By Jordan Holley
CW: Brief mentions of violence, trauma
On Friday, February 10th at 4:30 PM, students and faculty gathered in the Fireside Lounge at Dana Commons for the Clark Poets and Writers Reading Series event featuring Cameron Awkward-Rich.
The reading began with a statement by Associate Professor of Creative Writing and founder of the Poets and Writers Reading Series, Mandy Gutmann-Gonzalez. Gutmann-Gonzalez introduced Awkward-Rich as a scholar, writer, and Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Awkward-Rich is the author of two poetry collections titled Sympathetic Little Monster and Dispatch as well as a work of criticism, The Terrible We: Thinking with Trans Maladjustment (Duke University Press).
Awkward-Rich began by reading some of his older poems. He encouraged the audience to embrace their physical or emotional reactions to the poetry, explaining that “poetry should move us.”
The deeply personal nature of the poetry was immediately apparent when Awkward-Rich began reading his first poem titled “Bad Weather,” in which he contemplates the time he was hit by a car. Following this trend, Awkward-Rich then read a poem called “Anti-Elegy,” which he wrote over multiple Transgender Days of Remembrance.
Next, Awkward-Rich read a poem that he wrote the day after the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. He was attending Cave Canem, a retreat for Black poets, when the tragedy occurred. Awkward-Rich described being “with my people” that day, yet also experiencing an inner struggle to process the news of the shooting and his sense of isolation while doing so. Awkward-Rich described his poetry as an outlet during these periods of strife.
In these poems, Awkward-Rich explores themes of grief, queerness, identity, and the body. Describing himself as a “downer,” Awkward-Rich explained that writing poetry helps him to meditate on his emotions and experiences.
Awkward-Rich then read a selection of newer poems. He explained that while he has yet to figure out “what is happening in them,” performing them for an audience helps him to interpret their meanings.
One of these poems was called, “It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times” and reflected on his experiences as a Black person living in Northampton, Massachusetts. The next poem detailed Awkward-Rich’s memory of his 5th grade teacher who had a breakdown during class. He ended the reading section with his work, “My Life Closed Twice,” inspired by Emily Dickinson, and a final cento, a poem comprised entirely of words from other poets.
After the reading, the audience had a chance to ask Awkward-Rich questions about his work.
When asked how long he has been writing, Awkward-Rich explained that while unsure of the exact answer, he began sharing writing on internet forums in 8th grade.
Another audience member asked about the significance of poetry as opposed to other forms of writing. Awkward-Rich humorously responded that despite writing many genres, “I’m bad at plot.” He went on to say that he finds it easier to express ideas in a nonsequential manner and attributed his passion for this type of writing to his roots in slam poetry.
The community of slam poets gained prominence early in Awkward-Rich’s career and taught him to speak in front of an audience. Awkward-Rich attributes much of his poetic voice and ability to put feelings into words to slam poetry. He also referenced the formal qualities of slam that require him to consider the presence of the body on stage and how his words sound when spoken aloud. With this background, he learned to write poems by speaking them aloud to himself.
An audience member followed up asking, “Was there ever a time where you didn’t feel comfortable speaking your poems aloud?” Awkward-Rich described that while everyday socialization seems impossible, this type of scripted socialization feels manageable.
As Awkward-Rich continued to speak about his writing over the years, he addressed the themes of his first book, claiming that its transition plot reflects his own “intense period of transitioning.” Through the world of his writing, Awkward-Rich played with conceptions of temporality and change. He claimed that during his transition, this creative process helped him to grapple with internal struggles surrounding the new way his gender was being perceived.
Awkward-Rich was then asked, “What does poetry do for you? What is your relationship to it and how has it evolved?” He explained that writing helps him to comprehend how he thinks and feels about various situations. He also pointed to the death of his grandparents as an influential moment during which he used poetry to grapple with his emotions. Still, Awkward-Rich explained that his style continues to evolve. Find out more about Cameron Awkward-Rich and his work at Cameron Awkward-Rich (cawkwardrich.com).