After Barbara Bernstein, a Broome County resident and a member of the Binghamton Poetry Project, read her poem about a woman suffering from agoraphobia, spending years trapped inside her home, she was met with a scattered applause, and promised she would end on a high note with her final poem.
“Usually things are either slightly [comical] or slightly depressing,” Bernstein said. “I thought I’d end on a lighter one.”
On Saturday, Bernstein read her work as part of a panel featured in Writing By Degrees, a free creative writing conference held at the University Downtown Center. The biennial event features visiting writers and community members as well as Binghamton University faculty and graduate students.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Community,” and the wide variety of panels and readings were chosen with the intention of emphasizing the social aspect of creative writing. The lineup included a poetry and nonfiction reading about grief, a panel focused on underrepresented bodies in fiction and a collection of essays on the difficulties of publishing work.
The keynote address was given by Joy Ladin, an acclaimed poet who has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as a Fulbright scholarship. Her panel, “The Future is Trying to Tell Us Something, and I’ve Been Trying to Hear,” was a discussion of her growth as a writer punctuated by readings of poems written in different periods of her life.
Ladin said much of her work revolves around her identity as a transgender woman, both in terms of her pain before transitioning and her attempts to redefine her identity as she began to outwardly present as a woman. Discussing how she survived a young life racked with gender dysphoria, Ladin emphasized the role that writing played in helping her express her suffering in a productive way.
“I saw poetry as a way to be alive,” Ladin said. It was the only way to be alive.”
Throughout her life, Ladin said she did not feel fully masculine or feminine, existing somewhere in the middle. She said she now sees this aspect of her experience through a positive lens.
“Realizing that I can’t fit into the gender binary perfectly, no matter how much I want to, gives me the license to be a more whole person,” Ladin said.
As Ladin grew older and became more comfortable with her gender identity, her work began to evolve and cover broader topics than her personal struggles. Some of her more recent work focuses on the fallout of the 2016 presidential election, as well as her Jewish faith. Ladin said that learning to write about something other than her own inner turmoil was a difficult change.
“If you’re not going to write about the mess you are, what are you going to write about?” Ladin said. “It’s a terrible problem.”
Lisa Marie Paolucci, a Brooklyn resident pursuing a doctoral degree in English education at Columbia University, said she made the trip to the conference in order to receive insights on her dissertation research focused on creative writing. Discussing the lessons she learned from the conference, Paolucci talked about the collaborative spirit inherent in improving as a writer.
“We would do well to remember that all of us are here as writers and should work to help one another succeed,” Paolucci said. “I think that was one of my biggest takeaways.”
Correction: A previous version of this article identified Anita Shipway as the author of “Agoraphobia.” Barbara Bernstein is the correct author of the poem. Pipe Dream regrets the error.