On April 10, the Aidekman Arts Center continued its event series for the semester and hosted Tufts Professor of the Practice Natalie Shapero. Currently teaching two courses on poetry at Tufts, Shapero has published multiple collections of poems. Her most recent book, “Hard Child” (2017), made the short list for the International Griffin Poetry Prize. Shapero has also had works published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and the Boston Review.
Inside the Tufts University Art Gallery, Professor Natalie Shapero read a poem titled “The Lone Acceptable Application of Daylight” to an intimately small crowd at lunchtime. Surrounded by pieces of media such as collections of tweets or Facebook posts from Harry Dodge’s exhibit on display, she fittingly read a poem on ‘civil discourse on the internet.’
Shapero’s route to where she is today may seem unorthodox, but to her, it all fits together. As a high schooler, she first became interested in poetry through friends who were writing poetry, but in college she began to study it seriously.
In an interview with the Daily, Shapero explained that “taking poetry workshops in college is what really solidified it for [her] as something that [she has] a serious art practice around.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, Shapero immediately went on to the Ohio State University to receive her Master’s of Fine Arts. She then followed this up by earning a law degree from University of Chicago. Shapero then spent time as a lawyer working in establishment clause law for an organization called Americans United For Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.
Shapero shared her thoughts on the intersection between the seemingly disparate fields of poetry and law.
“I think [poetry and law] are very related,” Shapero said. “I think that thinking about literature, you ask a lot of questions about language and ambiguity and degrees of universality, like what the possibilities [are] for multiple meanings in a single piece of text, and that inquiry in statutory construction is the same … I see a lot of resonances between both and been able in to keep a foot in both worlds.”
Based off her works at the reading, this seems true. Shapero spoke more to the nature of her poetry.
“I’m interested a lot in writing about power dynamics, misuses of power, inequitable distributions of power,” she said.
Shapero’s first poem, “The Lone Acceptable Application of Daylight,” is written from the perspective of wealthy Manhattanites looking down on people walking on the chic, modern High Line. Once marketed as urban revitalization, the High Line and its surrounding neighborhood now symbolize a tale of gentrification as corporations and expensive real estate take over the space.
Shapero then reads a poem titled “Sunshower.“ The poem literally reads different idioms from different cultures to describe the meteorological phenomenon, but includes fictional names for it as well.
An excerpt reads: “Some people say the devil is beating his wife. Some people say the devil is pawing his wife. Some people say the devil is doubling down on an overall attitude of entitlement toward the body of his wife.”
By mixing the real with the fictional in this poem, Shapero draws on the abusive nature of language, once again highlighting the presence of power structures in different parts of society.
In addition to the political pertinence of Shapero’s work, her readings also tie in contemporary feelings of dread or panic, especially as expressed on the internet. Her poem about civil discourse on social media uses language that taps into familiar images or sounds of rage tweets and family members’ didactic Facebook posts. Before she introduces the poem, Shapero connects our conversations online with our mobilization offline, saying that online arguments are essentially the same as going to a march and holding a sign that says “I disagree” next to another person’s sign.
Reading this poem in the foreground of a gallery exhibition focused on the disconnect of modern society due to the internet feels ominous — like the overwhelming fears are really going to prevail — it feels purposeful.
Shapero gave insight into her writing process.
“I read pretty widely … I take a lot of notes on what I’m reading,” she said. “I don’t tend to sit down and write a draft of a poem until I understand what the trajectory of it will be. A lot of that will come from more free-form note-taking and being attentive to things in different kinds of ways.”
Again, her poems reflected this process as she read for her audience this past Wednesday. Most of her poetry is modern in both its structure and topic. Two or three lines will pair together well before the subject redirects, yet overall the poems tie together to convey a larger theme or tone.
Shapero’s poems also contain a level of compartmentalization. While she was able to emphasize her feelings at the reading since she was reading them aloud, they were never really about herself. Based on the inflections in her tone, hints of pain, disgust or even humor lingered as Shapero read aloud.
Shapero shared how she balances her personality with her poetry.
“I think of my work as a separate sphere from my own biography … Part of that is in order to preserve my work as something that is its own realm,” she said.
Impressively, Shapero separates herself from her art and is still able to get across opinions in her work, or at least to highlight things she finds interesting.
As a full-time professor of the practice at Tufts, Shapero finds that her craft and her job go together pretty well.
“Teaching and writing are a lot of the same practice for me,” she said. “A lot of the questions that are on my mind, I am able to bring those into the classroom … bring students into those questions, and students have really generative insights often.”
At the end of the reading, the crowd applauded Shapero. Despite somber talk of dread and abuse of power, it’s clear that the audience connected with Shapero’s words over the course of the lunchtime reading.