Writer Benjamin Landry (M.F.A. ’13) can immediately tell the scientists from the poets who come to his readings. There’s nowhere to hide.
“The scientists sit up straight,” Landry says. “They have a different posture, and their way of listening is very different than poets. Science folk will look right at you, while poets don’t want to make eye contact. They just want to listen to the words because they’re trying to imagine the poem as it appears on the page.”
Particle and Wave, Landry’s first book of poetry, features poems with titles taken from the periodic table, including such elements as hafnium, lithium, oxygen, and bismuth. One of the effects of reading the book is to be reminded of how separate and different each element is on its own—not just the obvious differences between lead and gold, but also the more incredible gulf separating a noble gas like helium from a radioactive material like uranium or plutonium.
The poet’s more recent work takes on a diversity of issues, including white-nose syndrome, a disease killing bats across North America, and literary critic Walter Benjamin’s unfinished “Arcades” project.
Another project of Landry’s—a collaboration with Peter Sparling, U-M’s Rudolf Arnheim Distinguished Professor of Dance—yielded a series of poems on movement and performance. One poem called “The Snowy Owl” inspired Sparling to transform it into a new dance, and a short film of the piece was featured at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
But whether Landry is writing about ecological disasters or Martha Graham’s dance moves, he finds the structure of tackling a single subject with a series of poems liberating, and hopes his readers find something that speaks to them in his work.
“It feels so refreshing to get so many kinds of responses to a poem,” Landry says. “A person will come up to you after a reading and tell you how a particular image in a poem reminded them of something in their own childhood, which of course you had no idea about. But it’s always charming when a poem escapes your control and becomes a part of somebody else’s experience.”