Earlier this month, poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi visited F&M as the 2023 Hausman Lecturer. While on campus, they had a craft talk, reading, and one-on-one meetings with select students. In one such one-on-one, Calvocoressi paused to discuss the start of their career. It started a long time ago, at Sarah Lawrence College, in some fateful poetry classes. This was during what they described as “the guts of the AIDS crisis.”
“I came to Sarah Lawrence as a young queer person coming into my understanding of my sexuality, my body” they explained, “at the same time I was coming into my understanding of myself as a poet.” They cite the importance of these moments of growth occurring when they did, surrounded by the support systems in place there.
“Everyone had someone who was dying,” they explained, noting their professor Mark Doty having many moments where he would be lecturing and have someone come in to tell him he needed to go home to his partner, Wally. One such workshop interruption came with the news that Wally had died of aids.
“What I watched was poets involved in mutual aid. I watched them care for each other. I watched them care for us. I watched them in the midst of an unspeakably difficult time.” Calvocoressi also mentioned that poets Marie Howe and Michael Klein lost those close to them at this time. Their experience at Sarah Lawrence was undeniably influenced by AIDS, but also by the empathy the crisis inspired. Calvocoressi explained how this was a defining moment of their understanding of what it means to be a poet and the power of a supportive community: “I watched them come to class and teach us poetry, and I think that that was the beginning of: a) thinking that I could be a poet in the world and b) of me learning what my poems could do.”
When asked about networking and leveraging connections to further their poetry career, Calvocoressi said that “networking and leveraging area terms we use now, but what I watched was poets involved in mutual aid. [I saw] how poets could take care of each other. It was beyond jobs, it was more about your job is to take care of each other, to keep each other’s poems in the world. The workshop group was like that, too.”
After college, Calvocoressi worked as an administrative assistant to save up money and go to a workshop with a poet whose work they loved. It was clear, they explained, that the poet leading the workshop “Had a very different community mentality.” After three classes, the poet asked to meet with Calvocoressi in the hallway. “You have a great imagination, you’re so smart. That’s why I want to tell you that you’re not a poet. I want you to stop wasting your time.” Calvocoressi paused, wincing at the memory. They relay the impact of that moment—mortification, shame, months of withdrawing from writing.
Much later, Calvoressi explained that they resigned to going to a different workshop, this one with Marie Howe, who they met at Sarah Lawrence, thinking “if she tells me I’m not a poet then I guess I’ll stop.” At the end of the week-long workshop, Howe said to them “You need to call Columbia and tell them that Marie said I need to be with you.”
“I did,” Calvocoressi added, “and I later got into Columbia’s poetry MFA program.”
The story ended with some poetic justice. “Six years ago,” Calvocoressi says, “I was at a different college as a professor. A poet comes up with big stack of my books — it’s the teacher of that class [who told me not to be a poet].” They explain how the poet did not recognize them, calling themself a ‘superfan’ and asking Calvocoressi to sign their books. Calvocoressi explains the power and karma of that moment. They explain that they asked if the poet still taught, thinking that if they do I’ll tell them and it’ll wreck them, but if not, I’m not going to bother. They weren’t, so they signed the books.
Calvocoressi linked that moment back to their start at Sarah Lawrence: “They taught me the kind of poet I didn’t want to be. My whole life began with being taught by people who cared about each other, and people who cared about people being put on a path to be cared for.” Friendship and care means more than making and leveraging connections. “The poets who came up in that era… there’s a kind of love movement. A movement of caring for each other.”
In 2006, Gabrielle Calvocoressi came to F&M as a part of the Writers House’s Emerging Writers Festival. In 2023, they were our Richard and Edna Hausman Lecturer. “Sometimes the universe lets you really see how far your life has come,” they mused in the caption of their Instagram post about visiting F&M, “Big deep gratitude to poems. To poets. To a long life that’s led me back to see how luckily far I’ve come.”
Junior Ella Peeples is a Staff Writer. Her email is email@example.com.