A Voice of Her Own
There is a kind of poetry that begins and ends in nature. Consider vintage Robert Frost, his lovely mending walls and gently falling snow. Natalie Shapero, a new professor of the practice of poetry at Tufts, occupies a wholly different terrain. Her poetry is no walk in the park. Instead, it comes loaded with all the stings, reversals and evasions that mark contemporary life. There’s little certainty or solace to be found.
Shapero, a native of Chester, Pennsylvania, comes to Tufts from Kenyon College, where she taught and served as an associate editor of the Kenyon Review for the past three years. She holds degrees in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University (B.A., 2004) and Ohio State University (M.F.A. in poetry, 2008) and in law from the University of Chicago (J.D., 2011). Her poetry has appeared in dozens of publications, including The New Yorker, POETRY, The New Republic and Poetry Northwest. Her first collection, No Object (Saturnalia Books, 2013) was hailed by one reviewer as “a book of delightful and glistening riddles.”
The poet’s unusual detour into law had its own internal logic. “I had always been really interested in law, and I was not ready to commit to one career at that point in my life,” meaning her mid-20s, says Shapero, who loved law school.
“I’ll go toe-to-toe with anyone who thinks legal writing is boring,” she told an interviewer in 2013. “It’s rigorous and structured, to be sure, but if those things equated with tedium, we wouldn’t write poetry, either.” She spent the year after law school working as a civil rights lawyer at Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.
Poetry caught her attention relatively late. Shapero was not some sensitive girl who scribbled poetry from an early age; she says that, if anything, she jotted a few lines “in the back of a high school science book, maybe.” Immersion in the undergraduate writing program at John Hopkins, where she read lots of James Merrill, among others, woke her to the possibilities of the game. The poetry that Shapero has turned out since then is distinctly her own.
A sense of personal disconnection runs all through it. In her poems, men and women don’t interact so much as they bounce off each other, rebuked and as isolated as before. Romance doesn’t stand a chance. Animals, which recur throughout the poetry, fare even worse than people—there, the negligent, even brutal way they are treated reveals a human insensitivity to matters of life and death generally, in Shapero’s view. As she remarks in her book’s harrowing first line, “All you need for a piano is a tree / and an elephant.”
Shapero admits she grew up somewhat withdrawn. “Oh, that,” she responds when the subject of shyness is raised. “A lot of writers are interior people,” she tells me. Passivity, in fact, constitutes a major theme in her work. “I’ve thought a lot about the uses and pitfalls of being a passive person in the world,” she says.
The lack of resistance in her poems can be jarring. In one poem (“Hot/Normal”), a lover drags her half-naked across the floor. In another (“I Don’t Sleep in White”), she writes, to terrifying effect, “I was put into acting as a child, / carried by other children over the lake / of fire we were instructed to imagine.”
Rhythm of the Beat
Dashes of humor keep the enterprise afloat. Woody Allen might be considered the guiding spirit of a number of Shapero’s side-of-the-mouth, tossed-off lines. One example occurs in a poem called “Four Fights”: “When I said you could think of me / as your therapist, / I meant can you leave the room and I’ll make notes?” Elsewhere, her humor takes an existential turn. “Toss a buoy to a man overboard, / and twelve percent of the time the buoy hits the man in the head,” the poet writes in “Examples of How to Search,” before beseeching the reader: “Tell me what to choose.”
However far and freely they range, Shapero’s poems ride on a commonly occurring metrical grid that anchors them, with iambic pentameter lines lending their stamp of authority. Shapero is teaching two classes this fall, and in her first, an introduction to literature course, she has her students counting out the beats in a work of poetry in order to appreciate the hidden architecture of the thing.
In her second, smaller course, a workshop class populated by advanced student poets, she presses them to introduce outside voices—recipes, jokes, song lyrics, advertising jingles—into their work to shake things up. Shapero’s own poetry cites so many historical and pop-culture sources that her book has a two-page “attributions” section at the back.
There’s a kind of unending scavenger hunt going on with her, an edginess, a yearning and a willingness to leap. One can only imagine what a force this makes her in the classroom. Linda Bamber, professor of English and one of the faculty members who helped select Shapero from a deep pile of applications for the job, sounds gratified with what she and the university got in the deal. “With some people, their intellectual lives are simply part of who they are,” Bamber observes. “That’s what makes for great teaching. With Natalie, there’s always something new she’s thinking about.”
Jay Cantor, director of creative writing, agrees. After describing Shapero’s poetry as “funny, moving, direct, generous,” he says, “Our hope is that she will bring these same qualities into her teaching and help us develop a bigger, more inclusive and ever more dynamic poetry program here at Tufts.”
Not Exactly Reverent
For now, Shapero is soaking up the chance to hear as many poets reading around the Boston area as she can. She’s especially keen, she says, to notice how they perform their poetry. How do they sell their material? What tactics do they use? Some poets succeed at making a connection; others, not so much. A mood of solemnity on the audience’s part doesn’t help. “Sometimes people at these things can be too reverential,” Shapero notes, before adding, with an explosive laugh, “I’m not!”
This I can confirm. In June of 2014, I happened to be taking a summer course at Kenyon College and got the chance to see Shapero, then on faculty there, read before an audience of talented high-school-age poets gathered from all over the country for a poetry symposium. Shapero was a slight figure, largely unknown, standing at the front of the room.
But as she read, the students began to detect the sly humor and wicked skips built into her poems. They laughed appreciatively, and Shapero grew steadily into the performance, snapping off her lines like a rock star. The student in front of me turned to his friend with ever-widening eyes as though to say, “Can you believe she just said that?”
Shapero was in her element. At once dark and funny, she had that crowd right where she wanted them—off-balance and listening hard.
Bruce Morgan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.