Student work shines at virtual Café Shapiro

April 20, 2021

Tess Klygis, a freshman in the LSA Honors Program, was nervous. It wouldn't be her first time speaking in front of an audience, but this time would be different; this time she would be reading at Café Shapiro, the library's annual student reading series, and the audience would include her close friends as well as an unknown number of people tuning in from locations all over the country. 

Since her work is so emotional, revealing, and close to her heart, she worried that if her friends didn’t like it... Well, it was scary to think about.

Take an excerpt from "Pomegranate Seeds," a poem that offers her take on life’s journey, portrayed as a twisted and uneven path that leads to love, death, rebirth, loss, and joy:  

...But Persephone was not naive.

She felt the extremes of life in her chest and forgot about the rest

There is only loving

There is only losing

The laughing and the touching and the bruising

They don’t matter.

Not when there’s love to be made

Not when there’s people to be saved.

How lovely of Persephone to be seated in the stars

To remind us that loving and losing

Go hand in arm.

In the end, she said, "It was super nice to hear my four roommates cheering and yelling after I had finished. I was grateful for the support."

She would love to do more readings in the future. "I definitely write some verse that lends itself to speaking patterns, and it's really fun to showcase that side of my work.” 

Along with "Pomegranate Seeds" she read other poems from her collection "Lover's loss: poems from someone who knows nothing about love," which was written over the course of fall semester and during winter break. It's about romantic love, familial love and loss, and mythology, all loosely tied together.

Klygis was among about 40 students reading over four evenings, carrying forward a spring term tradition despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic, which obliged the series to go online, like so many of the world's events and activities. 

Theresa Stanko, project coordinator at the library who's been running this event for the last 7 of its 22 years, explains that U-M faculty nominate students whose work stands out. 

“Café Shapiro is a very successful engagement with students and faculty in the humanities," Stanko said. Students who read at Café Shapiro are mentored by their instructors to refine and polish their work, and they consult with people in the library to prepare for the performance, which includes overcoming fears of reading in front of a live audience.

This year's necessary shift to the virtual posed some challenges, but also offered new opportunities for participation, from family and friends able to attend from home, to guest hosts, among them university alums who shared their paths from humanities degrees to creative careers.

For Dylan Gilbert, a U-M senior studying film, television and media, as well as English and  creative writing, Café Shapiro delivered a sense of community and connection in a year that has lacked both.

It's been difficult, Gilbert says, to be without the common spaces where she and others typically share their art and writing. "So even virtually it felt very nice and necessary to be in a space like that again. I left the event feeling very comforted by the fact that we can still successfully create safe and encouraging spaces for writers even in the midst of a pandemic." 

Gilbert's work over the past year has centered on Black womanhood and mourning, exemplified by an excerpt from her poem "Appointment":

...Everything looks fine.

But there is salt water

in my lungs

 

He turns toward

his computer.

 

Studies show that it's actually

quite common for African

American patients to experience salt water

in the lungs.

 

But, I’m

drowning

 

It's not unusual for African

American patients to experience some

drowning in their lifetime.

 

It’s hereditary?

 

No.

 

But it

Hurts

 

The doctor swivels

to face me. Takes

off his glasses. His eyes turn

kind.

 

You know, women

like you are so

Strong. In a week

I bet you won’t

even notice.

You can watch video of Dylan Gilbert and Tess Klygis at Café Shapiro, and you can read more of Gilbert's poetry, along with the work of all the Café Shapiro participants, collected with other volumes from the series going back to 2010. 

 

by Alan Piñon

 

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