Good Life

‘Tiger Heron’ reading: Robin Becker leans toward poetry, but still tells a good story

Poet and Penn State professor Robin Becker said growing up with a literary grandmother inspired her writing.
Poet and Penn State professor Robin Becker said growing up with a literary grandmother inspired her writing. Photo provided

Like most poets, Robin Becker writes from her deepest concerns and feelings, with each collection opening a window onto the writer’s obsessions during the period of composition. But what may surprise any reader about her poems from “Tiger Heron” is that the works often read like stories. Becker said she believes these are stories about life experiences that all people will appreciate and relate to.

Webster’s Bookstore Café in State College will host a reading by the Penn State professor Saturday. Recently published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Becker’s eighth collection of poetry, “Tiger Heron,” will be featured, as well as a book signing.

In “Tiger Heron,” Becker often uses certain themes from her previous collections — animals and nature, intimate relationships between human beings and the daily change in everyday life.

“I write a good deal about dogs, those wordless creatures with whom we share our homes and lives,” she said. “I remain fascinated by the intimacy of that relationship. I also include poems about old age and infirmity, losing parents and reconfiguring one’s life in the wake of certain losses.”

In a more experimental vein, Becker authors poems that explore language, ethnicities and historical elements such as “Dyke,” “The Sounds of Yiddish” and “The Civil War Comes to Town.”

“I like to think readers will find new favorites in this collection,” she said. “Most people will experience the death of a parent; perhaps one of my poems on the subject will have special resonance for them.”

With careful use of diction and syntax, stanza shape and music, a poem about a trip to Costa Rica can shimmer with any number of meanings and associations.

“All poets who write from autobiography face the challenge of incorporating details and implications that reach beyond the personal,” Becker said. “These may include displacement, finding oneself in the unfamiliar, questions about spirituality or any number of issues raised by the diction.”

Growing up literary

Becker was born in Philadelphia in 1951. She earned a B.A. in 1973 and an M.A. from Boston University in 1976. After teaching for 17 years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Becker came to Penn State in 1993, where she is a professor of English and women’s studies.

She grew up in a clannish, Yiddish-speaking, Jewish household in Mount Airy. After attending Abington Friends School — a Quaker day school that emphasized the literary and visual arts, music and the humanities — Becker developed an interest in literature. Her maternal grandmother, an immigrant from Ukraine, told vivid stories of her childhood in Russia.

“I listened to her diction and pacing and learned how to tell a good story,” she said. “Like my grandmother, I valued a good story over accuracy.”

In addition, Becker was greatly influenced by 1970s women poetry writers including Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Maxine Kumin, Denise Levertov and Susan Griffin.

In 1977, Becker had her first book published by Alice James Books, titled “Personal Effects,” a three-poet anthology featuring Becker, Helena Minton and Marilyn Zuckerman. Becker has authored many other books, including “Giacometti’s Dog” (1990); “All-American Girl” (1996), which won the 1996 Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry; “The Horse Fair” (2000); and “Domain of Perfect Affection (2006).”

A voice for new poets

As a literary citizen, Becker hopes to join the national conversation about literature with the publication of “Tiger Heron.” In her capacity as contributing and poetry editor of the “Women’s Review of Books,” Becker reviews and writes critically about the poetry of her peers, with a column on contemporary poetry called “Field Notes.”

Becker’s poems, essays and book reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including “Slate,” “The American Poetry Review,” “The Boston Globe,” “Gettysburg Review,” “Ploughshares” and “Prairie Schooner,” for which she was awarded the 1997 Virginia Faulkner Prize for Excellence in Writing. Additional honors include fellowships from the William Steeple Davis Foundation, the Mary Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Becker is confident that the discussion about contemporary poetry will continue all around the country, at conferences, in university reading series and in summer workshops.

“As a professor who has mentored five young poets to publish their first books, I take great pride in assisting the next generation of poets to enter the conversation,” she said.

In reflection on her past works and in anticipation of the reading of her eighth book of poetry, Becker said she wants her stories to not only be her own, but to be her readers’ stories as well.

“We all return again and again to beloved poems,” she said. “I hope audience members will want to read and re-read the poems they hear.”