Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and New Yorker writer Hilton Als and poet Hoa Nguyen read selections from their work at the Lewis Arts complex at the University on Nov. 15. Als and Nguyen were introduced by poets Tracy K. Smith — the 2017 U.S. Poet Laureate — and Michael Dickman, respectively.
Smith began her introduction by diving into the experience of reading one of Als’s New Yorker stories on , black identical twins in England who decided to speak to each other in a way no one else could understand.
Als’s story begins by referencing a metaphorical story from Plato's Symposium of love as two halves becoming one. Smith noted Als’s preoccupation with twins. More than a great journalist or critic, Smith called Als an “artist of intimacy.”
“His sentences, no matter what they’re pointed to, invite [the] reader into a state of feeling profoundly accompanied,” she said. “They possess a companionability that is so immediate and so enrapturing, you feel as though something in him has been twinned into you.”
Als began reading from one of his essays, currently untitled, in which he dwells upon power, masculinity, and fear articulated through bodies, a commentary on what he calls today’s “climate of sexual fear.”
“And his eyes and teeth and power buried their way into their flesh,” he said. “As it did so, those bodies that perceived themselves as weaker clamped their mouths shut, and the words would not come to save themselves let alone other bodies.”
Als, who is gay, talked about the sense of helplessness that can come from living in the body of a woman or a gay man. “You’re just a body until you’re legitimized by the one body that counts or says he counts,” he said. “But our bodies do count. They make things. They made me.”
Als, drawing upon the wisdom gained from his mother and sisters, emphasized the importance of interconnectedness and solidarity.
“I repeat,” he said. “Just because this shit hasn’t happened to you doesn’t mean it won’t. And even before it does, learn something from those who weren’t so lucky. Help them write it down, all of it. For the people who will come after us, make something out of it. Because as James Baldwin once said Angela Davis, ‘If they’re coming for you in the night, they’re coming for me in the morning.’”
Nguyen, a Vietnam-born and D.C.-raised poet, read selections from her two books of poetry, "Red Juice" and "Violet Energy Ingots," as well as from some new work.
Dickman described the language of her poetry as slippery, eluding the easy meaning that comes from moralizing. “What a relief it is to get to participate in this way with a book of poems and not be told what to do or what to think all the time,” he said.
Nguyen’s poetry often touches upon the political — in particular, American crimes in Asian countries. Some of her poetry takes the form of notes, with all but the most salient details excised. In one of her poems, entitled “Napalm Notes,” she touches upon the invention and use of napalm in the Vietnam War.
Eight million tons of bombs in Vietnam
Burns at 1500 to 2200 degrees Fahrenheit
One-fifth as hot as the center of the sun
Also relatively cheap
The reading was part of the Althea Ward Clark W’21 Reading Series presented by the Program in Creative Writing.