Announcement: Interview with Timothy Donnelly, Reading on April 25

The Department of American Studies, in collaboration with the Department of English and the Michener Center for Writers, will host “The Art of Constraint and the Poetics of Surveillance,” an interdisciplinary conversation about the interaction between literature and the contemporary police state, on Friday, April 25 at 6 PM in the AVAYA Auditorium (POB 2.302). As part of this event, we are incredibly excited to feature award-winning poet Timothy Donnelly, author of The Cloud Corporation (2010), who will be reading new work.  Last week, we had the chance to speak to Donnelly about his work, his teaching, and the role and responsibility of literature in the post-9/11 world.

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Your book The Cloud Corporation borrows language from the Patriot Act and the 9/11 Commission Report.  How did this idea come to you?

Thanks for asking! There are a few poems in The Cloud Corporation that were constructed exclusively from language taken from sources such as those you mention. To write the first of the poems this way, “The Last Dream of Light Released from Seaports,” was proposed to me by my friend the poet Geoffrey G. O’Brien. He suggested I should let 19 pages of the Patriot Act provide me with my vocabulary, since it had in mind to take things away from me, partly. The first page would supply the words I had to choose from in the making of a poem’s first tercet, the second page would give me the words I had to choose from for the second, and so on. Also, once per line I was allowed a word from a second source text, and I had to use the same second source throughout the poem. I chose Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” I liked the idea of doing a mash-up of language from a document designed to compromise civil liberties with that of a big fat freedom anthem—plus, I love the song and listened to it over and over while writing the poem, which took several long days to write. That was way back in 2004.

Then I wrote “Dream of a Poetry of Defense,” which used language from Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry” and the 9/11 Commission Report, in 2005. In this one I reversed my allegiances—it was the prime text, the Shelley, I sympathized with, while the second source text I held in suspicion. First and foremost these poems are formal experiments, attempts to see what can be done with a limited and unlikely lexicon. But they can also be approached as attempts to reclaim the language of power and domination and convert it into a language of freedom and play. They are both at once, I suppose. But I wouldn’t want to overemphasize the political import of all this industry, although I can’t pretend not to have chosen my source texts for their political character, for their rhetorical designs—I just don’t like the idea of making inflated claims for my poetry. And the truth is, I think some purer-minded readers might even consider them misguided and irresponsible, too mongrel and ambiguous, messed-up in their message delivery system. A few people have cited one of them, “The Dream of Arabian Hillbillies,” which uses language from Osama bin Laden’s fatwa against the United States and Israel and from the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies, as the book’s most tacky moment. And I’m okay with that. I want my work to have all the messiness of life, wrestled into art. I don’t want my poems to be platforms for performing the awesome rightness of my political sensitivity. I don’t like piety in any of its forms.

 

Do you see your work as engaging politically with—for lack of a better term—the post-9/11 world? How so?

Ah. Well, I feel like it would be self-aggrandizing and even a little untrue to say yes, so I’ll say…sort of. I feel insincere confusing my work with full-blown, position-taking political engagement, which is of course something I endorse per se and undertake in my fashion. But that’s not what I do in my poetry. What I do is more concerned with the psychological or, say, the personal experience of political and social realities, the sorrows, the guilts and grotesqueries of our culture. Like emanations of what it feels like to be alive now. A now that, yes, after 9/11, has seemed different from what it was before. Not only because of the shifts in consciousness in the aftermath of the attacks but also because war, economic collapse, environmental crisis, etc., had or have become more pressing realities than they appeared to be before.

But again, I think of the poems as dealing with these realities not directly but as they impinge upon an individual consciousness—but maybe you wouldn’t exclude that from what you mean by “political engagement.” It is a way, I guess, of implying a value. For example, if I refer to capitalism as “the circuitry that suffers me to crave // what I know I’ll never need, or what I need but have / in abundance already,” perhaps that’s critique enough to say that the poem is political. But if I suggest I used to think about falling in front of a train so my family could live off the insurance money because I just wasn’t earning enough of it the traditional way to keep us afloat—is that political? I’m not so sure. By “political” I assume we mean, to quote the OED, “involved, employed, or interested in politics; that takes a side, promotes, or follows a particular party line in political debate.” I don’t think I’m doing that, or maybe everyone is, to some degree? Oh, I think underneath it all there might be something I’m trying to get to, or at, that I haven’t quite formulated.

Let me try to put it this way. At its root, my impulse to write is more or less physical, a drive to create and give shape and organization to material. That material “happens to be,” for lack of a better verb, language, but it might have been something else. I love to cook and often feel that cooking is, for me, another manifestation of the same impulse. There’s also evidence that I might have been a carpenter in another life. But it’s language that’s the medium I work in. And that medium is, as we know, double-natured—physical, or a thing per se, but also significatory. To fully realize the medium, to use it to its fullest, you can’t leave the signification half out of it. Nonsemantic word paintings might catch one’s eye, but in the end, they would be of limited interest. Not that anything is of unlimited interest. Except, of course, the sea. But I know that my impulse is that of a builder first and foremost, and then that of an expresser.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t care about “content.” Because the content of my poems is taken from, or chosen by, my brain, so I feel pretty close to it. It’s just that my impulse to make it into a poem isn’t political. It’s physical, mechanical. Like a bird that makes another nest, just for the sake of it. If it makes it out of shredded tax forms, is that political? Is this making any sense? Like others, I make my poems out of words. The words are like the clay. The clay is quickened into bricks by thought, memory, imagination, feeling—the work of my brain, which sometimes has to do with politics or things of a political character. Which is probably always informed by political realities, and probably reality itself is political. But the poem is the ziggurat I am given to build.

But all that said, the truth is, the most moving responses to the book, to me, have come from people, including those who tell me they don’t ordinarily read poetry, who say it has helped them to articulate how they have been feeling, that it has made them feel accompanied and spoken for. This has been very gratifying. And also a little surprising. Because I would never have dared let myself hope for that. But I also remember that, when The Cloud Corporation came out, there was a review in a Harvard undergraduate literary review that faulted the book for not offering solutions to the problems it confronted. I suppose it’s my sense that if my poems were products of political engagement in the truest sense, then they would have done that. But I really don’t think poetry or any art has to do that. Then again, I’m not a Harvard undergraduate in 2010. Certainly I think it’s enough to have articulated the confusion, even the futility—to give form to how it feels, how it felt, what it was like, to be a human through the times. But in the end the comment that has meant most to me came from my father, who said after reading my poem “Globus Hystericus” in The Paris Review, “I don’t know what it means, but reading it felt like listening to classical music.”

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5 Questions with Dr. Shirley Thompson

Today we bring you a new entry in one of our favorite series of AMS :: ATX: an interview with Dr. Shirley Thompson, associate professor of American Studies and Associate Director of the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. Dr. Thompson was also recently awarded a Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship for her research on property, economics, and law.

Photo by Marsha Miller

Photo by Marsha Miller

 

What was your favorite project to work on and why?

I have to say my favorite was everything relating to my New Orleans project, which was my dissertation, and turned into my first book, Exiles at Home: The Struggle to Become American in Creole New Orleans.  First of all because I’m someone whose native constitution is more conducive to more quiet, solitary, archival research, and the New Orleans archival situation is just amazing.  Because New Orleans was so long a French colony, governed by civil code, there’s a different bureaucracy in place, which means that a lot of the transactions that would fall under the radar in another kind of space, an Anglo-American space, had to be attended by a notary, had to be heavily detailed, recorded and filed for future reference.  It was also really litigious on the civil side: you had neighbors bringing suit against neighbors for civil infractions.  It was a highly contestable, really rich culture of recording disagreement and recording interactions.  The logic of the archives is really interesting too, to trace people, who while I was working I thought of as characters, through their various material interactions, to witness them buying and selling property, interacting with their families, their neighbors – it brought history alive and made me feel really intimate with the people I was studying. The archival situation was really rich for me, and I could spend hours in a room, totally engrossed, in the historical events that were unfolding.

But beyond that, when I came out of those archives, the place itself was completely engaging.  New Orleans opened me up to something I’ve always been interested in, which is maps, and thinking about various ways of experiencing and representing space, and marking the overlapping projects of placemaking – how these projects come together or fail to come together within a city, or town, a geographical unit.  It’s not hard in New Orleans because it wears its history on its sleeve, but I began to really pay attention to how the city itself is a palimpsest, and use that as a kind of guide for thinking about how to tell the stories that I thought were important.  And New Orleans, in terms of its placement, pulled me into a transnational perspective that I found really transformative for my way of thinking about US history, thinking about African American history and its relationship to a broader stream of African diasporic thought.

The New Orleans project opened all that up for me.  I’ve also done some more creative pieces on New Orleans recently. I find that it’s a city that stokes my creative imagination.

I love going back and talking to people in New Orleans.  One thing about the city is that the people who are from there and live there are, a lot of them, historians – not formally, but they’re really engaged with the history of their families, the history of their communities, how other people represent them. They’re very savvy about representations of New Orleans, what their city might mean, what their culture has given to the world, and all the consequences of that.  They’re very articulate about it, and very willing to engage you on all of those levels. I see it as an ongoing project.  Every time I go back, I’m thrown back in the midst of these broader questions about the city, race and the city, and questions of representation.

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Undergrad Research: Interview with Alyse Camus and Taj Bruno

We are so pleased today to feature an interview with Alyse Camus and Taj Bruno, two American Studies undergraduates who were recently awarded an honorable mention for the 2014 Dean’s Distinguished Graduates award. We sat down with Alyse and Taj last week to chat about their thesis research, their time in AMS, and their future plans.

In addition, Alyse and Taj will be presenting at the American Studies Undergraduate Honors Symposium this Thursday, April 17 at 5:30 in Burdine 214. Come by to hear about their theses, as well as those of another three stellar undergraduates. Details here.

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Alyse and Taj on a research trip to the New York Public Library

Tell us a little about your thesis project.

Taj: My thesis explores the relationship between the American Jewish community and the celebration of Christmas, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries. What I’m really focusing on is the internal debate that emerged in the Jewish community regarding the permissibility of Jews taking part in Christmas celebrations and the controversy over that. I’ve looked at an article that was published in the Christian Century in 1939 by a Reformed rabbi who declared that it was absolutely wonderful for Jews to partake in Christmas and it was even a way to bolster the Jewish faith by Jews taking part in a religious practice that was in part derived from the Jewish faith. Another archive I’ve consulted is the Center for Jewish History in New York City and the New York Public Library.

Alyse: My thesis moves between two different departments, American Studies and Slavic Studies. I’m looking at Vladimir Mayakovsky, who was essentially the poet of the early Soviet Union but he also happened to be absolutely fascinated by America. In 1925 he came to America, really to New York and Chicago, did a cycle of poetry, and wrote a travelogue called, in translation, My Discovery of America. In scholarship this is essentially treated as a Soviet criticizing America as this terrible place simply because he was a Soviet and writing from the perspective of the Soviet Union. I’m trying to look at it more as Mayakovsky having valid critiques of America that were valid and identified by American and foreign observers around the same time. So I’m really trying to explore the unique relationship that Mayakovsky had with America before, during, and after his visit, and how his views shaped the Soviet Union’s early impressions of America. There aren’t a whole lot of Mayakovsky archives in America, so I’ve pulled mostly from the texts that he published and from a couple American newspapers–The Daily Worker was kind of responsible for promoting lectures he did while here, and Russkii Golos, a Russian language paper out of New Yorkpublished something about Mayakovsky almost every day of his trip, so it’s been really great to look back through those archives.

What has been a favorite class or assignment in American Studies that led you toward this project?

Taj: There was an American Studies class I took on amusement and understanding specific populations and amusement in America. We had a lot of liberty to choose the topics we wrote about, and I remember writing a paper on the Jewish American population and the relationship between Israel and America. I remember becoming inspired by the fascinating relationship that is ongoing between American and Israel and this helped me focus in on the Jewish American population in America and understand their history, their position, and the different things that they’ve gone through. My paper looked at Jewish American identity through the lens of advertising. It focused on the representation of Israel in American advertising regarding tourist culture.

Alyse: One of the earliest classes I took in American Studies was Intro to American Studies with Elizabeth Engelhardt and it was focused on masculinity and femininity in American culture. I had never really explored masculinity before and I had never heard American History explored from that perspective. I thought it was interesting to look at changing gender roles as not necessarily an explanation of cultural shifts, but just one of the many lenses you could look through. At the time it was just an exceptionally new concept for me. During her class I became really drawn to this time period of 1900 to World War II because there is just so much going on and it feels like almost everything is in a constant state of flux. Her class made me realize that there was so much going on at this time that I hadn’t ever considered and to me that was very eye opening.

What’s next? Where are you headed after graduating this spring?

Taj: For the past year or so I have been working at my parents’ medical device company in quality assurance, and while that sounds dry, it is actually pretty fascinating work. I make sure the company stays within the guidelines of both international and domestic standards. What that means in layman’s terms is that when foreign or domestic governments set out new or revised standards for selling the medical device in those countries, I make sure that the company complies with those regulations. It’s fascinating work and I’m able to readily apply my research skills to international business.

Alyse: Well, after I graduate I’m going to take some time off before pursuing a graduate program. I’ve been looking at everything from History to Comparative Literature and I’m just not quite sure yet which direction I want to take. So, I figure that taking a step back from everything will give me some much needed perspective and let me flesh out my options a little better. To do that, I’m going to move to Los Angeles with one of my friends while she works on her Master’s. To be honest, I’m not yet sure what I’m going to do once I’m there, but I’ve always been the kind of person who just figures it out as I go along. I have a lot of different interests and options so I’ll see where they happen to lead me. In all of the free time that I’ll have because I won’t have a thesis to write, I’m actually hoping to work on translating the poems Mayakovsky wrote while in America. Most of them have never been translated to English and there are 22 of them, so it’ll keep me busy!

Faculty Research: Dr. Randy Lewis on Texas Tavola in the Old Country

Today we have a special treat for you: Dr. Randy Lewis has penned this fascinating account of a recent trip he took to Sicily to screen a documentary about Sicilians in East Texas. Enjoy his words and his photos – all the photographs are by him!

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I had a remarkable experience over spring break. Along with my partner, the anthropologist Circe Sturm, I headed to Sicily to screen an ethnographic film that we co-produced several years ago. Texas Tavola: A Taste of Sicily in the Lone Star State traces the migration of food, religion, and identity from Sicily to Texas, with a focus on the elaborate rituals associated with the tavola di San Giuseppe (the St. Joseph’s altar). The altar is not just a complex expression of religious devotion and folk creativity by women who prepare dozens of sculptural breads and desserts. It is also a holy banquet to feed the poor, a vegetarian feast for a crowd that can swell into the hundreds in Sicily and East Texas alike.

Bringing the film to Sicily was a long time coming. Although it had appeared at academic conferences and a number of universities in the US, a lack of subtitles had kept the film out of wide circulation in Italy. We were lucky that a graduate student at the University of Sienna, Maria Grazia Candido, decided to subtitle the film for her MA project, suddenly allowing it to find a new life in Italy. Would Sicilians recognize Sicilian-Americans as their own? Would they get past the Texas accents and oversized belt buckles to care about distant relatives they had never met? Would they be interested at all? That’s what we were here to discover.

Taking us hundreds of miles around the island, the screenings brought us to urban universities in wonderfully grand ballrooms, smaller cities filled with baroque architecture, and rural villages in the western countryside. I’m writing at greater length about this experience elsewhere, so for now I’ll simply describe the final screening in the western Sicilian town of Poggioreale.

Once a stately town with a concert hall, Poggioreale was destroyed by earthquake in 1968, languished in a corrupt rebuilding process for two decades, and finally rebuilt down the hill in a sad modernist parody of the original. The mayor had invited us to show our film in the modest town hall on the feast day of St. Joseph, when elaborate altars are set up in the towns of the surrounding valley. We were arriving at the same time as a group of Circe’s relatives who were visiting the Sicilian altars for the first time. Quite by accident, three generations of Sicilian-Texan women and one delightful fellow named Ross, most of whom had appeared in Texas Tavola, would be converging on their ancestral home while I shot a constant stream of video and photos.

We had a powerful screening in this final stop—for us as filmmakers and, I think, for our audience. What we had done was relatively simple: we had recorded the ancient rituals of a small town thriving in a faraway place. But for this small act of ethnographic attention to the improbable flow of global culture, the community was effusively grateful, presenting us bouquets of flowers, equally florid speeches, and a generous luncheon in a town with scant resources. The mayor spoke, the deputy mayor spoke, even the “baby mayor” spoke with impressive authority (he is a 12 year old who wears a tri-color sash to indicate his official role as a junior politician). The Sicilians marveled that Texans still constructed altars in the old ways, taking over an entire house to construct something that would last only a few days like some sort of mezzogiorno “Burning Man.” One bystander said what was happening in Texas was “like something from Sicily 200 years ago.” Old people cried and shook our hands like we had found a long lost relative, which, in a modest sense, we had.

Announcement: Ethnic and Third World Literatures Sequels Symposium This Week!

This Thursday and Friday at UT, Ethnic and Third World Literatures (E3W) and the Department of English will be hosting the 13th Annual Sequels Symposium. Sequels is an annual event that features E3W alumni and their recently published books. The symposium also includes graduate student panels, highlighting research that intersects with the work of our featured keynote speakers. This year’s guests are Dr.  Eve Dunbar and Dr. Kenneth Kidd. The symposium will feature keynote addresses by Dr. Dunbar and Dr. Kidd on Thursday evening at 7pm in the Eastwoods Room of the Texas Union. Panels will be held Friday from 8:30 to 3:30 in the Eastwoods Room.

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Eve Dunbar graduated from UT in 2004.  She is currently Associate Dean of the Faculty and Associate Professor in the Department of English at Vassar College, where she is also an active contributor to the Africana Studies, Women’s Studies, and American Culture programs.  Her areas of specialization include African American literature and cultural expression, black feminism, and theories of black diaspora. Kenneth Kidd graduated from UT in 1994.  He is currently a Professor and Chair of the Department of English at the University of Florida. His areas of specialization include children’s literature studies, nineteenth- and twentieth century American literature, psychoanalysis, queer theory, and cultural studies.

Check out the full schedule here.

 

Announcement: Dr. Julia Mickenberg Comments on Civil Rights History in Life and Letters

Today we are happy to share some words from our very own Dr. Julia Mickenberg, who recently commented in an article in Life & Letters, the College of Liberal Arts Magazine, on a pivotal moment in civil rights history.

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Photo from the National Museum of American History

Dr. Mickenberg writes,

People don’t usually think about Louise Bryant, the radical bohemian journalist made famous in Warren Beatty’s film about the Russian Revolution, Reds, as a fighter for women’s rights. But, in fact, she was.

When she returned from Russia in 1918, after writing the sketches that would be published as Six Red Months in Russia, she stayed for several weeks at the National Woman’s Party (NWP) headquarters in Washington, DC. She got arrested and went to prison with several other NWP members for burning an effigy of President Woodrow Wilson, who had been a vocal opponent of women’s rights. Later, she spoke about the Russian Revolution at an event that other NWP members organized. Anti-suffragists, (known as the “antis”), who had for some time been insisting that woman suffrage was a Communist conspiracy, had a field day, announcing “Bolsheviki Meetings Arranged by Suffragists!”

Does this mean that the anti-suffragists were right? Was woman suffrage a communist conspiracy? No, but the fact that women got the vote in “darkest Russia” before they did in the United States was a real spur to passage of the woman suffrage amendment, especially during a war in which democracy was at stake (the amendment finally passed after the war had ended, but Wilson wound up endorsing it earlier as a “war measure”). In Overman committee hearings – a 1919 red scare version of the more famous McCarthy hearing – Bryant emphasized the specifically feminist reasons why she found revolutionary Russia so appealing: “I have never been in a country where women were as free as they are in Russia and where they are treated not as females but as human beings…It is a very healthy country for a suffragist to go into.”

Those who promote significant social changes often are radicals. They ruffle feathers and they even make mistakes. Louise Bryant was mistaken in her romantic image of the “new Russia.” But she was right about woman suffrage as an essential basis for making women full human beings in the eyes of the state.

Check out the full article here, which also features comments from Jeremi Suri (History, LBJ School of Public Affairs), Terri E. Givens (Government), King Davis (African and African Diaspora Studies, Director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis), and John Hoberman (Germanic Studies).

Alumni Voices: Siva Vaidhyanathan Writes on Academia in the Neoliberal Age

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Today, we offer to you a must-read about the value of academia in a neoliberal age. UT American Studies Ph.D. alumnus Siva Vaidhyanathan writes on his entry into higher education and “the calling” of education. We’ve pasted an excerpt below but be sure to read the whole piece here.

I explained that I was back in school to figure out how I could learn to write books. I had bigger and different questions in my head than my current writing outlet would accommodate. And while I had no interest in being a professor—it was the family business, and I had been running from it for years—I had also spent weeks making use of the office hours of professors who had written books I admired, like Stott. I needed a road map.

“Why don’t you apply to graduate school in American studies?” Stott suggested. I listed all my excuses. But Randy Newman’s piano seemed to taunt my objections as soon as I voiced them, rendering them harmless; what chance did a mundane litany of half-formed career complaints really stand against the day’s unlikely sound track of ordinary American strivers triumphing against formidable odds? I didn’t know it at the moment, but I had answered the calling.