New York poet Rebecca Wolff reads from her “compassionate, witty” body of work

Magdalena Waz

Poet Rebecca Wolff visited campus April 15, coming from her home in upstate New York to present a question and answer session followed by a reading from her new collection “The King.” Wolff is the author of two other collections of poetry, 2001’s “Manderlay” and 2004’s “Figment.”
Outside of publishing her own work, Wolff is also a co-founder of the trend-setting Fence magazine, which she describes as a diverse place for literary works to come together. In 1998, when the magazine was founded, Wolff believed that there was a large gap between mainstream and experimental poetry that had to be filled.
During her question and answer session, Wolff expressed hope that her publication could fill that gap. She also explained how the title of the magazine works well in terms of physically describing that gap between mainstream and more experimental work. In addition to her magazine, her small press publishing company Fence Books has been publishing both poetry and fiction since 2001.
The reading, held in the Kohler Gallery of the Wriston Art Center, was well attended. In her introduction, Associate Professor of English Faith Barrett spoke briefly about all three of Wolff’s poetry collections.
Barrett referred to the “The King” as a collection about femininity and motherhood, and to Wolff’s style as a blend of “dry wit and compassionate perspective.” Barrett’s English classes studied some of Wolff’s work from “The King” in preparation for the visit.
When Wolff took the stage, she prefaced the reading by telling the audience that they were “closer to being parented than being parents,” which would provide them with a rather different perspective. However, she was quick to point out that there are other themes working in her poetry, such as the idea of alienation.
This direct approach to acknowledging a rift of experience between audience and poet created the sense that Wolff would not shy away from the fact that she was a person whose poems were personal and that a poetry reading can be less of a presentation and more of a dialogue in some ways.
Poems such as “The Continuing Adventures” made ample use of repetition of both words and sounds to create images that were both sparse and visceral. Others, such as “His Winning Ways” and “My Charge” were marked by Wolff as specifically autobiographical and about her child. The entire collection is also structured chronologically, with poems about pregnancy giving way to poems about postpartum depression and child rearing.
After her last planned poem, “It,” a work about baking cookies, Wolff asked for requests. Nobody spoke up, but the audience was treated to two more poems, including a new one called “The Nightingale Sound of Music.” This poem, too, was autobiographical, focusing specifically on the difference between her singing and her children’s singing.
The content of Wolff’s poems – family life, her feelings before and after childbirth – allowed for explanations about the poems’ origins that were exciting for the classes studying those same poems in an academic atmosphere. Wolff, aware of just that, read a poem that she had heard was “much discussed,” titled “Raised by Wolves.” The poem lent a communal air to the well-attended event.
The English department brings a few visiting poets each year, so look for more events like this next year.