On Thursday, Feb. 20, poets Chad Sweeney and Youna Kwak participated in the annual Redlands Visiting Writers Series, both reading works from published (and unpublished) books of original poetry. Sweeney is an author of six published books of poetry, and is currently an English and Creative Writing professor at California State University San Bernardino. Youna Kwak is a well published writer and translator, and current professor at the University of Redlands.
The afternoon began with a moving introduction of Sweeney by creative writing professor Joy Manesiotis. She praised him, stating that he “works tirelessly on behalf of other writers and students”, and that no other writer she knows does as much for the writing community as him. She went on to discuss his unique, surrealist style of poetry, describing his poems as “liv[ing] in a world of total imaginative freedom.” Eloquently describing his poetry she said, “If the human soul has peripheral vision, this is what it sees.”
As he began to read, I immediately understood what she meant. He read an excerpt from his novel Little Million Doors, which is a book-length poem that he wrote after the passing of his father. He describes that he wrote this book in a strange, lucid trance, that would grip him at unexpected moments. He said that a strange, prismatic voice would speak to him and cause him to recall his father, and it was in these moments he would write. As he read, he spoke almost as if possessed, or as if he was a preacher reciting scripture. I was moved beyond words, and so fascinated by this lucid, spiritual method of writing.
Following his readings, Redlands professor Youna Kwak was introduced by fellow creative writing faculty member Alisa Slaughter. Praising Kwak, Slaughter quoted a review of Youna’s work that stated, “Like all tornados, Youna’s poems are made of strange breath.” Her poems, though more grounded than Sweeney’s, were no less riveting. When Kwak reads, she moves with her words. She sways and bends with the movement of her poetry, and recites delicately yet powerfully. She reminded me of a tree swaying in the wind, present yet fluid.
Kwak chose to read a series of poems from her forthcoming novel. Her book draws upon themes of survival, and tackles the question of understanding what it means to survive. She wanted to emphasize that living and surviving are not the same, but that they are interconnected: “Surviving is the beyond of living.”
The poem of hers that moved me most was titled, “Pink Boxes”. It was written for her mother, and was reminiscent of her childhood. Though it featured many very individual personal details, it’s essence was something that could easily be connected to. It filled me with a sense of nostalgia and childhood yearning, that I think almost everyone can relate to.
After their readings, both poets did a Q&A with the audience. The question that stuck with me most pertained to how the poets find imagery for their poems. Sweeney answered first, stating that he doesn’t start his poems with any sort of intention. For him, it’s a flow of mind at the moment, a stream of consciousness that he just runs with. He says that if he doesn’t know what he’s writing about, the end result is a lot better. He joked, “The only time you can’t write a poem is when you want to.” Kwak followed up, adding that she thinks it’s good practice to write descriptions of things you notice around you, even if you’re not working on a poem. It helps to get in the habit, and it will help develop your imagery skills.
Listening to both poets’ works greatly moved me, and inspired me as a creative writer, and seeing how supportive and active they are in their writing communities was so powerful. It is poets like these who will continue to inspire the next generation of writers, and who continue to revolutionize the way I, and many others, think about writing as an art.