Sunday, October 13, 2013

Will Schutt & Christine Schutt Visit Rutgers-Newark (Writers@Newark)

On October 8, fiction writer Christine Schutt and her son, poet Will Schutt, read as part of the Rutgers-Newark Graduate MFA program's Writers@Newark series. Christine Schutt is an acclaimed fiction writer, with two short-story collections, Nightwork (Knopf, 1996) and A Night, A Day, Another Night, Summer (TriQuarterly/Northwestern UP, 2005); and three novels, Florida (TriQuarterly/Northwestern UP, 2004), a National Book Award fiction finalist; All Souls (Harcourt, 2008), a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist; and most recently, Prosperous Friends (Grove Press, 2012). I was familiar with her in part because of Florida and because she visited Northwestern during my time there, though I was away on the date of her reading. I was not aware of her son's poetry, however, until I saw his name on the poster for the reading, and even then, I did not dip deeply into until MFA program director Jayne Anne Phillips invited me to introduce him. Both writers read beautifully, Will from his award-winning collection, as well as from new poems, and his mother from her most recent novel. It was a honor to meet and hear both of them.
Here is my introduction for Will:

To compare poetry to portraiture is hardly original, but we might still note that we do not always equate seeing, looking, and thinking--writing--with action, painting's physical labor. Yet poetry by its very nature is a form of action, of shaping, a poeisis, always, entailing mimesis and more that may not be captured in that mirror we hold before nature's complex and ever-changing face. Will Schutt's poems hover in that "middle ground," to use his phrase, between sight and act; they engage and reproduce this tension in their onward-rushing, page-zigzagging lines, and their calm, patient arguments.

"Remembering is nice," Schutt says in "Beach Lane," but the excellent poetry we find in this volume requires more, requires a voracious seeing, akin to hogs devouring a hillside, as Schutt memorably metaphorizes in "Wild Hogs," transformed into verbal art. It demands that Schutt "put everything into it," as his lyric speaker, quoting his father, says in "American Window Dressing," a poem whose title, like many in this collection, embodies this paradox.

Schutt successfully enacts this generative tension, through his attentiveness to the visual, with a painterly precision--

 I go on
looking at the bright bathers as they step
out of the ocean to towel off
with their bright, Testarossa red towels
-- from "Wild Hogs"

--and to the aural, for he is aware, as a poet who quotes rock lyrics and imagines the sad music accompanying his parent's faltering relationship, which he hears by analogy, in glimpsing a snapshot of Peter Lorre and Lotta Lenya, that if a picture can convey more than a thousand words, sound engenders worlds as well:
   I stood eyelevel
with row after row of ducks, like smoker's
lungs, in the restaurant windows
off Confucius Plaza--thick tar up top
swizzed into brown and rose gold.
A metal sling dug under their wings
ended in a hole the heads were put through.
-- from "American Window Dressing" 

Schutt's poems picture not only the privileged middle-class spaces he has inhabited, but what exists just on the peripheries, at those edges these poems are not always ready to view or listen to, but nevertheless try to. More, he is a poet interested in history, and its contiguous connection to the present; in images, in anecdotes, these poems summon the past as a way of entering the present also. The metonymic relationship this empowers gathers form and force through the poem's care with observation, the poet's exact music.

Schutt's meticulousness carries over into his translation work, represented in Westerly by a series of poems that form the volume's center. He brings into English selected short poems by mid-century Italian writers--Sanguinetti, Merini, the great Montale--who too struggle to resolve the quandary posed by the struggle between the eye and the hand, the ear and the heart. What charges the stasis and conditionality of these poems is the fact that they are not mere thoughts, but poems: to write is to act, as Schutt demonstrates throughout.

Will Schutt is the author of Westerly, which was selected by judge Carl Phillips for the 2012 Yale Series of Younger Poets, one of the most prestigious prizes for American poets under the age of 40. A graduate of Oberlin College and Hollins University, Schutt has published poems and translations in Agni, A Public Space, FIELD, The New Republic, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. The recipient of fellowships from the Stadler Center for Poetry and the James Merrill House, he currently lives in New York City.

Copyright © John Keene, 2013. All rights reserved.

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