Two St. Albans writers are reaching new heights in their careers.
Ben Rothenberg '05 has established himself as a leading writer in professional tennis. In his new book, Naomi Osaka: Her Journey to Finding Her Power and Her Voice, Rothenberg outlines the life of Osaka — telling the story of the enigmatic star and her Haitian-Japanese-American family's journey across the world in the pursuit of tennis greatness. The book received a rave review in the Wall Street Journal
Rothenberg's work has been featured in the New York Times, CNN, and the BBC. He also hosts a podcast, “No Challenges Remaining.”
2007-2008 Writer-in-Residence, Hannah Louise Poston, winner of this year's Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize will host a reading of her poetry at the Shakespeare Folger Library. Tickets to the event are available for purchase
Poston wrote a chapter in the book, Writers Among Us, an anthology of works by writers in residence since the founding of the program in 1983.
Her chapter is copied below.
I go to literature for, among other things, elation. Like a religious devotee, I believe that this same elation is there in literature for anyone who allows for it, and so I am a shameless missionary for poetry. As a writer in residence should be, I suppose: not only a teacher and a writer herself, but also an advocate, in the school, for the powers of her art. But in the body and life of an individual artist, advocacy and artmaking do not necessarily sustain each other; in fact, they can conflict, because in any given day, or in any given hour, one must choose between them. A writer cannot simultaneously write and proselytize writing.
In my time at St. Albans, I worked as an advocate for poetry in my classes and casually around the school as best I could. But when I went up through the dorm in the afternoons to write in my apartment, I passed the one demographic of boys I always had a hard time reaching with my particular passion. They would be crowded all together—sometimes fifteen or twenty of them—in the rec room of the dorm, pasted to the television, most egging on a few who worked controllers. They were seeking elation in the way they turn to most readily—by playing video games. I would pass them with brief hellos and then shut myself into my own space to pay homage to my own source of truth and pleasure.
I am perhaps unduly prejudiced against those games—after all, it is not a world I know well, and I'm hesitant to judge what I don't know—but with truly old-fashioned poet's sensibilities, I see technology and nature as diametrically opposed, and I believe wholeheartedly in nature. Part of the work of the poet is to help draw people a little bit away from the comfortable, constructed worlds they have in T.V. and video games, and more into the natural reality of the world. I always sit down to write with that conviction, feeling it's my purpose. Isn't it ironic, then, that I would march quickly past twenty boys crowded around a big screen T.V. clutching joysticks, then shut my door on them, ostensibly to do the work of nature? Every afternoon and evening I would be upstairs writing, they would be downstairs playing Halo, and the two worlds did not cross.
As a human being, I'm committed to doing good. As a poet, I'm committed to poetry as the vessel for the good I do. Inevitably, I end up turning away from some life situations to serve poetry. I felt it acutely in the dorm—I could not afford the time and energy to start long discussions about the virtues of literature over video games, because when I went to my apartment it was my alone time, my writing time. But in my work, I strive for a kind of revelation that I could possibly have reached with the boys if I had set time aside for them the evenings. As it was, I could write enlightening poems all I wanted, but they would never read them—their spare time went to the games. Would it have been more efficient, more in service of my commitment to good, if I had sat down with them and worked towards awareness face-to-face, without the conduit of literature?
Of course these questions are rife with assumptions—the assumption that video games are deeply unhealthy, the assumption that poets are responsible for enlightenment. These assumptions are mine, I admit to them—personal beliefs, not empirical facts. Regardless of its ingredients here, though, this is a manifestation of a question that follows me everywhere I go. What does poetry do? Does it legislate, as Shelley said? Does it make nothing happen, as Auden wrote? I know what poetry does for me—it rescues me. It pulls my eyes up from my own stumbling feet and wills me to see straight ahead. It does not, however, seem to rescue boys from pouring whole weekends, for months on end, into the video game console.
At least not immediately. Perhaps, years on, a line of Shakespeare in Ms. Denizé's voice will echo from the back of a boy's mind while he's trying to make a decision, and he will look the sonnet up again. Perhaps it will be the same time of his life that video games are losing their insatiable draw, or he will be beginning to pay more attention to the slightly sick feeling always lodged in his stomach after hours of looking at the TV screen. Perhaps, that month, he will spend more time with poetry than with Halo. I—ever faithful!—do believe that the difference in gratification between electronic media and literature is enormous—and apparent to anyone who spends equal time with both. It's the difference between a pixilated digital image of a mountain on an overhead projector and a real, forested, gorgeous, dangerous, inhabited, ice-capped, unpredictable, shadowed, and creviced mountain, so big you didn't notice that you were standing on the side of it all along.
I question it all the time, but of course I do believe in literature. In a sense, when I sat down to write in my apartment, shutting the door against the noise of the digital guns, I was sitting down to write poems for the very boys I was ignoring in the moment, even though I had to ignore them in order to write the poems. It's the curse of the called artist, simultaneously to care deeply for the rest of humanity and to shun it routinely. I just keep my fingers crossed that “to articulate sweet sounds together. . . and yet / be thought an idler” (as Yeats called writing poetry) is Wallace Stevens's “blessed rage for order,” rather than Derek Mahon's “wretched rage for order.” Mahon called it wretched in a piece about a writer sitting in his apartment during a real war and simply continuing to make poems in response to the catastrophe, rather than going down among the people and lending a physical hand. I do believe in literature, but I could never shake the feeling, in the dorm, that I was that poet of Mahon's—perched above the catastrophe of digital violence, writing away as if my words could somehow influence the screen-entranced boys down in the rec room.
Perhaps it will be easy, then, to see why my favorite memory from the St. Albans dorm is of the total lunar eclipse in the winter of 2008. A lunar eclipse is like a great poem: eerie, arresting, revelatory. The moon, usually inconsistent only in shape, for one night inconsistent in color! It is also rare—the next one wouldn't occur until late 2010. I couldn't stand the thought of the boys missing it and I innocently believed that they would be counting down the minutes, like I was. But when I asked them on the way up to my apartment that day if they would go out later to see the eclipse, they shrugged, only half hearing, glued to the game. I explained that the moon would be red, that it was their last chance in three years to see it, that Halo could be paused and resumed. I got no promises.
The eclipse was after study hall and before lights-out, a free hour that always has a crowd in front of the screen. On my way downstairs, I was as firm with them as I could bring myself to be. It was hard—I realized for the first time that part of my inability to really engage in dorm life could perhaps have been shyness on my part; a despicable, girlish shyness that even now, more than halfway through the year, was rearing its head. I tried to insist in no uncertain terms that it was unconscionable to play Halo through a lunar eclipse, and then I made my way down the quiet stone steps, through the common room and out that heavy old front door alone.
I sat on a bench by the chapel. The moon was, of course, bizarre and breathtaking, and the familiar blessings of being out-of-doors at night in winter—the color of the sky, the cold air—were there. A bit of old snow was in the grass. I sat for several minutes and thought about the boys. Why could I not be closer to them? Why could I not be like a camp counselor, or an older sister, or even a coach? Why did I feel as though our courses were set, mine and theirs, and that there was little I could do to rechart or be recharted? As a writer in residence, and really as a writer in the world at all, I had hoped to always retain a feeling of agency, of the possibility for growth and the denial of tired routine. Just then I felt stuck, fettered, and really helpless to be in their world, or to have them in mine.
A lunar eclipse is like a great poem, though: a chance convergence that sheds everything in a different light. The boys didn't come down all at once in a reverent pack, nor did any of them sit to meditate on the sight. But to my leaping delight, they did come; in twos and threes mostly, all wildly underdressed for the season—shivering in T-shirts or just boxers, and hopping over snow puddles in their sock feet. Some were irrepressibly proud of having acquiesced to my request. Some were bowled over by the eclipse (“Woah! I didn't know it would be red!”), some just shrugged. I talked and laughed with them and felt gratified to see them seeing the moon. One boy came out alone and was surprised to see anything out of the ordinary—he hadn't known about the eclipse, he was just meeting the pizza delivery guy. None of them stayed outside for more than a minute—too cold, and the game was paused! Their voices were over-loud hitting the flagstones. To a fault, absurd and endearing . . . but still somehow, from where I sat, very far away.
I did write a poem that drew on the experience of the eclipse, but as so often happens the poem is not a portrait of the physical situation from which it arose. “Death of a Child” is about a fictional couple whose relationship is strained in the aftermath of a funeral they attend together. The lunar eclipse in the poem makes their surroundings feel unnatural, just as the child's death has felt unnatural—but there is some question as to whether the funeral and the eclipse are causing the rift between the two of them, or simply shedding light on a rift that was already there. I am not in the poem, the boys are not in the poem, and so I would never expect a reader to know this, but the ghost of my own eclipse at St. Albans set the tone for “Death of a Child.” The poem contains all of what I was in wonder of and mourning on that night: distance, miscommunication, the elusiveness of childhood, and inevitable loss.
This is how we, as writers in residence, have an exchange with the school that goes beyond the classroom and refectory—a deep exchange, one of bared human traits. This is how it happens: all in light of the quest to make literature. For even in this story, which I have parsed so thoroughly here, still to me the poem is all—I look back on that night, and I think of it gratefully as one on which a poem arrived. A writer, even a writer in residence, cannot simultaneously write and proselytize writing, so though we may advocate writing in the school, to us the weight of a year of residence is measured by what this anthology represents—the pieces produced. Wanting the boys to leave the T.V. and look at the moon, but too shy to ask; all year living on the hinge of the swinging door between private and public, examining and being examined; all of it fed graciously into my work, as it should. And when I look back, the writing of the poems themselves overshadows all of it; by the poems, one might say, the year is eclipsed.