Poetry Reading: Mark Wunderlich

Poet Mark Wunderlich reading some of his collected works.
Photo by Ian Findling.

On Thursday evening in the Wriston Art Center, Lawrence University had the pleasure of hosting a public reading conducted by poet Mark Wunderlich. Wunderlich is well renowned in his craft, having published three poetry collections since 1999 as well as many more individual publications of poems, reviews and essays in organizations such as the Paris Review, Yale Review, Boston Review, Chicago Review and AGNI. 

The event kicked off with a beautiful introduction given by Associate Professor of Englsih Charles Austin Segrest, Lawrence’s own published poet. Segrest described Wunderlich as “one of [his] favorite contemporary poets,” praising Wunderlich’s incredible ability to give subtle weight and power to unsuspecting verbs. 

Eloquent and poetic on its own, Segrest’s introduction ranged from his and Wunderlich’s first meeting in Prudence Town, to the extensive number of publications and awards of Wunderlich’s which have inspired many. 

When Segrest gave up the stage, Wunderlich stepped to the podium and thanked him, saying, “You can wait your whole life for an introduction like that.”

Wunderlich read numerous poems from his published collections over the evening. He gave each a proper introduction, detailing the whens, wheres, and whys of the poem, all the while weaving an improvised humor to his speech. His cadence bore all the expected contradictions of a practiced poet — stark yet lively; focused, though aware of his audience — as well the ability to transition seamlessly between heavy and light-hearted tones. 

Beginning with “Driftless Elegy,” a poem from his 2014 collection, “The Earth Avails,” Wunderlich established himself as a community conscious poet. In such, he is able to capture the common struggles of Wisconsinites which seem to have slipped under the national radar. 

Through the small-scale perspective of Wisconsin’s rural community, Wunderlich confronts the implications of something as menial as a bridge closure and creates a beautiful blend of the deeply personal and the broadly sociological. 

Moving onto “My Night with Jeffery Dahmer” and “About My Last Name,” Wunderlich proved how truly versatile he is as a writer: one that can be politically challenging on one page and psychologically thrilling or hilarious on the next. Wunderlich showed extraordinary skill and range in these readings, while in-between coercing the audience with deeply personal anecdotes of a life steeped in the extremes of both love and trauma — the latter of which he would explore next.

“Death of a Cat” and “The Son I’ll Never Have” were the event’s last two readings. Both lyrically captivating, though shrouded in bleakness and longing, they explored the psyche of an author in a dark place. 

Wunderlich detailed earlier in the evening about having experienced years of immense personal tragedy, culminating in the loss of eight individuals close to him in a single year. He confessed to have used poetry as a coping mechanism, which is readily apparent in these final two poems. 

Wunderlich finished, stepping from the stage to heavy applause. The evening’s readings made clear why Wunderlich won the Lambda Literary Award for his 1999 collection, The Anchorage — his poems are dynamic in both their lyricism and their subject, ranging from ruthless themes of profound depression to ordinary scenes of Wisconsin’s bucolic life and struggle. 

His work proved to be honest in its nature and insightful in its revelations, often times in a light of humorous self-deprecation.

Wunderlich stayed after the event to sell and sign copies of his collections and take questions from the audience. His collections can be found for sale on the Amazon Bookstore: “The Anchorage” (1999), “Voluntary Servitude” (2004) and “The Earth Avails” (2014).

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