Poet Stephen Cushman Reads Selections from “RiffRaff”?

“Hungry, hung over, needing to pee, regretting something done last night, already dosed on vacation,” opened poet Stephan Cushman, reciting his poem “Ways People Wake” as students and faculty members filled the intimate Museum Learning Center at the Addison Gallery.

Cushman read poems from his anthologies “RiffRaff” and “Cussing Lesson,” this past Wednesday.

Erin Lanzo ’06, Teaching Fellow in English and a former student of Cushman at the University of Virginia, introduced him before his reading, talking about her own experiences in his classroom.

“He made the poems an experience more than just words on a page,” said Lanzo.

Cushman wanted the reading to be informal, encouraging his audience to shout out questions or comments after he finished a poem. He read his audience poems he had selected, though he also accepted requests from the listeners.

Poems he read from his anthology “Cussing Lessons” included “Skirmish at Rio Hill” and “Cussing Lessons.” Selections from “RiffRaff” included “Ear Plugs,” “Brothers at Breakfast,” “Father Sutra,” “Cross Country Practice,” “Ways People Wake,” “Egyptian Fun Facts,” “Smaller Dog,” “Blurbs for Thursday” and “Beside the Point.”

“Riffraff,” Cushman’s most recent poetry collection was published by Louisiana State University Press in February 2011.

Cushman explained that the title of his book stemmed from the 15th century Middle English word “ryffe raffe,” which means “every single one” or “things of small value,” and characterized the unsavory and seemingly insignificant subject matter explored in the collection.

Cushman said, “The idea is that these are little bits of things and they appear not to be very important. But maybe they are. Maybe they are. Maybe what we consider riffraff has more value to it. If we can see it that way, then the world changes. Because the things you think are trivial aren’t. And isn’t that really what we want? For things to be filled with significance and meaning and value?”

Emily Hoyt ’13 said, “He was witty and funny and kept us entertained. He had a lot of life in him.”

Lanzo said, “The reading was perfect, and he was full of personality.”

“It is fun to watch students have mini epiphanies when they hear poems read out loud. Poetry is supposed to be read out loud, and we often forget that,” she continued.

In preparation for the event, Lanzo assigned a few of Cushman’s poems to her classes to read and additionally requested that her English 200 students attend the poetry reading. “I [wanted to] see what types of questions and reactions my class would have to seeing the actual words spoken,” said Lanzo.

Cushman also attended a poetry class taught by Lewis Robinson, Instructor in English, and a history class taught by Christopher Jones, Instructor in History.

Cushman, who also a Civil War scholar, presented Civil War photographs to Jones’ class.

Derek Farquhar ’12 said, “His passion for the amazing Civil War was obvious, and it made the class engaging. His presentation was incredibly thought provoking.”

Cushman is currently the Robert C. Taylor Professor of American Literature in the Department of English of the University of Virginia and is co-editor of “The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics,” due for publication next year.

Cushman received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University in 1978 and continued his post-graduate studies at Yale University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1982.

He is also the author of numerous scholarly literary essays and historical articles in peer-reviewed journals. Four of his seven books are poetry collections.

Cushman has also garnered numerous awards and honors in his academic career, including the All-University Teaching Award in 1992.

Wednesday’s reading marked Cushman’s third visit to Phillips Academy.

Jeffrey Domina, Instructor and Chair in English, and Lanzo organized Cushman’s visit to campus, which included two class visits and a reading.