Johnston and van den Berg Entertain Students With Enticing Words

By Morgan Fecto, Bloc Reporter 

On paper, Devin Johnston and Laura van den Berg are two writers as different as a chicken and an acrobat.

One is a poet, the other writes fiction. One is inspired by the sounds hidden in a bird’s feathers, the other by situations that are at once universal and alien.

Despite seeming dissimilar, both writers shed new light on the ordinary at Writers Here and Now on Feb. 26 in Ulrich Recital Hall in Tawes Hall.

“I have chickens in my backyard and I’m kind of obsessed with them,” Johnston said.

Johnston read “Americana,” a poem about South American chickens.

“In the morning dark, or dusk of an afternoon, you softly cluck and settle down to roost in mercury-vapored light,” Johnston read, a co-founder of Flood Editions and teacher at St. Louis University.

“There wasn’t a plot line,” said Kelly Shaughnessy, a senior English major and poetry student.

“It was more like ‘here’s a description of these chickens in my yard’. He seemed very casual and in his own skin.”

While Johnston read poems from his fifth forthcoming book “Far-Fetched” with a clear and natural voice, van den Berg read “Acrobat,” a short story from her newest book “The Isle of Youth” with a heavier affect.

“The way she was speaking had a little more personality, but seemed odd for her characters,” said Adam Rosenfeld, a senior psychology major. “It didn’t seem to fit the story.”

Van den Berg, who teaches at Emerson College, began “Acrobat” with: “The day my husband left me, I followed a trio of acrobats around the city of Paris.”

“She’s willing to take things that a lot of people find trivial or ephemeral and write things that are interesting and tender,” said Kawai Washburn, a software engineer from D.C., who came to UMD for van den Berg’s reading.

Van den Berg and Johnston both focused on the ordinary in the pieces they read and also created a sense of place.Van den Berg brought the smoky cafés of Paris to the audience and Johnston portrayed places less foreign.

“Its blank silos overlook/a pit of argillaceous shale/the fine and fossilized remains/of bivalves, sponges, spines of shark,” Johnston read from “A Close Shave,” a poem that described an abandoned town near his home in Missouri.

“I was aware of middle-America in some of them,” Shaughnessy said. “I didn’t connect with that as much.”

No matter their personal tastes, the writing intrigued audience members and elicited long applause.

“It sounded like it was going to be a very interesting story. I kind of want to read the end of it now,” Rosenfeld said.

Van den Berg’s book “The Isle of Youth” is published and she is currently working on a novel.

Johnston releases “Far-Fetched” in 2015.

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