The Department of English at the University of Minnesota continues to be a leader in graduate education. As one of the oldest Ph.D. programs in the country, dating back to the 19th century, it boasts a legacy that unites innovation and tradition. Minnesota's pioneering beginnings persist in a commitment to interdisciplinarity and to emergent fields of study. In addition, the Department of English continues a long tradition of scholarship in established fields such as medieval, early modern, and renaissance studies. Faculty in our department, known nationally and internationally for outstanding research, are also prize-winning teachers dedicated to developing in our students first-hand experience in advancing knowledge in the classroom. The University of Minnesota Libraries offer a wealth of resources supporting research in English and American literatures as well as in such newer areas as post-colonial, gender and sexuality, and African-American studies. And the University of Minnesota campus is situated within the Twin Cities, a lively and livable urban area known for world-class arts and culture. English at Minnesota: a truly unique and dynamic program of graduate study.
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5 X Friday: Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether
Twenty years ago, Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether wrote and shepherded the proposal for the MFA in Creative Writing through various levels of University approval so the Program could begin granting the degree in 1996. What about the MFA Program is she most proud of? "The accomplishments of our graduates," she answers quickly. "The proof is in the pudding." The growing number of alumnae/i publications parallels the feverish output of Creative Writing Program faculty: This spring, Professor Sprengnether publishes (and reads from--see listing below) both a memoir, Great River Road (New Rivers), and a prose poetry collection, Near Solstice (Holy Cow!). What does this all have to do with lab research on memory? Read on.
1. When and how did you become interested in the neuroscience of memory?
I have been teaching and writing memoir for a long time, so of course anything that relates to the subject of memory is of interest. I first began noticing science items in The New York Times that described experiments (mainly with rat subjects) showing that memories are not fixed or static but rather fluid and malleable. A memory is not a thing, like a data bit stored somewhere in the brain, but an activation of a neural network. Each time we retrieve a memory by animating a particular network, it interacts with current brain activity. The resulting memory is an amalgam of the previously stored network and new information provided by neurons interacting in the present. I was astonished by this idea, which struck me as both poetic and metaphysical. The past (in the form of personal memory) can only exist in the present--a seeming contradiction. In addition, the remembered past, commingled with the present, is constantly changing. This is an amazing way to view memory: I can't get over it.
2. When did you realize you wanted to relate aspects of the story of your father's death (when you were a child) through the lens of this memory research (for Great River Road: Memoir and Memory)?
The turning point in my thinking came at my daughter's wedding in 2002, when I felt the past inhabiting the present in a way that felt transformative. Both existed simultaneously for me, and that was a mind-altering experience. When I read about the neuroscience of remembering, I thought I'd found the paradigm I was looking for--the coexistence of past and present in the passing moment. Before this, I'd felt disconnected from my childhood memories preceding my dad's death. Now, suddenly they became accessible. It's not easy to describe this process. So I wrote a book about it.
3. You have been researching and writing about psychoanalysis since the 1980s and are currently writing a book on changes in psychoanalytic theories and practices over the past century in relation to interpretations of Freud. How does that project relate to Great River Road, written over the same period?
I think of my scholarly and creative writing as approaching the same or similar subjects from different angles. I'd been writing about the traumas of Freud's early life, which (in my view) he failed to mourn, when I began my memoir Crying at the Movies, which deals with failures of mourning in my own life. Great River Road moves past trauma, as does my writing about the trajectory of psychoanalytic theory post Freud. I'm now exploring the concept of turning "ghosts into ancestors" an idea articulated by psychoanalyst Hans Loewald, to describe how our culture may think about "mourning" Freud. In my next memoir, I plan to examine this idea in the context of my relationship with my stepfather, a man whom I actively disliked while he was alive, but whose brief presence in my life I now value.
4. In 2009, you published a chapbook, Near Solstice, Mourning. Was that the genesis of the new Holy Cow! collection, Near Solstice? Debra Marquart has written: "This book is a balm, a guide, a hedge, and a companion against the vagaries of mortality." Did you know you wanted to address that theme as you wrote? How does your poetry writing practice fit amongst your memoir and critical writing?
The chapbook grew out of a series of poems I wrote in the aftermath of my mother's death. These seemed clearly inter-related to me. The other poems came more slowly and follow a more sinuous course, although the theme of death persists, as more people I cared about (including my younger brother) died. Gradually, the poems began to focus on the Kansas prairie (where I spend a fair amount of time), which lightens the collection as a whole. I can't say that I had this progression consciously in mind at the time of writing, but rather as I assembled the manuscript. Debra says this much better.
I tend to alternate between forms of writing--scholarly and creative--and need large swatches of uninterrupted time to get anything done, hence write slowly. I am a terrible multi-tasker, although I do write poems when I am particularly moved by something. Occasionally, a prose poem will expand into a longer piece of prose, as in Great River Road, where the poem "Notre Dame de Bonsecours" becomes an entire chapter.
5. In your book video for Great River Road, you read: "I think of writing as a form of movement, like walking across a field." More literally, you've been traveling quite a bit, notably to Iran last summer. What does travel do for your writing life?
I never thought of myself as a traveler, yet I seem to get around. When I had finished Great River Road and began to try to describe what I'd done, I realized there is no single chapter that is confined to a single location. What is that about? I think that travel disturbs me in creative ways, causing me to see my life in different contexts and from different perspectives. It keeps me from getting stuck in my own head. Writing does that also, because it's never the same, is it?
Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether will give readings from her new publications through April and May. All events are free and open to the public.
April 9: AWP, New Rivers Press Publication Launch Reading (4-6:30 pm, Kieran's Irish Pub, 85 N. 6th St., Minneapolis)
April 9: AWP, New Rivers Press, White Pine Press and Fairfield University MFA Reading and Reception (7-8:30 pm, McKnight Foundation, 710 S. 2nd St., Suite 400, Minneapolis)
April 14: Publication Launch reading for Great River Road: Memoir and Memory and Near Solstice: Prose Poems (7 pm, Common Good Books, 38 Snelling Ave. S., St. Paul)
April 24: Reading with Patricia Kirkpatrick (7 pm, Magers and Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis)
May 8: Reading with Professor Emeritus Michael Dennis Browne and John Hildebrand (7 pm, Open Book, 1101 S. Washington Ave., Minneapolis)
May 13: Reading from Great River Road and Near Solstice (7 pm, Subtext Books, 165 Western Ave. N., St. Paul)
Prospective Student Visit
The Department of English welcomes admitted prospective graduate students March 12-13. Events scheduled include a reading by an MFA alumnus, a discussion with current PhD students, class visits, and dinner with graduate students and faculty. We look forward to meeting you!
5 X Friday: Associate Professor Dan Philippon
In the last three years, Associate Professor Dan Philippon has researched and taught in Germany, Italy, and France, buoyed by a Fulbright and a fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich. The travel has widened his thinking about food writing and the sustainable food movement, subject of his current research. "Although my specialty will always be American environmental literature, I can't think in isolation anymore," reports Professor Philippon, who serves as Director of Undergraduate Studies. "Now, when I think of American writers, it is always in a global context. And when I think of global processes, like climate change, I think of their effects on particular places and particular people--like the Italian rice grower I met, whose paddies depend on meltwater from the Alps." How does that book-in-progress involve Alice Waters, Wendell Berry . . . and a certain Italian rice grower? Read on.
1. In November and December, you were Visiting Professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Foreign Civilizations at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon in France. How did that come about? What was the highpoint of your stay in Lyon?
I was invited to teach at the ENS by a colleague I met when I was president of ASLE, the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. I guest-lectured in courses on American Literature and Critical Theory, and I gave a public lecture based on my current research. I was also furiously interviewing as many people as I could for my book! I think the highlight of my stay was simply the Lyonnaise cuisine: Saint-Marcellin and Comté cheeses, Beaujolais and Côtes du Rhône wines, quenelles de brochet and saucisson de Lyon. Just writing those words makes me hungry.
2. You also traveled to Berlin to give the paper "Alternative Agriculture and Environmentalism, 1972-1992: A Transnational Perspective," at a conference on "Transformations of the Ecology Movement." What about the conference made the most impact?
This was a great conference. There were only 35 participants, and all the papers were circulated in advance, so everyone was very attentive to what the other presenters had to say. I was particularly taken by a comment made by one of the organizers, who noted how the local and the global interact: local actors "read" global narratives, and global actors are influenced by local concerns. This is not news, of course, but the papers I heard at the conference really brought this point home, again and again.
3. Can you talk more about your current book project, entitled Ideal Meals? (The Rachel Carson Center also made a cool video on Philippon!)
My project has changed a lot since I began working on it, but my research question remains the same: How have food writers shaped the growth of the sustainable food movement since World War II? I'm looking at several prominent food writers through the lens of people working in the food industry in the U.S. and Europe: Wendell Berry through community-supported agriculture farmers in Wisconsin; Carlo Petrini (the founder of Slow Food) through artisan food producers in the Piedmont region of Italy; and Julia Child and Alice Waters through female expats (a chef, a sommelier, and a restaurant owner) living in Lyon. My goal is not only to demonstrate the effect these writers have had on the sustainable food movement but also to clarify the tensions that exist between the current emphasis on local food and the global processes, cultures, and cuisines that have shaped both agriculture and gastronomy for generations.
4. You serve as Director of Undergraduate Studies for English: What do you see as the greatest challenges and benefits of choosing to major in English right now?
The greatest challenge is the constant pressure students feel to select a career path in order to achieve financial security. There are good reasons for this, of course, but we lose something vital if everything we do must have an identifiable "learning outcome." I believe very strongly that education is about building relationships: getting the smartest faculty you possibly can in dialogue with students--to inspire, challenge, and support them in every way imaginable. This is at the heart of what education is all about, and its outcomes are often unpredictable. So the greatest benefit of majoring in English is the flexibility those relationships build in students: learning how to think, how to question, and how to see the world from other perspectives.
Nearly three-quarters of employers in a recent survey agreed that "being well-rounded with a range of abilities is more important than having industry expertise." The data show that English majors succeed in a wide range of professions, and their salaries are higher than the median. That they also make good citizens who live meaningful lives is more than just a side benefit.
5. The book you're currently recommending?
David Lebovitz, The Sweet Life in Paris. Lebovitz was a pastry chef at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' restaurant in Berkeley, before he moved to Paris in 2002 to live full-time. The book is based on his blog, which is an increasingly common strategy for food memoirs these days, and it features the same funny, conversational tone Lebovitz displays online. Every chapter ends with a recipe--of which I've made a few, with good results--and Lebovitz is an amusing guide to the expat experience. Plus his favorite chocolate shop, Bernachon, was right around the corner from my flat in Lyon.
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