My freshman year dorm wall was, as most tend to be, a collage of magazine clippings and postcards and poems. The effort that went into the placement was haphazard, but the curation itself was meticulous. I had spent months beforehand filing the scraps away in a bright yellow folder emblazoned with my name in red marker that still sits (filled with rejected wall hangings) in my desk today.
How do we choose what art we hang? The act of curating one’s dorm decor is complex. The dorm wall is intimate enough that it can only be inspected by those invited to view it, but public enough that the content cannot be too personal. It is for this reason that art and poetry are the perfect accessory to dorm room curation, because both retain personal and public significance. That is to say, when I hang e.e. cummings’ “since feeling is first” I may simply be going for the “literary” look with an easy, cliché choice, or the poem might have had a greater personal impact upon me. The meaning — if any — behind the choice cannot be known to the viewer. The same goes for the art. Is the Georgia O’Keefe print above my shelf a sly nod toward embracing the feminine or did I merely find the aesthetics of the white flower, dug from an old bin of crafting supplies, ideal for my blank wall space?
I’ve had Sharon Olds’ poem “The Victims” on my wall for two years now, though the dorm itself has changed. I even took it down once to read at a poetry event, but returned the text to its designated space later that night. In September I attended Olds’ reading at NYU, sitting in the third row so as not to seem too eager, and listening in awe as she read her newest collection, Odes. I bought a copy afterward, and stood in line until it was my turn to meet the poet, rehearsing what I might say to a woman I’d admired for years.
Sharon wrote my name in the same kind of script my grandmother uses, only pointier. And finally, voice shaking, I told her that “The Victims” (at this point, an old work of hers, pre-Pulitzer and all) was my favorite poem.
She thanked me, smiling in her gauzy way, just as she had all the previous patrons. This was anticlimactic, of course, and as I rode the elevator back down into the warm evening I was saddened with the quiet sincerity of the interaction.
The fact is that I wanted, as most people do when they meet their idols, an immediate connection, for the idolized to see something within me and say, “Yes, I wrote this just for you.” But that doesn’t happen because in reality we cannot see anything in others that they don’t reveal themselves, just as you cannot know whether I hung that postcard of the Cathedral because I’m religious or because it reminds me of someone.
I stood before Sharon Olds and told her how much I loved her work, expecting to see in her the part of me that her poetry sang to, and instead all I could see was Sharon.
So when she signed “from, Sharon Olds” that from brought about a cold realization that we were, in fact, distant strangers. It’s a feeling I’ve experienced whenever I’ve met writers I admire; it is the failure of an involuntary belief that the intimacy of reading someone else’s work means we’re bound in some equally intimate friendship. This relationship, however, is entirely manufactured on the reader’s end, and the writers themselves are none the wiser.
When I hung Olds’ poem, I was merely looking at a picture of a picture of the poem on her own wall. It was the distorted image of a word that I could read, but just barely, and not even certainly, like smudging an unsure answer on a test. And when Sharon Olds sees me seeing her poem, it is but the reflection of a fragment of the piece she once wrote.
“The Victims” still hangs on my wall beside the postcards, the e.e. cummings, and the O’Keefe; a collection of things we all only half understand in our presumptions. I haven’t fully read Odes — perhaps because I’m afraid to be reminded of how distant I am from Sharon Olds — but it sits, pristine and signed nonetheless, on my bookshelf under my curated dorm room wall.
Nikki Shaner-Bradford is a Barnard sophomore, and managing editor of the Columbia Review. She is known to tape both poetry and prose to her bedroom wall.