Giscombe plays with genre in his poems about the Midwest

Alyssa Villaire

For a man who has lived in almost every region of the country, nationally renowned visiting poet C. S. Giscombe still appreciated seeing wintery Wisconsin for the first time as he visited Lawrence to give a reading of his award-winning work.

Giscombe, who is currently a member of the English faculty at the University of California – Berkeley, read several pieces of poetry as well as two essays in the Wriston Art Gallery, Monday, Feb. 18. He also held an open question and answer session to students who wanted to ask him questions earlier that day.

Giscombe’s most recent work, “Prairie Style”, which won the American Book Award in 2008, centers largely on musings about race and geography in the Midwest. Giscombe focuses particularly on geography in Illinois, Ohio and Indiana.

Race is not a new theme in Prairie Style; it is a prominent topic in much of Gisbombe’s poetry. During the Q&A with students, Giscombe, who is of Jamaican descent, was asked if there are any moments when he is not pensive about being a writer of color.

“No, not really,” he answered simply.

Giscombe explained that geography is his own way of giving readers a lens through which to observe the effects of race in drawing boundaries. Geographic boundaries are not just divisions of towns, counties, states or countries. They also signify racial divisions.

“My point in ‘Prairie Style’,” he explained in a deep voice, “is that it’s easier to talk about a prairie than it is to talk about racial variation, which is incredibly storied and deep.”

Associate Professor of English Faith Barrett, who originally reached out to Giscombe and asked him to come to campus, said that Giscombe’s unique way of examining the Midwest is what initially struck her about Giscombe’s poetry.

As she analyzed the poems critically, Barrett said that she also saw uniqueness in his writing style.

“With Giscombe’s work, you still have traces in these poems of a kind of lyrical, musical poetic voice,” said Barrett. “The work is definitely inflected by autobiography, but it’s not conceptual poetry.”

Associate Professor of English Karen Hoffman agreed with Barrett. “[Giscombe’s] writing can be really expansive for students who are thinking about what’s possible in poetry. Because he’s so experimental, a lot of his work is making us think about how language functions,” said Hoffman, who also had one of her classes reading poems from Prairie Style in anticipation of Giscombe’s visit.

 “He plays with genre,” she continued. “This is poetry, but at certain points when you’re reading, it feels like you’re reading an essay. And at [other] points you think, ‘Am I reading a dictionary?'”

But Hoffman believed that it is Giscombe’s focus on the themes of the Midwest and race that would draw students in from outside the English department.

“What’s really fascinating in his work is that as he’s engaging these questions about how does language define and create borders, he simultaneously infuses questions about racial boundaries and racial lines,” said Hoffman. “And, while everyone at Lawrence is not from the Midwest, everyone is now living in the Midwest, so for us in this community to reflect on our placement in geography and the landscape…it has a particular resonance for the Lawrence community.”

While many of the students in attendance at the poetry reading were English majors, Barrett believes that going to see events with guest authors and poets is something that should be taken advantage of by all students.

“I think that the opportunity to hear a living writer read from his work really makes our readings of all texts seem more vital, more pressing, more urgent and more energized,” said Barrett, who brings in between four and five visiting authors and poets each year.

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