A mash-up reading: Karen Donovan and Maya Janson collaborate at the Poetry Center

Photo Courtesy Of karendonovanpoetry.com [left] and smith.edu [right] | In a mash-up reading, poets Karen Donovan and Maya Janson collaborated at the Poetry Center on April 8

Patience Kayira ’20
Assistant Arts Editor

It is not an unusual thing for writers to collaborate. On Saturday, April 8, the Poetry Center held an event featuring the works of Karen Donovan and Maya Janson. Although advertised as a poetry reading, Janson stated that the event was not going to be a typical poetry reading. The event was a combined reading, which Janson described as a mash-up. With the event lasting only 50 minutes, it was on the shorter side, as Janson ensured that “we’ll be right back at the studies.” In front of a small audience of 20, Janson and Donovan debuted their “mash-up” with soothing, nature-filled tones.

The inspiration for a mash-up stemmed from a phone conversation between Janson and Donovan, as their preparatory process most often takes place over phone calls. It was Donovan who suggested the method.  In a moment of humor, Janson asked the audience, “Does anyone have an idea of what a mash-up is?” Brief silence fell across the room until an audience member said wittily, “I thought it was something that had to do with potatoes.” Laughter filled the room, with both Donovan and Janson partaking in the humor.

In a musical context, a “mash-up” involves combining two different songs together, usually by singing the verse and chorus of one song and switching to a different song somewhere in the bridge of the chorus. However, Janson defined the term with a technical approach. In her words, “Taken from Wikipedia, a mash-up is a term web-developers use when combining data from different sources.” For the reading, Donovan and Janson called upon the level of synthesis associated with a technical mash-up to “read poems [together] in a splicing way.”

Karen Donovan began the night with a few excerpts from her new collection of poems, “Your Enzymes are Calling the Ancients.” Introduced by Janson as a “scientist, theologian and a philosophy king,” “Your Enzymes are Calling the Ancients” presents Donovan’s passion for nature. In crafting the collection of poems, Donovan read articles about biochemistry and chemistry to learn, as she described “what’s under nature.” Donovan, a marketing and communications officer for The College Crusade of Rhode Island, is an esteemed poet. Recipient of the 1998 Juniper Prize of Poetry for “Fugitive Red,” a collection of poems, Donovan’s work has also been published in a number of journals, including FIELD, Seneca Review and Conduit.

The first poem Donovan shared, “Ogham,” was read with gentleness and fluidity. Donovan’s calm voice suited the peaceful ambiance of the Poetry Center. Before reading the poem, Donovan provided context to the poem’s title. She said, “Ogham is an ancient Celtic inscripted language with symbols.” The poem was filled with symbols and imagery of “salamanders, shepherds, maple-lights, ghost-dancers and hummingbirds practicing pre-calculus.” Leaning slightly to one side, Donovan asked, “Want the wood and not the wood-tick?” Some audience members responded with intrigued head turns or by leaning forward. Yet a collective smile spread across the audience when Donovan read, “We could pause time by pinning rivers with rocks and tornadoes with citations.” The meditative lilt of Donovan’s voice in combination to the intriguing language used in the poem kept the audience engaged and eager to hear more.     

Then it was Janson’s turn to take the podium. Janson, a lecturer of English at Smith, read from a soon-to-be published manuscript. Similar to Donovan, Janson is also a well-published poet. Her poems have been in The New Yorker, the Massachusetts Review, Harvard Review, and more. Janson has also received the Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and the artist residency at MacDowell Colony.

Yet, unlike Donovan, Janson’s poetic voice was more rhythmic. However, both poets did share natural images. Janson spoke of “petals, thorns, stems and leaves.” At the same time, the majority of Janson’s poems focused less on describing the internal world of nature and more on what can be gleaned from observation. The audience learned of an “old story being long gone before being truly gone” and of a “story of life with holes in it.” Overall, Janson’s poems complemented Donovan’s earlier piece.

When it came time for the “mash-up,” both poets read together smoothly and effortlessly. Donovan began with “Questions of a Sail” and Janson responded with “Dispatch.” Both poets matched each other’s cadences well. At the end of the reading, Donovan and Janson smiled at each other with a look of reassurance, both saying, “We did it.”

Leave a Comment