Sometimes the notes are ferocious, skirmishes against the author raging along the borders of every page in tiny black script. If I could just get my hands on you, Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien, they seem to say, I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.
Other comments are more offhand, dismissive - “Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” - that kind of thing. I remember once looking up from my reading, my thumb as a bookmark, trying to imagine what the person must look like who wrote “Don’t be a ninny” alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.
Students are more modest needing to leave only their splayed footprints along the shore of the page. One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s. Another notes the presence of “Irony” fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.
Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers, hands cupped around their mouths. “Absolutely,” they shout to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin. “Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!” Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points rain down along the sidelines.
And if you have managed to graduate from college without ever having written “Man vs. Nature” in a margin, perhaps now is the time to take one step forward.
We have all seized the white perimeter as our own and reached for a pen if only to show we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; we pressed a thought into the wayside, planted an impression along the verge.
Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria jotted along the borders of the Gospels brief asides about the pains of copying, a bird singing near their window, or the sunlight that illuminated their page– anonymous men catching a ride into the future on a vessel more lasting than themselves.
And you have not read Joshua Reynolds, they say, until you have read him enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.
Yet the one I think of most often, the one that dangles from me like a locket, was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye I borrowed from the local library one slow, hot summer. I was just beginning high school then, reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room, and I cannot tell you how vastly my loneliness was deepened, how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed, when I found on one page
a few greasy looking smears and next to them, written in soft pencil– by a beautiful girl, I could tell, whom I would never meet– “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”
And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are,” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.
Interview with Jake Reber, 2012 graduate and current grad student
1. What year did you graduate from MVNU? 2011
2. What are you studying in your graduate program? English/Poetics. I wrote my thesis on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s poetics of process. I am studying at the University of Buffalo.
3. How does graduate school differ from your undergraduate experience? In what ways do you feel MVNU prepared you for where you are now? Graduate school was far more intensive: more reading, more writing, more thinking, more anxiety, and less sleeping. This complete immersion allows you to really engage with your work at a high level, and results in more thoughtful work. Mount Vernon gave me a broad knowledge of the field, and allowed me to develop the basic skills I needed for graduate school. My studies at UB were focued on contemporary poetry/poetics, which was very different than anything that was offered at Mount Vernon. But, even while I was at MVNU, my professors were open to these texts.
4. What is your favorite genre to read? I really like a lot of hybrid work, things that break down traditional lines and expectations of genre. Recently, I’ve been really into the work put out through Troll Thread and Gaus-PDF. They are doing some wild/exciting/reckless work, taking advantage of the possibilities of the digital venue for poetry/art.
“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hopes for literary forms? Why are we reading, if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage and the hope of meaningfulness, and press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and which reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?”
—Annie Dillard “Write Till You Drop”—Read more here.
An interview with Josh Thomas on literature and its infinite coolness
Josh Thomas is a junior English major with a film studies minor.He’s also on the MVNU men’s soccer team. Below are some of his thoughts on the value of studying literature.
Why did you choose English for your major? I initially chose English simply because I loved to read, and I enjoyed fiction. I also could not see myself in any other field of study. I think the most common and seemingly uncanny response I get from people when I tell them I am an English major is, “Well, what do you want to do with that?” They never ask why I am an English major or what the infinite coolness of being an English major is like.
It is not at all ironic that I have fallen in love with English more and more as I have been studying it and can now better voice why I chose English as a major. I know now why I love reading so much; I love fiction because—as the great David Foster Wallace wrote—“fiction is what it means to be a human being.” I love studying humanity and trying to figure out a text and what is really going on and why any of it matters to the human reading it. In high school, I knew I liked to read, but now as a college student I understand why…. A long answer to a short question but I am still trying to make sense of why every single person in college is not an English major.
In what ways has studying literature shaped your thinking? More than shaping the way in which I think, studying literature has really taught me that I need to think more. I think that in the present world we live in we do not think enough. We move at an incredible pace and everything has to be quick, immediate, and constant. We barely have time to slow down for anything, let alone art. Literature and all its facets requires us to slow down and sit down without any distractions and asks for your complete attention; it requires you to think. That attention translates to life as well. It teaches you to slow down and think about situations and people, actions and consequences. As elementary as that sounds, I think it holds true. Literature simply reminds us that we need to think (I think).
What kind of work would you like to pursue after you graduate? After graduation I plan to continue to study literature and go to graduate school with the intent to one day be a professor and if not, who knows.
mvNYu -- MVNU students travel-study in New York City
This summer, ten students will join Dr. Brett Wiley for a week in New York City as a part of mvNYu, one of the English and Modern Languages departmental travel-study programs. Students study the literature and culture of the one of the most important cities in the world: reading ”Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, taking in a Broadway musical, or wandering the aisles of the Strand bookstore.
The trip takes place during the summer of each odd-numbered year. The picture above is the group from the 2011 trip.
Pure fasted faces draw unto this feast: God comes all sweetness to your Lenten lips. You striped in secret with breath-taking whips, Those crooked rough-scored chequers may be pieced To crosses meant for Jesu’s; you whom the East With draught of thin and pursuant cold so nips Breathe Easter now; you serged fellowships, You vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,
God shall o’er-brim the measures you have spent With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease. Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent: Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.
Junior ILA major Jacob Hale shares his passion for writing. Read this thoughts below.
What drew you to Integrated Language Arts?
Well, in common speech, Integrated Language Arts translates to English Education. When I graduate, I will be certified to teach English grades 7-12. I’m passionate about reading and writing, both of which have done a lot to shape who I am as a person. Like the teachers that came before me, I want to share my passion with the coming generations. Reading has made my life so much more interesting, fulfilling, and intricate. And I possess a certain fervor when it comes to teaching people how to write, because it is such an invaluable tool for communication and self-expression.
You have written several short stories and a play: is there a favorite genre you like to write and is it different than your favorite reading genre?
My favorite things to read and write are short stories. I have written two short plays, and I’m currently working on what will hopefully be a full-length play to be produced by the MVNU drama department sometime in the future. I do try my hand at poetry from time to time.
Was there a particular class at MVNU that shaped or developed your writing?
As far as a class that has shaped my writing, I would have to say American Lit II. I read a lot of very inspiring short stories, some of which have greatly influenced the lenses through which I view life; which in turn translate into the thematic elements in my stories.