In the Spring of 2017, the URI English Department hosted a group of professionals from various cultural institutions in the greater Rhode Island area. People affiliated with the Providence Public Library, the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, Mystic Seaport, and the New Bedford Whaling Museum formed a panel to discuss the ways in which students in the English Department can partner with these institutions in a collaboration aimed to bring the work we do as scholars to the public. This panel wasn’t simply an event about the hypothetical, but the introduction to a cultural institutions partnership in which teaching assistants could elect to spend one semester working with one of these groups in place of teaching a course, allowing us to explore ways in which the work we do as scholars may be translated to the public; how might we make it both palpable and meaningful? This program gives us opportunities to do work outside of academe so that we may be exposed to the various career paths a PhD student in the humanities might pursue as alternatives to that of tenure-track professor.
If mood is something that is induced from the outside, then the performance on November 1st by author and Professor Mary Cappello of the English department and pianist Kirsten Volness, called the audience to participate in an event that could alter and influence mood.
The performance was not in the Hoffman Room of Swan Hall where we typically gather for the Read/Write series events, rather it was held in the Fine Arts Building Recital Hall. And so the very space of the occasion was responsible for creating mood. As the audience entered, we were met with hues of violet and indigo and a soundscape of speech accompanied by a musical loop: “eyes remove themselves from your body… and [become] a masterpiece, a work of art…” From the start, this performance rendered an overlapping of thought and mood and posited the necessary connection between our senses and our moods.
Reading from her latest book, Life Breaks In (A Mood Almanack), Professor Cappello gave the audience the opportunity to wonder where mood resides, and to sit with the idea that mood is both of and outside the body.
Professor Cappello brings to her students and the audience and readers of her work, an examination of and reflection on those elements in our lives that we often ignore, that we do not allow ourselves the time to pause and think about. Here we are called by the author to consider mood. This may seem a contradictory exercise, to use our minds to interpret what we feel when mood may be more visceral. For this reason a reading itself is not enough. The multimodal elements of the event created a space for listeners not merely to use their minds to think about what was being read, but color and images and sound, invited us to enter a mood—what Professor Cappello might have in mind when she refers to a mood room.
Words are one medium Professor Cappello uses to create mood. Words transmit to the audience Cappello’s childhood memories. Her mother’s words and sounds constitute a sonorous envelope—a term coined by Édith Lecourt, which Cappello builds off of, “a common zone…. created by the mother’s voice, which, though originally affiliated with contact, ‘will subsequently exist on its own, without the body contact that accompanies it’ ” (305). These sounds surround us in our formative year and may continue to reside both in our memories and somewhere outside our bodies throughout our lives. Words are also the tools of thinkers and writers such as Roland Barthes and William Gass that inform Cappello’s reflections on mood. Thus through the blending of all of these voices, we are left with the recognition that words are a fusion of sound and thought carrying with them the both meaning and mood.
The performance also included the work of Berlin based trumpeter and composer Paul Brody’s sound instillation, “Talking Melodies.” The piece overlays music with recordings from interviews Brody conducted, turning speech into something melodic and musical. Words and tune combine again invoking thought and emotion to induce mood.
A little over a week after the performance, I am also left thinking of the ethereal nature of mood. By projecting images of clouds behind her as she read, Professor Cappello used these stunning visuals as a metaphor for the transitory and ethereal nature of mood. Clouds shape shift as we gaze at them, the air currents sculpting their form before our eyes. They change color when the angle of light changes.
We are invited into Professor Cappello’s mind by the words she shares with us to describe the studious mood. We might assume such a mood is fixed. In one of the chapters from which she read, “In a Studious Mood,” we follow her from the initial proclamations of what mood is not, “It doesn’t begin: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious by this sun of York,’ ” to the study of anatomy books furnished with intricate descriptions of the ear and precise scientific language. We are taken into Cappello’s study, designed to let in more light, imagining this will help in creating the studious mood, influenced as much by the outer as it is by interiority. But in this studying, this dismantling and excavating of ideas that Professor Cappello leads us through, as listeners it is possible that we do not remain in the studious mood. The reading closed with her reflections on three sounds made by her partner Jean: footsteps the “ ‘puh’ ” sound of a wooden door stuck to its frame,” and the laying of keys on a table. And though as she reads, it might be that like Cappello, it is our inhabitation of a studios mood that allows us to stumble upon unknown mysteries—including those related to the people we love—as a listener, hearing this recounting of sounds made by a loved one, I was transported from my own attempt to soak in ideas, to think in new ways, and be engaged in studious reflection, to a mood more akin to wonderment and reverence. Which may indeed be essential to the studious mood. And so the cloud of mood continues to dance in the currents.
The evening’s performance ended with wordless sound—the music of Kirsten Volness. The audience entered into a space where the music, which lies outside of the body, travels to the body through the ear. We are reminded that our body functions as a type of interpreter. And as the evening’s presentation came to a close, Kirsten Volness’s piano composition with notes ethereal and rooted tones, provided a space in which to give ourselves up to mood—reflective, invigorating, studious, serene.
On March 18th, a group of writers considered the audience they write for and the varying purposes the essayist entertains when she sits down to write. The question was posed: Do we write for those who want to know, for those who want to care, for those who want to feel? The venue provoking this dialogue is the Essay in Public Conference funded by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and organized by professors (Martha Elena Rojas (URI), Wendy S. Walters (The New School), and Patricia Ybarra (Brown University).The conference is part of an ongoing discourse on and collaboration of folks who are examining the role of the essay in the ever-changing landscape of journalism and politics while considering its place in academia as well as in more visible platforms such as blogs for outlets like Slate, Quartz, Gawker, and Buzzfeed News.
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Stephen Henderson was this year’s afternoon keynote speaker. Henderson is currently the editor for the editorial page of the Detroit Free Press, worked for the Baltimore Sun, and hosts the radio program, “Detroit Today,” and the television show, “American Black Journal.” Henderson’s talk centered on the idea of recursivity. He postulated that recursivity may be a means to “confront the challenges of the 21st century.” Turning to Picasso’s Guernica, Hamilton’s Federalist Papers, and a personal example of how recursivity has, of late, emerged in Henderson’s own life and work in his hometown, Detroit, the audience was called to reflect on what occurs when we think and write recursively.
Recursivity might work in multiple ways. As we return to a theme at different points in our lives, our thinking about topic may evolve as the natural result of our own life experiences. So too, coming back to a topic, idea or issue in a way that is public—by writing or engaging in some other form of creation—one is also allowing for her audience to interact in multiple and potentially more profound ways with the same topic. Henderson turned to Picasso’s work to demonstrate how this occurs. Henderson’s talk centered on the idea of recursivity.
By using Guernica as one example of an artist who returns to certain images and themes, Henderson makes a case for the role of the essay to not only report but to induce emotion. He invited us to look, as he does, at “Guernica as an essay, an editorial, a
commentary, someone reacting to the news and rendering his opinion about it; trying to convey his emotion but also the emotion his country should feel about it and damning the people who perpetrate this.” Through his art, Picasso questioned the brutal and violent regime that held power. Henderson showed sketches from Picasso’s notebook and other works where, over the years, Picasso continued to draw similar images. The horse, nostrils aflare; the woman wailing over the death of her child; the nearly-cyclopean bull. Could it be that a returning to these images aided in Picasso’s ability to create something for the public that would speak out against a fascist regime? Could our repeated study of the painting influence our political actions, our own writing and art? Recursivity may impact both audience and artist.
Henderson next brought our attention to Alexander Hamilton’s contributions to the Federalist Papers. What’s particularly interesting about this example is the timeframe in which Hamilton was working through his ideas. Henderson notes, “Hamilton wrote 51 of Federalist essays in 6 months. Each essay is distinct in that it is trying to do something different and discreet, but even in this exercise there is recursivity.” Henderson highlighted two of Hamilton’s papers, 66 and 76, which were written within roughly three weeks of one another. Each essay is examining the different powers that the separate branches of government will hold—specifically these essays look at the relationship and balance between the executive and legislative branches. We see that by returning to a theme, Hamilton worked out or thought through an idea over time.
Recalling Henderson’s musing that recursivity may help us to face 21st century problems, we might ask how sticking with the same subject can prove more beneficial than placing our attention in myriad areas as one might be wont to do given the glut of easily accessible, ready-to-Google information. We too are not fixed. We come to the topics that hold sway on us as different people than we were years or months or weeks ago when we last encountered the same subject. We write about the federal government differently, we change the lines or the size of the horse’s shoulders to depict more strength and agility, or perhaps when we next conceive of the same image it appears vulnerable. Our childhood home is still well cared for; others are creating memories in the same space. Or it slowly falls into disrepair, stripped of pipes for scrap metal, lawn overgrown with weeds. The home represents something about our foundational years, but it also represents something about a place that is larger than we are. In his final example, Henderson demonstrated what it is to disallow a place to go untended.
Henderson ended his presentation by sharing the subject that continues to call him to reflect, examine, act. In 2007, Henderson returned to Detroit despite the fact that his own mother questioned the rationale of one who would return to a city that was on the brink of bankruptcy and decay. Nevertheless, as Henderson reminded us, “emotion does carry our decision making in some very important ways.” Upon his return, he went back to his old neighborhood and was relieved to find his childhood home was still in decent shape. He expressed that it helped him feel anchored and that it even helped his writing to sit in his car outside of the house. Yet as the city bore the effects of the economic downturn, more houses became abandoned including his old house. His home served as a symbol for the city which, by 2012 had 70,000 abandoned houses.
At some point, thinking makes itself manifest in the material world. For Henderson, a reporter, it is logical that this thinking takes the form of writing. He wrote autobiographically about the house, the neighborhood, the sense of loss. Making his thoughts public through the medium of personal essay prompted others to engage in dialogue and also to take action. Old high school friends read his pieces, contacted him and are now working with him to buy houses on this block, spending time and money to rebuild. As Henderson wrote about his house, it prompted him to think about what his ideal vision for the space is. He settled on the idea of turning his old house in to a type of literary center with book readings and signings. It may function as a home for college professors who receive fellowships at the local universities. I suppose the city of Detroit could have, at some point, conceived of a valuable use for the block Henderson grew up on. But there is something to be said for the fixation he had on his house, the continued interest in it that serves as a catalyst for this revitalization.
What calls us to act? Emotion or reason? We can assume that at different times we are motivated by various different forces. By placing work in the context of its tendency towards recursivity, Henderson gave the conference participants cause to reflect on what it means to look at the same topic at different points in one’s life. Not only do we, the subject, change but it’s quite possible that the subject matter that’s the focus of one’s art and writing changes over time. This was certainly the case for Picasso who witnessed increasingly totalitarian policies under Franco. This was the case for Hamilton who was writing as the country was working to craft its government and identity. This is also the case for Henderson who has witnessed the changing landscape of the city where he grew up. The writer and artist are called to and charged with deepening or complicating our understanding of complex issues like war and political systems and the lives of cities. This they do by refusing to be satisfied with writing about issues once. No “one and done” for the essayist.