Remarks for the 2017-2018 Sigma Tau Delta Inductees - T.J. Moretti

I’m here today to congratulate the members of Sigma Tau Delta, the English Honors Society. You have chosen wisely. Among all the benefits that English affords college students, there is one that especially distinguishes you: your growing capacity to navigate stories for meaning.

So, congratulations for dedicating your time and energy to story. Yes, English gives you access to more than narrative. There is poetry of course. Argumentation. Rhetoric. Figures of speech. Tropes. Metaphors. Similes. Synecdoches. Metonymy. Meter and rhyme. Imagery. Voice. Clarity.

But I’d argue that no matter the types of literature, or various literary devices, or the purpose of the text in front of you, at the core of what you read is a story, a narrative. Behind the image of poet William Carlos Williams’ red wheelbarrow, glazed with rain water, beside the white chickens, is a narrative. The use of iambic pentameter in a sonnet adds rhythm and structure… to a story. Tropes like metaphors and similes reshape or reveal a new way of viewing a story. Or they discover a new story entirely.

In other words, I’d argue that in each English class taken and to be taken, and with each literary genre encountered, you are honing your intellectual and emotional abilities to understand story.  To choose story and storytelling as subjects of inquiry is to engage in the most human of occupations.

Well, that’s a lot to disagree with. First, really, story is what you signed up for?  And Moretti has the audacity to think he knows what it means to be human? For the sake of time, I’m going to commit one cardinal sin for any arguer: I will not consider counterarguments. A cop-out, I know. I will supply evidence, though. I’m sure I’m going to ramble, too.

Let me start with all the ways that literature itself tends to cherish the human capacity for story.  Beowulf tells stories, sometimes in contrast to the stories that the Beowulf poet tells, to hyperbolize his heroism. The pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales traffic in stories, as if storytelling is the true way to go on a pilgrimage, to prepare for religious reckoning, even fulfillment.  The stories that are most memorable from The Odyssey are those that Odysseus tells his hosts in Phaeacia—to validate himself among his Poseidon-worshipping hosts no less than to give meaning to human suffering—grief and guilt over the death of a friend or mother, fear over one’s own death, woe due to desire unfulfilled, or due to mutually exclusive desires and duties, impulses and designs.

Examples of literature cherishing story abound. Literature can also question the limits of story to know the truth.

Hamlet’s dying wish is to have his friend Horatio tell his story: “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, / Absent thee from felicity awhile, / And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, / To tell my story” (5.2.329-332). The story that Horatio aims to tell, “Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, / Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters, / Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, / And, in this upshot, purposes mistook / Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads,” sounds too boilerplate to do justice to the story that Shakespeare’s play has just given us, of a prince, maddened with grief, who is torn over the kind of story he finds himself in—a revenge tragedy. We just had a wonderfully unique revenge tragedy, and we’d hate to see that story get redacted, revised, and rebooted with Horatio as the storyteller. We’ve seen so much more than he has of Hamlet’s story.

So we rely on stories for memory, for preparing ourselves for the suffering to come, for coping with our current suffering, even though stories are intrinsically limited.

Our reliance on stories can also be quite troubling.

I’m sure Dr. Carlson could tell us what story means to Chaucer’s Miller or Reeve: a chance to jest, mock, insult, defame, punish the other. Or Chaucer’s Clerk, who suggests that the best woman is the servile woman. Also, we ought not forget all the ways that humans use story to caricature others. Odysseus turns the Cyclops into a monster with his story; Shakespeare’s Prospero turns Caliban into a monster in The Tempest; there’s the Beowulf poet’s version of Grendel, too. We have seen radically new perspectives on these stories—The Tempest, The Odyssey, Beowulf from the “monster’s” point of view. It’s something to celebrate, this retelling of old tales to recoup what is lost whenever story is used to subjugate, oppress, stereotype, malign, demonize, or dismiss.

So, we rely on stories to remember ourselves and one another, to handle suffering, and we use our knowledge of stories to remind ourselves how easy it is to misrepresent others.

We also rely on stories as a form of distraction. Here’s Lear who’d rather dream with his good daughter than face his cruel daughters:

 

“Come, let’s away to prison.

We two alone will sing like birds I’ th’ cage.

When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down

And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,

And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh

At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues

Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too—

Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out—

And take upon’s the mystery of things

As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,

In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones

That ebb and flow by the moon” (5.3.8-19).

 

In other words, let’s make a story together, one of forgiveness and reconciliation, and then let’s tell tales of old and tales of others to lead us to the mystery of things, the mystery of creation, of the universe, of consciousness. In other words, Netflix and chill. Into the mystic.

Unfortunately, Lear and Cordelia don’t have a chance to fulfill Lear’s wish. They both die, and we’re left with their stories, like their lives, cut short.  There’s nothing at play’s end that can distract us from the tragedy. Kent, Lear’s servant, tries to redirect our attention to his own story of dedication and service, but it fails.

Sometimes we rely on stories as a distraction; sometimes we rely on stories to dwell upon harsh truths.

So, you all are not only to be commended for choosing a major that has you focus on the most human of actions—storytelling—but for choosing a major that can suddenly plunge you into some harsh, frightening truths that might trap you in something like despondency.

Sometimes it’s stories that we try to distract ourselves from, because those stories settle upon harsh truths we’d rather not dwell upon. Marlow suggests as much in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a tough turn of the 20th century novella about colonizing the Congo that confronts readers with racism and its logical premises and conclusions—delusions of grandeur, self-aggrandizement, greed, and genocide. As Marlow witnesses these crimes against humanity first hand—and even gives voice to the very racism that he tries to debunk—he turns to work to distract himself. “Rivets! Rivets I wanted,” he cries, because he wants to get on with the work of patching his boat and stopping the leak. He works to avoid remaining idle, which all at once detaches him from his own reality and has him dwell upon the reality of the situation around him—slaves in chains, Congoan men dying of starvation under a tree, villages pillaged, and bodies of villagers vanished, erased, without a story to show or tell. No memory, no remembrance.  Marlow thinks that work can help him construct his own reality, can help him hold onto the “redeeming facts of life,” the facts that redeem life.  Work, manual labor in his case, can make life meaningful whenever experiences and stories outside of work confuse, torment, and horrify.  He begins to learn about the value of work from an accountant, by the way, someone who works so hard at crunching numbers for the trade company that he fails to see the horrors of the ivory trade.

A red wheelbarrow, anyone? So much depends upon it.  You know, it’s used for work. For redeeming life. Or in order to ignore a hard truth that Marlow only has us glimpse when he reflects on the last words of the fascinating, repulsive Mr. Kurtz: “The horror. The horror.”  Marlow thinks these dying words suggest that at the heart of humanity is “a strange commingling of desire and hate”—a dark reality about the nature and function of humanity that no one should ever have to face. Marlow thinks he has learned from his story that we humans have evolved to put our reason and heart into the service of our instincts, that Mr. Kurtz, with all his murderous greed, is the truly free human, and that to think otherwise is to lie to ourselves, to suggest that if fully unrestrained from the laws and codes of society, we would act differently and not want everything for ourselves.

Marlow’s story, and his interpretation of his story, casts a bleak shade on humanity. It doesn’t agree with my earlier claim, that story, not selfish desire, is at the heart of what it means to be human.  And it doesn’t speak to your own encounters with other humans either, which, I would argue, rely heavily on story, too.

I’m always horrified by Marlow’s story and his interpretation. But rather than rest with it, I look for other stories to counter it.

Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Mr. Fortune’s Maggot.

This 1920s novel focuses on Timothy Fortune, who decides to become a missionary after a lucrative career as a banker. His “maggot,” that is his strange, perverse fantasy, is to convert the natives on a Polynesian island named Fanua. His only convert, Lueli, proves to be no convert at all.  This development shakes Mr. Fortune to the core and sets him into a desirous, hateful rage that brings Lueli to the brink of despair. What changes Mr. Fortune’s fortunes, so to speak, is his realization that what Lueli needs is a Fanuan story that suits him, not a Judeo-Christian story that Mr. Fortune forces upon him.  Mr. Fortune discovers that “everywhere mankind is subject to the same anxious burden of love and loneliness, and must in self-defence enchant their cares into a story and a dream.” So, at the heart of humanity is not desire, but love, not hate, but loneliness. And to cope with our burden of love and loneliness, we place ourselves and those around us in a story, or we dream ourselves into a story. We use story to let us handle the truths about ourselves.

You, Sigma Tau Delta members, are those who work to pay attention to that human endeavor, those hearty attempts to use story to make sense of our love and loneliness, always underneath what we remember, what we worry we will forget, always the reasons that we strive for the goals we set.

There are so many stories to read, to reference, to reflect upon, so rather than continue to list so many others, and discover other ways to unpack our humanity through story, I’d ask you all to consider what stories you know.  From literature, yes, from experience too, your experience and others.  Make connections among those stories, even if, analytically speaking, they are far removed. Then, look for stories you don’t know, from places you don’t know, cultures you aren’t familiar with. Read freely, but make your reading list all-encompassing. Don’t just copy one of the stories that lie underneath my speech here.  You know, the story of a not so funny white guy who tries to honor Sigma Tau Delta members by emphasizing the importance of stories, who then points to a bunch of stories by a bunch of white guys and ends up finding hope in the lesson that a white male character learns in a novel by an English woman.  Continue to enlarge your minds and hearts through stories, everywhere.  And continue to critique the stories you read to discover what they mean, individually, and together, about you, about us, about our worlds. Balance work and story. Read Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! before you move that wheelbarrow. Or get in the wheelbarrow and read. Work on story.

Treasures of the TPNHA Collection - Scott Cleary

When Iona College was given the Thomas Paine National Historical Association Collection in 2013, it became the world’s second-largest archive of materials related to the American revolutionary, citizen of the world, and putative founding father Thomas Paine. Also included with that Paine–related material were documents and photographs created by William van der Weyde, founder of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, notable turn-of-the century photographer and photo-journalist, and occasional poet. Still uncatalogued, van der Weyde’s materials are a hidden gem in the Ryan Library archive, ready and willing for any archivist and researcher to explore.

As my students will tell you, and I repeat ad nauseum, I am a “poetry guy.” I enjoy reading and talking about poetry, and I especially relish teaching it to unsuspecting undergraduates. When I first discovered that van der Weyde had written and published poetry under the pseudonym William Manley, I was intrigued by what he could have written. I was pleasantly surprised to find a poet of moderate ability, and whose manuscript poetry reveals a passionate, intense, self-reflectively romantic (not Romantic) poet whose verse, while not reaching heights sublime or cottages ruined, is nonetheless an intriguing mix of pathos and delight.

My contribution to this Iona College English Department blog will be small glimpses at van der Weyde’s poetry specifically, and the joys of discovering manuscript and typescript poetry generally. First up is this short poem from 1890.

Courtesy of the TPNHA Collection, Ryan Library, Iona College

It is a Valentine’s card writ poetic. Perhaps a little heavy on the opening line’s “doth,” the poem’s luminescent imagery, coupled with the anthropomorphized “day,” leads nicely into a kind of delayed zeugma, where the day’s smile alights both the new and true love, but likewise the poem’s central symbol for that love: “fond hearts united.”

The next stanza shifts the ground quickly and engages in a tonal and narrative position van der Weyde takes in a number of his poems: that of both defense and competition. It will surprise no reader to learn that van der Weyde had a few marriages, and his poetry is infused with pervasive, creeping doubt about his ability to love, and his lover’s desire to love him. Those are differences without distinction for van der Weyde, and in this poem the plaintive tone of those first two lines, “Then may not I, with lover’s vie,/ To call this fair day mine” are a surprise. Having just left “fond hearts united,” the reader now encounters the narrator calling the “day” “fair’ and “mine” and not his lover. The displacement of both beauty and possession from lover to the still smiling (presumably) day, almost perfectly represents a contemporary Valentine’s anxiety, where the Valentine is not as important as the object purchased, the experience reserved, or the memories created. The day itself, not the one loved or loving, is the object of affection.

This is why the narrator both “yearns” and “learns,” because to learn to yearn is the real meaning of Valentine’s Day. The rhyme hides the abiding sorrow,  and the reader notes what is both yearned and learned. Not true love. Not self-giving. Nothing save “To be your Valentine.” Nothing save a self -induced state wholly dependent on the absent (in the poem) love of and for the other. And so, in this poem with absences, displacements, and altered states, van der Weyde expresses the essential heart of  pre- (post) modern love.

A Reflection on the Realities of English - Miles Beckwith

An Unheralded Gem: Mary Wilkins Freeman - Michael Sacks

There are plenty of good writers who are not famous.  One such writer is Mary Wilkins Freeman. Freeman (1852 – 1930) was an American writer who wrote several remarkable novels and short stories. Her novels include Pembroke (1894), The Jamesons (1899), and The Shoulders of Atlas (1908).

Freeman’s novels are well-regarded by literary scholars, and some of her short stories are even more critically acclaimed. Freeman’s most celebrated short stories include “A Humble Romance” (1884) and “A New England Nun” (1887).  Many of Freeman’s short stories were published initially in periodicals and were subsequently collected in book form.

Freeman’s works frequently depict the integrity, the humility, and the independence of people in the small towns of New England.  The characters often face moral dilemmas, and the events usually reveal the inherent goodness of the protagonists.  Her characters are often poor financially, yet rich spiritually.  Freeman affirms the unassailable dignity of her humble characters.

“A Humble Romance” recounts the story of Sally and Jake Russell.  Sally, a shy yet courageous and determined woman, marries Jake, a traveling salesman, after Jake rescues Sally from a life of servitude.  The marriage goes smoothly – until Jake’s former wife (whom he believed had died) resurfaces.  The ex-wife (who had cheated on Jake) tries to blackmail Jake into getting back together with her.  The ex-wife threatens to expose Jake as a bigamist if he does not give her what she wants.  Jake handles the situation so deftly that he remains loyal to Sally while also preventing a scandal from arising.

“A New England Nun” tells the story of Louisa Ellis.  Louisa is described as a “nun” in a figurative sense of the word because of her devotion to an ascetic lifestyle.  Louisa is engaged to Joe Dagget.  Joe has just returned to New England after 14 years in Australia, where he went to make a fortune.  Having achieved his goal, Joe believes that he can support Louisa financially, so they plan to embark on their marriage.  However, the relationship between Joe and Louisa faces two obstacles.  Joe has developed feelings for Lily Dyer, who takes care of Joe’s mother.  Meanwhile, Louisa has grown accustomed to being single and has become set in her ways.  Though she still likes Joe, Louisa perceives marriage as a threat to “her happy solitary life.”  Louisa and Joe call off the engagement, and the story ends happily for both of them.

Mary Wilkins was born in 1852 in Massachusetts.  Her maiden name is Wilkins; her married name is Freeman.  Wilkins grew up in Randolph, Massachusetts, a suburban city located about 15 miles south of Boston.  She and her family moved to Vermont and lived there for a few years before returning to Randolph.

Wilkins eschewed marriage for a long time – until she was 49.  Mary Wilkins married Dr. Charles Freeman in 1902.  The couple moved to Metuchen, New Jersey, where they embarked on a marriage that proved to be strenuous.  Charles Freeman’s alcoholism and mental instability took a heavy toll on their relationship.  The couple divorced in 1922.

Mary Wilkins Freeman died of a heart attack in 1930 at age 77.  Her work endures and remains available to readers today.

The collected works of Freeman are available at wilkinsfreeman.info.  This collection provides an invaluable resource for anyone who enjoys good literature.

Two of the best critical studies of Freeman and her work are the following: Mary Wilkins Freeman by Perry Westbrook (1967) and In a Closet Hidden: The Life and Work of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman by Leah Blatt Glasser (1996).

Although she is not particularly famous nowadays, Freeman was a household name during her lifetime.  Her fame peaked in the 1890s.  In the introduction to The Best Stories of Mary E. Wilkins (1927), Henry Wysham Lanier describes Freeman’s popularity in the following way: “To one who was a reader in the [1890s], it seems almost ludicrous to ‘introduce’ Mary E. Wilkins. (Just a little like introducing Babe Ruth anywhere in the United States, in these latter days!)”  One should keep in mind that Lanier made this comparison in 1927 – the year in which Ruth hit 60 home runs and helped the New York Yankees win the World Series.

Freeman received several prestigious honors for her work, including the William Dean Howells Medal for Distinction in Fiction.  In 1926, Freeman was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

These honors are fitting forms of recognition for Mary Wilkins Freeman, a writer of extraordinary quality.

WHAT THE BODY KNOWS - DEAN DEFINO

There are things we know with nothing more than the proof of our own bodies.  We know the meaning of chaos because we once stuck a fork into an electric socket. We know that human extinction is inevitable because we did it again.  We know that people who say, “I love you” really mean, “I need you to love me.”  Just as we know that people who say, “There’s more to life than food” are…wrong.

We call this kind of knowledge “empirical,” from the Ancient Greek, ἐμπειρία, or empeiria, which translates as both “experience” and “experiment.”  I love that synergy: we experiment with reality through the sensory act of perception.  Knowledge is not so much drawn from experience as it is negotiated through the media of our senses.  Which isn’t to say that our perceptions, or the knowledge that results from them, are accurate.  Our senses, like those of other species, evolved to meet our own specific set of needs.  Which is to say, they are part and parcel of what makes us human.

We hear a great deal these days about the need for greater empathy.  We see our institutions—indeed, our very existence—threatened by our individual and collective inability to see the world through others’ eyes.  Some wonder if such a thing is even possible.  Some argue that it is enough simply to acknowledge and honor others’ perceptions, regardless of whether we can understand or identify with them, because all humans are entitled to that much.  Given how self-centered human beings are, that seems a lot to wish for.  Still, I have hope.  I believe we will endure, despite our tendency to make the same mistakes over and over, and despite our persistent inability to recognize the things that most matter until we lose them.  Those are emotional and intellectual failures that we may learn to overcome, or not.

But the body knows.  It signals dread to the heart and hamstrings long before the object of fear appears, and its skin prickles with desire long before the mind fixes on an object.  It says “run” and “seek,” even when mounded up on the couch, watching a seventh straight episode of Project Runway, season 12.  Despite the twin pillars of fear and laziness that shape so many of our decisions, it drags us along, demanding interface.  Regardless of our impulse to curse those who do not conform with our ideal of behavior, it forces our eyes to meet the glance of strangers, if only for a moment, seeking some sort of meaningful connection.  Irrespective of our persistent vision of a future cocooned in comfort and surrounded by lovers, family, friends, and well-wishers, our bodies demand adventures of the senses, whether at the top of a mountain or at the bottom of a bag of Doritos (and if you call that comfort eating, ask yourself why you don’t stop until you feel sick).

The body’s way of knowing—which is to say, through the friction and vibrations of the senses—pushes us to speak when it would be better to keep our mouths shut, to engage when it would be easier to retreat, and to direct our attention, and by turns our feelings, toward those who suffer and want, even as our brains try to convince us that whatever action we might take would be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.   Our bodies know, perhaps because they are more immediately part of the grand scheme of things than our measly brains.  If experience is experiment, they are the lab and its apparatus.  The results they present are the facts.  All our brains can do is posit theories about them.

Which is not to say our bodies know better.  They have a limited view, and lack imagination.  They feel, and translate that feeling into knowledge, relying on our brains to draw out kernels of wisdom and insight.  But where brains drift and doubt, unsure whether to apply the curious fork to wall socket or feast, bodies are persistent, and insistent.  They insist on identifying and prioritizing our needs.  Indeed, they help us to survive, when our brains are occupied elsewhere, by warning us against the chaos of the electric current, and driving us toward the communal table.

So doing, our bodies help us to learn to live with each other, to recognize how our needs and the needs of the collective are one.  As our minds prompt us to run from the danger we perceive in others, our bodies remind us that safety and comfort can only be found in others.

All to say, I suspect empathy isn’t about transcending the self, but embodying it. And that what saves us in the end may not be our ability to love others, but our need to be loved.

AN OPEN LETTER ON THE POLITICS OF ALLYSHIP - TIMOTHY LYLE

An Open Letter on the Politics of Allyship

Dear Future Ally-Worker (or Student, if you prefer):

First, thank you so much for attending the Diversity Lecture Series event with Jose Antonio Vargas last week. I greatly appreciate your attentiveness and your kind words after the program. Hearing that our students feel seen and heard by events like these makes the months of planning worthwhile.

If you wonder why I am writing to you tonight, it’s because something you asked me—though kindly and sincerely—has not stopped ringing in my consciousness since we interacted.

As you expressed your excitement, you asked the following: “You were so great last year on stage, why didn’t you take the mic again to interview Mr. Vargas. Aren’t you like the person in charge of this?”

Unfortunately, due to my role as an organizer and the hustle of that last 30 minutes, I did not respond to you in the way you deserve. In addition to the coffee I hope to buy you and the dialogue that I hope we will have over said coffee, here I am nonetheless– writing to you and to whomever stumbles upon this blog—to answer your initial question and to share some of the thoughts that shape my thinking.

Your question isn’t the only thing on my mind as I write this, though.

As you were bidding me farewell in person last week, you closed with the expression that you want to “be an ally – but not in the bullshitty way.”

Though your description and the matter-of-fact delivery made me chuckle, I share your commitment (and underlying fears). I have spent countless years devising approaches to that work. For what it’s worth, I’d like to share some guiding principles that feel right to me as I work to support marginalized folks without the regular accompanying bullshit.

When you complimented my on-stage work last year with Janet Mock at the 2017 Diversity Lecture Series event and asked why I wasn’t on-stage this year with Jose Antonio Vargas, you ignited my thinking yet again about how to approach work in diversity, equity, and inclusion in a body that most read as white, cisgender, (sometimes) heterosexual, able-bodied, and at least comfortably middle-class—all of this is regardless of how I self-identity.

As the event neared, honestly, it might have been easier and maybe even more glamorous in terms of professional accomplishments to take the stage again. Less planning, to be sure. And I admire Jose Vargas a lot. But re-centering my body because of my institutional capacity as Chair of the Committee on Diversity when I have colleagues more qualified is just a small example of how I think ally work can go awry. To let you in on my thinking a little bit, here are some of the ideas that I think through when I try to do the best work I can—while always holding myself accountable to do better.

Please know the list I share with you tonight is always growing, evolving, and developing in collaboration with some of the most intellectually sound, piercing, and loving ally-workers and community organizers I know.

I hope it helps you fight back the bullshit that far too often muddies our best intentions to labor with and/or for others. More than that, though, I hope it motivates you to think through and devise your own.

 

  1. EMBRACE THE WORK: As Janet Mock often reminds me, allyship is far more effective when we think about it as a verb rather than a noun. Instead of taking refuge in an identity, strive to think of it as working with and for the well-being of others. This is work that is always collaborative and work that you must always re-assess under the guidance of the folks you aim to help. Work, werk, or werq—but always do it.

 

  1. LISTEN: As my grandmother (and Pulitzer-prize playwright Eugene O’Neill) taught me, plenty of folks know how to hear but very few actually take the time to listen. If you want to engage others who move through the world differently than you do and make a difference in their lives, listen to them on their own terms and without interruption. Avoid demanding more information from them (if they haven’t welcomed you to do so) and never busy yourself preparing your reply (or, more likely, your defense) when they are sharing experience and knowledge with you.

 

  1. EDUCATE YOURSELF: Keep in mind that it is not the job of marginalized folk to educate you and others (and institutions) on how to avoid abusing them. Though this invisible (and often traumatic) labor is regularly thrown on them, ally-workers should take it upon themselves to self-educate and then to share resources with others in their communities on similar preparation journeys. Things that are “new to you” are often quite old or tiring for them, so use your resources (Google is often a great—though incomplete—start). Identify books, blogs, films, and more to guide you on your path to knowledge. Follow competent folks on social media, for they will inevitably lead you to more and more capable and urgent voices. In short, get thyself a bibliography.

 

If folks volunteer their already-marginalized labor or welcome you to ask them questions, great. Still try to check your curiosity and make sure that your questions are value-added for people other than yourself.

 

  1. AVOID RE-CENTERING YOURSELF AND EXPERIENCES: I cannot tell you how many community organizing meetings that I’ve been to in which the “new ally” holds the meeting hostage with their needs and experiences. They arrive unprepared but yet still manage to have lots to say (usually about how much they don’t know). Be mindful of the communities and the purposes at stake and avoid the temptation to re-center yourself and your viewpoints, especially if you are in a privileged body that has always trained you to occupy the center of the world and rewarded you seductively for a job well done. This is part of what I worked to avoid when I chose not to take the stage last week. I have an esteemed colleague who is more qualified for this particular event, is a student-favorite, and is vital to our institution. Why (other than arbitrary power play) would I re-center my body in that discussion? Instead, do the labor quietly behind the scenes, partner with folks when necessary, and then get out of the way.

 

  1. BE AWARE OF HOW YOUR BODY OCCUPIES SPACE: Recognize that whether we like it or not, our bodies carry all sorts of complicated narratives into a room or into a situation when we arrive. Being aware of how your body occupies space and questioning why that might be so are both crucial first steps to thinking through your own situatedness. While you might not ever be able to erase those narratives, you can contend with them, call attention to them (sometimes only in your own head or in conversation with other privileged folk), and work to navigate them to minimize adverse impacts.

 

  1. PRACTICE UNBECOMING: Devon Carbado has this useful expression that he cites as he talks about engaging feminist labor as someone who identifies as a cisgender man. Because the world has constantly acculturated him to “become” and remain a member of the patriarchy, and because the world will continue to do so (rewarding him for succeeding and punishing him for failing), he says the best he can do is always work at “unbecoming” the dude the world wants him to be, which—of course—necessitates that he do all sorts of violence to women to accomplish the goal. What Carbado’s idea of “unbecoming” reminds me of is the need to navigate a constant tension between resisting what is expected and foregrounding what one values. For instance, because I have been acculturated in and through a racial contact that prizes white supremacy and regularly denigrates blackness, I know that I will never just wake up one day and no longer be impacted by the seductive qualities of white supremacy that elevates me arbitrarily –and calls to me to be its glove puppet—its mouthpiece—even when I am not conscious of its power. Unbecoming is the never-ending work that I must reckon with daily if I am to labor diligently towards a more just and equitable life for as many as possible.

 

  1. REFUSE SILENCE: Part of the ally work, at least as I see it, is using my voice and the protection or power that I don’t necessary deserve to speak about inequities of power. Please note that speaking up about violence and speaking for others is not the same thing. In my efforts to speak truth to power about issues that disproportionally impact marginalized folk, I never speak on their behalf, or ask them to speak with me as I am talking, or use them and what I think are their experiences as my examples. Oftentimes, this can create a kind of epistemological violence that only does more hurt, but ironically, this hurt is done in the name of allyship. Speak for yourself only and remain focused on issues. As Audre Lorde reminds us, our silence won’t save us, so I encourage you to find ways to use your voice—whether that is in person, in writing, or through other actions that make your dissenting views clear.

 

  1. EXPAND YOUR CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE: Though the term “get your people” has always made me uncomfortable, I do powerfully believe in the idea that ally-workers should help other aspiring ally-workers do better. And, honestly, this work extends beyond dialoguing with folks who openly want to better themselves and their work with others. It also involves using your privilege (always check that, by the way) to talk to those who disagree with you and the marginalized folk whom you aim to help. As bell hooks urges, call them in rather than call them out, and work to share your views with them. As you know well, these conversations are often riddled with complexities and sometimes violence, but imagine being the person living the experience and having to endure these conversations. Doing this particular kind of labor is often where you can be the most helpful. You, too, might have your limits, so as you prepare for protracted, meaningful transformation, pace yourself, reflect, re-strategize, and always recognize the power you have and the urgency of the issue.

 

I hope it goes without saying that this list is wildly incomplete and shared with you somewhat casually, but if it gives you a tiny glimpse into how I approached my decision last week and how I approach a lot of my work in my research, teaching, and service about marginalized communities, I am thankful.

Oh, and please don’t forget that last week I actually was able to choose to de-center myself. Any number of marginalized folk are often not in the position to choose at all.

Looking forward to coffee and more…

Timothy

 

“Melt”, a series of poems - Martin Delgado

1.) 9:19 am 2.22.18
wooden floors
creak and cry
under the weight of wet socks
dried tears
stockpiled nostalgia
restless bones
slowly close the curtains
silently strip down to under garments
so as not to wake your mind
eyes hanging low
drape yourself in that caramel coloured fur blanket
close your eyes
and let dreamworld consume you
2.) 6:53 pm 2/16:18
water investigating the crevices of my body
a sliver of light peeks through a crack in the door
i stare at the switch, the crack , the switch
fog flirting with the mirrors
olympians racing through my mind
the comfort
warmth
i search,
sensations refracting
3.) 10:03 pm 2.27.18
the mystery of my heart
which taints every last thought
which crosses the expansive pond
that is my mind
eludes me
like a puma catching its prey
gnawing at bone and blood
ignoring the confidence said prey once exuded
i suck the venom from each snake bite
those of which crawled out of my imagination
and intentionally swallow every last ounce of acid
no tears no fears
slowing down of mental gears
i lay,
back to quicksand
child to earth
letting my eyelids take me
at their own pace
always
at their own pace

A Reaction to The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer” - Christina Carlson

The Metropolitan Museum of Art just recently closed its exhibition Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer. For four months, huge crowds flocked to the museum to see the exhibit, which was hailed as one of the most comprehensive collections of the artist’s drawings ever assembled. On a rainy Wednesday at the end of its run at the Met, I went to check out the exhibit for myself—despite the weather and the fact that it was a weekday in the off-season, the place was still packed with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the master’s work while they still had the chance.

I always want to love exhibits of this size and significance, want to be able to say I love them. But in this case I just can’t. Yes, I was impressed with the sheer volume of material collected in one place. There were some individual works I found myself drawn to: a sketch of a staircase that never got built, a doodle of a dragon with its head turned in on itself, a drawing of the death of Cleopatra. I felt educated by the detailed descriptions of the plans for the Sistine Chapel, and I was amused at the peek the exhibit afforded of Michelangelo as teacher—seems even the greatest among us sometimes feel frustration at trying to teach their craft to others.

But, at the risk of sounding like a complete philistine, I admit, I was underwhelmed.  Maybe it was the inclusion of so many works by Michelangelo’s teachers, students and contemporaries. Maybe it was the visual overload from just too much red chalk. Maybe it was a function of quantity over quality, the sheer volume demanding the viewer look at everything, when the percentage of true standout pieces was relatively small. Maybe it was because I was damp and being jostled by a lot of tourists. Whatever it was, I didn’t love it.

And then in the final gallery, I got some possible insight into my nagging disappointment. At the very end of the exhibit, there was a panel that explained that, after his death, Michelangelo wanted all his drawings destroyed so that they would never be exhibited publically—he only wanted audiences to see the final perfection of his work.  Pardon me? So then why exactly had the Met just led me through a half-dozen galleries looking at exactly the kinds of works Michelangelo never wanted seen?! I felt implicated somehow, unwittingly complicit in the exposure of the master’s imperfection. And I wasn’t happy about it. Has the man not earned the right to decide how he wants to be represented?

But of course, it got me thinking about my own field, and how we deal with process, with imperfection, with incompletion. How Chaucer left works unfinished to avoid giving his readers the benefit of closure. How I give students copies of my own works in progress to compare with the final published version to provide insight into the process of academic writing. How we sometimes look to authors’ letters or diaries that were never meant to be read to help understand their literary works. And how in today’s multi-media world, so much of what once was private can be exposed to millions with a click or a swipe.

I’m not sure what this means for our craft. In the case of Michelangelo, nothing in that exhibit diminished his greatness for me, but it made me uncomfortable on his behalf. Do we not have a responsibility to honor the wishes of the greats among us? Or is it okay to exploit them, for our own edification, entertainment, economic gain? Should what is private be fair game if its creator isn’t around to protest? What is our responsibility to the wishes of the dead when we know them? And when we don’t? I have no answers to these questions, except to say that they are questions that we, as students and producers of writing in an increasingly exposed world, need to consider.

Murder, She Wrote - Laura Shea

Recently, I published my second mystery novel, entitled Murder at the People’s Theater.  Mystery fiction is generally divided into two categories, the hard-boiled and the cozy.  Typically, the hard-boiled detective is a solitary figure who walks the mean and often rain-swept streets of a major city in pursuit of justice, whatever that means in the morally relative—at times, corrupt—universe that the detective inhabits.  Traditionally, that city is Los Angeles, but at this point, pick anywhere on the map.

This investigator acts according to a moral code from which he—or she—never waivers.   The violence committed by the perpetrator or by the detective is right there on the page (and in this context, it can be hard to tell them apart), as is the sexual content of the novel.  Although the detective may be a solitary figure, living and working alone, the investigator does take time out for a liaison or two, often with someone who may or may not be in handcuffs at the conclusion of the case.  The hard-boiled detective bears the scars of this profession, which can include not only physical injuries but the deeper emotional wounds that take longer to heal.  And there is often a more-than-medicinal dose of alcohol to lubricate the lonely nights experienced by an individual who still operates according to a clear sense of right and wrong, at times hampered by a justice system that appears to have forgotten the difference.

Murder at the People’s Theater falls under the category of cozy.  Here is a synopsis:

Taking a break from the academic life, Erica Duncan starts a new job in the producer’s office at the prestigious People’s Theater but soon discovers that the position holds more drama than expected.  In search of its next big hit, the theater is presenting Michelangelo: The Musical, focusing on the life and loves of the artist.  When an unassuming co-worker is found murdered in the theater lobby, her body posed in a copy of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Man, this is the kind of publicity that the show does not need.  At the People’s Theater, Erica assumes the role of detective, never an easy part, especially in a place when almost everyone is an actor, and self-invention is a way of life.   Murder at the People’s Theater is also a story of mothers and children, from Michelangelo and his mother, and the actors who play them, to the birth mother who has no interest in being found by the daughter she gave up for adoption 20 years earlier.

The cozy is supposed to serve up a more “genteel” form of murder.  Violence is underplayed and sexual activity can be suggested but occurs offstage.  This detective is often an amateur, unlike the hard-boiled detective for whom it’s not just a job but a life.  The amateur and, at times, unwilling detective holds tight to a moral compass that directs her—or him—to do the right thing, even when deterred or actively discouraged by those who insist that he or she move on, nothing to see here.

The detective in a cozy could well be risking his or her (day) job but still persists, even when faced with polite but pointed threats to life and limb.  The hard-boiled detective may work alone, but the detective in cozy fiction is part of a community: a theater or a college are two that spring immediately to my mind.   Essential to the cozy is an understanding of the world in which the mystery unfolds, the code by which this culture operates providing an essential clue to the solution of the mystery itself.

In the twenty-first century, we have come a long way from the cozy being the exclusive domain of ladies who sip tea at garden parties and wear funny hats.  Hard-boiled fiction, considered the more masculine genre, has been taken more seriously in part because it is more serious: unlike the sometimes humorous approach to murder in a cozy, there are not a lot of laughs in the cynical and world-weary perspective of the typical hard-boiled detective.  But it would be inaccurate to suggest that the cozy is a “kinder, gentler” form of murder.

Yes, the detective usually emerges from the experience physically unharmed, but the same cannot be said for the murder victim, who still dies a violent death at the hands of another.  (Based on my first two novels, I have a thing for head wounds, apparently, something I had not noticed until recently.)   And the cozy does what all mysteries do:  after the murder, we learn unflattering information about the victim in order to shift the emphasis from sympathy for the deceased to solving the case.

Making the victim less sympathetic cannot change or erase the fact that we have someone who has been handed a punishment far worse that the wrongs, real or imagined, that he or she may have committed because someone has decided to serve as judge, jury, and executioner.  But the point of the exercise, for both the amateur and the professional detective, as well as the reading audience, is to solve the crime, so that is where the emphasis should be.

A Well-Lit Life - Aaron Rosenfeld

As a literature professor, it is only fitting that I believe I have learned much about life from literature. Of course, the corollary to this is that I have been accused of not having learned as much about life from life as perhaps I should have.

The main difference between literature and life is that literature possesses an interested, hands-on god—the author—in a way that I strongly suspect the world does not. The presence of a god in turn means that things in literature have meaning, whereas things in life are largely stupid and meaningless. Sometimes, we experience moments of life that seem like they have meaning—birth, death, marriage, great love affairs, etc.—but that is mainly because they resemble a novel.

Art clarifies life, makes it comprehensible in a way that life cannot do for itself. This is why Walter Pater advises that we should spend our days with art:

“We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passion, the wisest, at least among “the children of the world”, in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”

What a strange claim. Art has more life in it than life. Art is life that has been curated and distilled for maximum impact, making it ideal for “getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time.”

Pater’s commitment to “art for art’s sake” is thought by most people to be confusing and perverse. Art needs life; it is only an imitation, an adjunct, a helpful commentary on experience–who would prefer it to actual life? Well, life is scary. We see less of life than we ought to because we walk around blinded by sheer terror. The terror of death, naturally, but also the astounding array of terrors that hide behind the innocuous stuff of everyday-–the terror of losing our jobs, our health, our children, our sanity. So we keep our heads down and our perspectives narrow. When we turn to literature, however, as Aristotle and Stanley Kubrick knew, we feel safe to keep our eyes wide open. Then, if we are lucky, we experience catharsis, the purging of pity and fear-or at least the purging of their debilitating parts-so that we can return to the world and once again dip our toe into the stream of life.

Or perhaps we simply read to become numb to all the terrible things that might happen. In life, it is exceedingly rare to have a cage with ravenous rats attached to one’s face. Most of us would never even conceive of such a thing. But, thanks to George Orwell, now I think of it all the time and I have become somewhat used to it.

In that sense, literature provides a form of escapism in its promise of relief from anxiety. There is a more traditional, positive notion of literature as escapism; it provides vicarious thrills, even if these are not always pleasant. On the one hand there are unicorns and rainbows, magical worlds, exciting adventures. But on the other, there are grim dystopias, existential wastelands, and unspeakable tragedy, which are no less thrilling. I remember watching the 1971 post-apocalyptic movie The Omega Man as a child-one of a run of feel-bad Charlton Heston features in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s about the end of the world that includes Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes—and thinking it was pretty awesome that he could just go into a supermarket and grab whatever he wanted, then nab a car from the parking lot to drive off with his loot. The thrill of chaos, of destruction and violence incarnates a most terrible childhood fear: that our parents have been in an awful accident and won’t be returning from date night. But it does so in close proximity with a secret wish: that without their rules and prohibitions, we will be free to indulge forbidden desires. Freud calculates these as sexual; or, they may just be, as Ronald Dahl’s character Matilda puts it in the eponymous musical by Tim Minchin, to “watch cartoons until my eyes go square.”

So, this is something I learned from literature—that some thoughts are better off felt than thought about. The understanding literature provides doesn’t always make sense, isn’t always pleasant, and often isn’t particularly useful, but it is shiny and distracts us from something possibly much worse that we can’t just decide to put down. I’ll take it.