KELLY VAUGHAN ’17
Trinity welcomed author and poet Tom Sleigh to campus this past Thursday, March 24th, as part of the A.K, Smith Reading Series hosted every Spring by the English department. Professor Ciaran Berry, director of the Creative Writing program, introduced Sleigh, calling his work “humane and humble contemporary acts of witness,” and noted that the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney described Sleigh’s writing as “hard-earned and well-founded…it refuses to cut emotional corners and yet achieves a sense of lyric absolution.”
Sleigh currently serves as the Senior Poet and director of the MFA Creative Writing program at Hunter College in New York. Sleigh was educated at the California Institute of the Arts, Evergreen State College, and later received his M.A. from John Hopkins University. Sleigh has been published numerous times, most notably his eight collections of essays and poems including his most recent work, Station Zed, published in 2015. He has received numerous awards, including the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, arguably one of the most fruitful prizes in poetry, which awards its recipients $100,000, as well as the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts.
Sleigh read four poems and a passage from a longer prose work during his reading. Growing up in Mount Pleasant, Texas, Sleigh writes a great deal about growing up, and the traveling he has done later in his life. Sleigh has traveled the world, and spent significant time in the Middle East; his experiences in these places appear in a number of his works.
He opened with a poem about his twin brother, titled “The Twins.” He writes, “boys listening on the stairs to our older brother telling us about girls, what you could do with them, what they’d do with you.” His voice is honest, revealing, and touching. Sleigh’s interest in sports was highlighted in two of the poems he read, telling his audience that he likes the “idea of sport as this beautiful dream of world humanism in which everyone comes together.” His poem, “Homage to Zidane,” was just that– an homage to soccer player Zinedine Zidane, among other global public figures. Sleigh was traveling in Beirut when the World Cup was being played on TV, which inspired him to write his tribute. He also commented on his experience playing football as a teenage boy in a poem titled, “Self Portrait with Shoulder Pads,” in which he writes “gone from his body, while under his jersey the shoulder pads gleam bright, masculine yoke we both labor under determined not to get knocked flat.”
His final piece, “Six Trees and Two White Dogs … Doves?,” describes a trip he took to Iraq, prior to ISIS becoming a strong presence in the Middle East. Sleigh said he met with Middle Eastern writers and asked students to think back to their childhood to write a series of memories, all starting with “I remember.” After the students finished writing, he told them to change the first words to “I don’t want to remember.” The purpose of this exercise was to let an entire generation that grew up only knowing war escape from those negative experiences. “Six Trees and Two White Dogs … Doves?,” moves back and forth between poetry and prose. The opening line states, “I proved myself to be inept at putting on my bullet proof vest.”
As poet David Wojahn said of Sleigh, “[he] has been publishing formidable poetry for almost thirty years, and among American poets of his generation there is no one better”– Sleigh’s concise language and dramatic undertones have already left an impression on his readers.
There are two more events that are part of the A.K. Smith reading series this semester- on April 12th, Indian author Kiran Desai will be visiting the campus for a reading at 7pm. Two days later, Trinity will host the South Asian Writer’s Panel on April 14th at 4:30pm. All readings are held in the Smith House.