March 30th, 2010
Many of the readers of this blog know about Poetry Out Loud, the phenomenally successful national poetry recitation and performance competition. Co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, Poetry Out Loud builds on the contemporary resurgence of poetry as a spoken-word art. It’s not exactly a poetry slam, since the high schoolers who participate aren’t performing their own poetry, but it has the flavor and excitement of slam, in the sense that style and grace in delivery are highly valued. Washington was a pilot city for Poetry Out Loud, which began in 2006. The national semifinals and finals return to DC on April 26 and 27. Click here for amazing videos of some of last year’s finalists.
Which leads me to this year’s reception for graduating seniors. Every year the English Department hosts a party for our graduating seniors and their families and guests. This year’s reception–mark your calendars now–will be Saturday, May 15, 1-3 p.m. in Rome 771 (and the surrounding hallways).
In years past, the primary “entertainment” for this reception has been a brief congratulatory speech by the Department Chair. I know many of you are eager to hear my reflections on your GW experience and the meaning of commencement (“It’s not the end, it’s a beginning”). But I am hoping to supplement my talk with some alternative entertainment: in particular, a modest graduating senior Poetry Out Loud.
So: I am looking for two or three students (preferably seniors; or at least people who enjoy being around seniors and who will be here on May 15) to volunteer to recite a favorite poem of their choosing at our reception. You don’t have to be a slam specialist, just someone who is up to memorizing a piece (cheat sheets permitted–for once!) and reciting it for us.
Send your names and, if you have them, your ideas for specific poems, to me by April 15. But why mark your calendar? You know you want to do this, so email me now: email@example.com
March 29th, 2010
This is an image that has been circulating online since last week, when The New Yorker magazine posted it on its blog. [Click here for a link to the White House Flickr site, where you can see a huge image of the same.]
As an English professor and as someone who loves to be edited (nothing beats someone making your own prose even better), I thought this was pretty fascinating. Clearly, our President is also Editor-in-Chief. More important, it illustrates what goes into any polished piece of writing: rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. It’s reassuring to know that even boy wonders such as presidential speechwriter Jon Favreau (born in 1981) have to submit to the process of having their work parsed so closely. But as all good writers know, good writing rarely happens on the first draft. Sometimes the key to being a good writer is being a good self-editor.
One blogger suggests that college papers ought to come back to students looking like this. I disagree. Much as I love it when someone edits my work, I also know that English professors aren’t copyeditors–far from it–and that this sort of marked-up page makes many students queasy with anxiety and dread. Good writing, especially of the analytical variety that English courses demand, demands good thinking. Good writers, in my experience, are always asking themselves: Is this the best way to say this? Does this transition make sense? Does this strategy of organization make the most impact? Are there sentences that I love that just have to go?
In any case, next time you feel disappointed with someone’s reading of your work, consider: You could have handed in your paper/essay/poem/short story/memo to our meticulous President.
March 26th, 2010
This just in from Joseph Fisher, who earned his Ph.D. in English in May 2007:
Since earning his degree, Joe writes, he has been “purchasing music in massive quantities—something I had to curtail during my years in graduate school. I have also used the very modest amount of spare time I have been granted since emerging from the Gelman cubicles to begin honing my skills as a music studies scholar, which is an interest I’ve had since (at least) my undergraduate years, when I worked briefly as a music reviewer for my college newspaper.”
Joe’s article on the rise of MP3 culture, “Loneliness Is a Cool iPod. . . Happiness Is a Warm Album Cover,” recently was published on PopMatters.com. “Though I do proudly own an iPod,” Joe writes, “I am suspicious of the way that the contemporary music media have almost universally idealized the distribution of MP3 files at the expense of cassettes, CDs, and other “outdated” physical mediums (not vinyl, of course!). Though I acknowledge that the article has some fairly pronounced Luddite overtones, I certainly won’t complain if any of this blog’s faithful readers decide to Tweet, or Facebook, or Share the article!
Joe has also been collaborating with Brian Flota, another GW English Ph.D., and currently an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University, on an anthology about the politics of post-9/11 music. In a former blog post on their collaboration, Joe and Brian described themselves as “two of the department’s most handsome students.” (This blogger will not offer additional commentary, except to note that the English Department has a high percentage of handsome people among its faculty, staff, graduate students, and majors.)
Joe, whose dissertation on addiction narratives engaged with core issues in disability studies, is currently a Learning Specialist at GW’s Office of Disability Support Services.
March 22nd, 2010
Get to Know Your TA: Nedda Mehdizadeh
We have all seen the television commercials for the Sylvan Learning Centers, the national tutoring institution, but most of us did not follow up on the ad. However Nedda Mehdizadeh’s first job was as an English tutor there after she saw that very same commercial we all did. When Mehdizadeh graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English she was like many students, interested in everything from journalism to film. However it was not until she started teaching at Slyvan that she found her true calling. “I remember sitting with my students and watching them work and I realized this was it,” she said. Mehdizadeh appreciates the rich experience she garnered while working with such a great age range of students there, but eventually she grew tired of teaching just metaphors and wanted more.
Environment is really important to Mehdizadeh and aided her decision to attend GW. “There are a number of really brilliant universities in small towns, but I was looking at cities I wanted to live in, ” she said. “So I was looking at DC and the work that Jonathan Gil Harris and Holly Dugan did.” Mehdizadeh describes the graduate school at GW as one that “builds a community that works together and challenges each other.” For an Early Modernist like Mehdizadeh the resources of DC such as the Shakespeare Theater Company were a major draw. It was Shakespeare that actually drew Mehdizadeh to English in the first place. She said, “I remember reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in ninth grade and in drama class we did little Shakespeare plays that really spoke to me. The language made sense to me. I find it to be a fascinating world and the beauty of the language is intoxicating.” It was never really a question that Early Modern would Mehdizadeh’s area of focus after that. Read more→
March 12th, 2010
Spring break has officially started (although some of you left yesterday, I’m jealous). Just because you plan on taking a week off from Geoffrey Chaucer and James Joyce, doesn’t mean you should stop reading. It’s time for “pleasure reading”! Maybe those words seem foreign to over caffeinated English majors who pound out more papers than they read pages, but now it’s time to reacquaint yourself with the reason you became an English major in the first place. To inspire your beach reading, here is what your favorite professors are reading over break!
Your chair Gayle Wald wrote:
“My sense of what is “fun” reading changes depending on what’s going on in my life. Sometimes I gobble up old copies of the Nation, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. (I like that I can read an article and be done.) Sometimes I read trashy magazines: People is a favorite; any fashion mag with big photos will do. The books I read for fun are usually contemporary fiction/non-fiction. Recent books I’ve enjoyed: “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “My Father’s Paradise” by Ariel Sabar, “Sag Harber” by Colson Whitehead. My current “to-read” list include Berryl Satter’s “Family Matters.” This is work-related–it is about mid-20th-century struggles over housing discrimination in Chicago, as told through the author’s family history–but it’s on my list because I’ve heard it’s excellent and because I’m just interested.”
Kavita Daiya recommends Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and is planning on reading Gilbert’s follow up, Committed. She also enjoyed The Bitch in the House edited by Cathi Hanauer
March 9th, 2010
You may have seen Gina Welch running around the English Department offices in a pair of green heels. Or perhaps you caught her segment on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last Thursday discussing her new book In the Land of Believers. Maybe you saw her book featured when flipping through the current issue of Oprah’s magazine “O.” Or you just happen to be one of the lucky students taking a creative writing course of hers. Gina Welch is everywhere lately.
Interestingly enough, the woman whose book is now on prominent display at any bookstore was too intimidated by the English department as an undergraduate at Yale that she avoided the subject almost entirely. “I felt more comfortable with a history major because it is about receiving information not interpreting it like English,” she said. Welch now recognizes that her misconceptions about the English department were purely insecure. She said, “I feel like at that age I personally was so bound up in my own insecurities and my social anxieties. My priorities had not settled yet and I didn’t know who I was.”
Despite this lack of confidence, Welch took two creative writing courses as an undergraduate and completely fell in love with the subject. Her first foray into creative writing took place in a Yale seminar taught by Mark O’Donnell, a writer for “The Simpsons.” ” I was delighted with it. It refreshed this feeling I had as an adolescent in writing and telling stories,” she said. Although Welch is naturally drawn to entertaining, it was not until her second creative writing course that she really felt like she could turn this passion into a vocation. Welch’s advanced fiction course at Yale felt like an “invitation” into the writing world. She said, “I had always had this perception you were chosen for writing, which is foolish. There’s a lot of hubris you have to have to be a writer, the ‘I have a voice that needs to be heard’ idea.” Read more→
March 5th, 2010
JEWISH LITERATURE LIVE
There is a running joke in Jewish Literature Live that despite the course title no author will admit they are a Jewish writer. Typically most authors frown when posed the question of authorship and spend the next five minutes refuting the Jewish label. However yesterday’s afternoon with Gabriel Brownstein marked a turning point in the course. Brownstein lit up when asked the fundamental question, “Are you a Jewish writer?” “It’s a very good question. I like that question. It’s a very Jewish question. Judaism was the in for me,” he said.
The protagonist of Brownstein’s fascinating and fun novel The Man from Beyond, Molly Goodman, is a young Jewish newspaper reporter in New York City in the 1920s working on a story about the feud between Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini over spiritualism. Naturally the story of the friendship between the two men was a goldmine for fiction, but how to approach this story was another question. Brownstein admitted that the first draft of the novel did not even include Molly, but soon she became a crucial element to explain the uncertain time period that was the 1920s. Writing a female protagonist was a stretch for Brownstein, who joked he is still a twelve year old boy at heart, but by making her Jewish, a world he knew, he was able to have a closer understanding of her. Brownstein noted that his protagonist needed to be, “put in the the most unstable time period, to put her in the most unstable time period she had to be a woman, and to be an assimilated Jewish woman- there’s no path for that,” he said. “There is nowhere for her, she was unmoored in the same way Houdini and Doyle were. The world was changing and there was no place for them.”
Brownstein found the process of writing historical fiction “complicated.” Yet when he stumbled upon the subject of the novel there was no turning back. “I was at a book sale in a church basement in Vermont and I saw a book with Houdini on it. I was totally transported by it. I was possessed.” There was no question that he write the novel. He said, “Writing a book is like falling in love, no one wants it to be but you. I had to write it.” Read more→
March 2nd, 2010
When you talk to most professors in the English department they profess that reading became an obsessive hobby from an early age. However Ramola D could not stop at reading books, she had to write them too. “I couldn’t read for long without itching to put the book down and write my own stories and poems,” she said. However, throughout much of her life in India she could not pursue this interest directly and instead found reading and writing a hobby. “Reading was always an impassioned experience, it kept me going through my degrees in science and business—libraries were my escape route to freedom and the other worlds in books,” she said. ” I remember all the hidden-away armchairs, open windows, drawn blinds, scratched-up desks, dim lighting, slants of sun and musty stacks in libraries I have loved–reading helped situate me mentally as a writer.”
Ramola found herself informed in some way by every author she ever read. She said, “I’ve learned syntactic effect from Hemingway, the power of voice and image from Joyce, fluidity in narrative from Scott Fitzgerald.” Today she cites the works of Marguerite Duras, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Faulkner, Janet Frame, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Kate Braverman, and Carole Maso as particularly illuminating.
Ramola’s recent interests have coincided directly with the creative writing courses she teaches. As a writer of fiction reflecting on “the bicultural aspects of immigration” and “historical characters within a colonial setting battling a pervasive imperialism,” she is currently in dialogue with authors who discuss the same topics. She said, “I’ve been drawn to exploring strongly-voiced narratives of difference, from characters who experience dislocation of sorts, often by way of migration or by way of being in a statistical minority in a given cultural setting, I am drawn to the work of writers tackling these issues.” Ramola has been interviewing Lan Samantha Chang, Junot Diaz, and Sandra Cisneros. She has brought these transcripts to class and gained thought provoking discussion from it. Read more→
March 1st, 2010
This Friday from 2-4 p.m. in the Marvin Center Amphitheatre, GW MEMSI will be sponsoring a spring symposium titled “Race?” Presenters include English Department faculty Jennifer James and Tony López. This is a chance to participate in an interdisciplinary discussion about race that crosses over traditional lines of literary periodization and national tradition.
Race is a term fraught with contradiction and incoherence. Is race skin color? Physiology? Susceptibility to certain diseases? Geographic origin? Genetic variation? The impress of climate on body? Born or made? A bodily, ethical, legal, cultural or moral state? An inheritance? A performance?
Scientifically speaking, race does not exist … and yet race endures.
Please join us for a GW MEMSI symposium examining the long history of race. Our guest speakers will map the changes in how race has been understood, as well as its surprising constants, from the medieval period to the modern. Short presentations will be followed by a lively conversation.
- Jennifer James (English and Africana Studies, GW). Jennifer is the author of A Freedom Bought with Blood: African-American Literature of War, the Civil War-World War II and has published essays in the African American Review and other venues. Her next book explores black Catholicism and post-Reformation sectarianism in the early Americas.
- Thomas Guglielmo (American Studies, GW). Tom received his PhD in history from the University of Michigan in 2000. His book White on Arrival won the Allan Nevins Prize from the Society of American Historians and the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians. He is presently at work on a second book tentatively entitled Race War: World War II and the Crisis of American Democracy.
- Andrew Zimmerman (History, GW). Andrew is the author of Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany and Alabama in Africa: Booker T. Washington, the German Empire, and the Globalization of the New South.
- Antonio López (English, GW). Tony teaches Latino Studies and critical theory. His work has appeared in Latino Studies and the The Afro-Latin Reader. He is writing a book on the diaspora cultures of Afro-Cuban America.
- Ayanna Thompson (English, Arizona State University). Ayanna is the author of Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America and Performing Race and Torture on the Early Modern Stage. She edited Weyward Macbeth: Intersections of Race and Performance and Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance.
The symposium takes place on Friday March 5 in the GW Marvin Center 3rd floor Amphitheatre from 2-4 PM.
The event is free and welcomes all who would like to attend.