Columbia College Chicago recently had the honor of having Joe Harrington and Sandra Simonds read at the College as part of our Spring Reading Series. The reading provided a delightful display of contrasts and similarities indicative of the diversity of the poetic spectrum Columbia inhabits. By night’s end, I felt exhausted and enriched, ready to tackle my own work in light of the event.
The night started with Tony Trigilio introducing a student reader, as is the tradition for the College’s reading series. This evening’s student reader was Jacob Victorine, a second year graduate student in the MFA program. Victorine’s work often focuses on the political, including acts of self-immolation taken from around the world. I found his poem about the plight of an Afghan girl who felt tripped into suicide particularly affecting. As much as anything, Victorine’s delivery showed off his skill as a performer honed during his time as a nationally competitive slam poet. This would prove to be an omen for the rest of the evening.
I was previously familiar with Joe Harrington’s work from reading Things Come On twice: once during a book club before I was in a graduate program here at Columbia and once for my coursework this semester. Having read the book at such a long interval, I thought I had a good grasp of it. The premise of the book is in essence the correlation between Watergate and Harrington’s mother’s breast cancer. She was diagnosed when the scandal broke and died the day Nixon resigned. Harrington—who was young at the time—puts together the pieces of his mother’s illness and the event which was famously called “a cancer on the presidency” using a great deal of research to repair—and as Trigilio points out—corrupt the history of this time period through a fragmented lens bouncing between both events. It’s a good book, but I had no idea Harrington would perform it with such verve, using different voices (including a hilarious Nixon impersonation) to indicate who is speaking the different fragments and really adding to the book. I was in awe.
The final reader was the delightful Sandra Simonds. Simonds’ delivery was smoother, but the deadpan worked for her often very funny poetry as she read from a multitude of books, including her latest, Mother Was a Tragic Girl. She evoked Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton in her banter between poems, and I definitely heard both, especially Plath. That, as Trigilio again aptly mentioned, is the beauty of Simonds’ work. She can be simultaneously very affecting and enriching and very, very funny as she helps readers to make sense of what has continued to become a confusing, messed up world. It made for a delightful close to the reading.