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Language dissected in latest New Writing Series

The University of Maine New Writing Series commenced its spring program Thursday, Feb. 13, welcoming poet Orlando White for a special evening reading. The event was cosponsored by the Honors College.

The New Writing Series began in the fall of 1999. The program has since hosted more than 100 readings by poetry and fiction writers. It is cosponsored by the English Department and the National Poetry Foundation, drawing financial support from the Lloyd H. Elliott fund and grants from the UMaine Cultural Affairs Committee. The series has developed to explore contemporary work in poetry, prose, translation and the new media. Emphasis is placed on fresh, unusual or neglected writing.

“It is our attempt to keep Orono in the loop,” said Steve Evans, professor of English and director of the New Writing Series.

White is originally from Tólikan, Ariz., and is Diné [Navajo] of the Naaneesht’ézhi Tábaahí [Zuni Water’s Edge Clan]. He holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts and a Master of Fine Arts from Brown University. White currently teaches at Diné College in Arizona.

His poems, which explore English as a dehumanizing language to native people, have appeared in various publications, including The Kenyon Review and Salt Hill Journal. He is the author of “Bone Light,” a collection of poetry. On Thursday, he read from this collection, as well as from his future publication, “Letterrs.”

White began his reading by thanking those who played a part in bringing him to Maine. He then introduced himself in his native tongue, which he described as a “very physical language” during an earlier presentation to an honors class.

“When I speak my own language, I feel selfless,” White explained in his lecture for Honors 180: A Cultural Odyssey.

“I see language as people,” he continued.

White began with a poem from “Bone Light” titled “To See Letters,” which was autobiographical in many respects. In the poem, White recounts experiences with his stepfather, who was physically abusive.

“I remember the shape of his fist,” the poem read.

White’s stepfather pushed the English language on him when he was a child. When White failed to learn English, his stepfather would grow frustrated.

As White continued through his poems, the audience began to see how he perceived language as people. In a poem titled “i-j” White depicted the letters as a man and woman, respectively. The hyphen represented the two, holding hands.

“Ars Poetica” was White’s take on Horace’s work, by the same title.

“Writing a poem about poetry, by a poet,” is how White described his intentions. The audience’s collective chuckle at this was met with a soft smile from White.

“Part of my second book explores letters even more,” White said, as he continued into the second portion of his reading.

He began with a poem titled “A” and showed the audience how the uppercase letter, when turned upside down, resembled an ox’s head.

After sharing poems titled “E” and “O” with the audience, he concluded his presentation.

“The alphabet, to me, is another whole culture in itself,” he said.

A Q-and-A session followed his reading, and he was met with great enthusiasm by the audience.

The next New Writing Series reading is scheduled for Feb. 28 in Soderberg Auditorium in Jenness Hall. The series will continue throughout the spring semester, welcoming various writers from all walks of life.