Review hosted its first featured reader of the Kenyon Review Reading Series. Elizabeth Dark, associate director of programs at the Review, introduced poet and professor Shara McCallum. Originally from Jamaica, McCallum considers the intersections of race, gender, history and personal identity in her critically acclaimed poetry.
McCallum has a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress and a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and is now a liberal arts professor of English at Pennsylvania State University.
Her book, Madwoman, embodies McCallum’s search for the “madwoman” in her mind and is an autobiographical look at her life from a third-person perspective.
“Who is madwoman, and why in particular do certain women get excised from the culture?” McCallum said, exploring the question through her creation of the “madwoman” character. The poems examine what happens when marginalized women are central figures. “She is just madwoman, as opposed to a madwoman or the madwoman,” McCallum said, transforming the term into something encompassing all women instead of a singular woman. She began the reading with the poem “Memory,” an appropriate selection given that she describes herself as “obsessed with memory.”
The importance she places on memory is evident through her distinctive reading style. McCallum makes eye contact with the audience while she reads, never casting her eyes down at the poem in front of her. The feeling that she is speaking to the audience rather than reading at them gives her poems a new life. “I think it’s a great gift to give yourself,” McCallum said. “If you learn a poem you just love it.”
Feeling an obligation to give the audience some relief from the heavier topics, McCallum switched it up by reading one of Madwoman’s more humorous poems. “Ten Things You Might Like to Know About Madwoman” was a thought-provoking and humorous exploration of identity, written in an unordered list.
McCallum then discussed losing her father in her youth and her grandparents in adulthood. She admitted her poems don’t have answers because she could not come to any satisfying conclusions, but they do have questions and thoughts that lingered with her while she was grieving. Her poem “Elegy” tells the story of a loved one dying from cancer, questioning what it means to love a dying person and analyzing the human inability to feel tragedy to its full extent.
She finished the reading with “A Parable of Shit and Flowers,” a brief piece about finding beauty in the muck of the day-to-day. It was a hopeful ending to an afternoon spent exploring the nuances of identity in an imperfect world.