Friday, August 28, 2015

Memorial Service and Donations for James A. Miller

The National City Christian Church
is on the north side of Thomas Circle
in NW Washington
A memorial service for Professor James A. Miller will be held tomorrow, August 29, 2015, at the National City Christian Church on Thomas Circle.  The service will be held at 2:00 PM.

Memorial donations in honor of James A. Miller may be directed to either of the institutions below, both of which he strongly supported.

School Without Walls

The School Without Walls is a small public magnet school situated on the campus of George Washington University. The school provides its diverse student body with an interactive and experiential education, built on the humanities, that uses the city and the world as a classroom. Your donations will support student enrichment activities such as field trips, travel to debate tournaments, and student research.
You may send your contribution to the address below, noting that it is in honor of James A. Miller.

School Without Walls
2130 G. St. NW
Washington, DC 20052

National Museum of African American History and Culture
Scheduled to open on the national mall in 2016, this newest Smithsonian museum will be a place where all visitors can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience. Your donations will support the curatorial and collections development work of the museum.
You may donate in honor of Jim Miller via or by mailing a contribution to the address below, noting that the contribution is in honor of James A. Miller.

PO Box 96832
Washington, DC 20090-6832

Monday, August 24, 2015

Introducing Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington: Kseniya Melnik

JMM Writer-in-Washington
Kseniya Melnik
Photo Credit: Morgan Demeter
The Jenny McKean Moore Fund was established in honor of the late Jenny Moore, who was a playwrighting student at GW and who left in trust a fund that has, for almost forty years, encouraged the teaching and study of Creative Writing in the English Department, allowing us to bring a poet, novelist, playwright, or creative non-fiction writer to campus each year. While in residence, the writer brings a unique experience to the GW community, teaching a free community workshop for adults along with Creative Writing classes for GW students..  

This year we are especially proud to host Kseniya Melnik, whose debut linked short story collection Snow in May appeared in 2014.  The collection was on the short list for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the long list for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award.  She has been interviewed in a range of venues about her work, including on NPR.  You can listen to that interview here.  Professor Melnik was born in Magadan, Russia, where the stories in Snow in May are set.  She moved to Alaska in 1998 at the age of 15, and went on to receive her MFA from New York University.  The GW community will have a chance to hear Professor Melnik read on September 24 as part of the Jenny McKean Moore reading series.  We caught up with her to pose a few questions in advance of her arrival.

What attracted you to the position at GW, and as Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington?

The location is exciting, for one. I had spent a couple of weeks in D.C. as a high school student attending an ambitiously-named "International Law and Diplomacy" program at American University, where we did a lot of model UN debates and were carted from monument to monument in a big bus. I've always wanted to go back. I am thrilled to be able to try on D.C. life as a temporary local. 

But most importantly I've been attracted by the perfect balance between community engagement and time to write that the JMM fellowship offers. I've taught creative writing on the undergraduate level before, at NYU, and am looking forward to working with young writers again, introducing them to my favorite authors and hearing fresh takes on stories (and life!). I took my first workshop as a sophomore in college, and it was a life-changing experience. I am still in touch with my first teacher, Jennifer Vanderbes, Colgate University's own writing fellow from that year. 

I am also very excited and intrigued to lead the free community workshop. When I lived in New York City and supported myself by working at law firm, I attended similar classes at The New School (albeit not for free). I was often blown away by the range of stories submitted for critique by people of wildly disparate backgrounds and ages, all united in their passion for writing and literature. I bow to the fellowship fund and the university for creating such a unique opportunity for people to incorporate creativity into their lives at a time when other things often take priority.   

I hope to create stimulating and supportive environments in both types of classes, and learn from my students as much as teach.

Tell us a bit about your debut story collection, Snow in May.  The linked stories are all in some way connected to the Russian town of Magadan, your hometown – can you describe this setting for us?  What sets this location apart from other Russian settings?

The stories are set in various Russian towns-Moscow, Stavropol, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, and even in America, in California and Fairbanks, Alaska, but the emotional center of gravity is my hometown of Magadan.

Magadan, a remote port town in the northeast of Russia, has a very interesting history. It is cold, windy, isolated, but also beautiful and enchanting. It started out as a gold rush town in the 20s, then became an administrative center of a vast network of Gulag camps in the natural resource rich valley of the Kolyma River; in fact, prisoners, including Japanese POWs, built most of the original Magadan. After the Gulag era was over, many former prisoners remained in Magadan; many of them were from the Soviet elite and Magadan became a cultural center of the North. That special combination of romance of the uncharted territories of “Wild Far East,” high culture, and tremendous suffering is probably what makes Magadan most different from other Russian towns with Gulag history. 

The government encouraged people to move to Magadan in the 60s and 70s with subsidies to develop the north, so a lot of young specialists streamed in. It was quite a lively bustling town by the time I was born. Then, in the 90s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and subsidies ended, there was an exodus back to the "continent," as Magadanians call the rest of Russia. Magadan is a city of sharp contrasts. Surrounded by breathtaking scenery, it became a grave for more than one hundred thousand prisoners. The arts thrived despite stagnation, poverty, and crime. 

So, the collection is a result of almost ten years of trying to reconcile the Russia of my happy youth with the intricacies of a more complex reality, of trying to imagine what made the people living under such drastic historical conditions tick, cry, laugh, love, feel inspired, remain strong.    

The stories in Snow in May take place over the course of many years: what were some of the challenges you faced writing about characters across such a span of years in a country that saw so much change during that period?

The collection is set between 1950s and early 2000s and, of course, I wasn't alive for most of that time. On top of that, having moved to the US at fifteen, I now have a somewhat "American" perspective.  

I was quite fastidious about research, which I did online, in books, films, and through interviews. I believe that quotidian details sometimes play a bigger role in the characters’ conception of themselves and what dreams they dare to dream than the big political and historical movements. I also had the benefit of checking my research against the memories of family members who had lived in Magadan during different decades.     

Tell us what you’ve been working on.  Will you be presenting both from Snow in May and some of your new work when you open the JMM reading series in September?

I've been working on a novel. It started out in 2009 as a short story I planned to include in the collection, and since then grew into a long and ambitious project. It is also set in Magadan and includes school romance, missing fathers, picaresque road trips, the ghosts of Gulag, flying reindeer, talking skulls, and time travel. I may read from that or one of the new short stories I've been drafting.
Who are some of the short story writers you have been reading lately?  

Nina McConigley is a brilliant young writer whose first collection, "Cowboys and East Indians" is set mostly in the American West. Others are Molly Antopol, Laura van den Berg, Ramona Ausubel, and Colin Barrett. 

Welcome, Professor Melnik!

Friday, August 21, 2015

On the Road: Professor Seavey on Mount Desert Island, Maine

Vacation on Mount Desert Island
Nina Gilden Seavey, Sunset on Bar Harbor, 2015
            So where would we go for vacation in 2015?  Various considerations set aside the old pattern of the northern Minnesota lake.  My daughter Eleanor (GWU 2010) has been living for a while with her boyfriend Greg Fortier in Manhattan.  Greg has always spent much of his summers in Bar Harbor, Maine, where his parents run the Bar Harbor Music Festival, so meeting the Fortiers at a well-established vacation site sounded good.  Francis Fortier had founded the music festival forty-nine years ago, a pioneer bringing culture to the Maine coast.  As we set out, I decided to pack my copy of Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods to reread it after an interval of thirty-five years, in an effort to textualize Maine.
            Bar Harbor is located on Mount Desert Island on the eastern edge of Penobscot Bay, well up the coast of Maine, reachable from Bangor.  It is one of those eastern vacation spots like Currituck, Chincoteague, the Hamptons, Montauk, Nantucket, Provincetown—each a place with its own local history which has been subsumed into the experience of summer visitors. 
            Maine is, as a whole, necessarily anomalous, the last New England state to be admitted into the Union, as part of the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri as a slave state and balanced that with what had formerly been a district of Massachusetts.  A straggling collection of outport fishing villages in 1820 with a wilderness interior scarcely yet mapped, Maine had advanced from one level of political subordination to another. 
            So on the plane to Bangor I opened up The Maine Woods to see what I had read in 1980.  One of those anomalous texts that bedevil literary scholars, it records three separate summer expeditions to Maine that Thoreau evidently intended to combine into a connected text except that he died in 1862 of tuberculosis before preparing them for publication, leaving that project to his sister and his buddy Ellery Channing, who pretty much left the versions they had without messing with them.  His earliest trip, undertaken while he was still staying at Walden Pond, was to climb Mount Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine, located way into the wilderness of northern Maine.  It is especially clear from The Maine Woods that Thoreau’s distinctive accomplishment is to render the footloose rambling impulses of a young guy into literary form.  He is the forerunner of Jack Kerouac, Robert Pirsig, and Hunter Thompson.  Rather than sitting around with his bean crop by the pond and polishing his book manuscript for A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers, he takes a steamboat trip to Bangor and canoes upstream on the Penobscot River and various northern lakes for miles and miles.  Believing as he did in wildness, he seeks out the nearest wild he can find and pushes into it. 
            The difference between Thoreau and his footloose successors arises from his New England origins.  Thoreau never felt called to preach or minister to anyone as his mentor Emerson had briefly done, but he feels even more than Emerson a need to scout out higher meanings wherever he goes.  The burden of high mindedness he carries with him everywhere.  Together with that disposition is his naturalist’s calling to identify the species of shrubs, trees, and animals.  So he arrives at his campsite along the East Branch of Penobscot River and enumerates the undergrowth there: “I was struck by the abundance of the Linnaea borealis, checkerberry, and Chiogenes hispidula, almost everywhere in the Maine woods.  The wintergreen (Chimaphila umbrellata) was still in bloom here, and Clintonia berries were abundant and ripe.  This handsome plant is one of the most common in that forest.”  And in the Maine woods Thoreau finds himself triangulating among three languages: Latin scientific names, familiar English terms, and the native American terms he picks up from his guides, privileging none of the three.  In his later years—that is in his late thirties and early forties—as his mood darkens toward the end, he expresses to his friend Ellery Channing, “When I die, you will find swamp oak written on my heart,” a comment repeated to Emerson who enters it in his journal as evidence of Thoreau’s own consciousness of his own “stubborn contradictory attitude.”  So even plants have internal meanings inherent in them.  Another source of the complication in which Thoreau lived comes from his mother, one of those persnickety small town ironists so common in New England, who seems to have bequeathed to him her disposition for paradox.  Emerson records in his journal an observation passed on to him from his sister-in-law, who boarded in the Thoreau house.  When Mrs. Brown observed to Cynthia Thoreau that young Henry seemed to resemble Emerson in his manners, appearance, and thoughts, the mother replied, “Mr. Emerson had been a good deal with David Henry, and it was very natural should catch his ways.”  Thus rather than admitting the limits of his familiar territory, he says near the beginning of his great book, “I have traveled a great deal in Concord . . .”                      
            One evidence of the unsettled character of the Maine that he visits in the summers of 1846, 1853, and 1855 can be seen in the names he employs, working from the few Maine guidebooks and the only recently surveyed maps from a time not long following the resolution by treaty of the border between Maine and British America (Canada).  So he uses various spellings for Mount Katahdin, his objective on the first trip, the highest point in the state.  What draws him to Maine is its wildness, the last remaining wild region in the eastern United States, though he also registers the incursions of New England loggers, leveling some areas and venturing in particular for the white pine, which would be systematically removed even from territory scarcely accessible.  He also sees his opportunity to explore the wild as not just meant for a literary record but also as an experience for the public at large, as he concludes the second journey “Chesuncook” he offers a prophetic proposal:

The kings of England formerly had their forests ‘to hold the king’s game,’ for sport or  food, sometimes destroying villages to create or extend them; and I think that they were impelled by a true instinct.  Why should not we, who have renounced the king’s authority have our national preserves, where no villages need be destroyed, in which the bear and panther, and some even of the hunter race, may still exist, and not be ‘civilized off the  face of the earth,’—our forests, not to hold the king’s game merely, but to hold and  preserve the king himself also, the lord of creation,--not for idle sort or food, but for  inspiration and our own true recreation?  or shall we, like villains, grub them all,  poaching on our own national domains.

It would be several decades before the notion of a national park should be first applied to various western spaces, a notion inspired by disciples of Thoreau like John Muir and others.  The Thoreau who paddles and portages his way into northern Maine is not the ultimately civilized abstainer from meat who appears in the “Higher Laws” essay in Walden, nor does he merely dabble at fishing.  He eats salted fare that he has packed for the trip, catches fish to diversify a diet consisting of a lot of hardtack, and takes some satisfaction at the compliments on his paddling he receives from Joe Polis, his Abenaki guide.  And his consumption of wildness had to include the actual flavors of Maine, so he samples drinks made of various wild roots and shrubs, comparing them to the domestic tastes of Concord or Boston. 
            But as Thoreau sadly realized, his encounter with Maine could only include a taste of the wild place then being improved away.  Back in 1605, Samuel de Champlain, part of a French venture to establish a colony that would be called Acadie or Acadia, identified the offshore island as Mount Desert—Empty or Abandoned Mountain—located more or less midway along the coast claimed for France.  But Acadia was without royal funding and its prospects depended on a Huguenot nobleman who died before being able to advance the project far, so Champlain took his colonizing ambitions further north to the prime fur trading territories near Quebec.  Captain John Smith a few years later undertook a mapping and entrepreneurial expedition of the coast which he named New England, proceeding up and down the coast to designate locations usually by English names, so Penobscot Bay appears as Pembroke Bay.  At this juncture it is probably impossible to speculate what if anything the local Abenakis or Micmacs called the place.  Still later in the Seventeenth Century Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay colony would cruise the coast investigating territory claimed by the English and swing past Mount Desert island noting in his journal the way “there came a smell off the shore like the smell of a garden.  There came a wild pigeon into our ship and another small land bird.”              
            Mount Desert Island qualifies only barely as an island.  The bridge connecting it to the Maine mainland scarcely extends a hundred yards in length.  But it stands out from the background because various peaks rise higher than any other Northeastern high points along the coast.  Late in the 1700s a little outport fishing village came to be established across from two islands, one of them called Bar Island because at low tide a substantial bar crosses from the little island creating a little protected harbor thus named Bar Harbor.  In its early years it must have shared the fairly marginal existence of other little Maine outports recalled by Sarah Orne Jewett in The Country of the Pointed Firs, a copy of which I picked up in a local bookstore.  But somewhere in the 1840s Mount Desert Island came to the attention first of artists like Thomas Cole and Fitz Hugh Lane, who found in the island a combination of light, sea, and rocky outcroppings to put on canvas.  The eventual result would be attention from Bostonians in search of a perhaps attenuated version of the wild and remote that Thoreau had actually found.
            Sarah Orne Jewett herself managed to become a healthy successor to Thoreau, born and raised in southern Maine from seagoing stock on her paternal grandfather’s side.  Like Thoreau her allegiances were divided between Massachusetts and Maine.  As Thoreau had to return home to Concord from his excursions in Maine, Jewett came eventually to divide her time between South Berwick and Boston.  Both of them display a preoccupation with Maine shrubbery, Thoreau to document its presence, and in her stories Jewett’s local informant is the herbwoman Almira Todd, who collects her herbs for medicinal purposes and communicates stories to the narrator, a city woman spending a long summer at Dunnet Landing and preserving its troubled and sometimes uplifting past.  Among the native informants the narrator turns to is a figure suggestive of  what Thoreau might have evolved into if he had not died at just short of 45—deeply read, capable, and obsessive—the elderly seafarer Captain Littlepage, who seizes the narrator  with his skinny arm to pass on the story he has received of access to a realm in the far north where the souls of the dead congregate and experience a semblance of life.  Like Thoreau, Jewett views the advent of bigtime New England capitalism uneasily.  Maine is for both of them the site of the alternative, but she is without illusion about the human costs of that isolation that goes with women left alone to fend for themselves on an unforgiving rocky coast and men at sea hauling in the local catch.  For both Jewett and Thoreau the occasional clear days might reveal something miraculous in Maine.  Having climbed to the top of part of Mount Katahdin, the highest point in the state, Thoreau considers, “Aeschylus had no doubt visited such scenery as this.  It was vast, Titanic, and such as man never inhabits.  Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends.  He is more lone than you can imagine.  There is less of substantial thought and fair understanding in him, than in the plains where men inhabit.”  The narrator of The Country of the Pointed Firs climbs no higher than to the height of Green Island for her own similar experience: “there above the circle of pointed firs we could look down over all the island, and could see the ocean that circled this and a hundred other bits of island-ground, the mainland shore and all the far horizons.  It gave a sudden sense of space, for nothing stopped the eye or hedged one in,--that sense of liberty in space and time which great prospects always give.” 
Fitz Hugh Lane, Off Mount Desert Island, 1856
            The great luminist painter Fitz Hugh Lane could find his own significance in the Maine light in paintings like Off Mount Desert Island done in 1856.  Its proximity to the mountainous territory on Mount Desert Island would keep Bar Harbor from the grimly picturesque fate of Jewett’s Dunnet Landing where the steamship era pushed sailing people to the margins and away from their former international connections.  In a late Jewett story the banker center of consciousness had steered away from Mount Desert as a place with “the imported society of that renowned watering-place,” the characterization of someone with a distinct preference for the astringent pleasures of down-east New England.  It does seem to have been the case that monied people from Massachusetts with a fondness for Maine scenery had begun to transform the little fishing village into a place with touristic amenities by the 1880s.  The rocky interior of the island was being bought up by wealthy people for their own elegant views.  By the early twentieth century John D. Rockefeller had created carriage routes through his own estate on the island with wonderful views.  But Thoreau’s idea of national parks had by then turned into reality at Yellowstone and Yosemite and various other remote western places. 
            One of the local memories recorded in photographs and at the time in the newspapers is the occasion when President William Howard Taft visited Bar Harbor in the summer of 1910, arriving in Bangor by train and then riding a buckboard for the trip to the coastal hamlet.  At the hotel where we stayed there was a suite decorated with photos of that glorious occasion.  The portly chief executive no doubt found the Maine political climate to his liking and the air healthy.  Most likely Taft found the concentration of Eastern wealth in Mount Desert Island congenial, but two years later Maine would cast its electoral votes for the Democrat Wilson. 
            During the ensuing administration a movement began to convert the personal preserves of the plutocrats on the island to public uses, so in 1916 the first national park in the east, eventually to be called Acadia National Park was created out of donated lands, relying especially on donations from Charles W. Eliot, former President of Harvard, and Rockefeller. 
            It is still possible to view sailboats from the heights of Mount Desert Island as in the nineteenth century, but the lobster fishery has long relied on engine power to set and hoist lobster traps.  The status of the lobster in American cuisine has changed considerably since the times of Jewett’s stories, whose passing references to lobster reflect its modest standing in the Maine economy, compared for example to cod or mackerel.  In the nineteenth century the ordinary lobster was seen as appropriate fare for convicts, though perhaps an unnecessary aggravation of their penal suffering.  Refrigeration would alter the standing of the lobster as former New Englanders migrating to more lucrative prospects in the Midwest could experience the remembered lobster far from its home waters.  Eventually the lobster would rise to its present elevated place, even appearing as evidence of Woody Allen’s squeamish incapacity in Annie Hall.  Lobster and other sea food are one of the delicacies of Bar Harbor.
Eleanor Seavey, Sailing off Mount Desert Island, 2015
            For me along with the opportunity to reread Thoreau and Jewett together with the brisk hike to the locale of the Bar Harbor Music Festival, the vacation offered a renewal of a long delayed diversion, salt water sailing.  A family friend of Greg Fortier owns a forty foot sloop and took Eleanor, Greg, and me out on it.  So I had a chance to beat to windward on Frenchman Bay and around to the edge of the harbor.  The boat’s owner mentioned to me as we were sailing along that my surname, uncommon in most places, appears with some frequency in Maine and New Hampshire.  So I explained that a seventeenth-century ancestor with my name had relocated from Devonshire to some very unpromising islands off the coast of New Hampshire, the Isles of Shoals, so that descendants of his could be found in neighboring New Hampshire and Maine. 
Greg Fortier, Eleanor at the Helm, 2015
Apparently Seavey Island located in the harbor of Kittery, Maine, and Portsmouth, N. H., has been contested territory between the two states for some centuries.  There is some appropriateness to giving one’s name to contested territory.  So there must have been some recidivist aspect to this return to Maine for Eleanor and me.   

Ormond Seavey

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Composing Disability: Crip Ecologies, April 7-8, 2016

Sunaura Taylor, Arctic Wheelchair, 2013
UWatercolor and Ink on Paper, 7" x 10"

October 31, 2015

George Washington University’s biennial Composing Disability Conference returns in Spring 2016 with the theme of  "Crip Ecologies."  The event will be held April 7-8, 2016; featured speakers include Sunaura Taylor and Riva Lehrer, with others to be announced soon.  Crip Ecologies is sponsored by the Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, Disability Support Services, the Department of English, the University Writing Program, the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute (GWMEMSI) and the GW Digital Humanities Institute (GWDHI).

We invite proposals for papers and panels for this event. 250-word abstracts for papers and 500-word abstracts for complete panels should be sent by October 31, 2015 to

Deadline for Abstracts: October 31, 2015

Crip Ecologies:  This symposium seeks to bring together scholars, artists, advocates, and activists working across the fields of ecocriticism, disability, and queer studies.  Our goal is to think through the queer interchanges of environments and bodies in more radical ways.  As vulnerable embodied beings that interact with our environments, we experience ourselves and others through a defining porosity: we are not only affected by the places we inhabit, but we also leave our imprint on these locations as well.  Marginalized subjects, including disabled people, often experience their lives in greater proximity to environmental threats such as toxicity, climate change, generational exposures to unsafe living conditions due to poverty, militarization, body exhausting labors as in the case of migrant workers, etc.  Further, we seek to investigate how non-normative bodies/minds can reframe what it has historically meant to be an environmentalist or "nature lover?”  Crip Ecologies will draw out these wanted, unwanted, and even unknowable intimacies with our environments as materials for new trans-historical, cross-cultural, and crip/queer research about human, non-human, organic, and inorganic relationships that mark our experiences in the world.

Possible topics include:

Composing Crip Ecologies
Crip Ecologies and Militarization/War
Crip Ecologies and Art
Crip Ecologies and Localism
Crip Ecologies and Environmental Justice
Crip Ecologies and Food Justice
Crip Ecologies and Farming
Crip Ecologies and Racial Borderlands
Crip Ecologies, Time, and Places
Crip Ecologies and the University
Toxicity, Embodiment, and Uneven Development
Queercrip Bodies in the Global South
Disaster Capitalism, the Environment, Disability
Entanglement Theory
Media Studies and Digital Interfaces
Crosscultural and Transhistorical Worldings
Race, Class, and Environmental Justice
Accessibility and Ecological Backlash
Politics of Racial/Crip/Queer/Trans Spaces
Intersectional Bodies and Policing in Security States
Class and Toxic Exposures under Neoliberalism
Rhetorics of Inclusion/Biopolitics of Exclusion
Non-productive Bodies and Alternative Practices of Everyday Life
Expendable Bodies and Economies of Neglect (Necropolitics)
Crip Mental Health Ecologies

For more information about the Composing Disability series at GW, visit this page on the Disability Support Services website and explore the Composing Disability tumblr site. You can also follow Composing Disability on Twitter (@ComposingDis) or join the community on Facebook.

Monday, August 17, 2015

GW English Alums on the Move: CJ Powell

GW English Alum CJ Powell
GW English Alum CJ Powell: "Two of the investment banking managing directors in Project Finance with whom I worked had Bachelor of Arts degrees in Art History and Dance"

Like a lot of our department's majors, CJ Powell (she was then CJ Hall) headed for New York City with an interest in writing and editing.  Her journey through the worlds of art and business is an inspiring and instructive one.  She shares it with us here.

 First, tell us something about your time in the department.  You were a student of David McAleavey's.  Were you an English major?  Did you focus on Creative Writing?  Were there other professors who made an impression on you?

I enrolled at GWU in the Fall of 1979 to study Political Science, win an internship on the Hill, and change the world. Early Poli-Sci course requirements -- Intro to Statistical Social Science;  Intro to Computer Programming;  Scope & Methodology of Political Science -- dampened my enthusiasm, while I was energized by the English Department offerings of  Intro to Creative Writing and The Short Story.  In the Spring of my sophomore year I declared my major in American Literature.  It wasn’t a completely unexpected turn of events.  I had always written short stories and poetry and was the editor of my high school poetry magazine.  I loved being part of the poetry crowd on campus, participating in open poetry and fiction readings in the 5th Floor lounge of the Marvin Center every Friday evening and hanging out with other writers.   I had the honor of being a member of the editorial staff for Volume 1 of  the G.W. Review’s 1980 founding issue, associate editor for fiction and poetry for Volume 2, and editor-in-chief for Volumes 3 and 4.  The campus literary magazine featured a Po’ Biz Calendar with listing of poetry and fiction activities in the DC area that kept me active in the thriving DC literary scene.  My writing appeared in campus publications The GW Hatchet, The Current, Wooden Teeth and George Mason University’s The George Mason Review.  During my years at GWU, a full-time employee could take classes for free.  I landed a secretarial position in the School of Business Administration and finished my studies tuition free in 1984 with a Bachelor of Arts in American Literature.  I obtained the American Literature degree through a Proseminar in American Literature that was offered at the time.  David McAleavey taught the creative writing classes I took, A.E. Claeyssens taught the Writing Fiction – The Novel course, and Robert Ganz taught American poetry.  These and all the other professors in the English Department deepened my knowledge, love and respect for American Literature.

You have clearly had an impressive career in banking.  What did you study after you graduated from GW?  Were you ever tempted to study further in the humanities?

My first job out of college was as a production assistant for The Living Stage, a non-profit professional improvisational theater company that was part of Arena State for over 30-years.  I responded to an ad in The Washington City Newspaper, and my GWU BA was an important credential in winning the position. Under the direction of Robert Alexander, Living Stage performed with men, women, children, teens, prisoners, disabled and disadvantaged people from all walks of life, teaching the importance of self-expression.  I was privileged to be a part of that artistic team for three years.  After I left Living Stage, I decided to return to my literary roots and enrolled in the 6-week Radcliffe Publishing Course.  I can’t remember who told me about the Radcliffe Publishing Course, but I’m very grateful to have learned about it.  It turned out to be an important credential; it got me both a job and an apartment in New York. My roommate-to-be previously took the course and was working in publishing.  She posted an ad for a roommate on the bulletin board at Radcliffe, knowing new graduates would be flocking to NYC.  She had a two bedroom 4th floor walk-up in Park Slope.  I called her and rented it sight unseen.  I was able to land a job as an editorial assistant at G.P. Putnam’s Sons. The position was advertised in The New York Times and the editor who hired me was familiar with The Publishing Course, and when she saw I was a GWU grad, she remarked, “Good school!”   It was a refrain I was to hear throughout my career.  I worked with Lisa Wager, editor to a variety of writers: detective, fiction, self-help, romance.  I read unsolicited scripts, did some copy editing and maintained her books’ production schedules.  After some time working for a publishing house, I found my sympathies for writers growing, and was able to work instead for a literary editor, the great Elaine Markson at Elaine Markson Literary Agency in Greenwich Village.  My good friend Lisa Callamaro, whom I’d met at Radcliffe, worked there and had told me about the literary assistant position. Lisa has since opened her own film and television agency in Beverly Hills.  I had fantastic exposure to all kinds of writers and literary events in and around the city.  Unfortunately, the pay as editorial and literary assistant was so low I had to get a second job to afford life in NYC, even sharing an apartment.  While I enjoyed moonlighting at Shakespeare & Co. Bookstore on the Upper West Side, a job advertised in The Village Voice, I grew tired of feeling overworked and poor.   My own writing had long since fallen away under the strain of two jobs.  I decided to look for a better paying position.

  In what ways did the literature grounding you got at GW contribute to your further education, and then your career?  Was there a big disconnect between literature and business?

In the early nineties in NYC, I figured the highest paying fields were investment banking and law.  I had a friend who worked as a paralegal for a NYC law firm and had heard stories about the long hours and crazed attorneys, so I went for something in finance. It was never my intent to sell out.  I hoped to find a decent paying 9-5 job that would finally leave me time to write. I took a job as a secretary at First Boston (the company has since merged with Credit Suisse).  While the position paid substantially more than the two jobs I’d been working combined, I remember my father being very disappointed that I wasn’t using my college degree, although I’m sure it was an important factor in being hired And he was right; none of the other secretaries had degrees.  However, I was surprised and delighted to find myself working with the highly intelligent and cultured men and women who bought and read the books, paid for the theater tickets, and talked about literature, art, history.  My characteristic hard work, writing, and organizational skills were very much appreciated. I was given the opportunity to work on reviewing, doing graphics and editing presentations.  After a couple of years I moved to a position at UBS (also through a newspaper ad), in the investment banking project finance department, my GWU degree once again keeping me in good stead.  Project finance is the financing of power plants, mining projects, infrastructure like toll roads and airports, telecommunications, and the projects are all over the globe.  I found the subject matter of the work varied and interesting and have worked in Project Finance ever since.  I found that, by taking on administrative projects that no one else wanted to do, I gained recognition and moved from secretary, to administrative assistant, to project manager, to associate.  I was able to work in the portfolio administration group where I was introduced to the voluminous documentation necessary for project finance deals.  I loved reading the credit and agency agreements, piecing together the operational and business duties of the banking work like a jigsaw puzzle. I worked for UBS for 7 years and in the last year my manager recommended me for credit training, a fantastic opportunity.  There was a reorganization at UBS and some of the managers I worked for moved to Deutsche Bank.  They looked me up and I moved to DB as an assistant treasurer in project finance doing portfolio administration.  Once at DB, I moved within the company and learned more about loan operations and management.  I moved to the  Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas project finance team where I became expert in reading documentation and eventually became Vice President and team leader of their transaction management team, responsible for negotiating and implementing new deals.  I’ve been at Citibank for the last four years, in their corporate trust shop, reviewing documentation and implementation of new deals as they relate to agency roles.  So many of the people I work with have a business or finance background, are expert in spreadsheets and analysis, and would rather poke a stick in their eyes than read a 400 page credit agreement word for word.  Basically, for the last several years I have a job where I read for a living, and I love it. 

What advice do you have for our majors who may be thinking of entering the business world?

Don’t be afraid to move around and try new paths.  I would never have as much appreciation for where I am today if I hadn’t tried different careers.  If you really have your heart set on doing creative work, it’s better to work hard and struggle than to work in a corporate environment for 75% of your life and think you’ll have brainpower left for imagination.  Business needs creative thinkers who can problem solve.  

 Is there anything in particular you miss about GW?  About college in general?

I loved being at a university that was in an urban environment, where you could experience the culture of the city, with professors like David McAleavey to guide you.  I loved the nurture and support of the Poetry Crowd, Lilian Weber, Ron Weber, Richard Flynn, A.L. Nielsen, Hugh Walthall, Paul Brucker and many others.  While I’m happy with my story and where I am today, I think if I was going to do anything differently, it would be to understand and appreciate the importance of being in a creative community.  I think if I had continue to seek out other people who were working to write, and tell stories, I would have been able to take my writing further than I did.  At the end of the day, I don’t think I had the courage and devotion for the sacrifice necessary to live the life of a writer, but the background I experienced provided me with the skills that have made me a success in where I am today.