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Extraordinarily Ordinary

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“Looking out at this crowd of parents and students tonight, I’m not exactly sure who dragged whom…but I’m glad you’re all here.”

And with that, the ever humble and always forthright former United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins began his Saturday evening talk in Mead Chapel.

Collins, who was Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003, holds an inspiring list of awards and honors. He is well regarded for his innate ability to find pure poetry and tenderness in life’s most mundane moments. Some have called him the “everyman” poet, and those who have heard him read aloud often understand. To read his poems is one thing—they are unlike what many think of as poetry, with nary a rhyme or ponderous metaphor in sight. But to hear him read is something else altogether. He recites poem after poem as if he is simply chatting with you—telling you a simple fact, an underlying truth. It’s deceptively entrancing, and best of all, you “get it”! You understand exactly what he is saying, and it is SO TRUE.

That’s how it felt to be part of that audience that Saturday evening in Mead. The nearly packed building of listeners experienced the full spectrum of reactions—from raucous laughter to that collective exhalation, the ubiquitous “Awwwww,” that no poetry reading ever escapes entirely. True to his manner, though, Collins wryly followed that group show of sentimentality in response to “Dharma” with his decidedly unsentimental “Revenant,” in which the ghost of a former dog returns to tell his owner “I never liked you—not one bit.”

He read for just over an hour, yet hardly anyone budged from his or her seat. The selection ranged from old favorites to new poems from his latest book, Horoscopes for the Dead. Each poem merited some sort of preamble, through which he gave the audience a few potential views into his life—from growing up in New York City and college days with his hearty roommate from Vermont to a poignant and hysterically blunt portrayal of a 17-year-old girl, who seems incapable of picking up her room, compared to such child prodigies as Franz Schubert, Maria Callas, and Judy Garland.

In “Death of the Hat,” he combined humor, nostalgia, and an overwhelming sense of loss—not just for the classic fedora but for an entire era of values, style, and respect. And though the sadly funny “Forgetfulness” and “Hangover” probably seemed all too familiar to the elders in the crowd, the poems “What She Said” and “Oh, My God” no doubt struck a chord with younger listeners who so often fall prey to the marginalization of the English language. But the beauty of Collins is the way he makes so many of his poems accessible to everyone. Old or young, literary or not. His is a poetry that grasps our everyday. And while many in the audience seemed unfamiliar with his work when they arrived, they clearly left as fans.

Stay tuned to MiddMag for more Fall Family Weekend stories, including links to the President’s address to parents, panels and discussions, and other editorial coverage.


Cue McEwan

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Even the greatest writers aren’t always the best speakers—many prefer soundless solitude to adoring crowds—so it was a welcome surprise when Ian McEwan smoothly strode to the podium in Mead Chapel on a beautiful September evening and began his talk by thanking everyone for coming when they’d “surely rather be lounging outside in that delicious dusk.”

Wooing words.

From that moment, the filled-to-capacity crowd was cued up to relax and savor an ensuing hour of the award-winning Englishman’s graceful wit, rolling metaphors, and evocative turns of phrase.
McEwan is often referred to as one of the finest living writers, and he has indeed won nearly every prize an English author can win. Nearly half of his novels have been made into films—most recently the Oscar-nominated and critically acclaimed Atonement—and many remain on college and high school reading lists worldwide. He is well known for his fictional forays into the seamier side of human nature, with novels that reach uncomfortably into lost childhood, deviant sexuality, and disjointed family life. From orphans who hide their mother in a grave of concrete to the deeply perceptive horror of Nazi camps to innocent mishaps with malevolent consequences, McEwan’s characters look nothing yet everything like ourselves.

Speaking to a crowd of mostly students with a fair showing of faculty, staff, and community members, McEwan read from his latest novel, Solar. The scene he chose focused on the main character in a way that was both intensely humorous and sadly tragic. The audience laughed uproariously one minute and sat as still as stones the next. The younger faces, especially, were a mixture of awe, tension, relief, and hilarity. McEwan’s voice boomed with narrative force and then suddenly shrank to a whisper; he enlivened the space between his words on the page and true human nature unfolding, and no one wanted to miss a moment.

When finished, McEwan smiled and reached for his water, then quickly stepped down from the podium to take questions. After the typically slow start, with a few questions called out from the crowd, students soon hurried from their seats to line up behind the microphone halfway up the center aisle.
Questions ranged from the expected—“How did you first know you were a writer?”—to the more random—“Do you like salt and vinegar potato chips?”—to the technically fundamental—“How do you do your research?”—and McEwan answered each with sincerity. He discussed his diligent approach to detail, his broad experience writing for television and the stage as well as novels, and his obsession with research: he followed a neurosurgeon for an entire year before writing one word of Saturday. Overall he advised young writers to read anything and everything they could get their hands on to learn the art of using detail to make a story. Referring to the passage he had just read in Solar, he said, “You can write that he took a train home after a long day at work, or you can take 23 pages and describe every single important moment of that commute.”

Earlier in the evening, as students were filtering in from dining halls and late athletic practices—one young man rushed in still carrying a soccer ball—a brief poll revealed a range of familiarity with the author. Some had read a book or two for a class, nearly all had seen Atonement, and others didn’t have any idea at all who the speaker was. “I could tell he was someone important from the way people were talking about this,” said one wide-eyed first-year. “I knew I’d be crazy to miss it.” From behind, a prudent upperclassman chimed in to say, “We get some pretty interesting speakers here, but this is big, really big.”


The World According to Irving

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Not many things will distract the more diligent Middlebury students from their midterm exams, but thankfully an internationally famous author is one of them.

When John Irving stepped up to meet the crowd in Mead Chapel this past Wednesday evening, his good humor, casual plaid-shirted presence and magnetic narrative style made all else slip away for a good part of the following hour. A core audience of students, as well as other campus and community members, enjoyed a mix of personal musings, historical perspective and even a little political rallying along with the highly engaging reading from the author’s current book in progress.

Though he didn’t realize it, Irving was pleased to be reminded during the welcoming comments by Chellis House director Karin Hanta that this is National Coming Out Month, a notable celebration given the recent media focus on bullying and homophobia among young people. The reading, co-sponsored by the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, the Creative Writing Program, the Department of English and American Literatures, Wonnacott Commons, and the Office of the Dean of the College, dovetailed meaningfully with some of the current issues on people’s minds. Irving often interlaces themes of sexuality and prejudice throughout his novels, and spoke passionately about the fundamental right for people to be accepted, tolerated and welcomed for who they are, no matter what the differences among us may be.

Irving’s writing—he has published 12 novels with his 13th underway—has always embraced the normality of difference. As example, he recalled for the Mead audience characters such a Frank Berry from Hotel New Hampshire and John Wheelwright from A Prayer for Owen Meany, among many others who have questioned or confronted their sexuality. His latest narrator is a bisexual man looking back on his formative childhood and sexual awakening via a local librarian, Miss Frost, who is later revealed to be transgender. The unfinished novel’s working title, In One Person is a reference to Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” when in Act V, Scene V, the protagonist says, “Thus play I in one person many people/And none contented.”

With a voice both breathy and expressive yet clipped and direct, Irving brought these new characters to life—the unguarded boyishness of young Billy, the crisp aloofness of the aptly named woman. The issues at hand were deeply serious; the writing—and Irving’s delivery—was unabashedly humorous. When asked later in the Q&A about his habit of blending humor and tragedy, Irving said, “You can’t choose to be funny or not—you either are or you’re not. But the downside is that you also can’t control when it comes out. When you know something really bad is going to happen—and I always do because I am a methodical planner of my plots—sometimes you just can’t help but make a little joke of it.”

Speaking of his methodical plotting, Irving was straightforward and clear about his writing style as a process, almost to the point of being a science. “I always write the ending first,” he explained. “I need to know where I’m going, which probably hearkens back to my early and ongoing influence by such character- and plot-driven writers as Dickens and Hardy. Now that’s not to say that the ending I write can’t change,” he added with a telltale grin. “But it hasn’t yet in 12 novels, so don’t hold your breath.” In fact, he even began his excerpt from In One Person by reading the last line of the chapter first—“So you’ll know when it’s over,” he deadpanned. But in doing so, in all seriousness, he clearly wanted the audience to know—and feel the process of knowing—exactly where we were going.

Irving was first published in 1968, with Setting Free the Bears. Though his career began slowly, he received immediate worldwide attention in 1980 with The World According to Garp. He has won the National Book Award, an O. Henry Award and an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Cider House Rules. He’s no stranger to success, and yet he presented himself that evening in Mead as just another writer diligently—and daily—honing his craft.

After his reading, he took questions from the audience. Though he was fond of beginning with a deceivingly short answer—“yes,” “no,” “both”—there was no stopping the author on a roll of elaboration. When a question arose regarding his experience with control issues on the movie adaptations of his books, Irving took a wide tangential turn to politics and in the process expressed his support for Vermont Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Shumlin, adding that “if you care about people who care about respecting sexual differences, then don’t vote for Brian Dubie.” Not minding at all that he seemed to have wavered off topic, the crowd responded with a healthy round of applause. And, to his credit, Irving adroitly managed to bring the whole thing back around and satisfy the questioner by saying, “Basically, it’s a two-way street: I respect you, you respect me, and together we can collaborate on something really great.”

Following questions, and nearly 90 minutes after his introduction, Irving enthusiastically moved toward the front of Mead to sign books for a growing line of fans. Seated with pen in hand for nearly 30 minutes, John Irving carefully took each offering, whether a crisp new book just purchased or a tattered paperback from years ago, and signed them all with characteristic style and aplomb.