After receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read initiative, the Ackland Art Museum will host a virtual community reading program this month.
NEA Big Read at the Ackland will highlight LGBTQ+ perspectives and focus on the poetry collection "Advice from the Lights" by Stephanie Burt.
The NEA Big Read program helps organizations around the country host community reading events. When Ackland’s Head of Public Programs Allison Portnow Lathrop heard the NEA was accepting applicants, she knew the Ackland was up to the challenge.
“This is the first time the Ackland has applied,” Lathrop said. “But we have been doing a book discussion program with Carolina Public Humanities on campus for the last four or five years, where we would use a book to compare with art that's on view at the museum.”
"Advice from the Lights" was chosen with this purpose in mind.
“At the time when we were applying, we had hoped that an exhibition called 'Transamerica/n: Gender, Identity, Appearance Today' would be traveling to the Ackland,” Lothrop said. “Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, we were not able to have that show in person.”
However, the Ackland will still be showing some work from the Transamerica/n exhibition online, including work from Nelson Morales. His photography highlights muxes, a gender-fluid community native to the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Lothrop says Morales' work will pair nicely with "Advice from the Lights," which illustrates author Stephanie Burt’s journey toward coming out as a transgender woman.
“I think that a lot of the book is about growing up,” Burt said. “Trying to be a child and sort of failing at it.”
Burt’s audience has grown since her coming out. A lot of readers want to talk to her about what they have in common such as being transgender or queer and being parents. Burt aims to make the communities she belongs to feel seen through her poetry, but also to reach beyond them.
“If I did absolutely everything that I wanted to do with 'Advice,' then I have made art that not only speaks to white trans girls who read a lot of comic books,” Burt said. “But also work that speaks to people coming from very different demographic positions.”
Burt welcomes in a broad audience through “talking object poems," in which animals or inanimate objects are personified and used as a mouthpiece.
“Talking object poems are fun because they post technical challenges,” Burt said. “What would it feel like to be this thing that’s not human? But they're also really fun because there are ways to be emotionally open.”
Burt prefers to reference everyday objects because personal details or references to other works can alienate or distract the reader from the core message.
“No one says, well, I feel shut out because they haven't read a lot of X-Men comics or I haven't read 'The Iliad' or I haven't read 'Paradise Lost,'" Burt said. “So talking object poems and talking animal poems for me are this tremendous liberating opportunity.”
Burt wrote most of the poems in "Advice," which was published in 2017, at a point when she says she was less frightened and angry at the state of the world. However, she hopes the pieces serve a timeless purpose.
“It is in part an expression of joy, trans joy, joy in small things and a way of thinking about a very fortunate trans life where I got to make friends and fall in love and not get subsumed into clichés of tragedy,” Burt said. “It's supposed to be fun.”
NEA Big Read at the Ackland will kick off on Oct. 21 with a keynote conversation between Burt and UNC women’s and gender studies professor Jacob Lau. Later book discussion registrants will receive a free copy of "Advice from the Lights," paid for by the NEA grant.
For kids and families, there will also be three virtual Drag Storytime events in October, featuring local drag performers Shasta Kola and Naomi Dix.
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