Conferences – T.J. Moretti

My conferences over the past week have been all about the weather.

Friday, 4/7, I “present” my second conference paper in the span of one week.

I go to conferences for two reasons: to try out and learn about new ways of reading literature, and to hang out with other academics who are also managing responsibilities like teaching, scholarship, college service, home life, maybe partnership or marriage, maybe kids, or pets, or plants (you know, tending the garden), inner work, physical health, community work, civic engagement.

Well, anyway, first, what I tried out at those two conferences.

Last week I presented at the Renaissance Society of America’s conference in Chicago: to about a dozen or so people, I read my paper on the early modern bible, the problem of Christian rule, and the weak, dithering Henry VI in Shakespeare and company’s Henry VI, Part 2. This week, I participated in a seminar called “Terrestrial Shakespeare” at the Shakespeare Association of America’s conference in Atlanta, with a paper on ecological fantasies in Henry V.

In each essay, I investigate early modern fantasies that in some curious, frightening ways might broadly parallel our own. The first is the fantasy that a truly religious person—in Henry VI’s case, a devout Christian—could uphold central tenets of their faith even as they assert and maintain political power over their subjects. The second is the fantasy that humans can invade territory in war or can penetrate the earth for sustenance and economic benefit without harming themselves in the process.

I like to ask, how can Shakespeare and his contemporaries deepen our concern over current issues? What does it mean to read a play in a way that draws our attention to some of the political, social, economic, and ecological crises of our day? At the same time, I do not want to fall into the trap of superimposing current concerns onto literary texts written at a distant time in a distant place for a distant group of people. So, I try to root my close reading of texts within a well researched historical context. But whenever I notice concerns similar to our own, I feel like my work is helping me process my own anxieties and frustrations over the issues of our moment, and I hope that by sharing my work with others that they too can deepen their engagements with those issues.

Second, I go to conferences to socialize, have fun, hang out with people I only get to see face-to-face once a year, because socializing online doesn’t get me much, I’m afraid. I still post and tweet to colleagues and fellow academics, but what’s really beneficial about conferencing—heck, about any personal interaction in my mind—is the kind of shared feeling found in face-to-face interactions, a feeling that can be shared in an instant with a look, a gesture, a hug, a frown, a laugh. When posting something on Twitter or Facebook, I wait for a future acknowledgment: a response, a like or something. When I interact with someone face-to-face, I can feel the future in an instant.

Oh, and I go to conferences for the stories. This year’s major story: the weather. Want to know about it? Let me know, and I’ll tell you about it, face to face.

Writing on Paper – T.J. Moretti

#howIwrite

I like to write. I haven’t published much, so I wouldn’t call myself a “writer,” certainly not a poet, though I started writing things when I wrote poems to cope in junior high. They were cheesy love poems for my first or second crush. Rejected, I wrote more poetry, either sighed a lot, or (more likely) bingewatched Video JukeBox until Green Jelly’s “Three Little Pigs” or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog’s “Nothin but a G Thang” came on (YouTube it all, folks), or (just as likely) gorged myself on Super Nintendo or Genesis games to prepare for my first year in high school.

I don’t have those poems anymore. Don’t ask.

I wrote those poems on paper because it wasn’t until my second year in high school that I learned how to type on a computer and format a document.

I still write on paper whenever I can: poems, drafts of short stories, character sketches, ideas for novels, dreams, parts of an academic essay. I didn’t write this post on paper, I admit, but I tend toward paper, because writing on paper helps me remember what I wrote, what I changed.

My last writing: I wrote a poem for an Advent booklet distributed through Iona’s Office of Mission and Ministry. I started it on paper. Take a look at a section of an early draft.

See how messy it gets? I cut here, squeezed there, interrupted myself twice. I look back and flinch at some of my early word choices, like “numbing cold,” (like really, I could have done something else there, I mean, there was no need for me to even write that phrase down).

When I write on Word or Google Docs, I lose a history of those edits, those lessons in real-time, those signs that I was really thinking hard, really struggling to find meaning in an image, to find meaning at all. (I could just use “Track Changes,” but all the colors and lines seem too messy for me to untangle).

I don’t keep all drafts of all my writings. I’ve scrapped drafts of articles that have been published, or early, terrible versions of dissertation chapters that took my advisor hours to edit. I don’t feel the need to hold onto that history.

The poems, though, and the short stories, and the ideas for stories, and any drafts of unfinished scholarly articles demand that I document the changes, in the body of the writing or in the margins.

I want a written record of those changes.

I don’t want to tap “Backspace” or “Delete” to erase the history of my thought-process, my habits of mind, my search for meaning in art and my search for art in meaning.

Those writings demand that I take stock of my work, that I study the documents of their past, that I learn from those documents what I thought, felt, or thought I felt.

I need to write on paper to remember.

I can still write on Word and still make the final version permanent, but I find myself in the quirks of the drafts. Without a record, I don’t have a way to remember the quirks I changed, even if I can notice in the permanent version those quirks I can’t change. Take, for example, the final version of my advent poem:

The Advent Wreath: A Vigil

You fear what the dark means,

or might, you don’t know enough

to know why the holly, why the pine,

why four candles on a wreath

when coal for boys and girls

gone bad, born to the bad they know,

they know not, they know not what

they know.

Round and round

trace a bruise around an eye or wrist,

purples wrenched from pinks,

hope numbed cold.

Round and round loop the yarn by a lamp

near a hearth into stockings empty for more

quick picks, scratch offs, Crayola wax

to waste on stick-figure-family smiles

and North Pole lists next to Guida and Oreos

on the oak veneer table.

Round and round the barrel bomb

in Aleppo once, twice, more than three,

smote your peace.

Your hara feels what the dark means,

what excretes through pancreatic ducts

toward your right, your core—

call it your duodenum—

for food that feeds your life for more

than round and round until aground.

A square of candles, vertices on a circle of pine.

Light one, two, the third, four the sum.

Purples into a pink to purple,

you see in flickers—

dawn rays through dew on hydrangeas,

there is a peony—

the halo like a white oak

aspiring from winter’s ground

to rival the snow: I will green again.

Wax melts and puddles and sets

into the wounds of the world.

The wreath, the pine,

the wicks aflame,

the mess below,

or nest, a womb, dark aglow,

you know you know

you hope you know

See? Nothing I can change there, even in stanzas 2 and 3, which really need work. And stanza 1…

Well, I could edit this blog post, I suppose—take a screenshot of before and after or something. But that just sounds like so much work, you know?

Words I Loathe (part 1) – Aaron Rosenfeld

Aaron Rosenfeld

As my students know, I loathe the word “relatable.” They know because I always tell them, usually early in the semester, and there is always a casualty (and to those unfortunates, I offer an overdue apology, along with my unstinting gratitude for supplying me with my teaching moment).

I had not even heard the word “relatable” until about 10 years ago. In his “On Language” column in the New York Times, Ben Zimmer traces the evolution of the word “relatable” from “able to be related,” as in a story that can be told, to the new usage, “something you can relate to.” He partly blames the influence of television: mass culture requires mass relatability. Since television traffics in flattery of its target demographics, “relatable” is a proxy for profitable. As long as characters on screen offer easy access to fantasies of “they’re just like me,” albeit slightly better looking and with better apartments, our eyes stay glued to the magic mirror.

The problem with “relatable” is that, like the passive voice, it dupes the reader by smudging out the subject. When I say something is relatable, I mean I can relate to it. But, instead of taking responsibility as the one that does the relating, with all the attendant limitations and qualifications that attribution implies, “relatable” pretends what I experience is actually a quality of the object. This might seem like a venal sin, but it has mortal consequences for the intellect.

Vladimir Nabokov, one of the great literary stylists of the twentieth century, calls “impersonal imagination” (Lectures on Literature, 4) the reader’s most important tool; identifying with a character is “the worst thing a reader can do” (4). We need “scientific” aloofness to balance emotional intuition if we are to recognize the specificity, the otherness, of the author’s experience. When we identify, we replace the author’s experience with our own; we find – yet again – our same old selves. I can think of no greater horror than being sentenced to bump forever against the bars of my own brain. Say goodbye to the sudden insight that might cause us to reevaluate who and what we are; say goodbye to the exhilarating leap into strangeness.

“Relatable” is the perfect word for a narcissistic age, insisting on the adequacy of the receiver’s experience, even though perhaps the most important reason for reading is to acknowledge our own incompleteness. Writing about student evaluations, Mark Edmundson tells of a professor’s solution to this form of self-satisfaction:

It’s said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to? (Harper’s, September 1, 1997)

Edmundson’s cheeky professor raises a real issue. When we cannot relate, maybe we ought to look inward; the fault is not in our books, but in us.

I will admit, I have heard reasonable defenses of “relatable.” Just the other day, a student pointed out, “it doesn’t mean others have to relate, only that I do.” Maybe so, but framing it as a matter of relatability at all presumes we are central to the business at hand. Do authors write for us? Or do they write for themselves, out of a fascination with a feeling, a voice, a story, or a texture that they feel compelled to put into words? If it is the latter, then we are not the destination; we are no more than a bathroom break along the way.

Or, you might argue, “relatable” is like “edible,” just a way of describing whether or not something is ingestible by mind instead of mouth. But not exactly: “edible” describes an empirically verifiable state of being – either something can be eaten or not – the burden of which rests entirely with the object proposed as food (unless we mean it figuratively as hyperbole). Our ability to relate to a work of literature, in contrast, evolves depending on the effort we put into it. A shovel will always be inedible, no matter how good you get at chewing.

Edmundson and Nabokov point to how “relatable” makes intellectual laziness an approved category. We all have a tendency to treat the new things we encounter as confirmation of what we already know. This is how Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” became a poem about following your own path in life rather than a poem about self-deception and regret. Writers play with expectations—they trick us into thinking we are reading something familiar, only to twist it into something new. When we reflexively reduce what they have written to confirmation of our half-formed thoughts, we get it exactly wrong; in our rush to hear our common sense reflected back at us, we miss the meaning entirely.

Ultimately, calling something “relatable” undoes the real work of reading. Reading means hearing the voices of the others that inhabit the texts we read. Some effort is required. Empathy is not a thing that we all simply have in equal measure, it is to be cultivated, and reading is a tool for this end. Reading well can make all things “relatable,” but this is the outcome, not the precondition for our encounter with a work of art or literature.

A work of literature is only as large as the mind that contains it. So next time you find yourself thinking about whether a work is “relatable,” I have a suggestion: look for what is not “relatable” in the text; that is where you are most likely to find its genius. But I imagine you knew that’s what I would say.

 

 

 

 

 

Why English? – Anna Clark

Anna Clark

Often when I ask my students why they chose an English major, they’ll tell me stories about how in middle school Harry Potter seemed more real than their best friend, or how they’ve compulsively written short fiction since the second grade. I love such answers. They make English feel like destiny. For these students, the question isn’t why major in English, but why major in anything else. Passionate and determined, they’ve long known English was it.

For others, though, the decision to study English is a bit more fraught. After all, what do you tell your parents? Harry Potter and short fiction are great, but they’re not going to pay rent. What exactly can you do with an English major?

 

I was one of these others. I too have always loved reading and writing, I too found friends in books, but I’m also pragmatic to a fault. As a kid, I would reply to the “what do you want to be” question with “actuary!” or “orthodontist!” My ambitions were always firmly tethered to reality. By the time I reached high school, I knew I’d be a doctor—a cardiologist, to be exact. I started volunteering at a hospital; I watched The X-Files for gory autopsy scenes; I imagined myself with a white lab coat and stethoscope, professional, serene, gainfully employed.

So what changed? For one thing, when I got to college, I discovered I didn’t actually enjoy science and math classes—or at least as much as I did my humanities seminars. I was far from home in a big city, and I wanted more than anything to connect with people and make sense of a vast new place. My humanities classes—English and philosophy especially—helped me do just this. Taking them was like being initiated into a special club of really smart people who knew everything about everything. Being part of this club, or at least one of its wannabes, made me feel that I was participating in something big—what I said, the arguments I made, mattered. It was an amazing sensation, better, even, than the calm serenity of knowing what I’d do when I graduated.

Late in my sophomore year, I told my dad I was declaring a double major in English and philosophy. He made the kind of tight grimace usually reserved for taxes and plumbing repairs and muttered something about postponing retirement. But my pragmatism didn’t disappear when I switched out of premed. I started hunting down workstudy gigs that let me practice the writing and analytical skills I was getting in my English seminars, first taking a job writing press releases for the fine arts department, then becoming a tour guide at a local art museum, and then eventually finding an internship doing PR and sales for a summer music festival. These jobs didn’t pay much—I was always babysitting on the side—but, paired with the work I was doing in my major courses, they helped me plausibly imagine myself into many different careers: advertising, PR, publishing, museum education, arts administration. Before college, none of these pursuits were on my radar, but the people I was meeting who did these jobs seemed happy. They had autonomy and respect and intellectual engagement. And they too had studied things like English and philosophy. When I interviewed for work, I found that my major came across as serious rather than frivolous. It told prospective employers not only that I could write and communicate, but also that I was capable of puzzling through hard ideas. It told them that I possessed the kind of knowledge and abilities that matter to thoughtful people in creative fields.

In the end, my dad needn’t have worried. I found a job almost as soon as I graduated, helping with arts education at the same small museum where I’d been a tour guide. I stayed there while I earned a masters degree, and then worked in non-profits for nearly two years before returning to grad school for a Ph.D. (probably the least pragmatic decision I’ve ever made). I enjoyed those years, and in truth, I think I could have stayed in any one of those careers and been happy. I love being an English professor, but this job, just like my college major, is a choice. Studying English prepared me for where I am now, but it also prepared me for many other meaningful kinds of work.

 

I don’t mean to minimize English majors’ very valid concerns about employment. In lots of ways, I was lucky. And of course, no future is a sure thing. Circumstances that can’t be predicted close off some roads and open up new ones. Interests change. But for all these reasons, for someone who likes to read and write and think, I believe that English, in its own strange way, is one of the most pragmatic majors out there. It’s not an end in itself—you won’t graduate and “do” English. But that’s exactly why it’s so great. It changes with you. You can make it and remake it into what you want it to be. It translates itself into opportunities you can’t yet name.

Maybe you’ve always known you were going to be an English major. Maybe, to your own surprise, you find yourself considering it. Either way, welcome. It’s a worthy destiny. It’s a fine choice.

What I Read Wednesdays – Alyssa Quinones

Alyssa Quinones

 

For me, Wednesday is the day of the week that causes me the most stress. I spend my Tuesday evenings and the entirety of my Wednesdays with my nose in a book. As a grad student, having two lit classes back to back that are novel-based is no small feat. The permanent dark circles under my eyes and coffee shakes in my hands are a representation of my perpetual tiredness. But the one thing that makes it all worthwhile—I’m greatly enjoying the books that are being brought my way, books that, if it weren’t for these courses, I probably would have never picked up myself. My Images of Women in Modern American Literature class has been one of my favorite courses I have taken in my collegiate career. Books in that class have not only broaden my scope but have also pushed against my comfort barrier. They have made me cry in sadness and in anger, but have also made me immensely happy. Everyone should read them.

americanah

One of those books is Americanah by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This book was a roller coaster of emotions for me, and after Adele dropped ‘Hello’, I couldn’t handle life anymore. If you occasionally jam out to ‘Flawless’ by Beyoncé (if “occasionally” means every day) than you already know who this woman is. Beyoncé sampled words from Adichie’s Ted Talk entitled “We should all be feminists” in her hit song.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gestures in Lagos,Nigeria, Tuesday, Sept. 16 2008.(AP Photo/George Osodi)
Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie gestures in Lagos,Nigeria, Tuesday, Sept. 16 2008.(AP Photo/George Osodi)

Adiche, with her authoritative voice and boundless humor, takes you on a sensational journey of race, love, and class by transporting you from the past and the present to tell an unforgettable story about a young woman named Ifemelu. What makes this book so important is how acutely relatable it is because it is of our time. It is rooted in our decade, in our history. The prominence of technology, internet culture, sense of community within the blogging world, the 2008 election and the microscope held over race in America as a result are all aspects of what makes this novel such a prominent and essential part of our culture.

From the beginning of the novel, it becomes clear to the reader that Adichie has a firm grasp and understanding of what makes people tick. Her narration is a flawless examination of race through the lens of “otherness.” We perceive of race through Ifemelu’s eyes whilst in America and in Nigeria, where race is something she never had to truly acknowledge. Back home, the issue at hand wasn’t race, it was class. While going to college in Nigeria, Ifemelu is bogged down by bouts of discontentment. She wants a better life and education for herself.

One of the main complications I had with this novel was the protagonist herself. Although I greatly enjoyed the novel and found Ifemelu’s strength, perseverance, and intelligence to be refreshing to read, I came away with mixed feelings. Ifemelu’s general fickleness and self-sabotaging manner made her a difficult character to like at times. Her relationship with her old boyfriend Obinze conflicted me the most. Unlike a majority of my classmates, I did not view this as a love story and, by the end, was not rooting for the two to be together. But like every relationship Ifemelu has in this novel, she finds a reason to end it. Curt, her first American boyfriend, commonly referred to in her blog posts as the “hot white ex”, provided her with a life too easily lived, too comfortable. His race, wealth, and high social standing provided her with numerous ways to better herself and her standing whilst in America, but she sabotaged herself out of the relationship. She was playing a role if you will, involving herself in an experiment. She was happy, but not content. Her second American boyfriend Blaine, an African-American professor at Yale with high intellect and a false sense of maturity, appeared at first to be the perfect man. Before they had begun dating, Ifemelu could see their lives together quite easily. Once together, the only basis of longevity in their relationship was Obama’s campaign for the presidency. She found it difficult to fit in with his friends. Again, she found pleasure, but she wasn’t content. Obinze was the great love of her life, having met at school in their youth and dating into University, they had a strong and seemingly unbreakable bond. Bouts of depression and feelings of hopelessness regarding her situation caused Ifemelu to feel outside of herself and give up on the relationship.

At times during my reading, Ifemelu came off as petty and selfish. Now and again, her behavior is what caused me to find this book so harrowing to read. I’m fairly certain I had to stop reading out of anger and frustration at least 5 times towards the end of the book. (Note to self: ‘Friends’ is always a great distraction when literature or real life becomes too stressful. Naps help too.) Though, looking back on the novel, now I see that, that is something Adichie was blatantly trying to do. She is able to find the balance between impactful characters that both entertain and enrage whilst offering an important social and cultural commentary.

I hope I didn’t come out sounding too preachy in this post, but my class discussions are only 2 hours long, and I’m fairly sure half of the class would have crucified me for my opinions on Obinze x Ifemelu (#Obinelu? #Ifeminize?). I think I may be the only one who feels this way about Ifemelu. I’m sure the Internet dwellers are sharpening their pitchforks, but, even though I had my problems with the two protagonists of this novel, it was still one of the greatest novels I have ever read. I hope my interpretation of Ifemelu as a character can spark some conversation. She is a character that, like any human being, is riddled with many flaws, but flawed characters are usually the most interesting ones to read.

The end of Americanah brought with it a sense of longing and melancholy. I found I was not yet ready to leave the story or the characters within it. I wish we got to see more of Obinze’s point of view. Although I disagreed with some of his actions, I found him to be a very fascinating character and his time in England was some of my favorite parts to read in the novel.

Although I wasn’t the biggest fan of Ifemelu and Obinze as a couple by the end, I liked the idea that there is a certain dullness to life without the one you love. They both were living a life removed of color because the person they wanted to be with was no longer in it, a life of black and white, separations and categories, decisions and paths, all leading them to their true adventures.

One of the many securities of literature is that it can offer its readers an escape from their lives. In light of recent events in Paris, please stay safe and love one another.

Major Day ’15

Students met Anna Clark, Timothy Lyle, and Ivy Stabell to discover that the English Major at Iona College is a degree for the 21st century.

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Anna Clark, Ivy Stabell, and Timothy Lyle at Major Day

#WeNeedDiverseBooks, and that’s what many Iona English courses offer.  So students on Major Day were happy, because English.

Why English? Because English moves us beyond phonies.

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All students matter.  Their success matters, too.  That is why diverse books matter.

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English can make a difference in one act, in one meeting, in one tweet, in one hashtag.  Imagine what an English class, an English minor, or an English major can restore.

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Professors can learn as much from students as students can from professors.  Yes, English can restore, invigorate, collect, unite, and inspire.

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Diverse books invite everyone.  So, you are invited, too!  Follow us on Twitter, and we’ll follow you.  Let’s meet our needs.

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Susan Tolivier from Sociology: Yes!

 

Starting Convos – Dr. Dean Defino

Conversations start when two or more people share something in common.  It may be something very basic, like standing in the same place at the same time (“Do you know if the bus is running on time?”; “I think that penguin just winked at us”), or something more profound, like a shared passion.  If you have come to this blog, it is most likely because you share a passion for books, for stories, for words, and the ways they work on our senses and our imaginations.  Here you will find others who share that passion.  And so a conversation will begin.

What will we talk about?  The things we love.  Sometimes we will simply want to share our passions by recommending the things we love to each other.  Sometimes we will feel compelled to explain; other times, we will be forced to admit that we don’t fully understand.  That’s good.  This isn’t a thesis or a project, but a place to meet and be enthusiastic.  Not necessarily as students or teachers or scholars or critics, but as amateurs, a word that originally meant “lovers.”

We’ve all had that experience of reading a book or poem, watching a movie or a play, and suddenly falling head-over-heels in love with it.  Not the sort of love we feel for concepts, ideals, or community, but the messy, irrational, trip-over-ourselves-to-tell-others kind of love.  That’s what we want to celebrate here.  Will we try to convince each other that we should all love these things too?  Of course.  That’s what we do when we are passionate.  That’s what connects us.  That’s what starts conversations.

So to all lovers of stories, of words, of the music and noise, beauty and horror, virtue and vice of reading—whatever it is we love to read: I say to you, welcome to the conversation.

~Dean Defino