Poets instill hope, inspire students

n their lecture, Vassar alums Elsbeth Pancrazi ’05 and Geoffrey Hilsabeck ’03 discussed the refreshing perspective that poetry can provide in a world fraught with technological obsession and off-putting political turmoil. Courtesy of the Vassar English Department.

On Thursday, Sept. 27, at 6 p.m., 21 senators sat in a room on Capitol Hill facing Judge Brett Kavanaugh.

Three hundred miles away, about 15 students and faculty members sat in an auditorium in Taylor Hall facing two poets. Elsbeth Pancrazi ’05 and Geoffrey Hilsabeck ’03 had returned to Vassar’s campus to read from their debut poetry collections (Pancrazi’s “Full Body Pleasure Suit” was published in February 2017 and Hilsabeck’s “Riddles, etc.” was published in November 2017). Hilsabeck wanted to share with the Vassar community a way of looking at the world that “makes more sense than what [he] was reading in the newspapers.”

With this comment, Hilsabeck was responding to a question regarding an article he wrote in January 2017— shortly after President Trump’s election—titled “Resistance.” In that piece, he wrote, “In days when speaking feels like betrayal because speech is both inadequate and normalizing, and it seems wrong, dangerous even, to talk in the same old ways about what has happened but worse to avoid talking about it, I need a new language. […] I know that poetry can help.” When asked about how poetry functions as “a new language” to be used in discussion of the contemporary political field, Hilsabeck said, “The fact that poetry speaks in metaphor was helpful in processing what was happening at the time.”

Pancrazi, too, offered explanation of how poetry can function as a tool of resistance: “Poetry is very unique because it really operates outside the boundaries of commerce. There’s no money to be made so you don’t really have to be worried about who you’re going to offend or piss off. So there’s real freedom to just explore the themes you want to explore.” Without the allure or necessity of capitalizing off of poetic work, she said, there is room to speak one’s mind. The use of metaphor, as Hilsabeck suggests, compounds with this total freedom of content to form a new lens through which to view the often untouched topics that poets are (according to Pancrazi) at financial liberty to broach. Hence, a new language.

In “Full Body Pleasure Suit,” Pancrazi, who earned her MFA in creative writing from NYU, uses this language to discuss the ways in which people can become absorbed in technology and TV to a ridiculous extent. She described the familiar scenario in which someone describes every intricacy of the plot of a TV show that no one else in the room has seen, and her perplexity at the degree to which virtual realities have permeated tangible life.

Pancrazi’s words highlight another form of poetry as a new language: namely, the ever-growing social media outlet of Twitter. The 280-character form that tweets take on mirrors that of short prose poetry and serves as an example of the way in which, as Pancrazi said, “[People become deeply involved] in virtual worlds, at the expense of things that are right in front of you.” In this way, perhaps artists aren’t the only ones speaking this new, politically poetic language. Trump has adopted it, as well.

Although it may seem like a stretch to describe tweets as poetry, there is no denying that many poems appear structurally similar to Twitter’s model. Hilsabeck, who went on from Vassar to graduate from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, stressed the importance of poetic form, particularly given that “Riddles, etc.” adopts an unusual structure: Each poem is a riddle and the book comes with an answer key. Discussing this aspect of his poetry, Hilsabeck said, “For me, poetry is very much about form. That’s what keeps me coming back to it, and that’s what I learned from Mr. Kane.”

On Thursday, Sept. 27, Vassar hosted a lecture with two former students and current poets who discussed the power of poetry as a new language, drawing connections to politics and technology. Courtesy of the Vassar English Department.

Here, Hilsabeck was referring to Professor of English Paul Kane, who had invited both Pancrazi and Hilsabeck back to Vassar. Kane was an important person in both Pancrazi’s and Hilsabeck’s development as writers and as people. Kane said of the two poets’ times at Vassar, “I knew them both, and even had the pleasure of teaching Geoff. We loved their poems and we love, too, that they’ve returned to share their work with us.”

Kane’s comment was a particularly poignant moment. For current Vassar students watching what almost felt like previews of themselves 15 years from now (several students asked both Pancrazi and Hilsabeck for advice on emulating the paths the poets have taken to the accreditation of their MFAs), it seemed that, with Kane’s words, all those personal goals were within reach.

As the event continued, Pancrazi and Hilsabeck read their work, speaking their new languages from behind the podium. Highlights of Pancrazi’s reading included a humorous piece titled “The Secretary of the Interior Skulks in His Office,” which drew laughter from around the room, and a longer piece dealing with the always relevant topics of bodies, love and betrayal entitled “Body Swap.”

Hilsabeck read two riddles (one an audience member was able to solve; the other proved too difficult for tired minds at the close of a long week) and finished with a lengthy piece which he explained had come from the beginnings of a translation of an Old English poem. The piece tells the story of a wannabe actress in New York, whose assault leads her to consider suicide; she opts instead to take her assaulter to trial, where he is acquitted. Employing his new language, Hilsabeck closed the event at Vassar by metaphorically referring to this parallel event occurring on Capitol Hill.

Pancrazi described this new language: “It’s almost about giving someone a feeling, or giving them a provocation to think about something.” In the difficult days to come, perhaps we can all use the new poetic language to make sense of all the inexplicable events occurring in our world.

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