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Pulitzer Prize winner comes to Mills

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rae Armantrout graced Mills Hall with her presence at the first  reading of the semester for the Contemporary Writers Series on Oct. 4.

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rae Armantrout kicked off this fall’s Mills College Contemporary Writers Series on Oct. 4. (Joann Pak)

Armantrout is a prominent figure in the contemporary poetry community and is a founding member of the West Coast Language poets group.

“I think my poetry is very contemporary,” Armantrout said, “and it responds to the world around us right now. Yet it mixes sources, changes tones, has a lot of juxtaposition and it jumps.”

Her 2009 collection Versed received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry as well as the National Book Critics Circle Award, along with many other accolades. Many of her literary fans in the Bay Area trekked to Mills on a bleak, rainy evening to attend her reading.

Juxtaposing the gloomy weather outside, Mills Hall’s living room bustled with an enthusiastic crowd waiting for the event to begin. With all the seats filled and some attendees leaning on the wall, Armantrout’s reading began.

Armantrout read from her most recently published volume, Money Shot, which included poems such as “Answer” and “Soft Money.” Later in the evening, after she finished her selected reading, the audience was given a special treat as she read excerpts of her unpublished manuscript Just Saying.

After reading a few of the poems, Armantrout told anecdotes, giving the audience a little insight into her sources of inspiration. A combination of the humor embedded within Armantrout’s poetry and her witty commentary made attendees laugh.

Everyone noticed a recurring theme of airports in the poems she was reading, and she told tales of how she’s been spending too much time in airports. She explained how one of her poems materialized when she saw a billboard as she was driving to the Oakland Airport last year.

She described a time she went to lunch with an astrophysicist because of her piqued interest in physics. She wanted to ask a few questions, but the whole encounter turned out to be full of miscommunications as the astrophysicist could not comprehend her questions and vice versa. The mishap led to a very odd lunch and a comical dialogue that later resulted in the
poem “Account.”

With her penchant for lyrical short-lined poems, Armantrout read through the neatly bookmarked Money Shot in 45 minutes and made way for a selection of her most current work. Everyone in the audience seemed eager to see Armantrout take out a tightly-bound stack of white paper and read a selection from Just Saying.

The audience was encouraged to ask questions after her reading. When an audience member noted that her work is often “ominous and moody,” she laughed heartily and nodded as if to say, “Why, you don’t say!” She was, of course, asked who she is inspired by, and she was swift to mention William Carlos Williams at least twice.

“How have you changed as a poet?” another member of the audience asked.

At this question, Armantrout pondered, rewording the question to herself out loud, saying, “Have I changed? Am I changing?”

After a few moments she answered, saying that she is “always responding to what’s going on, and (she) picks up voices from people.”

After only two people asked questions, she asked if there were any more questions.When she wasmet with silence, she said, “Oh, it’s okay. I understand,” which left the whole room in fits of laughter.

Goldie Negelev, a senior, was thrilled about Armantrout’s reading, as she was a fan of the poet long before Tuesday’s reading. Negelev is also a student in the Contemporary Writers Series class, taught by Professor Patricia Powell of the English Department.

“She was great, funny, quirky and had a good attitude,” Negelev said. “I really appreciated her nuggets of wisdom when I was talking to her afterwards.”

Armantrout signed copies of her book and talked with everyone who wanted to ask her questions privately.

“Keep your eyes and ears open and stay open to the world,” Armantrout advised young Mills poets. “Don’t come to a poem thinking what you’ll say. Find your way into the poem.”

The Contemporary Writer Series at Mills is produced by the Place for Writers’ graduate assistants. All readings are held in the Mills Hall living room at 5:30 p.m. unless otherwise noted. 

This Tuesday, Oct. 11, the Series will host Zenon Fajfer and Katarzyna Bazarnik, who pioneered the new literary genre liberature. Zenon Fajfer and Katarzyna Bazarnik are the two leading names in the field of liberature, a new literary genre focused on “the indissoluble bond” between the text and the physical shape of the book. Fajfer and Bazarnik also co-founded and run the Liberature Reading Room in Krakow, Poland.