Around thirty people crammed their way into a Kohlberg classroom this past Monday to hear the poetic musings of Dawn Lundy-Martin. Starting at 7PM, the reading’s timing catered more to a post-dinner nap than an exercise in the written word; certainly the room’s vibe was one of intense drowsiness. Once Lundy-Martin entered and began reading from her literary catalogue, however, the audience became intensely focused on every word she spoke, each stanza acting as the proverbial verbal Ritalin to the weekend-worn group of students and professors.
An associate professor of writing at the University of Pittsburgh and author of multiple published poetry collections, Lundy-Martin’s poetry is raw and unrelenting, continually highlighting the intersectional effects of racism, sexism and homophobia with a refusal to sanitize the pain and ugliness associated with these phenomena. Her emotion is not merely a theme of her works, it is an active part of the listener’s experience, which can be troubling to hear, but also simultaneously captivating.
“I really want it to be a gash … the beautiful moments are accidental, I apologize for them. I sometimes think things spill over into the lyrical without my consent, I don’t think I should be singing you a beautiful song about something horrifying. I want things to be harder,” Lundy-Martin said.
Again, Lundy-Martin certainly succeeds in producing this blunt but beautiful harshness. For the author, this style and poetry in general is significant in her self-discovery because it allows her to approach problems in a different way than any other artistic medium.
“What you understand is different when you write about something in a poem than what you understand when you write a critical essay. I think these ways of knowing are different, but I think it matters that we have lots of different ways of approaching experience. I think art is often undervalued as a critical investigation, it’s not just whimsy or expression, which is how it’s often thought about … it is also a critical investigation and a different way of knowing something,” Lundy-Martin said.
Lundy-Martin discovered the unique ability of poetry to elucidate and critically engage with the self early on in her career. Immediately it became not only an interesting intellectual project but also something much deeper and personally important — it became a tool for salvation.
“I started writing in junior high school, and I really don’t know why. I was working out some very difficult things in life, and it became a kind of private world. Carl Phillips … who I adore … says unapologetically and I do too that ‘poetry saved my life’. [It was a] way of attending to the world that I couldn’t do in any other way, for me it was necessary,” Lundy-Martin said.
While Lundy-Martin writes with a variety of lyrical methods, a lot of her work has been enveloped in a fragmentary poetic style. Recently, however, she has become very interested in prose and the unique offerings of its more established structure, specifically its core unit: the sentence.
“I think the last two books brought me to the sentence in a different way … something I talk about with my students all the time is how we talk in sentences all the time and we are really good [at] it — writers are too good at it. So I’m really interested in the manipulation of the sentence … I like the newness of it I like the freshness of it,” Lundy-Martin remarked.
While innovation and experimentation are surely on Lundy-Martin’s mind, her lifelong project in poetry is “writing through trauma.” Because of this, it seems plausible that an intentional outreach to her audience’s trauma would accompany this focus. For Lundy-Martin, however, poetry is and always was a highly personal vehicle for self-discovery and therapy and must remain as such in order to continue being resonant.
“I try not to have readers in mind when I’m writing, which is probably why I’m not hugely famous,” Lundy-Martin laughed. “For me this is an art form, and I want to be true to the art form. I work in video art, and I do some performance, so I think there are other spaces where I can think more about audience but the poetry is my heart, soul, expression, and way of thinking and dealing with problems that are deeply affecting me. It called me instead of me calling it, and so I just have to let it be,” Lundy-Martin said.