Donning an entirely black outfit and black-rimmed glasses, Professor of English and Comparative Literature Studies (ECLS) Martha Ronk stepped up to the lectern.Students chattered outside the window, but as Ronk swung from poem to poem, Johnson Student Center’s Morrison Lounge disconnected from the college just beyond its walls and the audience sat transfixed by the lines during her poetry reading on Tuesday, Feb. 17. Her ensemble already fit the demeanor of a Hogwarts professor, but as the reading began, it was was though she was working magic with words and the melancholy nature of her work.
Students absorbed the words, knowing that because it is Ronk’s last semester at Occidental, there is a finite amount of time left to pick the accomplished poet’s brain. Between the segments of her performance, Ronk explained where she drew inspiration for each book, citing “Hamlet” as a catalyst for “Why/Why Not,” and humans’ connection to objects and the transience of memory as the thread running throughout “Transfer of Qualities” and “Vertigo,” respectively.
The thematic nature of Ronk’s work derives from very specific experiences. “All of my books have somehow come out of being in the arena of somebody else’s work or some area like the desert, so I wrote a book about the desert and what it was like to be in Joshua Tree and places like that,” Ronk said.
Ronk draws inspiration from writers such as Henry James and W. B. Yates, and also imitates their sentence structure and reworks their words into titles for her own pieces. During her reading, Ronk debunked the image of a poet being struck by the perfect words and copying them down in one effortless try. She emphasized the work and editing that poetry requires, a concept she passes on to students in her creative writing and Shakespeare courses.
“Every time you think you’re done workshopping a poem, she always gives you a little bit more that you could do,” Editor-in-Chief of Feast magazine and English and Comparative Literature Studies (ECLS) major Theodora Doyon (junior) said. “She’s always asking more of you.”
Ronk’s poetic work has been chosen for the National Poetry Series and received a PEN Center USA Literary Award for poetry by an author from west of the Mississippi. Her latest book, “Transfer of Qualities,” is a National Book Award long-list selection. In addition, she has published a number of short stories and scholarly pieces.
Although this is Ronk’s last semester at Occidental, she hopes to return and occasionally teach individual classes (rather than a full course load) while also continuing her own writing.