Writers@Drew Welcomes Poets Levi Cain and Laura Kolbe

Poetry readings and a Q&A closed the series for the fall semester

November 2023 – Drew University’s Writers@Drew closed the fall semester by welcoming poets Levi Cain and Laura Kolbe as they presented readings from their work. 

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Levi Cain and Laura Kolbe

Sara Martin, adjunct professor of English, organized and moderated the event. 

Cain is a non-binary Queeribbean writer serving as a poetry fellow for Mass Cultural Council and a fiction fellow for Sundress Academy of the Arts. Cain has been a finalist for the Limp Wrists’ Glitter Bomb Award, and a nominee for both the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net for poetry and short fiction. They are active within the Boston poetry community, having recently featured in the Trans Day of Visibility benefit for Harbor Camp and the Trans Resistance March. Their first chapbook, dogteeth., was published by Ursus Americanus Press in 2020.

Kolbe is a writer, physician, and medical ethicist. Her debut poetry collection, Little Pharma, won the 2021 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Her writing can be found in The Nation, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Poetry, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Yale Review, and has received support from the Calderwood Foundation, the Key West Literary Seminar, MacDowell, and the James Merrill House.

Kolbe shared poems from her Little Pharma collection, as well as poems from a new collection yet to be published. Cain read a selection from dogteeth. and several poems from a new manuscript. 

The readings were followed by a Q&A session from the audience of students, faculty, and staff.

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A student asks a question of the poets.

A student asked about the process the authors experienced when publishing their first book.

“There’s very rarely a grand scheme,” answered Kolbe. “Often there is a lot of indirection and trying and failing. I thought I had a book ready for about five years before I actually did. I sent my first manuscript out without success. I then revised it substantially and wrote new work, incorporating new poems into my manuscript and weeding out poems that no longer felt like my voice or fit the larger arc of the book.”

“The published book had very few pieces that were in my original manuscript and I think there’s a lesson in that,” she continued. “The book needed to be entirely rebuilt. Setbacks and failures are often the universe telling us something important.”

“It took a lot of patience,” said Cain. “I thought the book was ready way before it actually was. I got a ton of rejections at first and it was daunting. It’s a labor of love. I try not to internalize it.”

Another student asked if the poets keep any work for themselves.

“That’s a lesson I had to learn,” said Cain. “There’s an urge as a poet to give as much as you can and to be memorable—which I’m not as interested in anymore. There are poems that I keep for myself. As a Black queer trans person, I think about visibility a lot and the ways in which institutions of power wants disconnection from the body. How in love I feel facets my being now and I feel okay with sharing.”

“A handy trick is to tell yourself none of it needs to be published,” answered Kolbe. “It’s really important to silence the inner critic, or the thought of audience. I give myself permission to write all the stuff, and later I can cool off and walk away and I decide what I want to communicate to others.”

“Some poems are treasures for myself. The first step is to put it all out there for yourself. There are so many craft tricks that can help with shame and vulnerability,” she added, such as adding a persona, changing the pronouns, and making up a character. 

When asked how to write what you believe in without feeling rejection, Cain answered, “It doesn’t matter, I get to do whatever I want. But it took me a while to get there.”

“It is hard to clear your mind and visit the blank page and create new work,” said Kolbe. “A huge part of staying alive during this process is staying involved in other poetry. See the range of what can be done by reading other forms of criticism and response.”

The free event was co-sponsored by The Casement Fund and Drew’s English Department.

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