Of Cookbooks and Lynchings

by Jessie.yang on flickr“Men and women in automobiles stood up to watch him die.” That’s the sentence one student recalled when I asked the class what was memorable in Eula Biss’s essay “Time and Distance Overcome.” The man who died was a black man “accused of attacking a white woman.” For his alleged behavior, he was “tied to a telephone pole and burned.”

After we discussed the short essay for about forty-five minutes—its structure, its late revelation of her personal connection to the subject—her grandfather was a lineman who broke his back when a telephone pole on which he had been working fell—I directed the students to the last section of Biss’s powerful Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, which offers additional information and reflections on the writing of each of the essays.

“I began my research for this essay,” writes Biss, “by searching for every instance of the phrase ‘telephone pole’ in the New York Times from 1880 to 1920, which resulted in 370 articles.”

This alone, I thought, is useful information for a first year college student: how one conducts research for this kind of essay. [Read more…]

My Own Commencement, Part 1: The Birth of an MFA

CampCasey_112_RutanThis post is excerpted from Gregory Wolfe’s final commencement address as director of the Seattle Pacific University Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing last month. Wolfe, who founded the program, steps down as director today.

Once upon a time—well, seventeen years ago, to be exact—I was contacted by Mark Walhout, the chair of the English department at Seattle Pacific University to consult with him regarding the possibility of SPU starting an MFA program in creative writing. He felt that as editor of Image I had the right sort of contacts to recruit faculty—and perhaps a bit of credibility with the literary community—to help kick-start the process.

“How odd that you called about that,” I said. “One of the long-term dreams among the Image editors has been to get involved with the founding of an MFA program.”

“Well,” he responded, “how would you like to come out here and start the program for us?”

I’d like to say it was as simple as that but these things take time and lots of elbow grease. We did indeed come to SPU but we still had a long road ahead of us. There was the matter of settling down, establishing the journal in a new location, and launching an extensive research process for putting together an MFA program proposal. A graduate writing program that sought to educate students in the light of the rich theological and literary heritage of the Christian faith had never been attempted before and we knew it would be looked upon with close scrutiny and even skepticism. [Read more…]

The Best Conditions for Work

Flying BookFor William Carlos Williams

I work best alone. In an empty house.

When I’m ready to work, I take down the sun-faded poster of the Miro museum from my Barcelona honeymoon twenty-six years ago.

I pull the pilled sweaters down from the shelf in the closet—the sweater Nana Sarah knitted for me decades ago, the post-Christmas sale sweaters my wife buys and buys for me: V neck and crew, cardigan, cotton, and wool. Into a trunk they go. When I’m settled in comfort and bulk, I cannot imagine.

Thousands of titles—broken and unbroken spines—swept from bookshelves, dumped into cardboard boxes and shouldered downstairs, through the garage, into the yard. The easy victory of another poet’s epiphany: not for me. [Read more…]

Conference Envy: A Survival Guide

Sad Web SurfingYesterday I was running around the park in a T-shirt with a birthday party full of seven-year-olds. Today, I walked downtown through a flurry of hard, tiny pellets of snow that I couldn’t escape from. It was a little like the experience of going to bed a happy, underpaid writer and waking up the next day as a miserable, underpaid writer who is staying home while everyone else you know is traveling to a conference.

No matter where you look online, you’re getting smacked in the face with these niggling little reminders that you’re here dealing with laundry and kids and deadlines and your friends are off brown-nosing editors and eating dinner in absurdly large groups and developing inside jokes and memories that you’re going to be outside of the next time you get together.

You can complain to and commiserate with the three or four other people you know who aren’t at the conference, but you’re aware that it’s petty and fruitless, so you stop after a few hours and just try to avoid the Interwebs for a few days—which means that, no, you didn’t see that video of Trump as Lex Luthor or whatever it was. [Read more…]

George Scialabba and the Problem of Critical Distance

gospel_matthewGeorge Scialabba retired from his job this October. He had worked at Harvard University for thirty-five years. But not as a professor. Scialabba was a clerical worker and building manager. A piece in the Chronicle Review about Scialabba’s career as a writer and book critic described his day job as “low level.”

Scialabba has, more even than most writers, kept to the sidelines of public life. He worked at the very margins of academia. He has written critical essays and book reviews from a position that is self-consciously “unaffiliated.”


Because Scialabba wanted to be free, of course. He wanted to think and write freely. This, Scialabba thought, has gotten harder and harder to do.

That’s because (as he put it in an essay entitled “What Are Intellectuals Good for?”) we are facing, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, a general truth:

Intellectuals have indeed been incorporated en masse into the power elite, making the “transparent social relations” Merleau-Ponty looked forward to that much more difficult and distant. [Read more…]