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.

2023 Academy of American Poets Prize

About the Prize

The Hope College Academy of American Poets (AAP) Prize award is funded by the University and College Poetry Prize program of the AAP. The academy began the program in 1955 at 10 schools, and now sponsors nearly 200 annual prizes for poetry at colleges and universities nationwide. Poets honored through the program have included Mark Doty, Louise Gluck, Joy Harjo, Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Sylvia Plath, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, and Charles Wright. The winning poet receives $100 from the Academy of American Poets.

This year the judges were Susana Childress, Rhoda Janzen, and Pablo Peschiera, creative writing faculty in the English Department at Hope College

Winner:

Logan Pitsenberger’s “Dragon’s Milk

The judges write:

This poem’s well-crafted, subtle allusions to the visual arts, in its pastel and precision, speak volumes about the poet’s sensitivities to environment and space. We’re particularly impressed that this poem is about young men who are emotionally available for each other, in which each moment is often minutely etched in a specific time frame (“the clock with its minute hand stuttering between 5 and 5:08”). The title speaks to the weakness the speaker feels in the face of his friend’s emotional breakdown. All the speaker has to offer—a bottle of stout—indicates that his friend’s suffering also overwhelms him. “Dragon’s Milk” paints a slow picture, and a clear portrait structurally grounded in the tender care for a friend’s pain.

Dragon’s Milk

We waited for him as two eggs sizzled and the aroma of charred cheese on the frypan’s bottom twisted my nose. Sid had scribbled at our small table the solution to a biochemistry problem and sipped chocolate milk. Night shuttered our curtainless window. But soft white lights, taped above chipped cabinets, the clock with its minute hand stuttering between 5:07 and 5:08, and the doorframe to our bathroom hovel, illumined us: small, stuck. The door never closed so soft. He passed uncoupled shoes, the T.V., shelves stacked with ramen. He passed the door to our basement where our pockmarked dartboard slept. His head had bent to his chest and curly hair drooped below his eyebrows. His hand splayed over his nose, eyes, mouth, and ragged mustache. Peter sighed. Then his long torso expanded and contracted like a sump pump. Sid bounced to his feet and touched Peter’s shoulder. I flipped the eggs. Peter hugged Sid, then Sid retrieved the box of tissues from our bathroom. Peter hugged me, too. “Jasmine,” he whispered. “It was horrible. It was horrible, the entire thing. I messed it up, man.” He squeezed my chest. “I messed it up.” His grief: a blackened hull. Sid’s tissues dissolved like clouds over water. Peter slumped at the table as I failed to find a bottle opener. I struck the last Dragon’s Milk on the counter. “Please, take it.” Peter preferred lighter fare, IPA and Pabst Blue Ribbon, but what else could I give him? His lips kissed tilted glass. I recalled the calm power of the drink smolder in my own chest. Dragon’s Milk would transmute into a sea of tears, into pastel beer dripping through pastel mustache and pastel jaw—blurred, as Redon’s flower clouds, the boat going nowhere at all.

Honorable Mention

Adriana Barker’s “Unwritten”

The judges write:

“Unwritten” reflects an awareness of popular structural conceits in contemporary poetry, using the listing technique, and the apostrophe in the last line of the poem. Seemingly coincidentally arranged, the poem builds to an anaphoric moment as a way of walking through grief and struggle, allowing the images to both propel and ground the reader. The references to the chest near the beginning and then at the end of the poem display a skilled use of a subtle, classic technique of craft. The speaker in this poem looks to the future, and, though conflicted, sees it inexorably unrolling.

“Unwritten”

She and I in the car, singing
and eating death by chocolate 
concretes from Curly’s. Yesterday 
I went to a play. The way her skin 
glowed in the lavender sweatshirt, 
the way she people-watched over 
my shoulder at lunch. She got a tattoo
of a painting – she got a tattoo with her
new best friend. They match. My cat, his
frail body before death, his fragile
walk, his cancer trapped inside. 
Isn’t it ironic, that the oncologist
had a cat with cancer? Isn’t it ironic
his daughter will one day have chemo
dripping into her arm? Until then I will
put on a bra with thanks, like a prayer, 
like a ritual I know will end. Wait – 
don’t turn the page, don’t click off. 
I sat in the stall next to her as she ripped 
paper from a clear tube. Today 
I saw a horse spook at the ice 
crashing off the roof. Today I heated
soup. Today I rubbed medicine 
on my jaw. Today I flew home. 
Today I read Frank O’Hara. Today
I watched her sort through a bin 
of cheap clothes. Today my brother
got the flu. Today I stuck a sticker 
on my wall. Get off my chest
immediately, images, you
almost-poems that can’t 
seem to leave the nest.

A Sneak Peek of Opus Soup

Hi! My name is Eileen Ellis, and I am one of the co-editors of Opus Literary & Arts Magazine.

Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but this semester has been a doozy. I mean, reeeaaally a dooooozy. And if you know me, you’ll have already heard me complain endlessly about my parking ticket and my dog pretending to be on her deathbed just for attention and my midterm grades… which is why I’m writing this blog post to share some happy news.

Being this close to the holiday break means it’s time for Opus Soup, our end-of-the-semester celebration of the amazing artists and writers at Hope College!

This semester’s Opus Soup will be held at
7 PM on Thursday, December 8th,
in Winants Auditorium (Graves Hall).

If you haven’t yet, please RSVP to attend! The link for guests (everyone who is not a published writer/artist) is here

At this event, writers will read their work and artists will display their artwork. And although there isn’t any soup (although, BYOS if you so choose), there will be some delicious pretzels from Knot Spot and editions of this semester’s gorgeous magazine! 

As a sneak peek into our upcoming issue, this blog post features the editor’s letters written by Adriana Barker and me about this semester’s edition.

But before you read the letters, be sure to follow us on our multitude of social media pages:

And now, without further ado, here are the editor’s letters for Opus Fall 2022.

A Letter from Adriana Barker

When I became a Co-Editor of Opus, I got a key to the old Opus office in the basement of DeWitt. When I walked into that little windowless room for the first time, I stood silently and stared at the hundreds of copies of Opus magazines that lined the walls. 

Opus represents an artistic community at Hope going back until our first issue in 1954. I was awed and overwhelmed by the responsibility of Co-Editor, of taking a place that hundreds of editors have taken before me, and assuming partial control of an organization that has been around far longer than I have been alive. I was given the opportunity to take my place in line and serve my fellow authors and artists by shepherding their work and presenting it to the community in beautiful bound form. 

I have loved every minute of my time on the Opus staff. In my short time as a part of this magazine, I have experienced some incredible changes – we built a website, moved to a new office, set submission records in all three categories, set new records to beat those records, saw more people come to meetings, added new staff positions, and changed the size of the printed magazine. When I first stood in front of the long line of Opus books, wondering at my place in the line of editors past and future, I could not imagine the things we would go on to accomplish in such a short time. I am extremely proud of Opus. I am extremely grateful for my time as editor. And I will deeply miss this organization and its people. 

It takes a village to run Opus. If you have been a part of my Opus journey – you know who you are. No written thank you is enough to capture the love and appreciation I feel for each of you. 

I extend a special thank you to Eileen Ellis for being an awesome second half this semester. It has been an incredible joy to see you take on the Co-Editor position, and I am confident Opus will continue to thrive under your smart, funny, and sincere leadership. 

On a less serious note, I have an announcement to make. I made an absurd bet with myself when I was a freshman. I challenged myself to get some piece of horse-related art published in Opus every semester of college, and, drum roll please – I have completed that goal successfully! I am very proud of all my art, especially my horse-related and often Texas-inspired work. This fun bet with myself directly inspired my choice for the cover design of this semester’s issue. This is the only cover I have designed during my time at Opus, and I think it captures a part of my unique mark on this organization’s history. 

With love, Adriana Barker

A Letter from Eileen Ellis

When I was interviewed for the position of co-editor, I was in the middle of nowhere – some small town in Ireland about a 30-minute drive from Kylemore Abbey. In that interview I was asked something along the lines of what made me qualified for the position. I explained that I had been a contributor and a prose-editor, and the next obvious step was to become a co-editor. I believed that my experience in the previous two positions had adequately prepared me to be a co-editor. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was a lie: no other position in Opus prepares you to be a co-editor.

However, there is a person who prepared me, and that would be the one and only Adriana. A few things you should know about her:

  • She wears different eye makeup almost every day.
  • She’s an unapologetic horse girl.
  • She says “there’s a poem in that” at least once a day.
  • She’s the reason I joined Opus in the first place, and I can’t thank her enough for her relentless pestering of our entire ENGL 354 class to get involved. 
  • She arguably cares about Opus more than anyone else on Hope’s campus.

I admit, her leadership, dedication, and passion are intimidating – I often wonder if I will be able to live up to the vigor I’ve seen her display as a co-editor. I certainly hope to. 

Confession time. Opus is about to enter a very transitional period: before the end of the spring semester, I will have to find my replacement and fill at least three additional editorial positions. I’m anxious about the coming months, but I am not the first co-editor to face such hurdles. Opus is old and these challenges are not new – part of the legacy of Opus is its ability to overcome hardships and not only survive but thrive. 

In “Remembering Opus: A Fragmentary Look Back” Jack Ridl commended “The Legacy of imagination, courage, pluck, spunk, spit, talent, and intelligence that Opus has left these 50 years!”

At the very least, I definitely have spit – so really, what is there to fear?

Cheers,

Eileen Ellis

An Author Stops on 10th Street: Matt de la Peña with the Little Read Lakeshore

Written by Piper Daleiden, Hope College English and Psychology Major, Student Managing Editor for the English Department

As part of the NEA Little Read Lakeshore, Matt de la Peña visited Hope College, where he spoke in classes, presented to elementary school children from the area, and finished with a keynote speech. De la Peña is a prominent children’s and YA author, and one of his picture books, Last Stop on Market Street, is the 2022 Little Read book.

During his keynote speech, de la Peña discussed the shifting role that literature has played in his life. He described himself as a reluctant reader when he was young. Growing up in a working-class area in southern California, his family members did not read as a hobby, so he had no early experiences with reading for enjoyment. However, this changed when he encountered The House on Mango Street. The protagonist in this story grew up in a community that felt familiar to de la Peña, and he found himself returning to this book again and again. He began to see books as places of comfort. His appreciation for literature expanded further when a college professor gave him The Color Purple. This novel was challenging but taught him to empathize with a character who was different than him. From there, reading and writing became increasingly important to him, and with the encouragement of professors, he earned an MFA in creative writing.

Literature did more than spark de la Peña’s love for writing. When his family was going through a difficult time, de la Peña’s father asked to borrow a book that de la Peña was reading in graduate school. Although de la Peña was surprised since his father did not read for fun, he agreed and continued to give every book he read in school to his father. These seemingly small actions culminated in his father going to college to study literature and becoming an elementary school teacher in a migrant community. De la Peña reflected,

“Sometimes when you give someone the right book at the right time… you’re giving them a better future.”

To de la Peña, literature is more than an escape into some fictional world; it can truly impact people in meaningful and tangible ways.

I also had the opportunity to listen to de la Peña talk in detail about his writing process during a Q&A session with my English 375 class, “Kids Save the World: Children’s and Young Adult Literature.” Our professor, Dr. Tucker, encouraged us to ask the questions that we’d been thinking about as we read picture books by de la Peña and other authors for the course. In response, de la Peña described how both the author and illustrator bring their unique perspectives into creating a picture book. He shared examples of instances when seeing an illustrator’s sketches led his plan for the story to adapt and grow.

De la Peña then explained that many of his stories are inspired by his own life. As an author, he especially wants to preserve and share stories from the community in which he grew up, and his neighborhood was the inspiration for Last Stop on Market Street. According to de la Peña, an author must “listen, go through the world quietly, and harvest stories.” Even when pulling ideas from real life, he advised going into the writing process with a point of view, not a definitive message. The original idea for the story will undergo many revisions, so the author should be open to wherever it might lead. De la Peña concluded by encouraging us to write what we find interesting or confusing, not what is trending.

Calling All Poets!

Academy of American Poets Prize

This prize is open to all students currently enrolled at Hope College. An award check in the amount of $100 will go to the winner, as well as a one-year membership to the Academy of American Poets, and a subscription to the magazine American Poets.

***Extended Deadline: December 2, 2022 at Noon

Submission Guidelines

  • One submission per poet, of 1 – 2 poems, no more than four pages
  • Please do not staple your submission together
  • Please submit the poems anonymously; your name (or any other identifying information) should not appear anywhere on the poems.
  • Cover sheet:
    • Type “Hope College Academy of American Poets Prize” at the top.
    • Include your name, address, phone number, email AND a permanent address
  • A list of the title(s) of the poem(s) MUST appear on the cover sheet.
  • Paperclip the coversheet to your poem(s)

Submit poems and cover sheet to the Hope College English Department,
3rd floor of Lubbers Hall between 8 – 5 Monday through Friday.

Off-campus students may emails submissions to vandenend@hope.edu following the same guidelines as above.

Alumni Spotlight: “Ready to Listen” with Samuel Vega ’22

Written by Piper Daleiden, Hope College English and Psychology Major, Student Managing Editor for the English Department

What role does a creative writing major play in a project focused on child development and education? This was one of Samuel Vega’s questions when he first joined a group of Hope students and faculty, as well as staff from Ready for School, on a project titled “Stories of Equity and Hope.” Samuel, a ’22 Hope graduate, worked alongside Dr. Regan Postma-Montaño, Dr. Jesus Montaño, Dr. Susanna Childress, Carole Chee, Esther Turahirwa, and Paris Patterson. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the goal of this grant project was to hear people’s stories about children’s educational needs. For the team, this involved conducting countless hours of interviews with a wide variety of people from the community. During the first phase, the team listened to the stories and experiences of parents, but they later brought in the insights of professionals and other members of the community. Samuel explained: “We were just trying to cast a wider net, to hear stories and learn from a different group of people.” Integrating these two groups allowed the project to be as informed as possible about children’s educational needs and experiences within the community.

Hope Storygatherers: Dr. Regan Postma-Montaño with students Carole Chee (English / Women’s and Gender Studies), Samuel Vega ’22 (English – Creative Writing), Esther Turahirwa (Psychology/Business), Paris Patterson (Education/ ESL endorsement)
Ready for School Annual Breakfast:
Dr. Regan Postma-Montaño (Hope – Spanish/English)  Dr. Llena Chavis (Hope – Sociology/Social Work) , Samuel Vega ’22 (English – Creative Writing), Esther Turahirwa (Psychology/Business), and Dr. Susanna Childress(Hope – English)  .

Beyond listening to people’s experiences, the “Stories of Equity and Hope” project also
intends to share these stories with others. This process is taking two forms: a podcast and a collection of mini-libraries. The podcast aired this fall and allows listeners to hear from people of diverse backgrounds about moments of achievement and obstacles in children’s education. The mini-libraries will be located in various spots throughout the Holland community and will specifically include books that allow more children to see themselves represented.

Storygathering session – Ready for School staff Donna Lowry and Bill Badran, Hope student Esther Turahirwa, Storyteller Patrick Johnson, and Dr. Llena Chavis (Hope – Sociology/Social Work) 
Mini-library for Habitat new homeowners


For Samuel, this project has helped him grow as a writer and as a person. At the start, he was unsure of how his creative writing skills would connect with the project’s focus on development and education. As Samuel began to conduct interviews, he realized that a good writer must begin by first being a good listener. This project certainly cultivated his listening skills by putting him in the position to listen to and learn from people with many different perspectives. He grew increasingly comfortable during the interviews, and he even described how he was “able to connect with people on a bit of a deeper, sometimes more casual level than before.” Samuel emphasized that he and his teammates also learned to welcome being surprised, as people’s experiences are multifaceted and unique. Rather than expecting the interviews to follow a similar pattern, the team learned to embrace any tangents and additional thoughts that people wanted to add to the conversation.

Additionally, the project became more meaningful for Samuel as he recognized the
tangible ways in which it would help the community. In his role, he would “listen to people so that in the future Ready for School can help prepare children for even that first day of kindergarten.” He saw that gathering these stories can support parents and professionals as they seek to provide every child with an education that will meet their unique needs.

Interested to learn more? Listen to the podcast and hear Samuel discuss his experience on
episode 3; connect with Ready for School on Facebook; or read on about “Stories of Equity and Hope” and other Hope-Community partnerships.