Processing Lucie Brock-Broido’s Papers

contact sheet of black and white photographs of Lucie Brock Broido
Photographs of Lucie Brock Broido

Guest post by Iva Moore (School of the Arts, 2023)

The poet Lucie Brock-Broido has been critical to the Writing Program’s reputation at Columbia’s School of The Arts. After completing a Briggs-Copeland Lectureship at Harvard, Brock-Broido served as the head of Columbia’s poetry concentration from 1993 to 2018. She established herself as a bit of a teaching legend among the faithful practitioners of verse. An inventive writer with an imitable sensibility, she developed a pedagogy as enlightened as her poetry. Brock-Broido’s personal papers, housed here in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, document the poet’s desire to apply the mystical logic of poetry to all the projects of living: work, relationships, illness. Her teaching files are organized around concepts such as “Radical Heat,” which she describes as a physics—“a nonchemical energy transfer with reference to a temperature difference between a system (The Poet) and its surroundings (The Poem).” Then, a collection of poems which operate according to these laws. Though it may be difficult to say precisely why each poem contains radical heat, reading them you just know she’s right.

When I was asked to process Brock-Broido’s papers as part of the Graduate Student Internship in Primary Sources, like a dutiful poet, I started collecting images of this person. The rumors of Brock-Broido’s nocturnal writing habits, her taste for Edwardian interiors, her waist length hair, and my first encounter with her poetry as a wide-eyed undergrad at the New York State Summer Writers Institute, where Brock-Broido spent many summers. I was basically the only poet who hadn’t read her work, and her benevolence among this milieu of poet-academics prompted me to wise up on the subject of “Lucie,” the name even the sternest of poetry fixtures embellished with a certain twinkle. After years of enjoying her books and now a summer reading her letters, journals, job applications, and one judicious civil suit over an improperly laundered rug, I arrived at the same consensus as everyone else: “there’s no one like Lucie.”

typescript of poem Toxic Gumbo
Typescript of “Toxic Gumbo”

But I knew Brock-Broido was special when I started, so here’s what I know about her, now, after processing this collection: Lucie Brock-Broido does not have the capacity to be flippant with the English language, not even in a note to the HVAC technician; if the diction is not impeccable in what she has written, she edits until it is. She refuses to begin the name of a season with a lowercase letter—grammar and punctuation are malleable and in fact more effective if a little distrubed. She almost always treats the word “Poet” like a proper noun. If it weren’t for Harry Ford’s fortitude, every word in every title in The Master Letters would be capitalized. Also, she taped a Prozac label to her ode to the substance, titled “Toxic Gumbo.” She was not interested in a spontaneous or immediate poetry, the beauty that defines her work is a result of meticulous editing, thinking, and control. Though I think the miracle of it all is her sense of humor, her writing is somehow both very elegant and very funny.

Brock-Broido’s papers will be illuminating for anyone interested in seeing a writer at work, a poet’s process, and how that process is reflected in further areas of life. The collection offers a fascinating view of one woman’s lifelong decision to be a poet—which she claims to have made in a middle school math class. Looking through the stylish leather-bound journals where Brock-Broido composed the first drafts of many poems is, to use the word the poet is fond of, an alchemical experience. Encountering Brock-Broido in this context shares many qualities with reading good poetry. A feeling I hesitate to spell out. It has been quite a privilege to spend time with these intimate records, learning how to be a poet in this roundabout way.