Biological Poetry: Guest and Davis speak at semester’s first Writers Here & Now

Photos by Karina Shedrofsky, Photographer

Shannon Mooney
Online Editor

Poet Paul Guest has a unique and defining characteristic; at the age of 12, he was involved in a bicycling accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down.

But some might find it surprising that Guest does not see this as the leading influence on his work.

“In some ways I’m disinterested in writing about my disability,” Guest said Wednesday evening. “I didn’t want to be known as a disabled writer, or a writer who is disabled.”

Guest, who is currently a professor at the University of Virginia, read a few of his poems at Wednesday’s Writers Here and Now series, the first of the semester. He was accompanied by fiction writer Kathryn Davis.

The evening began in a Q&A session with Guest, during which he was able to provide students with advice and talk about his experience and development as a writer.

“I don’t think you can worry about whether or not someone else will find your work powerful,” Guest said in response to a question about the significance of one’s writing. “It’s not a question that you need to ask yourself. It’s a question that will trip you up.”

The reading followed, and the seats in Ulrich Recital Hall were filled when Davis stepped onto the stage at 7 p.m. She read the first chapter from her new novel, Duplex. She described the excerpt, which was titled “The Rain of Beads,” as being “fairly self-contained.”

The language of the excerpt, which was about 20 minutes long, was clever and engaging, and had the audience chuckling. Davis’s soft voice seemed to match the content of the chapter, which described a juvenile storytelling among a group of adolescents.

Davis, whose writing has won numerous awards, has six published novels and currently works at Washington University in St. Louis.

Guest then read 11 of his poems, and some of the lines, along with his humorous commentary, evoked laughter from the large audience.

Before reading his poem, “Almost I rushed from home to tell you this,” Guest said he was inspired to write it when he had mistaken the definition of “melancholia” as being a “black hole.” When he discovered the actual definition is “black bile,” he decided to write about the mistake.

“It’s still possible to derive poetry from error,” he said.

In between poems, Guest sometimes made light of his disability.

“People will often come up to you and ask questions like: ‘Can you pop a wheely in your wheelchair?’ or ‘Do you have a personal connection with the Lord?’” Guest said to a laughing audience.

He began writing seriously at age 17, and views writing as more than just an activity.

“It was a kind of weird switch that went off in my brain,” he said. “Poetry is biological.”

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