–in my view–that the poet can then make a poem that’s more *acceptable* to an audience, but rather to make it more honest **and** as well-made as possible (one without the other never produces great work).  Poetry is a craft as well as an art.  And some of the most important people for the poet to keep in mind are not audiences but the poets who have written great poems, in the past or in our own time.  The poem is in conversation not only with an audience but also with other poems.  (No one could learn to play the piano really well without listening to–and learning from–recordings of the great pianists–jazz, classical, whatever.) Kevin Brockmeier: Still, despite all the readings I’ve given, actually taking a microphone in front of an audience makes me nervous. I try to remind myself that the audience is listening in a spirit of generosity—that they want the reading to succeed as much as I do. Also, I think it’s useful to remember that when you read from your work, you’re not telling a story, exactly; you’re presenting a piece of writing. If the writing itself is capably and powerfully made, you can rely on it to support you. You should give every sentence its own little space in the air before you move on to the next.  Most of Lit Fest’s criticisms come from those who don’t enjoy reading or writing as much as they do other subjects. Since writing is such an important part of both school and life as a whole, do you have any advice to people who don’t enjoy writing? Reginald Gibbons: “People” in this sense means young people particularly.  Lots of people don’t become interested in reading for themselves, for their own benefit, for their own pleasure and learning, until they are more mature.  Lots of Americans never become readers.  It’s one of the greatest cultural failings of America generally, and it’s because of longstanding anti-intellectualism in American culture, and the decline of public education over the last 40 years, especially in the poorest neighborhoods. It simply has not been in the interest of those who tend to control major decisions in American political life to educate their fellow citizens.  It’s the teacher’s job to try to excite students about how rich and rewarding an experience it is to read great works–novels, stories, poems from the past and from our own time. One has to show students how they can enrich their own inner lives, and at the same time their understanding of others and of social and historical realities, by reading. Laura Van Prooyen: Reading and writing really cannot be separated. All writers I know read more than they write. Regarding reading, I would say if you hate it, you just haven’t read the right thing yet. In my own classroom, I build in bit of time for students to read whatever they want. Daily. At first, students resist this. Then, I begin to feed them books according to their interests. If you are into sports, read about sports. If you want to be a tattoo artist, read about it. When reading for pleasure, don’t stick with any books that bore you. Life is short. Read what you want. But READ. Every year, students tell me they hate reading, and after a year in which they are given time (ok forced into time) to read what they want, they come to like, if not love it. And then they become better writers too.   The authors’ views from up on stage may be slightly different than ours from the seats. Their perspectives are influenced by years of experience, reading and writing, sharing and publishing their work. Latin was fortunate to be able to get a glimpse into the minds of these authors, Lit Fest providing that rare opportunity to hear poems straight from the person who wrote them or get an expert’s answers to our questions. From all perspectives, this year’s Lit Fest proved to be a success.]]>