Department of English Newsletter: December 2019

in this issue

Carl Phillips Award/Undocupoets Residency/Faculty Notes/Black Women Writing Cleveland/ Alumni News

Carl Phillips Receives Alice Dunbar Nelson Award 

Over fifty people attended the second annual Alice Dunbar Nelson Award Ceremony on September 27th, 2019, to honor the lifetime achievement of Professor Carl Phillips for his poetry—which he shared at the English Department Colloquium earlier in the day—as well as his work on classical literature, American literature, and African American life and culture. The event was co-sponsored by the Department of English; the Office of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equal Opportunity; the Baker Nord Center for the Humanities; the Social Justice Institute; and the Great Lakes African American Writers Conference. Brief remarks were offered by Professor Christopher Flint, Chair of the Department of English; Provost and Executive Vice President of CWRU Ben Vinson; Professor Joy Bostic, Interim Vice President for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equal Opportunity; and the Reverend Doctor Leah Lewis, Chairman of the Board and Acting Executive Director of Little Lumpy’s Center for Educational Initiatives in Literacy, Learning & Technology and the founder and Executive Producer of the Great Lakes African American Writers Conference.

Carl Phillips is the author of fourteen books of poetry, including, most recently 2018’s Wild is the Wind, winner of the LA Times Book Prize, and 2015’s Reconnaissance, winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the Lambda Literary Award. He has also published two collections of essays and translated Sophocles’ Philoctetes. A four-time finalist for the National Book Award, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, he has also received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters; the Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Poetry Award; the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Male Poetry; and numerous fellowships (among other accolades). He served as Chancellor of the American Academy of Poets from 2006-2012, has since 2011 been judge for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, and has long been Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, where he teaches creative writing.

Undocupoets Residency

By Cammy Ring


 Javier Zamora (left) and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo (right) after their readings at the English Department colloquium on Friday, November 8th.

“By way of fear, along came poetry.”

I was struck by this quote when I first read it in an interview with poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, who was speaking on how writing poetry became, for him, a way to offset any “suspicions about my documentation status.” It’s not often in poetry social circles that we talk about—or have the opportunity to hear from—poets whose lives have been radically affected by something like documentation status. But recently, CWRU’s English Department, in collaboration with The Social Justice Institute and Writer’s House, embraced the opportunity to learn more when they hosted and sponsored a week-long residency with poets (and Undocupoet co-founders) Marcelo Hernandez Castillo and Javier Zamora.

I therefore had plenty of opportunities to ask Castillo about the aforementioned quote—does fear continue to play a role in his poetry today, I wondered, or was that just at first?—and other poetry-related matters. The first event was a roundtable discussion and audience Q&A that featured Castillo, Zamora, journalist James Sheeler, and Dr. Damaris Puñales-Alpízar. The topic was “poetry and the media”—specifically, how poems re-document, interrogate, or re-mediate reported facts pertaining to immigration. Zamora pointed out just how long the immigration crisis has been in progress (it’s been decades, even though it’s peaking now) and how this complicates the idea of writing poems “after” media. In his newest series of poems, each titled “[Immigration Headlines],” Zamora is, as Professor Sarah Gridley notes, “intent on giving voice to children’s perspectives, . . . he wants to re-sensitize us as readers by defamiliarizing content in relation to form.”

Castillo and Zamora also participated in a Q&A brunch with students focusing on creative writing and social justice. They openly conversed on topics ranging from poems and relationships (“even my best friends don’t know about certain memories I put in my poems,” Zamora said) to immigrating to the U.S. (Castillo came from Mexico at age 5 with his family; Zamora traveled alone, at age 9, from El Salvador) to how they really feel about being in the spotlight. At one point, a student asked about their experience with the U.S. healthcare system. Castillo bluntly replied, “well, one time I got hit by a car [. . .] and when the lady tried getting help, I told her, ‘Don’t call an ambulance! I’m fine!’ And then I just kept walking to school.”

The residency sponsors also hosted a Benefit for HOLA Ohio, a nonprofit organization that aims to empower Latino communities in Northeast Ohio. Taking place at BottleHouse in Cleveland Heights, the Benefit featured readings from local poets, readings from Castillo and Zamora, music from local artists, and a silent auction with donated work by local artists.

The Benefit had a wonderful turnout. Perhaps the most colorful part of the evening was Zamora’s performance of a poem set to the rhythm of merengue and the call-and-response vocals of Kinito Méndez.

The week’s events ended with a reading by Castillo and Zamora at the English Department’s weekly colloquium. Castillo read poems from his 2014 collection Cenzontle and excerpts from his forthcoming memoir, Children of the Land (2020). Zamora read poems from his 2017 collection Unaccompanied. Castillo’s reading was soft-spoken, and a quiet devastation often hummed under his taut verse (“The bird unraveled its song and became undone. / It couldn’t figure out / its own puzzle in its mouth / so it gave up.”). Zamora’s reading was sometimes theatrical and ironic, as when he mimicked the flat Spanish spoken by a white man guarding the border. But other moments were more quiet, serious. Still, Castillo and Zamora both shared that they do not want to exclude joy or humor or beauty from their poems, and Castillo emphasized that beauty is not mutually exclusive from pain.

While I never ended up asking Castillo my initial question, I think it might be safe to speculate that courage, perhaps, has supplanted fear in his poetic practice. Or maybe the two work collaboratively in unexpected, generative ways.

Faculty Notes

Cara Byrne participated on a panel with LeVar Burton and Joy Bostic titled “Ethical Leadership in the Arts: The Power of Storytelling and Representation” as part of the Inamori Ethics Prize Academic Symposium.

Michael Clune responds to his critics in a new Chronicle piece: “The Hypocrisy of Experts.”

Gusztav Demeter was selected for the Learning Fellowship program by The University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education (UCITE) for Fall 2019.

Susan Dominguez presented a lecture at the American Indian Studies Colloquium, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, entitled, “The ‘tiny horrors’ of Cultural Genocide: Indigenous Children in American Indian and Canadian Residential Schools, 1860-1970.”

Sarah Gridley has a poem forthcoming in the anniversary edition of Diode.

Mary Grimm‘s story, “Sisters,” has been published in The Colorado Review.

Kimberly Emmons and Martha Schaffer presented at the 2019 Feminisms and Rhetorics Conference on writing program mentorship on November 16th. Their presentation was titled, “WPA Mentorship Sites for Feminist Activism and Agency.”

On November 5th, Caitlin Kelly gave a work-in-progress talk, “Domestic Horrors in the Age of Revolution: Acid Throwing in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History; or, the Horrors of St. Domingo,” at the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities.

The fifteenth installment of Dave Lucas’s “Poetry for People Who Hate Poetry” has been published.

Marilyn Mobley has been elected to the Ohio Humanities Council for a two-year term beginning November 1, 2019.

James Newlin‘s review of the podcast Lend Me Your Ears was just published at Borrowers and Lenders: The Journal of Shakespeare and Appropriation (vol. 12, no. 2, Spring 2019).

John Orlock gave a series of lectures on Shakespeare, Miller, and Wilson at CWRU-Siegal Lifelong Learning in early December.

Brad Ricca’s Mrs. Sherlock Holmes is the subject of this episode of Criminal, a podcast.

In November, James Sheeler was a panelist for “Fake News in the Post-Truth Era,” a professional panel hosted by the Global Ethical Leaders Society (a student group associated with the Inamori Center).

In September, Thrity Umrigar spoke at Club Book at the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota.

Maggie Vinter gave a Faculty Work-in-Progress lecture, “Hamlet’s Earworms,” in early October.

Anthony Wexler delivered a public lecture on Anne Frank’s Legacy at Ohman Family Living. It was the first talk in a new lecture series organized by CWRU’s Siegal Lifelong Learning Program.


Iris Jamahl Dunkle (’10) gave a reading at the Napa Bookmine in November.

Raymond Keen (’63) has three poems published in the online literary journal Unlikely Stories Mark V.

Marie Lathers (‘15) has a piece in Flash Fiction Magazine

Writers House Invites Local Black Women Writers

Charlotte Morgan, Mary Weems, and Michelle R. Smith.

According to bell hooks, “No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much.’ Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much…’ No woman has ever written enough.”

On November 17th, Charlotte Morgan, Michelle R. Smith (’98), and Mary Weems, three African American writers with strong Cleveland roots, spoke about their work and writing lives in front of an audience at the South Euclid-Lyndhurst Library’s William N. Skirball Writers’ Center.

The event, Black Women Writing Cleveland, was co-sponsored by the Library and CWRU’s Writers House. The writers participated in a free-ranging discussion talking and testifying on education, Cleveland schools, their mentors and influences, the place of the artist in the 21st century, and the particular difficulties and joys of being a writer.

  • “This is the space that makes us who we are as writers.” Michelle R. Smith
  • “Stop complaining and start chronicling where you live.” Charlotte Morgan
  • “This city is the lens I see the world through.” Mary Weems

To cap off the discussion, all three shared some of their work. Charlotte read from her work-in-progress, Glenville, My Side of Paradise: A Memoir on Race and Place. Michelle (who is a CWRU alum) read poems from her collection, Ariel in Black, and new poems from a series on the wives of jazz musicians. Mary read a selection of poems – including some from her new manuscript, Fall and Response.


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