With a kind smile and bright demeanor, Emily K. Vasiliauskas ’07 doesn’t seem a likely match for the cryptic, tenebrous Paul Celan, a mid 20th-century German-Jewish poet who famously wrote works about the Holocaust. Nonetheless, her thesis explored what she terms “ineffability as a philosophical problem” in Celan’s work, or “how to talk about what you can’t talk about.”
As a co-Editor-in-Chief of The Harvard Gamut, a poetry editor on Persephone, a literature concentrator, a recently anointed Marshall Scholar, and a poet herself, Vasiliauskas, who is also a Crimson photography editor, knows how to talk about pretty much anything. Ironically, though, she can be reticent when discussing her own accomplishments.
She seems a bit embarrassed when asked about the Marshall, which she sees as “an opportunity to spend two years in a great academic institution in an interesting country that I’ve never spent a significant amount of time in.” Next fall, she will begin work on a one-year masters degree in Criticism and Culture at the University of Cambridge in England.
The degree, a “literary theory and philosophy taught course,” may sound like a more intense version of the literature concentration, but Vasiliauskas plans on taking a different approach to her studies than the faculty in Dana Palmer House does.
“The literature concentration—in a very good, productive way, but nevertheless—instrumentalizes literary theory for the purposes of doing readings of works of literature or works of art,” she says. Her studies in England will focus “in a sustained way” on theory and philosophy as autonomous works.
“I’m looking forward to taking a course just on Derrida. Period,” she says with a laugh. Vasiliauskas seems to know that her planned course of study might nauseate the average theory-starved English concentrator, but she keeps her feet in the world of literature through her poetry writing and editorial duties.
“As an editor, I’m in a position to get to read more student poetry than most other people on campus,” she says of her positions on Persephone and The Gamut. “There are an unbelievable number of unbelievably talented poets at Harvard who are writing a lot of great stuff right now.”
Even those whose poetic voices aren’t as refined earn Vasiliauskas’ praise. “I try to be very encouraging,” she says. “I’m generally open to printing stuff that may show some kind of limitations or mistakes on the part of the poet but nevertheless shows a lot of promise and even a lot of thought and interest.”
As for her own work, she keeps much of it out of the public eye. “I write tons of stuff that would never make it into poetry magazines on campus,” she says.
But as someone who has taken three poetry workshops in her time at Harvard and endured the rigors of the Literature concentration, Vasiliauskas is certainly not a novice writer. She has published numerous poems and some essays in both magazines she works for, and is now looking to make her voice heard in the wider world by submitting to professional publications.
“I started off with the New Yorker and the Paris Review,” she says with a nervous smile. “But I’m sure I’ll have to work my way well down my list before anything comes of it.”
Instead of seeking a stereotypical neo-beatnik life, Vasiliauskas aspires to fit her interests as a writer into her current plans to become an academic, following in the footsteps of poet-academics John L. Ashbery ’49 or Adrienne Rich ’51.
“I’m pretty sure that I’ll go to do these two years in the UK, I’ll come back to the U.S. and do my Ph.D, and then hopefully”—she knocks on wood—“get a job and try to publish a lot and maybe get tenure someday.”
Although she sounds optimistic about editing her thesis into a series of journal-length articles, she grows most hopeful when she talks of publishing her verse.
“I’d say that most of the work I’m proudest of comes through thought and through reading poetry and philosophy,” she says. It shows, especially in “Compline,” one in a series of poems chronicling the liturgical hours that was published in the Spring 2006 issue of The Gamut. The poem exudes the wisdom of a poet twice her age and the energy of any college writer, as in its final stanza:
“[W]hat evidence can there be for your eyes? They cast no shadow / but the shadow of my darkness, as reddening breath / passes within us and opens every window to light.”