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Literature Faculty Host Colloquium with Guests Jericho Brown, Camille Rankin, and Jonathan Lethem

Last Wednesday, May 15th The Literature Faculty at Bennington College hosted the second Ben Belitt Colloquium in Tishman Auditorium with guests Jericho Brown, Camille Rankin, and Jonathan Lethem. The writers gathered for a colloquium on the life and work of the poet Reginald Shepard ‘88, a writer who is often forgotten about when people talk of Bennington in the 80s and who passed away in 2008.

The event was open to the public and drew a sizable crowd of visitors. Benjamin Anastas started off the event with an introduction to Reginald Shepherd and his work. Ben attended Graduate school with Reginald Shepard and spoke about how he looked up to him and admired his work. He then introduced the three guests; Poets Jericho Brown and Camille Rankin and Author Jonathon Lethem.  Before the colloquium started Ben announced the three recipients of the Ben Belitt writing prize; Lily Sanders, Blu Mehari, and Emmett Donovan. The crowd cheered and the three looked genuinely surprised.

After the prizes were announced Ben turned to poet Jericho Brown who read the introduction from his compilation of Reginald Shepard’s work The Collected Reginald Shepherd. He spoke about Shepard’s legacy as a Black Gay poet who was intensely interested in the craft of poetry. Shepard was interested in arguing about poetry and claiming his place in its history. Shepard’s ambition was  beauty. He read the first few lines of one of Shepard’s poems on his mother, who died when he was young and who he often wrote about.

My Mother Was No White Dove

no dove at all, coo-rooing through the dusk

and foraging for small seeds

My mother was the clouded-over night

a moon swims through, the dark against which stars

switch themselves on, so many already dead

by now (stars switch themselves off

and are my mother, she was never

so celestial, so clearly seen)

Brown spoke about the way that as a young black poet, his peers and him would discuss Shepards blog each time a post came out, where he discussed poetry. Brown also spoke about the themes of loving white men in Shepard’s work who called himself a “snow queen”. This line, like many of Brown’s lines, came with a piercing but jovial laugh into the microphone, met with giggles from the crowd and how this sometimes felt like a betrayal. In his poems Shepard explores his desire for whiteness.

After Jericho Brown read Camille Rankin read a little from an essay of Shepard’s on beauty. Rankin studies Shepard and teaches his essays. This essay explores Shepards own idea of beauty; what beauty is and what it is working towards.Shepard saw beauty as not merely “personal or idiosyncratic” but something one can and should work for. This was part of his mission in poetry and at the end of the essay he concludes that although beauty is useless technically that is what makes it worthwhile.  “I dwell among these visions of excess, altogether inadequate to their demands.”

After Rankin discussed Shephard on beauty, Lethem read from a piece he had prepared. He spoke, not from the perspective of someone who knew Reginald as “Reggie”, when they were eighteen and nineteen and at Bennington together. He remembers Shepard as intense and an incredible poet who had ambitions towards success. For him Shepard is frozen in time as “Reggie”, a close friend he looked up to. Lethem was emotional while reading and by the time he had finished there were many tears in the room. This was the part of the event that felt most like a memorial.

After Lethem read from his piece Ben opened the room up to questions. The room got a little tense when someone inquired as to where the humor or controversy is in a black person who loves a white person. Brown responded by emphasizing the fact that Shepards desire shows up again and again in his work, not just the fact that he likes white men but desires them exclusively, and that the term “snow queen” sounds funny. 

Afterwards books from all three writers were available to purchase and guests lined up to but books and get them signed

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