Last Wednesday, a little after 6 p.m., as students trickled into Starbucks and CoHo for their evening midterm-study fuel or hopped in line at Treehouse for an indulgent bite, another group was marching intentionally toward Levinthal Hall. Just 20 feet or so from the bustle of Tresidder, relative quiet fell over a room of people assembled for the third Stegner Reading of the year.
The audiences at Stegner Readings, short programs of facilitated readings from Stegner Fellows in Poetry and Fiction, generally comprise an interesting mix of faculty, community members and students, many of whom are required to attend a certain number of readings as part of their creative writing classes. Richie Hofmann, the Poetry Fellow at Wednesday’s reading, addressed his varied audience affectionately — thanking everybody for coming, whether they were “brought by [their] love of poetry or compelled by a curricular requirement.”
Whatever brings folks within earshot of poetry is okay in Hofmann’s book. He took a fun and almost flirtatious tone with the audience, asking of everybody before he began reading: “Can you hear me okay? Even in a seductive whisper?” Indeed, the audience delighted in Hofmann’s seductive whisper, and sighs could be heard about the room as Hofmann took the audience from a hair salon in Berlin to an opera theater to a bed of Egyptian cotton sheets in summertime.
J. Bruce Fuller, a second year Stegner Fellow in poetry, introduced Hofmann. Noting that most of Hofmann’s poems are relatively short, Fuller praised this “distinctive gift of pace in his poems.” Hofmann’s words cascade down the page, covering an immense amount of ground as they fall. In “Book of Statues,” Hofmann begins by thumbing through a book in the middle of October — a scholarly scene. “’A statue must be beautiful from all sides,’ Cellini wrote in 1558. When I close the book, the bodies touch.” Within the same line, Hofmann moves us to a violent scene in the west, where a boy is beaten and tied to a fence — “His body, icon of loss, growing meaningful against his will.”
Many of Hofmann’s poems deal with the body and themes of queerness and masculinity. In “Egyptian Cotton,” Hofmann depicts an intimate scene, alone with a lover. He contemplates what it means to know somebody else’s body — “the body he drank cool water with, the body he salted, mile after mile along the coast, fucked me with, with which he told me what troubled him.” In this poem, he creates a scene of closeness and also of distance, smallness. We are reminded that our bodies, meaningful as they are, cannot escape or supersede certain earthly confines. He ends: “The sea reflected us, our human emotions. Then the sea refused us, like the sea.”
The crowd cheered when Hofmann announced that he recently got married. The poem he read about marriage, again, was grounded in the body and what it means to be human. “The day before we married, we napped, naked in the afternoon,” the poem begins. From this peaceful, loving scene, emotions tangle as the couple makes promises to one another — promises that are poignant and realistic: “One of us will get cancer. All of our parents will die.” Richie Hofmann makes no mistake in his poems that life is relentless, beautiful and tragic for each of us in turn.
Marriage played a starring role again in the work read by Darri Farr, a Stegner Fellow in fiction. Farr shared a story called “Chapel Flowers” with Wednesday’s audience, which chronicles a wedding trip to Vegas.
In her introduction, Jenn Alandy Trahan (a second year Stegner Fellow and fiction writer) called Farr’s work “dirty realism at its finest, people at their most human, even characters who are just passing through.” She put Farr’s writing in conversation with the work of Virginia Woolf, Junot Diaz and Claire Messud — the last of whom gave a reading at Stanford in January. Messud is an advocate for more complex and unrestrained depictions of women. As Trahan puts it, “the stars of Darr’s fiction … are women, women who aren’t afraid to want. And they aren’t afraid to love, to rage, to hope, fall asleep to Kardashians marathons, throw punches, apologize, throw an insult, get briefly jealous, throw more.”
The heroine in “Chapel Flowers,” a young woman named Yamaris, fits this bill. She and her fiance, Brian, are on a plane to Las Vegas when the story begins, and Yamaris has smuggled a few small bottles of vodka onto the plane. Her fiance seems disapproving of this, but Yamaris is unabashed, turning to the flight attendant and demanding: “Do you care? I’ll have a cranberry juice.”
We got wonderful details like this in Farr’s story — details like the feeling of Yamaris “scratching his [Brian’s] bearded chin with her french tips,” and Brian “striding to the craps table with the purpose of a man late for work.” We can imagine what it feels like to be Yamaris, “blessing those little plastic rubies in the palm of her fiance’s hand,” him gazing at her “as if she really will make all the difference.” We aren’t simply reading about these people — we know them. We are present in the limo that takes them to their wedding ceremony (“per the Heavenly Bliss package,”) and we are in Yamaris’s head as she walks down the aisle, noting all the things that are imperfect about the decision she has made, and going through with it all the same.
Despite being unabashed in some scenes, unafraid to marry a flawed man in Las Vegas and to fall asleep to a Kardashians marathon on the very same night, Farr’s heroine is not a simple portrait of unconstrained appetite. Yamaris is as complex as any real woman, as we see, later in the story, when she isn’t able to bring herself to order the $30 drink that she wants, even after her fiance has blown $1300 gambling on their wedding night.
We feel for Yamaris, feel the emotions behind the “money-flying-away emoji and red angry face emoji” she sends to her friend, and the layers of certainty and uncertainty in the decision she has made to marry Brian, a man she has loved for years. The end of the story, though far from fairytale perfect, is quite sweet. Farr gives us a moment of extremely realistic love and forgiveness — optimism even in the face of guilt, disappointment and financial stresses. Yamaris embraces the man she has married, “knowing he is unexceptional and loving him more for it.”
Contact Claire Thompson at clairet ‘at’ stanford.edu.