Poetry, Prose, and Pretzels: A Preview of Opus Soup

Written by Lindsay Jankowski, co-editor of Opus

Hi everyone! I’m Lindsay Jankowski, one of this semester’s Co-Editors for Hope College’s Opus Literary & Arts Magazine.

Unfortunately, this will be my first and last semester as an Opus Co-Editor. In three short weeks, I will be walking across the graduation stage, shaking hands with President Scogin, and leaving Hope College behind in pursuit of greater adventures. If you are wondering what great adventures lie ahead for me, well. . . I’m wondering, too. I don’t know what my post-graduation life will look like, but I’m confident it will all work out. At least, that’s what I’m telling my parents.

Anyways, let’s move on before I further slide into an existential crisis, shall we? The good news about the semester coming to a close is that I can confidently say—barring an alien invasion or other such problematic events—Opus Soup is happening this Thursday! 

Opus Soup, a campus-wide event, celebrates the publication of the newest edition of the Opus magazine. At this event, published artists and authors will speak about their incredible work. Also, attendees can pick up a copy of the Spring 2023 edition! Knot Spot will be catering this event, so if student-curated art and literature aren’t incentive enough, definitely stop by for the delicious pretzels!

This semester’s Opus Soup will take place at 6 pm on Thursday, April 20th in Winants Auditorium, located in Graves Hall.

Keep reading for a super special preview of the magazine’s content!

But first, you should check out our social pages and give us a follow if you want to stay up to date on all Opus happenings!

Now, on to that sneak peek!

Letters from the Editors:

Eileen’s Letter:

If you’re reading this, then that means we got through another successful semester of Opus with me as a Co-Editor. If you’re curious why I consider that to be an achievement, then I’ll let you in on the little mantra I repeated to myself before every meeting this semester: time to go act like I have leadership skills!

I am not a natural born leader. In fact, I was so much of a follower that I waited for three siblings to be born before I decided to give the ol’ life thing a shot. Growing up, I was like my sister’s little shadow. When she played soccer, I played soccer. When she became afraid of “flushy potties” and “sock fuzzies,” so did I. When she joined choir, I joined choir (which, if you’ve heard me sing, you know I had no business doing). But then we got to college and she decided to major in nursing and uh, yeah… my following days came to a very necessary end.

In all seriousness, being a part of Opus is the best thing I’ve done during my time at Hope. Being Co-Editor has also been one of the most challenging things I’ve done (I had to talk to people on the phone which I’m still recovering from), but I wouldn’t change any of it.

I want to thank Lindsay Jankowsi for stepping into the role of Co-Editor so fearlessly. No one else could’ve gotten me through this semester. I’d also like to thank her for writing “Not Eileen” on our meeting attendance sheet. Although we’re equally in charge, that still felt like insubordination.

To Sophie Mae: you are a God-send. Thank you for designing such a beautiful book — Lindsay and I couldn’t have done this without all of your amazing help!

To Issy Gaetjens-Oleson: you’ve done an amazing job on running our social media this semester and I’m incredibly grateful and proud of you.

And to the rest of the staff: Katelynn Paluch, Kallen Mohr, Gabbie Crone, Sophie Mae, and Abi Vanderwall, you are all such wonderful people and it was an immense honor to work with each of you! Thank you for your grace and patience and being okay that I had to leave the prose meeting early (which, it should be noted, was at my house). And to Abi, thank you for not taking my cats.

Eileen Ellis

Lindsay’s Letter:

As a freshman dedicated to her pre-med studies, I would have been beyond confused if someone told me that during my last semester of college, I would be an Opus Co-Editor and pursuing an editing and publishing career. When Eileen and Adriana invited me to succeed Adriana after her graduation, I cried (check out my nonfiction essay titled “Capricious” for my exact reaction). One million thanks to you both, Eileen and Adriana, for trusting me to lead this organization and the Opus community. Serving as Co-Editor has been one of the best experiences of my college career.

I also need to thank the Opus staff members and advisors, the contributors, and every submitting artist and author. Thank you everyone for your hard work and dedication to this magazine. This was the first time Eileen and I were in charge of the whole process from start to finish, and, to be frank, we were both terrified that the final edition of Opus would be no more than a stack of paper stapled together. Truly, without your help, support, and submissions, this edition would not have been possible. Thank you all. 

One particular Opus staff member deserves a special shout-out. Opus’s senior art editor, Sophie Mae, designed this semester’s edition from start to finish, which goes above and beyond her art editor responsibilities. Thank you for devoting your time, energy, and incredible creativity to Opus Spring 2023. This magazine literally wouldn’t exist without you, Sophie.

And lastly, I’d like to give an emphatic congratulations to my Co-Editor, Eileen. We did it.

Opus Spring 2023 is officially more than a stapled stack of paper.

Leaving the Comfort Zone: Alumni Spotlight with Kelsie Cavanaugh (’20)

Submitted by Hope College senior, Piper Daleiden

What do you do now? And we’d love to hear a bit about how you got there as well.

I am an editorial assistant for the Business, Computing, and Career Education team at Goodheart-Willcox in Tinley Park, Illinois. Graduating from Hope in 2020 made finding a job a bit difficult. I worked on a farm and then at a staffing agency before landing an interview at G-W. I started as a publishing intern on the BCC team for six months before taking a few weeks to participate in NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute. After returning from the program, I transitioned into my current role. My job includes assisting the editors on my team with their projects as well as working on some of our career titles. 

How did your Hope English education shape you?

My Hope English education shaped me by helping me to hone and improve my writing and critical thinking skills. It brought me into a great community of professors and peers who pushed me to learn and grow in every class. I look back on my time in the English department with fondness and pull from the things I learned (both in and out of the classroom) every day.

What advice would you give to current English majors or students considering an English major?

Don’t be afraid to take classes that scare you or are out of your comfort zone. I was skeptical when I walked into my memoir class with Dr. Burton since I didn’t really like talking about myself. It ended up being one of my favorite classes and introduced me to a new style of writing that I wouldn’t have previously thought too much about. 

Favorite book read recently or in college?

House of Salt and Sorrow by Erin A. Craig. It is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairytale that combines fantasy and horror. It kept me in suspense the entire time, and I couldn’t put it down. Even though I read it over a year ago, I’m still thinking about it. I can’t wait for the sequel to come out over the summer!

Do you have any special animals in your life?

While I don’t own any pets myself, I get to hang out with my family dog–Dakota–almost every week. He is a seven-year-old black lab who keeps us all on our toes with his puppy energy. I’m also a loving cat-aunt to Tatum and Dale, who belong to my roommate and her fiancée. They love to fight with each other and provide entertainment and snuggles on the daily!

How I Met My Mother: Visiting Writers Anne-Marie Oomen and Jack Ridl

Written by Anna Stowe, Creative Writing major

Down the spiral staircase nestled in the center of the Herrick District Library is an auditorium, filled with chattering spectators, all looking in anticipation toward the honey-colored stage. At 7:00 sharp, the room stilled, as eyes were drawn toward two cozy, green armchairs divided by a small table piled with books. Truly, it was a book lover’s dream—the perfect setting for the fifth and final event of the 40th anniversary of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series, featuring a conversation between Jack Ridl and Anne-Marie Oomen. 

In 2006, the Visiting Writer Series was named after Jack Ridl, honoring his commitment to storytelling, promoting poetry literacy, and mentoring writers of all ages—often in his own home. Beyond helping others to grow in their writing journeys, Jack continues to tell stories and has published ten lauded collections of poetry, most recently St. Peter and the Goldfinch, along with five anthologies. Working with his wife Julie, Ridl has devoted his life to helping others encounter the written word as it is read aloud in community.

After Jack Ridl’s introduction, Anne-Marie Oomen was invited to the stage to discuss her book As Long as I Know You: The Mom Book. This memoir recently received the Sue William Silverman Prize in Creative Nonfiction, one of the highest awards in the genre. Focused on her relationship with her mother, the memoir is best described by a quote from Oomen’s website: “The story of one daughter’s journey to her mother’s heart.” 

Jack and Anne-Marie settled into their chairs, old friends excited to talk about their work. Jack began by cracking jokes. Surveying the audience, he said, “I’m gonna let Anne-Marie take over the whole thing—I haven’t prepared at all. I don’t care if they named the damned thing after me.” Ripples of laughter swirled through the crowd, any nerves disappearing at once. Knowing he had won his audience over, Jack kicked off the conversation with Anne-Marie, asking her to read a selection from her memoir. She chose to read the prologue “Cessation,” which was written immediately after her father died, leaving her mother alone. “I have not been a good daughter, and I don’t intend to start now … I know nothing really of [my mother]” she read. With these haunting words stealing the breath from the room, Anne-Marie introduced her difficult relationship with her mother. 

Jack then asked Anne-Marie whether there was an evolution in her writing toward this memoir, and how she had compiled ten years of notes into a single volume. Anne-Marie explained that, in her previous books, she had tried to honor her mother and respect her privacy. After her father died and her mother’s dementia became evident, Anne-Marie slipped into anticipatory grief, knowing that her mother would soon be gone. As her mother started to fade, Anne-Marie began writing notes, recording conversations and thoughts, and working through her broken relationship with her mother. “As I’m losing her, I’m finding her through the writing,” she explained. Still, Anne-Marie was unable to finish her memoir for quite some time—she did not want to end with her mother’s death.

After reading another excerpt from the novel about an incident in which her mother was fully lucid following months of silence, an audience member asked Anne-Marie how she prepared to write about emotionally charged events and then revise that writing. With a smile, Anne-Marie described her writing process: “I was blocked for two years previous to her death, trying to find a way through it. After her death, I was catapulted by grief to dive back into the project to process my emotions.” Returning to the project so quickly allowed Anne-Marie to feel her mother’s presence and hear her voice. As she revised, she could see the life they had lived and the life she learned they lived through her writing. This knowledge transformed her grief into a companion rather than a burden. 

Hearing about Anne-Marie’s grief in such a personal way prompted a question from the audience: “Could you have loved your mother better?” For Anne-Marie, the answer was yes. She said, “I think I will always carry some regret and remorse. The memoir is deeply personal, but underpinning everything are the problems in the healthcare system. It’s incredibly difficult to get aid and the elderly suffer the most in this process. I will always be haunted that my siblings and I could not take my mother into our homes and care for her.” Jack agreed with Anne-Marie wholeheartedly: “Are we betraying our elders? Yes, we are. We don’t honor them or care for them enough.”

Anne-Marie soon diverted the conversation to Jack, asking him to read one of his poems from her dog-eared copy of Practicing to Walk Like a Heron. As she searched for a poem, Jack quipped, “By the way, I have PTSD. I mention that to get sympathy and to mention that [Anne-Marie’s] mother wouldn’t have had access to the help that I’ve had that allows me to sit here today.” Anne agreed, recalling the secrecy both of mental health struggles and rural farm life. She then asked Jack to read his poem “Listening to Chopin in Early Winter.” Jack’s voice lilted across the auditorium, casting a spell across the audience. As he breathed the last line, “There is duration,” the room was filled with hope. Later, Jack read a second poem from this book called “It Wasn’t Folklore.” Anne-Marie requested that Jack read this poem, stating, “I love the irony of the poem. Because we think it’s folklore and we want it to be, but at the heart, it’s not. There are so many more layers to life.”

At this point, the floor opened once again to questions from the audience. Because Anne-Marie writes primarily about her family, she was asked whether she would have published if her siblings objected to her writing—essentially asking where Anne-Marie found the balance between private life and the essence of her story. Anne-Marie explained that she has learned to self-regulate her own consciousness of what she should and should not say ahead of the curve. Once the story is out in the world, though, Anne-Marie stated that she sees her writing like any piece of art. At that point, her work has been handed off to the reader and is separated from her despite still being her own story. 

As the evening drew to a close, Jack and Anne-Marie discussed their writing journeys and how words became the foundation of their lives. Anne-Marie encouraged the audience, stating that “ultimately it’s an individual journey. If you’re driven, you’ll be able to find your own path.” Sometimes this path may look like notes scribbled on the back of receipts, journaling in spare moments, and spending hours crafting a manuscript. It may look like taking classes, going to conferences and lectures, and building a writing community. No matter the journey, Jack said it best: “Everyone should be writing. It doesn’t matter if the writing is good if it has value.” Stories have the power to heal and bring people together, building bridges across cultures and generations.

Does “Christian” actually mean anything?

By Dr. Kristin VanEyk, Assistant Professor of EnglishHope College

Hello! My name is Kristin VanEyk and I’m a recent addition to the English Department faculty where I teach writing and secondary English education courses.

I’m a lifelong Christian educator. I’ve been teaching in Christian schools since 2006, first as a high school English teacher, and now as a professor at Hope College. As a lifelong Christian educator, I’ve often thought about what it means to identify by that title. 

  • What is the word “Christian” doing in the title?
  • What about my work is distinctively “Christian” rather than, say, “moral” or “inclusive” or “justice-oriented”?
  • How does a “Christian” identity influence my daily work: my lesson planning, my grading, my relationship with students, and my scholarship? 

In short: does the title “Christian educator” actually mean anything at all?

In January of 2023, I gathered with a group of Hope College faculty to listen to Dr. David I. Smith talk about faith and learning. Dr. Smith told a number of stories meant to challenge our conceptions of faith and learning. He argued that simply praying during a class, or talking about faith or theology or Jesus during the few lessons where there’s a natural and overt connection does not in fact mark the content or the learning or the experience as “Christian.” In fact, anyone can pray, and anyone can talk about Jesus without actually integrating faith and learning for students or practicing “Christian education.” 

So what, then, is the nature of a Christian education or a Christian educator?

Smith brought together two fundamental components of Christian education in English: reading and community. Specifically, Smith talked about the stark divide between the way that students are often trained to read–as consumers extracting knowledge–and how historical religious reading has been patterned–slowly, repeatedly, with the goal of empathy.

Consumer reading tends to foreground the self: What question do I need to answer, how does this text benefit me, how can I quickly extract what I need and then discard the text when it is no longer useful to me?

I sat next to a colleague who teaches in another division, and he told me that he recently assigned a group project, and as soon as students turned the project in, they treated one another as strangers. He watched as they passed each other in the hall and didn’t bother to make eye contact or say “hello” or even nod to one another. 

My colleague grew up in Nigeria, and he had previously taught in Nigeria and China, and he had never seen students work together so intently and then forget one another so immediately. We wondered together if this attitude toward classmates is part of a larger educational pattern that encourages students to extract, use, and discard. Could we be training students to use people like materials, to extract ideas and labor for profit or grades, and then to discard people like a spent resource?

Surely Christian education must be the antidote to this kind of anthropology.

Religious reading is slow, attentive, ongoing, and repeated. If, as the reader, you don’t understand something the first time, you should assume that you’re mistaken, and not the text. Rather than being mastery-oriented and me-oriented, religious reading practices seek to develop both empathy and community.

One of the hallmarks of good thinking is being able to hold opposing ideas and consider them fairly, and Christian education trains students to do just that: to think about their readings and new ideas from a variety of perspectives: that of a consumer and a Christian, a student and a professional, and from a diversity of other perspectives.

One of the benefits of studying reading and writing in community at Hope College, as our English students do, is that it reinforces charity, patience, justice and humility. Charity to assume the best of the writer and the reader for as long as possible; patience to seek to understand; justice to learn to represent texts and authors accurately (even if you don’t particularly like or agree with them); and humility to assume that you, like all people, have a partial understanding.

The development of these kinds of reading practices in community grows the habits and dispositions of Christians. These communal habits and dispositions reflect a Christian anthropology in which all are worthy because of Jesus.

Perhaps that’s one of the great distinctives in Christian education: the cultivation of Christian disciplines and practices in communal spaces because of a Christian anthropology and toward a Christian anthropology. Framed that way, being a Christian educator surely does mean something. It means Christian educators lesson plan and teach and evaluate and work with students as if Jesus actually died and came back to life for every one of them–for all of us–and that means everything.

I’ll end with a final thought of good news. The habits and dispositions borne from and toward a Christian anthropology don’t cease when a student graduates from Hope College. That anthropology is the lens through which Hope graduates see others, and the practices of charity, humility, empathy, justice, and patience developed through the graduates’ Hope English education are practiced now in many places around the world. 

Maybe that’s what a Christian education is about: bringing Hope to the world, one graduate at a time.

An Act of Remembrance: Visiting Writers Sumita Chakraborty and Noé Alvarez

Written by Elsa Kim, Creative Writing major

Sumita Chakraborty—essayist, scholar, and author of Arrow—strode to the podium. Setting down her sheaves of notes, she held up her phone. “I’ve set a duck noise timer,” she told us with a smile, “When the duck quacks I know I’ve run out of time.” Having introduced us to her quirky side, Sumita then proceeded to tell us about her childhood. She’d grown up in the midst of severe domestic violence, and even years later, the trauma still revealed itself through her poetry. “I wanted to tell the story about the aftermath of the violence,” Sumita explained. “About learning to enjoy kinship and community again.”

Sumita started out with a few poems from her debut, Arrow. She admitted that the narrator of Arrow is an overdramatic version of herself, still figuring out how to take up space in the world and claim her anger. Before reading the first poem, Sumita explained that the title came from the French word soucis which means “worries and preoccupations” as well as “marigolds”. In “Marigolds”, Sumita uses a collection of striking metaphors to chronicle the aftermath of her experience with domestic violence. After reading this and several other poems, Sumita admitted that she’d often found herself modeling the desire to claim her anger off public figures she didn’t admire, and that in these poems she’d been exploring how to take up space in a way that was “godly.”

Then, Sumita proceeded to read us a couple of poems from her new project: The B-Sides of the Golden Records. She started out by explaining that NASA had sent out the Golden Records as a way of introducing humanity to any extraterrestrial life they might encounter. She joked that they must have just hoped the aliens would have a record player to listen with. Next, she read “Track One: The Canary Flies toward the Mine,” which recounts details that the NASA scientists didn’t include in their Golden Records, such as the fact that “how to trap and kill an insect can sometimes be an entire plot point in our romantic comedies.” The last poem she read us was called “Track Seven: Apostrophe, a Literary Device.” It was a short poem, more haunting than angry, that ended with the narrator screaming into a forest—and the question of how you would feel “if the forest screamed back.”

Next, Noé Alvarez strolled to the front of the stage to tell us about his book Spirit Run. He started out by sharing how he went to college with the idea that he needed to save his family from poverty. Despite those pressures, he ended up quitting college at nineteen to join the Peace and Dignity Journey—a movement where indigenous people run from opposite ends of the Americas to meet in the middle. During the Peace and Dignity Journey, the runners would listen to people’s stories and then take a feather from that person as a symbol of their narrative. Over the course of the run, the feathers accumulated as more stories were told.

Noé then proceeded to read the prologue of Spirit Run. The book begins with an indigenous woman named Crow leading Canadian authorities to the place she buried her dead son. After her six-week-old son had died, Crow had buried him to avoid giving him to the hospital. But after the Canadian authorities made Crow show them where he was, they proceeded to dig up his body before taking Crow herself into custody. The prologue then begins moving to different areas of the world where hundreds of people are preparing for the Peace and Dignity Journey. After giving a brief description of several of these people’s stories, Noé closes his prologue by reminding readers that each of these runners, including himself, is just an ordinary person.

After listening to both Sumita and Noé read and speak about their work, I was struck by the way they both viewed writing primarily as an act of vulnerability. Even though Sumita and Noé both started writing in order to reflect on personal experiences, by sharing their work, they invited the rest of the world into that process. Similar to the way Noé had described running, writing “only becomes a healing act when you dedicate it to something else, an act of remembrance and self-transformation.”

Faculty Spotlight: On Martyrdom…and the Research Process

By Dr. Marla Lunderberg, Associate Professor of English, Hope College

What words or images come to mind when you read the word “martyr”? Lions? Gladiators? Jeering crowds and public amphitheaters? Burning at the stake? A crucifix? 

The images you draw on probably depend on the context behind your quest. If you’re in a religion class, you might be studying the experiences of the earliest Christian communities. If you’re in a literature class, you might expect any mention of martyrdom to be metaphoric rather than literal, pointing toward, say, a martyr for love rather than a martyr for faith.

John Donne (1572-1631), poet and preacher in early modern England, did indeed write a poem, “The Funeral,” where the speaker portrays himself as martyred, sacrificed for love, imagining the humility, pain, even death that can result from martyrdom. More importantly for my studies, Donne also spoke movingly of martyrdom in many of the sermons he preached during his career as a well-known leader in the Church of England.

 My search to find meaning in Donne’s portrayal of martyrdom is a search for examples of how Christians of eras before our own dealt with controversy within the Christian community. The term “martyrdom” was controversial in the early modern era, provoking arguments from different groups of Christians as to whose martyrs were the real deal. John Donne, though, participated as a moderating voice: his ideal of a broad and welcoming church meant that he avoided contemporary arguments about martyrdom in interesting ways. His example can be instructive for twenty-first century Christians, as we, too, live in a world of competition over things we care about just as deeply as the sixteenth-century Christians cared about definitions of martyrdom.

This is the story of a research project. It also is an attempt to provide a window into the research process that your college professors engage in, a glimpse at what motivates us, a hint of how minute details of writing from long ago prove relevant not only to our teaching but also to our lives. My project began with the same process that I use to teach research in English 113, with a topic (martyrdom) and a question: does John Donne tell the kind of stories about martyrdom that were hailed by English Protestants, stories embellished and multiplied in repeated new editions of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

The question is one that someone asked me when I was at an online conference in 2021–a conference that was supposed to be in Dublin, but due to the pandemic, was held online, with a really small audience. I was disappointed to be participating in a conference from my bedroom and not from a wonderful international venue. I was worried that the size of the audience might change how productive the conversation about my conference paper might be. But the question was exactly the right one to pique my research.  

A bit of history about the question. First published in 1563, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was full of stories of martyrs from the early church and from the more recent Reformation churches, including those Protestants persecuted in England under the Catholic Queen Mary. The book was loaded with woodcut prints of martyrs as well, pictures that told a story from a very Protestant point of view. In late sixteenth-century England, the Book of Martyrs ranked with the Bible as one of two books required to be held by all English cathedrals, and it was revised and expanded and reprinted for years. It wove a popular story of a Protestant England—but its story was not the only one available.

Roman Catholic Christians in England had their own stories of martyrdom to share. By the late sixteenth century, under the reign of Queen Elizabeth, it was illegal to be a Roman Catholic. Jesuit missionaries to England were hunted down. People who offered shelter to Catholic priests were themselves imprisoned. Stories of the suffering endured by English Catholics were especially popular on the continent, as they shared hope for the endurance of the Roman Catholic tradition in the era of the Reformation. 

John Donne’s own family held strong ties to Roman Catholic tradition and they suffered for their faith. His uncle, Jasper Heywood, was a Jesuit priest who was captured, put on trial, and imprisoned for his practice. Donne’s brother Henry was imprisoned after having sheltered a priest in his room at university. While in prison, Henry died of the plague. Although Donne’s family ties were firmly Roman Catholic, he himself became a renowned Protestant preacher. Scholars have long inquired as to the ways his past appears in his  writing. One way to ask this question is to compare Donne’s references to martyrdom to Protestant and Catholic models of his era.

A side note about research processes: as I’m interested in what Donne might say about martyrdom in his sermons, it’s worthwhile to note how I access those sermons. Some scholars of early modern writers need to go to libraries around the world to access the manuscripts that hold the rich ideas of past eras. Most of Donne’s sermons, though, were gathered together in ten volumes in the decade between 1953 and 1962. That sermon collection has been digitized and is searchable in an online collection hosted by Brigham Young University. A wonderful new edition of the sermons is in progress as well, published by Oxford University. All this to say that even during the pandemic, I had access to the materials I needed in order to attack my project. This was absolutely amazing!

This essay would be much sexier if it presented Donne as engaging in polemical battles on one side or the other of the debate about whose martyrs were true martyrs for the Christian faith. Foxe’s martyrology was fascinating for a reason, after all: his images of martyrs singing Psalms as they burned and babies being born to mothers in the midst of the flames are horrifying in a way that makes them impossible to ignore. And since Donne is known for an often combative, controversial rhetoric of love in his poetry (What college student studying early British Literature hasn’t wondered about the poetic voice begging: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”?), who better than Donne to engage in an important public, political debate than the pastor known for the poetics of his preaching? 

Instead, Donne’s preaching about martyrdom proclaims an ideal for the church that is non-combative, that is amazingly inclusive—a church where arguments about martyrdom are primarily told as events in the early history of the church—the “Primitive Church,” as Donne calls it. By constructing this distance between his era and the martyrs he discusses, Donne distances himself from the heated debate of his era.

And in doing this, Donne lays the groundwork for a Church of England that could support a diverse range of views on a number of important issues. Donne argued that there were certain beliefs that were fundamental to the faith; belief in the Trinity was one of these for Donne. Beyond the fundamentals, Donne believed that some things that people argued about were beyond the realm of human capacity to know the truth of. “Super-edifications” is what Donne called these things, using a metaphor drawn from architecture. Two Christians might understandably take different positions on such issues, and both held the possibility of being right. Donne encouraged Christians to be thoughtful in making a distinction between things fundamental and those super-edifications.

My scholarship on Donne and martyrdom has been part of my participation in three scholarly conferences so far, and I’m working on a journal article pulling together these fascinating materials. This scholarship has also given me insight into a time period that faced some of the same challenges we face today. Donne’s response to these challenges gives me one model for my own path, my own time period, as I ask: how I might respond, with love, to those with whom I disagree? How do I hold tightly to the fundamentals of my faith while humbly admitting that as yet, my own vision is limited? 

Speaking Truth: Visiting Writers Melissa Valentine and Michael X. Wang

Written by Anna Snader, a freshman at Hope studying Social Studies Education with an interest in English

Accompanied by soft piano music and the warm lights of Winants Auditorium, Michael X. Wang and Melissa Valentine read us their stories for the 40th anniversary of The Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series. 

First, we heard from Michael X. Wang, a fiction writer who grew up in the Shanxi province of China and immigrated to the United States when he was six. He began by explaining that in China, being a writer or a poet was considered an insult, translated to “someone who sits.” He first read a short story called “Cures and Superstitions” from his collection, Further News of Defeat. The anecdote follows the daily life of Ming and his father, who sell medicinal ingredients—including tiger bones—in a village. While a man from the city looks for medicine for his wife, he also tries to recruit Ming to come work in the city. The portion of the story ends with the weighing of the tiger bones. The city man jokingly asks if the weights are rigged, after seeing the bones don’t quite add up to the weight he requested. They respond that the weights are not rigged. After the man leaves, the father scolds his son, saying they use real weights for the people from the city. That line left us chuckling.

The second excerpt from Wang was from his novel, Lost in the Long March, which focuses on the Long March in China in the 1930s. The main character is tasked with detecting mines, walking with a machine on his back toward the mountains. The man overseeing this work gives detailed descriptions of the process, how to use the machine, and what to do if it stops beeping or the battery dies. The character follows these steps carefully, walking and listening to the steady beeps. While doing this, his mind wanders to reflect on his life, considering how even though he thought he would die, he didn’t want to without anyone to mourn him. At the end of the section, the character stops hearing the rhythmic beeping, remembers to put the flags on the ground, and begins to run. He realizes he is lost, no one is around, and he doesn’t know if he is safe.

Next, we heard from Melissa Valentine, author of The Names of All the Flowers (2020). Her memoir followed her life growing up in a racially-mixed family of eight, and her journey with grief after her brother, Junior, is imprisoned and later shot. She explained that she wanted to portray Junior’s humanity and honor all those who have died at the hands of gun violence. Valentine shared five different excerpts from her memoir, spanning her teenage and adult years. Her first excerpt was about when Junior went missing and came back from what she called, “out there”—the streets or the places beyond her family’s protection. Her second excerpt was about her shame and grief when she was unable to protect Junior from prison and the world. She reflects, “I believed our love made him different,” but she said that this inability to protect him was like losing.

Her third and fourth excerpts followed the aftermath of Junior’s imprisonment, a time of hope when she felt he had changed. One day, when she was at lunch with her sister, she observed the beauty of the flowers. She wished that she could transfer that beauty to her own life and to all those who were not free. In this part of the story, everything seemed resolved until she received a phone call where she learns Junior was shot. The final excerpt was from thirty-year-old Melissa reckoning with her grief and her decision to keep showing up to life, even though “one of them didn’t make it.” Valentine’s feelings of despair and hope resonated throughout the auditorium, and we were all left speechless.

After the readings, Wang and Valentine answered our questions about their writing processes.

What drew you to fiction? What did the research process look like?
Wang explained that he was unable to write poetry or non-fiction, so he decided fiction was his calling. He joked that in his attempt to write about his father, he was writing about his own experience. He mentioned how in his stories, he couldn’t avoid inserting politics because it is an essential part of China’s history. He explained that for his novel, he researched for two months and then worked on imagining what it would be like to live during that time.

Did you always want to write a memoir? When did you know you were ready? How did you navigate tension?
Valentine mentioned how she didn’t know she wanted to write a memoir. She kept trying to write a novel about a similar topic but realized it never felt right. When it came to being “ready” to tell her story, she said she was still not ready and she may never be. To navigate the challenging topics addressed in her book, she kept the book to herself for years before sharing it with her family. Although her parents were not supportive at first, they worked through it, and are proud of her and love her.

The stories we listen to and write–whether real or fictional–are powerful and true. Valentine and Wang’s stories exemplified the possibilities of writing and how we can also strive to create narratives that hold that same power. They offered their advice to us. Wang urged us to “go easy on [ourselves]” and to keep writing; the more we write, the less pressure because we have more work. Valentine said, “Don’t be afraid of your story. Be brave and treat it as your art.” To all writers, share the stories that are true to you, and believe they are important and beautiful.

From Literature to Lawyers: How I Used My English Degrees

Written by Ben Opipari, Ph.D., a Hope alum and business owner.

What I really wanted to be was a rock star.

I settled on starting a business helping attorneys at some of the most powerful law firms in the world perfect the art of clear writing.

I wanted to be a rock star because I had been around music all my life. My father was in a band, I wore band t-shirts to school every day, and I went to concerts all the time. When I was at Hope, I worked at a local record store on River Road called Believe in Music. But there was a problem: I couldn’t sing or play any instruments.

So after graduating from Hope with degrees in English and psychology—with lots of help from Dale Austin of the Boerigter Center for Calling and Career—I got a job at WKLQ radio in Grand Rapids, the top station in west Michigan, as an account executive selling radio spots. WKLQ was my favorite station because they played the hard rock I loved. It seemed like a natural progression to work at the place I frequented every day.

And that’s why I tell you this story: there will be time for your career. There’s nothing wrong with first doing what you want to do, not necessarily what you are supposed to do. I knew I had no career in radio, but I got to hang backstage with some of the biggest music acts in the world. Radio did teach me three things, though. One, it’s OK to have no idea what you want to do when you graduate. Two, each job you have narrows your focus to the job you’re meant to have. And three, every job will teach you a skill you can take with you forever. (Other jobs I’ve had: camp counselor, bartender, EMT. No job will ever prepare you for stress like the back of an ambulance.)

Radio was not for me: I loved music, but I missed literature. So I moved back home to Rockville, Maryland to pursue my Master of Arts in Teaching at American University with a goal of teaching high school English. To make myself more marketable, however, I also became certified to teach special education, with a focus on learning disabilities. There were few job openings in English at the time, so I accepted a job in Montgomery County, Maryland teaching middle school special education.

After three years it was time for a change. I enjoyed teaching, but I still missed literature. I went back to school and got my PhD in English Language and Literature at The Catholic University of America, specializing in 20th-century American dramatic literature. As your professors will tell you, academia is a tough profession to crack, English even more so. There are hundreds of qualified applicants for every job. I found one that interested me: director of the writing center at Colgate University, one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country.

I dusted off my radio sales skills for my job search because with so many applicants, I had to sell myself. A woman on the hiring committee told me that she was going to be at a rhetoric conference in Charleston, South Carolina later that month. I flew down and met her for coffee—an informal interview before the official interview.

When she got back to Colgate, she told the other members on the search committee about me. That made me a face, not just a name—and the only face in that giant stack of resumes. After a long process, I was offered and accepted the job.

Colgate is in Hamilton, New York, a town of about 2,000 people. The closest city is Syracuse, about an hour away. Hamilton is a perfect small town—if you like small towns. My wife Kelly and I didn’t. To be sure, Colgate’s campus is spectacular, the town is quaint, and the surrounding countryside belongs on a postcard. But small town life wasn’t for us. I knew we had to move when I went to the grand opening of a drugstore in town because, well, what else was there to do? I remember thinking I’m at the opening of a drugstore out of my own free will. I went home and told my wife my epiphany. We decided to move back to the DC area, even if that meant leaving academia.

But there was a problem: English PhDs are not a hot commodity outside of academia. One morning, though, I saw an ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Howrey LLP, a big DC-based international law firm, was looking for an in-house writing instructor. It was a new position, and Howrey wanted to hire an academic—not an attorney—to develop a writing curriculum for the attorneys. A rhetoric professor at a law firm! The firm wanted someone who could look at a piece of legal writing with fresh eyes and say Really? That’s the word you’re going with? An old friend was already an attorney there, and he knew the woman who would be my boss. I reached out to her, and we had coffee before the official interview day. (Sound familiar?)

Quality of life superseded almost everything for Kelly and me, including my job. I loved my time at Colgate, but we didn’t want to spend our lives in a town smaller than many high schools. We had to get out. But this was a huge career change. I went from the relatively slow pace of academia to a profession where most things need to be done yesterday. I was not an attorney, had never seen the inside of a law firm, and only knew the term motion from football. But judges always say that attorneys should pretend that they’re writing to anyone other than attorneys. This made the challenge slightly—slightly—less daunting.

I worked at Howrey for five years, developing a rotating series of writing seminars for the attorneys and traveling to each worldwide office twice a year to deliver them. I also offered individual writing coaching sessions. But in 2011, in the middle of an economic downturn, the firm dissolved. I received an email at 10:37pm—I’ll never forget that time—that the firm was shutting down the next day. Come in the next morning to turn in your keycards and laptops, we were told. We received no severance pay, and even worse, since the firm had a self-funded medical plan, our health insurance stopped. We had our fourth child ten days earlier and my wife stayed home with the kids. The timing was horrible.

We had three options. The least realistic was a return to academia. I could also send my resume to other law firms, but no one was hiring an in-house writing instructor, especially in a downturn. The third option was to start my own business. It’s courageous to start your own business right after losing your job, people told me. Nah. It was desperation. We had no income and a dwindling savings account. It would have been courageous to quit a great job to start a new one.

I like to think that I founded Persuasive Matters the day I lost my job, but it took about six months (and six months on unemployment making $300 a week with four kids) to land my first client. I started a website, and—twenty years after graduating from Hope—again reached out to Dale Austin for help. Howrey’s dissolution meant that its partners scattered to other law firms, and I noted where all of them went. I reached out to many of them for a way in the door.

My job involves the same thing I did at Howrey. I deliver writing seminars and writing coaching to attorneys at some of the most powerful law firms around the world. I travel all around the US and the world, from Mexico City to Beijing. And thirty years after my first job in radio, I still use those sales skills when I meet with prospective clients. I love my job, but my favorite part is that because I’m self-employed, I’m my own boss.

I was 41 when I started my eventual career. Which means it took me 20 years after graduating to settle on what I wanted to do. And that’s OK. I never wondered whether I was on the right path, but I knew I would eventually find that path.

There was a point in each of my jobs when I recognized that I wanted to do something else. Once I knew this, I got out as soon as I could. I never lingered. But that job narrowed my focus for the next one, which was a positive. And that’s the through line in my life from Metallica to motions, from global literature to global litigation.

I never got to be a rock star. But I’ve been able to weave my love of music into my career in two surprising ways. One, in 2010 I started Songwriters on Process, a site featuring over 300 interviews with songwriters about, well, their writing process. And two, last year I signed my first book deal, a collaboration/memoir with a good friend of mine who happens to be a well-known metal guitarist.

In a follow-up post, I’ll talk about how my Hope experience prepared me for everything after. Meanwhile, if you want to reach out, email me at ben@persuasivematters.com.

“In Theory”: How I Learned to Defend Literature

 Essay written by Kallen Mohr from her Intro to Literary Theory course, Fall 2022

Since my time as an elementary school student, I have felt the need to defend my interest in stories. Of course, when I was younger, it was easier. Finding importance in the made-up was an expected part of childhood. However, as I grew older, my interest failed to diminish. I found myself increasingly in the position to justify the importance I placed on made-up people and the made-up world to those around me. I have especially found this to be the case when I tell fellow students, adults, and family members that I am studying English. Although there is no outright dismissal of my study of literature, a hint of wonder and concern is ultimately conveyed. When they respond with “Oh, really?” I know they are asking themselves, What could she possibly gain from studying that? 

I will admit that in the face of such doubts, I too have questioned the importance of literary studies. Here, I must also admit that I did not sign up for Dr. Gruenler’s “Intro to Literary Theory” course to find the solution to these doubts. I initially took the class because of grad school plans and my own imposter syndrome as an English major. In other words, I wanted to alleviate the sneaking feeling that I actually had no idea how to analyze a text to the level an undergraduate with an English degree should. Suffice it to say I have since learned that I was more prepared than I knew. Like Robert Dale Parker wrote in his introduction to How to Interpret Literature, we each have learned literary theory without knowing it. 

As I look back on the course, I am struck by the ambiguity of literary studies. Like I said before, I am frequently asked to defend the study of literature. To realize that even the literary theorists cannot agree on the “proper” way to study literature is not necessarily the defense I wanted to give literature skeptics. However, I must say that this is what has stuck with me at the conclusion of the class. To that end, I am not sure I can say with confidence that this course answered all the questions I had, but instead left me with even more questions about the future of literary studies, English education, and my role as a literature student. 

I believe we have landed on another moment in time where current theories are called into question and new theories are due to become the next “big thing.” But I find that this is what I have come to love about literary studies and literary theory. If there were one way to interpret literature, there would be no study, and there would be no influence. Literature resides at that unique intersection of culture, history, and emotion. The study of English literature is, at the end of the day, a study of humans and how we see ourselves and one another. To study that across time is the most important and the most necessary. Without it, how do we place ourselves?

Reflecting back on the many theories covered in my “Literary Theory” course, I find it difficult to pick the most valuable. Each theory has left me with the urge to place it on my bookshelf and loan it out to friends. However, I must stand by my opinion of New Criticism as antithetical to the value of literary study. As the 20th-century literary theory which focuses on a literary text in detail and isolated from external influence, I believe it dismisses the intimate interaction between writing, culture, identity, and place. When it comes to what I consider “valuable” literary theories, I gravitate towards those theories that emphasize history, culture, identity, and upsetting the status quo. I believe this is what literature is inherently meant to place emphasis on, and I cannot stand by a theory that refuses to acknowledge such connections. With this in mind, I view new historicist, feminist, Marxist, queer, disability, postcolonial, race, posthumanist, and reader response theories as the most influential in our study of literature and stories. Such theories focus on the power dynamics within literature, specifically in the ways power is abused, flipped, or equalized in a text. This focus is exactly why literary studies must continue to exist as an essential area of study for students and the public.

When I look at my time past this course, I find myself wanting to dive deeper into posthumanist, disability, queer, and reader response theory. Since all of these theories are still relatively new compared with the long history of literary theory, I want to engage more with the current conversations occurring both in academia and in popular culture. On the topics of queer and disability theory, I feel that we have just started scratching the surface of the potential each holds for reimagining our future as more queer and anti-ableist. I also see great potential in posthumanist and reader response theory in thinking about technology and our own place in the world as humans, but especially as readers. At the conclusion of this course, I feel that I hold greater confidence in my ability to analyze texts, apply theory, and, most importantly, defend my passion for literature.