Thursday, September 05, 2013

Goodbye to the Summer / Back in Class

Rutgers undergraduate Paul Robeson
with fellow football players
On Tuesday, I resumed my old new fall rhythm. "Old," because I have been teaching for more than a decade now (though last year started at Rutgers University in Newark's campus); "new" because instead of my usual gearing up for hopping on a plane to return to a different home and readjust to a different city, I returned to my routine from last fall, and via public and bipedal transportation alone, was standing in front of my class, opening the semester.

As I was riding to campus I realized this past July marked the first time in 13 years--since 2000--that I had spent a continuous year at home (work-related trips excepted) in New Jersey. My prior dozen years weren't itinerant as Erasmus's career, of course, nor comparable to the experiences of numerous friends and colleagues, who have hopscotched all over the country for short-term and longer-term gigs, but it did sear into my consciousness that September equalled leaving home, whether for part of a week (as when I commuted to Providence) or a sizable chunk of each season.

Acclimation to the new rhythms perhaps accounts for why, for the first time in my career, I did not feel the blizzard of nerves that usually overwhelms me before my first course meeting. I still sweated through my clothing, got through only half my notes, and did not copy enough syllabi given the number of students who (since I have tended to assume that they will download it in advance, and my classes have tended to grow at Rutgers after the first week, rather than shrinking), but the flow of teaching went more smoothly, and felt less wracking too.

This was the case even though I am teaching a new preparation, "Foundations of Literary Studies", a required course for English majors, but I am excited about the opportunity to guide students through the material. As part of our first class we read and talked about two of my favorite poems Rainer Maria Rilke's "The Archaic Torso of Apollo" and Gwendolyn Brooks's "we real cool," and this weekend they will read an essay by Terry Eagleton before launching into the first nonfiction prose work (they are reading that genre, as well as poetry, fiction, drama, and graphic literature), The Travels of Dean Mahomet (which is free online at the University of California Press's website, if you want to check it out).

Another aspect of the fall is greater departmental responsibilities with one of my university homes. With two of my colleagues, including my chair, in African American and African Studies on sabbatical, I have been named as acting chair till January. I undertook a great deal of work related to this temporary post this summer, but there are still some major tasks to complete before December rolls around. One unexpected result of my spring AAAS teaching was an email I received this summer from a drama student at the Université de Lomé (in Togo) who has studied some African American literature, and had downloaded my course syllabus and inquired about some of the texts. I responded, sending him an essay by Richard Wright, but we have continued corresponding, and he passed on the names of some of Togo's leading poets, fiction writers and playwrights, only one of whom I'd heard of, so I look forward to delving more deeply in Togolese literature.

It's still difficult to believe the summer is over, even if not officially. This was one of my most productive writing summers in a long time. I completed a number of larger prose projects, one of which I continue to call a story but really is a novella, several of the others more clearly long short stories. Earlier in the year, as I was riding on the subway back from the Countee Cullen tribute event at Woodlawn Cemetary with Patricia Spears Jones and Rowan Ricardo Phillips and talking about having written a draft of what was essentially a novella after 10 years of intermittently leading the novella half of the year-long creative writing sequence to my Northwestern undergraduates, Rowan diagnosed my approach as "empathic composition." I think this is right in part; there is also the small window of the summer (this one without any travel) to complete anything, so I believe I successfully pressed rather quickly out of the scant grapes available.

I also finished revising and refining, with A Bolha Editora editors Rachel Gontijo Araújo and Stephanie Sauer the translation of Hilda Hilst's Letters from a Seducer, and cannot wait to see it in print later this month or early next. I wrote and delivered a short paper on the process of translating it, and perhaps I'll publish this at some point. The book will open, however, with a beautiful introduction by Princeton professor and Brazilian literary and cultural scholar Bruno Carvalho. I'm especially proud that I was able to accomplish this while teaching, though it would be wonderful to receive a fellowship to aid in future larger scale translations.

With the intense focus on my own writing and preparations for this fall I was unable to blog as frequently as I like. I hope to resume posting a bit more frequently. I still have unfinished posts in the queue, including a short tribute to Seamus Heaney, whom I have the honor of having kept from a good night of sleep--I'll say more about that soon--and perhaps some reviews, though my efforts in that area have tended to appear elsewhere (Drunken Boat among other places). Here's an exciting, productive fall for all J's Theater readers--and by "exciting," I do not mean another hurricane or tropical storm. Sandy was enough for a lifetime, or two!

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