Mining Interiority & the “Everybody Test”

Because the campus has been hopping with various events and other residencies lately, our normal Friday night reading venue, Café Anna, was suspended this week, and we relocated to the Chapel on the second floor of College Hall. Framed by the giant pipe organ and ornate finished wood accents, our reading took on an oddly reverent feel. This is not to imply that we do not revere our visiting writers normally—quite the contrary. But, as you may imagine, the juxtaposition of discussing the poetic nature of mystery feces and the surreal disappearance of a dear sibling was particularly curious in this space.

Our most recent guests to campus were poet Diana Goetsch and author Lesley Nneka Arimah. Both spent time in and out of classes with our Writing & Publishing students, offering their advice for their area of the writing industry and creative mentorship. The work and expertise they shared with us were invaluable.

“Diana Goetsch—pronounced like “fetch,” or “kvetch”—is the author of eight collections of poetry, including her most recent chapbook, “In America,” published in 2017.” Christa Guild, ’19 introduced our first reader. “She received her MFA from some school you’ve probably never heard of—the Vermont College of Fine Arts.”

Hearing Diana read her work was a striking experience. Not just because of her deliberate, graceful diction, or the complexity behind every syllable she spoke, but because she was one of us. Diana Goetsch did her time at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, like all of my peers in the audience. She had put in the long nights editing; she had dived into her personal experience and shared her intimate thoughts; she had probably negotiated a few of our formidable winters for her work. And, as with our other visiting artists and writers, she inspires.

“The challenge always is to be a writer—that’s my identity,” Goetsch said at one point in between poems. “It’s how I write something that satisfies what I call the ‘everybody test,’ the faith that when you write, it’s never for you, it’s not self-expression, and yet the subjects can be so specific. Who passes the everybody test is really for you to decide.”

’When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters.’ This exquisite sentence begins the story of Light, my first introduction to Lesley Arimah’s work back in 2015,” Samuel Kolawole, ’19 began, introducing Arimah. “The final sentence hit me so hard that I immediately started the story all over again.  Such is the calm, lightness, and power of Lesley’s fiction.”

We have had the pleasure of having Lesley Nneka Arimah on campus with us for the last three weeks as a visiting professor teaching our Fireside Chats (professional development for those of you not in the know!) and a fiction craft module centered around the concept of world-building.

One of the lessons that keeps surfacing as I review my experiences with Lesley is “mining one’s own interiority” for material. It’s a simple enough concept to grasp: tapping in on personal experience, thought, and emotion to inform your writing. We have read and discussed so much over our last few weeks with Lesley, and I can’t help wondering which bits and pieces authors and poets have sampled from their own brains for their material. I wish I could properly convey the deep impression she has left on her students—we are so sad that her time with us (for now!) is up.

As promised, I have a few more additions to our running reading companion playlist. This week, all contributed by Diana Goetsch: Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” (belted out under the cover of an arriving train) The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” (a song about loneliness) and “Ziggy Stardust” by David (“wow, isn’t this a blahhhst!”) Bowie.

Photo credits to Bianca Viñas.