“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!

Hope College Academy of American Poets Prize 2018

About the Prize

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

Judged by Lauren Haldeman

Lauren Haldeman

Lauren Haldeman is the author of the poetry collections Instead of Dying (winner of the 2017 Colorado Prize for Poetry), Calenday (Rescue Press, 2014) and The Eccentricity is Zero (Digraph Press, 2014). She works as a web developer, web designer and editor during the daytime. She received her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and has been a finalist for the Walt Whitman award and National Poetry Series. She is also a mom and makes paintings.

Lauren Haldeman writes: “I loved reading all of these! I am really impressed with this quality of the work — there is so much talent here! It was hard to choose, but these are the two I kept coming back to, over and over.”

Winner: Amber Carnahan’s “Rooted”

Amber Carnahan

Lauren Haldeman writes: “Immediately this poem had me off-balance, engaged, interested. Within the first two lines, we are already moving from the wild and natural place of “bones bury roots” to the domestic and enclosed space of “in the body of my bed”. This initial action promises more angles, pivots and fresh viewpoints to come. The form alone carries the poem into higher realms, with slashed punctuation acting as indicative lines breaks, visual structure and pauses within the spill of consciousness. There are fantastic emotive turns in this work, hinging on singular words, such as “admiring the life // sprouting through the cracks // I am cracked,” while images such as “a kaleidoscope of nameless gravestones” thrill visually. Meanwhile, the subtle use of alliteration throughout the work ballast the poem in sound. Most of all, I love that we travel so far from the initial scene — the bed — outward to an interstate, to a graveyard, to cracks in a windshield, only to arrive back, finally at the end, to a snooze button on an alarm. This last image is wonderful: it is poetic, it is silly and it is human.”

Rooted

bones bury roots // in the body of my bed // head a rock refusing // to be lifted or even turned to face the window // displaying life in action // like the fry cook on his way to work // tracing the path of red bricks // and admiring the life sprouting // through the cracks // I am cracked // but not a violent shatter // that hints at spontaneity // but like a chip in the glass // of your car windshield // that time never provided // a chance to heal // fractures spread // until I am encompassed // by a kaleidoscope of nameless gravestones // my identity faded // past recognition // past grief // glass fragments intermingle // with the roots in my bed // I think about rising // before shifting the tide // of stagnance // from the window’s disapproving view // and hitting snooze.

 

Honorable Mention: Safia Hattab’s “The Aftermath Sestina”

Safia Hattab

Lauren Haldeman writes: “A sestina is a difficult endeavor, and not often successful. Yet the struggle to write a sestina sometimes reveals treasures of innovation, and in this poem they appear with a wonderful subtlety: in surprises like the switch from “flown” to “flu” within two stanzas, or the change of “tear” from noun to verb. I also enjoyed the odd images and newly-seen objects, such as “sugared wool” and “petals bleeding pollen into soil” that arise out of the quiet storm of this work. This is a rich poem, a poem that twists into and inside of itself; this is a poem that takes on a life of its own, through the demands of a rigid form, through its insistence on returning over and over to an obsessive question of ingrown desires.”

The Aftermath Sestina

The first time she bled,
tiny roses erupting from pieces
of broken glass, she flew,
like mama told her, to her safe place,
where crystalline tears
on cherubed cheeks stayed buried

in five year-old minds, buried
behind dollhouses that bled
candy floss’d sunshine, sugared tears
leaking from pieces
of puffy treats placed
by the honeyed God flown.

The second time she flew
to where her pain was buried,
a lotus bloomed in place
of the home, petals bleeding
pollen into soil, pieces
of yellow dust like golden tears

in vibrant green. No one told her tears
could grow, and as she flew
years later, she found only pieces
of cotton-candied buildings buried
under golden grass, encased by ivy bled
from crystalled seeds; no longer the place

she could hide, or the place
where houses grew from inked tears,
black from all the times she bled
crooked trails of rust, flown
over the graves of buried
worlds left behind, pieces

broken but intact. When she returns, pieces
of nostalgia still visible, she will place
another dilapidated shack over buried
remains, plant it with the tears
of a more mature sadness, festering like flu
until allowed to bleed

in buried houses with fruitless pieces,
bleed through sacred places and rotted sweet,
tear into sugared wool flown over cuckoo’s nest.

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.

Alumni Interview with Kian Hashemi-Rad ’14

What are you doing now?

Kian Hashemi-Rad ’14

Right now, I’m one semester away from finishing my M.A. in Leadership in Student Affairs at the University of St. Thomas. I currently work as a graduate assistant at St. Thomas in the Department of Campus Life. I also have a few side hustles: I clean at a yoga studio and I work for Warby Parker as a Sales Advisor slingin’ specs.

How did your Hope English education shape you?

In addition to English, I majored in French and minored in Studio Art. After I decided to pursue English, my ability to write and communicate took a sharp turn for the better. All three academic areas overlap, but each one broadened my knowledge in a unique way. The nuance required to create art deepened my writing not only as a form of effective communication but also as an outlet of artistic creativity. Learning to give and receive criticism in my writing helped me articulate feedback to peers in different studio classes.

Since my time at Hope, I have carried with me all the practical tools the English department gave me: effective communication, quality writing, and critical thinking needed to understand complex issues. I remember certain classes making me a more thoughtful and empathetic human (shout out to Dr. Cole’s Modern Global Literature). I learned a lot more than sentence structure or how to write a good paper; I learned how to better understand my own self through the stories of others.

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

To current English majors: have faith that you will find meaningful and valuable work after graduation. I cannot count how many people questioned my academic choices as an undergrad. Research exists (no, I’m not citing sources here but it does) articulating the strengths of not only a liberal arts education, but specifically the humanities. I promise you your English major will not leave you less qualified for a job.

To prospective English majors: trust your gut and give it a shot. At a liberal arts institution, you have the freedom to experience different academic departments that students in comprehensive or major research-intensive universities do not. Core requirements are designed to send you out with a well-rounded education, and I cannot tell you how valuable that is.

I often refer to the humanities as offering “vocational prep” as opposed to “pre-professional prep” (the way a pre-med program might, for example). You will learn valuable skills needed for a wide-variety of fields and professions; transferrable skills are essential in the work force and being able to articulate them clearly and concisely will go a long way.

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

Some might vehemently disagree with me for this, but I firmly believe history will look back on J.K. Rowling’s writing the way we today look back at J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. There’s a Lewis quote that says “A good children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” (Again, I’m not citing but trust me). If I were to teach a course, I would use the Harry Potter books as the central texts while filling out a syllabus with other children’s authors as well.

Favorite book read recently or in college?

The first book that comes to mind is Silence by Shusaku Endo. Dr. Cole introduced this text in Modern Global Literature and it upended my world. Endo tells the story of a Portuguese missionary in the 17th century who travels to Japan to spread the Christian faith. The book (and Dr. Cole’s teaching) made me look inward, questioning my motivations both professionally and socially, which ultimately changed the course of my college education.

“From One Side of the River to the Other”: a Faculty Feature from Pablo Peschiera (’93)

Associate Professor Pablo Peschiera (’93) teaches many different courses, but his heart lies split between two: poetry writing courses and literary translation courses. Pablo writes his own poems in English, and he translates from Spanish to English. His ongoing translation project is on the work of Manuel Ramos Otero (1948 –1990), the Puerto Rican poet, writer, playwright, director, and professor. Otero’s work is passionate and full of experimentation. The below piece—about how Pablo thinks of translation, memory, and language—is the jumping-off point for an upcoming colloquium titled “How I Learned to Trust Myself” at 3:30 pm, January 25th, in the Fried-Hemenway Auditorium of the Martha Miller Center at Hope College. It is free and open to the public.

From One Side of the River to the Other

Associate Professor Pablo Peschiera (’93)

I write poems in English and translate poems and stories from Spanish to English. When we translate, we try to get something from one language into another language. This is like carrying ideas and images across a bridge, from, in my case, the Spanish side of a river to the English side. The word “translate” comes from the Latin words meaning “across” (trans) and “carry” (latus). The bridge in this metaphor is the translator’s imagination.

I’m going to extend this river and bridge metaphor a bit more, because I find it useful in explaining what a translator does. When I translate, my carrying-across-the-bridge only works one way, from the Spanish side to the English side. It’s like I’m an importer/exporter with a license that only works one way: I can carry across from the Spanish side to the English side, but not in the other direction, from English to Spanish.

I could give it a try, though, carrying a poem or story from English to Spanish, but I know I wouldn’t do a very good job. In Spanish, anything I translate from English just wouldn’t sound right. A native Spanish speaker would get it, but they’d probably laugh at it—and they’d be right to! It would sound silly, often incorrect and off kilter.

I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan to which we moved from Peru when I was five years old. English is my native language, which means I spoke it with my friends and in school. At home I spoke Spanish, but not with the same intensity and energy I spoke English. English was the cool language. All the music was in English, the TV was in English, my friends and their families all spoke English—everything was in English. None of my teachers spoke Spanish. Even our high school Spanish teacher only spoke English (but she could read and write Spanish very well—go figure). Translators say “translate into the language of your dreams.” For me, that’s usually English.

English is the language I trust. In English, I believe what I say and what I write, and the words come fluidly, like smooth water rippling over stones. When I cross the bridge from the Spanish side of the river to the English side, I need to trust myself. The bridge is dangerous—which means the imagination is dangerous. No steel girders, stone boulders, or even brick or wood in the imagination. Because the imagination is in the human mind, it’s weak and wears out quickly, as if it’s made of rope. And not even the good stuff, like nylon or poly—not even hemp! It’s cotton sisal, or twine. It rots in the sun and weather and comes unraveled. It needs mending every day. So I need to cross the imagination using the language I know best, the language I trust, which is English.

Don’­t get me wrong—I know Spanish well. My accent is usually very good, especially if I’ve been practicing. If I parachuted into a Spanish-speaking country today, I’d have zero problems understanding and making myself understood. If I’m hungry, I say ¿conoces un restaurante bueno por aquí? If I want to buy a lottery ticket, I say ¿dónde puedo comprar un boleto de lotería? I couldn’t argue a case in court, and I couldn’t have a debate about Manichaeism, but most English speakers couldn’t do either in English anyway. So I’d be fine.

What makes me not a native speaker is that I don’t trust Spanish. When I write Spanish the rope bridge feels like it’s unraveling. I might foolishly confuse boda (wedding) for bota (boot), or sagrado (sacred) for sangriente (bloody). Spanish uses gendered articles and nouns: La cancha (the court) is feminine and el maletero (the trunk) is masculine, because words that end in “a” are feminine, and words that end in “o” are masculine. I get those wrong sometimes because there are tons (tons!) of exceptions. When I read Spanish I have no problem with these things—I read fluidly almost as quickly and pleasantly as I do in English.

What it comes down to is art. If I carry a poem across the bridge (a poem is a work of art), I can’t look up words to use while I’m on rope bridge of my Spanish imagination, with its dry rot and frayed knots. I have to concentrate on the destination of the English side. I need to trust the bridge. It’s only made of rope, but at least it’s well mended and strong. It must hold me up. Why? Because the bridge of language hovers over the river, and the river is chaos.