Currently @ Spence

Poet and Economist Zoë Hitzig ’11 Presents the 2021 Courtney Steel Visiting Author Lecture

As a tribute to Head of School Bodie Brizendine’s final year at Spence, the 2021-2022 lecture series features distinguished alumnae who are also Brizendine’s former students. Poet and economist Zoë Hitzig ’11 kicked off the series, presenting this year’s Courtney Steel ’87 Visiting Author Lecture to Spence Upper School students. 

Senior Olivia W. introduced Hitzig, a current PhD candidate in Economics at Harvard, highlighting her recent publication: “On top of all of her work in economics, Ms. Hitzig published her first book in June of 2020, entitled Mezzanine, a collection of thought-provoking poems that has received endless praise for its insightful analysis of the social and natural worlds we live in.” Hitzig’s poetry has also been published in The New Yorker, London Review of Books, Harper’s, Paris Review and elsewhere.

Hitzig began by painting a detailed picture of her own experience attending Courtney Steel lectures when she was at Spence. “Sitting cross-legged on the creaky wood floor in those gray kilts,” she recalled, “surreptitiously flipping flash cards in our laps to try to memorize terms before a big test in biology class.” But the lectures also held great significance for her. “The Courtney Steel Lecture was always a particularly momentous assembly for me. It was special for the obvious reason: I, who had dreamed of writing a book from the first time I read a book, got to steep in the magical presence of a real, live, working, writer.”

Now a real, live, working writer herself, Hitzig confessed that during her Shakespeare class with Brizendine, King Lear had taken a back seat to Hamlet, no matter how fantastic each class had been. Even so, a line from Lear has stuck with Hitzig, she explained, likely due to Brizendine’s own love for the deceptively simple quote: “See better, Lear.”

But how does one ‘see better?’ Brizendine challenged her students. “It’s been a decade since I left Spence,” Hitzig said, “and I am still thinking about what it means to ‘see better.’

Drawing from two of her literary heroes Audre Lorde and Grace Paley, Hitzig crafted an image of how poetry works to help us see: “[It] opens up pathways toward change, and toward more just arrangements of social life by helping us not just see but feel how the political, economic and technological systems that govern our shared lives have fallen out of step with who we believe ourselves to be.” Hitzig read two poems from Mezzanine, a book that challenges what Hitzig called “the U.S.’s deeply unjust insistence on mass incarceration,” and asked students to hear how facts are used in her writing as a jumping-off point to observe one’s own truths, to feel them as much as to see them.

A captivated student audience had myriad questions for the poet-scholar, including the connection between economics and poetry. How do the seemingly disparate modes of inquiry support one another? “There are two pieces to it. First, I studied mathematics as an undergrad—and much of my work in economics is based in math. Spending so much time articulating ideas in mathematical language has given my writing, on a technical level, a high degree of precision. Maybe an obnoxious degree of precision,” she joked.

“Then there’s the content side of things,” she continued. “When I’m bumping into new ideas in economics or other forms of social science, I’m constantly moved to think about them in a more artistic or lateral way. When I see research that bugs me, I can only get so far trying to sit down and think analytically about why it is that it bugs me. So maybe I’ll turn to poetry and try to think about the subject in a more broad-strokes, impressionistic way.”

When asked when it was Hitzig first identified with the word “writer,” she admitted it wasn’t until Mezzanine was under contract. “But every one of you is writing every day, and we’re all trying to use language in new ways to express complicated ideas,” she told them. “We’re all writers, and the sooner you recognize that—that you are also a custodian of language—your writing will get better.”

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The Courtney Steel ’87 Visiting Author Program was established to honor and remember Courtney Steel ’87 by her parents, family and friends. Through lectures, which bring a writer of national stature to the school each year, Courtney's passion for literature, gift for writing and respect for the nuances of language continue to inspire Spence students.
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