Poetry in research: UMKC’s MFA Reading Series hosts two prominent minds

Joey Hill

Miller Nichols Library hosted Geoffrey Brock and Padma Viswanathan last Thursday as part of the UMKC English Department’s series of public readings for graduate and undergraduate students.

“I think you’re in for something pretty amazing,” said Dr. Michelle Boisseau, UMKC professor of English and creative writing, as she kicked off the proceedings in the iX Theatre. The MFA Reading series is a program funded by the Bernardin Haskell Fund, as well as Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society.

Viswanathan, a novelist, essayist, journalist and playwright spoke first, reading from her third novel, “The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.” The book is about personal repercussions following the ocean crash of an Air India plane leaving Vancouver in 1985 which killed 331 people. For several days following the crash, nothing was known of the plane or its passengers, and many of the initial survivors died while at sea waiting for rescue. It was later discovered that a bomb had been placed inside the plane and detonated. To this day the perpetrators are unknown.

20 years later, Ashwin Rao begins a study to examine the coping mechanisms of Canada’s Indian population. Rao himself lost his sister in the attack and stands as a character grappling with his own feeling of loss and dismay. As Viswanathan said, “He looks around and thinks ‘what happened to these other people? People like me who lost their lives and were stopped in the same way mine was?’”

Rao serves as a door to the journeys of the twelve families he interviews. The entirety of the book is written from the perspective of Rao, but Viswanathan decided to not use first person narrative. “Ashwin tells the story but what really happens is he gets enthralled into the lives of one family and most of the book is him telling the reader their story,” Viswanathan said. “Over the course of time you begin to learn secrets about him and secrets about them … but at certain points he disappears from the narrative and he just gives it to you straight.”

The second presenter was poet and translator Geoffery Brock, who Boisseau introduced with praise for his translation of Pinocchio. “This new translation revives the sardonic wit and black humor of the ‘original,’” she said. Brock read from three books—the  first a collection of Italian poetry which he had translated and compiled and the other two his own.

The earlier poems from his compilation included simple works known as “Shortcuts.” As one went,

“The passerby who gets pleasure from telling one their shoes are untied is a useless person. Perhaps you know it yourself and are looking for an out-of-the-way place to tie them. Or perhaps you are being pursued by the Furies. In the first instance, he’s just a nuisance, in the second.”

These poems were a highlight of the night and brought the audience into peals of laughter, as did some of Brock’s own poetry.

The MFA Reading Series is a beneficial platform, as many other presentations by the UMKC English department are for students to simply learn more about the life and career of a writer. The series is also a real display of currents in the literary arts as they are flowing right now.