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'Great Writers, Great Readings': Gerald Stern

By Aaron Calvin, Entertainment Editor

Of all the many "Great Writers, Great Readings" events I have been to, the poet Gerald Stern is the only writer I have ever met in the series who can truly be classified as an eccentric. I mean this not in a negative way, but merely to say that Stern was probably the most interesting writer I have met and seen speak through the program.

Stern held a brief talk in the intimate setting of Hofstra Hall before giving a workshop and reading in the evening. I ran into Stern outside of the Hall before the talking. I recognized and approached him. "Are you Gerald Stern?" I asked. "I was," he said, "before I met you." This set the tone for Stern's talk.

Upon entering Hofstra Hall, Stern took his place on one of the comfier chairs at the far side of the main parlor. Upon seeing a portrait of Kate Hofstra, he asked who she was. I told him and he said, "I think I dated her once." I asked him jokingly if he remembers her love of cats in reference to the Hofstra myth that she made the university into a cat sanctuary. He responded that he remembered her enjoying eating cats. Stern's sense of humor was obviously slightly askew, but quite sharp, at the age of 86.

After the room was packed to the brim with students, Professor Phillis Levin took her place across from Stern as moderator for the reading and Q & A. Stern writes poetry in a unique style. The words tumble out to ramble and flow, often without a period or comma to interrupt it for stanzas at a time. Addressing this, Stern said how he began writing formally. "I wrote that way, a thousand years ago," he said with a smile. "I just go with my passion and it just keeps going. I try to be clear, unless I'm being deliberately unclear." He also said he tries to have one formally structured poem per book in juxtaposition to his more freewheeling ones.

Stern then discussed his roots. He described his upbringing in Pittsburgh as being a "town of hate." He described how the short life of his sister and his upbringing in the town his main motivations for writing poetry. Stern also discussed his arrest while in the army and activism, mostly in the 1960's civil rights movement. He claimed he mostly acted out of anger at what he saw around him.

The influences of Stern are also numerous. "I love Whitman. He's one of the greatest poets of our language… I'm a little annoyed how much people identify me with Whitman because I feel Bake and the Jewish prophets are more important to me."

Stern also commented on what poetry really means to him. "It's my life now. Different goes take different attitudes. I write all the time prose and poetry. It's the only way I can get at the truth, which is always approximated. Not so much truth, but understanding. Understanding life, I would say if I was stupid. There's nothing to conclude because there's always another question to ask."

Stern ended what felt like an intimate conversation with a suggestion: "Alright, lets all get drunk." If nothing else had, this statement certainly solidified Gerald Stern as one of my favorite authors in the "Great Writers, Great Reading" program.

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