Dreaming in Comics: Alumni Interview with RJ Casey ’09

Happy New Year, and to all at Hope, welcome back for a new semester. This week we’re delighted to bring you an interview with RJ Casey, a Hope ’09 grad whose pursuit of English has taken him from Moby Dick and Walden Pond to the cutting edge of comics publishing!

RJ, we can’t wait to hear the details. Tell us, what are you doing now?

I work for Fantagraphics Books in Seattle, Washington. My business card says “Rights & Operations,” whatever that means. In publishing, especially working for a small publishing house, it’s all hands on deck, so my job changes from day to day. I edit books, manage the company’s foreign rights sales and permissions requests, and coordinate with our digital distributors, amongst other things that hopefully result in us getting our books in your hands.

I’ve written art criticism, book reviews, and articles about basketball for various sites over the last few years. My writing and interviews can now mainly be found at tcj.com.

I’m also the new co-managing editor of The Comics Journal magazine, a resurrection project I’m very excited to be a part of. Nearly seven years ago, The Comics Journal ceased publication after forty years of being the only real literary magazine looking at the comics medium with a critical eye. In January 2019, I helped to bring it back for a triumphant return with issue #303. It’s now a twice-a-year prestige magazine covering the cutting edge of comics, as well as unearthing artists or works we feel have been forgotten or overshadowed. It’s a true esoteric dream come true.

On a personal note, my wife Ann (Hope ’10) and I had a child last year and live in Tacoma, Washington.

How did your Hope English education shape you?

 It challenged me, first and foremost. It knocked me off of my cocky, spurious late-teens/early-20s pedestal and then built me back up into someone who is hopefully more knowledgeable and compassionate.

It gave me people like Dr. Pannapacker, Dr. Schakel, and Dr. Montaño, who would let me incessantly bug them about the writers I was interested in and would patiently sit through my grueling trying-too-hard-to-be-witty poetry. I remember running into Professor Rappleye in the Kletz and showing him (or accosting him with) a poem I had written in my frat house on a typewriter! I emailed Dr. Pannapacker asking for tips a night before driving to Walden Pond over a weekend on a whim!

I’m just so glad I had that time in the Hope English Department where professors met my bad short stories and wild enthusiasm with thoughtfulness and then guided me toward better writing, better opinions, and a better understanding of literature and the world at large.

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

Become something of a jack-of-all-trades. If your goal is to work in publishing or become an editor, you will have to know how proofread, copy edit, content edit, organize a million various schedules, and manage moody and unpredictable writers and artists.

If your plan is to become a moody and unpredictable writer or artist, you will need to know how to send invoices, file freelance taxes, organize another million various schedules, and deal with overbearing and erroneous editors and publishers. Knowing and accepting this in college will definitely give you a leg up after you graduate, I think.

If you could teach any English class, what would be the title?

It would sure have a niche audience, but “Reconsidering the Comics Canon.” There are important, transformative works outside of Watchmen and Fun Home. Believe me!

Well then, we have to ask — such as…?

The uncanny humorous work of M.K. Brown, Richard Thompson, and Sasaki Maki; the pit-in-your-gut comics of Renee French, Carol Swain, and Phoebe Gloeckner; and the Hernandez brothers would make the backbone of my hypothetical syllabus.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

Some recent favorites have been “Mother’s Walk” by Lauren Weinstein; John, Dear by Laura Lannes; Mammother by Zachary Schomburg; and Idaho by Emily Ruskovich.

In college, the only thing that mattered was Moby Dick.

“How I Got My Start in Publishing”: An Alumni Feature by Melanie Burkhardt ’18

During a recent job interview at Baker Publishing Group in Ada, Michigan, the interviewer asked how I had become interested in the position of an acquisitions assistant. Trying to appeal to my audience, I made the classic joke, “Well, I was an English major. So eventually I had to ask myself the question, what am I going to do with this?”

The comment was met with a few chuckles from the room, identifying the fellow English majors. And while it was nice to get a laugh, it also made me sort of sad. Why has studying English become the punch line of a joke? And especially one made by English majors themselves?

The reason I studied English was because I love stories. Analyzing them, reading them, and writing them. But I majored in English because I believe in stories. I believe they have the power to change peoples’ lives and have an impact on our world. Stories—in the form of books, specifically—have long been a source of comfort, information, and exploration for me.

Being a lover of books my whole life, I was intrigued by the publishing world. What happens before a book ends up on a shelf in a store or a library? Who gets to decide which books are worth publishing and which are not? What is it like to journey with a story from initial manuscript to printed book?

By my senior year at Hope, I had my eyes fixed on publishing as a possible career path. And yet, I knew nothing about the industry. As a student, I had held a couple of different on-campus jobs, including working as a TA in the English Department and conducting research with Prof. Natalie Dykstra for her next book, a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner. My experiences were meaningful, but none directly related to publishing, and I worried I was too late to join the field.

On learning about my new interest in publishing, Prof. Dykstra invited me to Boston, where I would conduct research at the Houghton Library at Harvard but also have lunch with her publicist from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to talk about publishing and possible opportunities. Besides having a wonderful time in Boston, I gained valuable advice from this lunch meeting, the most important being to simply gain experience. In other words, I was told that the publishing world can be tricky to break into but that I just needed to get my foot in the door.

On returning to campus, I set up a meeting with Hope’s Career Development Center to gather a list of alumni contacts who either currently worked or had worked in the publishing industry. I soon began setting up phone meetings with these alumni to try and learn more about the field and the different types of jobs available. One of these connections led me to my eventual post-graduation internship with Eerdmans Publishing Company, a smaller academic publishing house in Grand Rapids. My internship was in the editorial department and consisted of learning the ins and outs of project editing. I proofread and copyedited manuscripts and indexes and participated in meetings. My foot was officially “in the door” of the publishing world.

Since my internship ended in August, I had the aforementioned interview at Baker and landed the position of acquisitions assistant. This experience has opened my eyes to the inner workings of a publishing house, as I daily work with the many changes that books go through just to get on a shelf. And while it has been thrilling to learn about the industry and these processes from the ground level, what fuels my work and the work of Baker as a company is the same belief that I stuck to when studying English: that stories have the power to impact our world and people for the better.

I am only at the very start of my career, and I don’t know for sure if I will be in publishing forever or if life will move me in a different direction. I’ve found it’s important to remember that not all career paths are going to look the same, and English majors may have a bit more of a winding road ahead of them. But just like any good book, life is more fun with a couple twists and turns along the way.

Who Was A. J. Muste?

Professor of English Kathleen Verduin shares her insights on a Hope icon, prior to the dedication of Muste’s sculpture on November 13 at 3pm at Van Wylen Library.  

Tell me you’ve heard of him: Abraham Johannes Muste (1885-1967), labor leader, world-renowned pacifist, and probably Hope’s most famous alumnus.

Born in the Netherlands, Muste immigrated to Grand Rapids with his family in 1891. He graduated from Hope College in 1905: valedictorian, captain of the basketball team, president of his fraternity (the Fraters, of course), and already an acclaimed orator. He studied at New Brunswick Seminary and was ordained as a pastor in the Reformed Church in America in 1909. From there, he served the Fort Washington Collegiate Church in New York City, but found himself increasing uncomfortable with the doctrines of Calvinism, and moved on to a Congregational Church near Boston.

The year 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, was a dramatic watershed for the young man: despite social pressures around him, he adopted a position of radical pacifism.

Muste had already joined over sixty fellow pacifists to found the American wing of the international Fellowship of Reconciliation. Next, abandoning his pulpit, he turned toward labor organization as a theater where his commitment to issues of peace and justice could find expression.

In 1921, he became educational director of the Brookwood Labor College in New York and laid foundations for the Conference for Progressive Labor Action. Frustrated with the church, he was drawn for a time to Communism, even visiting the noted Marxist Leon Trotsky in 1936. “What could one say to the unemployed and the unorganized who were betrayed and shot down when they protested”? he asked himself. “What did one point out to them? Well, not the Church … you saw that it was the radicals, the Left-wingers, the people who had adopted some form of Marxian philosophy, who were doing something about the situation.”

And yet A. J. didn’t have it in him to stay away from Christianity for very long. That same year he wandered into the Church of St. Sulpice in Paris and experienced a reconversion: “Without the slightest premonition of what was going to happen, I was saying to myself: ‘This is where you belong.’” On his return to the United States, Muste headed the Presbyterian Labor Temple in New York and then became Executive Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

In 1949 a very young Martin Luther King, Jr., then at student at Crozer Seminary, heard Muste lecture on non-violent resistance. It may even be fair to say that King would not have achieved his ambitions had he not had Muste as an example.

In his years of “retirement,” Muste was more vigorous than ever, participating in a string of activities: the anti-nuclear walk to Mead Airforce Base, where the seventy-five-year old climbed over the fence into the grounds; the San Francisco to Moscow Walk for Peace, the Quebec-Guantanamo Peace Walk, the Nashville-Washington Walk, and the Sahara Project to oppose nuclear testing in Africa.

In 1966, in the heat of the Vietnam War, he led a group to Saigon, where he was immediately deported, but shortly thereafter flew to Hanoi to meet Ho Chi Minh. Less than a month later Muste died of an aneurysm. The great American linguist, philosopher, and social critic Noam Chomsky called Muste “one of the most significant twentieth-century figures, an unsung hero.”

During the summer of 2017, I had the great privilege of accompanying David Schock on a series of cross-country trips to interview and record the memories of people who knew A. J. or had written about him. It was an unforgettable experience, and the footage is priceless. We heard the stories—often expressed in tears—of working with Muste, observing his deft administration, and wondering at his dedication. What is the cost of a life like Muste’s, a life that so realizes the imitatio Christi?

Surely Muste paid a price: his family’s finances were chronically precarious, he was often away from home, and he endured the suspicion of many with whom he had grown up. One person we interviewed estimated that Muste had probably owned no more than four suits in his entire life, and his shoes often revealed patches in the soles.

Yet Muste was a happy man. I love this story from his co-worker Barbara Deming, who was with him when he was arrested in Vietnam: “None of us had any idea how rough they might be,” she recalled, “and A. J. looked so very frail.” She went on: “I looked across the room at A. J. to see how he was doing. He looked back with a sparkling smile and, with that sudden light in his eyes which so many of his friends will remember, he said, ‘It’s a good life!’”

Though Muste wasn’t an English major, he was a lover of poetry, so it seems fitting to end with some of the lines that most inspired him. These words, from Stephen Spender’s “The Truly Great,” were read at his memorial service: “I think continually of those who were truly great. / Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history / Through corridors of life, where the hours are suns, / Endless and singing.”

Visit Digital Holland for a timeline of Muste’s life, and be sure to check out Hope’s A. J. Muste Web page.

“Writing Basically Constantly”: Alumni Interview with Matthew Baker ’08

Matthew Baker ’08 is coming to town, and the English department snagged an interview with our New York City-dwelling Hope alum and ascendant professional writer.

Baker’s works include the middle-grade mystery novel If You Find This (2017) and the story collection Hybrid Creatures (2018), from which he’ll be reading at JRVWS on Thursday the 27th. Three of his stories have been optioned for the screen by Amazon, an independent studio, and Netflix–the most recent causing a “bidding stampede”!

So, what are you doing now? We’ve heard the headlines, of course.

Writing—writing stories, writing novels, writing screenplays, writing comics—writing basically constantly.

Not bad advice for aspiring writers at Hope. Speaking of which, how did your Hope English education shape you?

I’m most grateful for two things: having had the opportunity to volunteer as an editor for Opus, and having had the opportunity to take Modern English Grammar, which at the time was taught by Rhoda Janzen [now Burton]. Every writer should take a grammar course and learn how to diagram sentences. I very passionately believe that. You can’t break the rules if you don’t know what the rules are to begin with.

I also did an independent study on graphic novels with Beth Trembley, which had an enormous effect on me as a writer. Curtis Gruenler’s course on the history of the English language was essential. Jack Ridl taught me sage wisdom about poetry. Heather Sellers taught me sage wisdom about fiction. Kathleen Verduin let me sleep in a spare room in her basement one summer when I didn’t have anywhere to live.

Also, Julie Kipp during class once made an offhand remark that films were literature too and that as students of literature all of us had an obligation to study film history (I think she was upset that nobody in the class had ever seen Apocalypse Now) and I actually took that to heart and I did—that summer I rented over a hundred classic films from Van Wylen Library, and I can say that despite being an unofficial assignment, that was probably the most important assignment I was ever given.

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

Subscribe to The Paris Review.

Intriguing! Current students may be pleased to know that the Van Wylen Library subscribes, if they want to check out the latest issue. Tell us, if you could teach any English class, what would be the title?

I actually do—I teach an advanced writing workshop once a year at NYU, called Hybrid Fictions. It’s a workshop in which students exclusively read and write interdisciplinary fiction: stories that incorporate subject-specific language, forms, and concepts from other fields of study. For instance, Margaret Luongo’s “A Note on the Type,” which is structured as a series of notes about fictional typefaces, drawing on the field of typography.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

In college my most treasured book was The People of Paper, primarily because one of the characters in the novel is a mechanical tortoise that speaks entirely in binary, which is just marvelous.

Thanks to Matthew Baker for giving us a taste of what to expect on Thursday. Students, faculty, and community members alike: be sure to attend his free reading!

9/27 @ 3:30 p.m. – Q&A in the Martha Miller Center
9/27 @ 7:00 p.m. – reading in the Jack Miller Center followed by reception

“The Art of Attention and a Hope Education”: A Faculty Feature from Alex Mouw (’14)

Alex Mouw (’14)

During the spring of 2014, I’d walk into the south entrance of Lubbers Hall and pass the oil painting of President and Mrs. Lubbers playing a diligent game of chess. I’d round the corner onto the stairs and proceed to the second floor where a cross listed English and philosophy course on Existentialism met each Tuesday and Thursday.

It was this class that introduced me to the 20th century mystic Simone Weil, and one line of hers has remained in my memory ever since: “prayer consists of attention.” Weil wrote this as a defense of “school studies” broadly conceived. According to her, all subjects become inherently prayerful when given sincere attention, whether geometric problems, Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry, or the history of the French Revolution. As a liberal arts student, I took this line as a mantra to remind myself that everything I was learning had inherent value.

Yet attention isn’t about wrinkling your brow in dogged frustration at an impossible homework assignment; instead, it’s about de-cluttering the mind, turning off the email notifications, making sure you are alone with a good novel, then letting that text soak its way into your consciousness. If this sounds fuzzy, I’ll remind you that Weil was a mystic.

What’s so special about a Hope education, and the English major in particular, is that it fosters two kinds of attention. The first we associate with that all-important skill: critical thinking. English majors are good workers in a variety of environments because they know how to pay attention, closely read whatever problem is at hand and find a solution. From English 113 to Literary Theory, English majors are trained in the art of paying attention. As previous alumni blog posts can attest (check out what Sara and Kian have to say), this training yields a more fruitful personal and professional life.

The second form is unique to a small institution like Hope: professors give their students the gift of close, sustained attention. Our student-professor ratio is 11:1, which is top-notch. But what does such a statistic mean in practice? When I was an English major, I could (and did) knock on any door on the third floor of Lubbers Hall with essay, application, or poem in hand, knowing that I’d receive wise and measured counsel. Never did I feel that I, the student, was pulling professors away from their “real work.” Instead, our work was a shared enterprise in earnest human inquiry. That gift has served me well professionally, but more importantly, it has made me a more attentive person. Now, as a faculty member, I try to carry on the tradition and offer all my students the same care that I was given.

As I planned an Introduction to Creative Writing course for this semester, I read a book by Donald Revell about how to write poetry. I figured I could pick up some new teaching ideas to guide students through a poetry unit. To my utter astonishment and joy, I got something much grander. In the opening paragraphs of The Art of Attention, Revell writes: “poetry is a form of attention.” What a marvelous gift of the liberal arts education (which doesn’t really end, even after graduation), to see Simone Weil and Donald Revell collaborate across nearly a century! I took his idea to heart as I planned the course. Since then, the students in my creative writing class have gained hours of experience attending to the world around them, harnessing that energy into strong writing, and then offering one another thoughtful feedback.

My experience with these two authors was facilitated by a Hope education, and it is emblematic of what the liberal arts can provide: Weil’s essay had been assigned to me, but years later I sought out Revell’s book for my own purposes and made an utterly unexpected connection. That connection, in turn, helped fuel my attention to others─in this case, English 253 students. This circular pattern of learning and sharing never needs to end, and it can get a jump start in the Hope English department.

I’m writing this at the end of the semester, and all the faculty members are positively giddy over the accomplishments of our students. So, a hearty congratulations to all those award winners who were honored at the department awards ceremony on April 17; to those participating in Honors Convocation on April 26; to those attending the Senior Dinner on May 3; and to those graduating on May 6. To all our students: we are proud of the diligent attention you gave to your studies this year, and we are eager to see where your learning carries you during and beyond your Hope career. You are always welcome in Lubbers Hall!

Alumni Interview with Stephanie Mouw (Browne ’13)

Stephanie Mouw (Browne ’13)

What are you doing now?

I’m a writer/editor for Purdue University’s Marketing and Media department and work primarily on Admissions pieces, including anything from the university’s viewbook to visit day invitations. I also have the chance to work on ads, magazine stories, and a myriad of other projects for many Purdue colleges and offices.

How did your Hope English education shape you?

I double majored in English with a creative writing emphasis and communication. For my own personal interests and goals, there could not have been a more perfect blend of coursework and experiences. Both majors provided extensive opportunities for learning how to research, structure arguments, write well, and communicate with tact. These are skills I use every day in my work.

It was my English major that pushed me to think beyond the ordinary, to learn how to draw a reader in with fresh words and ideas. I read books that expanded my worldview. I learned how to productively offer feedback to others and, more importantly, handle critiques of my own work. I learned about patience for the process, grace when things aren’t happening the way you want them to, and discipline in showing up to practice each day.

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

Whether you are currently an English major or are thinking about it, ignore the cliché that an English major won’t get you anywhere, because it’s 100 percent false. I think every student should consider studying English because it teaches you to communicate effectively, respond thoughtfully, and see the world differently. You will have to work hard. You will not like every book assigned to you. But if you approach the work with an open mind and a willingness to be challenged, you’ll use the skills you acquired in your English classes every day — even if you don’t enter into an explicitly English-related career.

If you could teach any English class, what would be the title?

“Speechwriting 101.” It would cover all kinds of talks, from persuasive sales pitches to wedding toasts. We’d focus on the art of storytelling, hooking a listener from the first sentence, smooth transitions, and powerful conclusions.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

I took the “Advanced Fiction Workshop – Linked Stories” with Heather Sellers twice. One of my favorite books we read was Glen Rock Book of the Dead by Marion Winik, a collection of portraits of those who had somehow touched Winik’s life. It’s full of devastatingly beautiful observations, careful and intimate, no matter if she’s talking about her husband or her children’s dentist.

Recently, I read and loved The Windfall by Diksha Basu, a story about a middle-aged couple who come into a great amount of money and move from their humble housing complex to the ritzier part of New Delhi. It’s both hilarious and heartwarming, and Basu’s writing allowed me to encounter the foreign elements of Indian culture as well as the relatable themes of social status, making your loved ones proud, and the desire to belong.

 

Alumni Interview with Miriam Beyer ’98

What are you doing now?

Miriam Beyer ’98

I’m the Communications Director at The School at Columbia University, the K-8 school affiliated with and administered by Columbia. Half of our students are children of faculty and staff at the university, and half are from the neighboring public school districts, so we are a unique and wonderfully diverse community. I oversee all school communications, print and digital, and manage school events and site visits. I love my job.

Before starting at The School at Columbia, I had other positions within Columbia, including web editor at the Journalism School and communications manager at the School of the Arts. I’ve also worked in publishing, both trade and higher education, and entertainment law in New York.

How did your Hope English education shape you?

My Hope English education taught me to look for the big themes. When I face a complicated situation at work, I think: What is the larger issue at play here? What is the real worry prompting this reaction? What patterns are emerging, that I can recognize and try to understand, so my communications are effective? This inclination to look broadly, to look for underlying ideas and connections, is a direct result of my literature and English studies at Hope. It’s helped me a lot in my career. That, and the very practical writing, grammar, and editing skills I learned.

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

If you have the opportunity in your schedule to volunteer with a community reading program, serving children or adults (or both), do it. You, and the person you read with, will always look forward to it.

If you could teach any English class, what would be the title?

“Biographies, Beer, Beethoven (Not Necessarily in That Order).” Or, “Into the Sublime: The Joy of Copy Editing – Part I.” And then Part II. Part III …

Favorite book read recently or in college?

A few years after I moved to New York, I read Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, a biography of urban planner Robert Moses. The book needs no introduction from me; it is brilliantly researched and written. At more than 1,300 pages, I had to rip it in half so I could carry it on the subway without agony. I think about that book several times a week, still, as I travel throughout the city. Moses’ influence is everywhere, and it’s a testament to Caro’s writing that I continue to recall the book. One day I’d like to read his biographies of former president Lyndon B. Johnson too. My divine aunt, whom many know as Professor Verduin, gave me a meaty biography of Thoreau, by Laura Dassow Walls, for Christmas. My husband is from Boston and we regularly visit Massachusetts. I hope that, after reading it, I see and think about Thoreau there, the same ways I think about Moses in New York.

I also recently read Body of Water: A Sage, a Seeker, and the World’s Most Alluring Fish by fellow Hope alumnus Chris Dombrowski. It’s a beautiful meditation on place and passion, and it was great to reconnect with a classmate through his book. I highly recommend it.

One of the many reasons I love working at a school is that, at any moment, I can walk through the hallways and come across a student reading, or learning to read, or writing, or learning to write. It is eternally inspiring.

“To Reclaim Reading”: A Faculty Feature from Dana VanderLugt (’01)

Dana VanderLugt (’01) and her book-loving students

As an English teacher who races from my 8th grade classroom over to Hope to teach a late afternoon  composition class, I spend a lot of my time with young people in life’s messy middles: in the midst of adolescence, in the midst of the semester, in the midst of the academic year. When we’re swimming far from shore, it can be easy to lose sight of the mainland, to feel disoriented about what matters or where we’re heading.

Last semester, a quiet student, on her way out the door of our English 113 classroom for the final time, pulled me aside and asked: “Can you send me a list of books, maybe like some of the ones we read, that I could read next? This class reminded me that I like to read.”

In this mid-ish point in the semester, when our minds are on deadlines and to-do lists, when we’ve left behind the coziness of winter but are still waiting on the spring daffodils, an antidote may be remembering the joy that is reading, the beauty of words. We may deserve a gentle nudge to reclaim reading — not just as an academic pursuit, but as a comfort, a safe place, and a window to the world. Reading for the wonder of it.

While one of the strongest predictors of being a frequent, lifelong reader is a child who holds a strong belief that reading for fun is important, statistics show that reading enjoyment declines sharply after age eight, and that kids read for fun less and less as they get older, “with 45% of 17-year-old saying they read by choice only once or twice a year.” Author and teacher Penny Kittle describes a “calamitous drop-off in students’ reading after age 13 and a downward trend in voluntary reading by youth at middle and high school levels over the past two decades.”

Mary Cassatt’s 1894 painting “The Pensive Reader”

In this March is Reading month, those of us engaged in the study and teaching of English can be reminded that we are more than task-masters; we are ambassadors of literature, called to spread the love of reading. In the middle of our syllabi and schedules, we can hold fast to the deep conviction that books matter and that words have the ability to change and challenge us. And that in the midst of overwhelming to-do lists, what we might actually need most is to plunge into a good book.

Maybe one of my former middle school students can speak to this better than I can. In his end-of-the-year reflection, he wrote:  “Throughout 8th grade, I’ve learned many different things about my reading, but one main thing is actually caring about the story and theme. When I used to read, I did it just for the grade. Now, when I read books like the Harry Potter series, I actually pay notice to the characters’ emotions, the plot, and the relationship between people. Doing this gives me a larger respect for characters and stories. My newfound respect of stories actually makes reading a nice thing to do in my spare time, so I actually do plan to buy some new books. It may sound pretty nerdy, but I plan to read over summer vacation.”

Thanks to this young man, I’m adding “Leave class as an admitted book nerd” to my list of objectives in every class, at every grade level. And I will cling to his words when I’m mired in the middle and doggy-paddling in the deep end.

March on and read for the joy of it, my friends!  

Alumni Feature from Sara Sanchez ’14

 

Sara Sanchez (’14)

Since graduating three and a half years ago, I have been called Ms. Sanchez, Sanchez, or Sanchi at Holland Christian high school, teaching Spanish Language Arts and Psychology for two of those. And in the middle of that two-year teaching stint, I was a full-time M.Ed student at Calvin College. My intended plan after earning my B.A. in Secondary English and Psychology education at Hope was to teach for five full years and then get my master’s, but something called an H-1B, which is not a type of pencil but a work visa, swept my carefully outlined five-year plan off the table.

“Tell me not, in mournful numbers, only 65,000 work visas are given each fiscal year” (slight variation on Longfellow’s opening line in his poem “A Psalm of Life”).

I was born in Honduras and came to Hope College as an international student. Sufjan Stevens (a musician and the English Department’s most illustrious alumnus, in my humble opinion) was my college recruiter, even though I have never met the guy.  But the important thing here is that I am not a U.S. citizen, which explains why I need a specific visa to continue to work in the United States. Let me give a quick primer on this immigration process: Each year there are 65,000 U.S. work visas granted. The problem is that almost every year more people apply than the number of visas awarded. For example, the first year I was not selected, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS ) received 233,000 applications.

Although I taught Spanish and Psychology, I always told my students that I was an English teacher at heart. The Spanish Immersion program allowed me to combine my language arts background and my mother tongue well, so I taught literary devices, narrative elements, and essay writing in Spanish. In the Psychology course, I tried to include appropriate poems whenever possible. I had to keep that English teacher alive and well. My English education degree equipped me with the skills to communicate with parents, create engaging lesson plans, and manage a classroom of twenty-five students. I felt confident in my ability to teach, but what I quickly realized is that this degree and the English department shape you in more expansive ways.

When my identity and role as Ms. Sanchez was stripped away, I began to feel unmoored and anchorless (thank you, Hope College, for this fitting symbol). Amidst the muddled circumstances, my English degree proved to be a balm. Terms like paradox and metaphor became life-lines. I sat at the feet of fiction and poetry, not looking to analyze them, but for the ambiguity and openness they granted. Desiring certainty and a clear path, I saw in poetry a lesson which I had to embrace and learn. In the words of the poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer:

You do not need to know what comes next.

There is always another storm, and you

cannot hang the tent out to dry before

it has gotten wet. You cannot shovel snow

that has yet to fall.

One of my favorite classes at Hope College was “Creative Writing for Teachers,” which I took as a grad student. I had always wanted to take it, but never had room in my schedule, and when I found out the course would transfer to my M.Ed, I did not hesitate–I was coming back to my alma mater. Led by the great Rob Kenagy, the class met in Lubbers 221, arguably the best classroom on campus, adorned with books and a green chalkboard. Through a multi-genre creative writing project, this course challenged me to wrestle with my identity as an immigrant and the relationship between language and belonging.

Undoubtedly, a Hope College education prepares you well for a multitude of jobs. In the English department, through rigor and practice, you learn the skills to excel. But where I think the department shines is in the caliber of professors. They have a way of emphasizing the importance of becoming through their own empathetic, caring, and scholarly teaching. I learned attentiveness from close readings in Prof. Burton’s class, was inspired by Doc Hemenway’s curious traveling spirit and humbled by Prof. Moreau’s hardworking devotion. English majors: be warned that you will become versatile, resilient, and compassionate human beings because of this education.

Now I am headed to Western Theological Seminary, where my English degree will surely be beneficial. And as I continue exploring the innate messiness of not entirely belonging to one place or the other, I will be eternally grateful to this place and its people for the expansiveness of mind and heart they gifted me.

Event: JRVWS Authors, Karen Russell and Nate Marshall

I am thrilled to say that Karen Russell and Nate Marshall will be arriving on campus this Thursday, March 1 to participate in the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series. They will host a Q&A at 3:30pm in the Fried-Hemenway auditorium and read from their work at 7:00pm in the Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts. It’s an especially exciting thought for me as I prepare to welcome an author whom I have loved for years, as well as another whose work I just recently encountered with immediate respect. For those of you who haven’t heard of either of them, let me tell you a bit about my experiences with their works.

When I was seventeen, I read Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.” It was a story that nipped at my mind for months to follow. Needless to say, I was excited when I found out that she’d be visiting Hope College. She was one of those pivotal writers that first spurred me on when I started exploring the world of contemporary literature. Her words bent my expectations of narration and plot and she introduced me to a new form of literature: magical realism.

Karen Russell

As I read her book Vampires in the Lemon Grove this summer, I found myself once again in the grip of Russell’s words. Her stories were infectious, permeating my thoughts long after I finished the collection. I often caught myself attempting to explain her bizarre plotlines to my friends, and I soon realized that her flare for magical realism had begun to creep into my own poetry. I do not offer my recommendation for Karen Russell’s work lightly; in fact, I must warn that her work stole my attention and snatched my thoughts in a way that stretched beyond mere entertainment. Russell sneakily inserts cultural reflections into her stories. Her latest novel Swamplandia! encouraged me to meditate on juxtapositions between family and individuality, selfishness and ambition, and faith and naivety. Be warned that Karen Russell will leave you with a busy imagination and a sensitive conscience.

Our other visiting writer Nate Marshall taps into the classic theme of home in his latest book of poetry. It seems most authors have spent a season exploring their childhood through writing. This makes sense, as our upbringings often shape how we view the world, but Nate Marshall’s book of poetry Wild Hundreds strides beyond an ordinary reflection on home. University of Pittsburgh Press is right to describe his work as “a love song to Chicago.”

Nate Marshall

Marshall brightens his poems with strikingly original material as he writes about Harold’s Chicken Shack in a series of three poems. The pieces work together in a beautiful exploration of strength, spirituality, and identity. In another poem, entitled “Palindrome,” he vivifies the age-old subject of romance as he tells a love story in reverse. Marshall’s words invited me into his nostalgia with an even balance of sweetness and grit. The material provided me with something to digest rather than simply taste, and he awakened within me an appreciation for streets I hadn’t walked, foods I hadn’t tasted, and churches I hadn’t attended. Marshall dropped me into blends of love and hate and left me in a perfect balance of peace and conviction. In his own words, Nate Marshall brought me on a journey through “a pool of grief puddling, / a stare into the barrel, / a push into open air,” yet as Marshall concludes, “ours is a love song.” He manages to string all the complexities of his upbringing together into a serenade for the streets where he grew up, and I am so thankful that he allowed me as a reader to listen to it.

I hope you all join me on March 1 at Nate Marshall’s and Karen Russell’s Q&A at 3:30pm in the Fried-Hemenway auditorium and their reading at 7:00pm at Jack Miller.

For more information feel free to visit the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series website.