By Meaghan Menzel
“I think that it’s safe to say that no poet working today has the incredible lensing power of Dr. Linda Gregerson,” said Associate Professor in English Dr. James Hall. “These poems turn over history, science, art, and personal narrative, all in service of trying to locate the human… Hers is a voice that is both poetic and scholarly.”
On Sept. 22, Dr. Gregerson visited the Rose O’Neill Literary House for the third Sophie Kerr Event of the Year. “Professor Gregerson was talking about a seminar she led when we were talking at dinner last night where people applied for the seminar,” Dr. Hall said. There were students from “different disciplines, no one overlapping… My encounter with Linda Gregerson’s work is exactly like this; this invitation to knowledge from various fields.”
Dr. Gregerson is the Caroline Walker Bynum Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature of the University of Michigan, according the university’s website, where she teaches creative writing and Renaissance literature. She is the author of collections of poetry including “The Selvage,” “Magnetic North,” and the winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award for her poem “Waterborne.” Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies such as “The New Yorker,” “The Atlantic Monthly,” and “The Best American Poetry,” and she has also published numerous essays on lyric poetry and Renaissance literature.
For this event, Dr. Gregerson read from her most recent collection of poetry, “Prodigal: New and Selected Poems, 1976-2014.” Her collection, as the title indicates, includes new poems as well as poems that have appeared in her earlier collections. “The ‘New and Selected’ is a way of… inviting readers and myself to think of the body of work in a single arc,” she said.
Her poems covered various subject matters from the actor Daniel Evan’s performance in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as Francis Flute to downloading an article on a baby found in the sewers of Zhejiang Province. According to Dr. Hall, Dr. Gregerson’s poems can be “funny, comic, and serious too but they’re never flippant. These are not Wikipedia poems… These are verse that has done its homework.”
One of the poems Dr. Gregerson read was “Prodigal.” This poem, according to the collection’s table of contents, actually appeared in her earlier collection, “Magnetic North.” She said, “This poem is written to my wonderful niece who’s thriving now… and is a foot taller than me and has to pick me up to say hello… She was going through a rougher patch when I wrote this poem.”
She also read a poem called “The Wrath of Juno.” She said, “I’ve been writing some poems lately that have in mind Ovid’s fabulous anthology of stories about the classical gods and their mischief, the ‘Metamorphoses.’ You may remember [in] the classical tales that Juno, queen of the gods, spends a lot of time angry and with reason. She does things in her anger that often gets the story going.” This poem was laced with sarcasm and wit while at the same time told a serious truth about the Juno’s character.
Another poem she read, “Pythagorean,” fell into the category of Ovid. She talked about how Ovid lets Pythagoras write half of his 15th book. Pythagoras is known for his Pythagorean Theorem, but Dr. Gregerson said, “He also was famous for his espousal of the doctrine of metempsychosis,” which is a theory of reincarnation and how an individual can come back to life in a different form depending on their behavior in the past life.
“The thing that’s incredible about returning to the ‘Metamorphoses’ and Pythagoras is, of course reading it now, it looks like that poem is an incredible, passionate manifesto of what we call ecological perspective, about the profound, connectedness of all creation,” she said. “I guess that issue about connectedness is what I feel about the different modes of inquiry in the world.”
One of the things Dr. Gregerson loves about writing on various topics is “the language” that people of other professions use: “the short hand of things, the way they refer to their tools and the expertise… the way folks who really know something talk to each other when it’s not meant to include us,” she said. “There’s nothing like it for texture—invested language.”
When writing a poem, Dr. Gregerson generally finds herself constantly reading it out loud. “Its got to… be musical,’ she said. In addition to that, she said, “There’s one test every poem has to pass… to exist, which is ‘Did I learn something new in the course of writing it? Was there a discovery,’ because if there was no discovery, it’s not a poem.”
“I also think it’s just good for all of us as much as we can to listen in on other people at work… trying to hear how, for example, the laboratory scientist or the astro-physicist asks her question,” Dr. Gregerson said. “What constitutes a question? How do they refine it? How do they test it? Where do they go to see if they cannot necessarily come up with an answer but refine question? I think that’s fascinating, and I think there are extraordinary commonalities… I kind of want to see if I can listen in on other place I don’t have the expertise to go myself.”