World-Renowned children’s author Brian Selznick visited the University of Memphis Department of Theatre and Dance to share excerpts and illustrations from his new book entitled “Live Oak, With Moss” Nov. 21 at the Mainstage Theatre.
The book is a series of poems lifted from Walt Whitman’s private journal detailing his relationships and attraction to men.
The UofM event coordinator Sarah Brown said the poems fit the tone of discourse surrounding the LGBTQ+ community.
“In 1859, he kept this series of poems to himself, and he decided to immortalize them by editing them and publishing them in the ninth edition of Leaves of Grass,” Brown said.
The unedited poems were discovered in the 1950s and published in a scholarly journal but were not released for mass consumption until 2019.
Brown said Selznick chose the perfect year to publish and discuss these poems because it is Whitman’s 200th birthday.
“People are coming out in every way as far as gender and sexuality,” Brown said. “It might even be a fulfillment of [Whitman’s] dream of a world where people are accepted for who they are.”
Brown applauded Selznick’s use of illustrations to guide the reader through poetry, which allows people to visually see his words in images.
“Brian created these illustrations to bring readers to the entrance of the poem,” Brown said. “Then, on the last word of the last poem, Brian begins a series of illustrations that lead you out.”
Selznick has published several successful children’s books, including “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” for which he won a Caldecott award. The book was adapted into the award-winning film “Hugo,” directed by Martin Scorsese.
Selznick said he previously worked on a children’s book about Whitman but wanted to explore the more adult themes in the poet’s work.
“I was really compelled by issues of sexuality and spirituality that weren’t appropriate for children that I wanted to explore,” Selznick said.
Selznick briefly discussed these issues in an erotic puppet show before illustrating and publishing “Live Oak, With Moss.”
Selznick said he wanted to illustrate the poems to make them more comprehensive to the public.
“The pictures serve as a kind of lens through which you can see the poems and hopefully get a bit of a leg up because some people are intimidated by reading poetry because they think they’re not going to get it,” Selznick said.
Whitman scholar Karen Karbiener, who wrote the afterword in the book, accompanied Selznick. Karbiener presented her lecture on Whitman’s life and his work.
Karbiener said Whitman’s radical ideas involving same-sex relationships made him “America’s first queer representative and activist.”
“These 12 poems known as Live Oak, With Moss, were Whitman’s first sustained attempt to write about the naturalness of love beyond traditional, heteronormative boundaries,” Karbiener said.
Karbiener said that with these poems, Whitman introduced a revolutionary chapter in literary history.
“In these poems, Whitman attempts to establish a definition of same-sex love decades before the word ‘homosexual’ was common,” Karbiener said.
Representatives from the UofM’s Stonewall Tigers and OUT Memphis were present. The organizations set up booths outside of the Mainstage Theater to hand out literature to the audience.
UofM students from the Department of Theatre and Dance were eager to hear from Selznick and Karbiener.
Shelby Williams, a theater performance major, said she appreciates being able to hear about people who have gone unacknowledged through history.
“There are people that have been hiding themselves from society for years,” Williams said. “In today’s society, people coming out shows strength.”
Toby Davis, a music theater major, said he was moved by the presentation and Whitman’s poetry.
“I think [Selznick] has done a very good job of capturing the essence of the poem while shedding light on new subject matter that people haven’t talked about,” Davis said.