Poems of Memory and Identity

photos of Robin Becker reading her poetry

a poet’s perspective on memory and identity

This year's Penn State Laureate, Robin Becker, is working hard to connect the Penn State community with poetry. In the middle of a semester-long tour of the University's Commonwealth campuses, Robin Becker touched down in State College last Wednesday to read her work and join in a dynamic discussion of memory and poetry with nearly 100 audience members at the Penn State Downtown Theater Center.

Becker began by reading "Old Florida," the amusing, lyrical tale of an elderly couple who do not want to leave their house for a shelter during a hurricane. She commented, "I love it when I can actually use humor effectively in a poem. I think it's a really great, effective tool for bringing people in." She was quick to add, "Sometimes I think I'm being funny, but it's not funny to somebody else. So it has to go."

Memory, too, plays a big role in Becker's poetry. "We're all kind of writing the narratives of our own lives," she said, "whether we're literally writing them, or just telling ourselves the stories—we're always in the process of doing that, at every age. Memory—re-capitulating and rethinking its significance—goes on forever."

Becker labeled the balance of emotion and detachment that exists in good writing as "one of life's great mysteries." The question, she said, is "How do you regulate your emotional distance from the experience in order to find the language that's not going to make it sound sentimental like a Hallmark card? I navigate that distance with every single poem." She then read two poems, "The Children's Concert" and "Late Words for My Sister," about her younger sister, who committed suicide. "After my sister's death I wrote a lot of poems, most of which I never did anything with," she said. "They were mostly poems for me, working out my feelings. Years later, I was able to write poems in which my sister's death appeared which I thought were really poems. But at the time, and for five years, I could not. The topic was too hot for me to handle."

"Animals appear a lot in my poems," Becker continued. "Particularly dogs. They live in our homes, they sleep in our beds, they sit on our laps. I have been really interested in seeing the intimacy we have with our domestic animals." She shared two poems about her relationships with dogs, "Okay, Tucker" and "In Praise of the Basset Hound."

Of her writing routine, Becker said, "At the end of the school year after I put in my grades, I head off to the place where I spend the summer writing. It's almost as though my imagination and my body know: this is my writing time. I show up every day in that chair and I block out that time. Even though many days I don't come up with something I am going to hold on to, it doesn't matter; I have the practice, and if I keep doing it on a regular basis I know that eventually I will come up with material I am going to use."

Join Research Unplugged on Wednesday, November 10, for our next conversation: "What? I Can't Hear You! Whale and Dolphin Communication in a Noisy Ocean," featuring Penn State Bioacoustics researcher, Susan Parks.

For more about Robin Becker, read on...

Last Updated November 06, 2010