A poetic connection

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One need only glance at the clock during a mere hour-long class on a sunny Friday afternoon to observe how slowly time can pass. Compared to that one hour, 28 years is a long time. Much may change in such a span, but some bonds, such as the friendship of Professor Andrea Sununu and poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg, never fade.  

Corresponding only via letter and email since 1983, the two friends met in person again when Schnackenberg visited DePauw Wednesday as a part of the Kelly Writers Series.  After picking her up from the airport, Sununu said, “We just seemed to have picked up from when I had last seen her. We had a lovely, lovely evening.” 

The women met when Schnackenberg took Sununu’s Shakespeare class at Mount Holyoke College in the spring of 1975, during Sununu’s second year of teaching.  

 “She was a terrific student, and I’ve been hoping that she could come to DePauw for a long time,” Sununu said. 

Sununu has incorporated Schnackenberg’s work into her teaching for many years.  Emily Follas ’03, upon hearing from Sununu that Schnackenberg was visiting DePauw, responded by quoting a snippet of her favorite poem by Schnackenberg, titled “A Dream” — “where are you it’s so black/ the taste of smoke is smoke I back / away.” 

After multiple attempts to find a time when Schnackenberg could visit, Sununu’s wish to see her student again was fulfilled when Schnackenberg spoke in Peeler’s auditorium, where students filled the seats and lined the walls.  

When she introduced Schnackenberg to the expectant crowd, Sununu told the story of Schnackenberg’s participation in Mount Holyoke’s “Glascock Poetry Contest,” founded by Robert Frost, in which Schnackenberg took first place.   

After describing her as “a quintessentially interdisciplinary poet who thinks about poetry, art, music, history and philosophy,” Sununu welcomed Schnackenberg to the podium. 

The crowd greeted Schnackenberg with enthusiastic applause before she began her presentation, thanking Sununu. 

“Those of you who are students of Professor Sununu know how lucky you are,” said Schnackenberg, who went on to describe Sununu as possessing “energy that is phenomenal, and apparently inexhaustible knowledge.” 

 Schnackenberg read and commented upon a small selection of her poems. Her way with words captivated the audience – coming through in her poetry and engaging explanations behind the poems, which were sometimes quite humorous.  

Before she read “Archimedes Lullaby,” Schnackenberg inquired, “If I read Lullabies to you, and you fall asleep, have I succeeded?” 

Schnackenberg also read “The Paperweight,” referring to it as “that poem I wrote in college,” at Sununu’s request. “Professor Sununu, I would do this only for you,” she said. 

After her reading, Schnackenberg opened the floor for questions. When asked what she did to keep herself in the state of mind of a poet, Schnackenberg responded, “It’s all I do, really… except that I’m a good cleaning lady.” She explained that chores like vacuuming gave her time to think alone − time when nobody can interrupt. 

Many of the students who packed the room seemed eager to hear Schnackenberg read her poetry aloud.  Freshman Carly Tebelman especially enjoyed listening to “Supernatural Love.”

“The way she read it gave stress to different words than when I had read it, and it sort of gave it new meaning, especially the last stanza,” said Tebelman. 

Junior Zach Donish, who writes poetry himself, came to the event before he had the chance to read any of Schnackenberg’s work, but was “very excited” nonetheless.  Afterward, he shared his impression of her poetry. 

“I never really heard that kind of repetition before. The poem was so long; it was like a symphony,”  Donish said. 

Professor Marnie McInnes, a member of the Speakers and Writers Committee that chose Schnackenberg for this Kelly Writers Series event, also expressed excitement about Schnackenberg’s visit.  

“One of the nice things about this kind of event is, you get charged up again,” said McInnes.  “After a poet has come, we get inspired.” 

Thanks to a donation from MariLou Kelly ‘55 and her husband, James, DePauw welcomes several writers each semester through the Kelly Writers series. 

“We brought a variety of people from all across the country,” McInnes said. 

Schnackenberg can now be added to the list of writers to have visited DePauw, and her depth as a poet was clearly exhibited in her presentation. 

Schnackenberg incorporates a variety of historical figures in her poems, including great contributors to science such as Archimedes and Charles Darwin.  When the Biology Department threw a party to celebrate Darwin’s birthday a few years ago, Sununu did not miss a chance to share Schnackenberg’s poem, “Darwin in 1881,” at the commemoration. 

Referring to mathematical concepts such as “The wondrously unlocked square root of 3” and the geologic process of plate tectonics in which “underearth plateaus / Are moving in slow motion” in the poem “Archimedes Lullaby” from her newest novel, Heavenly Questions, Schnackenberg’s poetry brings the typically separated areas of poetry and science together. 

Thanks to Sununu’s connection to her former student, the DePauw community was able to experience Schnackenberg’s poetry. 

“I’m very grateful that she’s made the trip. It’s been just wonderful to see her again,” said Sununu. 

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Due to Ms. Schnackenberg’s respect for licensed photography, she declined to have her photo taken by The DePauw.