Students and faculty gathered at the Bomberger Auditorium last Wednesday, April 17, to hear writer Elizabeth Powell and Ursinus’s Visiting Creative Writing Professor Anna Maria Hong read from their new books of poetry and fiction. Both of the writer’s work explored issues of gender and identity.
Powell, who was invited by Hong to share her work, was born in New York City and eventually moved to Vermont, where she now teaches as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at John State College. She is the author of The Republic of Self, a New Issue First Book Prize winner and the recent poetry collection Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter:Living Truthfully Under Imaginary Circumstances, which was a 2016 New Yorker Books We Love, a Small Press Best Seller, and winner of the 2015 Anhinga Robert Dana Prize.
Powell’s collection uses Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman as a backdrop in which Powell intertwines her own personal experiences through poetry. The collection was taught this semester in Hong’s Advanced Poetry Writing class.
Powell noted her fascination with the play. “[The play] is a way to read America. What I find so interesting about Death of a Salesman is [that] the American dream has made the characters literally sick. I think that’s been an important part of that play, especially now. The American dream is making people sick.”
The play spoke to her as she was reminded of her own family experience. “I think the universality of the play lives on and I think it’s a great tribute to Arthur Miller’s genius,” Powell said.
With the intentional use of lyric and prose forms, Powell wanted to combine her love for hybrid-genres, and the idea of “reshaping and reimaging” Death of a Salesman. “I like the idea that poetry and playwriting are so close together and I wanted to bring all the genres to bear,” Powell said.
Hong read from her first poetry collection, Age of Glass. The collection is comprised of sonnets interspersed with some dramatic monologues taken from the points of view of female characters from myth and fairy tale. The poems “explore the strangeness of our time in [a] failing empire speeding toward apocalypse,” Hong explained. The collection won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center 2017 First Book Poetry Collection and was published April 1 of this year.
Age of Glass took Hong over more than a decade to complete. “It’s especially gratifying to have my work published now, as a POC, but also just period,” Hong said.
She also read from her novella, H & G, which retells the old fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel and is constrained into short chapters. Hong’s stylistic approach allowed her to take a different route when it came to the work. She experimented by telling the tale from different character’s point of view, through the different styles and outcomes. Her novella explores the “gendered choices,” Hong stated, that each twin made after the murder of the Witch. The novella will be published by Sidebrow Books in May 2018.
“I’ve been selective about the publishers that I’ll work with — as a feminist and as an Asian American — [and] am extremely happy with all of my publishers,” Hong said. With an overwhelming white majority within the writing and publishing community, not many writers of color receive the same recognition as their white counterparts.
For the past five years, Hong has been a Visiting Professor at Ursinus. She has taught poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction writing, along with literature and hybrid-genre writing. However, this reading marks the beginning of the end of Hong’s time at Ursinus as she has taken an offer for a teaching position at Bennington College. There, she will continue to teach creative writing and literature. She is planning to teach two courses at Bennington in the fall on Asian American literature. She will also teach a course on Yeats and apocalypse and her Animal Tales course that she has taught at Ursinus.
Hong is also currently working on revising her second poetry collection, Fablesque, which comprises animal tales in hybrid fiction-verse that will be published in 2019 by Tupelo Press. Aimee Nezhukumatathill selected Hong for this work as the winner of 2017 Berkshire Prize for a First or Second book of Poetry.
Powell is also working on some upcoming projects. Her identity as a political activist plays an important role in these projects. She’s currently in the works in creating a book of essays titled Bombed. The project focuses on her family, specifically on three generations of political activism, starting with her grandfather, then her mother, and moving to herself.
“[My grandfather] worked on the Manhattan Project, which brought the uranium. He was responsible for bringing the uranium to the project out of Canada and figuring that out,” Powell explained. “My mother marched in Selma, was really involved in the Civil Rights Movement and I was really involved in “No Nukes” movement in the eighties.”
Powell is also working another collection of poems about online dating called, “When the insemination man comes to the farm.”
Hong and Powell’s reading was made possible through the help of the Arts & Lectures series, the Creative Writing Program, the Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies department, and the American Studies department.