Decoding the Poetic Life of Sara Behn (Trinity ’21)

Thursday, February 14, 2019
By: Jordan Diamond, English Department Spring 2019 Digital Media Intern
Sara Behn, Trinity ‘21, studies Computer Science and English and writes poetry in her free time.

It is a busy Sunday night for most Duke students, rushing to finish assignments before a week of classes begin, as I settle into a seat outside of the practice rooms of McClendon Tower Floor 2. The competing harmonic and chaotic vibrations of practicing piano players felt like the perfect musical background for my interview with Sara Behn (Trinity ‘21). The piano is, of course, a technical instrument requiring great skill and also a medium for creating art. A sophomore whose dual technical and creative passions, much like a Steinway, find home in her being, Behn plans to graduate with a major in Computer Science, a minor in English, and a large collection of original poetry produced along the way.

Behn explains that her backgrounds in English and Computer Science mutually inform one another. She views an English essay like a problem set—complex problems that test her and force her to think as logically as possible. Similarly, lines of code are a story whose author relies on creativity to find its path to an ending. I joke that Behn is too poetic with her descriptions of monotonous work, but Behn insists that both tasks are worthy of such characterizations because of the excitement they inspire within her.

Unlike most that matriculate, Behn actually chose to attend Duke because of the English Department. She heard of the department after a Google search of “best colleges for English.” While visiting the campus, she was inspired after sitting in on Dr. Aarthi Vadde’s class. The professor asked her students to discuss whether they should trust the narrator of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” casting doubt on the legitimacy of the story as presented. To Behn, this idea was radical—and evidence of the Department’s ability to challenge her. Though pursuing a major in Computer Science, Behn equally values her English coursework, including Dr. Leonard Tennenhouse’s particular course titled “Gothic Film and Fiction,”which Behn says was “simply amazing.” Behn’s diverse academic studies inspire her creatively as well.

The intersection of technology and art is seen in Behn’s poetry with pieces like “Disposable Camera.” She explains that the poem was inspired by a trip to a San Francisco orientation meeting for her upcoming internship at Facebook. While there, she saw an art exhibit with a friend from high school. Afterwards, the pair stopped at Walgreens to purchase a disposable camera, which led Behn to think about how “there are some things that can only be responded to through art.” Her response to preparing for her future while rekindling her past? Writing a poem in a cafe the next morning. In “Disposable Camera,” Behn tackles complicated memories and the “weirdness” of her adolescence: “I’m not a God,/Not a Kodak, or a Kodak moment/I keep time in fractures, in refractions/What else is there to discuss?”

Behn recently had the opportunity to share her poetry publicly, an event she recounts as “deeply nerve-wracking.” After the publication of her poem “In December” in the literary magazine The Archive, editors invited her to participate in a poetry reading with other campus writers. She says that she felt validated to be recognized alongside “fantastic poets” including published author and Creative Writing professor Nathaniel Mackey. Whereas Behn writes “to work through [her] problems,” she performs it because she’s proud of her work. She jokes that “game respects game” in regards to the admiration she has for her fellow poets and the compliments she received from them that night.

As she looks towards the future, Behn takes with her the lessons of English and literature as disciplines that inherently involve not only the act of creation but the act of sharing. The Silicon Valley hopeful wants to use her technological knowledge and creative abilities for work in a social entrepreneurial company or non-profit. Our talk of the future is cut short; the pianos around us, now joined by a trumpet and vocalist, devolve into cacophony and we agree that it’s time for us to leave. Sara Behn heads in for an early night of sleep—a rare occurrence in which she doesn’t have any reading nor code due in the morning.