Department of English Newsletter
“What Are You Reading?”/Faculty Notes/Steinem on Campus/Alumni News/Ongoing Projects: Kristine Kelly
I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Niimura
In this graphic novel, heroine Barbara Thorson stands between two realities: in one, she is a geeky, deviant fifth-grader powerless to stop the pall of terminal illness hanging over her house, but in the other she is a giant killer who wields the warhammer Coveleski with a power that can stop death itself. As Barbara’s family and teachers try to pull her from her fantasy world, she sees the signs of a new enemy coming. Visceral, witty, and defiant, I Kill Giants is an examination of how children metabolize grief, but ultimately it’s a story about how it feels to be a kid: small, scared, and powerful. Read it. This book will knock your socks off.
The Folding Cliffs by W.S. Merwin
Normally the endorsement blurbs on the covers of books are little more than exaggerated marketing. But when Ted Hughes says, of Merwin’s book length narrative, “The Folding Cliffs is a masterpiece—a truly original masterpiece on a very big scale. I could not put it down, and read it with a mixture of amazement and admiration that went on growing to the last page,” the reader understands that there is simply no other way of describing the experience of reading this work. The Folding Cliffs: A Narrative of 19th-Century Hawaii engages complicated questions of cultural exchange, language, illness, spirituality, and relationships with the natural world, among many other things.
The basic premise of the narrative is the encounter between the American government and the natives of Hawaii as the US government seeks to control leprosy by arresting those with the disease and quarantining them without telling their families when, if ever, they will return. The disease does not affect the non-natives, and yet it is the non-natives’ fear that removes from the hands of the Hawaiians any right to decide the fate of “the lepers.” One of the aspects of the narrative that makes it so compelling is the way that Merwin, through his breathtaking poetic language, intertwines the macro-history of Hawaii, its language, its culture, its struggles, with the micro-experiences of a particular family and its community. I highly recommend The Folding Cliffs as a beautiful and simultaneously engaging experience.
John Ashbery: Collected Poems, 1956-1987
John Ashbery re-describes reality through the ever-changing vivacity of his ideas. His poems are chronicles of what happens when one of the most fertile imaginations of our time creates landscapes of ideas on the page. In order to understand Ashbery, we need to pay attention to the originality of his ideas, the way in which one idea magically and manically (maniacally?) replaces the next, in this ever-shifting quicksand dance of cognition, perception, thought, imagination, memory. What he is doing is creating rooms, gardens, cities, fields of imaginative thought. When we enter these rooms, we need to stay alert, even as the enormity of the poet’s imaginative garden/city does everything within its power to distract us (almost?) into new forms of attention. (“The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully,” wrote Stevens.) Reading Ashbery is therefore a dangerous ecstasy, for it propels us into a terrifyingly shifting world of “snapped off” perceptions, and the poem itself is constantly equilibrating itself, even as its chaos turns (in his best works) into something uncanny, lyrical, somehow ordered and somehow new.
The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
The Man Who Was Thursday is a book about a Scotland Yard detective living in late eighteenth-century London who infiltrates a ring of anarchists hell-bent on political assassination and social revolution. Taking advantage of the paranoia present in Europe at the time, Chesterton begins with a sharp and humorous, although one-sided, satire of anarchism, which quickly devolves into as much a criticism of overbearing police tactics as anything else. The only constant in this book is that nothing is ever quite as it seems, and in his writing Chesterton perfectly captures the sinister uncertainty of a nightmare. However, even in the face of loss of orientation, The Man Who Was Thursday exudes an appreciation for the very contradictions that make up our experience of the world: “even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting.”
Ekphrasis, Imagination, and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice by Ruth Webb
Ruth Webb’s Ekphrasis, Imagination, and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice explains the role of ekphrasis in Greek and Roman rhetorical education. She starts from the premise that ekphrasis in the classical tradition was not a verbal description of an object or work of art; nor was it easily separable from narrative. Instead, ekphrasis was a use of language intended to turn “listeners into spectators” and to “place before the eyes” the actions, events, and people an orator or writer sought to depict. Through an analysis of rhetorical and literary treatises by Quintilian, Cicero, Longinus and others as well as the extant Progymnasmata (or preliminary exercise manuals), Webb explains how ekphrasis involved enargeia, a quality of vividness that transformed listeners into witnesses by creating phantasia or mental images in the mind’s eye. For an ekphrasis to work, speakers had to feel the enargeia and see the phantasia for themselves. Webb’s book demonstrates how language, in rhetorical theory, was viewed as a force that acted on people, leaving impressions on the body and the mind.
The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka
What strikes me as remarkable about Adrian Matejka’s poems is his refusal to separate poetic language from everyday experience. Every poet writes about the stars; sometimes I think you can’t get your poet’s union card if you don’t write about the stars. But only a poet as gifted as Adrian could construct a line like “There are more kinds of stars / in this universe than salt granules on drive-thru fries.”
I wish I’d written that one. You hear that same skill throughout The Big Smoke, Matejka’s award-winning volume based on the life of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. You hear it when Johnson says “The soles/ of my shoes so thin I could step on a dime / & tell whether it was heads or tails.” “My lungs were a couple / of skillets at breakfast.” “If I felt any better, I’d be afraid of myself.” Poetry has been self-promotion ever since Walt Whitman started singing of himself, and Matejka’s book, the Jack Johnson that Matejka gives us—would delight Whitman just as much as I think it would delight Muhammad Ali.
I’m especially impressed with Adrian’s skill in rendering Jack Johnson as folk hero, national symbol, and flawed, contradictory individual. So, we get to see Johnson being refused a ticket on the Titanic and we get to hear a little bit of Leadbelly’s famous song in Matejka’s poems. But we also hear the voices of women whom Johnson loved but mistreated, and even poems that let us see and hear Johnson “shadow boxing” with himself, with a frankness that the public figure could never allow.
Michael Clune’s essay “Pikkety Envy” was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Joe DeLong‘s translations of poetry by Japanese poet Ken’ichi Sasō are in the latest issue of Forklift, Ohio.
T. Kenny Fountain is co-chairing the annual conference of The Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) this March in Tampa, Florida. Kenny’s co-chair is Lisa Meloncon, associate professor of English at University of Cincinnati.
Sarah Gridley was the featured reader on Sunday, August 23rd, at Cleveland Public Poetry.
William Marling presented “The Politics and Poetics of Translating Charles Bukowski” at the Third International Conference on Itineraries in Translation History in June at the University of Tartu, Tartu, Estonia.
Jim Sheeler recently spoke to Brooke Gladstone of On The Media about the state of obituary writing. The show, which analyzes trends and issues in various media, is heard on more than 300 public radio stations.
Congratulations to Bill Siebenschuh, the new holder of the Oviatt Professorship in English.
Thrity Umrigar discusses her new book–The Story Hour–on WCPN’s The Sound of Applause.
On September 8th, Gloria Steinem delivered an empowering and inspiring lecture to a sold-out crowd of 2,000 people at Severance Hall. Prior to the event, students were given the chance to compete in an essay contest for the opportunity to meet her in a smaller gathering. As I wrote my essay about my newfound realizations about gender inequity as a new mom of a daughter and my struggle to live out the theoretical feminist politics I write about in my scholarship, I recognized how much I anticipated the responses to the many questions I had for an iconic figure who has led waves of feminist action. Steinem did not disappoint.
When she walked into the room, she smiled at us and said that our gathering “should be considered an organizing meeting instead of a lecture.” Despite her status and fame, she was humble and repeatedly emphasized her commitment to listening – and encouraged us to do the same, especially when we were speaking with someone who has less power, whether a child or fellow student.
A self-described “radical feminist,” Steinem directed the group to keep pushing against the current backlash against women’s rights: if someone tells you that you are “too aggressive,” respond “thank you!” She also coaxed us to recognize that we limit ourselves if we are only sending emails in a search for change, as we can get bogged down by cyclical email chains and our ever-growing inboxes. She encouraged us to see that “when I press send, I have done nothing.” She also spoke on how racism and sexism are inherently linked, and if the Equal Rights Amendment were to be put up on a ballot today, she would want both gender and racial inequities to be addressed. In reflecting on one’s participation in organizations, she said, “If you are part of any group that doesn’t let you laugh, leave.”
The meeting and lecture not only provided an opportunity to hear from a living legend, but it also demonstrated the commitment to gender equity and social justice of many members of the Cleveland community. Witnessing high school girls from John Hay discuss their plans to begin a feminist club, and men and women pass out flyers for congressional candidates and arts events led by women left me and others in attendance with hope. Even though domestic abuse, sex slavery, and inequity in pay between men and women are rampant in our society, there are many fighting for a better world, and at eighty years old, Steinem is still leading the charge.
Mary Assad (’14) guest blogs about heart health.
Jason Carney (’14) discusses “High Literature from Pulp Magazines.”
Jaina Sanga (’97) has an essay in the September/October issue of Poets and Writers–“Why We Write–My Father’s Voice.”
Last June, at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria, Canada, I enrolled in a seminar on “Electronic Literature: Research and Practice” led by writers and board members of the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO). E-lit, as ELO President Dene Grigar (Washington State University, Vancouver) points out, is an emerging form at the “intersection of literature, art and design, and digital technology.” E-lit refers to works that are “born digital,” that have strong literary aspects and aspirations, and whose form and meaning are linked with the technological and digital media in which they are made.
During the seminar week, we discussed theories of electronic literature, experienced and critiqued diverse works, and made our own works of e-lit using open-source programs like Twine or the code for generative poetry underlying Nick Montfort’s “Taroko Gorge.” In the digital world, reading and writing are paradoxically very hands on.
For example, “Touch: Six Scenes on the Paradox of Screen Touching” (2009) (Serge Bouchardon, Kevin Carpenter, and Stéphanie Splenlé) explores the haptic qualities of digital literature. At first glance, this work appeals in a quirky, game-like way; one “touches” a digital finger with the cursor and a screen opens asking readers to hit the screen or blow on it, caress it, or move the words. The work takes into account how our reception of texts and images is affected by a complex sensory relationship with the technology on which they are displayed and produced. For instance, touching the index finger opens instructions to “move” the words on the screen. The question “Do you touch me when I touch you?” goes through multiple revisions as we cause the words to shift place. This page mimics how, we, as users of word processing software, bend meaning as we literally move words and phrases (through copy and paste) on the virtual page.
I was particularly inspired by the possibilities for aesthetic engagement and critical practice involved in curating a real-time electronic literature exhibit. Imagine a shared space in which participants not only read, but also experience and participate in the “texts” on display. It is exactly this kind of exhibit space that I, in collaboration with Allison Schifani (Baker Nord Post-Doctoral Scholar in the Digital Humanities), am planning to launch in the spring. Our premise is that electronic literature presents (and generates!) literary performances that display, question, and critique ways of reading and modes of literary production in the digital age. While e-lit is often fun, shocking, or visually engaging, it is also an important area in need of increasingly rigorous scholarship and criticism. We hope to generate an exhibit that asks questions such as, how do we touch the texts we write in a digital space, how does literature touch us in contexts where our reading is shaped by the affordances and limitations of technology?
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