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Ken Pobo’s New Chapbook: Calligraphy with Ball

We are pleased to announce the publication of a new chapbook by Professor Ken Pobo:  Calligraphy with Ball.  Calligraphy with Ball, published by Encircle Publications, was a finalist in that press’s Annual Chapbook Contest.

UPDATED TO ADD: Read a brilliant review of another of Professor Pobo’s forthcoming titles, Loplop in a Red City, a collection of ekphrastic poems, here.

Congratulations, Professor Pobo!  Here’s a sample (and you can buy a copy here):

LI BEI ON A TANNING BED

I dash back the long path
over 700 years. Would Botox
hide how dead I look? Your world

is crummier than mine despite
Emperors who kept me hopping.
Tu Fu told me he visited last year.
When you arrive, try
the tanning salon. It’s strange.

He’s never steered me wrong—
while in the bed I remember a night
I spent alone on a mountain
with the moon. Or
was I on the moon dreaming

of a mountain? I’m pretty
sure I was crocked and
in love. With everything from
a grass blade to a ripple.
Not many open areas here—

mostly drug stores, fast food
joints, and parking lots.
This tan will surprise
the ghosts back in China.
I’ll send you a poem. By

the time you get it, you’ll
be dead too. No problem.
Poems travel forever.

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Distinguished Visiting Writer: Christine Butterworth-McDermott

This past Wednesday, poet Christine Butterworth-McDermott gave a reading at Widener.  Butterworth-McDermott, who teaches at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, is this spring’s Distinguished Visiting Writer.  She is the author of the collection Woods & Water, Wolves & Women, and has published a chapbook, Tales on Tales:  Sestinas.  You can read some of her poetry here.

English and Creative Writing junior Jennifer Rohrbach gave the introduction; we’ll let her take it from here:

Christine Butterworth-McDermott is a master of transformation. In her book of poetry, Woods & Water, Wolves & Women, she transforms fantastic tales into anecdotal quips that comment on the humanity in the supernatural, the extraordinary in the everyday. She reveals new sides of characters we know and love, and gives voice to characters from whom we’ve never heard: the Ogre’s wife, the Frog Prince’s secret lover, the Prince Charming of shoe-makers. Her fairy-tale characters could pass for a next-door neighbor. In the poem “Snow Speaks,” Snow White says, “Let me tell you what I’ve learned. ‘You don’t know / what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone’ and all that crap / happens to be true, especially when you wind up / the housemaid for seven tiny men / whose bathroom etiquette leaves much to be desired” (1-5, p. 19).

Butterworth-McDermott’s literary charm has earned her poetry and fiction spots in many journals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Bellowing Ark, Cabinet de Fees, California Quarterly, Magazine of Speculative Poetry, North Atlantic Review, Portland Review, RATTLE, and Tales of the Unanticipated. She also teaches poetry, literature, and fairy-tales as an Associate Professor of English at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas. In addition, she is the poetry editor of the literary journal REAL and the founder and co-editor of the literary magazine, Gingerbread House, which publishes quality poetry and fiction with magical elements. In 2010, her chapbook Tales on Tales: Sestinas, was published by Finishing Line Press, followed by Woods & Water, Wolves & Women, published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press in 2011.

Butterworth-McDermott talks with Jenn Rohrbach

Perhaps one of the most important things about her work is that it is accessible. Her poetry, while maintaining a high literary quality, is fun. It’s exciting. It’s inviting. And yes, sometimes it’s sad. In the poem “Rose,” Briar Rose laments her inability to have children after her cursed sleep. “In this war of my own,” she says, “nothing accounts / for bleeding, some endless punishment / for stopping blood and breath with / a spindle’s prick—that hundred years / of aborted life claims this payback” (26).

Growing up as a lover of Disney movies, it never occurred to me to wonder what happens after the happily ever after. What do the prince and princess say to one another after they ride off into the sunset? What happens to those left behind? Of course, I was like 5 when those movies came out, so I wasn’t exactly thinking analytically. It seems perfect, then, that we get to read these poems, experience these tales again, as adults. It gives us the opportunity to become re-enchanted with the stories we once loved, but to bring our own realities to the myths. Christine Butterworth-McDermott is a master of transformation, not only of fairy-tales and the fantastic, but of our means of perception. And through her work, tales as old as time become new.

 

Reading for Unity at Widener

On Saturday, April 1, Widener students gathered with undergraduate writers from other colleges in the Philadelphia region to read works inspired by the call for social justice and the power of writing.

Dr. Ken Pobo performed some of his original poetry as the keynote.  The full program was:

Iyanna Rosado, Widener University, “What Does an Illegal Immigrant Look Like?” by Christy Namee Eriksen

Maya Arthur, University of Pennsylvania, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin

Andrew Nguyen, Haverford College, “where you are planted” by Evie Shockley and “Ka ‘Ba” by Amiri Baraka

Kelsey Styles, Widener University, “Mimesis” and “Scarecrow” by Fady Joudah and “Things that Have Been Lost” and “Wildpeace” by Yehuda Amichai

Jennifer Rohrbach, Widener University, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Michaela Kotziers, University of Pennsylvania, “Poetry is Not a Luxury” by Audre Lord

Jasmine Kouyate, Widener University, “Dancing with Strom” by Nikky Finney

Natalie Kawam, Bryn Mawr College, the Nobel Lecture of Toni Morrison

Photos courtesy of Professor Michael Cocchiarale

Thoughts on Flannery and Trump(ism)

Editor’s Note:  This is a guest post by Mark Graybill, Professor of English

So, Donald Trump is now officially president. Rarely do I address politics directly in class, but here, I’ll just say it: I think “Trumpism”—“a brew of nationalist, populist, anti-establishment, anti-‘expert,’ anti-globalist, protectionist, ‘us versus them,’ and most of all, anti-immigrant sentiment”—is dangerous in historic proportions. And I’m especially worried that it’s going to be devastating for the status of art, history, language, and literature in American culture. Indeed, the budget he plans to propose reportedly eliminates both the NEA and the NEH.

How did we get here? The Humanities, especially literature, can help answer that question (which might explain in part why Trump wants to starve them). I suspect that classics such as 1984, Brave New World, and The Handmaid’s Tale are going to enjoy new lives in the coming days. But the less obviously political fiction of Flannery O’Connor, published in the 1950s and ‘60s, also sheds considerable light on our current situation. (I’m not alone in thinking so: David Griffith published a compelling piece on “The Displaced Person” and the Syrian refugee debate over a year ago.) Specifically, O’Connor’s stories expose the seductiveness and destructiveness of nostalgia and authoritarianism—two pillars of Trumpism.

trump“Make America Great Again.” Sounds, well, great, doesn’t it? But, here’s the thing: nostalgia is fundamentally illusory and amnesiac. It distorts things, leaves things out, leads us away from reality. O’Connor is frequently lauded for her skepticism toward progress, especially the notion that technology and science (natural, social, and otherwise) can solve all of humanity’s problems. But she is equally suspicious of the tendency to place faith in a misremembered, ill defined past. When her characters do so, things go wrong.

When shifty Tom Shiftlet, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” spies a car he wants in a flannerywidow’s barn, he uses nostalgia to appeal to her unspoken but clear conviction that the present has wronged her: “Nothing is like it used to be, lady . . . The world is almost rotten.” “That’s right,“ she responds—and before she knows it, he has taken the car and humiliated both her and her disabled daughter in the process. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” nostalgia is lethal. The Grandmother (unnamed to underscore her universality) dooms her family and herself by insisting they take a detour from their vacation and visit a plantation she went to as a child. Her memory is false, though: the plantation, if it ever truly existed, sits in another state. Her mistake delivers them all to their eventual murderer, the Misfit, a criminal she’s been fretting about since the story’s opening line.

A subtle but important aspect of the Grandmother’s nostalgia is racism. In her mind, the plantation isn’t a symbol of slavery, but of the romantic Old South. She lectures her grandchildren about how people treated each other respectfully in the past, and then gleefully calls an African American boy standing on the roadside a “cute little pickaninny!” The Grandmother’s acceptance of racial stereotypes (as seen in this example from the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University) puts her in company with the new president and some of his supporters: one survey suggests that “those who hold . . . dehumanizing views of black people are disproportionately likely to support Donald Trump.” (Here’s another with similar findings.)

But political scientists have identified something larger than racism at work in the American electorate right now: authoritarianism. “Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world,” writes Amanda Taub. “Challenges to that order—diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order—are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order they equate with basic security.”

O’Connor captures this mentality vividly in “The Displaced Person.” After World War II, a global conflagration sparked by authoritarianism, Mrs. McIntyre initially welcomes a family of Polish refugees to her farm because they outwork her current employees. But when Mr. Guizac approaches one of her black farmhands about marrying his white cousin, confined for three years in a refugee camp back in Europe, Mrs. McIntyre explodes: “You would bring this poor innocent child over here and try to marry her to a half-witted thieving black stinking nigger! What kind of monster are you?” The outsider has challenged the social order, and she cannot abide it. Incapable of dealing with the situation, she passively lets another employee, the white, racist, big-talking Mr. Shortley, handle it violently, but with the kind of plausible deniability the authoritarian strongman treasures. Disaster ensues: the Pole dies, the farm closes, and its owner lies bedridden, decimated physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Will the two-headed monster of nostalgia and authoritarianism also incapacitate the American body politic? The fact that I can entertain such a question without immediately dismissing it as melodrama is downright depressing. But then I recall Toni Morrison’s words, cited by pop star Katy Perry post-election: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” If it is time for “artists [to] go to work,” to “do language,” it is time for readers to do the same. As every English major knows, wisdom about the present is often found in the art of the past.

 

New Publication from Faculty Member and Local Author Melissa Mowday

We are pleased to announce a new book from Widener English faculty member and local 9781467123822author, Melissa Mowday.  West Chester, in Arcadia Publishing‘s Images of Modern America series, is a photographic tour of this historic town; Mowday co-authored the book with her father, Bruce Mowday.

Melissa will be signing books at the Devon Barnes & Noble on December 18th at noon—stop by and congratulate her!

Congratulations to Our Creative Writers!

We are pleased to announce the winners of this year’s Mervin R. Lowe Prizes for Creative Writing:

  • Poetry:  “Handsewn,” by Jennifer Rohrbach
  • Fiction:  “Dirt,” by Katherine Rogan
  • Creative Nonfiction: “Hollow Bones,” by Jennifer Rohrbach

We would also like to extend special congratulations to Jennifer for the publication of her essay, “Cycle of Living in ‘Some Cool Heaven’,” at FlashFiction.Net, one of the premier venues for this genre.  Her Rohrbach Headshotthoughtful analysis of technique and symbolism in Emma Smith-Stevens’ flash fiction shows the kind of power the form can achieve in its compression and focus—and it shows the mind of a great critic at work.  Read Jennifer’s piece here.

In addition to her own writing, Jennifer devotes time to working as the Managing Editor for News for the Blue & Gold and as an editor for The Blue Route and Widener Ink literary journals.  Her previous post for Widener English shared her thoughts on attending the 2014 Liberty Medal ceremony in Philadelphia, where Malala Yousafzai was honored.

Distinguished Visiting Writers Series: Iain Haley Pollock Reads at Widener

Last week we had the honor of hosting Iain Haley Pollock at Widener as part of the Distinguished Visiting Writer Series.  Pollock won the Cave Canem Prize in 2010 for his collection Spit Back a Boy; the prize honors first books by African American poets.  His work, heavily influenced by jazz and blues, speaks to race in America past and

Iain Haley Pollock reads at Widener
Iain Haley Pollock reads at Widener

present, fatherhood, and violence, among other themes.  In his poems, the streets and scenes of Philadelphia come alive, from Fairmount to Fishtown.  In addition to giving a reading of new and published poems, Pollock met with Widener Creative Writing students in one-on-one tutorials, providing feedback and an invaluable opportunity to meet with a gifted and generous writer.

One of Pollock’s poems:

Brewerytown

This morning, the lovers—
who last night were slurring and stumbling
and when I looked out, each gripping
the other’s taut throat in a clench of callous
and nail—sit on their front steps. The woman
smokes an idle cigarette. The man lounges
two steps down from her and leans his head
into her lap. Beer cans and husks of blue crab
from their cookout scuttle by in languid breeze.
The woman flicks the stub of her cigarette
into the street and kisses her man on his forehead.
In the kitchen behind me, Naomi
turns on the coffee grinder. I look back at her
but don’t bother to complain about the racket
this time. I’m more interested in the lovers.
Or, I was—they’re boring me now.
I liked them better when the radio was pumping
from their open window, and they were clawing out,
under the streetlight, the terms of their love.

Listen to Pollock with Marty Moss-Coane on WHYY’s Radio Times here.

State Street Reading Series: Tamara Oakman and Simone Zelitch

Last week saw a great crowd at the Media Arts Center for another installment of the State Street Reading Series.  Featured were Tamara Oakman, Executive Editor of Apiary Magazine and Instructor of English at Widener University, and Simone Zelitch, Associate Professor of English at Community College of Philadelphia.  Oakman read a series of poems speaking to issues both personal and political, and Zelitch read from her most recent novel Waveland, the story of a woman experiencing Freedom Summer.

Ken Pobo introduces Tamara Oakman.  Photo credit:  James Esch
Ken Pobo introduces Tamara Oakman. Photo credit: James Esch

The State Street Reading Series, sponsored by the Media Arts Council and Widener University, is a wonderful opportunity to meet local authors and hear their work.  Don’t miss the next one:  Thursday, March 17 at 7pm, where you’ll have a chance to hear M. Nzadi Keita and Carmen Maria Machado.

Simone Zelitch.  Photo credit:  James Esch
Simone Zelitch. Photo credit: James Esch

Recommended Reading: New Poems by Ken Pobo

It has been a busy semester for Dr. Pobo — his new book of poetry, Booking Rooms in the Kuiper Belt, is out from Urban Farmhouse Press.  You can pick up a copy over at the website for the press, and we encourage you to show your support for poetry AND for small presses by doing so!

PoboKuiperStore-500x500

He’s also had poetry appear over the last month or two in venues such as Minor Literature[s] [here], Gnarled Oak [here], and Silver Birch Press [here].  One of my favorite pieces is this one, a prose poem published by Rat’s Ass Review:

 

IN MICAH I WATCH A LOT OF BETTE DAVIS MOVIES

1

1949. In Beyond The Forest, Rosa Moline says if she doesn’t get out of that town, she’ll die. Burn that town down, burn it so even the ashes fly away, make it so no one even remembers such a town was there. That’s what I feel in Micah. Even when redbuds bloom. Stunted, our gray houses never bloom. If they could bloom, the flowers would be pus-filled devils.

1942. In In This Our Life, spoiled Stanley, yes, that’s her name, makes a mess of other people’s lives (a tablespoon of incest with her uncle). I’m called rotten too. And bitch. And fag. And cocksucker. If you don’t eat dinner at 6:00pm, people think “He’s odd.” I’m no saint. I’m the bad boy, the bad girl, the glassblower’s glass, fragile yet radioactive.

1962. In Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, Jane Hudson is so made up you can’t see any real skin. In Micah we all wear heavy makeup. Our sins are the mascara on our soul’s face. You are a gang plank. The many people who you despise must walk until they drop down into a shark-infested ocean. You laugh hysterically, call the liquor store, add another layer of paint.

2

Some go to church and get by, shop at Wal-Mart. Some are so despairing that their one life jacket, “tomorrow,” is too torn to keep them afloat. Me, I watch Bette Davis films. I know them line by line. When Micah turns over in its sleep, I kiss its seeringly hot cheeks, catch on fire. I live in fire. One step closer—and I’ll burn you.

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