Smile Politely

The PYGMALION Ninth Letter Celebration

Ninth Letter is an arts and literature project put out by the Creative Writing Program and School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. They hosted a celebration of authors as part of last weekend’s PYGMALION events on September 27th at 7 p.m. Paige Lewis, Rochelle Hurt, and Jensen Beach took on Stage 5 in Krannert among the din of the tech demos happening in the Krannert Lobby. Each author read a selection of their work with Jodee Stanley, editor and fiction editor of Ninth Letter, hosting the event.

First up was Paige Lewis, who began by addressing the nature of the room: loud with conversations happening in the lobby. Paige Lewis informed the audience that outside noise becomes part of the performance, and instructed us any conversations we heard during the reading were now authored by them. While some poetry is better read, hearing these poems performed by Paige Lewis increased the sense of vulnerability that their poetry evokes. In fact, they said that in us hearing the poetry, some of their anxiety is transferred from themself to the audience.

The first poem epitomized this feeling. “On the Train a Man Snatches My Book,” deals with the constant whir of “what ifs,” the tactics and thoughts used to calm the dart of thoughts at night, and states “I’m the vice president of panic. And the president is missing.” All of the five poems read discussed feelings many have felt, of wanting to feel complete and sure and wanting the rest of the world to know that you are, even if you are not. The last poem, inspired by a video their mother had sent of a pelican devouring a seagull, spoke of the feeling of saving parts of ourselves in order to not lose them, and the fear of losing parts of ourselves we do not wish to part with, or having them be stolen away. Their poetry voiced common thoughts and fears in a rare and refined manner. The act of hearing Paige Lewis perform their poetry was exceptional, but reading their poems also gives the reader the similar sense their innermost thoughts are being told to them, ones they had but never quite knew how to explain. Their work, and more information, can be found on their website.

Next to read was Rochelle Hurt. She read a portion of a longer lyric essay, “Zombieland,” which appears in the most recent issue of Ninth Letter. Providing themes of the selection and work, she informed the audience it was about “zombies and ghost towns and girlhood and fear.” The selection comprised of several interconnected and woven narratives, beginning with the true story of Shannon Leigh Kos and the myths surrounding a place called Zombieland near Hillsville, Pennsylvania. She told the story of Shannon, a familiar one where a younger girl is preyed upon by an older man, a story that made local publications proclaim that this time, the horror story placed in Zombieland was true. Shannon’s death did not deter Rochelle Hurt from having similar experiences, driving with older men to Zombieland. She spoke of the constant confusion of growing up in a world where women are both told that men are dangerous, and yet, also the ultimate goal for women. Rochelle Hurt expertly transitioned between the nonfiction narrative, the glimpses from her own experience, and reflections on the experience of girls passage of life into womanhood. The work was deep and heartbreaking, moving many to tears. Her reading was made even more poignant by the current state of the country. More information on Rochelle Hurt’s work can be found at her website.

Closing out the event was Jensen Beach, who read his short story entitled “Drought.” “Drought” told the story of Amy Murphy, detailed around her relationship with her uncle Gerald. Beginning with Amy reading the obituary, this story went beyond the relationship with themes of home, lost dreams, the monotony of life, and the anxieties that accompany each of these. Amy, who once made a promise on an airplane to a sickly girl to travel the world, is instead incorporated into the family business. Her life becomes a collection of working days and boring romances peppered with visits to a timeshare in Mexico, where she travels to from her home less than a mile of where she grew up. On a trip for a work conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Amy attempts to visit her uncle, but when she finds him not at home she leaves without seeing him. It is revealed that the trip occurred a year prior to the death of her uncle. Amy’s aunt was unusually silent on the matter. Reading the obituary is the first she had heard of the death of her uncle, and Amy wonders whether Gerald had known of the failed visit, whether he had called her aunt and told her, whether the aunt was now punishing Amy for not seeing him. Jensen Beach’s story, though it moved languidly through Amy’s experience, gave a sense of urgency. What might one do to avoid the pang of remorse? What can one do to ease the pain of regret? And, are those feelings even warranted? For more questions and answers, be sure to check out his website

The Ninth Letter Celebration provided both perspective of others as well as an introspection of oneself. The mix of poetry, lyric essay, and short fiction was the perfect combination to represent the journal as it is reaching its fifteen year anniversary. There is a particular atmosphere in hearing a deeper meaning being infused by the author as they read it aloud; there is a particular feeling of connection in those few moments between the author and their audience.

Top photo by Veronica Mullen; all other photos by Michaela Grady

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