Street Haunting: The Flâneur in Literature

Image shows an impressionist painting depicting people strolling down an intersection in Paris

Paris Street; Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte (1877), The Art Institute of Chicago

“The crowd is his domain, just as the air is the bird’s, and water that of the fish. His passion and his profession is to merge with the crowd. For the perfect idler, for the passionate observer, it becomes an immense source of enjoyment to establish his dwelling in the throng, in the ebb and flow, the bustle, the fleeting and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel at home anywhere; to see the world, to be at the very centre of the world, and yet to be unseen of the world, such are some of the minor pleasures of those independent, intense and impartial spirits, who do not lend themselves easily to linguistic definitions.” –Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life, 1863

In his essay, “The Painter of Modern Life,” nineteenth-century French poet and critic, Charles Baudelaire, established his definition of the flâneur, a figure that continues to capture the imagination of writers and artists more than a century later. Literally but imperfectly translated as “stroller” or “idler,” the flâneur is the quintessential observer, the outsider whose meandering path skims along, but does not directly intersect, with the paths of those that surround him or her. In Baudelaire’s eye, the flâneur was inextricably tied with the artist and the poet—the ability to return to one’s home and fashion something immortal out of these passing glimpses of modern city life.

It is not surprising then, that throughout the intervening century and a half, numerous modern and contemporary writers have explored the iconic image of the flaneur, from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to Teju Cole’s Open City. In these works, the act of wandering a city often becomes a journey of self-discovery and inward reflection.

And while in Baudelaire’s day, the flâneur was generally assumed to be white and male, more contemporary works have challenged this preconception. Through some writer’s eyes, the act of observing, and the gaze itself, has taken on a new power and potential. Viewing the flâneur through a feminist or postcolonial lens, street haunting (as Virginia Woolf calls it) raises the questions of who is able to be invisible and unobserved in the modern city and what this capability says about modern society.

Today, we’ve highlighted a few works in the library’s collection, both historical and contemporary that explore this lesser-known image of the flâneur in literature. Why not be transported somewhere new today?

Open City by Teju Cole

Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole’s debut novel, Open City is about many things—identity, dislocation, history, and love. But first, it is about a solitary walker setting out from his home in Morningside Heights and learning the city at his feet. While the narrator, a Nigerian doctor doing his residency, wanders the streets of New York, he reflects on his recent breakup with his girlfriend and encounters a string of local immigrants who enrich and complicate his portrait of the city and himself. For Open City, the term “street haunting” is perhaps particularly apt; this post-colonial look at New York City reflects the unique loneliness that stems from isolation in the midst of a crowd.

Quartet by Jean Rhys

Rhys’ debut 1928 novel explores the sometimes squalid but often mesmerizing underbelly of bohemian Paris, a world Rhys herself knew only too well. Quartet is a roman à clef, an autobiographical novel, exploring a quartet of four lovers whose foibles and trials mirror the experiences of Rhys during her marriage to her first husband and her concurrent messy affair and financial entanglement with literary luminary Ford Maddox Ford and his partner, Stella Bowen. Isolated and increasingly troubled amidst the rich literary and artistic culture of a city in bloom, Quartet lays bare the at-times stark realities of Café Society in Paris, particularly for women.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The titular character of Mrs. Dalloway sets out from her London home with a simple goal in mind—to buy flowers for her party. But what begins as a practical errand quickly diverges as Dalloway’s journey provides an opportunity for the protagonist to consider the complex ways her life intersects with those of the other characters that populate the novel, as well as where the path of her own life might have diverged in the past. A complex modernist classic, Mrs. Dalloway is at times challenging, but infinitely rewarding for its exploration of how a single day, and a single task, can unveil the intricate layers of a person’s life and mind.

NW by Zadie Smith

Traversing the eponymous North Western postcode area in London, NW presents a complicated portrait of the city and modern adulthood. The novel follows four Londoners as they try to make lives and identities outside of Cadwell, the council estate where they grew up. Smith’s writing style immerses its reader in the unique culture of Northwest London—from its immigrant dialects to its cultural landmarks.  This tragicomic novel swings between violence and scandal, but the protagonists’ quests to define and achieve happiness on their own terms will resonate with anyone struggling to navigate life in a modern city.

French Milk by Lucy Knisley

Known for her travelogues and graphic memoirs, French Milk, is one of cartoonist Lucy Knisley’s earliest efforts in the field. This travelogue narrates Knisley’s six-week trip to Paris with her mother as they explore the city and face milestones in life. Blending musings, photographs, and illustrations, Knisley reflects on family, love, and the looming prospect of adulthood as she samples some of the culinary and cultural delights the City of Light has to offer. While it is at times self-indulgent (what travelogue isn’t?), it offers a charming and tempting snapshot of Paris through the eyes of a consummate artist and foodie.

Taipei by Tao Lin

Many of the books that explore the figure of the flâneur traverse the line between fiction and memoir, and Tapei is no exception. Based on the author’s own life, Tapei is an undeniably modern take on the figure of the flâneur—providing an unvarnished portrait of the way we live and love today. The novel follows Paul from Manhattan to Taipei, Taiwan as he navigates his artistic ambitions alongside his cultural heritage. As relationships bloom and fail, the novel’s characters devote much of their time to drugs and screens, numbing agents that distract from the by turns bleak and absurd realities of modern life. While opinions about Tao Lin and his work vary, Taipei is undeniably effective in distilling the tedium, the excitement, and the uncertainty of being alive, young, on the fringes in America. 

Further Reading Suggestions for the Fledgling Flâneur:

The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays by Charles Baudelaire

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta

20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

People of the City by Cyprian Ekwensi

Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson

New York: A Mod Portrait of the City by Vladimir Fuka

Bibliography

Baudelaire, Charles, and Jonathan Mayne. The Painter of Modern Life, and Other Essays. London: Phaidon, 1964.

Baudelaire, Charles, 1821-1867 2006. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. https://www-proquest-com.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/encyclopedias-reference-works/baudelaire-charles-1821-1867/docview/2137915067/se-2?accountid=14553.

Flâneur 2010., edited by Ian Buchanan. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://www-proquest-com.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/encyclopedias-reference-works/flâneur/docview/2137953454/se-2?accountid=14553.

Lopate, Phillip. The Art of the Personal Essay : an Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.

Wood, James. “The Arrival of Enigmas.” The New Yorker, February 20, 2011. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/02/28/the-arrival-of-enigmas.

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Reading Recommendations for Black History Month

Happy Black History Month from the Literatures and Languages Library!

From Phillis Wheatley to Zora Neale Hurston to Colson Whitehead, Black writers have enriched our country’s literary heritage for centuries. While the Literatures and Languages Library amplifies Black voices all year, Black History Month provides a special opportunity to highlight a few of the many wonderful works in our collection created by Black authors.

The origin of Black History Month dates to 1926 when historian Carter G. Woodson conceived of Negro History Week. Specifically responding to how the American public school system represented the significance of Black history, Woodson envisioned Negro History Week as a national celebration of Black culture (Franklin). Woodson originally chose the second week in February as an apt time to champion Black history because it coincided with the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Following the civil rights movement, the week-long event transformed into the full month celebration that we now recognize.

Our collection is always growing, and this curated list provides just a glimpse of some of the exciting new fiction and poetry we offer. These works are eclectic and explore a diverse spectrum of the Black experience, ranging from the Afro-punk scene of the 1970s to queer life amidst the AIDS epidemic.

The titles featured here are currently on display in our exhibit case but will be available for check-out on March 1st. To see the full exhibit, or to get more reading recommendations for Black History Month, come visit us in the Main Library, Room 200!

Fiction:

The Awkward Black Man (Stories) by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley is often considered one of America’s greatest crime-fiction writers, winning an Edgar Grand Master Award as well as a Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. But this collection of 17 short stories displays the broad range of Mosley’s talent. The Awkward Black Man providing fascinating glimpses into a motley collection of protagonists–heroes who are awkward, nerdy, self-defeating, self-involved, and, on the whole, odd. The collection seeks to challenge stereotypes about Black male characters and urges the reader to consider each one on his own merits.

Funeral Diva by Pamela Sneed

Seamlessly weaving together personal essays and poetry, poet, performer, visual artist, and educator Pamela Sneed brings all her talents to bear on this memoir, which depicts the AIDS crisis’ impact on Black queer life in New York City. The winner of the Lambda Award for Lesbian Poetry, Funeral Diva’s poems are in conversation with lost lovers and Black literary forebears from James Baldwin to Audre Lorde, and extend from meditations on the past into the trauma and hope of the present day.

 

Hell of a Book: Or the Altogether Factual, Wholly Bona Fide Story of a Big Dreams, Hard Luck, American-Made Mad Kid by Jason Mott

It’s a hell of a title for a hell of a book. This National Book Award-winning novel bends time and reality to tell the dizzying story of a best-selling Black author’s cross-country publicity tour. His journey intersects and intermingles with the stories of a young black boy named Soot and a possibly mythic child named, simply, The Kid. As their lives converge amidst a series of tragic, magical, and astonishing twists that will have the reader questioning what is real and how can we move forward?

Other Fiction Recommendations:

 

Poetry:

Such Color by Tracy K. Smith

This collection brings together some of the most powerful and esteemed poems from the former Poet Laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith. Such Color includes works originally published in volumes including the Pulitzer prize-winning Life On Mars (2011), as well as The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), and Wade in the Water (2018). The collection also includes new poems, which reflect on America’s historical and contemporary racism, while urging the reader towards the radical choice of love and compassion in the face of all that stands in its way.

Exiles of Eden – Ladan Osman

Drawing from Somali storytelling traditions, Exiles of Eden provides a fascinating new perspective on the story of Adam, Eve, and their exile from the Garden of Eden. Seamlessly blending the past and present in hypnotizing, experimental verse, Osman explores the experiences of displaced people across multiple generations. Her characters by turns grapple with trauma, isolation, and the disheartening realization that once you are exiled from Eden, you can never go back.

 

Other Poetry Recommendations:

 

Works Cited

 

Franklin, Jonathan. “Here’s the story behind Black History Month—and why it’s celebrated in February.” NPR, https://www.npr.org/2022/02/01/1075623826/why-is-february-black-history-month. Accessed 4 February 2022.

 

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Proquest One Literature

One database to rule them all, and, in citations, find them!

The website banner for the OneLiterature databaseThe University Library now provides access to Proquest One Literature. This exciting new acquisition will provide students, faculty, and staff with access to 3 million literature citations from thousands of journals, monographs, dissertations, and more than 500,000 primary works! These include rare and obscure texts, multiple versions, and non-traditional sources like comics, theatre performances, and author readings.

If this sounds like a dizzying amount of content, never fear! One Literature has a user-friendly interface that allows you to browse and search amongst criticism, primary texts, and reference works like The Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature, The Cambridge Companion to African American Theatre, The International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, and many more!

Banner showing frequently viewed authors and literature collections on the One Literature databaseIf you’d like to learn more about and dive into the works of a single writer, you’re in luck! One Literature greets each visitor with a banner of prominent authors and poets, including Jane Austen, Joy Harjo, and William Carlos Williams. Selecting a specific author will take you to a biography of the writer, direct links to their primary works, pertinent criticism, relevant reference works, links to authors from the same literary movement, and even videos and recordings of adaptations and readings. These author pages will provide wonderful guidance and resources to students and faculty across the English curriculum but may be particularly useful as references for Major Authors classes.

If you’d prefer to browse by topic or subject, or just casually explore, One Literature also allows you to browse by literary movement, literary period, and Literature Collections, which bring together works that showcase unique, definitive electronic collections or demonstrate the breadth of topical electronic collections available on One Literature. Prominent Literature Collections include the African Writers Series, Digitale Bibliothek Deutscher Klassiker [a digital library of classic German works], and Teatro Español del Siglo de Oro [a collection of Spanish theatre from the Golden Age].

If that were not already enough, One Literature also features an expansive array of audio-visual content, including poetry readings, Shakespeare audioplays, and BBC literary adaptations like Emma, Madame Bovary, and David Copperfield.

So, what are you waiting for? Head into to One Literature and start exploring! We can’t wait to hear about what you discover!

To learn more about One Literature or to schedule a demonstration for your class, please contact Matthew Roberts (mjrii@illinois.edu) or Paula Carns (pcarns@illinois.edu).

 

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Reading Recommendations for Hispanic American Heritage Month

Happy National Hispanic Heritage Month! From September 15 to October 15, our country is honoring the contributions of Hispanic Americans to our culture and nation. Hispanic Americans have positively influenced many aspects of American life, from politics to the arts to civil rights. They have also had a huge impact on our nation’s literature and literary traditions. To celebrate this impact, we are highlighting some of the incredible fiction by Hispanic authors in our collection.

Dominicana by Angie Cruzcover image for Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights will be captivated by this coming-of-age story which explores immigration, love, and the shifting tides of the American Dream. In 1965, Ana Canción moves from her beloved Dominican Republic to the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York City, so that she can marry and create a path to immigration for her family. Lonely and isolated in her adopted city, she plans to flee until political turmoil back home and a new romantic entanglement open her eyes to what a life in America could be.

cover image for The Spirit of Science FictionThe Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño

Fans of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and Jean Rhys’ Quartet will be drawn in by Bolaño’s portrait of 1970s Mexico City. This genre-bending novel follows the romantic and creative escapades of two aspiring Chilean writers as they struggle to carve out a place for themselves in the literary world. While one writer sinks into a dizzying creative oblivion, the other finds himself becoming a flâneur, haunting the dingy and beautiful streets of Mexico City with a circle of extravagant writers.

cover image for the Naked Woman

The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers

The premise for The Naked Woman can be distilled simply: a woman’s feminist awakening drives a hypocritical village to madness in rural Uruguay. But this description can only hint at the brilliant brutality of Somers’ text and Maude’s translation. This intense, surreal novel exposes the violence of the male ego and the destructive power of societal misogyny. Originally published in 1950 to an audience shocked by its graphic eroticism, it is now considered an iconic work of feminism.

 

cover image for fruit of the drunken treeFruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Inspired by Rojas Contreras’ own life, this debut novel explores youth and childhood in Colombia under drug lord Pablo Escobar’s violent reign. Born and raised in a gated community in the city of Bogotá, Colombia, seven-year-old Chula has grown up sheltered from the violence and crime that ravaged the city’s streets. But when she grows close to her family’s new maid, Petrona, Chula finds herself drawn into a new realm of secrecy and betrayal. As the novel rockets to its conclusion, both girls find themselves faced with impossible choices as their world descends into chaos.

What’s on your “To Read” list for Hispanic American Heritage Month? Let us know!

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2021 Pulitzer Prize Winners

Congratulations to the 2021 Pulitzer Prize Winners! The Pulitzer Prize was established in 1917  through the will of Joseph Pulitzer, a visionary American journalist, who wished to incentivize excellence and innovation in American journalism and letters. 

This year, the literary works recognized demonstrate an increased interest in social justice and honoring the exemplary work of writers addressing the brutal history and complex reality of race in America. Below, we have highlighted a few of the winners currently in our collection. But we encourage you to peruse the full list of finalists and winners here

 

Fiction: The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

The Night Watchman is based on the extraordinary life of National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich’s  grandfather, who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C. This powerful novel explores themes of love and death with lightness and gravity and unfolds with the elegant prose, sly humor, and depth of feeling of a master craftsman.

History: Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America by Marcia Chatelain

A nuanced account of the complicated role the fast-food industry plays in African-American communities, Chatelain’s work is a portrait of race and capitalism that masterfully illustrates how the fight for civil rights has been intertwined with the fate of Black businesses. From civil rights to Ferguson, Franchise reveals the untold history of how fast food became one of the greatest generators of black wealth in America.

Biography: The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

Les Payne, the renowned Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative journalist, embarked in 1990 on a nearly thirty-year-long quest to interview anyone he could find who had actually known Malcolm X. The Dead are Arising is the result—A powerful and revelatory account of the civil rights activist, which rewrites much of the known narrative and offers insight into his character, beliefs and the forces that shaped him. Les and Tamara Payne have crafted a riveting work that affirms the centrality of Malcolm X to the African American freedom struggle.

Poetry: Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz

Postcolonial Love Poem is a collection of tender, heart-wrenching, and defiant poems that explore what it means to love and be loved in an America beset by conflict. It is an anthem of desire against erasure, demanding that every body carried in its pages—bodies of language, land, rivers, suffering brothers, enemies, and lovers—be touched and held as beloved.

 

General Nonfiction: Wilmington’s Lie : The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino

Wilmington’s Lie is a gripping account of the overthrow of the elected government of a Black-majority North Carolina city after Reconstruction that untangles a complicated set of power dynamics cutting across race, class and gender. It gives an account of a racially-motivated insurrection launched by white supremacists, which halted gains made by Black people and restored racism as official government policy, cementing white rule for another seventy years. 

Pulitzer Prize winner David Zucchino uses contemporary newspaper accounts, diaries, letters and official communications to create a riveting and compelling narrative that weaves together individual stories of hate, fear, and brutality. This is a dramatic and definitive account of a remarkable but forgotten chapter of American history.

–Summaries adapted from the publisher

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Reading Recommendations for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month. As Anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise and the AAPI community is threatened by ignorance and cruelty, this APAHM feels particularly important. It is a time to reflect on all of the tremendous gifts, literary and otherwise, that the Asian-American community has contributed to our country and the world. With this in mind, we are highlighting some of the incredible new works by Asian-American authors in our collection.

cover art for Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless GirlsLong Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

Literary essayist Madden’s debut memoir pulls no punches in depicting her coming of age as queer, biracial teenager in Boco Raton, Florida. Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls fearlessly lays bare the many contradictions of Madden’s young life–from the immense privileges of her wealthy upbringing, to the trauma and isolation wrought by her parents’ drug addiction, to the precious and devastating nature of friendship between fatherless girls.

 

cover art for The Color of AirThe Color of Air by Gail Tsukiyama

Tsukiyama’s brilliant historical novel tells the story of a Japanese-American family, set against the backdrop of Hawai’i’s sugar plantations. Just as long-standing family secrets and tensions appear primed to explode, another devastating eruption occurs: that of Mauna Loa volcano.

 

cover art for The Unpassing

 

 

The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin

Lin’s gripping debut novel interrogates the myth of the American Dream through a Taiwanese immigrant family struggling to get by in Anchorage, Alaska. When tragedy strikes, the resultant upheaval forces the family to reckon with grief and guilt amidst unfamiliar, and often unforgiving, surroundings.

 

cover art for How Much of These Hills is GoldHow Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang

In Zhang’s epic Western set during the American Gold Rush, the orphaned children of Chinese immigrants set out across a harsh and unforgiving landscape in the hopes of burying their father, and their past. The unforgettable sights and adventures they encounter along the way provide a fascinating glimpse of the future that might await them.

 

cover art for Pachinko

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Lee’s powerful historical novel follows a single Korean family through a dramatic saga of betrayal, sacrifice, ambition, and love. The family’s tumultuous story begins with a young Sunja’s unplanned and potentially devastating pregnancy. Unbeknownst to her, the choices Sunja makes will reverberate through generations to come.

 

 

Anti-Violence and Anti-Racism Resources to Support the AAPI Community:

https://anti-asianviolenceresources.carrd.co/

https://www.advancingjustice-aajc.org/anti-asian-hate

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/anti-racism-resources-support-asian-american-pacific-islander-community-n1260467

https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/politics/a35862857/stop-asian-hate-organizations-to-support/

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UIUC Poetry Spotlight: Stuart Albert

Our celebration of National Poetry Month continues on this penultimate Thursday of April. Today, we are proud to feature LitLang’s own Stuart Albert reading Reed Whittermore’s “The Tarantula.” Watch Albert read his selection here and read his reflections below:

The Tarantula”, by Reed Whittemore, is a long-standing favorite of mine. As a dramatic monologue, it lends itself well to reading aloud. And… I don’t want to ruin the surprise with too much preamble… but I think many readers / listeners will find the narrator something of a kindred spirit.

After some cursory research, I’m inclined to think this poem inspired by the essay “The Spider and the Wasp”, by the much-cited authority Alexander Petrunkevitch, published in Scientific American magazine in August 1952. It’s always interesting to me, to see how often (and how far) the poetic imagination is launched by the tangible, the imminent, the seemingly dry and merely factual.

Incidentally, I held a tarantula once. Decent fella, name of Cecil.

P.S. I don’t know if lagniappes are allowed, but here’s another poem, by Howard Nemerov, that I think pairs well with “The Tarantula”. Like William, Oliver is someone I think many of us can identify with.

http://poemhunter.blogspot.com/2007/08/make-big-money-at-home-write-poems-in.html

 

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UIUC Poetry Spotlight: Professor Ángel Garcia

Dr. Ángel Garcia is Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He earned a PhD from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and an M.F.A. from the University of California-Riverside.

He is the author of Teeth Never Sleep, winner of a 2018 CantoMundo Poetry Prize published by the University of Arkansas Press, winner of a 2019 American Book Award, finalist for a 2019 PEN America Open Book Award, and finalist for a 2020 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Professor Garcia Ángel is also the cofounder of the non-profit organization, Gente Organizada, which educates, empowers, and engages communities through grassroots organizing.

Watch Professor Garcia read his poem, “Dina Olimpico” on our Instagram here. He reflects on how Natasha Trethewey and Geffrey Davis inspired his poem below:

What I love and what I want to honor in Natasha Trethewey’s poem “The Southern Crescent” from her book Native Guard and in Geffrey Davis’ poem “King Country Metro” from his book, is their recognition of ancestry and how one arrives in a particular place. Thinking about my own family, I wanted to document the seemingly innate need for one to return home and also point to some of the constraints and challenges one might face in doing so. To further complicate the idea of returning, I wanted to acknowledge the long familial history of moving from place to place across several generations.

 

But another important way to think about ancestry is poetic ancestry. I wanted to honor my own lineage of poetic ancestry, particularly Black poets like Natasha Tretheway and Geffrey Davis, who by writing about their own migratory experiences have inspired and influenced me to write about the migrations of my own family. National Poetry Month, with the availability of so many reading, events, and poems, is a wonderful time for students and poets to discover their own poetic ancestry, digging through books, journals, and archives to discover poems that speak to their experiences. Going one step further, we can continue that lineage by then writing imitation poems based on the original poems of our poetic ancestors.

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UIUC Poetry Spotlight: Isaac Willis

For today’s celebration of National Poetry Month, Isaac Willis, a student in UIUC’s Creative Writing MFA program, reads Jericho Brown’s “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry.”

Watch Willis’ reading on our Instagram and read his reflections below:

To me, this is a perfect poem. Maybe that’s because I may or may not have taken a field trip to a slaughterhouse. (My alma mater, Monmouth College, nearly touched one of the largest slaughterhouses in the Midwest.) Maybe that’s because I want another gimlet, another good book. It’s also the perfect poem for America right now. Written during a time of racial reckoning, of an international pandemic, of quarantine, the poem subtly navigates the politics of place and being in it. “I have PTSD / About the Lord,” says Brown’s speaker. But then, “God save the people who work / In grocery stores.” Audre Lorde famously said, “Poetry is not a luxury.” She also said, in the same essay, “it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.”

I can’t help but feel, when I read this Jericho Brown poem, that something new and necessary is being architected. I naively thought, a year ago, when the University and the world were effectively locked down, that staying shut up inside would make me a better person. If anything, it has exacerbated my fears and anxieties and biases even more. I texted something along those lines to a friend awhile back, and he responded, “Or you are a better person, and you don’t like what the new light has shown you.” Maybe so. Maybe grief, when it’s so thick you can touch it, is a balm. Maybe I’d rather be able to sit and talk with my friend, while we sip lavender gin. Maybe it’s a privilege to say so. Thank you. I’m sorry.

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UIUC Poetry Spotlight: Christopher Kempf

Christopher Kempf is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English, where he teaches in the MFA Program. He is the author of the poetry collections What Though the Field Be Lost (LSU, 2021) and Late in the Empire of Men (Four Way, 2017).

His scholarly book, Writing Craft: The Workshop in American Culture, is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, his poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in Best American Poetry (2020), Boston ReviewGeorgia ReviewGettysburg ReviewKenyon ReviewNew England ReviewThe New Republic, and PEN America, among others.

Professor Kempf offers his reflections on a recently published poem by Eavan Boland below:

Eavan Boland’s poem “The Break-Up of a Library in an Anglo-Irish House in Wexford: 1964” offers a haunting meditation on the vulnerabilities and violences implicit in western empire.

“[T]he end of empire is and will always be / not sedition nor the whisper of conspiracy,” Boland writes, “but that // slipper chair in the hallway / that has lost the name / no one will call it by again.”

Boland is writing here about the 17th and 18th century mansions from which a Protestant Anglo-Irish aristocracy ruled over a predominantly Catholic population.  But she is also—and perhaps more importantly—diagnosing how power continues to encode itself in and through language.  Echoing Ezra Pound’s maxim that “if a nation’s literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays,” her words testify beautifully to the importance of an educated citizenry, one able to command language for its own uses rather than be commanded by it.  Boland neither celebrates nor mourns the passing of this aristocracy, but I detect in her tone a note of wistfulness, I think, for a richer, more accurate language—something wondrous has been lost, Boland suggests, even as something powerfully democratic has been gained.

I admire this ambivalence, and I am curious about its implications in the wake of an attack on the U.S. Capitol which, because of her untimely death, Boland never witnessed.

In a culture obsessed with “STEM” education and so linguistically impoverished, therefore, that we cannot distinguish between real and fake news, Boland reminds us that facility with language is the single most important—and contested—political instrument.  And poetry itself, Boland suggests, remains vital to both social justice and democratic belonging.

Watch Professor Kempf read Eavan Boland’s “The Break-Up of a Library in an Anglo-Irish House in Wexford:1964″ and a poem of his own, “National Anthem” on our Instagram!

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