On Thursday evening, the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series (JRVWS) put on its final event of the semester, ending the year with two fantastic authors and a celebration of creativity. Hope College played host to writers Hilary Plum and Chen Chen, both of whom demonstrated their literary prowess when they gave live readings to students and faculty in the Recital Hall of the Jack Miller Center for Musical Arts. Throughout the hour, audience members were exposed to vulnerable yet powerful musings of the soul, both in poetry and nonfiction. Both visiting writers also attended a question-and-answer session in the Fried-Hemenway auditorium earlier that day. Hilary Plum is the author of three works, titled “They Dragged Them Through the Streets,” “Strawberry Fields” and “Watchfires.” Her skill was particularly evident in “Strawberry Fields,” for which she won the 2018 Fence Modern Prize in Prose, and “Watchfires” won her the 2018 GLCA New Writers Award. She currently teaches creative writing at Cleveland University and coedits the Open Prose Series at Rescue Press.
For her live reading, Plum chose excerpts from “Watchfires,” a strong, memoiresque piece of nonfiction that serves to intertwine personal experiences with global and political phenomena. Students listened in earnest silence as she spoke of her struggles with anorexia, a loved one’s fight against cancer, the horrors of the Boston Marathon bombing, the suicidal thoughts of a veteran and various other subjects that cemented a formidable realism in her writing. Plum’s words and the messages within them – at times subtle, at others perfectly unmistakable – demanded to be heard. She spoke softly, yet the entire room was captivated by every syllable. Chen Chen, although his work was lighter at times, gave no less of a thought-provoking reading. His collection of poetry, entitled “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities,” has won numerous awards including the A. Paulin, the GLCA New Writers Award and the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry. Currently, Chen co-edits the journal “Underblong” and is working toward his PhD in English and Creative Writing through Texas Tech University. For his live reading, Chen pulled from this compilation as well as some of his newer works. His artistry was both humorously sarcastic and painfully visible, and his reading was accompanied by outbursts of laughter as well as deep silences. Chen’s poetry draws from his complex experiences as a gay man born to Chinese immigrants, and throughout his storytelling he had the attention of the whole audience within the palms of his hands. Sarah Simmons, a senior English major and Co-Editor in Chief of The Anchor, was able to meet with him before the event. “I had the awesome opportunity to meet with Chen Chen for a one-on-one session.
He offered some helpful advice on little changes I could make to make my poem better. He also visited my advanced poetry class and showed us different art pieces and ways to go about getting inspiration from them. It made me want to go explore the local art galleries and let the art there add depth to my own art form of poetry,” Simmons explained. “Later, we touched on deeper subjects. I had found his poem ‘I’m Not a Religious Person But’ particularly interesting, and he said that he continued to find those ideas interesting and explained how the poem set the tone for the rest of his book with its hints at connection with a higher creative power.” This was the final event of the semester, but be on the lookout to hear which talented writers the JRVWS will host next year!