Last Thursday evening, a group of mostly faculty members and students gathered into the Scheuer Room to listen to love poems — in multiple different languages. The event, “A Multiple Bilingual Reading of Great Love Poems from Around the World,” was organized in celebration of Valentine’s Day by the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, though professors and students from other departments attended the reading as well.
The chairs of the room were organized into one large circle, and a table at the back of the room featured handouts with the various poems to be read and their English translations, as well as snacks — heart-shaped cookies and chocolate-dipped pretzel sticks, handmade by the department’s administrative assistant, Bethanne Seufert. After collecting each poem handout and a few treats, attendees sat down in the large circle, chatting excitedly with one another before the reading started.
“I was kind of confused about who was a professor and who wasn’t,” recalled Ye Linn “Robin” Htun ’18, who read for the Japanese department.
An atmosphere of warmth permeated the air despite the below-freezing temperatures outside. Professor Sibelan Forrester from the Russian program hosted the event and introduced the professors and their poems. As professors and students read, she knit, adding to the cozy nature of the event.
“I was knitting so I wouldn’t start crying,” recounted Professor Forrester. “I always tear up when people read!”
Professor Forrester noted that this was the first time the department had held a Valentine’s Day-themed bilingual poetry reading, though there have been other bilingual poetry readings. Each poem was read in both the original language it was written in and English, with most of the professors reading the English versions they had translated themselves.
From the Arabic program, Professor Nesrine Chahine and student Murtaza Khomusi ’17 read a few poems in Arabic. Professor Forrester introduced Professor Chahine as having a specialty in prose, but also a secret passion for Arabic poetry. The poems included classical themes in Arabic poetry about traversing distance through love.
From the Chinese program, Professor Stephan Kory introduced his students—Emma Keefe ’17, Maria Solano ’17, and Lewis Esposito ’16—who read Chinese love poems from different eras. There was also participation from professors outside the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures. Steven Hopkins, professor of religion and coordinator of Asian studies sang poems relevant to his study of Occitan, Sanskrit, and Tamil poetry. Professor Lilya Yatsunyk of the Chemistry Department also read two poems in Russian.
“I only ever saw her in chemistry lab, so when I saw her name on the list I was pretty excited,” said Htun about Professor Yatsunyk. “I thought ‘oh wow, she is also reading poetry!’ So afterwards, I went and talked to her about just general Russian and Ukrainian poetry.”
From the French and Francophone studies program, Professor Micheline Rice-Maximin read a translation she actually published in a dual language collection of poems by Guy Tirolien.
“I always try to get Micheline Rice-Maximin to read,” said Professor Forrester. “There are times when the whole audience is in tears when she reads… I could listen to her read the phonebook in French.”
Professor Adrián Gras-Velázquez read a contemporary poem about self-love by Ismael Serrano, evoking laughter from the audience and adding to the diverse set of “love” poems. Student Aaron Kroeber ’16 read fragments of Sappho in Greek. The audience collectively sighed in disappointment when the poems were cut short mid-verse, the rest maybe yet to be discovered. Then, Professor Joanna Sturiano from the Japanese program introduced Ye Linn, who read and explained a few Japanese love poems. Finally, Bethanne Seufert and Matt Lake, a friend of Professor Forrester, read poems in English.
“Putting together a reading like this, we were torn between sticking to the theme of poetry in translation and the desire to give you the best selection of love poetry,” said Professor Forrester to the audience. “So, we decided to share some work with you that was originally written in English!”
Lake’s “translation” was a song recording by the Arctic Monkeys, who incorporated elements from the John Cooper Clarke poem he read. As the event ended, individuals in the circle nodded their heads to the song.
Professor Forrester later discussed the importance of such an event at Swarthmore, where students are intensely focused on academics.
“I once heard this student say that there wasn’t enough support here for non-academic interests,” said Professor Forrester. “In a way, she had developed this one side of herself, but still felt that aesthetically, spiritually, and physically — that all of that had been put on hold for a bit… We talk about wellness and we talk about balance, but last [Thursday evening] was unusual. We don’t usually do that often.”
As one of those intensely focused students, Htun found the poetry reading important for similar reasons.
“It was a really fun experience,” said Htun. “Especially for me, because I’m the ‘scientist,’ so I’m not looking at literary pieces most of my day… It was a pretty refreshing experience, but I think even if I was an English major, I still would have gone there to enjoy poems from other cultures in other languages in a setting outside of the classroom. Your grade doesn’t depend on it, and it’s not as stressful… It can be a nice environment to pick up on other things that you might not pick up on in the classroom.”