Stephanie Burt prepares to see her poetry in motion with Mission Creek’s visual poetry synthesizer

Mission Creek Festival: Lit Walk Round #1

Discerning Eye — Friday, April 6 at 6 p.m.

Mission Creek Festival: Visual Poetry Synthesizer

7 S Linn St — Saturday, April 6 at 4 p.m.

Adulthood is complex. Those of us who make it there are often consumed by it, following certain paths set out by families or careers or courses of study. Often, as adults, we leave behind the people we were in childhood, and focus our identities forward to who we think we should be.

Dr. Stephanie Burt, poet, literary critic and professor of English at Harvard University, would say “Fuck that.”

Burt wears many proverbial hats in her various roles. She writes, reviews and guides students on their own work, all while balancing the responsibilities of a professor, transgender activist and human person in the 21st century.

She shared her thoughts on identity, art and her upcoming Mission Creek Festival reading in a recent phone interview.

Advice from the Lights, her 2017 collection, is a deeply visceral, personal collection that wrestles with adulthood, childhood and how we experience ourselves. She’ll be reading from the book, which was written and published over the course of her transition, at the Visual Poetry Synthesizer during Mission Creek.

“Some of what I’m struggling with in that book is that there’s some things about adulthood, like settling down with one person and sharing a dwelling with them, raising children together, that I love and really want to do a good job at — but in our culture, those things are bound up with cis-heteronormativity and all sorts of expectations that would prevent me from being me, and prevent some people that are like me, from being alive,” Burt said.

“Some of [the confines of adulthood] are great … some of them are terrible … and some of them are not for me,” she said. “Adulthood can also mean closing yourself off and distancing yourself from your own childhood and teen selves. No one should have to do that.”

“I think that the reclaiming of childhood and ways of speaking and acting that appear childish [are] to me part of the general project, an ethical project of suspending people’s completely narrow expectations.”

Her body of work has attracted many accolades and awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship awarded in 2016. In her writing, Burt continuously pushes against these boundaries and expectations, using writing as a lifelong tool to explore her many selves.

“In [writing there is] a space to create versions of myself that are not me, a space where I can see myself without having to be myself, and a space where I have been rewarded for expressive behavior that wasn’t imaginable in real life … to create multiple alternate selves when I didn’t think I had a real self that I could live out. I still like the idea that writing is creating alternate selves, and I have no wish to give that up.”

She hopes to bring a variety of other themes to her Mission Creek readings, including ones that allude to deeper aspects of Advice from the Lights. With the added stimulus of the visual poetry synthesizer, more leeway can be given to the works she will share.

“One of the things I want to happen in that book is all about finding community. The thing I’m trying to explore at the end of that book and what I’m writing now are versions of inclusive community. Not just a friend, but friends,” Burt said. “The poetry world produced me, and that’s the art form I make and people seem to want from me, but there were certain things I wasn’t getting when that was my only cultural world. Being in a space that’s not dependent on the academy in the same way; [there is] a different kind of way to enjoy it.”

Developed in 2018 by Maxwell Neely-Cohen (resident artist at NYC’s Culture Hub, a community that seeks to blend art and technology) the visual poetry synthesizer uses speech-to-text and word-emotion association software to create and display images drawing from the readings — live and in real time.

An avid consumer and scholar of comic books and graphic novels, Burt looks forward to exploring what pairing her work with the visual poetry synthesizer will add to her words. She calls herself an “X-Men kid,” and frequently draws from the superhero genre’s questions of self and representation.

“The X-Fandom is the only cultural space I’ve ever been in that has no majority identity,” Burt said. She’s used these themes in her poetry and, perhaps more transparently, written reviews of major character developments for the New York Times.

“I do think about words and images very frequently now … I write about comic books, and I think about comic books (and graphic novels), and there’s a lot you can do with words and pictures that you can’t do with only words or only pictures,” she said. “I try to think of a lot of the poetry I write as being able to be words alone, but I like the idea of working with images.”

The stories of her alternate selves are all influences on Advice from the Lights, and they manifest in themes that can resonate with every reader.

“It’s like what one of my favorite fantasy novelists says: ‘No one is only one thing.’ I like the way the comic space I’m in allows me to be multiple things, and to be multiple things around other people and other trans people.”

Keep an eye out for Burt’s next project, a book of prose called Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How To Read Poems, which debuts in late May. As an introductory guide for people new to the poetry genre, Don’t Read Poetry will give readers the tools they need to find and continue finding poetry that they enjoy and can connect with.

Seating is limited for Mission Creek’s Visual Poetry Synthesizer reading. Attend to enjoy an afternoon of incredible work — and maybe to reach out to the kid within yourself.

Talitha Ford is a University of Iowa fourth year biology student, member of the Janice comedy team and Little Village Arts and Culture intern. Butterflies are her second favorite pollinator, and she can probably name more species than you. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 261.

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