Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Poetry and Tear Gas: An Alumnus Remembers Class with Prof. Robert Ganz

Recently, the department emailed out copies of its first electronic newsletter to more than 1,300 English department alumni, as well as current students. The newsletter is now posted for all to read on the homepage of the department's website.

One of the benefits of sending out the newsletter is that I get to hear from a range of alumni--recent and not-so-recent, in DC, on the East Coast, or elsewhere. Here is one particularly fascinating story sent in by Don Larsson (BA 1971), an English professor at Minnesota State University. A newsletter article noting Prof. Robert Ganz's impending retirement prompted Prof. Larsson to recall a memorable class with our longest-serving Professor of English.

Here is Prof. Larsson in his own words:
Reading of Professor Ganz's pending retirement reminded me of a great lesson in poetry. It was February 19, 1970, the day after five members of the Chicago 7 had been convicted of crossing state lines to "incite" violence during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Protesters had scheduled a "TDA" (The Day After) march on the Watergate complex, where Nixon's Attorney General, John Mitchell, lived. The District's Civil Disturbance Unit had been brought out to meet the marchers.

In the meantime, I was in Professor Ganz's American Poetry class and we were studying William Carlos Williams. Outside, the late afternoon sky was overcast, but with that slight, misleading hint of spring to come with which the District could taunt you from time to time. (Outside the protestors were being driven back to campus by the CDU.) We read and discussed the importance of red wheelbarrows and the goodness of plums. (The CDU had started clubbing even non-protestors on the campus streets.) Ganz danced, clothed, like Williams dancing naked before his mirror chanting "I am lonely." (The CDU was dragging students and others seeking refuge from the dorms.) A wisp of a cloud floated by the window facing the quadrangle.

Ganz paused. "I wonder if that's tear gas?" he asked. He cracked the window open, then winced and quickly slammed the window shut.

"JESUS!, that's tear gas! WHY did I do that!?"

The gas, just a bit of it, was dispersing through the room. Our eyes began to burn, the backs of our throats began to feel raspy. But somehow, Professor Ganz managed to continue with a reading of Williams' amazing multivocal poem "The Sea-Elephant." We heard the cynical showman's voice, the woman insisting that "it's wonderful but they/ ought to/ put it/ back into the sea where/ it came from," and the voice of the sea-elephant himself, whose "Blouaguh!" was now denser, rougher than Williams might have imagined, nearly choking on the gas, until Ganz and Williams reassured us that "spring/ they say/ Spring is icummen in - - -"

Williams' pause hung in the acrid air. "Go home! Be safe!" Ganz said.

"Not in ideas but in things," Williams had said. Reality was not only in the streets that day.
Look to this blog for details about a spring "Last Lecture" event to celebrate (and once again, to learn from) Bob Ganz.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Countdown to the Plotzfest: October 22

If you haven't already marked your calendars, get our your smart phones, pens, and day planners, and reserve Friday, October 22 for a day in celebration of Professor Emerita of English Judith A.A. Plotz.

The "Plotzfest," as we've dubbed it, in a reflection of our affectionate regard for Judy Plotz, will feature a mini-symposium featuring six speakers, who will present on topics--including children's literature, 19th-century literary studies, and postcolonial literary and cultural studies--in which Prof. Plotz has expertise.

The speakers are: Prof. Carolyn Betensky (Univ. of Rhode Island), Prof. John Plotz (Brandeis Univ.), Prof. Margaret Higonnet (Univ. of Connecticut), Prof. Uli Knoepflmacher (Princeton Univ.), Prof. Richard Flynn (Georgia Southern University) and Prof. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan (NYU and Univ. of Oxford).

After the talks, which will be brief and aimed toward an audience of generalists, there will be a champagne and hors d'oeuvres reception at which we'll toast--perhaps for hours, perhaps into Saturday?--Prof. Plotz.

All are welcome to this event, which takes place in the Marvin Center, Continental Ballroom, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you have questions, please email

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

GWU and the National Book Festival

This is one of those weekends when it's good to be a book lover in Washington, DC.

The 10th annual National Book Festival, sponsored by the Library of Congress, is Saturday, Sept. 25 on the National Mall, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Billed as "a celebration of the joy of reading for all ages," the festival features an amazing line-up of readings and other events in six pavilions: Children, Contemporary Life, Fiction and Mystery, History and Biography, Poetry and Prose, and Children and Teens.

There are a number of exciting GW connections this year.
  • First and foremost for readers of this blog, Prof. Thomas Mallon, head of the English department's creative writing program, will be reading Saturday at 12:55 p.m. in the Poetry and Prose pavilion (and will be signing books later). Prof. Mallon is spending a good part of his time this year working to bring notable writers to GW as part of our Jenny McKean Moore readings series. This is your chance to hear and see him in front of the podium.
  • A group of GWU students is going to the festival to hear Jonathan Safran Foer, most recently author of Eating Animals, a non-fiction exploration of vegetarianism and the ethics of eating. They're meeting at Hillel on 23rd and H Streets at 1:15 to walk to the Mall together. For more information, email junior Robin Janofsky at
  • Last but not least, I notice another GWU notable on the list of this year's presenters: Adele Logan Alexander, Adjunct Professor of History, who will be reading in the History and Biography pavilion at 12:55 p.m. Prof. Alexander's recent book is Parallel Worlds: The Remarkable Gibbs-Hunts and the Enduring (In)Significance of Race.
If you need another reason to venture to the Mall this weekend, take note: Saturday's weather prediction is for sunny skies and a high of 86 degrees. Need we say more?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Prof. Pardlo featured in 2010 vol. of The Best American Poetry

In the year 1988, poet and editor David Lehman started The Best American Poetry series. The guest editor of the anthology examines the collective output of large and small literary journals; from this the guest editor attempts to glean 75 poems. The sampling that is selected is representative of the "best" poems of that year. The 2010 Guest Editor is Amy Gerstler; but, perhaps more importantly in this context, one of the featured poets is GWU's own Prof. Gregory Pardlo!

The particular poem of Pardlo's is entitled "Written By Himself", and it was featured in the American Poetry Review, Vol. 38, No. 4. Coincidentally, I was immersed in a reading of the 1845 life narrative of Frederick Douglass when I received word that Pardlo had been BAPped. The subtitle, or qualifying statement, that appears in the preface to Douglass's narrative and the title of Pardlo's poem were identical! (I tend to think these connections are mind-blowing's just me, don't fret.) Of course, I decided to check this out with the poet himself. This is what Pardlo had to say apropos of my Douglass connection question:

"Yes. In fact that line ['written by himself'] comes from the subtitles of most slave narratives. It is also conventional for slave narratives to begin with the words I was born. So I've borrowed many images and tropes that are recognizable from slave narratives to collage a statement on my own angsty moment in history."

Finally, and probably why I started this blog in the first place, I should mention Prof. Pardlo will be reading at The New School in NYC, on Thursday, September 23, 2010. Other poets featured in this year's anthology will be participating in this event, The BAP 2010 Launch Reading The reading begins at 7 pm (doors open at 6:30) so if you're in the city, or need an excuse to take a trip there, be sure to check it out!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Celebrating the Life of Professor Emeritus Edward R. Weismiller

The English Department was sad to learn of the recent passing on August 25 of a beloved colleague, Edward R. Weismiller. We invite all who knew Prof. Weismiller, and those who want to find out about this remarkable man, to attend a celebration of his life on Thursday, Sept. 23 at 4 p.m. in Rome 771.

A gifted writer and scholar, Weismiller enjoyed a distinguished career. At age 20, while he was still an undergraduate at Cornell, he won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize for his 1936 collection The Deer Come Down. The honor was bestowed by Stephen Vincent Benet and made Weismiller the youngest person ever to receive the award. (The record stands to this day). In 1942, he earned his MA from Harvard, and in 1950 earned his D.Phil. at Oxford University in England, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. In 1953, he also earned a Litt.D. from Cornell College.

Even before he completed his formal education, however, Weismiller's life took an interesting turn. In 1943, the poet and scholar was recruited to join the Office of Strategic Service (OSS) and proved a prodigy in the field of counterespionage. He became the first American officer to run a captured enemy agent back against the Germans. For this, Weismiller was awarded la daille de la reconnaissance française.

Weismiller's daughter Georgia Sargeant recalled how her father's involvement in WWII was eye-opening for him. "In those years he got a close look at the destruction caused by human viciousness and stupidity," she says. (In fact, Weismiller published his classic novel, The Serpent Sleeping, a piece that drew on his experience in counterespionage, in 1962.) Still, Sargeant argues her father's response to the sloppy side of counterespionage "probably made him even more determined to do work that creates order, and decency, and harmony."

Born in 1915 on a little subsistence farm in rural Wisconsin, Weismiller had used education to make the unlikely transformation from a poor, motherless "scrawny farm boy" to a poet and scholar. For her father, explained Sargeant, "'the finer things in life" was not a cliché, and it did not mean "gold-plated sink fixtures."

Weismiller used his flair for words, his love of literature, and his gift for making friends in his long and successful career at GWU, which began in September 1968. He taught students, says his daughter, "not just so they could get good jobs, but so they could learn to think for themselves and appreciate what is good and beautiful."

Weismiller's last published book of poetry is Walking Toward the Sun (2002). In the introduction, U.S. Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin describes the collection and the man who wrote the poetry that appears in it. Merwin says, "[Weismiller] has arrived at what, in his writing at least, appears to be a full frontal self-appraisal, neither mocking nor whining, and along with nakedness, humor." In the eponymous poem used to conclude this last published work of Weismiller's, the poet connects an autobiographical awareness of his degenerating vision due to glaucoma with the old adage that "if you look straight at the sun/ you will go blind. " Weismiller demonstrates the humility and refined state of self-reflection which Merwin lauds in the lines that follow: "People, things/will vanish./The great hungers/of the dark are shrouded in light./We are all walking toward the sun. Like everyone else, /I must go into the shadows to see."

Prof. Weismiller received numerous awards and accolades in his lifetime. In addition to the Yale poetry prize, he was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and the 2001 Robert Fitzgerald Award for lifetime contribution to the study of metrics and versification.

Prof. Weismiller was a leading authority on the prosody of John Milton. In 2002 he was Scholar in Residence at the Library of Congress, where he produced A Variorum Commentary on the Poems of John Milton and a line-by-line analysis of the versifications of Milton's minor poems.

You can read selected works by Professor Emeritus Edward R. Weismiller here. We welcome everyone to join us in on Thursday to remember this gifted and humane man of letters.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Tilar Mazzeo Reads Tonight, 8 p.m., on the "Secret History" of Chanel No. 5

Now that you've been filled in on the life of Jenny McKean Moore, it's time to meet this year's Writer-in-Residence! Come out this evening to hear Tilar Mazzeo as she reads from her forthcoming book The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume. The event begins at 8 p.m. in the Marvin Center Amphitheater, and it is free and open to all.

This semester, Prof. Tilar Mazzeo will be teaching ENG 181.10, a Creative Non-Fiction Workshop Course, in which students will explore what some call the "fourth genre"of creative writing.

The course includes a variety of assignments intended to enable the student to find their voice in this field. There is a storytelling/recording assignment, and Mazzeo assigns an interview with NPR correspondent Ira Glass, entitled "How to Tell a Good Story."

The book will be released in early November, but here's a teaser...In an interview found in the Behind-the-Book section of the Harper Collins Publishing profile on The Secret of Chanel No. 5, Mazzeo identifies herself, saying "as a biographer and cultural historian" who "writes about the stories behind the world's most famous luxury products."For all of us who think the advent of the Internet has made research a coach potato sport, think again. Mazzeo's search for knowledge about the background of this famous fragrance led her to the Chanel archives in France, to F.I.T. and International Flavors and Fragrances, Inc. for "classes and private seminars,"as well as to the perfume plantations of Bermuda.

If you're already champing at the bit to hear more on The Secret of Chanel No.5? Finding it hard to wait to find out about "Coco Chanel's liaison with a Nazi during WWII"? You can always check out this essay by Mazzeo, on her inspiration for The Widow Cliquot, to tide you over until tonight.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Prof. Kavita Daiya Profiled in Sigur Center Newsletter

Check out the profile of English Prof. Kavita Daiya in the fall 2010 issue of The Asian Connection, the newsletter of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, covering Spring and Summer 2010.

Prof. Daiya's research investigates questions of violence, displacement, and ethnic nationalism in South Asia. Her book Violent Belongings: Partition, Gender, and National Culture in Postcolonial India (Temple University Press, 2008) uses the 1947 Partition of the Indian subcontinent as the focal point for an investigation of violence and culture in postcolonial Indian and South Asian literature and culture. (The website excerpts Chapter 1.)

Prof. Daiya's current research, which has received Sigur Center support, investigates migration and displacement caused by the Partition, and includes a website that catalogs testimonies of that traumatic 1947 event. “As a South Asianist," Prof. Daiya tells the Sigur Center, "for me the historical migration of South Asians both within and beyond the nation is profound, rich and important to scrutinize. It is bound up with the creative reinvention of memory and identity.”

In the English department, Prof. Daiya teaches a variety of courses (introductory, advanced undergraduate, and graduate) on postcolonial literature and theory, South Asian literature, and postcolonial theory and film.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Howard Jacobson's Newest Novel

Lots of us remember last year's visit to GW of English novelist Howard Jacobson, our 3rd British Council U.K. Writer-in-Residence, and author of the witty and wonderful Kalooki Nights. Well, the "Jewish Jane Austen" (or, as he might prefer, "English Woody Allen") has a new novel, The Finkler Question, recently published in Britain.

Click here for a podcast from the Guardian (U.K.), which features Howard reading from his novel as well commentary from a Middle East analyst whose views the novel satirizes.

No word yet on when the U.S. paper edition of Howard's latest will be out, although you can download the novel for your Kindle. And keep your eyes peeled on this year's Man Booker Prize. Once again, Howard Jacobson is short-listed, this time for his latest novel. Maybe this will be Jacobson's year?

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Story Behind the Jenny McKean Moore Fund and Writer-in-Residence

"A few years ago the fund endowed the Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington to perpetuity. As long as there are creative writing classes at this university, our students and faculty will be able to profit from the presence on campus of writers like the one we showcase tonight."
-Prof. Faye Moskowitz, in opening the 2002-2003 JMM Lecture Series

Jenny McKean Moore: hers is a name one frequently hears around the GW English department. For students of Creative Writing, her name means the ability to experience a different published writer each year that you're at GW, the JMM Writer-In-Residence program. For writers, her name means time, resources, a fellowship of sorts. A fund that encourages an emerging writer to become an established one. For some GW English professors, her name reminds them how they got here. The residency has served as a stepping stone for several writers, who went on to seek a more permanent position at this university.

These are things we know about the late Mrs. Moore; still, specifics, things about her character, I felt compelled to seek out. Logically, I started with someone who knew her, Prof. Faye Moskowitz. Faye served as president of the board in charge of managing the sum Moore left behind. Faye mentioned Jenny published a book before she got ill, so I hit up Gelman.

The People on Second Street is a memoir Jenny wrote about the years she and her children spent stationed at the Grace Church Rectory in the impoverished blocks of 1950s Jersey City where her husband the Bishop Paul Moore had taken a post. (The book takes the reader through the summer of 1964, at which point the Moore family has left Grace Church and relocated to D.C., where Paul serves as Suffragan Bishop.)

The memoir made clear to me why the Community Workshop component of the JMM Fund for Writers exists; namely, it is in keeping with Jenny's belief that to accomplish anything you must forge friendships and engage in human interaction. For a writer to hope to affect a community they must first encounter its varied population in the way Jenny and her husband did, in their own parlor. Malcolm Boyd states in the introduction, the work's genius is that "[Jenny] shares persons with persons."

**Fun fact: Maxine Clair swears it was participating in the community workshop that motivated her to leave her career as a medical technician, and "turned her into a writer."

The People on Second Street is sad in one way, in that what might be a first published piece, was also Jenny's last. It was when Jenny moved to D.C. that she decided she deserved to devote time to her writing. Jenny's daughter, the poet/playwright Honor Moore, recalls how unfair it was that her mother was diagnosed with inoperable cancer when "everything was just starting" for her life as a writer. Nevertheless, Jenny embraced writing as an analgesic. With the encouragement and aid of playwriting Prof. Astere E. Claeyssens, Jenny wrote, which Faye says "made [Jenny's] death easier."

On her deathbed, Jenny acknowledged she'd been unable to harness the full potential writing held for her. She turned to Honor and said, "I've had enough children for both of us. You must write." Honor took these words the way they were intended to be taken, as a gift. In the same way some 30 years later, The Jenny McKean Moore Fund gives this gift, only on repeat, year after year after year.

For this gift, though I knew the giver not, I give my thanks.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Forecast for the Fall Semester: TemFest Celebrates The Tempest, Dec. 3

The syllabi are in, and there's definitely something stormy and Shakespearean coming our way! That's right, it is not in error that William Shakespeare's The Tempest appears on the syllabus of so many classes this semester. On the contrary, it's a conscious, calculated effort on the part of Profs. Jeffrey Cohen and Jennifer James to incorporate what Cohen calls a "living text" into courses throughout the English department. And to what does all this Tempest talk lead up? Well, TemFest of course!

TemFest, on Dec. 3, will feature speakers and other events. Environmental critic Steve Mentz and Amherst's Anston Bosman are among the confirmed speakers.

The idea for a TemFest came from faculty dialogue after last spring's MEMSI symposium Race? Prof. James explains "the idea for collectively revisiting Shakespeare's The Tempest emerged from an email conversation I initiated with MEMSI Faculty about the figure of Caliban." (At the time, James was preparing to teach the play in a graduate course, "Slavery, Britain and the Americas.")

Prof. Cohen shared James' awe at the power and potential The Tempest possesses in fields of study outside of English Lit. At this point, the scholastic storm was already brewing...

Cohen exudes excitement as he explains the upcoming TemFest events. "We want everyone to feel like they're part of the conversation," said Cohen. And it won't be hard to feel included once you take a moment to identify the myriad modern retellings of this Shakespearean romance. The Tempest embodies "an inescapable myth," as Cohen puts it. Shakespeare's 17th-century play has transfixed, even trapped, writers and scholars for some four hundred years; it is the basis of Aimé Césaire's Une Tempête, and has influenced contemporary works like Toni Morrison's A Mercy and GW Prof. H.G. Carrillo's Loosing My Espanish. Hey, there's even a gender-bending film version in the works, with Dame Helen Mirren as Prospera, Director Julie Taymor being yet another [screen]writer who couldn't resist revisiting this play.

Surveying the department, Prof. James noted the high number among her colleagues who'd written on some facet of this same play of Shakespeare's. "Given how many of us were engaged with the play in some way," James remarked, "it seemed a fantastic time to have a 'teach in' where the entire English faculty could discuss the play's cultural magnetism and temporal elasticity."

Get ready to be swept up by the gale force winds of TemFest!

Here’s a list of classes revisiting/referencing
The Tempest this semester:

Eng 042W Myths of Britain w/Jeffrey Cohen

Eng 051W Introductory English Class w/ Lowell Duckert

English 160W Early American Literature and Culture w/Ormond Seavey

Eng 072W Intro to American Literature (in the form of A Mercy) w/Evelyn Schreiber

Eng 127 Shakespeare course w/Patrick Cook (which will include a slide show that explores varying representations of the character Caliban...!)

Eng 127 Shakespeare’s Uncanny Globe w/ Gil Harris

Eng 209 a graduate seminar entitled: Becoming Indian in Early Modern Travel Writing, also w/Gil Harris

GWU Sponsors Major DC Creative Writing Conference

NEWS FLASH: GW English is proud to announce that the University is a major sponsor of the 2011 AWP Conference, to be held in Washington from February 2-5.

The AWP, or Association of Writers & Writing Programs, is the country’s leading organization of creative writers and creative writing programs, and its annual conference—which takes place in a different location every year—is a lively literary gathering that attracts more than 8,000 attendees, including hundreds of writers of note.

The AWP Conference means DC will be looking a lot like a literary capital--not just a political capital--come the new year. Dozens of major writers will be giving readings. This year's keynote speaker is Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulizer Prize-winning novelist whose newest book, a short story collection called Unaccustomed Earth, is now out in paperback.

The AWP also features hundreds of panels. Our own Gregory Pardlo has organized a particularly noteworthy one on the history of GW's Jenny McKean Moore Fund, which has brought dozens of wonderful writers to campus since 1976. Did you know that Susan Shreve, Amiri Baraka, Gloria Naylor, Julia Alvarez, and Vikram Chandra all once worked and taught in our creative writing program?

The English Department is grateful for the generous support of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences and the office of Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa in sponsoring the AWP Conference. Look to this blog for more news of events in February.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Prof. James Miller Nominated for Hurston/Wright Legacy Award

The English department is thrilled to announce that Prof. James Millers's 2009 book Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial (Princeton UP, 2009) has been nominated for a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in the nonfiction category. Jim's book examines how the compelling and tragic case of the "Scottsboro Boys," a group of nine black youths charged in 1931 with raping two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama, continues to resonate in American culture. Despite meager and contradictory evidence, all nine were found guilty, and eight were condemned to death. Remembering Scottsboro examines how this case has embedded itself in American consciousness, becoming a lens for the ways we understand race, class, sexual politics, and justice.

According to the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which sponsors the awards, "The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award honors exemplary works of literature before the national community of Black writers. By honoring these nominees, we're recognizing the profound significance, necessity, and genius of Black writers and the stories they tell." Awards fall under three categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, and Poetry. The winners of this year's awards will be announced at a special ceremony on November 15 at Eatonville, a Hurston-inspired restaurant in DC.

Other nominees for this year's nonfiction award are Robin Kelley, William Julius Wilson, Betty DeRamus, Wil Haygood, and Gwen Ifill, so Jim is in esteemed company.

You can read a sample chapter of Prof. Miller's fascinating and important work here.

Or, if you happen to find yourself in Medellín, Columbia next week, stop by Cien años de Mark Twain, September 10-12, at the Centro Colombo Americano de Medellín, where Jim will speaking on "Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn." The conference marks the hundred-year anniversary of Twain's death in 1910.