Last Thursday night, I, and dozens of others, strayed from the customary march to Prospect and braved the February frost on our journey to Small World Coffee in celebration of the launch of this spring’s Nassau Literary Review. I had never been to a group reading before, and to tell the truth, the images I had conceived included turtlenecks and snapping applause and dark, smoky rooms with wooden stools centered in a spotlight. However, upon entering the crowded café, complete with a proxy bouncer checking proxes in the doorway, it became clear that this night wouldn’t fulfill the clichéd poetry slam performance I had secretly hoped for, but instead held the promise of a Princetonized experience of its own.
The event was scheduled to start at 10:30, though when I arrived ten minutes early I found the shop packed and the line for coffee already snaking around tables. The mad scramble for pens by people filling out their coffee coupons in the storefront of Small World felt like the weekend ritual for passes outside eating clubs, though in a more sober dress code. As we waited, the writers anxiously peered over the shoulders of those who were leafing through copies of the Review’s small yellow books, hoping to pick up a compliment or two before their recital. Maybe it was the winter sweaters or the congestion of bodies in the crowded room, or the nerves of that night’s readers, tangible through their shaking bodies and tapping fingers and darting eyes, that set the ambience for the evening; the room was loud and the temperatures high. My order went from hot to iced in the half hour it took to reach the cashier at the end of the bar. A caffeine buzz replaced that of the alcohol that typically fuels our Thursday nights, and the change was refreshing.
The shop was filled with the regular Small World type, though more exceptionally of a younger generation and with a greater number of familiar faces, garbed in the usual shades of gray. An acoustic guitar lured the attendees to a makeshift stage on the deck in the rear of the room. Students settled down around tables in front of a microphone. When the coordinators finally managed to quiet the peripheral crowd, writers walked one by one to the microphone, each with an allotted five minutes to deliver the piece of art they planned to showcase that evening.
The discolored graphics of the Nassau Literary Review Facebook page projected onto a screen behind the stage seemed not to distract the audience from the words spoken into the mic. Nor did Small World’s sort of disconcerting disco ball, splattering swarms of tiny silver lights that danced on the writers’ faces as they read. And despite the lighting and despite the chatter and despite the barista’s shouts of “Mocha!” that littered the various readings, I still managed to catch a glimpse of the kind of magic I was looking for.
Suddenly the faces from lecture and precept and dining halls emerged and stood before me as poets and musicians. This was the first opportunity I have had at Princeton to observe the delivery of student writing by the authors themselves, unconstrained by the pressures of a class dominated by goals and deadlines. Students read their pieces to an audience present of its own accord, in an environment free of criticism and only voluntarily analytic. They ended their poems and stories to applause and nothing more. Their words were printed on the pages with finality and they delivered them proudly. Having only taken workshops through Princeton’s Creative Writing department, I realized the luxury of such an atmosphere. There are so many moments in which I wish we could transport out to the brick Small World backdrop adorned with magenta Christmas tree lights and sit in hushed appreciation of each other’s art.
There is a certain magic in the way that people fall into the lullaby of their own words spoken aloud. It is a peculiar sort of self-indulgence that can be sensed by the audience as their shaky starts build confidence and their voices grow louder and the speaker finally commands the attention of the room. And this magic extends to the audience members. To hear someone read their own stories or poems and to want to meet them in person for the chance to explore for yourself the complexities of their mind is no doubt an unusual way to forge a friendship.
That night, the readers were kicking their young works of art out of the nest, bearing the enormous responsibility of a performance that ensured they flew. Though the change in scenery and in activity was energizing, there was something greater that hit me, of which I wanted to locate a source other than the Small World’s caffeinated masterpiece in my hand.
So much about Princeton is unique, and some of us love it and the others love to hate it. One generalization I would venture to make is that at the very least, Princeton students take pleasure in introspection. For whatever purpose, making sense of ourselves, I’ve found, is one of our favorite hobbies. (So here I go.)
What struck me most on Thursday night was the lack of an overarching label that represented the writers. Though the works are printed in a single book that is published biannually as the Nassau Literary Review, each piece is submitted and assessed individually. Those readers stood in front of the crowd on Thursday and read from their own short stories and poems as independent writers, without any affiliations. They may write for the Prince or for the Nass, or belong to a number of other campus organizations, but that evening those tags were disregarded. There was no audition, no application, only the submission of a personal piece of art that was evaluated on its own merit and nothing more.
One of the things we most often judge ourselves for is the prevalence of selectivity on campus, and our seemingly school-wide desire to perpetuate it. But can we really blame ourselves? From that first whiff of acceptance emanating from the virtual orange tiger on our computer screens senior year, it seems that Princeton students are hooked, hooked to the point of constructing an endless realm of highly selective classifications to occupy us for the next four years.
From the moment we step onto campus in the fall of freshman year, we are overwhelmed with posters and flyers and Dillon Gym booth attendants pressuring us to define ourselves. We are faced with the challenge of rebuilding our identity on a much grander scale in the company of an incredibly talented community. Thus, we snap up the opportunities and pray for the best. We apply, we audition, and we bicker, with the intention of distinguishing ourselves within the student body. Perhaps, we hope, these carefully engineered combinations of identities will bring us closer to answering the ageless question of who we really are.
And then we flaunt it.
There is something simultaneously unifying and isolating about the labels that people embroider on their eating club/dancing club/Varsity Club gear. In the hectic lives of Princeton students that balance heaps of work on top of impossible schedules, it is easy to categorize the people you meet and to identify them by the defining characteristics of where they eat and the theater in which they perform. And, on the other side, we must find some comfort in an awareness of the way people look at us, for better, or for worse, and for knowing that regardless, those that matter most are the people on the inside with us. There is no denying the thrill of champagne showers and the bittersweet trails of shaving cream and silly string that remain as reminders to the excluded ones who will follow them the next morning on their way to class. And who better to impress with yet another highly selective status than an audience of 5,000 other students who suffer from that same addiction?
Students in our high school senior class were distinguished by the colleges they planned to attend, but upon arriving at Princeton, this was one of our strongest, maybe one of our few commonalities. This unity is broken, to some extent, within our first few days on campus, when we begin to center our attention on our individual identities. This, I believe, is further enhanced by the tight quarters in which we live and work and compete with everyone around us. I do not deny the cohesiveness of being a Princetonian that links generations of alumni with an unfaltering loyalty to Old Nassau. There is an unmistakable school pride that can be felt at victorious sporting events and homecoming and reunions, but inside the Orange Bubble, mere campus unity seems unsatisfactory, and we search for our own niches to crawl into.
Which is perfectly natural. I waste no time lamenting the existence of this complex, for competition is often what fuels performance, and the desire for a close-knit pseudo-family structure is, I am sure, a very ordinary aspect of human nature. I just recognized, listening to the various artists at the Review launch party on Thursday night, the relief that comes from a brief disengagement from Princeton’s elaborate social structures.
After coming back from the launch party and sitting in my dorm, flipping though the pieces in the Review’s booklet, I came across the centerpiece pages on which poetry by some of Princeton’s most celebrated literary graduates (and even more celebrated drop-out) was printed. These poems, according to an introductory blurb, were chosen because of their survey of Princeton University.
In those pages, I read the poetry of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Peale Bishop and Edmund Wilson and caught tiny glimpses of the Princeton of their day. And my discovery of their musings on a place that they treat in their poems as a living being had a startling effect on my conception of Princeton.
It was a remarkable experience to read these poems penned nearly a century ago and exclaim, that is what it’s like to walk around campus in the rain, or you can see stars from Holder Court, or my roommate’s heart is also wrung by all the ancient beautiful things which dead men have sung (!!). I was overwhelmed with timelessness.
I cannot think of a more attractive notion. There were students here writing about the same things we see now and the same feelings and challenges and insecurities and budding life philosophies and the same secret hopes we kindle in our own writing. In fact, any worries we may harbor about the cultivation of our identity through exclusive and selective classifications are rendered trivial. What’s truly comforting is the realization that we are all irreversibly bound by the luxury of timelessness.
For those of you without the fortune of holding a copy of the spring edition of the Review, I will leave you with a few lines here. From Edmund Wilson’s The Sleeping College:
But, now the sounds of mirth and music cease,
Have we no ears for anything but mirth?
How should we hope for quietude or peace,
Where learning lives and human souls find birth?
Because I think he got it. That’s pretty much what we’re doing here.