Faculty discuss texts that shaped them

By Sindhu Gnanasambandan

The red chairs extending far into the bookshelves of the Seminary Co-Op were too few to house the dozens of interested listeners there for the Humanities Day lecture “How Writers Read.” The talk featured three creative writing faculty members, each speaking about a single text that has transformed their lives.

First up was poet Peter O’Leary (A.B. ’89, A.M. ’94, Ph.D. ’99), who shared advice that his teacher had given him when he analyzed Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in a University fundamentals class.

“My professor used to say, if you are going to read Whitman, lock the doors to your apartment, close the shades, unplug the telephone, and just read it for three hours; don’t do anything else. Just give yourself over to this poem,” O’Leary said.

O’Leary recently published his own poem, “Phosphorescence of Thought,” which is intentionally the same length as “Song of Myself” and modeled after Whitman’s thinking.

Vu Tran, the short story writer, took the stage next and spoke about how his feelings for the short story “Lady with a Little Dog” by Anton Chekhov evolved through the years.

“At first,” Tran said, “I found it rather melodramatic, a hackneyed story about an adulterous affair between an annoyingly cat-ish 40-year-old man and an annoying innocent woman who was half his age. Something about their passion was clawing to me. It was too theatrical, too Russian.”

As he grew older, however, what he had first interpreted as melodrama revealed itself to be a level of honesty and sincerity he had not realized.

Jennifer Scappettone, a translator and poet, discussed translating the poems of Amelia Rosselli and, more broadly, about the art of translating.

“Every act of reading is an act of translation,” she said. “Translation is the most active and the most intense model of reading, interpretation, and revivification.”

While the answer to the question of how writers read varied, the question of why was quite consistent.

“What stuck with me is the value of the experience of reading,” O’Leary said, “not just what you can draw forth from its meaning, but that we have these rich experiences in our lives and among them are reading texts of importance to us that imprint themselves on us, that create some sort of lasting contact point.”