Van Clief-Stefanon is associate professor of English at Cornell University. She is the author of Open Interval, a 2009 National Book Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist; Black Swan, winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize; and Poems in Conversation and a Conversation, a chapbook in collaboration with Elizabeth Alexander. Her work has appeared in such journals as African American Review, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, and Shenandoah, and in the anthologies Bum Rush the Page, Role Call, Common Wealth, Gathering Ground, and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South. She is currently at work on a third collection, The Coal Tar Colors.
From the National Book Foundation: “Passionate and personal, innovative and elegant, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s Open Interval marries a wildness of vision with a lens-maker’s precision. The book takes on the actual astronomical phenomenon of ‘RR Lyrae’ stars not only to form a metaphor for the self, but to reveal a constellation of lyric impulses. In exploded sonnets, taut syllabics, Dickinsonian dashes, or that new poetic invention, the bop, Van Clief-Stefanon writes of science, rock-n-roll, and the history of a heart that could be hers, but speaks to all of ours.”
Sigma Tau Delta’s most recent lecture in its Celebrate Literature series was given by Geneseo English professor Rob Doggett on March 22. Prof. Doggett’s goal was to live up to the title of his talk: “Ulysses in 35 Minutes.” Students gathered to watch Dr. Doggett in a literal race against the clock to cover the entire 700-plus page novel in just over a half hour.
Dr. Doggett, who believes that Ulysses is “objectively the greatest novel ever written,” focused most of the lecture on Leopold Bloom, the book’s Jewish character who is somewhat of an outsider living in Christian Ireland, as well as on Joyce’s deliberate mirroring of each chapter of Ulysses on one event from Homer’s Odyssey. The parallels between Joyce’s novel and Homer’s epic occur in every aspect of the book, from the subject matter of the chapter to how Joyce uses language. For example, the chapter “Sirens” is written out as a song, and the “Lotus Eaters” chapter is languid and slow-moving. Dr. Doggett read aloud from many of the chapters to demonstrate Joyce’s “blowing up” of the English language, making it serve a different purpose in each chapter of the novel. This idea of making English “run around” for the entire novel takes on additional meaning since Joyce, an Irish author, is conscious that he is writing in English instead of in the native tongue of his country.
Ulysses, Joyce’s masterpiece, is so popular that there is a holiday in its honor: Bloomsday occurs every June 16, the day the novel takes place. On Bloomsday—named for Leopold Bloom, the novel’s protagonist—fans travel to Dublin in order to walk the route the characters take throughout the day in Ulysses. That feat is possible because Joyce had the time it took to travel between the characters’ destinations timed with a stopwatch in order to make that aspect of the novel as accurate as possible.
On Monday, March 19, Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein will be on campus to talk about “Demystifying the Academic Game.” Their talk will take place at 10 a.m. in the College Union Ballroom.
Gerald Graff is Professor of English and Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A former president of the Modern Language Association of America (2008), he is one of his generation’s most influential commentators on education. His widely cited 1987 book, Professing Literature: An Institutional History, was recently reprinted in a Twentieth Anniversary Edition by the University of Chicago Press. In addition, Prof. Graff is the author of Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (1992), the book that introduced the phrase “teach the conflicts” to describe a pedagogical approach that treats internecine critical dispute as an opportunity show students how theoretical disagreements help to constitute academic disciplines; Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (2003), which called on academic professionals to demystify academic culture; and, with Cathy Birkenstein, “They Say/I Say”: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing (2006), a handbook for teaching writing as a species of “conversation” that has set records for sales in colleges and high schools.
Cathy Birkenstein is Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-director of the Writing in the Disciplines program. In addition to co-authoring “They Say/I Say,” she has published essays on writing in College English, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Academe, and College Composition and Communication.
On January 25th Dr. Beth A. McCoy gave a lecture entitled “The Writing on the Wall: Reading FEMA Signs in Post-Katrina New Orleans” as part of Sigma Tau Delta’s 2011-2012 lecture series. In the time since this lecture, Dr. McCoy has been “rewriting and rewriting” her work as she prepares to complete her article for publication. This past Monday I had the joy of sitting down with Dr. McCoy to discuss her writing process.
Dr. McCoy opened with a reassuring admission that our professors aren’t immune to writer’s block, second-guessing, and other writing pitfalls. “At first I found myself doing the very things that I advise my writing students against such as agonizing over the intro rather than moving forward,” she exclaimed. And, when asked how she got through this, she smiled while recounting how she would think of an idea in the shower and then rush to write it down before she forgot. Overall, Dr. McCoy finds her current project to be a humbling reminder that, although ultimately rewarding, writing is first and foremost hard; it can often be a frustrating and lonely process.
Laughing about how it would be awful to give students advice that she does not follow, Dr. McCoy ultimately did what she tells her first-year writing seminar students to do: Work in short intervals, divide up the work into sections, keep at it, and reward yourself for completing a task. For instance, after Dr. McCoy completes 10-30 minutes of solid work she rewards herself with a quick game of Angry Birds or something equally fun and lighthearted. With this method, she finds it possible to complete a major project during the semesters instead of waiting until summer to do all of her writing. English majors who hope to complete their own large-scale work during the hectic semester should find this advice useful. As Dr. McCoy tells her INTD students, it is hard to find a spare two-hour block in your day, but 10-15 minute blocks are almost always there. Use them.
Being involved in largely uncharted interdisciplinary work and cultural studies, Dr. McCoy is often questioned about what her work has to do with literature. She replies: “I am most at home with literature. I learned how to interpret all texts—whether it is a historical text or visual text—by working with literature. I especially learned how to read texts for what is both spoken and unspoken.” Moreover, Dr. McCoy finds that returning to literature as she embarks on relatively non-literary research helps guide and ground her ideas. For instance, she finds that Toni Morrison’s novels provide her with useful language and concepts to express her thoughts.
When I asked Dr. McCoy why she chose to study the uncanny resemblance between FEMA signs and vodoun vévé symbols and what this means in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she responded: “The topic kept haunting me. And haunting is definitely a recurring theme in literature. Every time I taught Hurricane Stories I was reminded of this work that I had to do.” Dr. McCoy then paralleled this personal haunting with the way that American society at large is haunted by unexplored stories. According to Dr. McCoy it is easy and tempting to run away from what haunts the edges of our individual or collective minds. But, as returning to Toni Morrison’s A Mercy helped remind her, it is important to work through these complicated and challenging stories.
Dr. McCoy closed our conversation with a sentiment on what lies behind the magic of writing. While it seems like magic when a work is finally finished—when you can step back from a piece and admire the coherent thoughts that have emerged from the chaos, sometimes even forgetting the work that got you there—it is often agony to reach that point. The most important advice from Dr. McCoy is to just start writing. As Dr. McCoy points out, “you often have to write an essay to write an essay,” and that’s okay. Don’t run away from the work that you feel called to do.
Dr. Celia Easton’s lecture entitled “Who Needs Vampires? Jane Austen’s Wit is Biting Enough” took place in the Fireside Lounge on Wednesday 2/22. The talk was largely meant to debunk Austen’s reputation as a prim and proper romance writer out of touch with the real world. While this reputation was created for Austen by her family after her death, Easton’s lecture focused on who Austen was before “a veil of prissiness” was thrown over her—an author who understood sexuality and knew how to use it in her books in order to make socially relevant points.
Dr. Easton stressed the point that “if you fell in love with Austen at 12, you didn’t really understand her.” Because although it is possible to read Austen as many do—for an innocent romance in which the heroine always ends up married—to read for the love story only is to overlook the fact that Austen is only partly interested in romance. The preoccupation with marriage in most of her novels reflects a much more practical sentiment: that for middle-class women, finding a husband is one of the only ways to survive.
The earliest example of a woman desperate for economic security in Austen’s writing is in Lady Susan, written when Austen was 20. The title character, a widow with a teenage daughter to support, purposefully uses her sexuality in order to get ahead. Because Lady Susan is written in epistolary format, Austen is able to show her readers that Lady Susan’s actions are deliberate—she is not an innocent lady who gets her way because she is sexy without knowing it; rather, she understands how to influence men and continuously does so in order to help herself, unabashed that this is often at the expense of others. Lady Susan’s duplicity and her understanding “the tendency of men’s reason to slip beneath their breeches” shows that Austen is not only not a prim and proper woman with no idea what sex is, but rather that she is aware of the power of sex and the fact that women must use their sexual appeal in order to preserve their livelihoods. Although the reader does not like Lady Susan, Austen frames her actions so we see that her selfishness and seduction of men are born out of necessity.
The rest of Dr. Easton’s lecture traced the “Lady Susan type” throughout many of Austen’s six full-length novels. Although Austen does not use the “Lady Susan type” for any of her other main characters, there is always a secondary character who acts like Lady Susan, using her sexuality as a means to pull herself out of a desperate financial situation. Although these characters are largely unlikeable, they usually end up like Lady Susan: unpunished in the end. Dr. Easton stressed this lack of punishment as another way to show that Austen understood the realities of the world around her—in Austen “people don’t always get their just desserts…stupid people may very well prevail.”
Far from the image of Austen as a prissy lady with no knowledge of sex, Austen’s was willing and able to portray her world as it was—with women using their sexuality to get ahead and men using women’s desire to get ahead to seduce and leave them. While romance is present, too, the heroine often only unites with her love because these breaches of sexual conduct have been uncovered and overcome.
The title of the lecture was meant to highlight not only the recent mash-ups of Austen novels with fantasy thrillers (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example), but also to undercut the common belief that one should read Austen only when one desires an innocent romantic story in which the heroines always end up happy. Dr. Easton pointed out that if readers desire “shock, surprise, passion, and cutting satire,” they need look no further than Austen.