So I sit in a college auditorium with a battered notebook, a cheap pen. At the front of the room, a man with tight graying curls and black-framed glasses bends over a creaking podium. Students shuffle in—the lit lovers, the ambitious, the dazed. We all clutch notebooks to our chests. We all perk up our ears. We all scramble for some scrap of success that may happen to flake off of the nobleman’s shoulders as he passes.
Sven Birkerts, celebrated author and editor of Boston University’s literary magazine, AGNI, spent an evening at Gordon College last Thursday to read selections from his various memoirs. All listened entranced, but particularly rapt were the English majors, myself included. I watched his posture, his gestures; I listened to his voice, the way he lifted his words up and down as he read them from the book in his hands. His book. Birkerts read his essays with smooth rapidity. I wrote this, I imagined him thinking as he turned the pages. But instead of arrogance, I sensed only a kind of weariness, a tired humility that years of success must bring. In my notebook I caught his most striking phrases. “Intense loaded echoes.” “Brittle fragility.” “Too redly.” “Levitating above the life of the street.” Birkerts painted the landscape of the writing life in all its gritty and colorful detail, all its annoyances and familiarities and loneliness.
Hearing the experiences of Birkerts’ life as a writer, who climbed rung by rung from the bottom of the food chain—that was encouraging, especially for a freshman English major. Birkerts did not smooth over his memories. Instead he dug into the overlooked details and raised them to humble poingnancy. We all knew what he meant to describe: the desperation of being a writer. It is something even we amateur writers at Gordon understand as we pore over texts and hand midnight poetry to our professors. We wrestle with words, both deciphering their meanings and forming them ourselves. Birkerts is a master of that wrestling match. Like us, though, he still fights to the death with every open page.
After the reading I asked him what in writing was still difficult for him. He laughed and said, “Writing.” Getting past the blockages, he said: soldiering on even when no words flow. The most curious students peppered Birkerts with questions, and he answered smiling, waving his hands excitedly. The weariness of reading his work to an audience was gone—he was a writer like us. “Read like crazy,” he said, “And discover what moves you.” He promised us that “breaking in” to the writing world is extremely difficult. But he told us to keep writing, to never stop.
At the podium, Sven Birkerts was an austere and brilliant author. Standing among students, he became, himself, a student of the written word. He filled our open hands with reality and hope. In his voice I could hear his love for students, and in his eyes I could see his love for writing. What a gift Gordon students received in having Sven Birkerts here, an example of what we can become.
[Photo: Rebekah Connell]
Story by Gordon student Rebekah Connell ’15, an English major from New York and student writer for the Office of College Communications.