Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A.B. Yehoshua @ Sixth & I

On Sunday, April 19 at 7:00 pm, Sixth & I Historic Synagogue is hosting A.B. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s most acclaimed authors (Harold Bloom dubbed him the “Israeli Faulkner").

He will be reading from his latest novel, Friendly Fire, and discussing the book with Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic.

Tickets are $12 and can be purchased via the website.

T-Shirt Thursday Postponed Til Tuesday (4/28)

So were going to have our First Annual T-Shirt Thursday Extravaganza this Thursday.

As it turns out, though, we did not give students and faculty enough time to order their T-shirts from Zazzle. Also, "T-Shirt Thursday" does not alliterate.

SO ORDER YOUR SHIRT NOW. We are about to discontinue this model, so you will be purchasing a collector's item. Come fall, we are running a contest for a brand new departmental shirt. And make sure you read the back of the shirt, where it is made clear why ENGLISH IS THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE MAJORS OFFERED AT GW.

Another Poetry Prize

In early April we'll be awarding the prestigious Academy of American Poets College Prize to a G.W. student. Thanks to grants from the Jenny McKean Moore Fund for Writers and Columbian College in 1990, G.W. was able to join the influential Academy, founded in 1934 to support American poets and their work. In doing so, we became eligible to award an annual $100 prize--which we've named in memory of our colleague A.E. Claeyssens--for the best original student poem or group of poems.

When the college prizes were first offered in 1955, ten schools gave them out. Today some 180 colleges and universities participate. Many American poets won their first recognition with an Academy College Poetry Prize (Sylvia Plath, Louise Gluck, James Merrill, among them...along with some of us on the staff here.) Every five years the Academy publishes and distributes an anthology of selected prize-winning poems.

Faculty poets will judge the contest in early April.

Any undergraduate interested in competing for the Academy of American Poets Prize should submit the following to Jane Shore via the English Department, Rome Hall, by noon on Thursday, April 2:

1) 7 pages of original poetry (three clear copies of the manuscript, single-spaced, no more than one poem on a page;)

2) a single separate cover sheet bearing your name, address, e-mail address, local and/or cell phone number(s), class major. None of this information should appear on the poems themselves.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Poet Ed Skoog to Teach Poetry Writing Workshop

The English Department is pleased to announce that the 2009-2010 Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Washington will be the poet Ed Skoog, author of MISTER SKYLIGHT (Copper Canyon Press, 2009). Skoog will teach ENGL 181, a poetry writing workshop, both semesters, and will helm a free creative writing workshop open to the Washington, D.C. community (but closed to students).

The prerequisite for ENGL 181 is one 100-level Creative Writing course (preferably ENGL 104).

The Jenny McKean Moore Writer in Washington fellowship is made possible through the generosity of the late Jenny Moore. Moore, a playwriting student at The George Washington University, was a writer and social activist in Washington, D.C. After her passing in 1973, the Jenny Mckean Moore Fund was established to encourage creative writing. Every year, the GW English Department brings an established poet or novelist to campus to teach a writing workshop for GW students and a free community workshop for adults in the greater Washington community.

The Jenny McKean Moore Community Workshop is a free poetry workshop open to all interested community members, regardless of past experience. Read information about 2008's free workshop here, which was taught by Mary Morrissy.

Student Poetry Contest Elicits 41 Entries

The English Department thanks the forty-one students who submitted poems for our first annual Poetry Contest.

The winner will be announced on this blog in April.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Michael Chabon Reading in the Hatchet

Media Credit: Aude White/Hatchet photographer
From today's edition:

English department hosts renowned Jewish author
Michael Chabon delivers reading in Jack Morton

by Joe Mancinik
Hatchet Reporter

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon's reading in the Jack Morton Auditorium Monday night included pieces ranging from his thoughts on President Obama's election to his own son's circumcision.

Chabon appeared as part of the English department's Literature Live program, which introduces students to prominent Jewish-American authors. Chabon read two of his newest short stories and sat down for an informal interview with English professor Faye Moskowitz at Monday night's event.

Chabon said he is comfortable with being labeled a Jewish-American writer, but said he wants to be known for more as well. He used the example of science fiction writers who are consigned to what he referred to as "the ghetto" of the bookstore "because of the atoms and the little rocket ships on the label."

Chabon's first reading, titled "First Father," detailed being in Grant Park in Chicago with his youngest son, Abraham, on the night of President Obama's election. The night evoked conflicting emotions in him as he described how hesitant he would be to bring his children into the limelight like Obama's two young daughters.

The second reading, "First, First Father," was about what he termed the "minutely savage" event of the Jewish ritual circumcision for his sons. In the reading, he thought it ironic that he would subject his son to what he said amounted to genital mutilation in the name of God, whom he described as sounding like "every asshole I've ever met."

Chabon discussed the wide limits of the historical fiction genre.

"The most important thing is that it is not history. It can't be held back by the facts. If I say it happened, it happened. You can become a prisoner in the facts if you allow this madness," he said. "While it's still important to make it believable - and that's where research is important - there are fissures in the impenetrable surface where I can fill my imagination in."

Edward P. Jones, the Wang Visiting Professor in Contemporary English Literature, introduced Chabon at the reading. Jones, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, offered a tribute to Chabon and recalled how he had underlined many passages of Chabon's first novel, "Mysteries of Pittsburgh," after first reading it.

Earlier in the day, Chabon participated in a question and answer session with Moskowitz's class. Students said he was friendly and engaging and answered questions on topics as varied as his personal writing process to life as a parent.

Moskowitz is optimistic that the new literature program, made possible by a gift from David Bruce Smith, an alumnus and member of the Board of Trustees, will be continued in the fall. She added that she is elated to have prominent authors like Chabon come to the University.

Special One Credit Course for Fall 2009: “Narrating the Nation: From Gandhi to Glocalisation”

Each year under the rubric of "Studies in Contemporary Literature," the English Department brings you the chance to study for a time with a visiting international scholar or writer. The course is typically structured around a kind of "book club" format, with readings in four works (usually novels) over four nights. Students compose a reflection paper at the end and receive one credit. Past versions of this course have been offered by Nadeem Aslam, Suhayl Saadi, and Edward P. Jones.

In fall 2009 we are please to offer a "Studies in Contemporary Literature" focused upon literature in English composed in India. The course will be taught by Dr.v Navneet Sethi, a visiting Fulbright professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. There are no prerequisites and all are welcome. The course description is below.

Studies in Contemporary Literature
“Narrating the Nation : From Gandhi to Glocalisation”
A special, one credit course taught by Dr. Navneet Sethi, Jawaharlal Nehru University

In this course we will read four works of fiction in English by writers of Indian origin. Through these novels, we will explore and examine the idea of “nation” and “nationalism” as it impinges upon the experience of being an Indian. Working with Benedict Anderson’s definition of ‘nations’ as “imagined communities,” the readings will move within the theoretical framework of the Postcolonial critical terrain. From Kanthapura by Raja Rao (1938) that unequivocally defines nation as a real community guided by the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, to the uncharted mazes of money and murder as the only brand of ‘nationalism’ for our times in The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008), we will, in between these two works, explore the creation of two nations in Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh (1956) and the gift of a life and a dilemma at the very moment of the birth of a nation in Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981).

This one credit course meets: 9/29, 10/6, 10/13, and 10/20.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Michael Chabon Reading: Recap

Michael Chabon is many things. A 45 year old male. A Pulitzer Prize-winner. A Jewish-American author. A true geek. The author, best known for 2000’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, doesn’t like to be referred to by a single, restrictive label. Multiple labels he can tolerate, however.

If you keep up with this blog or watch the televisions in Gelman Library, you already know that Chabon held a public reading last night at the Jack Morton Auditorium, thanks to the generosity of the Wang Family and alumnus David Bruce Smith. If you were not lucky enough to attend the reading, hear his interview with Professor Faye Moskowitz, or get a book signed and picture taken, here are the highlights of the event.

Chabon was introduced by Edward P. Jones, GW’s first Wang Visiting Professor of Contemporary Literature. Chabon read two stories, both drawn from his own life. “First Father” was a somber reflection on the nature of fatherhood, inspired by Barack Obama’s Grant Park appearance after being elected President of the United States. “First First Father” was a comedic take on the purpose of circumcision.

After his reading, Faye Moskowitz, professor of the new Jewish Literature Live course, conducted a live interview of Chabon. He got his literary start in seventh grade, when he was assigned to write a short story. Taking inspiration from Nicholas Meyer, who adapted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Chabon wrote a new story for Holmes. Chabon’s tale featured a rendezvous with Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo and ended with a giant explosion––his teacher had expected only four pages of story, and Chabon, having written fifteen, was out of time.

Until college, Chabon did not write much in his free time; only for class assignments. Then, while working on The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, he was motivated by the writer down the hall. His competition had a loud typewriter, a smoking problem, and an enviable work habit.

When asked about the important of fatherhood in his novels, Chabon revealed that his parents’ divorce left him with a real sense of absence, although his father diligently supported him from a distance. This was some of the inspiration for Clay’s proclivity for making superheroes into father-figures by giving them boy sidekicks. Chabon also found adoptive father-figures throughout his life. He said, “There are lots of fathers out there who aren’t being used to their full potential… it’s kind of like you get them wholesale.”

Other aspects of Chabon’s adolescence have influenced his writing. By his own estimation, he lived in twenty-seven different houses over fourteen years. “I envy writers whose writing comes from a place, because I didn’t have that.” But moving around did have its benefits: “At least it gave me a wide range of backgrounds [to write about].”

Chabon was fascinated by the portrayal of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany in American comic books. The depiction of comic book heroes fighting the Nazis was “so poignant, yet so futile,” because their victories were only ever imagined. In writing The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Chabon looked for “cracks in history where maybe something somehow might have mitigated the Holocaust.” Since he had no first- or second-hand experience of the Holocaust (his family was hardly affected by it), Chabon’s novels help him feel connected to it.

Chabon related some difficulties he encountered while writing historical fiction and alternate history novels. At first, he felt constrained by the facts of history, such as the precise dismantling date of the 1939 Worlds Fair. Then, he realized, “That’s insane… If I say it was still there, then it was still there.” His justification is that he is not trying to trick his audience, but to “tell a story that will reveal a larger truth even if it is entirely made up.”

Moskowitz asked Chabon to respond to the claim that Kavalier and Clay seems to read like a comic book. He said, “That’s something I don’t see as much.” Undoubtedly, his appreciation for comic books had influenced him, but “What that influence is I’m not really sure.” With Kavalier and Clay, Chabon was “Trying to write something like Love in the Time of Comic Books.” He also appreciates a strong, momentous plot, because “I love movies, comics, television.” He believes, “It’s part of my duty to provide part of that push for the reader.”

On Monday, Chabon visited Moskowitz’s class because he is a “Jewish-American author.” He doesn’t resent the label, so long as it isn’t confining. “I’m proud to be labeled a Jewish-American author… as long as its not the only label.” To describe this desire, he invoked a metaphor of tags on a blog; many tags can be applied to a single blog post, but no tag describes the blog post in full. In contrast to tags, labels are “so vague and so general that they don’t apply to any single specific author.” Labels often limit a book to a particular section of a bookstore, of academe, or of a reader’s mind. It is too easy for readers to ignore books with unfamiliar labels. In particular, he lamented the mitigation of the science fiction genre. The science fiction sections of libraries are “ghettos where books have little atoms or rocketships on their spines.”

Chabon took three questions from the audience at the end of the interview.

“Your first draft of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was written in first person, but the published novel is in third person. What were your reasons for this change?”

Chabon responded that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, from draft to publication, shifted from first to third person and from past to present tense. Writing the novel in first person was an effort to emulate Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled detective fiction. This perspective didn’t work because “the plot was lousy” and because the narrator was “too garrulous.” He decided to switch to third person, in the style of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The shift to present tense made the book feel current, not historical, and it allowed him to dip into the past tense when he wished, instead of relying on the more confusing past perfect tense (“had had”).

“Is the perceived parallel between Kavalier’s escape from Europe and the escape of Superman from planet Krypton intentional?”

Chabon did not write the escape specifically as a Superman or immigrant parable. However, Kavalier’s journey to the Antarctic is partly intended as an allusion to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude (though, as Chabon noted, Superman’s hideaway is traditionally in the Arctic, not the Antarctic). It was natural for Kavalier to want to fight the Germans, so Chabon frustrated this desire by sending Kavalier to the “Antarctic Theatre” of WWII.
A possible subconscious inspiration for Kavalier’s escape was the Edgar Allen Poe novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which Chabon read as a child and then forgot. In it, Pym stows away on a vessel and, near death, is resuscitated by his dog.

“Your novels have been the subject of book-to-film adaptations, and you have proposed adaptations of comic books in the past. What is your view on these adaptations?”

Chabon replied, “I feel bad in a way.” Novels are novels and films are films; he dislikes when his literary audience anticipates a cinematic version of his work. When a reader asks, “When is the movie coming out?” it indicates a “level of satisfaction yet to be reached.” Chabon feels as though he has failed to satisfy with the novel.
He is wary of film adaptations. They often fail for one of two reasons: “either deviating in crucial way [from the book], or by being too true to the original texts.” However, he mentioned the The Cider House Rules as an example of both a good book and a good movie, but only because the author, John Irving, made necessary changes to the structure of the story to make it work on film.
Regarding his own proposed screen adaptations of comics series such as X-Men, he said that adapting comics is different from adapting novels. When adapting comics, one can pick and choose from the best parts of the whole series.

Don't forget to attend the April 2nd reading by Art Spiegelman, next Thursday at 7pm in the Jack Morton Auditorium.

Art Spiegelman: April 2 @ Jack Morton Auditorium, 7 PM

Michael Chabon and Me

by J J Cohen

Among my favorite perks as chair of the GW English Department is the chance to spend time with visiting novelists.

Because so much of my own writing proceeds through slow research and diligent translation -- through processes that seem like patient peering through a microscope -- I'm fascinated by how a novelist crafts an entire world: what retreat from our own world is required? What embrace? Do stories emerge in their full contours before the words that convey these stories flow, or is plot an efflorescence that comes with the words on the screen? What are the rituals that enable writing? How much research enables an imagined world to breathe?

Nadeem Aslam spoke to me of his utter withdrawal from human interaction while composing Maps for Lost Lovers. Family members delivered meals while he slept. Even his mother was forbidden from telephoning. Suhayl Saadi described a more convivial mode of composition, embracing the odd spots of towns to spur his imagination, writing under more gregarious conditions. Edward P. Jones loves to tell the story of how for several years he has inhabited an apartment filled only with unpacked boxes, a computer, and stacks of mail. He sleeps on the bare floor, and possesses no furniture. He lives not far from National Cathedral, and so not more than ten minutes from my own house. I often offer him a ride home (he owns no car), and as I drop him at the intersection of Wisconsin and Mass. Ave I wonder about the monastic solitude to which he is retreating. Sometimes I envy it.

Michael Chabon came to GW on Monday, a speaker in a series that a generous donor has enabled us to create. Jewish Literature Live is a course that 35 students are taking with my colleague Fay Moskowitz. They read six works by contemporary authors of Jewish-themed literature, and then those authors visit the class to speak about their work. Three of these invited authors also give big public readings: Anya Ulinich, Art Spiegelman, and Michael Chabon. Readers of this blog know that I am a fan of Chabon's work, from his first book (Mysteries of Pittsburgh) to his latest (The Yiddish Policemen's Union). I have a soft spot for his introduction to D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths, a tome much beloved as a child; I posted on the reissue of the book a few years ago, when I purchased it as a gift for my son.

I met Monday Chabon at his hotel to escort him to the class he would lead. This very copy of Norse Myths was tucked under my arm. I sat in the lobby and read the words of dedication I'd inscribed in 2007:
To Alex, This was one of my favorite books when I was ten. I hope you like it as much as I do. Love, Dad
That inscription transported me immediately to Cambridge, MA, in 2007 when I had stumbled upon the book in a local store. I was feeling guilty because instead of attending Alex's piano recital I was giving a paper at the place where I'd done my graduate work (a place that awakens in me all kinds of ambivalence, and sometimes regret). The gift and its inscription were my way of saying sorry to Alex for not being there. After I introduced myself to Chabon at the hotel, I asked him to sign the volume for my son. He smiled at my inscription then wrote:
To Alex -- The best book ever in the history of the universe. Michael Chabon.
I then walked Chabon from the hotel to the class he was to lead, nearly getting him hit by a car because I never pay enough attention to those little orange hands that are either saying hello or telling you to step out of the crosswalk NOW.

After the class ended I meandered a bit with Chabon, mocking him for drinking mocha frappuccinos and for possessing an iPhone with a vibrant pink rubber protective cover. We strolled by the White House and spoke of politics. In Lafeyette Park we chatted about fatherhood, and about how difficult it is to fail in that role ... because failure as a parent is as inevitable as it is heartbreaking. Then we met some students at an Indian restaurant and had a meal that made reaffirmed for me the deep affection I have for the young men and women who attend GW.

The newly signed Norse Myths accompanied me onstage later that evening. My job was to welcome the audience of about 300, and to play MC for the evening. Edward P. Jones was going to deliver the formal introduction ofChabon, but I wanted the audience to know why I had brought the two authors together. I opened Alex's book and read these lines from Chabon's preface to Norse Myths, some words about the trickster god Loki:
Ally and enemy, genius and failure; delightful and despicable, ridiculous and deadly, beautiful and hideous, hilarious and bitter, clever and foolish, Loki is the God of Nothing in Particular yet unmistakably of the ambiguous World Itself ... Loki never turned up among the lists of Great Literary Heroes (or Villains) of Childhood, and yet he was myfavorite character in the book that was for many years my favorite, a book whose subtitle might have been How Loki Ruined the World and Made It Worth Talking About ... He was god of the endlessly complicating nature of plot, of storytelling itself.
Loki is, I offered, the patron deity of both Edward P. Jones and Michael Chabon, two authors whose work seems disparate only to a quick glance. Their novels, I suggested, were different versions of the same story. The Known World and The Yiddish Policemen's Union envision histories that never were, geographies that fade from every map as their stories close. Chabon and Jones conjure pasts that have never been, create time only to to lose that time, and yet these imagined histories are in a way more real than the present we inhabit, more truthful than any now can possess.

I didn't get home that evening until past 10 PM, a fourteen hour day. I had seen my daughter Katherine and my son Alex only briefly that morning: a messy-haired girl refusing to leave the warmth of her bed, a sleepy-eyed boy already packing his book bag for school. Both slept soundly. Both possessed that happiness that only children secure in their dreams can hold.

I placed the signed book next to Alex's bed for him to discover in the morning.

[x-posted from ITM]

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Best Student Poem Contest: Deadline is this Friday!

The GW English Department is pleased to announce our first annual Student Poetry Contest. Anyone can enter, and the prize (generously donated by a departmental supporter) is an astonishing $500.

RULES: Poems are judged anonymously. Students should submit one poem, no more than 200 lines long. A separate cover sheet should include the author's name, the title of the poem, GW ID number, and contact information (e-mail and phone). The student's name should appear only on the cover sheet.

Submissions should be turned in to the English Department office, Rome Hall 760, by noon on Friday March 27.
The contest will be judged by English Department faculty.

English Department Courses for Fall 2009

Course descriptions for fall semester upper-division English classes may be accessed here.

Please keep these courses in mind when making your choices:

(1) The Folger Undergraduate Research Seminar on the History of the Book. The application deadline is this Friday, March 27. This is a one of a kind course.
Info and application
View an article with video
Hatchet article

(2) The two courses being taught by Jose Munoz, our second Wang Visiting Professor of Contemporary Literature. Professor Munoz is an excellent teacher, and the founder of a whole discipline of study.

Discussion Groups for The Known World

Come to a discussion of Edward Jones’s The Known World
It’s the second session of THE BIG READ. Interested? Just show up!
  • Thursday, March 26th at 4-5:30. FACULTY PANEL with presentations by Professors Catherine Allen (Anthropology), Herman Carrillo (Creative Writing), David DeGrazia (Philosophy), Melani McAllister (American Studies), and Andrew Smith (Classics). This session is designed especially for discussion leaders as well as for faculty and staff members. Phillips 411
  • Monday, March 30. Discussion led by Professor Lisa Page (English) 5-6:30 Rome 663
  • Tuesday, March 31. Discussion led by ProfessorAndrew2Smith (Classics). 12-1:30 Phil 510
  • Wednesday, April 1 Discussion led by Lauren Shababb (Ph.D. student, English) 12:30-2 Rome 201
  • Thursday, April 2. Discussion led by Professor Catherine Allen (Anthropology) 4-5:30 Rome 663
  • Friday, April 3. Discussion led by Professor Phyllis Palmer (Chair, American Studies) 11:30-12:45 in American Studies Seminar Room.
  • Monday, April 6. Discussion led jointly by Professor David DeGrazia and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard (Philosophy). 12:30-2. MPA 208
  • Tuesday, April 7. Discussion led by Professor Herman Carrillo (Creative Writing/English) 5-6:30 Rome 663
  • Wednesday, April 8 Two discussions: #1 Led by Professor Melani McAlister (American Studies). 12-1:30 Rome 201; #2 Led by Professor Jennifer James 4-5:30 Rome 663
  • Thursday, April 9. Discussion led by Professor Michael Moses (Mathematics). 4-5:30 Rome 663
  • Friday, April 10. Discussion led by Professor Michelle Brafman (English). 1-2:30. MPA 208

Poet Kwame Alexander @ Gelman

Kwame Alexander’s And Then You Know
New and Selected Poems at Gelman Library’s Special Collections Research Center
Poetry Reading and Reception

On April 9 from 7 PM to 9 PM, the Special Collections Research Center of the Gelman Library invites the community to a poetry reading and reception celebrating the publication of Washington poet Kwame Alexander's And Then You Know: New and Selected Poems with special guest Deanna Nikaido, author of A Voice Like Water: Love Poems. Live music and book signing will follow the reading in room 207 of the Gelman Library.

Kwame Alexander is a poet, publisher, playwright, producer, speaker, and performer. He has conducted standing-room only publishing workshops, and performed his cutting-edge brand of poetry to audiences at numerous conferences, colleges, and venues throughout the world, including Stratford-on-Avon, Brixton Town Hall, Oberlin College, UC Berkeley, Hampton University, Duke University, and the University of Maryland. As a literary expert and commentator, he has appeared on a variety of television and radio programs including Fox News, Tavis Smiley, NPR's Kojo Namdi Show, and several NBC and Fox affiliates. The founder of two book publishing companies, BlackWords Press and the Alexander Publishing Group, Alexander is responsible for bringing progressive and original fiction and non-fiction to receptive audiences. The Special Collections Research Center is proud to hold the Kwame Alexander Papers, which document Alexander’s many-faceted career.

“A Kind of Map of Life” at Gelman

Gelman Library Exhibit Opening:
“A Kind of Map of Life”: The Fiction of Edward P. Jones

Stop by Café G on the first floor of Gelman Library to see “A Kind of Map of Life”: The Fiction of Edward P. Jones, a new exhibit that explores the connections between Jones’ work and the history of African Americans in Washington, DC. The exhibit will remain up through the end of the semester.

Edward P. Jones is GW’s first Wang Visiting Professor in Contemporary English Literature. A resident of Washington, Jones is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the novel The Known World, as well as two volumes of acclaimed short stories set in the District of Columbia, Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children.

The exhibit features photographs and artifacts housed in the Special Collections Research Center, and was developed in collaboration with graduate students Elizabeth Pittman and Constance Woodard of the Department of English. In The Known World, the novel's setting shifts from fictional Manchester County, Virginia, to Washington, DC, establishing the important links between the generation of men and women who were enslaved in the South and those who escaped (or migrated) and established themselves in the North. In Jones' collections of short stories, he depicts characters whose Southern roots and cultural ties must be negotiated in the swiftly changing urban context of the District. These links between South and North, present and past, and individual and community are illustrated in the exhibit through scrapbooks, photographs, and everyday objects that provide a glimpse into the lives of 19th and 20th century African American Washingtonians.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Margaret Soltan on Gchat

Professor Margaret Soltan, via Columbia News Service, talking about Gchat and professor-student interaction:

For Margaret Soltan, an English professor at George Washington University, Gchat is wonderful for connecting with students outside of class.

Over the years, the tech-savvy teacher has accumulated dozens of students on her Gchat list, and she chats with them frequently. While not all realize that she can “see” them until she pings them for the first time—which, to be sure, can catch some off guard—she occasionally uses the tool to coordinate conferences or discuss letters of recommendation when time is tight. It’s convenient, she says.

Soltan also likes perusing students’ status messages. “They give me a little window” into them, she says. “They are like little mini-diaries of student life.”

Sometimes Soltan takes her observations a step further: When she spots a misspelling, she isn’t shy about pointing it out. “I’ll Gchat them and say, ‘Revise your message!’” she says, laughing. She tells them she’s joking a few seconds later—but they’re usually apologetic and a little embarrassed.

“I suppose you’re vulnerable to this kind of thing,” Soltan says. “Your crazy English professor bursts in and tells you to fix your spelling error!”

Sunday, March 22, 2009



Michael Chabon’s first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) was a New York Times bestseller. His second Wonder Boys (1995), was made into a critically-acclaimed film featuring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire. His young adult novel, Summerland, won the 2003 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature. He has also written articles and essays, a number of screenplays and teleplays (as well as sharing story credit for Spiderman 2). The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the Pulitzer Prize. Chabon’s novella The Final Solution (2004) was awarded the 2005 National Jewish Book Award and also the 2003 Aga Khan Prize for Fiction by The Paris Review. Chabon also writes a regular column for the magazine Details.

Michael Chabon has lectured widely on topics including the art and craft of writing and the tradition of Jewish fiction. His novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a hardboiled detective novel set in an alternate world where Israel failed to be born and millions of European Jewish refugees took shelter in Alaska, creating a miniature American Yiddishland. It became a New York Times bestseller immediately upon publication and won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2008. In 2007, his short swashbuckling adventure novel, Gentlemen of the Road appeared. Michael Chabon’s collection of essays entitled Maps & Legends was published by McSweeney’s in 2008.

Mr. Chabon will be introduced by EDWARD P. JONES

Free and open to all, but seating is limited. This event has been made possible through the generosity of David Bruce Smith and the Wang Endowment

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Defense of the Humanities

by J J Cohen

From Geoffrey Galt Harpham, president and director of the National Humanities Center, writing in The Chronicle:

The alleviation of human suffering, the restoration of opportunity, and the resurrection of confidence must be our top priorities. But the present crisis must not be the horizon of our thinking; our most immediate concerns cannot be our only concerns. While we are struggling through the morass of the present, we must retain both our memory, which sustains us, and our imagination, which must light the way forward.

Memory and imagination place us in the general domain of the humanities. And that leads to my main argument: The humanities are, if not the top priority right now, at least one of the areas that must be recognized as crucial, and supported accordingly. The present crisis does not eclipse the humanities but rather reveals the need for the skills, dispositions, and resources that the humanities, and only the humanities, cultivate ...

Our models failed not because they were imprecise but because they were too precise, too neat and crisp to take in the imaginative and social nature of value ... Now, with the collapse of financial markets worldwide, we see that all value, everywhere, is a function of confidence, or a belief in fictions. The immense cash infusions on which we now pin our hopes are simply fictions that we hope will be more persuasive than others — not because they are real, but simply because a large power insists that they be taken for real: They are, as the phrase has it, "backed by the full faith and confidence of the federal government."

Our material lives are sustained by our belief in such fictions, and when we stop believing — as we now have, temporarily — we see revealed the immaterial foundations of the real world. When, a generation ago, a few "postmodern" theorists began to talk about the fictional character of reality, they were laughed at by those who considered themselves hardheaded realists; nobody, not even the most doctrinaire postmodernist, is laughing now.

So why support the humanities? The answer is not just that the humanities deserve no less than Citigroup, AIG, or General Motors — in fact, the humanities do not need a huge bailout, only predictable support — but that the humanities elicit and exercise ways of thinking that help us navigate the world we live in. For my money, that's about as essential as it gets.

Wow, an apologia for the humanities that embraces the insights of critical theory rather than dismisses theory as something that got in the way of seeing what was valuable within humanistic study. It sure isn't the 1990s any more.

[my thanks to Roy
Guenther for sending me this article]

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Michael Chabon, Norse Myths, and Alternate Universes

In anticipation of Michael Chabon reading at GW on March 23 at 7 PM (Jack Morton Auditorium, SMPA), I offer this piece that I composed back in 2006.
I was in the third grade when I first read this book, and already suffering the changes, the horns, wings and tusks that grow on your imagination when you thrive on a steady diet of myths and fairy tales ... The world of the Norse gods and men and giants, which the d'Aulaires depicted, in a stunning series of lithographs, with such loving and whimsical and brutal delicacy, begins in darkness, and ends in darkness, and is veined like a fire with darkness that forks and branches. It is a world conjured against darkness, in its lee, so to speak ... We all grew up -- all of us, from the beginning -- in a time of violence, absurdity and Armageddon, prey and witness to the worst and best in humanity, in a world ruined and made interesting by Loki. I took comfort, as a kid, in knowing that things had always been as awful and as wonderful as they were now, that the world had always been on the edge of total destruction, even if, in Maryland in 1969, as today, it seemed a little more true than usual.

So writes Michael Chabon in his introduction to the recently reissued children's classic, D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths (known to those of us who read it in its earlier incarnations as Norse Gods and Giants). The book is worth purchasing for Chabon's preface alone, so well does his short essay capture the appeal of this alternate universe as portrayed by the d'Aulaires. Chabon describes how the book combined "fustian-free" and shockingly nonjudgmental prose with "spectacular and quirky" lithographs -- a true marriage of text and picture in which Edgar Parin d'Aulaire and Ingri Mortenson became, like their art, a composite entity.

I've enjoyed Chabon's work since his debut novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, so it was amusing to find that he was as passionate in his youth about the work of the d'Aulaires as I was. Reading their Book of Greek Myths in second grade made me want to become a classicist (it was only later in life that I figured out that the d'Aulaires had de-sexualized those stories quite a bit, describing every erotic conquest of a male god as his "wife"). Their retelling of Northern mythology, on the other hand, may have cemented my fate as a medievalist: otherwise I am at a loss to explain those years I spent learning Old English and Old Norse. There was something appealingly alien in the world they conjured through their art, a strange place where the divinities were both mortal and juvenile; where fate could be tricked and the heavens confused; where a god of mischief might transform himself into a mare and find himself the surprised mother of a baby horse, Sleipnir. It seemed to my youthful mind that the laws governing virtue, reward, justice and biology simply didn't apply in this realm ... and I loved that.

I picked up my copy of D'Aulaire's Book of Norse Myths at a bookstore in Hanover, NH last month. It has been republished by the New York Review in a faithful presentation that retains the high quality stock of the original paper, and even its slightly beige color. It's been a trip down memory lane for me -- at least when I can wrench the thing from Kid #1's hands. He was attempting to place it in his bookbag this morning to read at school and didn't buy my patently weak reason for forbidding it ("The book is too heavy to take" I declared. Why is it mandatory as a parent that you say stupid things to your offspring?). Somehow I did convince him to let me have the volume, and I've spent the morning lost in its quirky, non-fustian world.

Monday, March 16, 2009

GW MEMSI Press Release

Readers of this blog have known about GW MEMSI for quite some time, but the university just issued the official press release:


Multi-Disciplinary Institute Focuses on Early Europe's Global Context

WASHINGTON - The George Washington University's newly created Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies brings together scholars and students in history, English, French, and Italian to foster new research and exchange ideas. The institute solidifies a rapidly building scholarly community and strengthens existing partnerships between GW and other organizations, such as the Folger Shakespeare Library, where GW students have access to the world's largest collection of Shakespeare materials and other rare works for study and research.

Inspired by the University's surroundings of Washington, D.C, the institute focuses on early Europe within an intercultural, transnational context. Its programs will prepare both undergraduates and graduates for advanced degrees through significant research projects and will illustrate the important role humanities research has in the world.

"Medieval and early modern Europe was influenced by a multitude of languages and cultures. Cities such as London were cosmopolitan, but they also were culturally complex places animated by international phenomena like war, commerce, religion, immigration, and colonization," said Jeffrey J. Cohen, professor and chair of GW's Department of English and director of the institute. "Cities, such as Washington, D.C., still struggle with these issues today. Having the institute in the center of the nation's capital, spurs us to think about the past in the context of our historical moment."

Gail Paster, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, said, "GW's new Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies is cause for celebration. This period in European cultural history was formative of our own moment. We at the Folger Shakespeare Library look forward with great excitement to future collaborations with GW's faculty and students. The period's rich history, literature, and theatre continue to hold great interest for thoughtful Americans."

GW's Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies is the first major humanities initiative funded under the University's Research Enhancement Fund. Faculty members hope to host a major colloquium, regular research meetings, and an international conference, as well as publish publications. Topics of study include the slave trade and the circum-Atlantic; violence and cultural differentiation; consumption and trade; and the interactions among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The institute also is supported by faculty and scholars from American University, Georgetown University, George Mason University, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Shakespeare Theatre, and the University of Maryland.

Beth Lattin, a GW senior and double major in English and math, said, "Learning about Shakespeare and medieval and early modern Europe can be daunting, but these programs give students a great hands-on approach, rather than just simply studying texts. Students who are interested in continuing their studies will find that the projects and exposure helps prepare them for future degrees and careers."

Countdown: Seven Days

Edward P. Jones introduces Michael Chabon
Monday March 23

Chabon will read from his works, be interviewed live by Professor Faye Moskowitz, and sign copies of his books
7 PM
Jack Morton Auditorium
School of Media and Public Affairs, GW

Free and open to all who would like to attend, but seating is limited.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Monday March 23: A Pulitzer Prize Winning Novelist Introduces a Pulitzer Prize Winning Novelist


Michael Chabon’s first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988) was a New York Times bestseller. His second Wonder Boys (1995), was made into a critically-acclaimed film featuring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire. His young adult novel, Summerland, won the 2003 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature. He has also written articles and essays, a number of screenplays and teleplays (as well as sharing story credit for Spiderman 2). The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay won the Pulitzer Prize. Chabon’s novella The Final Solution (2004) was awarded the 2005 National Jewish Book Award and also the 2003 Aga Khan Prize for Fiction by The Paris Review. Chabon also writes a regular column for the magazine Details.

Michael Chabon has lectured widely on topics including the art and craft of writing and the tradition of Jewish fiction. His novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a hardboiled detective novel set in an alternate world where Israel failed to be born and millions of European Jewish refugees took shelter in Alaska, creating a miniature American Yiddishland. It became a New York Times bestseller immediately upon publication and won the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2008. In 2007, his short swashbuckling adventure novel, Gentlemen of the Road appeared. Michael Chabon’s collection of essays entitled Maps & Legends was published by McSweeney’s in 2008.

Mr. Chabon will be introduced by EDWARD P. JONES

Free and open to all, but seating is limited. This event has been made possible through the generosity of David Bruce Smith and the Wang Endowment

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Former GW Graduate Students Editing Collection on Post 9/11 Music

Joseph Fisher and Brian Flota, who describe themselves as "surely two of the department's most handsome students," are collaborating on a collection of essays entitled “Catastrophe and the Cure”: The Politics of Post-9/11 Music. Their call for papers reads in part:

In current debates about the War in Iraq, it has become commonplace for politicians and journalists to conjure the specter of the Vietnam War as a means of quantifying the impact of the current war in American culture and throughout the world. Surprisingly, though, few have scrutinized these comparisons to examine the differences between the popular music of the Vietnam era and the music of the current post-9/11 era. While the Vietnam era found countless bands and musicians responding in protest to that war, there has arguably been a significantly smaller amount of contemporary musicians who have taken overt stances, in their music, about the politics of post-9/11 life, in America and elsewhere.

“Catastrophe and the Cure”: The Politics of Post-9/11 Music is the title of a proposed anthology examining “post-9/11” music. Abstracts are sought for articles attempting to theorize what post-9/11 music is, if such a category can be said to exist, and what political action it takes (or needs to take), if any. Proposed articles should be theoretically engaged and should be written with an academic readership in mind. Of particular interest are abstracts that seek to extend discussions of post-9/11 music beyond the bands/musicians/albums—U2, The Rising, The Dixie Chicks, Toby Keith, etc.—typically associated with 9/11.
Read the entire CFP here. Personally I can't say if Fisher and Flota really are among our most handsome students (like all undergraduate English majors, all graduate students in English are as good looking as they are frighteningly smart: this combination of traits is listed in our requirements, go check) -- but I will say that they demonstrate in their scholarship and teaching what is best about our graduate program.

In memoriam: Violet McCandlish

by Robert Ganz

Longtime departmental supporter Violet McCandlish passed away recently. Professor Robert Ganz has compsoed this tribute

For many of us in the department, Violet McCandlish was a very supportive, colorful, warm and essential presence. In 1966, the year after George McCandlish took over the early American “slot”—which he filled so well—Violet and the kids left their interesting house in Cambridge, MA, a square former auto garage that they converted, arranging the bedrooms etc. around the large central space; and took up residence on Thirty-third place in Cleveland Park. That large house became the location of many a sumptuous and exciting party after the Tupper Shakespeare lectures and other occasions. Violet was a spectacular cook. It was because of the McCandlishes that Annie and I put several of our children into Sidwell Friends School and also moved to Cleveland Park. They were our kindly models and mentors. During several successive summer sessions, when Annie and I had rented out our own house, I stayed gratis at the McCandlishes while they were away. One summer, David McAleavey and I were roommates there. Although Violet was a very proper Bostonian Brahmin—a member of the well-to-do Brooks family that the John Adamses were so happy to marry into—she decisively pulled up roots and planted herself permanently in Washington. After George’s untimely death in Italy in the spring of 1975, during the third or fourth year of his chairmanship, Violet eventually moved to a different house in Cleveland Park, which was the scene of a series of lovely annual spring parties—gatherings of old friends--that spilled out into her interesting yard. Every year in the same season she and several of her cronies put on an exhibition of their paintings in the Deanery during the annual spring fair at the Cathedral. She also took painting trips to places like St. Bart’s island in the Caribbean. She summered in her old stone house in Southwest Harbor, Maine. She was a regular attendant at the D.C. concerts and operas. She had interesting little dogs. For many years, she was Precinct Captain of the Cleveland Park polling station. During the war, she was a driver in France with the WAAC’s; and I believe that that was where she and George met. It is something of a consolation for me that my last meeting with Violet, like my last meeting with George many years earlier, was a very pleasant one. We had as our guest for Obama’s Inaugural one of George’s former PhD students from Japan; and Violet took us all to the Black Salt Restaurant on McArthur Boulevard. Violet’s son, David was also there along with his wife, Lonnie, and daughter, Georgia. As we left, I noticed that David had on George’s old Inverness of the sort that Sherlock Holmes used to wear. It looked to be in perfect shape. We had a fine time and Violet was very much in charge. What a gap she leaves behind her!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Humanities and Arts Space: About that Coffee House ...

In the comments to this post, Sasha wrote:
Why can't this come true? JJC, can we start some big petition for a student run, GW affiliated coffee house? Is there really any way of making this happen? ... Jokes aside, is there really any of petitioning the school to allot some money toward turning fishbowl, or whatever into a coffee house run by students, that I guess, gives most, if not all of the profits earned to GW? There could be so many fantastic student readings there and the possibilities are endless! Students could showcase their art, etc, etc, etc. I feel so out of the loop and kind of silly not having a GW Coffee House, we just have Starbucks (4?), Starbucks pt.2 in the Marvin Center, ABP...
I did send an email to Helen Cannaday-Saulny, GW's Assistant Vice President for Student Academic Support Services. She's the one who is behind the Fishbowl, that forlorn expanse of chairs that sits on G Street. Is that lounge always vacant, or empty of human beings only when I walk by? Admittedly, my strolling tends to be in the AM. Is the space in heavier use during the evenings?

I sent the email on October 24 2008, and a quick check of my inbox shows that as of today no reply or even an acknowledgment from VP Cannaday-Saulny has been received.

My own guess: the Fishbowl is there as a placeholder. Once the university gets more funding for buildings, I predict the lounge will be knocked down and a new "Center for Advanced Policy Studying the Advanced Study of Policy Study" will rise there. Despair not, though: it will have a burrito place on the ground floor, and students will be able to use their meal cards. What it will lack is a place for poetry readings, art exhibits, good coffee, and faculty-student hanging out. Still, I hear that Chipotle has decent guacamole.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Two Courses to Consider for the Fall Semester

We are fortunate to have a renowned scholar of theory, performance studies and Latino literature join us in the fall semester. José Muñoz is our second Wang Visiting Professor in Contemporary English Literature in GW's Department of English. He will be teaching two courses, both open to all qualified undergraduates. Professor Muñoz is a charismatic teacher and a field-defining writer. Don't miss this chance to study with him!

Performing Race, Sex and Gender (English 172.14, TR 11:10AM - 12:25PM)
This course looks at the pivotal role played by performance in popular culture, art, literature and everyday life. The class offers an introduction to Performance Studies, a field that looks at not only how actual theatrical performances are staged but also at the concept of performativity, allowing us to consider the ways in which words and even objects do things. Our critical lens will be brought to bear on the ways in which race, gender and sexuality are performed in North American culture. This course will examine performance and installation art, popular genres like stand-up comedy, contemporary literature and film.

Public Feelings
(English 701.10, Tuesday 3:30PM - 6:00PM)
How do we know and describe feeling? Is there a particularly American way of feeling? How does African American culture tell a story of black feelings? Can contemporary Latino literature and performance instruct us in what its like to feel Brown? What are queer feeling and who has them? This course looks at a range of public feelings that include hope and hopelessness, depression and ecstasy, joy and sadness. We will inquire into the role of politics in public feelings and emotions in popular culture. Readings will include work in the emerging field of affect studies. This course is open to both undergraduate and graduate students.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Gayle Wald on "Soul!"

[illustration: Ellis Haizlip talks to Amiri Baraka in a promotional image for "Soul!"]

"Soul!" was a groundbreaking TV variety show that aired on PBS from 1968-73. Originating at WNET in New York, the program featured an astonishingly broad range of black and Latino performers, many of who had never been on TV before.

"Soul!" presents a fascinating opportunity to examine how a television show attempted to communicate ideas about Black Power to a television audience. Professor Gayle Wald is currently researching and writing book about "Soul!" -- its production history, cultural significance, influence, and audience -- for Duke University Press's "Console-ing Passions" series, which focuses on television and film. The book will be the first academic study of "Soul!", a show which is not currently commercially available (although enterprising DC folks can see episodes at the Library of Congress--and you might even bump into Prof. Wald there). Interest in "Soul!" is building online, and WNET has recently begun making selected episodes available for streaming. Prof. Wald has also contributed an essay to the WNET website, documenting the basic history of the show and its host/producer, Ellis Haizlip, a Washington, DC native. The comments are themselves worthy of reading, just for the testifying.

Professor Faye Moskowitz Introduces Max Ticktin at Adas Israel

Max Ticktin, Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at the George Washington University, is the scholar in residence at Adas Israel March 20-22.

He will be introduced by the English Department's own Faye Moskowitz. Information here, or click on the image at left. Free.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Bored of Capitol Hill? Go to the Theatre

It's time to reveal a secret: I'm not actually an English major. My major is Dramatic Literature, which I like to describe as the lovechild of GW's English and Theatre departments. As a DramaLit major, I try to see a performance in the District every month or so. In February, I saw a wonderfully intimate production of Les Miserables at Signature Theatre. This Friday I will be attending Richard III: An Arab Tragedy at the Kennedy Center, as part of a class taught by professor Leslie Jacobson of the Theatre and Dance Department. I and my Theatre Living and Learning Cohort (LLC) will be attending a Saturday matinee of The Winter's Tale at the Folger. DC has a fantastic theatre community, but one that is sometimes overshadowed by the city's political pedigree.

Experiencing outstanding theatre can be difficult on a student's budget, but many companies in DC offer discount student tickets. I have had particular success with the Shakespeare Theatre Company and with the Kennedy Center's Attend program, which both offer early-run tickets in the $10-$20 range. The Catalyst Theatre Company only sells $10 tickets, and their production of 1984 in September was outstanding. Even if a particular theatre does not offer student discounts, almost every one offers group discounts. Seeing Les Mis in a group of 10 saved each person about $30.

Since drama is not too far removed from literature, I'd like to share a few suggestions for upcoming performances. Every month, District blog DCist composes a useful roundup of upcoming theatre shows. Here are the highlights from March's Theatre Preview:
  • It's all Greek to Shakespeare Theatre Company as they perform Ion (March 10).
  • Olney's got a world premiere up its sleeve in King of the Jews (March 11).
  • Forum Theatre's Marisol focuses on the plight of a copy editor (March 14).
  • Two estranged friends try to avoid war in Theater J's latest, Benedictus (March 14).
  • Another Kennedy Center cameo: Khamsoun ("Fifty"), a Tunisian work. (March 14)
  • I only want to say...that Ted Neely's STILL in Jesus Christ Superstar, over at the Warner. (March 17).
  • One woman's vision=Stoop Stories at Studio. (March 20).
  • Check out the fruits of Arena's open casting call for the lead role in Crowns. (March 27).
  • Woolly goes south in its intriguing-looking Antebellum (March 30).
Be sure to check out the original DCist post for a complete listing of current and upcoming shows. They have similar roundups at the beginning of every month.

For more information and reviews about shows I have seen with my LLC, visit our blog.

I am not a crimefighter. Also, academic expenditures.

Earlier this morning I directed your attention to one article from The Hatchet. Now let me call your attention to another, in which it is revealed that the chair of the Sociology Department is also a crime busting superhero. Note to all English Department faculty, students, and alumni: you will never read an article in The Hatchet about me chasing criminals to the Foggy Bottom Metro and preventing them from absconding with stolen goods by blocking their hailing of taxis. My only superpower involves good sight translation of Latin, and I don't think that will restore any stolen property to its rightful owner.

Speaking of the pilfering of money from all available wallets, the Hatchet also has an interesting short piece by Andrew Pazdon, who makes the astounding argument that perhaps some misplaced priorities are revealed when a university's capital budget allocates $175 million for student life, housing and recreation, and then a mere $18 million for academic spending. I thought I was the only one who worried more about the availability of journals in Gelman than the necessity of burritos and pizza at J Street. Proposal: use $2 million of the $175 million (that's 1%) to found a funky coffee house (student life!) furnished with really good books and a place for poetry readings (academic spending!). Have a take-out window on the side for burritos and pizza if that is the only way to get it through: but please, could we have an arts and humanities space for our students and faculty to gather and to be together outside the classroom?

Faye Moskowitz's 'Jewish Literature Live' Course in the Hatchet

From today's Hatchet:

Jewish literature lives

by Ani Mamourian
Hatchet Reporter

For English professor Faye Moskowitz, putting students in contact with authors meant bridging the connection between reader and writer.

Moskowitz teaches Jewish Literature Live, a new course that brings contemporary Jewish American authors to campus.

Anya Ulinich will read from her novel "Petropolis" this Thursday, and later in the semester, contemporary writers Michael Chabon and Art Spiegelman will visit the course, as well as participate in public readings for the larger University community.

The author visits are made possible through a $30,000 grant from GW alumnus David Bruce Smith, who left the design of the course and the choice of speakers up to Moskowitz.

"I was concerned that when Professor Moskowitz decides to retire, there will be no one teaching Jewish literature, and I was fearful of that absence," said Smith, characterizing his choice to fund the course this year.

Jewish Literature Live marks the second time an English department course continually brought in writers. According to Moskowitz, about seven years ago, a course titled Literature Live brought local writers in to speak to students. Moskowitz said because of the grant for this specific course, she was able to bring authors to the University from outside of the D.C. area.

Though Smith said he sees the class as an experiment, both he and Moskowitz expressed pleasure with its progress. Jeffrey Cohen, English department chair, stressed in an e-mail how important the study of Jewish literature is to the department.

Moskowitz has taught Jewish literature courses for the English department before, but Smith's grant allows the inclusion of one extra word: live. After the students in the class read a book, they formulate questions for the author, who comes to the class to participate in a discussion of his or her work.

"The question of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century is a question that undergirds the course, because we're finding that the Jewish experience is so varied," Moskowitz said. She stressed the importance of determining why a certain book is of specific Jewish interest, saying that being written by a Jewish author is not enough.

"They really want to talk about the major themes, what major idea or emotion or event did the author want to write about," said Moskowitz of her students, characterizing these discussions as enforcing an intimate relationship between reader and writer.

"You can learn new things from reading what the author has to say about his process or talking with the author," she said, highlighting the importance of allowing an author to offer their own interpretation of their work.

Though not all of the authors who speak to Jewish Literature Live will give public readings on campus, students look forward to this week's visiting author, Anya Ulinich, who will read from her novel "Petropolis," a satirical love story, as well as a selection of her other writing.

"I've never done readings to large groups of young people before, but I'm excited," Ulinich said.

Ulinich will read in the Marvin Center Third Floor Amphitheater Thursday, March 5 at 8 p.m.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Poetry Contest: $500 for Best Student Poem!

Happy memories of springtime daffodils? Brooding lines about "The dew that flies/Suicidal"? Sugary fluff that cools the longing for wordplay? Creepy verbal portraiture?

We love it all.

That's why the GW English Department is pleased to announce our first annual Student Poetry Contest. Anyone can enter, and the prize (generously donated by a departmental supporter) is an astonishing $500.

RULES: Poems are judged anonymously. Students should submit one poem, no more than 200 lines long. A separate cover sheet should include the author's name, the title of the poem, GW ID number, and contact information (e-mail and phone). The student's name should appear only on the cover sheet.

Submissions should be turned in to the English Department office, Rome Hall 760, by noon on Friday March 27.
The contest will be judged by English Department faculty.

Happy writing!

What Are You Reading Over Spring Break?

Here's a suggestion. Here's another. And another.

And then you can have these books signed by MICHAEL CHABON himself on Monday, March 23 at 7 PM in the Jack Morton Auditorium.

Chabon will be introduced by Edward P. Jones, will read from his work, and will be interviewed live by Faye Moskowitz.

Book signing follows.

Free and open to all who would like to attend ... but seating is limited. Doors close when the auditorium is full.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Alumnus Interview: David Bruce Smith '79

If you have been to a GW basketball game or a rained-out Fall Fest, you probably recognize the name Smith. “Smith” might be the most common surname in the United States, but it also has an illustrious history at GW. The Smith Center is named after D.C. real estate developer and GWU benefactor Charles E. Smith, and the Smith Hall of Art is named after his son Robert H. Smith. Although his grandson does not yet have a building of his own at GW, he recently sponsored a new class in the GW English Department: Faye Moskowitz’s “Literature Live” course focusing on contemporary Jewish-American literature.

When I met with David Bruce Smith last Friday (27 February 2009), he was awaiting the delivery of his new book, Thirteen Young Men: How Charles E. Smith Influenced a Community, his fifth and final book about his grandfather. I chatted with David about his literary career, his hopes for the “Literature Live” course, his time at GW, and his experience serving on GW’s Board of Trustees.

CALDER STEMBEL: It has been just over a year since we featured you on the GW English blog for the first time. Then, you had just published Three Miles from Providence: A Tale of Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. What have you been working on over the past year?

DAVID BRUCE SMITH: Actually, I have a book coming out today. It’s being delivered today. It might be coming out in an hour. It’s about my grandfather. It’s called Thirteen Young Men: How Charles E. Smith Influenced a Community. It’s about how he and others raised the money to build the Rockville Jewish Community Center complex in the ‘60s. This is the fifth and last book about my grandfather. I started on September 27th 2007, to be exact, and the writing was done in August of ’08, and then you have the corrections and all that stuff. So it was done in January.

CS: What has motivated you to write five books about your grandfather, besides the fact that he’s had a big influence on the Jewish community in Washington, DC?

DBS: Well the first book, which was in 1985, that was accidental. He had hired someone to help him with his memoirs; he asked me to read the manuscript, and I didn’t really care for it. He asked me if I wanted to take it over, so I took it over with someone who I found who was a professional writer.

Then, he wanted a collection of his speeches. So in 1988 I did a collection of his speeches. Whenever I do a book, I try to do it so it’s a little bit different. I didn’t want to just take the speeches and staple them together. And I didn’t want to do some editorial comments that would be so dull. So I divided it into five sections, and rather than saying “this section is about this, this, and this,” I explained what it was about by making up letters between us. Because I am very comfortable writing make-believe letters.

He was still alive during that book, the second book. The third book was called Letters to My Children. By the time that book came out he was almost 93, and my grandfather’s memory was getting really bad. It was really important to all of us that he felt he had something to do. Much of the information that he wanted to use had been used in the first book. So I had to figure out what to do; I wasn’t going to say, “Papa Charlie, this information has already been used.” So I took the information, and I turned it into letters that came from my father and aunt, and I called it Letters to My Children. The information was true, I just framed it differently.

The fourth book about him was a commercial book, which I did five years after he died. That was my version of his life: twenty-eight vignettes that hold together. That was the truer version of his life.

This fifth book has a lot of letters. This story, I felt, was not the most exciting story, but I knew it would be my sign off book. He is talking to me in this book; I am moving this book along with his letters, and then at the end I write a letter to him. All the information is true, but I’m using all kinds of devices to make it interesting. The problem with this story is, since the major players in the story forty years ago were in their sixties, they’re no longer alive. There were so many people involved, you can’t just be talking about so many people, it’s boring. I had to find a way to give the illusion of all these people. So at the beginning of each section, I might take an invitation or part of the minutes or part of a nominating committee, just to give the flavor of who was involved. The people who are really telling the story: Papa Charlie, and me. That’s the only way I could really make it work.

CS: In addition to writing about your grandfather, you have written about both Abraham Lincoln and Tennessee Williams. What has inspired these literary pursuits?

DBS: I was always interested in Lincoln because he freed the slaves. The basis for Three Miles from Providence was a trip my parents and I took to Springfield, Illinois in ’06, with some people from Lincoln Cottage and National Trust for Historic Preservation. They showed us the Lincoln museum in anticipation of the re-inauguration of Lincoln cottage. They were giving us all these statistics like, “Lincoln is the most written about person in the world, after Christ.” That’s pretty incredible. He’s only been dead 150 years! And I thought to myself, “Well, myself, they don’t have anything to promote the re-inauguration of this cottage. Maybe they would like a book.” So I pitched it to them.

As for the Tennessee book, I worked at Charles E. Smith for 20 years. After the company went public and I decided I didn’t want to stay there, I was looking for something to do in the writing field, and there was the opportunity to do the book on Tennessee with the Shakespeare Theatre. It was a lucky coincidence, as they say. Just before it happened, I read fourteen Tennessee Williams plays. So the opportunity to do a Tennessee Williams book was a lucky break.

CS: You recently donated to GW to establish the “Literature Live” course focusing on contemporary Jewish-American literature. At the time, you said, “It is my hope that this gift will help grow Jewish literature teachings at The George Washington University […] ‘Literature Live’ will be a uniquely GW experience for students.” What exactly do you hope students in the class will gain from their “uniquely GW experience”?

DBS: Faye Moskowitz is teaching Jewish literature right now, and my fear is that someday when she decides to retire, there won’t be anybody there teaching Jewish literature, or Jewish authors, period. And that makes me sad; that needs to be perpetuated. I’d like to see this as the beginning of the perpetuation of the teaching of Jewish authors.

CS: So this course is planned to continue for many years.

DBS: I hope. This is an experiment to see how it works.

CS: The “Live” element of the class includes readings by Anya Ulinich (March 5), Michael Chabon (March 23), and Art Spiegelman (April 2). Did you select these authors and arrange for them to appear?

DBS: Faye did. Actually, I didn’t have anything to do with even the selection. She emailed who she had in mind, and we talked a little bit about it, but really its all her design. There was one author that both of us wanted, Cynthia Ozick, who couldn’t come. And then there are always, you know, a couple of people like Philip Roth who are too expensive to come. I would be nice to see somebody like that.

CS: Some of the other authors who will be read in the class are Amy Bloom, Edward Schwarzschild, Dalia Sofer, and Aryeh lev Stollman. Did professor Faye Moskowitz also select these authors?

DBS: I don’t really think that’s my place. I suppose that if she had picked something that was really terrible, I would have said something, but it all looked pretty fine to me.”

CS: It seems like you trust her judgment.

DBS: Yeah. And I love her writing. I just think she’s so good.

CS: Have you considered coming to GW to speak about your own literary experiences, your work in special book making, or your grandfather’s legacy?

DBS: I haven’t, because I’m not sure anybody would really be interested, to tell you the truth. I have no way of even gauging that. But it doesn’t really appeal to me.

CS: You graduated from GW in 1979 with a B.A. in American Literature. Do you have any humorous anecdotes from your time at GW?

DBS: When I graduated from GW I was 20 years old, so I was probably not feeling very humorous at the time. I was a very serious teenager, so I think I picked American Literature because it was an escape. Reading was an escape. So it was an escape from everything bad. And I have to tell you, this was generally true at the time, GW was a lot different back then. It wasn’t nice; not students, the administration, at that time. But there were a lot of very nice people in the English department.

CS: You happened to overlap with actor Alec Baldwin during your time at GW: he attended from 1976-79 before transferring to NYU. Did you ever cross paths with him?

DBS: Every once in a while I used to see him at the Smith Center. I think he was a year ahead of me. I didn’t know him at all. You know, he went to New York and in twelve minutes he was Alec Baldwin.

CS: For many students, the transition from college to the real world can be daunting. How did you transition from being a GW English major to being a professional writer?

DBS: I just started doing stuff immediately, in ’79 and ’80. In February of ’81, I went and did a six month internship at the National Journal. And they said to me in July, that if I would go to graduate school in journalism, they’d give me a job.

They said, “We’ll get you in, if we can. Where do you want to go?”

And I said, “I want to go to Columbia.”

So they contacted Columbia, and Columbia said, “It’s just too late, it’s already August.”

And I said, “You know what, I don’t want to wait a year. How about NYU?”

The president of NYU at the time was a friend of the head of National Journal. His name was John Brademas, and he had been a congressman from Indiana.

Brademas said, “If you send his transcripts up, and if we’re interested, we’ll call you and we’ll let you know if we’re interested in him.”

September 16th they call me, and they say, “Okay, we’re interested.”

School is supposed to start September 22nd. I have no place, I don’t know if I’m going, coming, I don’t know what I’m doing. So I go up on September 17th, I have no GREs, I have nothing. They gave me a two-hour interview and grilled me on everything. I remember thinking, forget it. But they took me. I got in, and it was like GW in many ways, except it was in New York. The people in the program were great, but the administration was mean. So I decided I was going to put this into my acceleration mode, and I finished in 16 months, because I didn’t like it.

CS: But you didn’t end up working for National Journal after graduate school.

DBS: No. In the summer of ’82, my father asked me if I would be a property manager in residential. That would be apartment buildings, for six weeks. I didn’t want to do it particularly, but I figured it was the least I could do for him. It turned out I liked it. So I stretched it out to 8 weeks. I went back to school, I finished my thesis, and then I was supposed to go back to January. But I didn’t find out that I got my degree until February, and then I stretched it until April. I went back to Charles E. Smith in January, but I stretched it to April.

I called them, and they told me rather than working at National Journal, they were going to offer me a job at Barrons. And I said, well I kind of changed my mind. I like what I’m doing right now, I think I’ve decided I’m going to, if you don’t mind. It wasn’t killing them that they didn’t have me. So I just went back to Charles E. Smith and I stayed until ’03.

CS: In 2002, you became a member of GW’s Board of Trustees. Could you describe your experiences on the Board, especially as an English major and author?

DBS: Well, I think your experience on the Board of Trustees is really shaped by the committee you’re on. I think you really have to be on the Executive Committee of that particular board to have a huge amount of influence. And I haven’t been on the board long enough to be on the Executive Committee. I’m on Academic Affairs, which I like, and that has to do with tenure, and emeritus, and deciding on new courses, educational policies. I think the GW board, I think it’s a pretty good board, I’d like it to be a little smaller, but I’d say that about any board. The GW board in probably on the smaller side, at about 33 members. I was on WETA years and years ago, and with staff it was about 77. It was like going to the United Nations.”

Smith was most recently at GW for Edward P. Jones’ inaugural reading as the Wang Professor of Contemporary Literature. We would like to invite him back to campus for the upcoming reading by Michael Chabon on Monday, March 23rd. The event begins at 7 PM in the Jack Morton Auditorium, and is followed by a book signing for both Chabon and Jones. Free and open to all who wish to attend, but seating is on a first-available basis.