New York in Hattiesburg: Notes from the 2014 Moorman Symposium

The last event of the 2014 Moorman Symposium is still ahead of us (a 7pm reading) but I wanted to jot down some of my impressions for you anyway, before the end-of-semester madness takes over again and I forget.


Meeting Billy Collins, David Lehman, Barbara Hamby, David Kirby, and Denise Duhamel in person and seeing them interact with Angela Ball and, of course, the audience, on yesterday’s panel and during today’s question and answer session has been highly entertaining, deeply interesting, and just good. Also present, albeit in absentia and posthumously, was Paul Violi, because at the end of yesterday’s panel, the group had decided they wanted to share one of his poems with the audience: “The Cottage of Messer Violi” (which you can read and listen to at NPR’s Writer’s Almanac here).

My first impressions are very positive. Denise Duhamel is more lively cheery than I had expected from reading (only) her book Blowout, and I definitely want to read more of her work. She shared a great idea for teaching short poems / haiku, which I’ll probably try out in my own classroom some time.

Barbara Hamby’s interest in words and vocabulary is definitely something I can relate to. I asked her about the dozen or so different Yiddish words that pop up in her book, and it turns out that they’re, in part, what’s left of an ex-boyfriend, a kind of linguistic love pocket in her brain (as she put it). She spoke about her conviction that reading the letters (or in some cases journals) of poets helps young writers a great deal. One example she mentioned were Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (which I love and have already discussed here).

David Lehman is every bit as stylish as the author photos suggest, and very funny, and always comes with a hat (which, of course, he takes off indoors). It feels a little like he’s a time traveler. He was certainly a great choice for moderating the panel, both because of his personality and, of course, his expertise (he’s the author of The Last Avant-Garde.)

At one point during the two-hour question and answer session today, when discussing the influence of high and popular culture on poetry, David Lehman and Billy Collins (then joined by the whole panel, including some of audience) broke into song — apparently “My Funny Valentine” was truly irresistible today.

David Kirby is a different, quieter, darker kind of funny. When Billy Collins asked him to talk about the “Kirby stanza” (7 line stanzas with set margins on both sides), he was very pragmatic about it, explaining that he didn’t want to be known as the “and-poet.” He also said that as writers, we have to earn the attention of the reader. “The reader could be doing any number of things – more interesting things – with their time; they could be making a sandwich, they could be romancing someone, they could be getting dumped by someone – you have to keep them there.” Long, well-constructed, interesting sentences do the trick for Kirby.

Angela Ball talked about the “obstruction” exercises she sometimes uses in poetry workshop and which draw on Lars van Trier’s “5 Obstructions” film. She also explained that in her writing, she strives for “a voice that you can see through” — a transparency of language. In regards to cultural influences she brought up Paula Modersohn-Becker, the first woman to paint a nude self-portrait, and how Modersohn-Becker caused her to re-see how art works.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, "Self-portrait with amber necklace"

Paula Modersohn-Becker, “Self-portrait with amber necklace”

When asked about their favorite comedians (thanks for that question, Tom!), David Lehman declared himself a (Groucho) Marxist, Billy Collins opted for Amy Sedaris, Barbara Hamby talked about Richard Pryor, and Denise Duhamel brought up Chelsea Handler and Amy Schumer. The panelists talked about the lessons we can take away from good stand-up comedians: the importance of timing, rhythm, and the willingness to trust in and rely on the intelligence of your audience.

Denise Duhamel (answering one of my questions) spoke about the importance of poetry to readers today, in response to the protests caused by a South Carolina book ban. She made a very good point: We cannot see ourselves on TV. For all the “reality” tv, the talk shows, the “real life stories” that flicker across screens every day, many of us find we’re not there. TV is full of sound bites and stereotypes, it’s bright and persistent and fast-paced, but has little depth. It’s not personal. Poetry, on the other hand, is private. It’s one-on-one. A book moves only as fast as you make it move, as fast as you read it, and poetry thinks about the world in bigger, individual-encompassing terms. Exactly because it’s such a private act, poetry is all-encompassing and inclusive, and that’s exactly why we need it.


About annette.c.boehm

words escape me.


  1. I envy you meeting the greats. We had two breathtakingly unknown dudes who loved telling us all “I’m a poet!!” at our fair university today . . . and I thought, gee, listen to the two of them. “Of course, I keep all my drafts . . . and I nevah read a poem [they gave the words four syllables, in British] without hanging onto it for a yeahhhhh.”
    Oh my. poem on the way.

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