Visiting Writer Daniel Borzutzky Shines a Light on Injustice

In this year’s second installment of the Creative Writing program’s Visiting Writer Series, Daniel Borzutzky, a Chilean-American poet and 2016 National Book Award winner, visited campus to engage with students and the greater Reed community through dialogue and exhibition of his work. The Poetry Salon and the separate reading in Eliot Chapel were both held on Thursday, September 26, where Borzutzky performed and discussed his latest poetry collection Lake Michigan for eager audiences.

Daniel Borzutzky currently holds the title of Associate Professor of English at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, where he’s resided since he received his Master of Fine Arts and started writing. The evocative and upfront storytelling that defines his poetry is informed by the city’s stark geography and bleak political landscape. “A deeply haunting extrapolation of current events” is how one reviewer described the way he navigates present reality in his poetry. The themes of Lake Michigan conjure unease and feelings of despair in the face of the tumult of American politics. It aims to project the struggle of marginalized people and the “experience of trauma” they face daily, that is “affecting in a collective way.”

Though Borzutzky’s inspiration comes from actual events and protests having taken place in Chicago’s South Side, some of which he observed firsthand, the premise for his latest book is based in fiction. Located on the shore of the Great Lake the book takes its name from, Borzutzky imagines a prison where refugees and immigrants are unlawfully detained, and chronicles the unending cycle of hell that their lives descend into. Modeled after “interrogation sites” used by the Chicago Police Department, Borzutzky didn’t have to look very hard for instances of abuse and mistreatment of the oppressed in his own city. During his conversation with Reed students, Borzutzky described why he chose the setting where the central narrative of his poems takes place. “The [lake’s] beauty masks all sorts of larger political problems within the city,” he explained, describing how the city of Chicago’s government often allocates funds to develop recreation around Lake Michigan, despite the fact that there are periods where the lake is inaccessible to due to outbreaks of E. coli bacteria in the water. All of this unfolds while the city continues to ignore the increasing poverty of urban communities, a common reference point in many of his poems.

Simply put, Borzutzky’s work acts as a reflector. He’s not pushing a divisive political agenda, nor presenting himself as a moral authority dispensing advice and conventional wisdom. Rather, the function of his work is to hold up a mirror to the face of injustice, and as a result, the audience is afforded a greater understanding of how race and politics intersect under current conditions. At the core of his work are wrenching stories of violence against the defenseless, and the banal evil of ignorance of these issues provides. Professor of Creative Writing Samiya Bashir deftly summarized the hope to found by experiencing the emotional labors of Borzutzky’s verse: “Give yourself to his work, and you’ll be changed.”

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