Writing is a discipline and it takes discipline to write.
So how does one learn and practice to become a writer? What’s more, how does one teach others to become writers?
In the next few months, you will hear from those who teach creative writing. Consider this your mini, free Creative Writing 101.
We kick off this series with Dr. Tara. Hart. Tara is one of two Co-Chairs of HoCoPoLitSo. In addition to being a community advocate for poetry and literature, she is a scholar, a poet, and a teacher. Listen to Tara read her poem “Pine” published in TriQuarterly. She teaches poetry and creative writing at Howard Community College. Here’s what she had to share with us.
LY: How would you describe – to someone brand new to teaching creative writing – your approach to teaching creative writing?
TH: I’ve realized over the years that the greatest challenges students face in their creative writing are getting it done on time and overcoming a sense of vulnerability, and that realization has significantly impacted my course design. I set up the grade distribution to reflect the fact that in the professional world of creative writing, you might have tremendous freedom in your assignments but you must hit your marks. Students might struggle to produce creative work by a certain deadline because they haven’t consciously made time or created the right environment for their creative process and habits, or because they fear the judgment that follows sharing their work, which can be very personal. So one of our first assignments is to create an action plan that anticipates difficulties, and every assignment they do receives full credit/points if it meets the required length and deadline and is on topic; I don’t “grade” individual pieces of creative work a la A, B, C, D, F.
This design motivates them to meet their deadlines and push forward even when it’s not perfect or even close. Their final portfolio of work, containing their best pieces and a reflective essay on their own strengths and goals for improvement, is graded at the end of the semester, but it’s now a much lower percentage of their overall grade, and it’s quite remarkable how the “best” writers very often do end up with the highest grades, even though the vast majority of the final grade is really about completing work on time. It affirms my idea that strengthening the habit of writing consistently and pushing through fear to meet the challenges of writing in unfamiliar genres and on a variety of topics produces, ultimately, better quality writing.
I heard a “Moth” storyteller on NPR say that a turning point in her life when she decided to “stop being a writer” and decided to “actually write.” I think my class, with its emphasis on production and feedback, distinguishes those students who are compelled to write and to develop the habits and discipline of a writer, from those who just like the idea of writing and might otherwise use the excuse that the instructor doesn’t “like” their writing – if they don’t do well in the class, it’s because they simply didn’t produce and engage.
LY: What is the most challenging thing to teach in creative writing?
TH: I have struggled most and improved most in the area of designing valuable peer review experiences in which students consistently give, receive and respond to each other’s feedback. Peer review skills are important in composition as well, but it’s harder, in a different way, for students to critique someone’s personal memoir than an expository essay. When I gave creative writing students choices in terms of whom to review, the same strong writers would get the most feedback and others would be neglected. Now I deliver the course most often as a hybrid, so that the Canvas learning platform becomes the “workshopping” portion of the course, and I use its automatic peer review feature to make sure everyone receives equal amounts of attention.
I’ve also worked hard to teach them how to work effectively within a writing community. I give very specific guidance and requirements about how to review each other’s work, using the model of What Works? What Doesn’t Work? and What If? , and as they explicitly improve in the quality of their feedback they implicitly improve their own writing because their self-editing skills are inevitably sharpened. I have learned to come in with my comments at the end of a unit, such as writing to them about patterns and possibilities I see in their fiction or in their poetry after they’ve worked a while with that genre – this gets them in the habit of listening to each other first and for quite a while without waiting for or deferring to the “real” critique from the professor.
Students might say that the most challenging/scary part of the course is reading their work aloud, which I’ve required to greater degrees over the years. I want them to learn more about the rhythm and music of their words. Also, the literary readings we do together, in which each student gets on the stage of Monteabaro Hall and reads for two minutes, make the students feel closer to each other, often increase their self-confidence in their writing, and illustrate the power of a supportive writing community.
LY: You are a poet. What’s the best suggestion/tip/teaching that you received from your own creative writing teachers?
TH: I didn’t study towards an MFA but trained in criticism, so my best creative writing teachers have been the master poets and writers I’m fortunate to read and meet and listen to as they are interviewed about their process for The Writing Life or present in venues here on campus or at the Dodge Poetry Festival every other year. I tell and require my students to READ, and to “read like writers,” which an astonishing number do not do extensively or widely. I ask those who do not read often, “Who, then, do you think is going to read your work?”
Billy Collins has had the greatest impact on my own writing when he teaches that readers don’t really want to hear about the writer’s thoughts and feelings but are looking to find themselves in what they read; that readers need to be oriented in concrete, specific ways before you launch them into abstraction or profundity; and that as writers we need to stop hiding behind vagary or ego. I’m better at spotting the difference between self-indulgent “bravery” (in which facts and feelings are wielded as weapons) and the tender commitment to offering truth.
LY: What is the most common advice/suggestion/tip you find yourself giving to your students?
TH: Show, don’t tell! Let the reader “be there” through the use of sensory details, rather than summarizing or explaining the experience for them. I’m also (in)famous for crossing out lots of text. I can do lots of slashing because I’ve already given them full credit for doing their work – I’m free to tell them how unnecessary lots of it is. Student writers tend to over-explain and interrupt their own compelling action or images with redundant “telling” of what we’re already inferring and feeling.
While writing the last musing on “Multiple Writing Personalities” I began to pull at another thread – the art of translations.
There are many words that are not really translatable from Korean to English, and this is the case for many (if not all) languages. One example is the Korean word 한 (pronounced “hahn” and sort of means grievance) which comes from 원한 (pronounced “won-hahn” and sort of means grudge). Usually this word is used to describe the kind of deep grievance or regret that awakens a dead person’s body and spirit. Like Jason in Friday the 13th or the scary girls in The Ring or Grudge. But none of these words – hatred, resentment, grievance, regret – captures quite wholly the meaning that Koreans put in that word when they use it.
Language is cultural. Words communicate values, beliefs, cultural experiences, and history. Sometimes a single one-syllable word like 한 means a whole lot. This complexity is what makes a translation – especially a poetic translation – a work of art.
When Ko Un, one of the most well known Korean poets, read at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2006, Richard Silberg performed the translation.
While Silberg’s translations communicate the idea of the poem, I think most would agree that it doesn’t transfer the whole meaning that is communicated in Ko Un’s reading – the audience can sense or experience the poem in the way Ko Un performs his poem that’s quite different from the way Silberg translates and performs it in English.
There is also an interesting translation of one of Ko Un’s poems by Suji Kwok Kim and Sunja Kim Kwok on Poetry Foundation’s website.
Taklamakan Desert by Ko UnWhy I’m going to the Taklamakan Desert:the emptiness there.Why I’m going to the Taklamakan Desertat seventy-five, leaving all words behind: the cryof the emptiness there.Why I’m going to the Taklamakan Desert:I can no longer standthe world’s greedor mine.There, in the Taklamakan Desert,the silence of a thousand-year-old skull.
Here is an excerpt from the translators’ notes.
With “Taklamakan Desert,” we tried to “translate” the translation towards greater spareness. […] We translated “명사도 동사도 다” (“all nouns and verbs”) as “all words,” which sounds less awkward in English, and decided not to isolate “there” (“거기”) on its own line, the way it’s isolated in the original, since it would sound overemphatic in English, especially as an ending. We added “in the Taklamakan Desert” in the penultimate line, for music, and “the silence of” in the last line, for rhythm, so that the last line becomes a line of iambic pentameter, a structural counterpoint to “the cry” in the second stanza, but only because silence is central to Ko Un’s work. (We could have rendered the last two lines more literally: “There —/ someone’s thousand-year-old skull.” — and again, may change our minds tomorrow.)
I highlight the last line above, because it shows the delicate choices one must make in translation – there is no such thing as “direct” translation, and we can see here the flexibility and creativity required in creating a work of translation.
In addition to the meaning of words, much of the art of translation has to do with the sound of words (and silences) – the intonation, the vowels, the consonants, the accents, the shapes that your mouth makes, and the way the tongue rolls to create sound. In the line “명사도 동사도 다” (“all nouns and verbs”), the Korean words for “nouns” and “verbs” rhyme: Phonetically, this line reads, “myung-sa-do dong-sa-do dah” (“do”=”too” or “and” and “dah”=”all”). So, there is a rhyme in “sa-do.” I wonder if it’s that difference in sound or the specificity of naming “verbs and nouns” instead of grouping them as “all words,” but the translation doesn’t quite… translate for me.
Still, I do not mean to argue that this translation is bad or that translations in general are inaccurate. Not at all. Ultimately, poetry translations are never about accuracy. It’s about telling and re-telling, creating and re-creating. Through the translators’ works, we share the words, the values, the thoughts, the stories, and the languages of all cultures. Works of translation open up poetry to interpretation, re-imagination, and even re-vision.
Translation itself is a work of art. It has its own creative process. It is original in its own sense of coming into creation.
Here are a few lines from Willis Barnstone’s “An ABC of Translating Poetry”:
Translation is the art of revelation.
Translation is an art between tongues, and the child born of the art lives forever between home and alien city.
Yet translation of poetry is conceivable.
A translation is never an exact copy. It is different.
A translation dwells in exile.
And so on. But “Z” is the best:
Good translation of poetry is essential to a hungry reader in a decent book store and to a global village of letters. We need it, for we still suffer under that early Babylonian God’s edict of language dispersal. Although Antigone and Lear sometimes speak in exotic tongues, subverting God’s rage against the monolingual builders of Babel writers still scrawl their words in a thousand scripts, pile them up on mounds of hope and futurity, awaiting translation. Translation is a zoo and a heavenly zion.
I love the phrase “a global village of letters.” That’s what the art of translation offers the world.
Last summer when a relative was returning from a trip to Korea, she brought back a few collections of Ko Un’s works for me. I thumbed the pages but found many of the poems too difficult for my comprehension – so my mother took the books. Having thought a little bit about translations through this little musing, though, I’m now processing my order on Amazon for several Ko Un translations by people like Richard Silberg, Brother Anthony, and Claire You – This Side of Time (2012) and Maninbo (2015).
Though my knowledge of the written Korean language is limited, having access to some of the poems in Korean and some in English (and maybe a few in both?) will give me a unique experience of Ko Un the Poet. Not necessarily fuller or more expansive experience – just different. Not only that, but it will also help me – a 1.5 generation Korean-American – become more familiar with Korean culture and history. And that is pretty awesome. Thank you, translators, for your word-art.
Mom, I need those books back please.
“Taklamakan Desert” in Korean
내가 타클라마칸 사막에 가는 것은
내가 열 여섯살의 꿈속에서
타클라마칸 사막에 가는것은
허허 망망 때문이다
내가 일흔다섯에 살의 대낮에
명사도 동사도 다 두고
타클라마칸 사막에 가는 것은
허허 망망의 울음 때문이다.
타클라마칸 사막에 가고 가는 것은
더 이상 견딜 수 없기 때문이다.
누구의 천년 해골
A play about three generations of stress in one household sounds like a downer: a divorced workaholic mother; two sisters, one shy and slightly chubby, one an embittered vet who lost her left hand in Irag; plus a grandmother dying of cancer.
So what are Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell doing up on stage vamping while the ladies toss back wine coolers and wear neon wigs?
I’m eager to find out. Rep Stage is producing the world premiere of Technicolor Life, by Jami Brandli, that centers around this mainly female family. Maxine, a slightly awkward freshman in high school, just wants to help her sister, Billie, who returned from Iraq with no left hand, plus the psychic wounds that come from combat and military sexual assault.
Maxine’s mother is an overworked attorney who drinks a bit too much, whose husband left her for a younger woman a few years ago. And Franny, Maxine’s grandmother, shows up after being kicked out of the assisted living facility where she had been living. Turns out, she’s dying of cancer. But she’s also a live wire who insists the family do things together before she kicks off.
So they watch old movies — especially Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — and work makeover miracles. Billie’s not having it; she runs 10 miles a day and slurps from her “water” bottle of vodka to kill the pain. Maxine, with the help of her new imaginary Blonde friends, finds Billie a fellow vet to date, and finds her voice. Meanwhile, Franny is arranging her euthanasia with Canadian drugs and her going-away party. Throughout, high school student Maxine practices her vocabulary words (serendipity, debonair, unique) and does reports for school on amputation, assisted suicide and turret gunners. Doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but the play reads tragic comedy. Things do get better.
The play captures the awkward efforts of Maxine, the rage of post-traumatic stress syndrome, the yearning for connection between family members.
An ingenious part of the text — since I haven’t seen Technicolor Life staged, I have to imagine it — is the “playing field,” a real space onstage that illustrates the imagination. The playing field becomes a dance floor, a makeover space, Iraqi combat reenactments and even Internet dating site brought to life.
Part of the Horowitz Center’s “Year of the Woman,” Technicolor Life runs Oct. 21 to Nov. 8 in Rep Stage. For tickets visit www.repstage.org.
Even though I teach writing, I cannot really remember or trace the early years of my own journey of learning to write.
Thanks to my mother’s foresight and my own tendency to hold onto things, however, I do have two special artifacts from my childhood – photos below.
First is a report on Beethoven that I wrote in the 5th grade, only a few months after my family moved from Korea and I began to learn English. This is my first “writing” in English that I can find. Mostly, it seems, I copied sentences from the Britannica. And that was “writing.”
Second is a newspaper article that I wrote in the 5th grade to a Korean Catholic newspaper about my observations on adoption. In that article, I express sadness about Korean children who are adopted by families in other countries and I urge Koreans to adopt Korean children. An impassioned argument and plea from a 10 year old.
During my teenage years, I wrote a lot. Flipping through the many spiral notebooks that were my journals reveals that I wrote my “diaries” in English (even through the early years of my language acquisition) but insisted on writing my “poems” in Korean. In English, my writing was about what I did that day, what I saw, what happened to so-and-so, or what I was thinking. In Korean, on the other hand, my writing demonstrates an annoyingly dramatic teenage-angst in what appears to be verse. I can’t help but to roll my eyes at my 14 year old self. It seems that my young mind associated English with recording facts (information) and Korean with describing love, pain, betrayal, suffering, drama, and dreams in poetry.
Later on in college, the notebooks got fancier and I wrote exclusively in English – and I stopped writing poems. Probably realized how terrible they were. There was also a vague attempt at fiction-writing but I quickly learned that I was no good at it. So, instead of trying to create literature, I studied it.
The evidence of various transitions between Korean and English in my writings makes me wonder not only about my cultural identities but also my relationship to writing. You are what you write – and I guess how you write.
A recent article in The New Republic called “Multilinguals Have Multiple Personalities” cites studies that illustrate a personality difference exhibited by one person speaking in two different languages. The article summarizes one particular study:
In one session, the volunteer and experimenter spoke only French, while the other session was conducted entirely in English. […] When [Susan Ervin] compared the two sets of stories, she identified some significant topical differences. The English stories more often featured female achievement, physical aggression, verbal aggression toward parents, and attempts to escape blame, while the French stories were more likely to include domination by elders, guilt, and verbal aggression toward peers.
I find myself experiencing this kind of shift in my identity when I switch “code” between English and Korean in my day to day life. In speech, I communicate not just the words or the “thing” that I’m trying to get across but also the cultural mores, the values, the manners, and the habits deeply rooted in that language. And I dare say the language also shapes human beliefs and behaviors.
Sadly, I don’t know if the same kind of code switching applies to my writing now – mainly because I don’t write in Korean anymore. So, it seems I have lost my Korean writing personality. Or even more sadly, perhaps this means my Korean writing personality will stay trapped in that 14 year old teenager ridden with angst. Scary thought.
Rita Dove discusses a musical life in verse
In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, Rita Dove, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and former National Poet Laureate, speaks with Maryland Poet Laureate Stanley Plumly about her latest book, Sonata Mulattico. The book tells the story, through multiple narrative poems in different voices, of George Bridgetower, an Afro-Polish child prodigy violinist who studied with Haydn. Beethoven dedicated a sonata to Bridgetower, “my crazy mulatto,” but later quarreled with him over a girl, and shunned him. Bridgetower fell into anonymity. The book is long and complex, Dove says, but “This is the only way to encompass this life and make it seem not a curiosity, but an essence of humanity.”
Israeli Poems of War and Peace
In this edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life, poet and professor Michael Collier talks with poets Moshe Dor and Barbara Goldberg about their 1997 book of Israeli poems and translations, After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace. Goldberg reads her translation of Ariel Kaufman’s “How My Brother is Cain,” and Dor reads the Hebrew version. Goldberg reads six more poems from the collection, including Amir Gilboa’s “My Brother Was Silent,” with the final, haunting line, drawn from the book of Genesis, “His blood cried out from the ground.” Goldberg concludes with a poem that sums up the Israeli desire for a long-coveted peace, Yehuda Amichai’s “Wildpeace.” This program was recorded in 1999.
Congratulations goes out to Joy Harjo who has just won the Wallace Stevens award from the Academy of American Poets for ‘proven mastery’ as a poet. The award comes with a $100,000 prize for lifetime achievement. Read The Guardian’s story about the award here.
Part of that life time achievement was a visit to HoCoPoLitSo in 2008 when she read and performed music to an audience at the Howard County Conservancy during an afternoon event entitled “Poetry by Nature, A Family Affair.”
During the visit to Howard County, Ms. Harjo recorded the following episode of The Writing Life:
Recently, I watched a movie called Ex Machina. It’s a science-fiction film about two people: Nathan is the creator of an Artificial Intelligence named Ava and Caleb is the man called upon to do the Turing Test, which is “a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human” (Wikipedia).
Like many movies and stories about AI, Ex Machina ultimately asks “What does it mean to be human?” The movie defines this difference between machine and human as self-awareness and consciousness. But the true question, of course, is this: What does that self-awareness or consciousness look like? The movie uses the example of a chess player: A chess playing AI may have all the possible moves in its data but is it aware of the game or itself as a player of that game? In another movie about artificial intelligence, Transcendence, the “self awareness problem” is also at the heart of the issue. When a super computer named PINN is asked to demonstrate its self-awareness, PINN asks the humans “How do YOU know you’re self aware?” Of course, the humans are stumped.
After watching Ex Machina, I got to thinking about this question about what makes us human, and I thought about Ava’s ability to create. She draws. At first, she makes random marks on paper that do not resemble any object. Then, Caleb encourages her to draw objects and she draws them very well, including a portrait of Caleb. She can draw what she sees but can she create something new? Could Ava write poetry?
But first, I think I have to start with “What is poetry?” If we can define this, then perhaps we can try to see if Ava could create it. There are many descriptions of poetry but to define it is quite challenging. The dictionary definition for poetry – “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm” – is most unsatisfying to most of us, I think. Perhaps poetry is something that defies definition.
Nonetheless, many poets have penned famous lines about poetry that help us know poetry when we see one.
For example, William Wordsworth so famously wrote that “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” And Percy Shelley claimed “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” How do you think Ava’s capacity for poetry would fare against these measures?
Let’s take “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, for example.
Could (or would?) Ava create the line-breaks that emphasize “We” at the end of each line? Those specific rhymes? That rhythm? What about the very idea of writing a poem? Brooks says that she saw these guys playing pool at the “Golden Shovel” and wondered how they must see themselves. In Brooks’ imagination, they think they are “real cool.” Especially given that “cool” is difficult to define at any given cultural moment, I wonder if Ava could come to this conclusion about the Pool Players and create a poem to represent her thought-experience. Here’s another take: Two AIs might come up with the exact same poem about observing the same pool players at the Golden Shovel, but I think only Gwendolyn Brooks and no other poet could have created “We Real Cool” just as it is. I mean, just listen to the way she reads it.
In a broader sense, what about creativity? For example, Edward de Bono, who coined the term “lateral thinking,” says this about creativity:
“Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way.”
Do we think Ava could do this? Certainly an AI could be programmed with all the necessary data – say, all poems ever written by every poet in human history – which would serve as “established patterns.” Could she come up with something that has not existed before, see something that’s missing from her data and create it?
What about this claim about creativity by Frank Goble, a prominent champion of “character education”?
“Because of their courage, their lack of fear, they (creative people) are willing to make silly mistakes. The truly creative person is one who can think crazy; such a person knows full well that many of his great ideas will prove to be worthless. The creative person is flexible; he is able to change as the situation changes, to break habits, to face indecision and changes in conditions without undue stress. He is not threatened by the unexpected as rigid, inflexible people are.”
Goble clearly identifies the act of creation as distinctly human here. Not just human – but specifically the human ability to make sense out of chaos. As a character in Transcendence says, “Human emotion. It can contain illogical conflicts.” Along these lines, I also like what Christopher Morley says about poetry: “The courage of the poet is to keep ajar the door that leads into madness.”
Maybe I’m drawn to these descriptions that allude to all that is disorderly because then I feel that I can keep Ava out of it. Surely, an AI could not possibly deal in or deal with madness, chaos, crazy, and mistakes? Surely a computer like Ava is all about logic, order, pattern, and all that makes sense. As you can see, I’m biased. And really what I want is to say is that poetry is a uniquely human activity. I don’t want AIs to appropriate poetry.
Just as AI movies are ultimately concerned not with science, machine, or robots but rather with humanity, my little musing here is really not about whether or not a robot could write poetry but really about… What is poetry?
The more I ponder this question and go from one answer to the next question, I feel myself getting sucked into a black hole (watch Intersteller) and getting lost. Time to stop. And go read a good poem like this one:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.
I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.
HoCoPoLitSo is ecstatic to work with Howard Community College’s Arts Collective’s “What Improv Group?!?!” (W.I.G.) and the campus’s Creative Writers to present an “Underground Rooftop Coffee House.” Please join us on September 10th and see why.
The event fuses W.I.G.’s underground, edgy take on improv with powerful and evocative stories inspired by poets and writers. W.I.G.’s cast features HCC students, staff and guest artists: Douglas Beatty, Noah Bird, Diego Esmolo, Doug Goodin, Daniel Johnston, Autumn Kramer, Terri Laurino, Scott Lichtor, Thomas Matera, Apryl Motley, Shannon Willing, Sierra Young… and a few secret-surprise guests! This event will also feature poetry and prose written by HoCoPoLitSo’s Nsikan Akpan and Katy Day and local Stoop star James Karantonis. You can’t have a coffee house without music, right? Chris Sisson and Steven Caballero will provide an acoustical array of songs for the evening.
But wait, there’s more: W.I.G. will want you to raise your voice to the collective “primal scream” to celebrate this, the start of Arts Collective’s 21st season. Happy Anniversary to them.
$10 All Students with I.D., Seniors/Military/Groups
$15 General Admission
Parental guidance suggested. No one under 14 admitted. Seating is limited, reserve tickets now!
Special Event – Post-Show Discussion:
Following 9/10’s performance!
Remember this from my last musing on the “thing” of the book?
Excitement is not exactly what I found in the marginalia of my Reconstructing Aphra: A Social Biography of Aphra Behn. Inside the cover I found this: “A.J. De Armond 1980- review copy”. Then a note to the future readers of this book from A.J.: “Borrowers: please don’t confuse me by adding further notes to mine.” I’m trying to hear the tone of this message – is it a polite plea or a bossy command?
A few days after this posted, I received an email from my friend Jean – subject line “OMG.” At first she thought it a coincidence that the initials I mentioned – A.J. DeArmond – was the same as her friend’s. Then we realized that she had given me that very book. How could I have forgotten?
I learned from Jean that A.J. DeArmond is Anna Janney DeArmond, her dear friend and former college professor from University of Delaware. When Professor DeArmond passed away in 2008, my friend inherited some of her books. Jean wrote in her email that Professor DeArmond “began teaching at Delaware in the 30’s when the university had a separate women’s college and when female professors could not be married and had to live in the dorms with the students.”
What really floored me was that Jean was familiar with the kind of writing that you’d find in Professor DeArmond’s books:
Finally, I am sure her inscription and notes are in pencil, not pen, in the tiniest writing imaginable. I have many of her books with those notes. And I am sure the inscription was a warning. She did a lot of book reviewing and her specialties were 18th century and American Lit. I am sure she saw that book as a teaching tool whose notes needed to be preserved for her future efforts.
This email from Jean made me smile all day long. This book, which had been read and written in by Professor DeArmond had traveled from her hands to her shelf to Jean’s to mine within the span of about 30 years. I had put it on my shelf without reading it, but the book’s life is one of resilience and patience.
An article remembering the professor after her death explained that she was the first woman to become a full professor at the University of Delaware. She went on to receive numerous awards in scholarship and teaching, and she served as a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Munich in the 50s. She also taught in England, Australia, and China. She lived a full and rich life of teaching and scholarship. Indeed she was a pioneer woman. There I was, holding this scholar’s book in my hands – all the knowledge, the history, and the experience that was in the hand that scribbled these tiny writings in pencil.
Speaking of pioneer women, Aphra Behn is often cited in English literary history as the first woman to earn a living by writing. She is part of the canon in the study of the “rise of the novel,” and her Oroonoko and The Rover are common readings in any English major’s reading list.
So the other night, I flipped through my own three books of Behn’s writings.
In the Norton edition (green cover), I came across an article written by Robert Chibka. What? Chibka? Professor Bob Chibka who was my favorite English professor at Boston College? The guy responsible for my scholarly interest in the eighteenth-century English literature? Yup. The same professor who gave me two very good pieces of life advice: 1) If you want to be an academic, marry an accountant – which I did. 2) No, your writing is not good enough to get into an MFA program in creative writing (sorry, but not sorry) – boy am I glad he gave me such brutally honest advice.
Okay, so it may seem a bit hokey to put stock in what seem like coincidences but I don’t think we can deny the connections that the material book makes simply by existing and being passed around. And the book’s journey can tell us a lot about its own material life, the lives of its previous readers and owners, and the literary work that’s inside the book.
How about one more story about a book’s travels?
A couple of weeks ago, I picked up my copy of Mitch Albom’s The Time Keeper which was among a large bulk of books I had ordered from Thriftbooks.com. I noticed the bar code sticker from the library of Camp Hovey. When I opened the book, a piece of paper fell out and it was a photocopied magazine article written in Korean. Naturally I googled “Camp Hovey” and it turns out Camp Hovey is an American military base in South Korea. And yes I am from South Korea.
Is your mind blown yet? Let the magical journey of books sink in, dear readers.