Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pramila Venkateswaran, GW English PhD, Named Suffolk County New York Poet Laureate

Suffolk County New York Poet Laureate
Pramila Venkateswaran

Professor Pramila Venkateswaran, who received her PhD from GW's English Department in 1988, recently became the Poet Laureate of Suffolk County, New York.  We chatted with Professor Venkateswaran about her selection as laureate, her poetry, and her memories of the GW English department:

1.    When did you graduate from GW?  What was your degree?  With whom did you study?

I graduated from GW in 1988. My dissertation advisor was Prof. Judith Plotz.  My Ph.D. was in English; my dissertation was on  “Romantic Irony in the works of Thomas Beddoes.”

2.    Are there particular professors at GW whom you remember more than others?  Why?

My favorite professors were Judith Plotz and Robert Combs. Plotz got me to think more analytically in the area of literary criticism (later known as critical theory) and Combs’ comprehensive knowledge of European, particularly German poets, and his ability to make his students ask penetrating questions about modern poetry enhanced my love for poetry. Although I did not take courses with Lucille Clifton when she was poet-in-residence at GW, I hung out in her office showing her my poems and talking about the significance of punctuation and how it affects the line in a poem.

3.  How much of your education took place in India?  Were there significant differences between your Indian and American schooling?

 I did my Masters in English in Bombay University and came to GW for my Ph.D. In the Indian university system, I did not have any choice in courses in my major, which was English literature. We worked our way all the way from Chaucer to the moderns, read most of the novels of the 18thand 19th centuries, and all the major literary critics. Since the exams we took at the end of our B.A. were national exams, we had to know these writers really well to be able to sit for these exams and pass them.  So when I arrived at GW, I found the comprehensive exams for Ph.D. (8-hour exams in 4 areas) to be more or less an extension of my Indian exam-taking experience. What excited me about GW was the opportunity to explore different courses and have the choice to venture outside of a strict curriculum, such as taking a course on Epistolary Writing in the 18th Century at the Folger Library or a course on the Transcendentalists.

4.  How long have you worked at Nassau Community College?  What are some of the courses you teach?

  I started teaching at NCC in 1990. At first I worked in the Writing Center and then from 1995 I started working in the English Department.  I teach Freshman Composition and English electives, such as Modern Poetry, Survey of American Literature, Poetry Writing, Creative Writing, Introduction to Women’s Studies, and Goddesses in World Religions. 

5.  You have just been named poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island.  How did that come about?  What does the job entail?  How do you yourself conceive of the position, both locally and nationally?

I was among a list of names that were submitted to the poet laureate committee for consideration. The nominations were based on their track record of publication and poetry service to the community. Since I had already published 4 books of poetry and had many poems in national and international journals and had been featured at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, I was asked by the committee if I would like to serve as poet laureate. I agreed, since it seemed like the right time for me to do this work.  As poet laureate, I give readings all across the county, organize readings at different venues and arrange for poets in the community to be featured at these venues, and bring poetry to places where it is not known to happen, such as farms, hospitals, government offices, and beauty salons! I have so far organized readings at farms, veterans hospitals, elementary schools, and breast cancer survivors groups.  I also mentor a couple of young poets. I think laureateship is important for it brings attention to poetry and its function in society.  I was surprised when I had to go to the Suffolk Legislator to be officially assigned the position, reminding me of Shelly’s words about poets being the “unacknowledged legislators"!

6.  How would you characterize the kind of poetry you tend to write? Are there particular poets by whom you've been influenced?

I am not sure what label would fit my poetry. Some of my poetry is feminist and political, while some of it explores our relationship to nature and the spirit. I write both in free verse and in form and love to play with language. My major influences while in India were modern Indian poets like Nissim Ezekiel and Arun Kolakar, and after I came to the U.S. I became devoted to Carolyn Forche and Adrienne Rich and many more.  I carry with me the melodies of Sanskrit poetry—a lot of which we knew by heart growing up since they were part of Indian devotional culture. I admire many European poets, such as Anna Swir, Rilke, Zbigniew Herbert, and Paul Celan.

7. Do you have any thoughts to share with GW English majors who are thinking about their professional and creative futures?

My advice to students of creative writing is to write every day, even if it is just a line. The Sanskrit term “sadhana” or discipline is important if one wants to become reasonably good at a task. And if you are reading a poem by your favorite poet, study the poem carefully by going over every line and word to understand the structure of the poem, your pencil marks littering the poem, helping you grasp the creative process of the writer. Modeling your favorite writers can be a beginning to later finding your own style and voice.  Even if your work after graduation may not relate to your major, you may find that the act of reading and writing sustains you in more ways than you can imagine.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Literary Pumpkin Carving with Faculty and Librarians!

Bring your own pumpkin and sculpt your masterpiece in the company of GW's coolest faculty and librarians.  Carving implements will be provided along with cookies, cider, and nerdy-cool conversation.

Judging begins at 4pm and prizes will be awarded for the best literary adaptation, best team (bring your friends), and best overall pumpkins.

Costumes aren't required, but are definitely encouraged!  Extra cookies and instant respect if you arrive dressed as any literary or classical character.

Monday, October 13, 2014

RSVP Today: Simon Gikandi's Oct. 30 Undergraduate Seminar

For the first time since the creation of the English Department’s mini-residency, the Wang Distinguished Professor will give a seminar just for undergraduates!

Simon Gikandi, 2014-15
Wang Distinguished Professor
This year’s Wang Distinguished Professor, Simon Gikandi will be leading this special event on October 30 at 2:15 PM in Rome Hall 771.

A specialist in the literature of the African diaspora, Gikandi is currently a Professor of English at Princeton University and is also an editor of PMLA, the journal of the Modern Language Association of America. He has published several books and articles and his recent book Slavery and the Culture of Taste has won the Melbern Glasscock Center for Humanities Research Award; the Melville Herskovits Award for the most important scholarly work in African studies; and the James Russell Lowell Prize for an outstanding scholarly work by a member of the Modern Languages Association.

For the seminar, Gikandi has chosen a long, short story written by the Nigerian writer Sefi Atta, entitled, “Yahoo, Yahoo.” Atta was born in Nigeria in 1964 and graduated from Birmingham University in England. Besides her writing, Atta is also the founder of the Lagos-based production company Atta Girl. This company supports her program Care to Read, which is dedicated to earning funds for charities through literary readings. Her short stories have been published in journals such as Los Angeles ReviewMississippi Review and World Literature Today.

Gikandi's seminar will cover the
novella, "Yahoo, Yahoo," by
Nigerian writer Sefi Yatta
“Yahoo, Yahoo,” along with much of Atta’s work, highlights the problems and challenges that confront the African continent. Students that want to participate in the seminar will need to read the story beforehand and be prepared to engage in discussion.

If you’re interested in participating in this seminar, please RSVP by e-mailing Professor Robert McRuer, Chair, the Department of English at: Once you’ve registered, Professor McRuer will forward you the reading for this event.   

The Wang residency was created through a gift by Albert Wang and his family that has, since 2009, supported residencies by professors such as Edward P. Jones (now a member of the GW English department), José Esteban Muñoz, J. Jack Halberstam, and Michael Bérubé. The gift from the Wang family is currently one of the largest philanthropic commitments to GW Columbian College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of English.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

GW English Alums on the Move: Esther Cohen (BA '69)

GW English Alum
Esther Cohen (BA '69)

New York writer, teacher, and activist Esther Cohen reflects on her time as an English major, and on the remarkably varied writing life she's led since she graduated:

When did you graduate from GW?

I graduated from GW in 1969.  The year (and the years that followed, and came before) were a crazy time in the universe. Washington was alive with change, with demonstrations, with exciting possibilities of what the world might look like. Some of that had to do with the fact that we were  young then (and you don't understand what young means when you are.)

What do you remember most from your GW years?  Were there professors who had a particularly strong influence?

My GW experience was wonderful in so many ways. I met friends for life, learned more than I could have expected, and had a few terrific English teachers who helped shape my writing life. Louis Schaefer (I still write to him) is an unusual, learned, funny man, an original thinker who taught a few of my creative writing classes. So did AE Claeyssens, another gifted teacher who criticized and encouraged with an equal amount of grace.

Did you know when you graduated that you wanted to be a writer?  If so, did you assume you'd be a particular sort of writer (poet, novelist, etc.)?  Are you surprised at how varied your writing has turned out to be?

I've wanted to be a writer forever, since my first sentence (This Is A Book!) and words have always been central to my life. It was wonderful to be with inspired teachers who could help me shape those words. I wanted to use words in as many ways as I could imagine, in poems, in stories, in novels, in creative non-fiction, and in some journalism and criticism. I've written everything more or less. Stories are my strength. Facts are my weakness.
I have also been a book doctor for many years now, helping people write their books. And  I teach many writing workshops, often about Good Stories.

Some of your writing projects seem to have a strong element of social justice in them.  Can you talk about your sense of the connection between writing and politics?

When I first moved to New York City (after time in the Israeli Peace Corps) I worked in book publishing with an old American publishing house (they claim to be the first) called Pilgrim Press.  The press was owned by a progressive denomination of the Protestant church, the United Church of Christ. My boss introduced me to many social justice leaders, and one of them, a union head from an illustrious family, a man named Moe Foner who was one of the architects of the hospital workers union, 1199SEIU, was one of the principal mentors of my life. I left publishing to work with him. He'd created a cultural organization for workers called Bread and Roses, which I ran when he retired. The union, and Bread and Roses, taught me about the importance of workers, and about how we all need roses alongside our bread. Of course all words are political (look at Bread and Roses as two words that belong together in every possible way). My personal work, my stories and poems and novels, aren't political in the usual sense. But the one connecting thread of all I have done and continue to do is to find the voice, the words, the stories, of as many people as I can. Not only mine, but the stories of everyone around me too.

I'm assuming you're a native New Yorker.  If I'm right, could you say something about your adjustment, as a GW student, to DC culture as opposed to New York City culture?  Did you enjoy living in DC as a student?
I am not a native New Yorker but I have lived in the city most of my life, and New York is where I belong. I was born in a small factory town in Southern Connecticut called Ansonia, but moved to New York as soon as I could.  I loved Washington, the parks and the art and the Southern charm of the city, and spent much of my four years exploring the city as fully as I could. I am a city person, and am happiest when I can wander through streets I don't know.

Do you have any advice for our current English majors, or for students reading this who are thinking about becoming English majors?

Being an English major is a fantastic luxury: spending four years of your life reading with people who guide your path, who know things you don't, and who can help you understand what some of the greatest writers in literature wrote, and intended. I am grateful to have spent four years reading, meeting friends, and living in Washington, D.C.

Students often ask for advice. To be a writer is to be open to life, to experience as much as you can, to be curious, and not to be afraid of life, or your own words.

What writing project(s) are you working on right now?
I'm writing a new book of poems, called I'm Getting Older. I've got a blog,, and am in the middle of a new novel about people with different lives and different values who live side by side. 

Monday, October 6, 2014

October 15: Jose Dalisay Reading

To say Jose Dalisay has had a productive career is an understatement. The Philippines-born writer has published over 20 works in fiction and nonfiction since 1983 and also has an extensive background as a dramatist, columnist and film writer.

Born in the Philippine island province Romblon in 1954, Dalisay spent his formative years in Manila, the country's capital city. While attending high school at the Philippine Science High School, Dalisay trained with PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association). It was through his work with PETA that Dalisay published and sold his first teleplay to "Balintataw," which opened the door for many more opportunities.

After a brief imprisonment as a political detainee, Dalisay obtained his B.A. in English from the University of the Philippines in 1984 and went on to get an MFA from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

He has since written the fictional novels, Killing Time in a Warm Place and Soledad's Sister, as well as the nonfiction works The Best of Barfly, The Lavas: A Filipino Family and Man Overboard. Additionally, he's written over twenty produced screenplays and several plays. Throughout his career as a writer, Dalisay has accumulated several honors and awards. For his work, Dalisay has been honored as a Fulbright, Hawthornden, British Council, David TK Wong, Rockefeller, and Civitella Ranieri fellow. Additionally, six of his books have won National Book Awards from the Manila Critics Circle. In 2007, his novel Soledad's Sister was shortlisted for the first-ever Man Asian Literary Prize in Hong Kong. Besides being an accomplished writer, Dalisay is also an accomplished lecturer, giving guest-lectures to universities around the world on the topics of Philippine culture and politics.

Please join GW English in warmly welcoming Jose Dalisay at his reading on October 15 from 7:30-9:00pm in the Honors Townhouse (714 21st St). Dalisay's reading is a part of the Jenny McKean Moore Writers' Series. This series is funded by a trust left by the late Jenny Moore who studied playwriting at GWU, additional information about the fund can be found here.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Open Space Recap Part II: The Pictures!

Student organizers Tess Gann and Sara Policastro
welcome the crowd to Open Space.

Jenny McKean Moore Writer Brando Skyhorse
talking to student poets. 

It was standing-room only in the hallway outside the living rooms.   

Opening Night of Open Space

The idea for Open Space came up after a department meeting earlier this semester when Professor David McAleavey noted that undergraduate poets had no public venue on GW to share their poems. Recent public poetry projects for National Poetry Month like “Rent-a-Poet” and the “Poem of the Day” series, which was organized by Professors Thea Brown and Jennifer Chang and which appeared on this very blog, demonstrated a genuine and passionate interest in the community that reading, writing, and talking about poems can form. Why not give voice and space to this community of poets and poetry-lovers throughout the academic year?

With the help of two sophomore Creative Writing minors, Tess Gann and Sara Policastro, a new undergraduate poetry series was born. We named the series “Open Space” to honor the open space of poetic form and the open mic’s inclusive embrace of styles and voices. Current Jenny McKean Moore Writer-in-Washington, novelist Brando Skyhorse and his partner, poet Erin Kelly, will be hosting the series this semester at their home on campus. On Tuesday night, the inaugural Open Space was standing-room only, student poets from GW and Corcoran College of Arts and Design, our new comrades-in-verse led by Professors Mel Nichols and Casey Smith, filled the living rooms of Lenthall House. We had student poets leaning against doorframes and each other, while Professors Thomas Mallon and Lisa Page perched on the stairwell. A sign-up sheet and three-poem minimum led to an array of dynamic readers from both campuses and from all schools of poetry: troubadour, spoken word, Dantean mini-epics, confessional lyrics, protest songs, ghazals, Arthurian legends, lyric sequences, and erotic verse! Here is the poetry community at GW (and Corcoran)—it is intrepid and thriving, snapping fingers and asking for more!

Do you have poems to share or just want to listen? The next Open Space event will be Tuesday, November 4th at the Lenthal House, 7:30-9pm. Come early to sign-up or find a seat. In the meantime, you can check out the Open Space activity on Facebook and Twitter @gwuopenspace.

Friday, September 26, 2014

GW English Alum Abby Dimen-Taylor: Volunteer at the DC Rape Crisis Center

Abby Dimen-Taylor
GW English '12

Abby Dimen-Taylor graduated from GW with an English major and a minor in Psychology as part of the class of 2012.  She graduated with Honors in English after completing a thesis on James Baldwin under the direction of Professor Jim Miller.  She very much enjoyed her time with GW English, particularly noting her Critical Methods class with Professor Tony López and the short-term study abroad class she took with Professor Robert McRuer, Transnational Queer Film Studies, which included a week in Prague at the Mezipatra Queer Film Festival.  Abby is currently working for the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO)  in Alexandria, but plans on applying to programs soon to pursue a Masters degree in Social Work (MSW).  She is also volunteering for the DC Rape Crisis Center, helping to staff their hotline.  We recently caught up with Abby to ask her about that important work [disclaimer: the views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the DC Rape Crisis Center].

Could you describe the work that you do volunteering at the DC Rape Crisis Center?

I volunteered as a hotline advocate for the DC Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC) for about a year as a senior-year student at the George Washington University. I recently began volunteering again last month. As a hotline advocate, I speak with women and men who call DCRCC’s Hotline because they are experiencing sexual assault-related crises. At the beginning of the call, I try to understand the crisis that the caller is experiencing. He or she might be feeling scared, angry, confused, panicked, or suicidal – or a combination of several emotions. Our role as advocates is to try and identify the crisis so that we can intervene helpfully and supportively. We can also provide information on resources that are available to survivors of sexual assault, their families, and their friends. 

What are some of the challenges that you face working the hotline?

Working on the hotline is extremely rewarding, but it can be upsetting at times. It’s important to be cognizant of one’s emotional limits. When I have finished a particularly distressing call, I reach out to the volunteer or staff member on hotline backup duty discuss the call and, if necessary, ask questions. It is reassuring to know that there is always another hotline advocate who can help me to process my feelings about the call. 

It sounds like this work makes a real difference in the lives of women.  Has your work in support of victims and survivors of sexual violence influenced your decision to pursue social work more broadly?

I originally became a volunteer with DCRCC because of my growing interest in psychology as a student at GW. My experience with DCRCC has certainly contributed to my continued interest in psychology and my decision to pursue a Masters in Social Work. I value my work at the Center because it has given me the chance to see what it might be like to do therapeutic work with individuals who experience trauma. I should mention here that the hotline advocates do not have therapeutic training; rather they have been trained by DCRCC to perform crisis intervention. Nevertheless, volunteering on the hotline has exposed me to the powerful connection that can be created between the caller and the hotline advocate, and has motivated me to pursue a career that focuses on this relationship.  

The DC Rape Crisis Center’s aim is “Creating a World Free of Sexual Violence.”  What are a few of the barriers to creating that world?

There are some very real barriers that stand in the way of ridding the world of sexual violence altogether. Eradicating someone’s desire to hurt another person is not a straightforward task. That said, organizations like DCRCC initiate dialogues about sexual assault that educate volunteers, survivors, and the general public about why sexual assault happens and how we can best support its survivors. This effort is crucial to decreasing the instances of sexual assault locally and globally, especially when there are still so many who are misinformed, or even uninformed, about this issue.
Are there concrete steps that GW could take in furthering the work of organizations like the DC Rape Crisis Center?

GW provides information about sexual assault and an opportunity to openly discuss it among peers during orientation for new students. I would urge GW to take this communication to the next level. The University might consider providing ongoing discussions of this type throughout the year for new and continuing students. Additionally, sexual assault education on campus should cater to sororities and fraternities specifically, since it is within these cultures that sexual assault frequently occurs. GW certainly provides many resources to its students, but information surrounding sexual assault should be a priority.