Jennifer Michael Hecht is “a minor famous atheist,” as she puts it. Her bestselling book Doubt: A History made her a cult figure among skeptics and catapulted her into the public speaking circuit.
At a New School poetry forum last week, the popular philosopher, professor and BAP blogger spoke to the home crowd, musing on her career, poetry and soul (more on that later). In addition to life after Doubt, she discussed her latest nonfiction project, Stay, and her most recent book of poems, Funny.
Hecht, the rare poet with a Columbia Ph.D. in the History of Science, read from her first book of poems, The Next Ancient World, which serves as a love letter to future anthropologists.
In “Please Answer All Three Of The Following Essay Questions” she asks: “If someone wanted to make you/ slap them, hard, would it be better for him or/ her to say that your father didn’t like to hear you/ sing, or to say that your mother purposefully pricked/ her finger and bled into the coleslaw she brought/ to the physics-department picnics every year.”
Hecht recited “Villanelle If You Want to Be a Bad-Ass” and “Cannibal Villanelle,” prompting moderator David Lehman to ask why she delights in the form.
“I fall in love with lines,” she said, “and the Villanelle repeats the line.”
Lehman responded, “I thought you would have said something like, ‘it controls the chaos of ideas that are constant in my brain.’”
He noted that Funny, like most of Hecht’s books, is “entirely, obsessively about something.”
The relationship between humor, poetry and philosophy captivated Hecht, she said. For a while, she only wrote poems that cracked open classic jokes. Think about a guy who walks into a bar, then reveals his inner world.
“When you slow down a joke and show compassion for the people in it, it becomes philosophy, and when you speed up philosophy, it becomes a joke,” she said. “Back and forth.”
The ‘turn’ is vital to both poet and comedian, Hecht added.
“A joke is always a mistake. Something has to snap,” she said, adding, “In most good poems, the poet is surprised at some point.”
“Are you saying poetry ensues from a deliberate mistake?” Lehman asked.
“Yes. When most of us catch a mistake, we preserve it,” Hecht said.
Now, Hecht is releasing her ravenous mind on a more somber subject — suicide. Earlier this year, she wrote an entry for this blog that became a Boston Globe article called “Stay.” In it, she made a humanistic case against suicide after two friends, the poets Sarah Hannah and Rachel Wetzsteon, killed themselves.
In Stay the book, Hecht plans to chronicle suicide’s history and hamper its future.
“You can prove a suicide influences a suicide,” she told the audience. “If you want some woman crying in her dorm room to get through her dark night, then you have to get through yours.”
Hecht passionately read “No Hemlock Rock,” a poem that tackles the same subject with rhyme and repetition.
She addressed her notability as an atheist, saying she’s not angry and is interested in maintaining positive aspects of religion. And as a nonfiction judge for this year’s National Book Awards, Hecht agreed with Lehman that giving a prize is good for the soul.
“It’s great that an atheist can have a soul,” Lehman quipped.
“Yes, it’s just not removable,” Hecht replied, offering the evening’s turn and winning laughs from the group.
Hecht closed with advice for her 25-year-old self: “Relax, it will work out.” As for M.F.A. students, she said: “Listen to the music in your own head. Make sure they [your words] sound right to you. Don’t say anything you don’t mean, even if you have to be silent for a while.”
-- Stephanie Paterik