By Abby Wargo
Femininity, desire, and mythology were all under the poetic microscope during the final installment of the Literary House reading series last week.
On Wednesday, Nov. 13, poet and novelist Monica Ferrell visited the Rose O’Neill Literary House and read from her poetry.
Ferrell has written three books, most recently a collection of poems entitled “You Darling Thing” in 2018; novel “The Answer Is Always Yes;” and “Beasts for the Chase,” another collection of poems. She is an associate professor of creative writing at Purchase College (SUNY) and also teaches fiction and poetry courses at Columbia University’s MFA program.
“I love Ferrell’s poems because they are what thought looks like when turned over and over, polished, stripped of the sentimental, so piercingly sharp that they are able to pierce the mind and the heart in the same swift arc, a surprising leap,” said Dr. James Hall, director of the Literary House and associate professor of English.
“Professor Ferrell’s poems are singular, steeped in knowledge; they are, to quote Elizabeth Bishop, ‘Like what we imagine knowledge to be: dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, drawn from the cold heart of the mouth of the world,” he said.
At Wednesday’s reading, Ferrell read from her most recent collection, including her poem “Emma Bovary,” a persona poem from the perspective of the titular character in Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel “Madame Bovary.” The poem was printed on a broadside designed by Lindsay Lusby and Dr. Hall at the Literary House’s print shop.
Before and after each poem she read, Ferrell would give a little background information on the piece and its inspiration. For example, her poem “Anatomy” riffs off of a line from the movie “All About Eve”; two poems titled “In the Fetus Museum” are addressed to a jarred fetus in Peter the Great’s collection of fetal oddities in a Russian museum; and “Oh You Absolute Darling,” which is comprised entirely of sexist, objectifying comments an ex-boyfriend made to her, is her attempt at poetry verité.
Before reading her poem “Physical,” which raises questions about the body and mortality, Ferrell shared with the audience a fun fact about herself: some of her ancestors from the 1700s are buried in Chestertown.
“Coming back here, I have been thinking a lot about ancestry and stuff, what we pass down through the generations and all that,” she said.
After the reading, the audience asked Ferrell questions about her work and writing process.
Dr. Courtney Rydel, assistant chair of the English department and an associate professor of English, asked about the prevalence and subversion of religious imagery throughout “You Darling Thing.”
Ferrell said that writing about religion and spirituality is “her jam” and that it is a recurring theme in her body of work.
“I really come to reading and writing out of a great love of myth,” Ferrell said.
In addition to a reading at the Literary House, Ferrell also visited Dr. Kim Andrews’ poetry workshop course on Wednesday afternoon. She spent time answering the class’s questions and discussing the writing and editing processes of her latest book.
As a poet and fiction writer, Ferrell said her writing is enhanced by both forms; she is particularly awake to sounds, description, and rhythm in fiction as well as in poetry.
“Poets have a lot to say that’s helpful in fiction,” she said.
She also discussed in class the inception of her second poetry collection, for which she found inspiration while on a trip to Turkey in 2005. She had received a grant to visit Troy ostensibly to re-write “The Iliad” from a female, Eastern perspective, but as she began to write she found her real interest lay in writing about marriage and working through its meaning and purpose rather than the Trojan War.
The influence of Russia, such as the inclusion of three Fetus Museum poems, is also heavily apparent in “You Darling Thing.” She visited St. Petersburg in 2003 for a summer literary seminar, and the trip stayed with her.
“We can’t choose the things that haunt us,” she said.
Ferrell said she is working on a new collection of poems, and that she should be publishing a new book within the next year.