Robert M. Gay Memorial Lecture

The Simmons University Department of Literature & Writing held a poetry reading by Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith on Thursday, Apr 27, 2023.

Professor Smith read selections of her various poems, touching on timely themes of love and desire, justice, loss, and human connection across time. Critics have praised Tracy K. Smith's expansive storytelling, flawless language, and her engagement with the paradoxes of everyday American life that are intimately linked to broader histories, justice, and racism. 

This event is part of the Literature & Writing Department's annual Robert M. Gay Memorial lecture series. It was moderated by Literature & Writing Professor Patrick Sylvain. The event was free to attend, in-person (the Linda K. Paresky Conference Room) and online.

Hosted by The Department of Literature & Writing and the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities. Co-sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships and Eileen Friars '72.

Please email [email protected] if you have any questions.

Tracy K. Smith

Self photo of Tracy K. Smith


Tracy K. Smith received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her third book of poems, Life on Mars. The collection draws upon the genre of science fiction in considering who we humans are and what the vast universe holds for us. In poems of political urgency, tenderness, elegy and wit, Smith conjures version upon version of the future, imagines the afterlife, and contemplates life here on earth in our institutions, cities, houses and hearts. Life on Mars was a New York Times Notable Book, a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice, and a New Yorker, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year.


Smith's debut collection, The Body's Question, was selected by Kevin Young as winner of the Cave Canem Prize for the best first book by an African American poet. Straddling languages, speakers, and geographies, the poems bear witness to love, loss, and belonging while laying claim to a large and nimble sense of identity. In his introduction, Young writes, “Smith…seems perfectly at home speaking of grief and loss, of lust and hunger, of joy and desire—which here often means the desire for desire, and a desire for language itself.”


Duende, Smith's second book, received the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. The collection takes its title from a term Federico Garcia Lorca brought into broad parlance. The duende is the wild, unpredictable and oftentimes dangerous energy an artist might seek to conjure up and contend with. Unlike the Muse, which exists beyond or above the artist, the duende sleeps deep within—as pure urge, fury, chaos, and passion—waiting to be awakened and wrestled, often at great cost. In Smith's hands, this sense of artistic struggle and daring meets up with forms of social and political struggle, resistance and survival. It also illuminates the private upheaval of divorce and its aftermath.


In her memoir, Ordinary Light, Smith explores her own experience of race, religion, and the death of her mother shortly after Smith graduated from Harvard. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award, and named a Notable Book by both the New York Times and Washington Post.


Smith's fourth book of poems, Wade in the Water, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for its examination of the grave contradictions tied up in America's history. In documentary “found” and “erasure” poems, Smith unravels the knot of racism and denial as the central conundrum of America, and she forges a vocabulary of compassion as a possible route forward through our current strife. In 2019 a selection of her poetry titled Eternity: Selected Poems was published in the UK. In 2020 Smith and Changtai Bi, co-translated Chinese poet Yi Lei's book of poetry My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree. In 2021 she edited, with John Freeman, the prose anthology There's A Revolution Outside, My Love, Letters from a Crisis, and was guest editor for The Best American Poetry 2021. Her most recent book of poetry is Such Color: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, October 5, 2021). Her next book will be To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul(Knopf, November 7, 2023).


Smith served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States, during which time she traveled across America, hosting poetry readings and conversations in rural communities. She edited the anthology American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time during her laureateship, and launched the American Public Media podcast The Slowdown. In March 2021 she was voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


Smith wrote the libretto for two operas; Castor and Patience, in collaboration with composer Gregory Spears, is rooted in a conflict over historically black-owned land. The work premiered with the Cincinnati Opera in July 2022. The other, A Marvelous Order, with composer Judd Greenstein and video artist Joshua Frankel, is about two competing visions of progress in New York City.


Smith is a Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at Harvard Radcliffe Institute and a professor of English and of African and African American Studies in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences.


Patrick Sylvain and Tracy K. Smith: An Interview

Simmons University professor Patrick Sylvain interviews former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith about her work.

Piper S. McKeever and Tracy K. Smith: An Encounter at Simmons

Simmons student Piper Summer McKeever interviews Tracy K. Smith, a former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winning writer.

Previous Robert M. Gay Memorial Lectures

cover of Martín Espada's book of poems, FloatersThe Simmons University Department of Literature & Writing held a poetry reading by the 2021 National Book Award winner, Martín Espada. Espada read from his award-winning book, Floaters, the title of which references a term border patrol officers apply to migrants. Espada’s reading engaged timely concerns of immigration, racism, and the politics and aesthetics of poetry.

This event was part of the Literature & Writing Department's annual Robert M. Gay Memorial lecture series and was moderated by Professor Richard Wollman.

Hosted by The Department of Literature & Writing and the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities. Co-sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships and Eileen Friars '72.

About Martín Espada

Martín Espada has published more than twenty books as a poet, editor, essayist and translator. His latest book of poems is called Floaters, winner of the 2021 National Book Award. Other books of poems include Vivas to Those Who Have Failed (2016), The Trouble Ball (2011), The Republic of Poetry (2006) and Alabanza (2003). He is the editor of What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump (2019). He has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Creeley Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the PEN/Revson Fellowship, a Letras Boricuas Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Republic of Poetry was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. The title poem of his collection Alabanza, about 9/11, has been widely anthologized and performed. His book of essays and poems, Zapata's Disciple (1998), was banned in Tucson as part of the Mexican-American Studies Program outlawed by the state of Arizona. A former tenant lawyer in Greater Boston, Espada is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Learn more at

Image promoting Toni Morrison Event with B&W photo of Toni Morrison


Toni Morrison’s writings uniquely speak to contemporary issues of ethics, adversity and change. Distinctly highlighting the lives of African Americans, they articulate new ways of understanding our racialized American history and delineate methods of ethically reimagining our relations to race and racism. Featuring lectures by three leading Toni Morrison scholars, this event embraced Morrison’s work as a model for inquiry and change in our historical moment of crisis around issues of social justice and racial ethics.


Keynotes by


  • Carolyn Denard: Founder and president of the Toni Morrison Society.
  • Jean Wyatt: Author of Love and Narrative Form in Toni Morrison’s Later Novels (2017) and recipient of the Toni Morrison Society’s “Best Book Award.”
  • Daphne Lamothe: Author of Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture, and Ethnography (2009).


Moderated by Sheldon George: coeditor of Reading Contemporary Black British and African American Women Writers: Race, Ethics, Narrative Form (2020).


Presentations were streamed via Zoom on Thursday, April 15th, 2021, from 5-7pm. This event was free to the public.


This Robert M. Gay Memorial Lectures event was hosted by the Simmons University Department of English, the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities, and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships.


Check out the Simmons Library Toni Morrison LibGuide in advance of the Symposium.


Photo of Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman"The Aesthetics of Regard: Theorizing New Millenial Black Feminist Art Praxis"

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman is Associate Professor of American Studies and English at Brown University and the author of Against the Closet: Black Political Longing and the Erotics of Race (Duke University Press, 2012). Her areas of specialization include African American literature and culture, gender and sexuality studies, and visual culture and media studies.

The Poet, The Artist, The Printer: Book Arts and the Small Press

April 6, 2018

(L to R) Anna M. Warrock, Janet MacFadyen, Kate Stearns, Ed Rayher
(L to R) Anna M. Warrock, Janet MacFadyen, Kate Stearns, Ed Rayher


What are the choices that go into producing the physical book — the first thing a reader sees? How do the choices of physical object and artwork guide and enhance the text within to make a book more than the sum of its parts? Artist Carlyn Marcus Ekstrom joins Slate Roof Press master printer Ed Rayher and Slate Roof poets Janet MacFadyen, Kate Stearns, and Anna M. Warrock to discuss the opportunities and restraints that come when poets, artists, and printers work collaboratively on a project. Slate Roof poets are fully involved in their own book design, including cover choices, papers, typeface, artwork, die cuts, etc. The result is that each chapbook uniquely reflects its author, while showcasing the work of both local artists and bookmakers.


Photo of Marah Gubar"Listening to Children in the 1970s"

February 15, 2017

Marah Gubar teaches and writes about children's literature from a variety of periods, but she is especially interested in nineteenth- and twentieth-century representatives of childhood and the history of children's theatre. Her book Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children's Literature came out from Oxford University Press in 2009 and won the Children's Literature Association's Book Award. She has also received several teaching prizes, including the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni Teaching Award and the Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Award. Gubar joined MIT's literature faculty in 2014. Previously, she was an Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, where she directed the nationally recognized Children's Literature Program. She earned her Ph.D. in English from Princeton University.

Photo of Robert Pinsky"Foundling Culture: A Poetry Reading"

March 17, 2016

Robert Pinsky is one of America’s foremost poet-critics. Elected Poet Laureate of the United States in 1997, his three-year tenure was marked by ambitious efforts to prove the power of poetry – not just as an intellectual pursuit in the ivory tower, but as a meaningful and integral part of American life. His Selected Poems was published in 2011. His previous books of poetry include Gulf Music (2008), Jersey Rain (2000), The Want Bone (1990) and The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996. Pinsky co-edited Americans’ Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology with Maggie Dietz (2000). His best-selling translation The Inferno of Dante (1994) was a Book-of-the-Month-Club Editor’s Choice. Pinsky has won many awards and honors including the William Carlos Williams Prize, the Harold Washington Award from the City of Chicago, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the PEN American Center.

Photo of Robert Pinsky"Serious Noticing: Life, Death, and Details"

February 25, 2015

James Wood has been a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker since 2007. In 2009, he won the National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism. He was the chief literary critic at the Guardian, in London, from 1992 to 1995, and a senior editor at The New Republic from 1995 to 2007. His critical essays are collected in "The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief"; "The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel," which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and "The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays." He is also the author of a novel, "The Book Against God," and a study of technique in the novel, "How Fiction Works." He is Professor of Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University.

Photo of Robert Pinsky"Clotel's Queer Mulatta and the Ends of the Family in American Literature"

February 26, 2014

Holly Jackson (Simmons '02) is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and the author of American Blood: The Ends of the Family in American Literature, 1850-1900 (Oxford 2014). Her work has also appeared in PMLA, The New England Quarterly, ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, and Early African American Print Culture (Penn 2012).

Cover of Racial Indigestion by Kyla Wazana Tompkins"Sweet! Sweet! Come, come and eat, Dear little girls With yellow curls"

Race and the Queer History of Eating in the Nineteenth Century

April 17, 2013

Kyla Wazana Tompkins is Associate Professor of English and Gender and Women's Studies at Pomona College and the author of Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the Nineteenth Century (NYUP 2012). The recipient of fellowships and funding from the Charles Warren Center for American History at Harvard University, the Mellon Foundation, the NEH, and the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, her writing has appeared in Callaloo, Gastronomica, and the Journal of Food Culture and Society.

Cover of Racial Innocence by Robin Bernstein"Psychological Damage or Resistance?"

Re-Evaluating the Clark Doll Tests through the Lens of Performance Studies

February 29, 2012

Robin Bernstein is Associate Professor of African and African American Studies and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University. She is the author of Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (NYU Press 2011) and Terrible, Terrible!, a feminist children's book (Kar- Ben 1998) and the editor of Cast Out: Queer Lives in Theater (Michigan 2006).

E.D.E.N. Southworth's Retribution"Serial Blindness"

Geography, Genealogy, and Gender in E.D.E.N. Southworth's Retribution

April 14, 2011

Professor Dillon received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and her research interests include Early American literature, Atlantic colonialism, the early novel, feminist theory, political theory, aesthetics, transatlantic print culture, Caribbean literature, and early American drama. Author of The Gender of Freedom: Fictions of Liberalism and the Literary Public Sphere (Stanford University Press, 2004), Dillon is currently completing the manuscript of New World Drama: Theatre of the Atlantic, 1660-1850, which will be published by Duke University Press. Dillon was awarded the Heyman Prize for Outstanding Publication in the Humanities at Yale University in 2003, the Society of Early Americanists Essay Prize in 2005, and most recently the Jay Fliegelman Excellence in Mentorship Award given by the Graduate Caucus of the American Society Eighteenth-Century Studies in 2011.

Authors and Simmons Alumnae, Mameve Medwed & Elinor Lipman

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Mameve Medwed is the author of four novels: MailHost FamilyThe End of an Error, and her newest book, How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life, which was selected as an Honor Book for the 2007 Massachusetts Book Awards. (The next book, Men and Their Mothers, is forthcoming.) Her short stories, essays, and book reviews have appeared in YankeeRedbookPlaygirlThe Boston GlobeThe Washington PostAscentThe Missouri ReviewConfrontationThe Readerville Journal, and Newsday, among others. Her first novel, Mail, has been optioned for motion picture development by Anand Tucker (ShopgirlGirl With a Pearl EarringHilary and Jackie) and will be directed by Sharon Maguire (Bridget Jones's Diary) with a screenplay by Wendy Wasserstein. Medwed has taught fiction writing for many years at The Cambridge Center for Adult Education where she has also served on the board. Born in Bangor, Maine, she and her husband have two grown sons and live in Cambridge.

Elinor Lipman is the author of nine critically acclaimed books: the novels My Latest Grievance, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, The Dearly Departed, The Ladies' Man, The Inn at Lake Devine, Isabel's Bed, The Way Men Act, Then She Found Me, and a collection of stories, Into Love and Out Again. She has taught writing at Simmons, Smith and Hampshire colleges. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Gourmet, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and The New York Times’ “Writers on Writing” series. Of her work the Boston Globe has said, “Lipman has been referred to as ‘the master of the art of screwball comedy,’ but ‘screwball’ doesn’t do justice to her fiction, which renders serious subjects through a lens of humor and hope.” Faye Weldon wrote of My Latest Grievance in the Washington Post, “Up there at the top is where this enchanting, infinitely witty yet serious, exceptionally intelligent, wholly original and Austen-like stylist belongs..."

The movie adaptation of Then She Found Me, starring, written and directed by Helen Hunt, will be released later this year.

The Robert M. Gay lecture, named for the Simmons professor of English, director of the English department, and founder and dean of what was then the Graduate School of Publications, was made possible through an endowed lectureship by Eleanor Bates ’39, Miriam Gosian Madfis ’40, and Dorothy Gove Russell ’32 in his memory.

Gayatri Gopinath
Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies at UC Davis

"Queer Regionality: Locating Lesbians in Sancharram"

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

In 2004, the Chicago-based South Asian filmmaker Ligy Pullappally released Sancharram (The Journey), a feature film that depicts a burgeoning love affair between two school girls growing up in a small town in rural Kerala, South India. Sancharram is filmed entirely in Malayalam (the official state language of Kerala). This paper argues that we need a queer diasporic reading practice in order to situate the film within both (at least) two discursive frames simultaneously: the diasporic/transnational, and the local/regional. Indeed what becomes apparent when considering the interrelation between these two interpretive frames is that the film has a specifically transnational address even as it is rooted intensely in the regional. In its depiction of the opprobrium the two girls face when their affair comes to light, the film is not so much concerned with the failures of the Indian nation to live up to its promises of democratic egalitarianism for all its citizens. Rather, the film interpellates a transnational lesbian and gay viewership by couching the struggle of its heroines in terms of a discourse of global queer rights. The film therefore allows us to consider the formation of a lesbian transnational subject through the use of a regional linguistic and aesthetic idiom.

Gayatri Gopinath is Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of California at Davis. She received her Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University, and is the author of Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures (Duke, 2005). Her work on sexuality, gender, and South Asian diasporic literature, film, and popular music has appeared in the journals GLQ, Positions, and Diaspora, as well as in the anthologies Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader, eds. Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur (Blackwell, 2003), Queer Globalizations: Citizenship, Sexualities, and the Afterlife of Colonialism, eds. Arnaldo Cruz Malave and Martin Manalansan (NYU Press, 2002), and Burning Down the House: Recycling Domesticity, ed. Rosemary M. George (Westview Press, 1998).

The Robert M. Gay lecture, named for the Simmons professor of English, director of the English department, and founder and dean of what was then the Graduate School of Publications, was made possible through an endowed lectureship by Eleanor Bates ’39, Miriam Gosian Madfis ’40, and Dorothy Gove Russell ’32 in his memory.

Co-sponsored by
English, Sociology, Women's Studies, & Gender/Cultural Studies