Emily Henry (2012) has published six books, and her most recent novel, Beach Read, spent over 12 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. She spoke with the English Department recently and shared her insight on publishing, how failure makes you a better writer, and what her Hope education brought to her career. Check out her insights below!
What are you doing now?
I’m currently working on my third novel for adults! My first came out in May (Beach Read) and my second will come out next year. (Between 2016 and 2019, I published a few books for teens.)
How did your Hope English education shape you?
In so many ways. Firstly, on a very practical level, I was able to take a novel writing class at Hope that really prepared me in a way I’m not sure anything else could have. We followed the National Novel Writing Month model—each of us writing 50,000 words within a month, and that kind of unedited fast drafting, followed by slow rewriting afterward, is still how I work today. That class freed me from the kind of perfectionism and fear that makes it hard to finish anything.
But in a broader sense, I think having a liberal arts education was just good for me as a person and a writer. It taught me curiosity, and made me think a lot about the ways that everything is connected, and that’s what a lot of my work is about now.
What advice would you give to current English majors or students considering an English major?
I can’t imagine anything much more beneficial than studying books and writing. For any job, being able to communicate well—and understand other people—is so helpful. If an English degree is something you’re excited about, I’d definitely recommend it.
As far as advice, I’d say try everything you’re curious about. Give yourself a chance to figure out what you might love, things you wouldn’t have even considered. And don’t be a snob. There is no one right way to write or right thing to write about. Read widely. Write widely. Try it all.
If you could teach any English class, what would be the title?
I used to think I wanted to teach, and now I really, really don’t. So if I was going to, I would use my class as an excuse to trick people into reading romance novels because there is so much to learn about writing from a really great romance novel and there is so little credit and respect given to the genre. It would just be a glorified book club, and I’d call it Everybody’s Hot because I think people would sign up for that.
Favorite book read recently or in college?
Some recent favorites are Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic, Kerry Kletter’s East Coast Girls and Brittany Cavallaro’s Muse, which comes out in February.
Anything else to add (writing process, advice, managing expectations for success, etc.)?
My standard advice for anyone pursuing publishing is to fail hard and fast. Failure and rejection are essential parts of the job, and if publishing your work is important to you, your best bet is to not let fear of that failure slow you down too much. As far as managing expectations: building a career as an author is a slow, steady thing, and that’s okay. Even when you think someone was an overnight success, that’s almost never the case. Everything sustainable takes time!
Here is the second round of #GetToKnowYourProfs! We hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about our faculty!
How long have you been at Hope? I graduated from Hope in 2013 and began teaching here last autumn (2019).
Favorite Subject to teach? My favorite class to teach is Outdoor Writing, an ENGL 113 class thematically centered around how people and places shape one another.
Favorite Movie? I enjoy the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Favorite Book? That’s a tie between John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and David James Duncan’s The Brothers K.
Favorite Hobbies? I enjoy rock-climbing, hiking, and anything else I can do outdoors. I also make music in my spare time. You can check some of it out on my YouTube channel.
How long have you been at Hope? 12 years.
Favorite Subject to teach? Global literature, especially Postcolonial literature
Favorite Movie?Cry Freedom & Sarafina (Can’t decide between the two)
Favorite Book?Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Favorite Hobbies? Watching the English Premier League.
How long have you been at Hope? Just over 1 year.
Favorite Subject to teach? Creative Writing, fiction of all stripes.
Favorite Movie?Second Hand Lions. I watch it once a year with my family and we eat hot fudge sundaes for our meal as we watch!
Favorite Book? I love so many books I can’t choose.
Favorite Hobbies? I have been told by my family I need more hobbies to help me take a break from working. I love to run, I love to make chocolate chip cookies for my students, (I made so many for my kids they won’t touch them now), I love dancing, and let’s see– is laughing a hobby? I love to laugh. And I love sailing!
How long have you been at Hope? Since fall 1997.
Favorite Subject to teach? This is tough, but I especially enjoy the literary theory course because students bring up such a wide variety of texts for us to look at through different theoretical lenses. It always expands my lists of books to read, films and TV shows to watch, music to hear….
Favorite Movie? I’m a big fan of Wings of Desire by director Wim Wenders, which I just noticed is currently streaming on Amazon.
Favorite Book?The Lord of the Rings
Favorite Hobbies? Playing frisbee, preferably at the beach; board games; growing perennials; walking, preferably among trees; cycling. And of course reading and writing: it’s an occupational hazard for an English professor that work and hobby tend to blend into each other.
How long have you been at Hope? I graduated from Hope in 2014, returned to teach for the 2017-18 academic year, and now I’m teaching a section of English 113. It’s good to be back again (again)!
Favorite Subject to teach? I love teaching in the cultural heritage program. The blend of subjects and students’ interests makes it a unique challenge and a uniquely rewarding liberal arts experience.
Favorite Movie?Pan’s Labyrinth.
Favorite Book?Collected Poems of Marianne Moore. She’s my hero.
Favorite Hobbies? I like to run, and my wife and I have been successfully growing a few herbs on our porch in Saint Louis. It’s not a lot to brag about, but we take what we can in the pandemic, right? These days our dog is our biggest hobby—she wishes she could have the house to herself again.
How long have you been at Hope? I’ve been at Hope for just over three years.
Favorite Subject to teach? I really enjoy both of the two major categories of classes that I teach: American literature and composition / business writing.
Favorite Movie? Among my favorites (and I’m showing my age here) areBonnie and Clyde, Animal House, Apocalypse Now, and Dustin Hoffman’s staged for television version ofDeath of a Salesman.
Favorite Book? I don’t really have a very favorite, but here are four great ones: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain,Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner, The Things They Carriedby Tim O’Brien, andWhite Noiseby Don DeLillo.
Favorite Hobbies? Biking, running, day hiking, kayaking
How long have you been at Hope? I began teaching English and Spanish at Hope in the fall of 2015. Before that I directed the Step Up mentoring program housed on campus at Hope!
Favorite Subject to teach? Anything on peace and justice
Favorite Movie?Cinema Libertad (2009, directed by Arturo Menéndez).
Favorite Book?Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson (my favorite summer 2020 read)
Favorite Hobbies? Traveling, baking, watching puppy videos on YouTube.
How long have you been at Hope? This is my second year.
Favorite Subject to teach? I love to teach 19th-century literature. I especially enjoy British novels and theater from this era, but it’s a fascinating century throughout the world.
Favorite Movie?Toy Story 3
Favorite Book?Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
Favorite Hobbies? Singing, walking, learning about the histories of theater and television.
How long have you been at Hope? I’ve been at Hope since 1978; I came for what was supposed to be a temporary position. But I had also been a Hope student, so it was already a homecoming.
Favorite Subject to teach? American literature I and II.
Favorite Movie?Moby-Dick, of course.
Favorite Book? Well, I love the old black and white Hitchcock movies: Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt, but especially the eerie Rebecca, with Joan Fontaine and Lawrence Olivier…the Godfather films are great too.
Favorite Hobbies? Who has time? But I still do needlepoint once in a while…
This year, the English Department is sharing fun facts about its faculty. Interested in knowing more about a professor? Want to know what are their favorite courses to teach? This series is for you. We will be posting more later in the semester, but here is the first round-up.
Professor April Best
How long have you been at Hope? This is my first semester and I am thrilled!
Favorite Subject to teach? Contemporary poetry and diaspora literature
Favorite Movie?Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and anything else with Audrey Hepburn)
Favorite Book? There are so many! A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is a long-standing favorite that has stood the test of time. Favorite Hobbies? Gardening, hiking, thrifting
Professor Bobby Bolt
How long have you been at Hope? It’s my first semester! I’m new to Michigan and happy to be here.
Favorite subject to teach? Composition
Favorite movie? The Life Aquatic
Favorite book? Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle
Favorite hobbies? Cooking, Hiking, Tennis
Professor Bethany Chambers
How long have you been at Hope? This is my first semester at Hope! I am excited about joining the team.
Favorite subject to teach? I teach English, public speaking, and communications. I enjoy teaching all subjects equally, and it is wonderful to have such variety.
Favorite movie?Truthfully? Step Brothers.
Favorite book? SOOO many came to mind, but I have to go with The Handmaid’s Tale
Favorite hobbies? I enjoy biking, walking, reading, going to the beach, listening to EDM, and motorcycling/dirtbiking
Dr. Stephen Hemenway
How long have you been at Hope? 49 years
Favorite subject to teach? World Lit I
Favorite movie? Shawshank Redemption
Favorite book? Ulysses by James Joyce
Favorite hobbies? Travel, cooking, Vienna Summer School
Dr. Lisa McGunigal
How long have you been at Hope? One year. I actually visited Holland six years ago after reading that it was one of Michigan’s best-kept secrets. Very true!
Favorite class to teach: It varies, but I always enjoy introducing students to new books, films, or blogs in all of my classes. I love hearing from my students that they’re sharing what we’ve read or discussed in the classroom with their family and/or friends—continuing those conversations that we’ve begun.
When I’m not in the classroom…: You can find me on the tennis court or basketball court. I also enjoy planning day trips or checking out eclectic museums. The Morse Museum in Winter Park, FL is small in size but houses the largest collection of works by Louis Tiffany—the stained glass exhibits are breathtaking.
Dr. Bill Pannapacker
How long have you been at Hope? I came here directly from graduate school at Harvard in 2000. I never expected to stay so long.
Favorite subject to teach? American literature, especially the romantics: Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, Douglass, Thoreau. Also anything in American cultural studies, such as environmentalism and the presidency
Favorite movie? I like to find anything I have not yet seen on “best movie” lists of all sorts. Lately, I’ve become a specialist on the work of Werner Herzog.
Favorite book? Has to be Leaves of Grass. Moby-Dick is a close second. I listen to about 50 audiobooks each year, usually they are related to current events and politics.
Favorite hobbies? Being active: swimming, walking, biking, basketball, weight training, and–lately–pickleball. I’m getting better at cooking and container gardening.
Dr. Pablo Peschiera
How long have you been at Hope? This is my twelfth year at Hope, but I graduated from Hope in 1993.
Favorite subject to teach? That’s a tough one. I mostly teach creative writing, but I teach other kinds of courses, too. Each offers different rewards. Here are three and why I love teaching them:
English 355: Intermediate Creative Writing: Poems—deeply engaged students stretch themselves as poets
IDS 100: FYS Phelps Scholars Program—the brilliant, dedicated Phelps Scholars team, and the amazing students
English 113: Expository Writing—helping students unlock their potential as writers
Favorite movie?Embrace of the Serpent—this. movie. blew. my. mind.
Favorite book? 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, trans. by Gregory Rabassa.
Favorite hobbies? reading, writing, and translating—lifting weights and lacrosse—cooking.
English Department alumnus Matthew Baker (2009) is still on a roll. His new story collection, Why Visit America, was named one of Esquire‘s “20 Must-Read Books of Summer 2020” and received a starred review from Booklist, which wrote: “Bold, captivating, and deeply relevant, Baker’s imaginative stories offer approachable, optimistic perspectives on morally ambiguous topics facing Americans, including what it means to be one nation.” Netflix, Apple, and other studios are reportedly vying for film rights.
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 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?
Read every issue of The Paris Review (which by the way you can read for free at Van Wylen Library) and learn to code.
If you could teach any English class, what would be the title?
Favorite book read recently or in college?
Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus.
Anything else to add?
There are secret tunnels beneath Lubbers Hall, which are worth exploring if you can find a way in.
The worst pandemic in European history, the Black Death, helped prepare the way for the first great flourishing of English literature not long after. How the first makers of modern literature responded to the traumas of their time can help us think about how to respond to the pandemic and injustice we continue to face.
Geoffrey Chaucer was a child in 1348-9 when the plague first struck England, killing up to half the people in some towns. His works refer to it obliquely. But his older contemporary, William Langland, confronts “pestilence” directly and implies that it shaped his decision to spend much of his life writing, revising, and expanding the long sequence of dream-visions known as Piers Plowman.
Medieval thinkers, including Langland, understood sickness theoretically as a divine judgment against sin—though the indiscriminate mortality of the Black Death also led them to start looking more at natural causes. The last episode of Piers Plowman, however, presses further into the social and spiritual effects of pestilence. Its satire of corruption seems more prophetic the further we live into our own pandemic. Langland exposes the most insidious dangers of any time of crisis—dangers that keep us from receiving what might be its hidden gifts.
Langland’s final action begins when the allegorical farm that represents flourishing society, under the spiritual leadership of Piers the Plowman, is attacked by Antichrist. The crop of truth is turned upside-down and its root tilled over. Falsehood springs up instead, gratifying people’s desires. Conscience, left in charge by Piers in his absence, calls together the “fools” who remain faithful and leads them in prayer to Kynde, a name for God as creator of the natural world. Kynde’s response is surprising: pestilence, including the symptoms of plague. When Conscience asks Kynde to stop and see if people will “amend,” the living are instead flattered by their good fortune. Fortune calls in Lechery, followed by Greed.
As our pandemic has begun to abate, we have seen people unsheltering as if fortune has returned. At the same time many others have taken to the streets to draw attention to more persistent social plagues. Langland’s agricultural allegory recalls the imagery of many Gospel parables but emphasizes a view of evil that is not so much personal as systemic. We still face the same evils in new guises, made more apparent by crisis: “post-truth” cynicism, contagious social media, populist demagoguery, flagrant individualism, predatory global capitalism, white privilege.
The situation becomes more personal to Langland’s narrator when Old Age, chasing after Life, runs him over. His wife even rues that “the limb that she loved me for” won’t work “at her will.” As he sees Death draw nigh, he cries out to Kynde for both deliverance and vengeance. “If you want to be avenged,” answers Kynde, “go into Unity…and learn some craft before you come out.” Unity is a barn that stands for a sort of ideal church, which the narrator enters through contrition and confession, the sacramental process of repentance.
Calling this stronghold Unity, however—before the Reformation, when there was only one church in England—suggests a deeper call to conversion. Being in unity requires embracing the fundamental reality of human equality and interdependence. As an answer to a prayer for vengeance, the call to unity and repentance urges reconciliation instead of blame, which requires turning from the desires that put us in rivalry with each other and confronting the injustices that have resulted.
But Unity fails. Here it happens through the undermining of the penitential process, a problem specific to late medieval Christian society. Yet we are familiar with this failure. It still comes from what undermines our own capacity, individually and together, for self-examination and repentance: strong incentives to bend the truth toward our own interests at the expense of others. We now have medical doctors to treat physical illness, but what do we need for what ails us spiritually, what alienates us from one another?
In the poem’s final lines, Conscience, forsaking Unity, resolves to become a pilgrim and seek Piers, who seems here to stand for holiness and wisdom unattached to institutional power structures. Conscience hopes Piers can “destroy pride.” I take this to be not just a personal sin but even more a collective complaisance, a confidence in any human group that sees itself as superior and constitutes itself by exclusion. To find a new unity, we may have to leave the old, or at least be a lot humbler about our communities. To seek Piers is to identify with the excluded.
Langland’s word for this comes earlier when the narrator asks Kynde: “What craft is best to learn?” Kynde replies, “Learn to love, and leave all else.” The current pandemic, by exposing the weaknesses of our society, taking away most of our usual ways of being together, and dramatizing our connectedness and the everyday sacrifices we can make for each other, forces us to be more intentional in loving—to begin again in learning the only craft that matters.
How do we learn? One way is literature itself, stories like Langland’s that aim to be more than entertainment on one hand or moral instruction on the other. Piers Plowman demands a deeper engagement with its enigmas. It pushes language to its limits in the face of mysteries human and divine, especially as known in times of affliction. It uses the literary resources of its time to invite us to imagine, feel, and consider how we love each other—and how we fail to.
Chaucer would use what he learned from Langland about social satire, perpetual pilgrimage, and genre-crossing stories in an even greater response to the fourteenth century’s series of traumas, The Canterbury Tales. These make for more playful reading during the pandemic, but nothing diagnoses our predicament and points to hope as truly as Piers Plowman.
A book is not enough right now. We need more than a book to recognize, address, and reckon with the violence against Black lives which has long been ignored and normalized. Even so, reading is a place to start and bolster change. Literature aids us in educating ourselves, exercising our imaginations, enacting empathy, dispelling isolation, and providing comfort, discomfort, invigoration, and illumination.
Reading is not enough. But it is also not nothing.
This list is a witness to Black experience. The poems, essays, stories, and other texts speak of and to lives that matter. The list is not exhaustive but representative. Please stay tuned for more posts and broader lists addressing literature and race. Until then, members of the English Department offer a book or two (or ten!) to begin exploring the depth, texture, struggle, and courage of our current moment.
Memoir and Essay
Hunger by Roxane Gay (2018). In the memoir-happy mainstream, this rare, raw portrait of a Black woman coming to terms with her body is as sobering as it is refreshing. One reviewer perfectly describes it as “an intellectually rigorous and deeply moving exploration of the ways in which trauma, stories, desire, language and metaphor shape our experiences and construct our reality” (New York Times).
There Will Be No MiraclesHere byCasey Gerald(2018)is a story about authenticity and identity, anger and action. Gerald, a young African American gay man who graduates from Yale, writes about issues that are central to America’s current conversation about race, privilege, and politics. The book departs from the usual memoir convention of pinning the narrative on insight and experience that have transformed the author’s life.
Hook: A Memoir by Randall Horton (2015) responds to the idea of the American Dream with a tale of radical self-reinvention. The narrative moves fast among Horton’s different roles: Howard University undergraduate, international cocaine smuggler, addict, felon, scholar, activist, educator, poet. Horton came to Hope as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series in 2018.
The Source of Self-Regard: Essays, Speeches, Meditations, by Toni Morrison(2019). Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s last publication before her death collects titles like “Racism and Facism,” “A Race in Mind,” “The Price of Wealth, the Cost of Care,” “The Slave Body and the Black Body,” and “Women, Race, and Memory.” Morrison’s celebrated novels depict Black life during various eras of the African American experience, but these writings show the work of a literary genius when applied to problems of equity in the 21st century.
Homegoing byYaa Gyasi (2016). In this novel, you’ll follow two sisters through eight generations from Africa’s Gold Coast to current times in America. In chapters that alternate from sister to sister—one in Ghana and one in the U.S., this unflinching story portrays the terrifying legacy of slavery, “both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation” (Publisher’s page, Penguin Random House).
“Who’s Passing for Who?” by Langston Hughes (1956). A very funny short story that, nonetheless, raises some very serious issues of race. The plot is a modern re-working of the classic African American trickster tale.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937). Hurston’s classic story of a woman coming into adulthood and gaining her own sense of self in rural, Depression-era Florida.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson (1912, 1927). First published anonymously, this novella gives readers a succinct but comprehensive look at issues of “the color line” in early 20th century America.
Pym, by Mat Johnson (2011). In Johnson’s satirical 3rd novel (Johnson visited Hope in 2010 as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series), Chris Jaynes (the protagonist), a scholar of literature, loves Poe’s novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, because it reveals Poe’s deep and complex 19th century racism. Jaynes takes Poe’s novel as semi-autobiographical, and mounts a rag-tag expedition of African-Amercian adventurers who would trace the path taken by Arthur Gordon Pym to Antarctica. The book is both side-splittingly funny and profoundly painful in its investigations of African American and White American biases and desires.
Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928). Powerful short novel that examines the issues facing a mixed-race woman in early 20th century America and Europe.
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z. Z. Packer (2003). This versatile collection of short stories offers characters on several different social margins facing dilemmas impacted by wrestling with racial identity. Including the highly lauded “Brownies,” where a troop of Black girls must face a troop of white girls, among other intensely intuitive, clear, and vivid stories, Packer’s fiction–her debut, and the first of these stories published when she was 17–is consistently compelling.
Cane by Jean Toomer (1923). A path-breaking book set in the deep South, Chicago, and Washington DC and composed of poetry, short fiction, and a story that reads more like a drama script. Toomer’s writing can be cryptic, but its densely imagistic vividness greatly rewards close reading.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982). Widely regarded as a contemporary classic, this epistolary novel provides unflinching commentary on the effects of domestic and sexual abuse even as it keenly affirms the growth, bravery, and companionship of two separated sisters and their experiences over twenty years. Celie, Nettie, Shug Avery, and Sofia still have much to teach us about pain, power, and belonging.
Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward (2012). A stirring novel about a family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the bonds they make, the dreams they dream, all of it interwoven with references to myth and legend. Beautifully written with music in its lines.
Hybrid Genres and Graphic Novels
Kindred, by Octavia Butler (1979, 2017). Damien Duffy and John Jennings offer a graphic adaptation and profound tribute to Octavia Butler’s classic science fiction novel, in which Dana, a Black Californian in the 1970s, is mysteriously transported back and forth in time to the pre-Civil War South, becoming entangled in the lives of both the slaves and the slave owners. Lauded as foundationally intersectional for its scorching look at race and gender across history, the graphic adaptation recreates this critically acclaimed and internationally celebrated text in a new, rich format.
Incognegro: a Graphic Mystery, by Mat Johnson (2009, 2019). In this historical graphic novel, Zane Pinchback, a depression-era, Harlem Renaissance reporter, goes undercover to visit his home town in Mississippi when his brother is falsely arrested for the murder of a white woman. Pinchback can pass for white, but his brother cannot. This gripping novel covers the difficulties of colorism, Jim Crow-era violence, the plague of lynching in America, and racism in a visceral black and white format. Johnson visited Hope in 2010 as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series.
March Series by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin (2015). This award-winning graphic novel trilogy portrays the Civil Rights Movement as experienced by U.S. Congressman John Lewis. Illustrated and lettered by Nate Powell, the black and white autobiography of Lewis as a civil rights activist is offered in three volumes of gripping and powerful story-telling, bringing to life the cursory and sanitized paragraphs offered in school textbooks.
Citizen: An American Lyric byClaudia Rankine (2014). Though Rankine (who visited Holland, MI in 2010) has been publishing books that defy genre for some time—Citizen won awards in poetry but also creative nonfiction—this collection landed on the New York Times bestseller list. In it you’ll find short vignettes detailing racial microaggressions, journalistic reflection on Serena Williams and other Black athletes, and lyric meditation on police brutality and the erasure of Black experience mixed with stunning visual artwork by Black artists. The combination of these genres and media (look for collaborative “Situation” videos online, the origin of some of Rankine’s writing here) results in a volume of hybrid work equally enthralling and disturbing—and well worth your attention. You won’t want to miss her previous genre-bending book either, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004).
Riot: a Poem in Three Parts by Gwendolyn Brooks (1969) Brooks’ chapbook Riot documents and contextualizes the violence of the 1968 Chicago riots after the asssination of Martin Luther King Jr. With controlled, focused language, these three long poems (first published in a slim 22 page volume and later included in her full-length book Blacks) lament, accuse, and decry allies who talk and do not act: “But WHY do These People offend themselves?” say they / who say also “It’s time. / It’s time to help / These People.” Brooks (who visited Hope College in 1993) was the first Arican American to win the Pulitzer Prize, served as U.S. Poet Laureate, and was the first African American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The Tradition by Jericho Brown (2019). This book won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. A poet of great feeling and intensity, Brown describes the emotional and social struggle of being black and gay in America in the 20th century. Brown investigates the issue of safety in America–and the tradition of African American people feeling very much not safe—through intimate poems about family, love, desire, and history, all grounded in lovely, tight verse forms.
1919 by Eve Ewing (2019). A community organizer and sociologist at the University of Chicago, Ewing revisits the violent but lesser-known Chicago race riot during the “Red Summer” of 1919. By blending speculative and Afrofuturist modes in her poetry to explore the stories of those who lived through and those who died in the riots—in 8 days, 38 died and over 500 were injured—Ewing reveals and recasts the past; in doing so, she helps her readers understand how very close it is to the present.
Collected Poems by Robert Hayden (1986) Hayden was a Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in the 70s, and was the first African American to hold that office, which later became the U.S. Poet Laureate. He lived virtually his entire life in Michigan, having been born in Detroit. His poetry, which describes the difficulties of growing up Black and academically motivated in urban Michigan, uses more traditional forms and meter. In this way, he links the tradition of English verse with 20th century Black life and spiritual awareness to create a new understanding of American English.
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes (2018). Hayes’ (who visited Hope in 2010 as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series) sonnets track the frustration of a Black man living in America in the year after the election of the 45th president of the United States. Using a loose version of the sonnet, Hayes tracks experiences that reveal the complexities of status, desire, and agency in a Black body. Powerful and sometimes densely written, the poetry demands deep attention and engagement—just like our national inheritance of racism demands.
Montage of a Dream Deferred (or Harlem) by Langston Hughes (1951). A book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred looks at the frustration felt by African Americans in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood at the lack of equitable advancement for African Americans. In this poem Hughes expresses the impatience and disappointment of racial trauma and hundreds of years of oppression while using the sounds and rhythms of mid-20th century jazz, swing, and bebop.
Neon Vernacular: New and Selected Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa (1993). The Pulitzer Prize winner for Poetry in ‘93, Neon Vernacular displays Komunyakaa’s range of subjects and skill. Komunyakaa’s poetry often uses jazz rhythms to describe his childhood in Bogalusa, Louisiana, his service in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, and Black life in the U.S., while addressing deep moral questions. Komunyakaa (who visited Hope College in 1994) has long been considered one of the most musically gifted poets writing in America.
Forgiveness Forgiveness by Shane McCrae (2014). Kidnapped from his black father to be raised by violent, racist white maternal grandparents, McCrae does incredibly thoughtful, imaginative, and painful work in his poetry—seven books and counting—to interrogate the spiritual and cultural task of being Black in America. If his previous poems both adhered to and disrupted form and meter, chafing against tradition like the historical consciousness imbued in the lines themselves, this volume fractures language and line in dexterous, disconcerting ways, perhaps like the shattering of one’s identity and humanity when internalizing oppression.
Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith (2018). This Pulitzer-prize winner and recent U.S. Poet Laureate offers in her third volume a variety of poetic modes—erasure, found poetry, docupoetics, epistolary fragments—to explore our nation’s original racial sins while tying those historical moments to the current moment. These are bold, blunt, and deeply spiritual poems.
Jason Reynolds (who visited Holland, MI in 2018) and Brendan Kiely’s young adult novel All American Boys (2015) takes on racism and police brutality and its impact on their community from the perspective of two teens—one Black, one White. Pair with one or more of the following #ownvoices contemporary YA novels: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon, Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson, Dear Martin by Nic Stone, I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina, and Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois (1903) and Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington (1901), two very different lives, two very different perspectives. Washington was born into slavery; Dubois was born after the Civil War into a upper middle class family. Although there were fundamental differences in their approach to issues of racism and inequality, both became leaders in the fight for civil rights.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015) and Please Stop Helping Us by Jason Riley (2014). Somewhat like the Washington-DuBois debate, Coates and Riley represent two very different views of current issues lived by African Americans.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963) and The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, ed. by Jesmyn Ward (2016). This anthology of poetry and essays was envisioned as a response to Baldwin’s seminal essay collection. Various prominent voices (among them Edwidge Danticat, who visited Hope College in 2015 as part of the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series/The Big Read) use creative nonfiction and poetry in exploring the violence of both our past and our present, recognizing that the moment Baldwin asserted would come–the fire next time–is here, and we need to talk about it.
A Dying Colonialism by Franz Fanon has an interesting chapter on the intersections between medicine and colonialism.
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor: though it is about an alien invasion, the aliens transform humans.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury is a “space exploration” allegory of the Americas. The Martians die of chickenpox and are mostly wiped out, much in the same way that colonialism followed disease in the Americas. In many ways, the very history of the New World is written in a weaponized pandemic.
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions by John Donne. This provides a somewhat gory devotional, tracking the course of his experience of disease in late 1623, and connecting the physical symptoms of his illness to his meditations on his spiritual life. Selected chapter titles for your pleasure: “The Patient Takes to His Bed.” “They Use Cordials, to Keep the Venom and Malignity of the Disease from the Heart.” “Upon These Indications of Digested Matter, They Proceed to Purge.”) His illness, “relapsing fever,” was probably typhoid. It’s from this work that we have the famous “for whom the bells tolls” lines.
“The 1918 Flu Pandemic Killed Millions. So Why Does Its Cultural Memory Feel So Faint?” by Rebecca Onion in Slate. It’s an article/interview about the influence of the 1918-19 flu pandemic on modernist writers – super interesting! (Also, “influence” and “influenza” are very interesting etymologically: both words are tightly linked through the Latin “influere” meaning “to flow into,” or “a flowing into” and in Latin often referred to an “in flow” from “the stars.” Both the words “influence” and “influenza” come from the core metaphorical communication that struggles to explain the transference of a thing from its source and then into another thing.)
We’ll be sharing more in-depth blog posts on the topic of pandemics in literature later this year. We hope you’ve picked up some ideas for some summer reads & we’ll see you in the fall!
“Thank you for your presentation. Does anyone have any
A pregnant pause. The kind that sometimes tempts me to fill
the silence with my own voice, my own questions. But after a moment, my
computer screen shows a mic being unmuted. A student’s voice rings in my
headphones. My student is posing a question to a peer from another college, a
peer who has just presented a paper on this Saturday morning in late March.
Hope College had just completed its first week of virtual
classroom experiences, and here we were, hosting and encouraging students’
participation in an online conference.
The Michigan Medieval & Renaissance Undergraduate
Consortium hosts a call for papers every fall, leading to a regional conference
for undergraduates every spring. Recent years have seen the conference held at
Calvin University and Albion College; Hope College had agreed to host the Spring
2020 conference. By mid-February, papers had been accepted from students from
Albion, Calvin, Olivet and Hope; rooms were reserved; plans for an early
breakfast and a midday luncheon were ironed out—and then, in mid-March, plans
for gatherings across the nation were curtailed by the onset of the coronavirus
It would have been easy to cancel the conference, to apologize to students for the lost opportunity, to offer a verbal affirmation of their submissions, and to express the hope that they’d continue their work as scholars as soon as new opportunities opened up. It would have been understandable if everyone, students and faculty mentors alike, were to breathe a joint sigh of relief: one fewer obligation to meet during the coming days of uncertainty and new challenges. But instead, we sent an email to students to ask if they wished to try something new: participating in a virtual conference experience. It took a while before we heard back from the students—and I held my breath as I waited.
This was a leap of faith for us all. For my part, because we sent the invitation the week before spring break, I’d not yet hosted a video classroom of any sort. My experience was limited to a single CIT training session on how to send out an invite for a Google Meet. I had attended enough small ZOOM meetings, though, to have seen what can go wrong: fuzzy video feeds, wonky audio connections, too many people trying to talk at once or not at all.
Nevertheless, we were convinced it was worth it to take the leap. Conferences are more than just a list of speeches: they give people who share a common interest and expertise the opportunity to communicate together. New research is shared; questions are posed; arguments are interrogated. Undergraduate conferences are particularly important in providing students the opportunity to practice critical thinking habits that will serve them well in whatever field they pursue.
One by one, students returned from spring break and emailed
us to see if it was too late to confirm their commitment and to ask last-minute
questions. We promised to help them prepare for the newness of this event. We offered
technical guidance and we encouraged them to consider the opportunity to put
this on their future resumes: “Paper presentation at the first VIRTUAL Michigan
Medieval & Renaissance Consortium, a learning community responding in a
creative way to the early challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.” Of the eleven students
signed up for the original event, all but one committed to the online
Although we were learning on the job, we came up with a set
of guidelines that I can recommend for anyone in a similar situation. We
reminded students to practice their presentations in advance, with an eye to
the time limit and to the pace of their speaking voice. We suggested they
review their material so as to see it afresh and to be prepared to answer
questions. We reminded students to dress for the event, just as they would
dress up for a virtual interview. We asked them to think about the lighting and
the background for their virtual presentations. We offered practice sessions
for two evenings before the Saturday morning event, so that students could sign
in to the Google Meet, talk with us about any questions they might have, and
practice going into “present now” mode. These sessions offered great
opportunities to talk more generally about professional conference goals and to
encourage the students to be active in listening and responding to each other’s
That active participation was my favorite part of the Saturday experience. Sessions on Christianity and Culture, on Medieval and Early Modern Marriage, and on Women’s Agency invited students to listen to each other, to learn from each other—and to practice interacting with their peers through the Q & A at the end of each session. Before the conference, I’d feared that students might be tempted to present their papers and then disappear from view, but these fears were unfounded. The energy that otherwise would have fired across a room now lit up our screens. Questions about Lear’s Fool and about the staging of The Taming of the Shrew invited students to think on their feet. Together, we could explore new paradigms and engage with the world of ideas—no matter the current challenges of distant socializing.
March 2019 in the Midwest was a continuation of the previous
two months: windy, gray, and bitterly cold. No promise of spring in sight. It
had been two months since my graduation in December and I was immersed in the
uncertainty that accompanies the great undergraduate unknown: the job search.
As a recently engaged and currently unemployed graduate, I had already been on a kaleidoscope of interviews and filled out what seemed like countless applications. The interviews seemed to meld into one another, usually beginning with a quirky introductory joke accompanied by some folky wordplay that explained how my English major was relevant experience. I tried to find what suited my skill set. I interviewed for publishing companies, government organizations, news outlets, and non-profits, among many others, still searching for my best fit. As the days turned into weeks and weeks into months, I wondered if I had chosen correctly. Did I rush my major decision? How did this degree separate me from anyone else?
In the meantime, I read, wrote, and interviewed.
I had chosen my major in October of my sophomore year. I knew I wanted to be a part of the English department from the day I set foot on campus. I had always loved words and the structure of language and that’s why I chose English. I enjoyed reading a range of works, from authors like Shakespeare and Hemingway to columnists from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among many other outlets. However, I found myself wondering whether my degree truly delivered the functionality I had hoped.
My years at Hope had afforded me a couple of invaluable internship experiences where I began to shape my career path. My first internship was in Washington, DC as a part of the Washington Honors Semester. I was a congressional intern working on Capitol Hill for a representative from my hometown. This may be unusual for an English major; however, I had always been keen to learn about the inner workings of policy-making and legislation. I was fascinated with how my English major could be malleable toward these purposes.
Following my internship in DC, I was fortunate enough to
continue my career with the State of Illinois, where I helped compile research
reports and develop policy analysis through the skills I had acquired from the
English department at Hope.
I reassured myself that I had made the correct decision, and during the spring and summer of 2019, I read a lot, adding to my list of intriguing words and phrases that I had started in college: ersatz, vaunted, jejune, anodyne, athwart, barmy, inimical, suffuse, ineluctable,and erudite,to name a few. Writing on occasion helped provide a structure to my unstructured career path. I felt a new confidence in myself, my degree, and my education, believing that the right position lay ahead.
In the meantime, I continued to read, write, and read some
It was in the fall, October 2019, when I finally found the path
that had once seemed so elusive. I found something that allowed me to read, write,
and summarize detailed documents and utilize my creativity for project and
partnership development through language. I am a Global Partnerships Specialist
at Lions Clubs International Foundation.
The title does not necessarily explain itself, but
essentially, I help identify and forge partnerships and relationships through
prospective research, cultivation, and networking events, and through the
writing, drafting, and developing of project proposals, in collaboration with my
fellow team members. These projects range from global health initiatives to
disaster relief assistance. I count myself as lucky to do what I do. I work for
a Foundation who prides themselves on their ability to serve in their
communities. I use my writing and communication skills to effectively develop
and connect others to impactful projects.
And then… just when I began to settle into the regular
routine of work, commuting, coffee, and leisure, yet another unexpected twist
along the path occurred. As an international organization, we were aware of the
threat that COVID-19 posed early on. In fact, I had initially helped in a
search for the procurement of masks and other medical supplies for our members
in the Asia Pacific region in late February. However, I had no idea the impact
it would have on my own work and how swiftly it would change the dynamic that I
had settled into.
March 2020 was upon us. Our organization closed its office and work from home became mandatory. Many people experienced a lag in workflow, whereas our work has only intensified. We have had to provide quick, strong, and precise statements which convey our work in light of the current state of affairs to many of our partners. All the while, we are continually working to support and assist our members who are in the direst of straights and also keeping our eyes ahead, staying focused on what we can do to assist.
I will not lose hope, and will continue to read, write, and
The Academy of American Poets (AAP) Prize program begin 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.
About this Year’s Judge
Wayne Miller was born in Cincinnati and earned his BA from Oberlin College and his MFA from the University of Houston. His books of poetry include the chapbook What Night Says to the Empty Boat (Notes for a Film in Verse) (2004) and the full-length collections Only the Senses Sleep (2006), The Book of Props (2009), The City, Our City (2011), and Post- (2016). Miller has translated the Albanian poet Moikom Zeqo’s I Don’t Believe in Ghosts (2007) and Zodiac (2015). His honors and awards include a Bess Hokin Prize, a George Bogin Award, a Lyric Poetry Award from the Poetry Society of America, a Lucille Medwick Award, and a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from Poetry. Miller currently teaches at the University of Colorado-Denver. He edits the journal Copper Nickel and, with Kevin Prufer, co-curates the Unsung Masters Series.
Van Acker’s “To a Mummified Fish”
Wayne Miller writes:
find this poem compelling because of its subtlety and economy. It’s an object
poem about a mummified fish, but it begins in motion, the fish being carried by
a river (of time) into the sudden stillness of the present moment. I admire the
odd inversion of the fish being “rescued / from [its] guts,” as well as the
apt, sensory description of the fish’s “drum-tight skin.” I find it really
interesting, in the best sense, that the sun, which by its nature is always of
the present, is a “friend” of the living speaker (though presumably not of the
mummified fish). And I’m genuinely surprised by the poem’s closing lines—a
direct apology for the oddly human act of “poach[ing]” the fish “from
oblivion,” which is ultimately about humanity’s strange and unnatural impulse
toward art. For all its quiet restraint, this is a really smart and ambitious
poem that takes on core questions about what it means to be human.
To a Mummified Fish
Down surging watercourse, swept from your silent blue home, you became a prop for our old dilemma wrangled, wrapped, and rescued from your guts.
Your drum-tight skin leafs beneath cloth and honey-lacquer to snare the spirit of holy dregs, fleshpots, sweet incense at interval in the morning air capped from the widening jaws of the moon-door.
On behalf of my friend, the sun (author of many gods) and the priestess who poached you from oblivion, Little fish, I’m sorry.
Julia Kirby “A Strand of Related Things”
Wayne Miller writes:
admire this poem for quite different reasons than I admire “To a Mummified
Fish,” and deciding between them wasn’t easy. In “A Strand of Related Things”
the poet offers an interiorized address to a “you”—a crush, in my reading—in
which the reader is given access to a series of intimate self-assessments. I
find the particularity of voice, thinking, and image really compelling, from
the speaker’s multiple attempts to describe dust motes, to the speaker’s
assertion that the “you” pushes up his sleeves so obsessively that it’s hard to
recognize him with them down, to the realization that a car is the only place
where the speaker can be alone without feeling lonely. Finally, in the poem’s
closing moment, we find the speaker in that private space of a car with the
“you”; this closes the gap between them without resolving the “you’s”
unattainability, creating a compellingly poetic sort of semi-closure.
A Strand of
I pretend the bits of dust suspended in air and late afternoon light are bits of sugar or crystals or snow, something less frightening to inhale than particles of lint, dog hair, dirt, and dead skin. You said, once, that you have a thing for blondes, that night I pulled my brown hair from the shower drain and buried it in the trash with bits of used floss and crusty tissues. The dust gets in my eyes, I end up staring at the stain on my rug – spilled soy sauce – and my calathea plant with its sunburnt leaves, straining between life & death. Suddenly I smell pot stickers, damp earth, and the sleeves of your sweater pushed up to your elbows, always scrunched so that you don’t quite look like you with your forearms covered. I smell gasoline, too, because my car is the only place where being alone doesn’t feel lonely with harvested fields, shivering trees, and clouds of swallows. I don’t think you’ve ever touched me which is a blessing because your being makes me be a little less, your voice makes me question my being, and I’m afraid your skin on mine might make me dissolve into window dust. I hate driving over bridges because I figure they have to crumble at some point. I hate opening the car windows because I might slip out and roll into traffic. You were right, when I was driving through the blizzard and you said you couldn’t help me stop the snow from falling.