November 2000

    A Death in the Department 

    An English Department member for many years, Eila Perlmutter died June 13 this past summer.  At her funeral at St. Boniface Catholic Church in Cold Spring on July 16, Father Patrick McDarby, a long-time colleague and friend, presided at the funeral mass.   Printed below is the eulogy that Father Patrick provided for Eila's family and friends:

    Eila Perlmutter's Funeral

    Patrick McDarby, O.S.B.

     

    It's an ancient funeral custom to make general reflections, doctrinal and moral, on death--a practice so ancient that we've all heard all of them.  So I'm going to honor that custom in the breach.  Besides, Eila was the kind of person who demands personal attention and comment, much more than our little time allows.  My memories are, of course, peculiar to me as a colleague and friend of twenty-eight years; all of you have your own impressions and memories, many going back much further than mine.  But perhaps I can to some degree recall what this woman was to all of us.  I'm going to try to affix a few labels to her, realizing that none of us, certainly not Eila, can ever be adequately categorized.

    When I think of Eila, the first word that comes to mind is passionate.  In matters of any moment to her, she was deeply emotionally committed.  And her conviction brooked no disagreement, whether the subject was racial justice; her husband, Bill, the great passion of her life; or Burntside Lake and her cabin there.  She was a devotee and master of William Blake's poetry, and she maintained fiercely that only Shakespeare and Milton rivaled him in beauty and profundity.  She was as fierce in her dedication to her courses and her students because she was passionate in her belief that education, especially in literature and writing, mattered, and mattered more than every other subject--except, perhaps, philosophy, which, she claimed, was really literature after all.

    She was a teacher.  And, of course, a passionate teacher.  No one knows Eila's age for sure because she claimed to be younger than she was by at least three years so she could continue teaching longer.  And she was a master teacher.  No student of Eila's will ever forget her.  Demanding, dictatorial (during the early '80s some of her writing students dubbed her the Eila-tollah Khomeini); stylistically quirky (regarding commas, she thundered to her students, "Get rid of the goddamn minnows!"); stunningly effective (when you read student papers, you could almost always recognize those who had taken her advanced composition course).  And she loved her students, although some had a hard time reconciling her relentless demands with affection.   Actually, her relentlessness in exacting excellence was an expression of her love, and most came to understand that and thank her for it.

    One more label.  Eila was a Romantic.  She didn't like that classification, thought it too confining.  But she met enough of the criteria, both in intellect and in sensibility, to justify fastening it on her.  She certainly believed in the insubstantiality of the material world, in the primacy of spirit.  I suspect she got much of that view of reality from her Finnish heritage (she was named after a character in the magical Kaleva, the Finnish national folk epic); but it was intellectually and emotionally articulated for her by her two literary loves, Milton and Blake.  She was a strange mix, though; she thought of herself as Aristotelian and taught expository writing according to the rules of classical rhetoric.  Yet her real love in writing was the imaginative, the creations of the spirit; and her own best writing was inspired and formed and expressed, not by the canons of Quintilian, but by her experiences of extraordinary "ordinary" life on the edge of the Arrowhead wilderness.   When it came down to it, Blake's intuition of angels in the pear tree moved and convinced her more than did Aristotle's induction and deduction.  She became Catholic because of her love for her husband, and because of Catholicism's recognition and celebration of the spirit's, of the divine's, of God's presence everywhere in everything.

    And she was romantic in the popular sense.  She was forever speculating on relationships among her students, promoting those that seemed to her promising.  She boasted of the love affairs she thought budded in her classes, especially in her Blake course, as much as she basked in her students' academic and literary accomplishments.   And if these blossomed into marriage, she was triumphant.  There are former students who bless her for her encouragement of their love.

    On a more personal note, what to say that you all don't know?  She could be infuriating, but finally always endearing.  She was aggressive, but withal always vulnerable.  She never really recovered from the loss of Bill; but she did her best work, as teacher and author, after he died.  And though her latter years were clouded by personal tragedy, she took a great deal of pride and found much comfort in her children.

    Now Jesus, Mary, and all the saints welcome her to what we all long for, often without knowing it, and of which she felt so long deprived: peace.  Peace with her Bill; with Marta, her mother; with Alex, her father; with Myrna, her high-school, college, and lifelong girlfriend.  May she enjoy that peace forever and ever. 


    News from the Chair

          Ozzie Mayers

    We began this school year by bidding three colleagues a fond goodbye, although each of them will be returning to us.  Father Luke Mancuso is on a year-long sabbatical and from all reports immersed in research and fattening foods.  Dr. Cindy Malone and Dr. Madhu Mitra are directing Study Abroad programs, Cindy in Ireland and Madhu in China.  Both say that their programs are going quite well; each will undoubtedly have stories to tell upon their return (see part of a letter from Madhu below).  With these absences as well with Dr. McAuley Hentges still on long-term disability leave, we have had to hire adjuncts to teach several courses.   One, John Kendall, has actually been teaching for us for the past two years.   Currently the possessor of an M.A. degree, he plans to return to graduate school next year to complete his Ph.D.   John--he's the faculty member with the outlandish but notable ties in the Department--teaches Symposium, our Western Literature in Translation course, and our Writing Essays course, better known as 311.  To see exactly what his courses cover, access John Kendall's homepage.   We have also hired Glen Davis as an adjunct to teach Reading Fiction and our intermediate Writing Well course.  Glen has completed all his course work in English and Comparative Literature from University of California, Irvine, and has almost finished his dissertation.  In addition to his teaching experiences at the University of California, Santa Fe Community College, and St. John's Preparatory School in Davers, MA, Glen was Senior Consultant at the Taylor Research and Consulting Group.

    You might recall from the last newsletter that I announced our search for a new position in Multicultural Literature of the United States.  We were successful--quite successful I should add--in this search.  The newest tenure-track member of our department is Dr. Christina Tourino, who comes to us from Duke University, where she concentrated on multi-ethnic literatures in the U.S. under the direction of Professor Ariel Dorfman.  Her dissertation covers the ethnic literatures of Cuban American, Jewish American, Japanese Canadian, and African American cultural groups.  Christina herself comes from a multi-ethnic family, with a father of Spanish ancestry and a mother of Welsh, Irish, Cherokee, and Oklahoma/West Texas background.  She brings to the Department not just her deep and broad knowledge of ethnic literatures but a wonderfully enthusiastic spirit, which seems to be boundless.  In addition to her scholarship and teaching, Christina is also a passionate devotee to choral singing and has already become a member of a campus chorus; she herself did some choral conducting at Duke.  We have also heard that she could be found there playing amateur soccer.

    Finally, I want to acknowledge the sadness we experienced right after graduation last year when one of our outstanding majors, Sam Keaveney, suddenly died from heart complications (see the essay by John Steingraeber in this newsletter).  Sam was a devoted student, not just to literature and writing but also to fostering a sense of the visionary, one who was not afraid of the unsettling questions in life.  His thoughtful inquiries are evident in part of a reflection he wrote in the Writing Essays course he took his last semester in college; it will be published this November in the magazine called Silent Sports:

    Strange things happen when you least expect them.  The last place that I thought that I'd find a sense of peace was shivering cold, beaten down, sitting in the rain in the middle of nowhere.  But it was at this time that I needed to stop and to just look around.  In one word, the conditions were extreme.  Some part of me recognized that I had lost touch with calm and that I desperately had to find it.  As I watched the heavy clouds, the sheets of mist, and listened to the whistling gale, I was suddenly aware of something that I hadn't noticed before.  Permeating the world that I was fighting was a singular presence; it was above, beneath, and within all of the forces bringing me to rest.  I listened closer, and realized that what I couldn't hear was silence. This emptiness was not something to fear; rather, it was an inviting lack.   As I stepped into that void, I found that for the first time, I could just be.   Yes, I was alone with myself, and alone with the world.  I was stripped to the essential me, intimately connected to the wonder of life.  What I had seen before as ugly, as menacing, took on an overwhelming beauty.  I sat there, still shivering, still wet, but most importantly, still ("Let It Be").


    Publishing Seminar on Campus

        Last July, Cindy Malone teamed up with Graywolf Press and others to provide St. Benedict's first week-long publishing seminar, which was called Inside Books.   Participants judged it an overwhelming success, so much so that the seminar will be repeated next summer, July 15-20.  In her review below, Helen Marie Casey, one of the participants, describes her seminar experience.  Casey is a poet and essayist who lives in Sudbury, MA.

    Inside Books Attracts Bibliophiles, Artists, Authors, and Publishers

    Helen Marie Casey

    Conferences are like fruit flies.  They proliferate at prodigious rates.   There are conferences that focus on writing, conferences that focus on revision, conferences that focus on creativity, and now there is a week-long conference in the Midwest that focuses on the ins and outs of publishing: Inside Books.

    Inside Books did not exactly burst onto the scene.  It took its time, beginning small, with the first conference in July 2000 at the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, about an hour-and-a-half shuttle ride from the Minneapolis Airport.   A planning collective of small, independent literary publishers and editors established the format and objectives for the week-long endeavor.  They included Mark Conway, director of special projects at the College of Saint Benedict; Fiona McCrae, publisher at Graywolf Press; Todd Maitland, managing editor of the Ruminator Review (formerly the Hungry Mind Review); Joseph Parisi, editor of Poetry; Robert Welsch, president, and Jay Walljasper, editor-at-large of the Utne Reader.

    Who chooses to come to a conference like this one?  Interestingly, a cross section of different kinds of book lovers and artists, as well as aspiring editors and publishers, trekked to Minnesota to share insights, concerns, learning experiences, and the opportunity to network with other like-minded book aficionados.  There were individuals who already produce exquisite micropress publications, handmade books with small runs that are uniquely beautiful productions.  These works generally offer some combination of handmade papers, letterpress, and experimental design.

    A large number of participants were publishing poets, some of whom had recently completed MFAs.  There were teachers, editors, consultants, essayists, book reviewers, students, and one chief financial officer of a pharmaceutical company (who happens to be an avid reader).

    At a time when, according to many analysts, books are under siege and the book industry is undergoing significant transformations, the appetite of participants for reliable information was keen.  Conferees raised key questions: Will the kinds of books one loves to hold, to keep, to re-read, and to lend, continue to be published?  What will be the impact of print-on-demand books? of E-books? of downloadable books?  How different is the book industry because of the growth of chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble?  Can independent bookstores survive?  How do we tally the impact of Amazon.com?  What are the consequences to midlist authors of mega-advances to top-selling writers?  What are the consequences to literature of the mergers and acquisitions occurring in the publishing world?

    The week's format was varied and it was fun.  The thirty participants shared a bird's eye view of a range of topics that included Understanding the Mission, Values, and Niche of a Publication; Acquisitions, Contracts, Auctions, and Rights; the Agent's, the Editor's, the Author's, the Marketing Department's View of a Work; and How Does Distribution Work?  Publishing heavy hitters like Fiona McCrae, Jane von Mehren, Ira Silverberg, and Jay Walljasper shared insights on the selection, marketing, and publishing process.  With panel discussions and a variety of hands-on projects that incorporated conceptualization, marketing, and selling exercises, students and presenters found themselves energized by the obvious love of books, book production, and book marketing and distribution that bound them together.

    There were on-site presentations on alternative magazine publishing at the offices of the Utne Reader, presentations on bookselling at The Ruminator Bookstore, and visits to arts-friendly sites like The Loft and small presses, including Graywolf Press.  Don Leeper of Stanton Publications provided a walk-through of changing time- and cost-saving press operations and talked about databases and machines now in production for providing consumers affordable down-loadable books in supermarkets and department stores.

    There were remarkable readings and discussions by novelist Jonis Agee; Joseph Parisi, editor of Poetry; and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham. And, frosting on the cake, there was a visit to the Arca Artium Collections, formed by Frank Kacmarcik, at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota.  The collections of sacred art include illuminated manuscripts, polyglot bibles, woodcuts by Dürer, Chagall's Bible, etchings by Roualt, and a large assortment of literary arts that reflect art lover and biblical scholar Kacmarcik's love of typography and book design.

    As participants carefully protected the letterpress copies of a Jorie Graham poem that printer Cindy Malone had given them prior to their departure, it was clear that the first-time publishing conference, Inside Books, had surpassed both the planners' and the conferees' expectations.  More than one book lover sighed wistfully, "I want to sign up right now for next year."


       Writers Writing--and Visiting

          Chris Freeman

    Last year, with funding support from the Teagle Foundation, the College of St. Benedict teamed with Graywolf Press of St. Paul to inaugurate a residential program at St. Benedict's for Graywolf writers.  Professor Cynthia Malone coordinated the program.  Visiting writers included poet April Bernard, fiction and essay writer Laura Kalpakian, and fiction writer Josip Novakovich.

    This year, Professor Chris Freeman is coordinating the program.  Poets Carl Phillips, Nick Flynn, and Natasha Trethewey have already visited this fall.  Flynn was in residence for the month of October, which gave him an opportunity to become involved with a poetry workshop that engaged a dozen CSB/SJU students.  In fact, students have been active in workshops with all three poets, giving these young writers an outstanding opportunity to explore the process of poetry writing in depth and from a wide variety of perspectives.  In addition to conducting workshops, visiting writers gave public readings, attended classes as guest lecturers, and appeared in the Twin Cities in functions coordinated by Graywolf.

    In mid-October, Graywolf hosted a Reader's Theater at the Jungle Theater in Uptown.   Four actors read from the work of Tretheway, Flynn, Tony Hoaglund (who visited St. John's two years ago), and Linda Gregg.   The event was a tremendous success.  It will be followed by other events with the Jungle in the spring.

    In spring semester, four writers-in-residence will visit: essayist and poet John D'Agata will be on campus from February 19-24; novelist Jessica Treadway will be on campus March 3-9; poet Jason Schinder will be in residence April 3-8, and poet/memoirist Molly Peacock will be in residence April 24-27.

     For more information contact Chris Freeman (320-363-2709 or cfreeman@csbsju.edu) or Mark Conway (320-363-5399; mconway@csbsju.edu).   For information about the writers or about Graywolf Press, check Graywolf's website: www.graywolfpress.org.


    Letter from China: The Three Gorges Trip

         Madhu Mitra

    We left for our Three Gorges trip on Friday, the 13th, under a gray sky hung low with dripping clouds--not exactly the kind of weather the tourist orders.  But twenty-one-year-old spirits are irrepressible, especially when they are about to embark on a five-day trip down the legendary Yangtze (the Chinese name for it is simply the Great River) from Chongqing to Yichang and then back up the river.

    The trip turned out to be very enjoyable, despite the fact that it was cloudy and cold almost the whole time.  On our last night, the sky cleared up completely; there was a huge moon and more stars than I have seen in a long time.  Almost the entire stretch of the Yangtze that we sailed is flanked by high cliffs.  Washed in moonlight, they looked--well, magical.

    This stretch of the Yangtze is famous for its gorges.  They are breathtakingly spectacular--towering walls of sheer cliffs, countless waterfalls, some of which are so slender that they look like diaphanous veils swaying in the breeze, and bizarrely beautiful patterns on the cliff face, where ancient rock layers have folded and risen and heaved and crashed.  The river itself is a mighty one--muddy and fast-flowing--a lot like the Ganges, but less benign-looking.  There had been lots of rain recently, so the current was very strong.  The most sobering sights along the river were the water level marks painted in white letters on the cliff sides--135 meters and, above that, 175 meters.  When the Three Gorges dam starts functioning in 2003, the water level will rise to 135 meters; by 2009, it will rise to 175 meters.  The gorges will shrink almost by a third of their height--more perhaps.  The villages along the river will, of course, all be submerged.  Just about every town we passed had a "new town" behind it--higher up on the hillside.  These are the new apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, and more that are being built to replace the ones that will drown.   I can't tell you how depressing these new towns look--relentlessly monotonous blocks of high-rise buildings--totally uniform and thoroughly institutional.  They are new, though, and most of the young people we talked to are excited about the move.   We passed the dam site too--a gigantic project, almost as awesome as the gorges, but inspiring less reverence.  Closer to Yichang we passed through another dam, and I had my first experience of being raised and lowered at a lock gate.

    Our accommodations on the ship turned out to be--to use that infinitely elastic Minnesota adjective--interesting.  Before we left, I had made the decision to upgrade everyone from fourth-class cabins (eight to a room, straw mats for mattress, communal trough-style toilets) to second-class cabins (four to a room, good mattress and bedding, and--most important of all--private western-style toilet and shower facilities).  So the students were all very pleased.  Before we got on the ship, we stopped at Chongqing's biggest grocery store--a Carrefour--and loaded up on ramen noodles, bread, peanut butter, cookies, chocolate, fruit, and beverages to last us for five days.  We had heard repeatedly that the food served on the ship was not very good and that the kitchens were rat-infested.  We thought we had it good--nice cabins (somewhat cramped, but nice) and our own food. 

    But nobody had counted on the invincibility of the rats on the ship.  We forgot that they have lived on that ship for generations and have built up veritable systems of thoroughfares that connected the kitchen to all the cabins on all the floors.  And food left lying around--whether in a dirty kitchen or in a second-class cabin--was exactly what they were looking for.  The first night they got into Lee's (the Peace Corps volunteer who came along with us) backpack--a cinch top, even a tied one, is no barricade for marauding rats--and ate half his bread.   Lee left a "buffer of two slices" between the chewed up part and the untouched part, and ate the rest of the bread (he and I were the only ones in the group who felt that rats get an undue bad rap).  The next night one of them ran up a student's leg, into his boxer shorts, and hurriedly exited down his other leg.   By now, of course, many of the students were near hysteria.  One woman was seeing rats everywhere and refused even to lie down on her bed.  Her roommates said she was imagining them, but the scurrying sounds behind the wall panels were quite real.   Others saw brief flashes of speeding rodent shadows, but there weren't any more close encounters.  On the last night four of the guys decided to lay a rat trap in their cabin.  It was an elaborate and ingenious affair involving the ever-so-versatile duct tape, a thermos, and lengths of bright maroon yarn.  But, of course, they had underestimated their adversary.  Apparently a rat did walk into the trap, ate the bread-and-peanut-butter bait, and left.  They watched.  Our cabin had no rat visitation whatsoever--none of us saw even a single twitching whisker.  By the time we left the boat, I was beginning to feel a little cheated.  All said and done, the rats didn't do any harm, and they gave us lots to talk about.

    We ended up spending a lot of time on the deck--swapping rat stories, slurping ramen noodles (let it be known amongst my friends that I have developed a lethal hatred for those things), playing cards, reading, and knitting.  Just about everyone in our group was knitting wool caps (one student got us all started on this).  The Chinese passengers gaped at the sight of so many foreigners--particularly young men--huddled together and knitting bright-coloured caps.  I listened a lot to twenty-one year olds reminiscing about the old days when they were naive and liked Paula Abdul.  If the cliffs along the river--and the river itself--were humbling reminders of the geological youthfulness of human beings, the lively discussions on deck about films and TV shows I haven't even heard of made me feel like Methuselah.  Not a bad balance, ultimately.

    No one would admit it directly, but I think we were all a bit sad to leave the rat-infested ship.

    The students are now looking forward to moving into a brand new dorm that looks like a plush hotel.  We have another excursion coming up in mid-November--an eight-day trip to Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan province) and a couple of mountain sites.  No boats this time--just a very long bus ride.


    Newly Published Book of Poetry

       Ozzie Mayers

    Sister Eva Hooker's chapbook of poems The Winter Keeper has just been published by Chapiteau Press.  In his review, poet Frank Bidart says that this collection  is "a momorable, elegant debut."  To see her title poem, go to The Winter Keeper.


    English Department Names Scholarship Winners

          Nancy Hynes, O.S.B. 

    Each year, the English Department awards five scholarships to St. Benedict's English majors. Fourteen women applied for this year's awards; each wrote an essay as part of her application process. English faculty members then read and evaluated these essays, which were kept anonymous to preserve objectivity.  Since all the essays proved excellent, choosing among the fourteen applicants proved difficult. Faculty also considered financial need in making their final selection.

    The English Department is pleased to announce this year's winners:

                Kristin Malloy Scholarship                         Stephanie Frerich (2001), St. Cloud, MN
                                                                                       Currently in the Study Abroad program in Ireland

                Nancy Hynes Scholarship                           Jennifer Lindquist (2001), Paynesville, MN

                Angeline Dufner Scholarship                       Laura Stengrim (2001), Westminster, CO
                                                                                         Honors: Delta Epsilon Sigma

                Margaret Friel Murphy Scholarship            Anne Walters (2001), Clarksville, IA

                Mariella Gable Family Schoarship               Bonnie Wittkop (2001), Albany, MN


    My Friend Sam: A Remembrance

        John Steingraeber (2000)

    ". . . life which is so fantastic cannot be altogether tragic." Virginia Woolf

    The details are as follows: Samuel James Keaveny died on June 7, 2000, of cardiopulmonary arrest due to an undiagnosed abnormal heart rhythm.  Earlier that day he had aspirated a small piece of metal into his lungs.  While undergoing a bronchoscopy in St. Cloud, he suddenly died.  Autopsy results now show that there were abnormalities in both the size and structure of his heart, which inhibited resuscitation efforts.  Sam had majored in English at St. John's.  He graduated just three weeks prior to his death.  He was only twenty-two years old.  He was also my friend.

    But any life--or death, in this case--when reduced to mere details, has the potential to be little more than a recitation of those details.  This life deserves more.   Indeed, this life was more.

    I learned of Sam's death late the night that he died.  At first, I felt an incredible emptiness--that, along with incredulousness.  I was being forced to swallow a pill that I did not want, let alone know existed.  A voice on the phone was telling me that Sam--my friend, my confidant, my soulmate--was now dead.  This was nothing more than information to me, and I had no sense of what to do with it.  So I did what any idealist would do: I began by refusing to accept that information.

    At the time, I was living outside a small town on the Minnesota-Canada border in a cabin on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  After I hung up the phone, I ran out into the woods.  I seized deadfall logs and smashed them against trees.   I snatched rocks and sticks from the ground, hurling them into the darkness.   I tore saplings and grasses from the soil and scattered them in my wake.  I refused to let go.

    On a canoe expedition later in the summer, I watched the moon rise over the shores of Horse Lake in the midst of the most incredible meteor shower I had ever seen.  Sam still weighed heavily on my mind, and it occurred to me that his life, if compressed into a few seconds, would bear a striking resemblance to the tiny pieces of space dust that I was watching: it started out as a slender streak of fire in the darkness, exploded with screaming intensity, and then simply stopped.  Fantastic, certainly, but not altogether tragic, because I felt Sam all around me and inside of me as well.

    Now, nearly five months later, I still refuse to let go.  A few weeks ago I spoke at a memorial gathering at St. John's. The Peer Resource Program, of which Sam and I were both active members, had arranged for an evergreen tree to be planted in Sam's memory in front of the Warner Palaestra at St. John's.  Speaking, I reflected on my relationship with Sam and how in the wake of his death I found myself cherishing life with an almost manic intensity, refusing to leave any words unspoken, any plans unfinished, any tears unshed.  I was certain that if I were to die the next day, there were things that I would regret.

    There is, however, one thing that I am certain I do not regret: loving Sam.  The greatest part about having Sam in my life was that we never forgot to say "I love you."  Sam was a hefty man, and I am hardly petite.  But in the last two years of our friendship, I cannot recall a time when Sam and I parted ways without a hug, a smile, and an I love you.  I mentioned before that there were irregularities in the size of his heart; Sam's heart was nearly six hundred grams, almost twice the size of an average human heart.  This fact, while rich in metaphor, is also appropriate: this man had a heart bigger than most, and it matched his life.  He moved in circles bigger than most, laughed louder than most, and allowed himself to hurt more deeply than most.  No regrets.

    But regret, while perhaps the gravest of sins, appears to be necessary as well; and things that are necessary are things that must be accepted.  So perhaps in the midst of my refusal to let go of Sam is a sort of Zen-like acceptance of that refusal.   And somewhere between the refusal and the acceptance, I have managed to make peace with this tragedy.

    The solace that I find comes not from within me but from something Sam wrote just a few weeks before he graduated: "There is so much that happens beneath consciousness, and to deny this is to miss out on a lot of life.  Stories within stories, levels of meaning, and people you thought you knew (including yourself) with so much depth, so much potential of character that it's nearly overwhelming.  This is the dream I live now, as I move on into life.  I'm trying my best, and I don't know what script I'll be following, but I'm ready for it."

    Although Sam did not wake up on June 7 knowing that he would die later that afternoon, I really do think he was ready for it.  And while I do not think unexpected, sudden deaths are ever an acceptable end to life, they seem all the more unpalatable in the context of a shooting star like Sam.  But death, like regret, is necessary, and thus it too must be accepted.  We must learn to be ready for it because there is no way to know whose life may simply stop next.  It could be our dog's or our friend's spouse's--or it could be our own.

        


    Workshopping at Iowa

         Chelsie Hanson (2002)

    March 16, the night of my birthday, was anything but fun.  Papers were strewn about the floor, files and their folders lay open in disarray, and stamps half-licked were pasted on me, the floor, and envelopes.  It was the night before the postmark deadline for submissions to attend the Iowa Writer's Conference, and I still needed to pick out the perfect poems.

    Each summer, the University of Iowa at Iowa City offers a graduate school program for which twelve people are chosen to participate in a writing workshop.  The workshop gives participants a chance to get revision help, provide suggestions for others, and work with a renowned poet.  Sister Eva Hooker, my creative writing professor, had encouraged me to apply for summer workshops, especially the Iowa Writer's Workshop.   Iowa's requirement was a twelve-page original manuscript that would be read blindly by the poet leading the year's workshop.  I was especially inspired to apply because one of my favorite contemporary authors would be heading the Iowa conference-Jorie Graham.

    After I mailed out my manuscript (overnight, of course), the second semester picked up in pace.  In late March, when I missed a week of school due to illness, I was unable to check my mail.  Then my mom called to ask how the summer program search was going.   Since I had no idea, I decided to call Iowa to find out.  I prepared myself for disappointment; after all, I was only a sophomore and most people who attend these types of conferences are much older and more experienced than I.  The voice that answered the phone told me that participants had already been notified by mail.  When I explained that I had not been able to see my mail, she offered to check the list.   I was so nervous I almost hung up.

    "Yep. You are on the list."

    "Are you serious?" I blurted out. "You are not kidding, right?"

    After she repeated her clain and I hung up the phone, I was so excited that I screamed aloud.  But there were some problems.  To attend the conference, I would have to miss the last week of school.  That meant taking finals and normal course work a week early.  But I didn't care: I was going to get to work with Jorie Graham and eleven others for three weeks in May and June.

    When I got to Iowa, I was really nervous.  The first morning, the other poets and I huddled in the stairway of a Victorian house leading to the second floor that would be used for the conference.  I could scarcely believe that I would meet Jorie Graham in person.  After she came up the stairs to let us into her room, we all settled around a large wooden table.  I quickly noticed that I was the youngest person present.   Ages ranged from twenties to late sixties, and half of these people already had at least a Master's degree and were professors themselves.  I knew that I would learn a lot.

    Jorie had an aura around her that made me lose my breath.  When she began talking, she made her most complex ideas simple to understand.  Her range of knowledge was impressive.  We quickly learned that on days when we didn't have class, we were to bring in our poems to have them copied for the subsequent workshop.  Then that same evening everyone would pick up a packet, read all the poems in it, and make comments and notes for the discussion.  On class days we worked in a rotation, workshopping about five poems a day.  When someone's poem was up to be workshopped, the poet would read his or her poem and then everyone else would discuss it.  The emphasis was mainly on delicate internal structure rather than on what the poem was about.  We investigated the believability of specific words, the dynamics of meter, the usage of white space.   Towards the end of the workshop, each participant met individually and at length with Jorie.

    Gradually, our group developed trust in each other's criticism.  At first I winced when my poems were torn apart, picked at, and, as Jorie says, all the scaffolding pulled off.  But what remained was the core, that place where the poem rises up and says, "This is what you were trying to say all along."  By analyzing and reconstructing other poets' work, I learned to employ objectivity toward my own work.

    When I look back now on my experience at Iowa, reflecting on how much it affected me and my writing, I hardly mind the two dollars and ninety-seven cents worth of postage that I stuck in my hair last May.

    One of the poems I wrote and workshopped at Iowa this summer can be reached at Untitled.




    Results of English Department Assessment

        David Rothstein, O.S.B.

    The English Department uses several methods to gauge how well English majors and minors are meeting the learning goals established by the Department.  These methods include an assessment of portfolio papers in the Capstone course, the Senior Survey questionnaire, and Focus Group Interviews at the end of the senior year.  Listed below are major new actions we plan based on assessment work that was completed in academic year 1999-2000:

    1.  Develop methods for assessing discussion skills and oral communication skills among our English majors.

    2.  Conduct Focus Group Interviews for juniors in the spring semester.  The English Club will likely organize this event.

    3.  Change two 200-level courses to address the need for more theory-related courses.  English 241 and 242 will focus more
          specifically on critical theory and cultural issues.

    4.  Study the potential in the following options:

            a.   Create for English majors and secondary education minors a 2-credit modular course on the conventions of Standard
                  English.

            b.   Make study of the conventions of Standard English a significant component of English 211, Writing Well, recommend
                  that English majors and secondary education minors take English 211, and possibly reserve places in English 211 for
                  both groups.

    5.  Summer 2001: initiate a new method of assessment, the Yearly Assessment of Student Essays.  English professors will
         collect anonymous samples of student papers from pre-selected courses and will score these based on a rotating set of
         criteria.  We hope to gain more objective data on how well students are  meeting our learning goals.

    6.  Report annually to students on results of assessment.


    English Club

        Maria Stanek (2001)

    On November 1 the English Club of St. Benedict's and St. John's held a reading night in cooperation with the SJU Writing Center.  Everyone was welcome to come to the Writing Center that evening to hear and enjoy the poetry, prose, and essays written by other students.

    Other events currently under consideration for this year include attending Twelfth Night at the Guthrie Theater and Molly Sweeney at the Paramount Theater.  Meanwhile, our club is encouraging energetic students to participate as executive council members, providing an opportunity to help plan and schedule upcoming events or just simply spread enthusiasm for English around our campus.  We welcome newcomers as part of our team.

    Meanwhile, if you have questions or suggestions, you can reach us at: englishclub@csbsju.edu.