Grad students test literary waters with reading series

by Beacon Staff • November 17, 2011

strongEric Twardzik, Beacon Staff/strong

Casey Brown visibly shook behind the podium that separated him from the audience at the Graduate Reading Series (GRS) on Nov. 4. The Walker Building classroom, packed wall to wall with graduate students, was completely silent except for the occasional nibble on a scrap of pizza crust.

Brown, a graduate student in Emerson’s MA publishing program, had participated in the GRS in the past. But he had never before shared as personal a story as he was about to with emThe Virgin/em, a work of creative nonfiction recounting his experience going on a secret date with another man as a virginal college student in rural Texas.

Brown’s reading captivated the audience. There were moments that sent the room tumbling into laughter, like Brown’s description of emThe Three Musketeers/em as, “the closest thing to a real gay date movie in town.” But it also expressed powerful, tender sentiments. Brown, a heterosexual, accepted the invitation to a same sex outing because he had never before been on a date in his life. The date was also a secret show of solidarity for his friend, a man with the courage to out himself in an environment hostile to his lifestyle.

Although Brown said he was nervous, he knew the importance of sharing his story. “I don’t think you should have any fear to share your piece’s darkest, most intimate details,” he said. “I wanted to show that this ex-army, hetero, Texan guy does understand some things that we wouldn’t think he would.”

Students in Emerson’s graduate writing programs share their work and themselves at GRS. Every other Friday throughout the academic year, half a dozen students each read 15-minute excerpts of their work. The relaxed readings allow graduate students to dabble in other genresem /em— fiction writers will read their poetry and vice versaem /em— or give voice to their thesis project. Each year two graduate students, currently Emily Neeves and Shannon Wagner, assume the roles of curator and operate the series.

“As writers, which we all want to be, it gives us a chance to practice a skill we need professionally in a very relaxed and informal environment,” said Neeves.

The readings, often of work produced by the students for their graduate programs, encompass fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and the occasional screenplay. Demetra Perros, a graduate student pursuing her MFA in nonfiction, used the Nov. 4 event to merge words with performance in a reading of her autobiographical story “The Artist’s Body.”

It tells the story of how Perros, a dancer who studied as an actress in her undergraduate years, found her performance career sidelined by mononucleosis and gallbladder surgery.

“It’s about what happens to a performer when they lose the ability to perform and the block that they feel spiritually and physically,” she said.

Perros’ background in the performing arts came through in the delivery of the story. Her expressive body language illustrated the story. The climax saw Perros performing in a Polynesian hula class with a friend after her recovery. Perros performed the powerful dance while she read its description, stomping her feet into the ground, grunting, swinging her hips and tossing her black curls, without missing a word.

“I couldn’t imagine writing a piece about dancing without dancing,” she said. “The value for me as a writer was being able to bridge two different forms of expression: one being creative writing, the other performance in the theater and dance.”

The GRS also helps graduate students develop career skills. It has hosted a panel of graduate school alumni who had been awarded grants and residencies to speak to current graduate students about those opportunities. The curators are currently organizing a panel in February that will offer students the chance to speak to literary agents that have heard them read their work.

“You have to learn how to read and command the attention of a room for 15 minutes,” said Brown. “It’s part of the craft.”

strongThe next installment of the GRS takes place Nov. 18 at 7:00 p.m. in the Bill Bordy Theater./strong

emEric Twardzik can be reached at eric_twardzik@emerson.edu/em

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