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Live Lit showcases MFA candidates at work

(Collegian File Photo)

The Masters of Fine Arts program at the University of Massachusetts held their first event in the Live Lit reading series last Friday night at Amherst Books. Four graduate students in the program read their poetry and prose aloud to roughly two dozen people in the main room of the beloved bookstore.

A student-organized program, the Live Lit series is a monthly event where students can show what they’ve been working on as well as socialize with other budding authors.

Joe Crescente, one of the organizers of the event, started the show with a humorous but meaningful recounting of a dream he had about David Hasselhoff. It touched on the incredible nature of poets and authors. This set the somewhat wistful tone for the rest of the evening. Crescente brought more laughter by immediately jumping from the dream to introducing the first speaker without missing a beat.

The readers appeared to have two distinct yet equally important purposes to their work. The first two participants, Alex Benke and Emilie Menzel, took an editorial approach.

Benke, reading a surrealistic, untitled work of prose about lost fingers, spoke of bringing the piece back out for “a test drive” after having written it a couple of years prior. She touched on the experimental nature of these readings, evocatively playing with alliteration and imagery that was wondrous and wild.

Menzel too seemed to be taking an exploratory track with her poems. Her vocal inflections corresponded with the melancholic themes of her words, pressing the fact that there were raw and genuine emotions embedded within them. This display of vulnerability was inspirational and well received by the audience.

After a brief intermission for cookies and mingling, the last two readers were up.

Rhean Westerlund and Amanda Dahill-Moore showed the more revised nature of graduate student work. Subtly intricate, Westerlund’s story of gophers and nostalgia demonstrated a more refined and complex work. Although there may still be further edits – many writers will argue that a work is never finished – her excerpt was more restrained in its language and concrete in its structure. Dahill-Moore’s poetry also showed work that seemed more filtered through multiple edits. Her rhythm-conscious verse was evidence of the time put into polishing a finished draft. That isn’t to say their work was objectively better than the first two readers, but that they were in the latter stages of the creative writing process.

Being in the setting of a bookstore, there was most certainly a literary atmosphere. Names like Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne jumped out from the shelves and screamed of the historical importance of the written word. But there are also contemporary names like Jonathan Franzen and Karl Ove Knausgård that bring up questions about the future of writers, specifically in the Amherst area.

Western Massachusetts certainly has a rich plethora of historical literary figures, with Emily Dickinson in Amherst, Herman Melville in Pittsfield and Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) in Springfield.

There’s a strong presence of modern writers as well. The late author David Foster Wallace, a close friend of Franzen, attended Amherst College, and with recent visits by Zadie Smith and Jericho Brown, the area consistently attracts big-name authors.

Friday night’s reading was a prime example of the literary talent that is coming out of the University of Massachusetts graduate program. With a blend of ambition and talent, these master’s degree candidates showed writers-in-training that they can no doubt become published and respected novelists, poets, short story writers and essayists. The Live Lit reading series is just one of the first steps toward bringing the Amherst literary scene to national attention.

The next Live Lit event will be held Friday, Oct. 20 at 7 p.m. at Amherst Books.

Edward Clifford can be reached at edwardcliffo@umass.edu.

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