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Breaking a Long Poetic Silence

Mazur, Pinsky, Walcott, and Warren read tonight to honor BU alum

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Melissa 2.jpg

Melissa Green (GRS'82) will read tonight from her first book of poetry in 20 years.

Sitting in the basement offices of the literary magazine Agni onBay State Road recently, poet Melissa Green (GRS’82) felt overwhelmed.On a nearby table lay broadsides of unpublished poems — written in herhonor — by such luminaries as Nobel Laureates Seamus Heaney and DerekWalcott, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of creative writing,and former three-time U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinksy, a CAS professorof English.

This evening, at the College of General StudiesJacob Sleeper Auditorium, a roster of heavy hitters from the poetryworld — including Pinsky and Walcott, as well as BU’s Emma AnnMacLachlan Metcalf Professor of the Humanities Rosanna Warren, who isalso a University Professor and a CAS professor — will gather aroundGreen, who fell victim to depression and illness after a promisingearly career. The event, A Tribute to Melissa Green, is being touted byits organizers as “one of the most important literary events ever heldin Boston.” Presented by Agni and Arrowsmith Press, it is sponsored by the College of General Studies and the University Professors Poetry Reading series.

“I feel like a field mouse in the middle of all these great voices,” says Green.

In 1987, Green published her first book of poetry, Squanicook Eclogues, which garnered a handful of awards as well as praise from Walcott and from the late Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky.

“Here,by the grace and wisdom of the language in which ‘rhyme’ rhymes with‘time,’ comes the poet who commits everything she touches to yourmemory,” Brodsky wrote. “In these eclogues, the New England flora seemsto have finally acquired the power of speech.”

But then a crushof depression and physical ailments led Green to seclude herself in herWinthrop, Mass., home for nearly two decades, breaking off connectionsto everyday life.

“I wrote a book, did some readings, and thenretreated from the world,” says Green, now 53. “I stayed in the housefor 20 years. I didn’t see people, didn’t know I had friends. I wasn’table to make a living. I couldn’t take care of my house.” In 1995,Green turned to prose and published an acclaimed memoir, Color Is the Suffering of Light: A Memoir, but then retreated again.

Aboutsix months ago, a group of Green’s friends and admirers becameincreasingly concerned about her physical and mental health. They’dalso heard she had completed a manuscript of new poems. Warren, alongtime friend, decided it was time to take action.

“Wewanted her to know she had not been forgotten,” Warren says, “that shewas respected and admired and there was still a place for her voice andthat it needed to be heard again.”

Boston-based Arrowsmith Press offered to publish Green’s collection, Fifty-Two, and Agni, which is published at BU, printed 11 poems in its latest issue.Meanwhile, Warren enlisted some of the nation’s top poets to donateunpublished work for a limited-edition set of signed broadsides called“A Sheaf for Melissa,” which will be sold to raise funds for Green.Acclaimed writer and painter Rikki Ducornet supplied the cover art.

“I wake up every morning and I’m still stunned,” Green says. “When youlive here, you know there are a lot of other writers living here. ButI’ve been so shy that I haven’t known many of them. When they all comeout like this, it’s like a New Year’s ball. It’s wonderful.”

Among those presenting new work tonight will be Walcott, Warren,Pinsky, and David Ferry, a CAS lecturer in creative writing and afellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as GailMazur, an NEA fellow and writer-in-residence at Emerson College,William Corbett, a poet and MIT writing teacher, Michael Collier,director of Breadloaf Writer’s Conference and a former poet laureate ofMaryland, and Frank Bidart, a professor of English at Wellsley Collegeand 2007 winner of Yale University’s Bollingen Prize in AmericanPoetry. Green will read from Fifty-Two, which she describes as in a completely different style, one that acknowledges the fractures in her life.

Thecampaign to draw Green back into the fold of working poets has been athrilling and unifying experience for her friends, too, says WilliamPierce, Agni senior editor.

“The world of poetry isoften viewed as being fragmented, scattered all over the place,” Piercesays. “For people to be getting together from all over, from Chicago,from North Carolina, is a powerful display of the poetry world’sconcern for one of their own.”

Click here to read three of Melissa Green’s poems.

A Tribute to Melissa Green begins at 7 p.m. tonight, December 5, at Jacob Sleeper Auditorium, College of General Studies Room 129, 871 Commonwealth Ave. A reception will follow and copies of Green’s work will be on sale.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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