Rome Lisa hosted the annual Master of Fine Arts Faculty Reading at Nightbird Books on Wednesday March 13. Toni Jensen, Davis McCombs, and Padma Viswanathan read sections of their pieces for an intimate audience. Toni Jensen, a professor of creative writing and translation at the University of Arkansas was the first of the three poets to perform.
Jensen read from her poem on gun violence entitled “Carrie.” In her poem, she recounts the death of John Locke in 2000. Locke was a professor of comparative literature at the university who was shot and killed by one of his graduate students. In addition to her campus, Jensen also referenced her city.
“Fayetteville was Osage territory, seceded to the U.S. government looking down a barrel; MLK Boulevard was the Trail of Tears,” Jensen said, “‘The Indian Removal Act.’ How passive is the language of removal? No mention of guns, no mention of bayonets.”
“Carrie” also addressed that people are now allowed to carry handguns on campus and that 10 out of 50 states now have legislation that allows this. Jensen posed a question to her audience, asking them who benefits from armed presence.
“Americans value ‘mine’ over ‘ours,’” Jensen said.
Up next, Davis McCombs took the mic. “I’m going to read 50 poems,” he said, eliciting a laugh from the room. McCombs’ poems were vivid descriptions of the natural world. He described a storm that whirled overhead, his friend’s death remembered by the shed, and “the cucumbers, tree frogs, and moon flowers” of the night. His poems overlapped and flowed into one another as he progressed in his reading. McCombs’ language was exceptionally descriptive and held the room in silence. His visceral literary style was hypnotic and allowed the audience to feel his words:
“I heard a bobcat cry, the night ripped quickly in half like a man dragged along on a leash of light.”
Padma Viswanathan closed the MFA reading with an excerpt from her short fiction piece, “Carnival Week.” Viswanathan said this piece was inspired by the need for an unsympathetic female protagonist, and features a complicated relationship in which a woman and her lover are from two different worlds. She and Matt are going on a trip together to Brazil, him for the first time, for her it’s her sixth. Matt is a businessman, networking with companies and advocating for big oil companies. She has “overcome objections of big oil in favor of money” and yet feels a sense of dissatisfaction with that reality. By Viswanathan’s stopping point in the story, the audience realizes the woman is actually committed to a different man, one who is not in Brazil with her. She and Matt are having an affair that smells like “working class Brazilian sweat: yeasty and flowery.”
The MFA Faculty Reading occurs annually and next year, guests can expect to hear more selections from other University of Arkansas professors in the program.