Cantos cover

Lenoir-Rhyne’s literary magazine, featuring a cover photo by Erin Illich

Once again at the semester’s close, I am pleased to turn the pages of Cantos and see the poetry, prose, and photography of my students, some of whom just completed English 131, others of whom I taught in English 131, 231, or 281 in previous semesters:

  • “Archetype, Embodied” and “A Smile as Bright as Myth,” poems by Kati Waldrop (ENG 231, Fall 2014; ENG 281, Spring 2015), Editor in Chief of Cantos
  • “Blackberries, a poem by Ghia Smith (ENG 131, Fall 2013)
  • “Used,” a poem by Haylee Carpenter (ENG 131, Spring 2016)
  • “Voting for Dummies—a Satire” by Claire Grulick (ENG 131, Spring 2016)
  • Photographs by Katelyn Barker, Jordan Puckett, Autumn Stewart, and Taylor Welch (ENG 131, Spring 2016)

I am also very pleased to see the short story “Cookie Jar” by my dear friend Carla Robinson.

I am proud of all of you—not just those of you whose work was selected but all of you who submitted your work for consideration.

Bags of bone candy and bibliographies for the cast and crew

Bags of bone candy and bibliographies for the cast and crew

Back in February, when I first curled up with the script of Incorruptiblethe farce I’d just been cast in and recently performed in—I was struck by the author’s note: “This sort of thing really happened” (6). The “sort of thing” that playwright Michael Hollinger was referring to was the theft and sale of relics in the Middle Ages, not just the actual bones of saints, martyrs, and biblical figures but also random bones passed off as sacred.

It didn’t surprise me that such theft and fraud took place, but I’d never given much thought to medieval relics—or to the churches of the Middles Ages, for that matter. The thought of medieval monks stealing relics intrigued me though, and the more I turned the idea over in my mind, the more it made sense. If sacred bones were valuable centuries before the science of DNA extraction, then who could say that any given relics—from the Latin reliquiae, literally things left behind—weren’t the veritable bones of Saint Paul or Mary Magdalene?

My interest in the facts behind the farce along with my commitment to the practice of completing assignments with my students led me here. For their final paper of the semester, I asked my students to annotate sources, a minimum of three, on a subject of interest to them, and to introduce their bibliography with a short essay that addresses their interest in the subject. In other words: What drives your research? In my case, it’s “dem bones,” the relics of the Middle Ages (and the plastic versions that I’ve been circling on stage).

As I researched medieval relics, I was reminded over and over of lines from the play. I had always associated the medieval churches of Europe with cathedrals and palaces, but I learned from my research that in fact the “centers of religion and cultural life [in the Middle Ages] were not cathedrals or palaces but rather rural monasteries” (Geary 45). As I read those words, I recalled Brother Martin’s dismissal of the “second rate” convent in Bernay “run by a bunch of backwoods nuns” (16) and the words of my character, Agatha, Abbess of Bernay, echoing Martin with her dismissal of her brother’s monastery: “What’s in Priseaux, I said, but a second-rate monastery run by a bunch of backwoods monks?” (67).

Whether second-rate or backwoods, the monks of the rural monasteries at the heart of medieval life depended on the revenue generated by relics. And they “viewed theft as an appropriate means of relic acquisition” (Geary 108), rationalizing and justifying theft and fraud as Charles, the abbot, and Martin do when Felix reminds them that they didn’t renounce the world to become as corrupt as the merchant class, that they “are men of the noblest ideals” (36):

MARTIN. And if we fail in that mission, will it matter how noble we were? (To Charles). There’s a shoemaker’s family that won’t get supper tonight because of our high ideals. I turned away fourteen others today; is this the ideal of Christian charity?

CHARLES. Martin’s right. We’re on the precipice, Felix. The abyss opens at our feet. If, somehow, by . . . soiling our hands just a bit, we can make it to the other side, mightn’t that justify our compromise? (36-37)

The bone candy before I bagged it

The bone candy before I bagged it

The bibliography that follows includes three sources: Incorruptible, the play that prompted my research, Furta Sacra, a book-length study of relic theft in the central Middle Ages, and Holy Bones, Holy Dust, the first comprehensive history of relics in medieval Europe, which includes a chapter devoted to incorruptibles, the relics that give Hollinger’s play its name. An incorruptible, as Charles says, is “[a] saint so holy its body refuses to decay” (52).

If I were a historian, or an anthropologist, or a theologian, this work of mine might lead to an in-depth study of medieval relics. Since I’m none of those things, it’s unlikely that I’ll return to “dem bones” as a subject of writing or research. Still, it’s been a valuable journey, one that informed every trip back to Priseaux, as I stood onstage as Abbess Agatha, believing that I’d bought the bones of Saint Foy “out from under” my sibling rival (68).

Annotated Bibliography

Freeman, Charles. Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 6 April 2016.

A history of relic veneration in medieval Europe, Holy Bones, Holy Dust chronicles the roles of saints’ cults and miraculous interventions from the fall of the Roman Empire to Reformation. Freeman traces the growth in the popularity of relics as they proliferated in various forms. The most sought after were intact bodies and body parts (severed head and limbs), and detritus (fingernails, blood, and hair). Some were placed in ornate reliquaries and processed through towns, drawing pilgrims seeking miracles and remission of sins.

Geary, Patrick J. Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton UP. Rev. ed. 2008. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 4 April 2016.

To acquire the relics of saints, medieval monks ransacked tombs, greedy merchants raided churches, and relic-mongers dredged the Roman catacombs. Patrick Geary’s study of the medieval tradition of sacra furta (or holy theft) narratives, explores how hagiographers’ accounts of the thefts served to rationalize and justify them in a time, when as Geary observes, “the prosperity of a religious community was a fragile luxury” and “the acquisition of relics was a real necessity” (57).

Hollinger, Michael. Incorruptible. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2002. Print.

Set in thirteenth-century France, Hollinger’s farce centers on the financially-struggling monastery of Priseaux, whose patron saint hasn’t performed a miracle in a dozen years. After one of the young monks, Felix, returns from his travels to report that their own St. Foy has been sold to a rival convent in Bernay, the monks confront the one-eyed travelling minstrel who fits the description of the relic-monger. The minstrel, Jack, tells the monks that he did indeed sell bones to the convent, but they were not St. Foy—as he had told the abbess they were—but rather they were simply the bones of a pig farmer. Jack’s confession and subsequent observations about the potential value of fraudulent relics lead the monks of Priseaux to hatch their own money-making scheme.

Friday morning when Paul Muldoon spoke to students in Belk Centrum—as one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—he addressed the appeal of poetry, the importance of reading masters of the craft, the teaching of poetry, and his own writing process.

paul-muldoon

Paul Muldoon / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Local poet and Adjunct Professor Scott Owens, who interviewed Muldoon, began by asking the question, “Why write poetry?” In response, Muldoon noted one of his favorite observations about poetry, from W. B. Yeats: A man dabbles in verses, and they become his life. Muldoon recalled how he first wrote a poem as a teenager. Rather than composing the weekly essay, he decided to write a poem because it was shorter, and it seemed easier. The following Monday the teacher asked him to read it to the class. The act of reading his words aloud to his peers felt wonderful to him, and he was hooked. I have a very primitive view of how the brain works, he said. We are happy when we see connections being made in the world. Poetry is about that, about finding the likeness in unlike things.

In response, Owens commented on Muldoon’s penchant for analogies, mentioning his recent poem “Catamaran,” in which he likens sperm whales to the two-hulled boat of the title. That comparison reminded me of the gliding movement of the snail that Muldoon likens to a hovercraft in his early poem “Hedgehog,” which my students and I read as a prelude to his visit.

When Owens asked if he preferred James Joyce or W. B. Yeats, Muldoon replied that he admired both of them. I fear that this will sound presumptuous, he added, but sometimes when I read Yeats, I say to myself, I could do this. But Joyce, never. That would never cross my mind. Joyce is a mystery.

Owens observed that he could see the influence of both Joyce and Yeats in Muldoon’s work, to which Muldoon replied: As an Irish writer, there’s no point in pretending that they aren’t there. He added that it’s essential to study the masters, to see what (John) Donne has done or what (Emily) Dickinson has done. And if you’re going to write big stanzaic poems, you need to study Yeats.

Muldoon, who has taught at both Oxford and Princeton, noted that as a professor he has to believe—as all teachers of writing have to believe—that we can learn to do what other writers have done. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet said that when goes to the bookstore and sees a book on how to write a poem, he buys it. If he is working on a poem and it seems to be taking on the form of a sestina, he looks up the rhyme scheme of a sestina—because he isn’t crazy, Muldoon said. No sane person keeps that rhyme scheme in his head, he added.

In response to a question about how his power of observation plays a role in his poetry, Muldoon said that writing poetry means looking hard at the world; “description will take you a long way down the road.” He added, sometimes I tell my students not to get hung up on writing a poem. Think of your writing as a documentary.

When an audience member asked, “Who’s in charge, the poet or the poem?” Muldoon said the poem, adding that many things that happen in his poems come from a passive, ignorant, or innocent mode. I want to come out of the poem that has asked to be written, he said. There’s no decent analogy for that. Muldoon’s follow-up statement, “I never know what I’m doing,” echoed the sentiments of Lamott, who sat on the same stage in the same chair a week earlier. In the chapter “Shitty First Drafts” in Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she observes that “[v]ery few writers really know what they’re doing until they’ve done it.”

Muldoon spoke of the importance of fumbling around in your writing, saying that when you’re writing—whether it’s a poem or an essay or something else—it only becomes interesting when you come up with an idea that you didn’t expect to have.

Near the end of Muldoon’s talk, a student asked him whether a poem can be about the subject on the page or whether it always signifies something else. Muldoon replied that a poem could be about what’s on the page, adding that the question brought to mind one of the problems with the way that poetry is often taught. The problem is that sometimes we’ll look at the duck on the pond and say that the duck on the pond is really the British Empire. Well, sometimes it’s the duck on the pond. Sometimes the poet is just writing about the duck.

Now having listened to Muldoon, I imagine that my method of teaching his poem “Hedgehog” is similar to the way he asks his own students to study poems. Rather than presenting an interpretation, I asked students to look closely at the poem—the way that poets, in Muldoon’s words, look hard at the world, because “description will take you a long way”—and consider why he may have chosen to render the hedgehog as we see it, in the last stanza, as a “god” (17) with a “crown of thorns” (18).

Work Cited

Muldoon, Paul. “Hedgehog.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2016.

 

Anne Lamott / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Anne Lamott / visitingwriters.lr.edu

As a lead-in to Anne Lamott’s appearance on campus—as one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—my students and I read and discussed the chapter “Shitty First Drafts” from Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life (1994). It’s a chapter that I’ve read with my students several times throughout my years of teaching, one I should probably assign every semester because it offers some of the most valuable advice about writing and life that I’ve read.

Lamott advises her readers to give themselves permission to write awful—or as she puts it, “shitty”—first drafts because they’re an essential part of the process. Later in the chapter, she refers to the first draft as the child’s draft, “where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place.” That’s the same way that I, and many other writers and teachers, envision freewriting. When my students and I freewrite in our journals, I tell them to keep writing even when they think that they have nothing to say, because eventually they will have something to say. And until then, it’s okay to write over and over I have nothing to say, or blah, blah, blah. In Lamott’s words:

[T]here may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would have never gotten to by more rational, grown-up means. There may be something in the very last line of the very last paragraph on page six that you just love, that is so beautiful or wild that you now know what you’re supposed to be writing about, more or less, or in what direction you might go—but there way to get to this without first getting through the first five and a half pages.

I wasn’t able to see Lamott when she spoke Thursday night at P. E. Monroe auditorium. (While she was there, I was standing on another stage a mile or so away, wearing a nun’s habit and screaming at monks—but that’s another story.) I was, however, able to attend her Friday-morning talk in Belk Centrum, where she told the students not to get bogged down in trying to please people—that they shouldn’t aim to write what they think other people will like but instead write to express their own truth.

Professor Kathy Ivey interviewing Anne Lamott / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Professor Kathy Ivey interviewing Anne Lamott / visitingwriters.lr.edu

In response to an audience member’s question about outlining, Lamott replied no, she doesn’t write outlines but plans her work on oversized sheets of graph paper on which draws large circles like lily pads for her ideas. She said she loves paper and pencils and pens, adding that she steals pens and actually stole one the night before from the Hickory Public Library.

Lamott told the audience: You don’t need to know more than you know, but you start somewhere—an idea that echoes the first line of the second paragraph of “Shitty First Drafts”: “Very few writers really know what they’re doing until they’ve done it.” She recommended reading The Paris Review interviews, especially the ones with novelists, because they show us how the writers got their work done.

In response to a question about the unfathomable questions—such as why do awful things happen to good people?—Lamott said that the most offensive thing that you can do is offer an answer that you could put on a bumper sticker. The way not to be, Lamott said, is to have little answers to unfathomable questions. Instead she said she responds by saying, read more poetry, and I will, too. And I’ll stay if you want me to, and maybe tomorrow we’ll go buy some make-up or go on a field trip . . . .

After a student said that she identified with Lamott because she, too, was a liberal and a Christian, Lamott simply said: “It’s very hard to be the things you are.”

Lamott added that if you’re pretending to be someone you aren’t because you’re addicted to people-pleasing, then you’re never going to be able to be yourself. She concluded with these words: I hope my writing gives you the confidence to be who you are—to be yourself, not someone focused primarily on loyalty to family or country but someone with a passionate commitment to yourself.

Both her words on the page and on the stage Friday morning have led me toward that self-assurance, and I hope that they have led my students there as well.

Works Cited

Lamott, Anne. Visiting Writers Series Interview by Kathy Ivey. Lenoir-Rhyne U. 8 Apr. 2016.

—. “Shitty First Drafts.” College of Arts & Sciences Writing, Rhetoric & Digital Studies. U of Kentucky, n.d. PDF. 6 Apr. 2016.

 

 

Garrison Keillor / visitingwriters.lr.edu

Garrison Keillor / visitingwriters.lr.edu

In Garrison Keillor’s recent Op-Ed column in The Washington Post, he responds to U.S. citizens who say they’ll flee the country if Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump wins the election. Keillor recommends that prospective ex-patriots stay home instead. According to Keillor, if you truly want to escape Trump, you shouldn’t travel abroad, where suddenly you’ll be “hauling a knapsack of nationality.” As evidence to support his claim, Keillor recounts the years he spent in Europe during the George W. Bush era when, as Keillor describes it, “foreigners hear[d] your voice and it’s like you’re wearing a big fat A around your neck.” In contrast, he notes that no one broached the subject of W with him when he stayed in Houston in 2006 and 2007.

In the first line of his column, Keillor calls Trump “the Great White Snapper,” a moniker he repeats four times with slight variations–“the Great Turtle” (paragraph two), “the Big Snapper” (paragraph four), “the Snapper” (paragraph four), and “the Great White Turtle” (paragraph six), making that combative creature the column’s prevailing image.

Keillor’s depiction of Trump as a snapping turtle was one of our points of discussion when my students and I read his column in class last Wednesday. Though I had planned to have my students study a piece of Keillor’s writing as a prelude to his appearance on Thursday–as one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series–I had no idea when I was constructing the syllabus that Trump would descend onto campus–or that his rally would be followed by an Op-Ed column by Keillor before his own scheduled appearance at L-R. The Op-Ed offered a valuable opportunity that I couldn’t have planned: one that let us look at one high-profile campus visitor’s remarks about another, one who had stood on the same stage only two weeks earlier.

Though our study of Keillor’s column was an exercise in rhetorical analysis, not in politics, it proved difficult–and appropriately so–to separate the two as we considered Trump as “the Great White Snapper.”

Work Cited

Keillor, Garrison. “Think Moving Abroad will Save You from Trump? Think Again.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 16 Mar. 2016. Web. 30 March 2016.

Duck-Rabbit

Duck-Rabbit / wikimedia.org

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein assert that the most effective writing about literature takes the form of a conversation, whether it’s a dialogue with a published literary critic, a classmate, a hypothetical reader, or the literary text, itself. Graff and Birkenstein observe that what distinguishes literary analysis from other types of academic writing–which are also forms of conversation–are the subject’s lack of an explicit thesis (poems and stories show rather than tell) and the central role of conflict (problems move stories forward).

A close reading of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” offers a case in point for Graff and Birkenstein’s guide for literary analysis, which itself–intentionally or not–may raise questions in readers’ minds about what happens to Julian’s mother.

The title story of O’Connor’s posthumous collection Everything that Rises Must Converge chronicles the conflict between Julian, a recent college graduate who embraces the changes brought on by the Civil Rights movement and his mother, who clings to the racial hierarchy of the old South and refuses to travel alone on desegregated buses.

One evening as Julian accompanies his mother en route to her reducing class at the Y, he takes a seat beside a black man–an act that Julian perceives as a lesson for his mother–and witnesses her annoyance increase when she realizes that the large black woman who has boarded the bus with her young son, Carver, is wearing the same purple and green hat that she wears, as Julian sees it, “like a banner of her imaginary dignity” (277).

Later, as the two mothers and sons exit the bus, Julian’s mother rummages in her purse for a coin to give to Carver, an act that Julian anticipates will fuel the ire of Carver’s mother, believing that she will see the gesture as yet-more-condescension-by-the-bigoted-white-woman. When Julian’s mother offers the little boy a penny, Carver’s mother’s frustration and anger escalate, prompting her to swing her purse at Julian’s mother and knock her to the sidewalk. Julian helps his mother to her feet, but she remains mobile only briefly. Delusional, she asks Julian to tell her grandfather and her childhood nurse–both long dead–to come get her, and she  collapses on the sidewalk.

Reading O’Connor’s story closely reveals that Julian, though on the right side of history, doesn’t place himself there through compassion but instead through “an evil urge to break [his mother’s] spirit” (277).

After reading Graff and Birkenstein in conjunction with O’Connor, what lingers in this reader’s mind aren’t the interpretive possibilities that the story invites but rather the one that Graff and Birkenstein seemingly ignore or dismiss. When they write that the “mother’s death [. . .] could be seen as evidence that we are supposed to disapprove of her” (195), they acknowledge the open-endedness of her character but not of the story’s conclusion, itself. The underlying assumption that Julian’s mother is dead precludes the ambiguity that Graff and Birkenstein illustrate with the duck-rabbit drawing. Is Julian’s mother (a) dead (duck), or has she suffered (and survived) a massive debilitating stroke?

O’Connor writes that one of Julian’s mother’s eyes came “unmoored” and the other “closed” (291), but she doesn’t state that she died. The fact that Graff and Birkenstein refer to her death serves as a reminder–apparently an unwitting one–that we as readers need to keep our own eyes open.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. “‘On Closer Examination’: Entering Conversations about Literature.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Ed. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. 184-201. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Ed. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. 272-91. Print.

 

 

 

The large banner that hangs beside the entrance to P. E. Monroe auditorium suggests that The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace figures prominently on campus as this year’s common reading selection at Lenoir-Rhyne. But unlike the books that many other colleges and universities choose for their incoming freshman class, Jeff Hobbs’ biography of his Yale roommate wasn’t theSTLRP Banner subject of orientation-week discussion groups and isn’t required reading for all sections of FYE (First-Year Experience) or English 131 (Critical Thinking and Writing). Even so, I included a study of it in my English 131 classes to give Hobbs’ book its due as the campus common reading. For my students and me, the biography served not only as a subject of textual analysis but also as a starting point for a conversation about the common reading programs that so many colleges have adopted in recent years.

Last semester and again this semester, I wrote an essay on the book along with my students. Unlike the one that I posted to my blog last semester, the one that follows isn’t a revised and expanded version of what I wrote longhand while my students wrote. Instead, it’s simply a typed version of what I wrote when I put pen to paper in class on March 9.

The Unstoppable Drive of Robert Peace

In Part Four of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs recounts the hours Rob spent mentoring Truman Fox, one of the water polo players he coached at St. Benedict’s when he returned to his alma mater to teach biology. After observing Truman’s laziness, evidenced in the way he “tiptoed along the bottom during laps” (267), Rob says to Truman: “You’re not making it hard” (268). Those words of Rob’s inspire Truman to take more initiative, and the following Saturday when Rob heads to the weight room to open it for a voluntary training session, he finds Truman in the hall waiting for him. Hobbs writes of Truman that “[h]e felt that if Rob saw a spark in him, even if Truman himself did not, then it was his responsibility to stoke it” (268).

Rob’s time with Truman echoes his tutoring of his high school friend Tavarus Hester. And later after Rob leaves his teaching position at St. Benedict’s, he reprises that tutoring role, helping Dawn—the daughter of his airline co-worker Lisa Wingo—“guid[ing] her through fifth-grade reading lists and simple division” (314). With Tavarus, Truman, and Dawn, Rob models the same self-discipline, but the passage that chronicles his conversations with Truman differs from the others, revealing the dark side of Rob’s determination, a side that remains unseen to Truman: “[W]hile he and his teammates were changing back into dry clothes, his coach was mentally preparing to spend the night dealing drugs” (268).

The stress of Rob’s post-Yale days, Newark-proofing himself and negotiating and compartmentalizing his identities, explains how the same Rob Peace who aced his molecular biophysics and biochemistry courses at Yale failed the Realtor’s exam, not once but twice. If he had pored over his notes for that exam with the same focus that he gave to perfecting Sour Diesel, his hybrid strain of marijuana, he probably would have passed the Realtor’s exam on his first try. The fact that he didn’t underscores what his friends saw with clarity but Rob himself could not.

What ultimately stopped Robert Peace wasn’t a weakness plain and simple but a more complicated trait, one that could be a strength—and usually was—but that became a weakness when he found himself “focusing that unstoppable drive on the very thing that could stop him” (311).

Work Cited

Hobbs, Jeff. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. New York: Scribner, 2014. Print.