On April 19th, 2022, in honor of National Poetry Month, Anne Lawrence Guyon interviewed Elisa New for Brandeis Alumni Stories. The online piece, “To Be Nobody But Herself,” celebrates New’s accomplishments and chronicles how her undergraduate experience at Brandeis has informed her career as a humanist.
New, Brandeis University Class of 1980, notes the specific influence of the celebrated Paul E. Prosswimmer Professor of Poetry and General Education, Allen Grossman, on her career: “I was in awe of his largeness of thought and presence and generosity as a teacher… He said poetry’s highest calling is that people speak to each other across time, that we galvanize our human community by writing poetry, all the way back to the ancient poets. He talked about the grandeur and moral power of poetry, and I got my ambition to pursue that kind of impact from him.”
In addition, she credits Max Richter Professor of American Civilization Stephen Whitfield with helping to provide a historical dimension to her studies, “Steve helped to make me an Americanist and, during my studies with him, I learned that history and culture were always going to be important to me. The formal pursuit of the humanities that I loved studying with Allen needed to synthesize history and culture, and Steve helped me do that.”
The knowledge New found at Brandeis of poetry’s place in American history continues to inform her practice: “We’ve forgotten early moments in American history when entertainment was reading poetry around the fire with each other… The classroom has continued to provide a space for communal reading of poetry and, in my show, I try to keep that communal experience central… We also forget that poetry always was about everything. Topics often now referred to as journalism used to come out in poems. The Iliad is about war. We remind viewers that poetry is about all the things you care about—politics, cities, beauty, sports, love, the past, the present, friendship, family.”
Speaking on the reawakened interest in poetry in young people, especially poetry emerging from traditions of spoken word and hip-hop, New says: “They’re studying old techniques and persona and voice. But even poetry students can initially think it’s like religious communion and that they don’t have the right to put their voice to that. We show them that they do. Case in point, Amanda Gorman, who delivered last year’s Presidential inauguration poem at age 22, will be a guest on Poetry in America next year. Such an inspiration to young poets.”