Rachel Mennies Shares Book, “The Naomi Letters,” at Working Writers Series Event

Sarah Carter ‘24

News Editor

On Thursday, October 20, 2022, the Working Writers Series held its second event of the semester in Rehm Library. The event showcased the work of poet and editor, Rachel Mennies, and featured both an afternoon craft talk and an evening reading session. 

Upon receiving a warm welcome at the evening session from Professor Morris Collins of the English Department, Mennies rose to the podium and appraised her audience members with a bright and effervescent smile. She noted that this would be her first time conducting an in-person solo reading of her work, “The Naomi Letters,” a collection of epistolary poems. 

Mennies promptly moved to introduce the first piece in her collection of poems and opted not to divulge details about the collection of poems as a whole. Providing only sparse details about the format of the book – which includes mainly non-reciprocal, one-sided written dialogue between an unnamed speaker and a woman named Naomi – she chose to leave room for the audience to carry out their own exegesis of the text.

Throughout the event, Mennies engendered discussion about her writing style and writing process in-between readings. She broached questions such as, “How do you funnel information into an epistolary poem?” and “How do you build a world outside of [a letter from one person to another]?” In response to these queries, she revealed that one way she endeavors to make relationships more visible in her poetry (and therefore convey some level of information about the characters) is to include letters that are either unfinished or unsent. Coincidentally, the next poem she read was titled, “Unsent draft.”

Mennies also made known that many of her own life experiences provided the groundwork for the content of her poetry in “The Naomi Letters.” She cited examples of conversations she had had with professors during her undergraduate experience at Boston University, as inspiring much of the speaker’s discourse in her letters. Furthermore, her years of sunless winters in Pittsburgh, her Jewish heritage, and her lived experience as a bisexual woman also wield an effect on her letter-writing style  in “The Naomi Letters.”

In the Q&A portion of the event, students inquired about Mennies’ poetry and other ongoing projects. There were, in fact,  a slew of questions from the audience – something that might suggest how intimately Mennies’ work resonated with the audience. One student posed a question about Mennies’s selection of the name Naomi for the speaker’s love interest, while another questioned the extent to which the speaker’s character coincides with Mennies herself. To the first query, Mennies responded that she has always liked the name Naomi and the way it sounds phonetically — the choice for naming her sole character was therefore not a hard one. In response to the second, she said that the speaker is a composite of real people as well as a cousin-like counterpart to her own character — resembling some of her own experiences as a once-closeted queer woman. 

The remaining Working Writers Series Events schedule is as follows: Nana Kwame Adjei-Benyah will present his work on October 27th at 7:30 P.M. and on November 10th at 7:15 P.M. There will be a literary panel with conversations and readings by Rodrigo Fuentes, Megan McDowell, and Jee Leong Koh.

Cover courtesy of BOA Editions, Ltd.

Categories: News

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