More Truly and More Strange
Lisa Russ Spaar likes a good party – how it can put you in the midst of interesting people and can lead you to inspiring, compelling conversations, to laughter, and to insight. For the same reason, she says, she loves anthologizing. “I love what happens when you take distinct poems by an array of poets and you put them in conversation. To me it is kind of like having a party. Who do you want at the same table?”
In her latest book, More Truly and More Strange: 100 Contemporary American Self-Portrait Poems, Spaar has put together a guest list of UVA colleagues, friends, and leading voices in the contemporary poetry world who bring a multitude of perspectives and life experiences to a collection that looks inward at the concept of self against the backdrop of the selfie age.
“I think one point I wanted to make about the selfie era,” Spaar said, “is that it is possible via social media to curate how you appear to the world through things like profiles and filters. Because of the quicksilver pace at which this is happening, I wanted to turn to poems, because a poem is in some ways like a curated Facebook profile. It is a construction. The poet is choosing what to reveal and how to reveal it. But I think that poetry can allow for a kind of complexity and depth that sometimes social media eschews or doesn’t allow for.” Engaging with a self-portrait poem can foreground the ways in which to some extent we are all always constructing ourselves in various contexts; it can make readers more aware of that fluid and performative aspect of identity.”
Spaar’s “guest list” for this particular literary party started close to home, with UVA colleagues like former Poet Laureate Rita Dove, Kiki Petrosino, Gregory Orr, Brian Teare, Charles Wright, and Debra Nystrom. “I always love to get my peeps in there when I can,” she added with a laugh. That list grows with time, and this book includes poems by her former students, including Allison Geller, a writer and editor now living in New York City. “Allison wrote a self-portrait for one of the early iterations of my self-portraiture-focused writing workshops. I thought it was a beautiful poem then, and though originally drafted by an undergraduate, it really holds up to all of the poems in the book.”
That is high praise given that the poets in the volume include two-time U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey “When I contacted Natasha to get permission to use her poem in the book,” Spaar said, “she said that this was a book that she could teach and would teach. That was very gratifying to me. I think that the book has something to offer disciplines beyond poetry—philosophy, media, art history, anthropology, psychology.”
Spaar was able to use the book as a resource in her recent January Term course, and the process taught her once again that teaching and learning go hand in hand in her work. One thing we focus on are the synergies between visual and written self-portraits, and in pre-pandemic versions of the course, students actually created their own visual self-portraits as well as written work. “It was wonderful to interact with students about the anthology,” she said. “We did a project every day in which they would pair a poem from the poetry anthology with a visual self-portrait from a book of 500 self-portraits. They gave these marvelous presentations about how the visual and poetic self-portraits connected for them, and I saw things in the poems that I hadn’t seen before through their eyes, so that was really a gift. I guess that this is one of my hopes for the anthology: that by reading self-portraits by aesthetically and demographically diverse poets, readers can “other” themselves in a way that fosters empathy and inclusivity.