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Stratis Haviaras Reading with Sherwin Bitsui and Rowan Ricardo Phillips Weaves Language into Song

In the Thompson Room of Harvard’s Barker Center, poets Sherwin Bitsui and Rowan Ricardo Phillips performed selections of their poetry.
In the Thompson Room of Harvard’s Barker Center, poets Sherwin Bitsui and Rowan Ricardo Phillips performed selections of their poetry. By Matthew S. Allana
By Daniel T. Liu, Contributing Writer

On the evening of April 16, the tick of the towering grandfather clock in the Thompson Room of Harvard’s Barker Center provided a rhythm for two voices; two poets, Sherwin Bitsui and Rowan Ricardo Phillips, took turns on the podium performing their poems to an audience. Their voices created a spell of enthusiasm in the room, bringing a sense of awe to the listeners.

Professor Christopher Pexa introduced the poet Sherwin Bitsui, winner of an American Book Award, a Whiting Writing Award, and a Native Arts & Culture Fellowship. Pexa highlighted the act of transformation in Bitsui’s poetics, describing how the poet’s written and spoken language seems to carve its own movement, as if seeking liberation. The first poem Bitsui read exemplified Pexa’s points.

The piece began with repeated iterations of the Navajo word for water. Bitsui’s opening line dominated the silence of the room — in spoken Navajo, Bitsui encapsulated the rhythm of raindrops. The musicality of Bitsui’s reading is not to be understated: From poem to poem, his image-filled pieces traversing visceral worlds — like the “gunmetal skies” in “Flood Song” — crafted a rhythmic and visually imaginative beauty. Bitsui’s reading took advantage of this rhythm to create a sense of drama, a complete show of his poetic talent.

Phillips also tended toward a musical and dramatic reading. With an introduction by Professor Tracy K. Smith urging readers to examine how Phillips’s work unwinds the discordant noise of the 21st century, Phillips made it clear what he wants his poetry to be: Something that sounds good and sparks belief and passion.

He achieved this goal brilliantly in his poem, “Rowan Tree,” playing with spoken language and rhyme: “I stepped out / Into the warm night and stripped the rowan / That had been growing there bare, until it / Was barely there, roots crowning its nadir, / And everywhere crowing beware beware.”

Phillips’ skillful, rhyming performance transcended into what Smith describes as music. His reading was empowered by its attractive and playful melody, while also reminding the audience of the importance of literary art in social movements and contemporary life. For example, he read aloud, “the heat, how it burns the back / Of the throat,” in a poem title “Screens” written after the death of George Floyd.

Ultimately, these two poets worked in conversation to stun the audience.

“It was just amazing,” said Hengzi “Bill” Yang ’27. “They have different kinds of voices, different styles, but they were both amazing, and both were in a kind of non-Eurocentric tradition.”

Between Phillips and Bitsui, the night of musical poetry offered a new space for language that constructed new futures and revelations through spoken form. Reading the poems aloud created new possibilities beyond the confines of the page that accentuated these rhythmic works.

“I thought the crowd was marvelous, and I feel heartened and energized,” Phillips said after the reading. “I began the reading saying Long Live Poetry, and I feel as though that’s played out tonight, and it’s been wonderful.”

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