photos courtesy of Chloe Dodd/Catalyst and Taylor Meredith/Catalyst
With gold earrings dangling from her earlobes, eyes framed behind artsy glasses, and dressed nearly all in black, renowned poet and current New College writer-in-residence Shira Dentz melodically recited selections from her books black seeds on a white dish and Leaf Weather at the Jane Bancroft Cook Library on Apr. 5. Light refreshments of grapes, cookies and soda were provided, and patrons mingled to the sound of a small orchestra playing mellow compositions on the cello and flute before Dentz was introduced by Professor of German Wendy Sutherland. Audience members comprised of students, professors and interested local residents remained entirely silent as Dentz’s voice captured the breaks in stanzas and emotion for the next hour. Having performed in several places all over the United States, including New York State, San Francisco, New Hampshire, Salt Lake City and Washington State, Dentz remarked that her most recent audience was a “quiet” one.
“I think that it might have been because the library is a place where people are not supposed to talk, so I felt the audience was kind of hushed,” Dentz told the Catalyst. “But I got a lot of e-mails telling me that people like my writing, so that was uplifting. Audiences [in the past] have laughed at different times and made different sounds that they [were] engaged. I’ve experienced that, I get notified that way.”
But the silence was certainly no indicator of Dentz’s talents. Having published black seeds on a white dish before she received her master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, she is also the recipient of many prestigious awards, including an Academy of American Poets’ Prize, the Soceity of America’s Lyric Poem and the Cecil Hemely Memorial Award. She currently holds a doctorate in literature from the University of Utah.
Influenced early on in her career by poets such as John Ashbery, Herman Hesse and Sylvia Plath, later on she became interested in experimental women’s poetry.
“I’ve started on a whole new trajectory, but I haven’t abandoned the other stuff that I was very influenced by, so my work is a combination of confessional and experimental,” Dentz said. “It has emotion and meaning that’s important to me.”
Dentz finds herself inspired in the environment that surrounds her, specifically by sensations of nature and beauty, difficult people or topics, and personal struggles.
“For instance, this morning when I was biking here to campus during the day, I imagined I was on some Caribbean island and I was on vacation,” Dentz said. “I was inhaling the very moist warm air. It was Rastafarian in a kind of way and so I blitzed out on that … it’s those sensations of feelings that come up when I’m writing.”
When reading her poetry, Dentz said she doesn’t have a technique, and isn’t the type to write formal verse that relies heavily on rhymed and other kinds of structure. In her reading, Dentz made hand gestures to indicate certain pieces of punctuation, like commas or periods, giving the poem life that it wouldn’t have if it were merely read on paper.
“I just try to honor the poem,” Dentz said. “It’s sort of like I’m reading somebody else’s poem … it’s kind of selfless, except of course it’s my work, but who else is going to give it its breath, if not me?”
Second-year Vanessa Chastain, who not only attended the reading but wrote poetry “obsessively through high school,” viewed attending the reading as an opportunity to see what kind of contemporary poetry was out there and how it could be presented.
“I read some of [Dentz’s] poetry online [before I came to the reading] and thought it was very powerful, with interesting use of space and punctuation,” Chastain said. “She did a very good job at performing. I was impressed how she used punctuation with gestures, because I didn’t know that poetry could be presented in that way, and it made it more interesting.”
First-year Jessica Loeb felt similarly.
“I really enjoyed it,” Loeb said. “It was exciting hearing from a professor in a way that was accessible. I just started writing my own thoughts down and started composing my own poetry, which is something that I’ve always been interested in. So hearing poetry from her that mirrors my own style was really rewarding. I liked how stream-of-consciousness she was, and I could really relate to her writing … it seemed like it was coming from like a Jewish New York middle-class perspective, like my heritage, so I could relate to her poetry.”