Zoë Hitzig ’15, a resident of Quincy House concentrating in Mathematics and Philiosophy, was awarded an Office for the Arts/Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Artist Development Fellowship to work on a collection of poems exploring the wrongful convictions and subsequent exonerations by DNA testing of death row prisoners, and to participate in the Ashbery Home School writer’s conference. Hitzig has contributed poems and artwork to The Harvard Advocate and served as its publisher in 2013. She has been a fellow in the Program for Research in Science and Engineering, a staff writer for The Harvard Crimson and a member of The Harvard Generalist art collective. Hitzig, who plans to pursue a career in research and writing, contributed this blog post about her experience this summer at the Ashbery Home School writer’s conference.
One of my favorite poems of all time is Elizabeth Bishop’s “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.” My poetry professor at Harvard recently told me that this is also one of John Ashbery’s favorite poems though I have a feeling we like it for different reasons. In the first two stanzas of the poem, Bishop recounts travel memories from Marrakesh, to Dingle Harbor, to Volubilis and the Vatican City. The final stanza begins with a lament for the discordance of these juxtaposed memories: “Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’”, the poet writes.
I thought often of this line from Bishop’s poem in the second week of August, during which I had the privilege to attend the inaugural Ashbery Home School writer’s conference in Hudson, New York. The week often felt like a string of events connected only by “and” and “and.” The conference attracted poets looking to reinvent their practice through collision with other arts—sculpture, painting, dance, film—and collide we did; the events of the week slid into each other like the memories of travel Bishop recalls in her poem, explosive yet precise, fragmented, eerily enmeshed. The whirlwind week found its force within Ashbery’s collage-home, and spiraled outward in the form of workshops, artist talks, poetry readings, and film screenings, curated by poets Adam Fitzgerald, Dorothea Lasky, Timothy Donnelly and Tracy K. Smith.
My many exchanges of ideas with poetic and artistic luminaries as well as peers will stick with me like the rich images Bishop recalls from her travels. Ashbery, the wizard of the week, came out for a reading from his forthcoming book. Afterward, I traded tales of Advocate lore with him, as he edited the magazine roughly 65 years before I did. On that same day, I met a longtime hero of mine, visual artist Kiki Smith, who came to AHS for an artist talk. I first encountered Smith’s work early in high school, when my primary medium was sculpture. I remember the day my art teacher gave me a book of her work. It was the so-called “abject” pieces that struck me—I thought to myself: this, this is what art is, this is what I am trying to do!
Throughout the week, I got to know fascinating poets with practices that differed radically from my own. In a workshop with Lasky, I sat to the right of one brilliant poet—Nick Sturm from Florida—who brought in multiple poems called “Flowers and Money,” and a long poem that might have been prose. To my left sat novelist and poet Jason Reynolds of Bed-Stuy, who wrote a poem imagining that one of the ceramic pots above Ashbery’s fireplace was filled with semen. The room heated up one afternoon when scholar-poet Andrew Field questioned the ethics of another poet’s writing.
I love that Bishop poem because the speaker communicates a deep yearning for cohesion, while I think Ashbery loves the poem for the speaker’s failure to achieve it. At week’s end, my mind was whirring. I had a few new poems and a lot of new friends but I found myself thinking, how does this all fit together? What, concretely, could I take from the cacophony of others’ poetic and artistic practices and harmonize with my own? I stopped myself, realizing I was seeking concordance, as Bishop’s speaker does in that poem. Concordance is “serious, engravable,” to use Bishop’s words, while the week at AHS was fun, fleeting: more colored-pencil palimpsest than burin woodcuts. The brilliance of the week was the opportunity to—in the spirit of Ashbery, and Ashbery via Bishop—revel in discordance, and see what might come of it.