UT's Director of Creative Writing Marilyn Kallet looks the part of a poet — long dark hair, unconventionally stylish clothes and that aura of eccentricity and passion that seems to accompany all good poets.
As Kallet walked to the front of the room, she did not stop behind the podium as most writers do, but rather chose to claim the front of the room as her stage with her writing memorized. She began to speak, and as her introductory words slipped effortlessly into poems, the way she performed became an embodiment of the poetry within her.
More than a hundred students, faculty and poetry fans packed Hodges Library's Lindsey Young Auditorium for the "Writers in the Library" event on Monday night. They were all gathered to hear Kallet perform from her latest book, "The Love That Moves Me."
"Clearly, it's poetry time in Tennessee," Stanton Garner, head of UT's English department, said in his introduction about Kallet and Associate Professor of English Art Smith.
Smith was supposed to accompany Kallet at the second-to-last "Writers" event, as he recently released his latest book of poetry, "The Fortunate Era." Due to family matters, however, Smith was unable to attend.
Instead, Keith Norris, UT alum and associate professor at Pellissippi State Community College, stepped in to open for Kallet. He read one of Smith's poems, "Golden Gate," as well as a few of his own, including one Kallet named "Backwoods Inferno."
"Inferno," read by Norris with a southern accent, takes Dante's work and puts it in the scope of Knoxville; the main character, "D," travels through levels of hell with Virgil, from west Knoxville to half of the Henley Street Bridge, exploring divine love and poetry along the way.
Norris' poem served as a good lead into Kallet's work, as the poet spends a lot of time with Beatrice, Dante's love interest, and Dante himself in her new book. Dante's work was also the inspiration for the title.
"I was reading Book 2 of Dante's 'Inferno' and Beatrice talks about 'the love that moved me,'" Kallet said. "The past tense of this stopped me, and I knew that was going to be the title of the book."
Comprised of 80 poems, Kallet's poetry spans from East Tennessee to Hawaii to Auvilliar, France, where Kallet has lead a workshop for poets every year for the last five years. The diversity of place, she explains, all fits into the larger themes of the work.
"Once the idea of love poetry and the journey of love was clear to me, then the various geographic and spiritual places seemed to fit," Kallet said. "Everything fits into the arc of love, even the poems that are anti-love, like the one about the chicken."
The poem she references is called "That Chicken" and is the story of when Kallet bought a chicken in France for 15 euros. In essence, it is an anti-ode to the chicken whose "skin was so thick it couldn't be insulted, not even by a knife." She finished performing this poem amid laughter and applause from the crowd.
For Andrew Emitt, a senior in English, the way Kallet presents her poetry is a large part of what makes her so engaging and compelling to watch.
"A lot of big poets perform like they never learned how to read," Emitt said. "I hold that aspect to a really high standard and Marilyn is just such a great performer."
Kallet takes this part of poetry very seriously as performing, for her, is connecting with the audience.
"Good performing breaks down the barrier between poet and audience," Kallet said. "It's liberating. There's a physicality to it when there's no shield or crutch."
Kallet's students are proud to have a successful poet as a teacher and find themselves continually inspired by her talent and composure. Olivia Bricen, a junior in English, attended the event because of the influence Kallet has had on her own poetry.
"I'm taking one of Marilyn's classes right now and she has just been the biggest inspiration to me," she said. "She's my favorite poet and a great performer. She takes risks and is experimental and just does whatever she wants."