Mark Halliday has published his first collection of poems, Small starin 1987 at the relatively advanced age of 38. He had started writing poetry as an undergrad at Brown, but it took nearly two decades before he found his poetic voice mature.
“During my freshman year, my friend Richard published poems that I thought were incredibly cool,” Halliday says. “I felt I had to either compete in this area or feel disappointed and frustrated forever.”
He then spent much of his early 20s writing “naive, imitative and superficial gestures of poetry”, including “half-baked imitations or semi-parodies” of the genre of neo-surrealist poems or deep imagery then popular with poets like WS Merwin and Robert Bly.
That all changed after I started working on a doctorate in literature at Brandeis University and took a course with 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor Frank Bidart, who became a mentor. “Bidart’s advice helped me tremendously,” says Halliday. “He taught me a lot about diction, tone, structure and movement. Underneath it all, the crucial thing he always asked was, ‘Is this really true? is not a matter of autobiographical detail; it is a matter of how deeply the poem engaged with the complexity of experience.
Halliday began to write more ambitious poems which revealed “the presence of a real, complicated person thinking under emotional pressure”. Now the award-winning author of seven books of poetry (the most recent, losers dream, published in 2018), he will read excerpts from his work at this semester’s Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading on Thursday, April 11 at the Mugar Memorial Library. The event includes a question-and-answer session and a signing session. It is free and open to the public.
Known for their frank and familiar style, Halliday’s poems often have an ironic spirit. The New Yorker described him as “a Whitman in a supermarket, a denominational poet who doesn’t take himself very seriously”.
“I was very relieved when I came to believe that a serious poem could be funny and a funny poem could be serious,” he says. “In real life, we often use humor to deal with all kinds of scary and terrible experiences. So it can work in poems. My humor is often self-deprecating, as a way to resist my smugness, and in the hope of charming a reader who might feel resistant to a poet’s inherent smugness.
Yet many of Halliday’s poems are meditations on loss, such as the dissolution of a marriage (“Legs,” “Divorced Fathers and Pizza Crusts”) and the death of a relative (“Chicken Salad”). Others are inspired by his years in the classroom — he taught high school for four years and was a creative writing professor at Ohio State University for more than two decades.
He notes that although there was “a continuity in my books of emphasis on the voice, the credibility of the speaker’s voice”, the topics he writes about evolved as he got older.
“It’s mostly the inevitable change: from brash and hyper-busy and noisy poems in my thirties to poems more conscious of responsibility, in relation to family and in relation to society, and poems more conscious of time and the loss.”
And with age came the realization that time is over, which brings with it a certain clarity and urgency. “Poets in their twenties and thirties tend to think they can write all the poems in the world if they want to,” he says. “But it turns out that in your life, you only write certain poems. Hundreds perhaps, but not thousands, not millions; so, ultimately, you must try to write down the ones you care about the most.
Heather Green (GRS’09), former student of the Creative Writing Program (GRS’09), whose poems have appeared in the New Yorker and many other publications. Like Halliday, Green came to poetry quite late. “As a child, I was a voracious reader and loved to write and read poetry,” she says. “Yet it took me until almost 30 to seriously consider being the kind of writer who publishes poetry. I was working at a company after college and I wasn’t very happy about it. She found the courage to quit that job, earning a master’s degree in literature from the University of Nebraska before coming to BU for an MFA, a decision she calls transformative.
“Working with Robert Pinsky and Louise Glück, who were teaching at BU at the time, gave me a much deeper perspective on poetry and poetry writing than I had before,” says Green. “Both of them are completely ignorant of fads, schools and fads, and encouraged me to do the same. Maggie Dietz [GRS’97] was my other teacher at BU, and she was a brilliant reader and editor. I learned so much from her about how to focus on the words on the page when reading a poem.
A translation seminar given by Anna Zielinska-Elliott, lecturer in world languages and literatures at the College of Arts and Sciences, was also life-changing. “I had never done literary translation before, and it never occurred to me, even after seven years of studying French, that I might try it,” says Green. She then translated two collections of works by the Romanian-French poet Tristan Tzara, focusing on poems he wrote during the Spanish Civil War.
“I hadn’t spoken French for many years when I started working on these translations,” she says. “The first challenge was to find a way to rekindle my connection to the language, which I did by reading more French poetry, listening to French podcasts, to get the sound in my ears.”
Green, assistant professor of English at George Mason University, says her work as a translator informs her poems. “I learned a lot about how English works by doing and thinking about translating, and I hope this understanding has improved my own writing.”
She plans to read a few new poems during the poetry reading, including one inspired by poet David Ferry’s recent translation of The Aeneid, and one of Tzara’s poems.
Pinsky, William Fairfield Warren Professor Emeritus and Professor of English at CAS, will introduce the two poets on Thursday evening. The former three-time American Poet Laureate says the evening promises to be entertaining.
“Mark Halliday’s funny, wild, lucid, and intriguing poems have become an irreverent model for young American poets,” says Pinsky. “Heather Green, in her own poems and in her incomparable translations by surrealist Tristan Tzara, has mastered another tradition, equally irreverent and in search. These similarities and differences make this reading a particularly exciting event.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, with Mark Halliday and Heather Green (GRS’09), will take place tomorrow, Thursday, April 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the Richards-Roosevelt Room of the Mugar Memorial Library, 771 Commonwealth Ave. The event, presented by BU’s Creative Writing Program, is free and open to the public.
The Robert Lowell Poetry Reading series is funded by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred M. Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.
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