One spring morning of her junior year, Avia Tadmor ’14 rose at five a.m. to listen to the songs of mockingbirds. It was an assignment from professor Jorie Graham, who sent the students in her poetry workshop out into the early morning darkness to hear the mockingbirds and to write about it. “[Graham] said, ‘You never know if you will live to see another spring,’” Tadmor recounts. “Which is incredibly true… It was just a very, very exposing and stimulating experience.”
In her time at Harvard, Tadmor, a psychology concentrator, has been “dealing a lot with the end of life.” She works in the Cancer Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, alongside a team that treats terminally ill patients and their families, “looking at quality of life towards the end of it.”
“Thinking a lot about death makes me actually think a lot about life,” Tadmor says.
Tadmor has devoted her energies at Harvard with equal fervor to the study of clinical psychology and to the writing and reading of poetry. “Clinical psychology and poetry are very different axes to the same ambiguous and complex human experience,” Tadmor says.
Tadmor, who is Israeli, wrote mostly in Hebrew before coming to Harvard. As a high school student at the United World College boarding program in New Mexico, she dabbled in writing English poetry to share with her then-boyfriend—his first language was Spanish, so English was their common tongue.
In Hebrew, Tadmor “wrote on the whim of emotion, whenever it came to mind or to heart,” she says. “But when I came here, I started writing in English… in a more aware way.”
As a sophomore, she took her first poetry workshop with Henri Cole. “That changed my life—I really try to not say ‘changed my life’ about things too easily, but it really has changed my life,” Tadmor says. “I think the workshop was really a space to explore raw emotions…Henri himself said once that poetry feeds him more than love or sex. I think that was really beautiful and curious and invited us to explore what it is about poetry that made him feel that way—and I think some of us could…a little bit relate.”
Today, Tadmor has published poetry in H BOMB Magazine and has won the English Department’s Charles Edmund Horman Prize for her creative writing talent. She spent last summer at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with poet James Galvin. “I was writing with a lot of bunny rabbits around and thunderstorms, a few tornadoes—and silence, at the same time, which created a lot of productive tension between the silence and the thunderstorms,” Tadmor says.
Coming to Harvard was “definitely a twist in the plot” for Tadmor. After finishing high school in New Mexico, she returned to Israel for mandatory military service, while most of her friends from the U.S. began studying at American colleges. Following the “very, very intense experience” of service, working as a waitress, and taking acting classes, Tadmor applied to Harvard largely because she was drawn to the flexibility of the liberal arts, in comparison to the more strictly professional programs at Israeli universities whose approach, she says, “comes at the expense of asking questions and of tolerance for the unknown.”
Tadmor cites a comment from a professor that has left an indelible mark on her consciousness: James Engell, whose class on British Romantic poets she is now taking. “He said, ‘Poetry is not an escape; poetry is the truth as we see it.’ That sentence really resonated with me. That’s exactly what it’s about—poetry or academia. It’s about stopping to think and to ask questions and holding what Keats would call ‘negative capability’: being able to hold the unresolved and the undetermined, the unclear…Not knowing everything, but knowing enough to be trying.”
“I kind of like the excitement of not knowing,” Tadmor confesses. She does not yet know what she will do after graduating and is still searching for a way to continue writing poetry and exploring clinical psychology without having to compromise either.
“I might stick around for a while before I go back [to Israel], you know...” she says. “Trying to hold the unknown.”