Section: Arts

What do you do with a B.A. in English? Publish poetry

What do you do with a B.A. in English? Publish poetry

Courtesy of Jordi Alonso

By Lauren Katz

A writer’s first book doesn’t always have to be a complete work. Sometimes, a first book can be fragments.

Jordi Alonso ’14, an English major with a creative writing emphasis and current MFA Candidate at SUNY Stony Brook Southampton, is proof that the dream can become a reality; Gambier-based XOXOX Press released his first book of poetry,  Honeyvoiced, on Nov. 15. He will give a reading from the book at the Kenyon Bookstore in late January.

The poems were inspired by the Ancient Greek poet Sappho’s work and stem from a project Alonso began in Advanced Poetry the first semester of his sophomore year.

“I had started playing around with classical references, and I kind of latched on to Sappho,” Alonso said. “I was trying to write this really long, sort of epic poem. … I had no idea what the story of Sappho was, but for some reason I was trying to tell it.”

The project took a great deal of work. To begin with, there are few surviving examples of Sappho’s poetry.

“Most of Sappho’s works have been either lost or destroyed through the ages,” Alonso said. “She was writing 2,600 years ago … and so the reason we have fragments is because we have quotes from Greek and Roman literary critics who would quote Sappho to make a point.” Alonso wanted to research these fragments and create his own poems based on his findings.

Though Alonso managed to teach himself some Greek in order to better understand the original words, he had the help of a translation by Willis Barnstone entitled Sweetbitter Love. He also had the honor of meeting Barnstone.

“He came to campus last April, and by that time I had basically finished all of the fragments,” Alonso said. “I have never been that star-struck in my life. My professor egged me on and told me to tell him about the fragments and how I was writing Honeyvoiced. I was terrified because this guy, being a Sappho scholar, could take this the wrong way.”

Lucky for Alonso, Barnstone was so impressed that he wanted to hear more.

“We lounged about and talked about translation and 3,000 years of poetry,” Alonso said. “He had me read him fragments, and he recited Sappho by heart in Greek and I melted. It was fantastic.”

Honeyvoiced may have just been released, but Alonso seems to be on his way toward a similar form of inspiration to that of Barnstone. Phoebe Carter ’17 attended a poetry reading at the Gund Gallery in the fall of her first year. There, Alonso read some of his fragments.

“He read some of his poetry, and I was just really touched and impressed by his poetry,” Carter said. “One in particular was ‘Fragment 88,’ and it just totally blew me away.”

Carter was able to find Alonso in Peirce one day, and gathered the courage to approach him.

“I went up to him and said, ‘Excuse me,’” according to Carter. “He apologized and moved out of the way, and I said, ‘Oh no no, I just wanted to talk to you because I heard your poems and they were really beautiful and I just wanted you to know that.’”

Carter asked to read more of his poems, and over time, this small compliment blossomed into a friendship.

Carter said, “It was just a really cool and unexpected friendship that formed because for once I got out of my shell and told someone that something they did meant something to me.”

Though she did not realize it at the time, Carter helped with the formation of Honeyvoiced in its early stages.

“I remember … when he was preparing to send in his comps, and he needed to put them in some kind of order,” Carter said. “So we would talk about them a lot, and I had started identifying certain themes in the poems,” Carter said. “So the two of us and a couple other friends spent most of [summer] sendoff in his room reading through all the poems and sorting them into different piles based on those themes.”

However, Carter’s job was not over. In the end, Alonso decided to dedicate Honeyvoiced to Carter. The dedication page includes a reference to “Fragment 88,” which began their friendship. 

“Fragment 88” was included in the final version of Honeyvoiced, towards the end of the book. “I will love the orange blossoms / brought here by merchants,” Alonso writes, “the pepper’s heat — an oil / so strong for such a small black seed / showing passion in size.”

Carter will of course be at Alonso’s reading on Jan. 21 at the Kenyon Bookstore, and she hopes Kenyon students will welcome the opportunity to be as inspired as she was.

“These people that aren’t huge names, those are often the people who end up personally touching us, and really have the possibility of shaping the trajectory of our lives,” Carter said. “It could be a really inspiring thing for people.”

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