Department of English Newsletter: June 2013

Interview with Michael Rectenwald (’97)

Michael RectenwaldWhat’s the relationship of your critical/analytic writing (19th-century scientific naturalism, discussions of Darwin, George Eliot) to your fiction and poetry?

This question, your first, is probably the most difficult one to answer. That’s because academic writing took over my writing life for years, and for too long I considered the two modes – academic and “creative” writing – incompatible. This notion, of course, is institutionally reinforced by English departments, which hire people as poets, as fiction writers, or as scholars. One is suspect if one attempts to span more than one periodic category, let alone “creative” writing and scholarly writing. The structure of many departments is so rigid and the demands of either one of these areas are so great that anyone who attempts both is considered a fool, a dilettante, or both.

However, I had some breakthroughs in academic writing that freed me from this dualism, making me feel that I need not be defensive any longer about having an appetite for other kinds of writing. I am fully capable of writing the academic essay, of whatever length, which is mostly what I teach. I need not fear losing it.

As you point out, my primary field is 19th-century science and culture. One thing I can say about it is that it’s the past: it’s not going anywhere, at least not in the conventional sense. The scholarship is moving, but the period is not. And the scholarship is not moving so fast that I can’t take my eye off it long enough to do other kinds of work. And frankly, even in terms of scholarship, I can’t pay exclusive attention to 19th-century scientific and cultural history. That’s simply not enough to satisfy my appetite. I also have interest in the intersections of the humanities and technology, the Internet and writing/authorship/identity/power, the question of the cyborg, post-humanism, genomics, nanotechnology and robotics, and in how all of these areas connect to discourses that have generally found homes in the humanities. My graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University and Carnegie Mellon University were deeply theory-based, so I’m fairly well versed in any number of postmodern theoretical notions, and these also have become important in my non-scholarly writing, both in terms of “topic” and method. The fiction I’m working on presently involves issues of online identity formation, online dialog, writing on the network, the question of what becomes of the subject in networked digital spaces and times, what becomes of the narrator and narration, what becomes of who (or what) is speaking, and how or what it matters.

I may even begin to meld the historical work with the fiction, and the poetry. I can see an historical novel that involves intrigues in the sciences, for example, with consequences for the contemporary moment. Charles Lyell’s uniformitarianism, and his assertion that humans could not have an appreciable effect on the environment, comes to mind as an example. Such writing would require deep immersion in the field, even more than what is required by scholarly work.

So I’m only recently beginning to understand the compatibility of these activities, and their common source, which for me is artistry. I enjoy studying the artistry of those who’ve gone before me, including that of scientists, poets, fiction writers, scholars, theorists and others, and the way their artistry can be incorporated and revived in my own work. That’s what scholarship means to me now. It’s a way of comprehending, in the fullest sense of the word, the expression of others.

Continue reading Rectenwald’s interview here.

James Joyce, Corporate Management, and the Fifties

Mark A. Wollaeger, Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, delivered the 2013 Edward S. and Melinda Melton Sadar Lecture in Writing in the Disciplines on Monday 15 April. The fifth lecture named for the Sadars, this year’s presentation was titled “AT&T’s Cold War Modernism: Narrating the Liberal Arts in Times of Crisis” and considered past and future opportunities at the intersection of corporate management training and reading and writing in the humanities.

For the better part of a decade, from 1953 to 1960, the University of Pennsylvania and AT&T collaborated on a venture at the University called the Institute for Humanistic Studies for Executives. The program in effect provided a ten-month sabbatical for mid-level managers within the Bell System, a term of study in which they were removed from their corporate positions and devoted themselves to full-time work in the humanities. Families sometimes traveled with the executives, and spouses were permitted to attend a number of the lectures and demonstrations by literary and cultural luminaries of the postwar period – among them W. H. Auden and R. P. Blackmur. The program was designed as a means to develop, in Wollaeger’s words, “more flexible, less conformist, and more creative executives for an increasingly international and politically divided world.” That is to say, it was a prominent salvo from the Western cultural front in the Cold War, designed to demonstrate the richness and interrelation of U.S. cultural and capitalist brands of thought.

Wollaeger’s lecture devoted a good deal of time thinking about how to assess whether the program succeeded. Years later, for instance, the executives almost uniformly felt that the experience had been transformative, though they also had difficulty describing any decisions that they made differently as a consequence of their humanistic training. In some ways, Wollaeger noted, the program might have succeeded too well for its own good, judging from the subsequent career shifts of a number of the executives away from Bell Systems and AT&T. Whatever we might conclude about the Institute in the 1950s, Wollaeger pointed out, it’s essential that we think about the sorts of lessons this extended experiment in collaboration between the humanities and the corporate world holds for our own era, in which our economic threats come as much from within Wall Street as from other states and systems, some of our most innovative businesses build their own “campuses,” and traditional colleges and universities themselves look more like businesses than ever.

The lecture attracted a healthy audience to the Class of 1914 Lounge in the Thwing Center that included faculty and administrators from English, History, Religious Studies, and the Weatherhead School of Management, as well as undergraduate and graduate students from across the University. It was preceded by a workshop in Guilford House for a dozen graduate students in English that drew upon Professor Wollaeger’s distinguished array of publications – from Joseph Conrad and the Fictions of Skepticism (Stanford UP, 1990) through Modernism, Media, and Propaganda (Princeton UP, 2006), to the Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms(Oxford UP, 2012) – as well as his decade of work as the Director of Writing Programs at Vanderbilt.



Barbara Burgess-Van Aken’s book, Partenia, a Pastoral Play, has been published by the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies and ITER.

Michael Clune’s memoir, White Out, was reviewed in The New Yorker.

T. Kenny Fountain’s article, “Preparing for the Future by Looking to the Past,” was published in the April issue of Intercom (the magazine of the Society for Technical Communication), as part of the magazine’s 60th anniversary issue.

Brad Ricca’s book, Superboys, was reviewed in The New Yorker.

William R. Siebenschuh took part in the ACE Acclaimed Authors Luncheon Series in June discussing his positive experiences writing collaboratively.

Gary Stonum‘s review of Cristanne Miller’s Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century has just appeared in Nineteenth-Century Literature

Thity Umrigar won a Lambda Literary Award in the Lesbian General Fiction category for The World We Found.


George Seremba’s Master Class in Review

During Fall 2012, Ugandan-Canadian actor and playwright George Bwanika Serembaoffered a Playwriting Master Class through Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities and the English Department. I had met George briefly when our plays were produced as part of Cleveland Public Theater’s Springboard event for new plays the summer before, and remembered George fondly because during a meeting both he and I expressed the desire to meet and connect with other playwrights.

George’s Master Class presented a perfect opportunity. The other playwrights involved had previously taken a course with George offered through Cuyahoga County Public Library, and their plays were in the finishing stages. Deb Magid’s play,The Secret Life of Birds, went on to a reading at the Dramatists Guild Friday Night Footlights in New York this past March. As we workshopped her play, John Orlock from the English Department was also on hand to guide Magid in how to engage the audience, where to “begin” the story. What engages the audience? I thought back to seeing Next to Normal when it began on Broadway; the first scene of the mother manically putting together twenty baloney sandwiches for school lunches dragged me in. Every lunch-making parent can relate to this. I was hooked. Orlock helped Magid find that same type of “hook” in her play about two musician sisters and the love story/mystery they’d held onto for years. Orlock guided her to where the play “truly” began by searching for that hook.

Other playwrights included: Cornell Calhoun III, Craig Webb, Mikala Little, Mike Hammer, Vickie Williams, and Sheila Sullivan-Branch. Williams’s play went on to be produced at Cleveland Public Theater Big Box. Calhoun’s play, Two Trains, went on to the Washington DC Black Theater Festival while another play of his, Blue Silk, was featured in the Eugene O’Neill Playwriting Conference. 

George was a constant, quiet inspiration in the workshop. He did not “teach” as much as guide the writers to peer into their plays from various angles. The workshop was collaborative and the responses from other playwrights as “the audience” for each play were greatly beneficial; after workshopping a piece, though, it was George’s calm, artistic response that often resonated with the writers.

George commented on whether characters worked as narrators, how scenes were broken up, and what elements of the stage lent more interest to each piece. My own play, These Fine Little Arts, which had morphed from a short fiction piece to a performance piece to a play, is moving back to fiction as I work under author Francesca Lia Block to pull more from the story. Hearing sections of the story out loud with the assistance of theater students from CWRU was instrumental in deciding whether this piece “worked” as theater or relates to readers more as fiction. Block’s and others’ responses to the piece as fiction were much stronger than the response to it as read, though I do plan to pursue it as a performance piece; I’m not ready to give up the chance to see it on stage just yet. As a play, it incorporates poetry and fairytales to tell the story of a woman still searching for her sister after many years.

The Master Class ended with a Sunday afternoon reading of sections of each play. Some of the playwrights brought actors from Karamu and Dobama, and theater students from CWRU were also available. Hearing each piece out loud let the characters come to life. Calhoun’s characters, already colorful and interesting, took on a brighter edge with his actors. The quiet resilience of the sister in Magid’s play came through on stage. It is much easier for a playwright to “hear” whether the dialogue is natural, whether it flows, when actors add their voices.

The class, while giving us the opportunity to work on and hear our plays, also presented us with the opportunity to connect with other writers and other genres. Working with other writers energized me and allowed me to see my work through other lenses while also having the opportunity to see what stories others were telling. The Master Class was an invaluable experience.

Elise Geither’s Prom for Angel has just been produced in the eighth annual playfest, “Queer Shorts 8,” in Madison, Wisconsin, with an additional performance at the Madison Pride festivities in August. Her one-act, Horse Latitudes, continues to see productions around the U.S. and her monologue, “Stones,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize this year.

Interview with Jaina Sanga (’97)

Jaina SangaSilk Fish Opium begins in 1945 in Bombay, the characters at a nexus of multiple conflicts, both personal and political. What drew you to the historical novel? What difficulties did you find in writing it?

As a graduate student at CWRU in the 1990s, I read some of Salman Rushdie’s novels and was struck by the protean depiction of history in his work.  His novels are all grand in vision and scope. What I learned from Rushdie is that politics and history matter.  You can write a simple love story, but if you set it in a politically charged moment in history, it becomes more complicated, and ultimately more interesting.

The notion of conflict is integral to novels.  Whether on a large scale such as the subcontinent’s Independence and Partition, or the subtler, internal struggles of a character, the depiction of conflict and its resolution generates the narrative arc of a novel.  Yet, during the process of writing Silk Fish Opium, I didn’t actively think about conflict generating elements that should be inserted here and there.  The main thing I was concerned with was telling the story in an efficient, imaginative way.  In fact, the main difficulty arose in trying to posit varying conflicts – of class, religion, politics, history, the effects of the Raj and so on – in a true and organic manner that would continually propel the narrative forward.

Moreover, the issues surrounding a Hindu-Muslim romance are complex even in today’s India.  While there has been substantial advancement in people’s thinking, the sense of the ‘other’ still prevails among many families.  It has been more than fifty years since Partition, yet India and Pakistan have not reconciled their differences.  While I was interested in exploring the historical dynamics of this conflict, the difficulty also lay in capturing the mood and aesthetic of the 1940s while still resonating with contemporary issues.

Continue reading Sanga interview here.



Alum (’83) Shelley Costa’s You Cannoli Die Once, first book in the Italian Restaurant Cozy Mystery series, is now available in bookstores.

Iris Dunkle (’10) has a full-time tenure-track job teaching at Napa Valley College beginning fall 2013.

Alum (’71) William Heath‘s novel Devil Dancer has just been published.

Terri Mester (’93) presented a paper entitled: “Sci-fi and the Law: Do Androids Dream in the Electric Chair?” at the Law and Popular Culture Conference in Tilburg, The Netherlands, in June.

Danielle Nielsen (’11) reviews Patricia Suzanne Sullivan’s Experimental Writing in Composition: Aesthetics and Pedagogies in The CEA Forum.


David Young class
Students working on translations in David Young’s class at Breaking Genre: A Writers Conference on June 1st on the CWRU campus.

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