Category Archives: Events

Investigating History through Archives and Interviews: A talk by Dr. Maury Klein

Dr. Maury Klein, a URI professor of history emeritus, offered his insights into to the world of historical research through archives and interviews this March at the CI. The event had a wonderful turnout with people from across disciplines at URI—from oceanography researchers to land trust stewards, English doctoral students to urban park managers—all coming out to learn how Dr. Klein makes the most of historical research and the stories it offers which can’t be found online, at the library, or in the field. Though Dr. Klein’s research is not within a scientific field, there were many takeaways for those looking to communicate science effectively to a broad public audience.

Histories Mysteries and Science’s Secrets – Disciplinary Detective Work

He opened by addressing the ways in which scientific and historical research are not so different—both seek answers like detectives in a mystery story—one in the material present, and the other in the recorded past. Though he has researched scientists, such as James Van Allen, he does not do research in labs or in the field. Or, rather, his lab and field lay elsewhere—in the interview room, library, internet, or archive—and most curiously—in the unsuspecting ways these sites overlap to lead him to obscure holdings. He has found key information that allowed him to tell the story of important histories in overlooked bookshelves of family cabins, centuries old train station warehouse dumpsters, or even as a result of a phone call from a stranger.

Nine Rules of Effective Research Learned from Five Decades of Successful Practice

Dr. Klein notes that research, regardless of discipline, shares many of the same characteristics. Keeping these characteristics in mind explicitly is his rule for producing the effective research that led to his nineteen books and numerous essays.

  1. Patience – the time and effort it takes to comb through all the sources you will need to view for a research project can be overwhelming. This can even seem like more than you can manage. His advice is, rather than think about the whole, to just continue to do the next thing.
  2. Persistence – even though you can only ever do the next thing, you must continue this effort even if the end is not in sight.
  3. Imagination – research is directed by the questions you ask. You don’t know what you don’t know, yet, with research you can’t find an answer without a question. You need to be able to imagine a question that reaches beyond what you already know.
  4. Proportion – knowing when, where, and how to cut off your research is key. Knowing how to limit the scope of a project is a first step towards this despite the imaginative leap that begins an endeavor. It is important to keep in mind that if you never finish the research, especially with something as large as a book or dissertation, it won’t matter since no one will ever see it. You need to be able to decide when to stop looking and start telling the story.
  5. Clear focus – it is difficult to read things and only look for what you are looking for, but you need to be able to do this or no amount of persistence and patience will turn your research into a story you can tell.
  6. Making Connections – the core of education is making connections between things you never saw before encountering them in close proximity. He shares how, as an undergraduate he had a common aha moment when he started to see that all the classes are connected despite their different ways of seeing the same things. It is the same at the research level. Things that seem inconsequential end up being connected, and even changing the direction of what you are doing entirely.
  7. Organization – his method for organizing his sources and notes appears to be almost archival in itself. The more stuff you have the more organized you need to be. You never want to be looking for something endlessly just in order to finish a sentence when you are finally telling the story.
  8. Style – style is about not just writing but finding a way for how you want to do the research and story drafting itself. This is a way of navigating stuff. The same system won’t work for everyone but everyone needs a system, even if it is of their own making.
  9. Judgment – you are constantly making decisions as a researcher in small ways—about where you will look, what you will address next, what is important, what the connections are. You also need to decide what will the source allow you to do, what the source tells you, how does it help you answer your question, what is the data telling you? It will not be self-evident. The more contextual and background information you know before you start, the easier it is to decide.

Though all this may sound overwhelming itself, he adds that research is fun if you like doing it. He always used to tell students who would ask: what can you do with a history major? – if you chose not to find a career doing what you like to do you’ll end up a miserable rich person. The research you do comes down to the size of what you are trying to accomplish – small projects will involve more targeted searching, and large ones comprehensive immersions – regardless of size however, you can’t control where the material takes you, and you must be willing to follow it to find the story you need to tell.

Plumbing the Archives

Here are Dr. Klein’s practical tips on doing archival work:

-Don’t take notes. You don’t know what you will need later. Always photocopy, scan, or photograph sources when possible.

-Don’t just look for primary sources, archival holdings of researchers materials also sometimes contain original documents from their own archival work, much of which may have become lost or is now even harder to access.

-You must do the initial leg work to find out where the holdings are which you need to access; this is not as straight forward as typical library searches.

-Go look at things yourself and don’t have someone do your research for you, they will make decisions for you and since you don’t know exactly what you are looking for until you find it, this can lead to missed opportunities.

-You need your own system of determining what is of interest.

-Companies that are around for a long time often hold on to centuries of records comprehensively. Many will allow you access if you ask and have the right connection.

-Large and/or important families often hang on to archival items until the death of the last surviving kin, often things get lost. Many will allow you access if you ask and have the right connection.

-A source on one thing will often convey information about something else; for example, he once found 19th century railway engineer notebooks that contain much flora and fauna notes about surrounding landscape which they were laying track through.

-Periodicals are a great source because they don’t know what is coming next so they are good for giving you the tone of the day.

Instigating Interviews

Dr. Klein notes that, often, there isn’t always enough direct primary source material to make a source driven story, so you may need to branch out. Interviews are both a good way to do this, and to find additional sources. He suggests asking people for introductions to other people you can interview to help you with your story, this often leads back to archival holdings you would not otherwise have found. Inventory who you know. Keep track of who they know. Ask around.

When there is a generation of people outgoing you can often convince a company or organization to debrief the outgoing staff and get a good story that would otherwise have been lost, or good leads. Hence, interviews often lead to unforeseen research directions, and will help you bring your story to life later, connecting it to real and present world. With contemporary history, interviews are more important often than the archival documents. Finally, and most importantly, Klein urges researchers to always record an interview, and back it up ASAP. If you do lose it, however, you can call back and say: I had some follow up questions. Use this call to clarify key information minimizing what is lost.

Telling the Story

For Dr. Klein, how he organizes his notes and sources on archival documents and interviews corresponds to how he will write the story they tell. He picks what stories to tell several ways. Sometimes it is assigned to him – an opportunity presents itself from a publisher, educational organization, or even law firm, and he accepts it if it intrigues him. Other times he decides on his own to pursue something. In this case it is often something he wants to know more about – and what better way. The point is that you never know where a topic will come from. You never know where your research is going to take you or what further avenues it is going to open up for you. It used to always be important to answer the phone as the vanguard of career success, now it is never ignore an email, explore every opportunity. Klein explains one often blunders into things. He seems to say, however, that in order to do so, you must already be immersing yourself in an area, rather than researching narrowly or transactionally. You need to carve out the space to do exploratory work and the story will usually reveal itself. When thinking about how to tell a story – how to present information so that it does not overwhelm a reader, Dr. Klein explains the way you communicate will depend on how you approach the research. For him, this leads to a sort of condensed style. He likes to say as much as he can in as small a space as possible, this leads to succinct and dense sentences and necessitates using active verbs, the opposite of, say, a Victorian style.

Most importantly, you need to be able to see the scaffolding of the story the data will tell. When a story has not been told yet it isn’t usually because the facts aren’t known, so much as it is that researchers haven’t yet found a way to scaffold the information. The scaffolding – or organizational structure – emerges during the research stage, which you make explicit in your telling. When revising his stories, he follows the same style of condensation, rather than altering the scaffolding and reorganizing or removing whole sections. He goes page by page reducing each by an equal percentage. All of this – research and writing – are more achievable if you have regular work habits – a routine that you follow. For him, this is writing seven days a week, every morning at least. He doesn’t take vacations because his work is fun. Regarding the presentation of quantitative data, he suggests always writing at a level comprehensible by a non-technical reader. He also suggests not so much explicating the data as providing it alongside a qualitative narrative which emerged from it.

 

Margo Jefferson: The conversation started at the URI OSSWC continues

In the third episode of the Rhode Island Council of the Humanities podcast celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize, Margo Jefferson considers the intersection of journalism, the humanities, and the environment. Topics in the interview cover the tension between scholars and journalists, the possibilities for the 21st century essay, and the cultural environments that inform Jefferson’s work. From the traditional essay published as a book to an online version scored to music, the possibilities for this “theater of the mind” have expanded greatly in this last century. A keynote speaker at this last year’s Ocean State Summer Writer’s Conference, the meeting of academics and creative writers is also given attention towards the end of this insightful conversation.

http://rihumanities.org/program/pulitzer/

Of Mood: A Talk by Mary Cappello

cappelloIf 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.

Homecoming: Using the Humanities to Discuss Veteran Experiences

In the front of the room sits a panel of four veterans, all prepared to talk about their unique experiences with homecoming. The event, supported by the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, is a unique opportunity for both the veterans and audience to engage with literature, film, and historical writings as a way to situate and relate their own experiences. The event opens with an introduction from Prof. Widell of the History Department. He talked about the importance of humanities texts in interrogating the language of homecoming and stressed that what people often forget in history is that it is not only veteran-1about telling stories, but about listening. The panel of veterans was asked to read and watch several different texts selected by the event organizers. For this particular panel, focusing on texts dealing with World War I, Prof. Widell selected works from WEB du Bois, Allen Berube, Ira Katznelson, and Donnie Williams. Tom Conroy from Film and Media asked the panelists to watch The Best Years of Our Lives and read a companion piece to the film. Molly Hall from English chose works by Mary Borden, James Europe, and JD Salinger.

After a brief introduction from each member of the committee outlining the specific works they chose for the panel, Prof. Widell opened the floor to the panelists, asking them to first identify themselves and give a short biography. Chad McFarlane spent five years in the Army as a tanker, eventually earning the rank of Sargeant. He is currently a senior at URI. Michael Steiner, also a senior at URI, joined the Navy and worked as a Radar Tech, serving through three deployments in the Persian Gulf and one in the western Pacific. Denny Cosmo was already in infantry school when the twin towers were hit in NYC. He served with the 325th Infantry Airborne division as an intelligence collector in Iraq. He is currently attending CCRI. Finally, Ashley Aldarondo-Martinez spent four years in the Army as a Human Resource Specialist and currently works for the Department of Veteran Affairs.

After their introductions, the panelists were asked to respond generally to the materials veteran-2they had read and seen. “Blind,” a selection from Mary Borden, seemed to touch many of the panelists for the ways in which Borden deployed blindness as a metaphor. In the excerpt, the panelists noticed that soldiers seemed blind to the other men lying on cots right next to them, the nurses had to in many ways be blind to the suffering they saw, and those that welcomed the soldiers back seemed blind to their experience. Du Bois was also popular for the ways in which he encouraged black soldiers to dedicate themselves to the war effort in order to gain more rights back home in America. Building on this reading, Chad recalled a moment when, after returning from basic training he entered a dry cleaning store. Initially, he received a less than warm welcome, but when he pulled his uniform out the clerk’s eyes lit up and his whole demeanor changed. It seems that the uniform acted as an equalizer. Each panelist agreed that The Best Years of Our Lives captured the ambivalence of homecoming. While none believed that their time in the service were “the best years of their lives,” they identified with the strong sense ofcomradery the men felt in the film that was in some ways lacking upon their return.

The question and answer session was also very lively with a lot of audience participation. One of the best questions of the afternoon concerned what each of the panelists would recommend as “improvements” or modifications to the current process of discharge and reintegration. Panelists mentioned a greater focus on entrepreneurship and putting veterans’ unique skills to use in starting their own businesses, a better explanation and guidance in maximizing the GI Bill and specific skills to succeed in college, and a focus on asking veterans where they wanted to fit into society and what they wanted to be doing instead of attempting to take skills learned in the service and translate them directly into a job.

The session was brought to a close when a gentleman in the audience, a veteran himself, thanked all of the panelists for not only their service but their willingness to partici
pate in this forum. His sincerity was echoed by, I think, everyone in the audience and underscored veteran-3the importance of opening up spaces in which people have the chance to truly listen to others’ experiences. The next session focuses on texts centered on the Vietnam War and is being hosted by the Providence Public Library on Oct. 16 at 2pm. More information, as well as links to the  works the veteran panel will be reading can be found here: http://rivetsspeak.weebly.com/

 

 

Weathering: Reading the Snell Family Meteorological Journal in the Long Days of the Anthropocene

On April 11, Marta Werner presented the URI community with a glimpse into the Amherst College Archives in an inspiring talk titled “Weathering: Reading the Snell Family Meteorological Journal in the Long Days of the Anthropocene.” The Snell family journals are a multivolume collection of weather recordings written by Ebenezer Snell and Sabra Snell from 1835 until 1902. Werner’s talk meditated on the value of contemplating the hourly and daily functions of the weather, but she also asked her audience to consider what else these journals might have to say. The journals collectively are a scientific effort to document the climate of Amherst over a period of time. But Werner suggested that we also look at them as a project of shared authorship between father and daughter – a project started by a father and continued by a daughter for a quarter century after his death. As Werner pointed out, the journals survive them; they are what the Snells have left behind.

Today, the journals exist in the archives as a historical document. Werner’s talk interrogated the term “historical document” and invited us to contemplate what it means. “What is a document?” she asked a room full of students, staff, and faculty members. She pressed the question further, considering the various associations we might have with this particular word. Often, it’s a word associated with proof and evidence, but Werner suggested that much of what a document has to offer its readers remains unsettled. A document doesn’t have clearly defined beginnings and endings as some might assume.

The same may be said for what is found in the archives. It’s a common misconception that the archives are a place of order, organization, and completeness. Instead, Werner’s experiences working there have led her to understand the archive as a place with indistinct boundaries between author and reader, between past and present, between what we write and what is being written. Her work insightfully questions its seemingly arbitrary nature, asking, “Why do some documents speak to us while others we leave behind?”

In response to this question, Werner considers working in the archives as occupying a space of chance meetings. When someone enters this space, there is no telling what may be found. Some documents speak to us; others seem to have nothing more to say. As Werner understands it, the archive is a place of accidental meetings between the present moment and a moment from the past. She recognizes that all historical documents outlive those who have written them, and her work has allowed her a space to make connections between the living and the dead. In this sense, Werner considers the Snell meteorological journals as a “living archive,” a message that still speaks: “If you keep looking, even the most unpromising thing can be luminous.”

URI GradCon 2016. Trans(forming) Directions

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On April, 9th, 2016 the Department of English hosted the 10th Annual URI Graduate Conference. This year’s theme was “Trans(form): New Insights and New Directions,” a topic chosen by the Conference Committee with the intent to highlight interdisciplinarity and encourage students from every research field to contribute. According to the co-chairs, PhD students Jenna Guitar and Serap Hidir, transdisciplinarity was utilized “to help us think beyond the borders of disciplines while also allowing graduate students from any discipline to participate.” That is exactly what happened this year, with the theme of transdiciplinarity explored through the lens of chemistry, engineering, sociology, geosciences, psychology, literature, philosophy, and media. Transcultural. Transect. Transition. Transcend. Translation. Transportation. Transfuse. Transplant. Transformation.

With more than 100 participants, over 30 panel sessions, 3 roundtables, and 15 posters presented, GradCon2016 can be defined as a huge success. Graduate students not only from Rhode Island but from the east coast to Canada reached URI to participate and present their research: 16 different universities were represented, Salve Regina University, University of New Hampshire, Hofstra University, Southern Connecticut State University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Toronto, and many others.

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Paul Bueno de Mesquita, professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island and director of the URI Center for Nonviolence & Peace, was the plenary speaker. His inspiring lecture titled “Eclectic Visionary Synthesis: The Transformative Power of Kingian Thinking,” opened the proceedings.

Paisley Currah, professor of political sciences and women’s & gender studies at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center at CUNY, concluded this year’s GradCon with a lecture titled “Transgender Beside Itself: Paradigms, Paradoxes, and Other Exemplary Subjects.” His lecture was the perfect conclusion for such an intense one-day conference. Professor Currah, who is also a co-founding editor of Transgender Studies Quarterly, discussed the notion of gender as a social, political construct, and described how apparent contradictions in sex classification policies reflect fragmented state projects.

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The poster sessions – with their “inventiveness and possibilities” according to the Director of Graduate Studies, Professor Jean Walton – highlighted the idea of transdisciplinary research, as presenters from humanities and sciences shared the same space and time, and used the same medium -the poster- to show the results of their academic work.

Participants reframed and reshaped the notion of transdisciplinarity by interacting, discussing, debating, and creating a vibrant exchange of ideas across disciplines in the spirit of what a graduate conference means. The presence of professors Stephen Barber, Peter Covino, and Jean Walton from URI’s Department of English strengthened the idea that URI GradCon is more than an occasion for presenting your work; it is the place for establishing an intellectual connection, and creating a positive, inspiring environment for the future of our research. Any research. In Biocultures Manifesto Davis and Morris made clear how interdisciplinarity has become a rule in academic research: sciences and humanities, biology and culture, have always interacted, interweaving their paths in many ways, but now –according to Davis and Morris – they are not considered as distant fields anymore. URI GradCon translated this concept into reality by creating an interdisciplinary

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Thinking, inspiring and being inspired, reflecting, dialoguing. Brainstorming around a prefix. Trans(forming). Moving into new directions. Moving forward. GradCon 2017.and transdisciplinary space and place for scholars.

Somewhere in Space: A Reading with Talvikki Ansel

Talvikki Ansel’s third collection of poems, Somewhere in Space (The Ohio State University

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Press, 2015), explores such disparate themes as nature, ecology, how our individualities crisscross with those both living and dead, and history’s tangential relationship to our lives, to name only a few. Through Ansel’s layered reading, the poems accrued weight, their multifold lenses jutting in and out of various landscapes, with the underlying thread, Ansel noted, of an attempt “to figure out.”

Ansel opened with the first poem from her collection, “Leap Years,” reading in a measured, assured voice which delicately yet forcefully carried each word: “The hippo of patience / but not complacency / stares out over the frozen / landscape, icicles on the willow, / sharp sun.” The opening depicts a miniature figurine, which once “was a tree but now / am a palm-sized hippo / in a country of snow.” There is so much work being done in these first few lines that they are worth lingering over, as they set the mood of the entire text. The figure is one of patience “but not of complacency” which depicts Ansel’s searching, rigorously penetrating poetics perfectly. The hippo further muses “My descendants (there were flowers, there were / seeds) will become / the decks of a boat / exposed to sun / and molecules of light, / will travel to secluded coves, / night, planets, the milky way.” Here is the infinitesimal in all its multiform guises reaching out to touch and encompass time and space. “Leap Years” illustrates the leaping nature of Ansel’s project; a project, though, that is always both anchored in the ephemera of the day-to-day, while also reaching toward nature, objects and the past.

“How it Sounds,” locates the various calls of birds, using Bird Sounds and Their Meaning (1977) by Rosemary Jellis and Roger F. Pasquier’s Watching Birds (1977) as points of departure. Here, the speaker wonders “What did she hear who first lived / at the P.O.—crows, the gray-white shorebird’s / piercing loud, obvious whistles, / song versus call—” that quickly moves from the exterior, nature’s noises and moods, to the interior: “Clatter of kerosene tins, afternoon fog / blowing in—fog horn, door slam, / letters dropped on the counter for sorting, clang of metal swing door on the mail slot, / mallet’s crack, lunge and splash”—where the accumulation of sounds allows the speaker to move toward the

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commingling with another, and a further move outdoors, where the speaker wonders if both will now hear what their ancestors heard: “the Bulwer’s croon, / eider’s groan and mutter, wind-shift / in the spruce boughs / and depth to sound?” Time, in these few lines, is both expanded and contracted. The reader’s attention is minutely drawn to the various sounds of wildlife happening, but is connected to the larger, weightier notion, that these noises were once heard by not just others, but by ancestors. This is an extremely difficult thing to do: connect the present moment with the past, while all the while delicately balancing the two, before, like the various birds mentioned in the poem, they disappear.

The wild, unsettled, yet always controlled aspects of Ansel’s poems were illustrated in her reading of the title poem, a dazzling ten-part excavation, centering around feral cats, and the Finnish poet, Edith Södergran, who died at the age of 31. “Somewhere in Space,” opens with a “Calico gray, rag-tag she chose our crawl space, / pile of insulation unmoored to the floor / or ceiling, entry above the plywood / tacked there, temporary cover for the hole / beneath the house.” The opening, and its winding, delicate rhythms show the cat making its way. The word “chose” is a careful and important moment. This shows the purpose behind the searching, the looking while moving. The final poem in the cycle depicts Edith Södergran “holding the leash / of a Karelian bear dog (“a hunter / of unyielding bravery and determination”)” and quotes the poet: “‘somewhere in space hangs my heart’ and / ‘sparks fly from it, shaking the air.’” Ansel’s speakers channel past writers, past lives, while always moving, making their way in the present. History is worn and carried but it does not weigh down the present. It is a thing always here, even when one is not aware. It is in both the habitus of one’s being, and when every individual thinks of her or his place in the world. These things seethe and blur, are both almost within our grip yet a breath out of reach. Ansel has already carved out a stunning poetic career. She was chosen by James Dickey for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, for her first collection, My Shining Archipelago (1996). Her second book, Jetty and Other Poems (2003), explores myriad notions of transformation, and the intersection of the human with the natural world. With Somewhere in Space, Ansel continues this journey, while creating new and searching art, poetry, burning like Edith Södergran’s, shaking in the air.

 

 

Stephen Henderson: Examining the Power of Writing Recursively to Face 21st-Century Challenges

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.

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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

guernica3commentary,  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.

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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.


Grant Farred Lecture: “Negro” and The American Condition

A few weeks ago visiting professor Grant Farred provided a lively night of academic quandaries and theoretical debate during his lecture on the political, philosophical, and linguistic use of the word Negro and its connection to American race relations in the works of James Baldwin.  Dr. Farred is a professor of literature, Africana studies, and cultural studies at Cornell University.  He is also an active author and recent books include Midfielder’s Moment: Coloured Literature and Culture in Contemporary South Africa, What’s My Name?  Black Vernacular Intellectuals, Phantom Calls: Race and the Globalization of the NBA, and Long Distance Love: A Passion for Football.  Dr. Farred has also served as an editor on various essay collections focusing on the Caribbean intellectual, Post-Apartheid in South Africa, and C.L.R. James, marking him as a leading scholar in diverse literary and cultural studies.

Dr. Farred began his enthusiastic talk with a close reading of James Baldwin and his idea that the Negro is the only real American.  For Baldwin, the term Negro is the condition of America, because it joins the oppressor and the oppressed.  In America the Negro is thought of as the other.  But the other only exists in relation to the dominant party, or white Americans.  The other, or Negro, is then a neighbor, distant but near to Whites at the same time, and not actually an other at all.  If the Negro is the same as the White community, then the Negro is the narrative of America, the story of the oppressors and the oppressed.   The Negro and White America are also forever joined together as the condition of America, because the United States can never return to a time before America was founded on the atrocity of slavery.  The Negro is America, as well as its past and future.

Dr. Farred points out that Baldwin overlooks the experience of the Native American in his discussion of the Negro as the condition of America.  Although this is a problem, because the Native American is othered in White culture, in reality Native Americans are the indigenous people of America and are anything but an other.   Therefore, like the Negro, the Native American is the condition of America and is not distant but is near to White America.  In the lecture Dr. Farred explains how the Negro can be then used as a term for all groups of people that have been oppressed and othered in the United States, including African Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and any other community.  The Negro is the Condition of America and all who have been oppressed, and all who have been oppressors.

As the talk concluded and Dr. Farred opened up the room to questions, he challenged assumptions regarding the current role of the other in America culture.  When asked about Rachel Dolezal, Dr. Farred stated that the other always begins with exclusion and the assumption that the other is not the same as the dominant party.  By claiming that Dolezal does not know the African American experience, it is othering her and making the experience a combative game.  For Dr. Farred this is the problem of over representation and the idea that a person can only speak for their own gender, race, or class.  This creates experience as a combative game because people must one up each other in order to be considered other or oppressed in America.  Over representation just then further segregates and others people’s experiences.  Dr. Farred ends his answer by saying America needs to find a new way to express self and the other, and perhaps that way is through Baldwin’s use of the term Negro.

Dr. Farred is currently finishing a forthcoming book called Bodies in Motion, Bodies at Rest and last fall posted on University of Minnesota Press’ Blog regarding his complex relationship with the works of Martin Heidegger.

Wendy Walters Lecture: A Quickly Approaching Horizon

Wwaltersendy Walters’ writing is a gift to multiple communities all at once: hopeful writers and students, literature fans, environmental activists, and anyone attentive to the state of human rights in our world.  By this measure, this is writing that should concern just about everyone on Earth.  She is widely published as a poet, but her selections at this lecture leaned towards prosody.  Her style remained unmistakably poetic, however.  This literary design allows her to blend scientific facts with metaphor and storytelling, which brings a beauty and relatable quality to what would normally be dry historic data.  She begins with an ear-catching specific, then moves towards more general truths.  By giving a melodic energy to factual evidence, she manages to convey vital messages without ever being dull.  This is not only admirable but essential in this age of short attention spans, self-interest, and instant gratification, where capturing the attention of the upcoming generations seems to be simultaneously more difficult and more crucially needed.

Her first reading came from her essay “When the Sea Comes for Us” and focused on the delicate balance of coastal communities and the surrounding ocean levels.  Specifically, it centered around her home in New York City not far from the famous New York Harbor.  She explored marine areas geographically, listing particular areas by name and then detailing their historical role in the human-ocean relationship.  This highlighted how dependent the human race has always been on the sea, and how we have always come for it, usually to use it to our advantage.  She spoke of our building upward as an “impulse to climb” that had a clear double-meaning, representing our physical topography of taller and taller buildings that was designed by an “economy of space,” but also of our apparently inextinguishable desire to accumulate wealth and prestige both individually and collectively (Walters).  She compared skyscrapers to masts, something I have personally never considered, and this could be argued to exemplify the enduring nature of humanity’s false idea that we can claim or tame anything by merely building upon it, raising ourselves above it.  A sentiment from this piece that effectively introduced her next reading was that “true sea change” will leave no territory unaffected (Walters).  It’s not just about New York, it’s not just about America; this is an issue that concerns the entire planet.  All of the major civilizations in our history have depended on the various benefits of the ocean.  We have come for the sea, unwilling to admit to ourselves that the sea could, in turn, come for us.

walters 3     The next piece she read from was “You Are Pip.”  This was a much longer essay, which she hesitated to call an essay as it seems to bridge the spaces between poem, essay, and monologue.  Several in the audience said that they felt it was a performance piece after the reading, and I believe this came from the repetition of several lines such as the ever-present reminder that “you are Pip” as well as the subtle urgency of the writing.  This piece still deals with the unbreakable yet dangerous bond human beings have with the sea, but it is more deeply focused on human-to-human interaction, specifically interaction modified by racism.  Pip is a seemingly minor character of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a young African-American boy who works under the notorious Captain Ahab.  However, Walters shows that he holds an importance far greater than it first appears.  His character’s initial purpose seems to be comic relief, but that is cut short by his untimely drowning later in the novel.  This indicates a purposeful earnestness expressed by Melville when penning his unexpected demise.  Pip can, and perhaps should, be totally removed from the context of his tale and represent a bigger issue in our society, past and present.  Walters seems to think this is necessary, that we are all Pip: nervous yet in awe, humorous yet serious, corporeal yet fleeting.  Regardless of skin color, the work demonstrates that the tumultuous range of human emotion and the unpredictability of human experience are universal factors in our lives.

As the reading began to wind down, it became clear that another interpretation could be drawn: Pip could also be the sea.  Some lines that triggered this association were “you have died, not we have killed you”, “fears born from uncertainty”, and “may you never sacrifice yourself to progress (Walters).”  These thoughts can all be easily related to our relationship with the ocean.  Many people refuse to admit their part in the destruction of the marine ecosystem, certainly much of the population has fears of the ocean based on a lack of knowledge or uncertainty, and those who care about the sea of course wish that it walters 2would not become sacrificed to progress.  Now, if we are Pip, and Pip is the ocean, WE are the ocean.  Our tie to water is scientific, unavoidable, and unique.  The ocean sustains us, heals us, transports us, and amuses us.  Therefore, why should we not protect it as one of our own?  We are not just saving a remarkable, ancient world, but ourselves as well.  As Walters so eloquently put, the world will end just as it always was going to; what changes and what matters is the speed of that demise.