Professor of English
Education: B.A. Vanderbilt University; M.A. Stanford University; Ph.D. University of California at Berkeley
Area of Specialty: 19th century American poetry, contemporary poetry, renaissance literature, Emily Dickinson, George Herbert, Sudan/Sudanese refugees
What can you tell us about your new study abroad course "Poetry, Painting and Paris"?
I chose to offer this course after a discussion with Dr. George Bey (Dean of International Education). I was describing to him the inspirational force of my residencies in France. I've spent extended periods of time over the last several years at international colonies in Provence and Champagne. George asked me whether I'd want to share my love of France and French culture with my students, and the suggestion made good sense to me.
Six students have signed up for the course, and it looks like a great crew. Four of the students are English majors, and two are majoring in Art History, so that's the perfect mix, as far as I'm concerned, and I've already seen a useful dialogue take place in our first week's class meetings. Before visiting the Dufy exhibit at the Mississippi Museum of Art, we explored the painter's collaboration with the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire on the Bestiaire (Bestiary or Book of Animals) using my translations of the poems. We've been reading a series of poems by American, English, French, Czech and German poets about works of art in Paris, looking at and discussing slides of the art, and thinking about the connections between the visual arts and lyric poetry. The students educate one another in our discussions, and there's a wonderful sense of communal discovery.
What do you expect your students to get from this experience?
I expect my students to be transformed by their explorations of this cosmopolitan capital, its people, and its art. As a young man from rural Kentucky studying in Paris at 19, I was forever transformed by my time in Paris. I took my sophomore year abroad with the University of Massachusetts, enrolling through them in the Cours de Langues et Civilisations Françaises at the University of Paris-IV (Sorbonne). I sat in the great Renaissance amphitheaters of the university, listening to lectures on French politics, for example, by a minister from the early days of the Fifth Republic, studying with students from Germany, the United States, Spain, Britain, and other parts of the world. French was our only common language, so we had to learn. Our exams at the end of the year were, of course, in French, and we sat for exams that lasted several hours, followed by oral exams on the material by French professors, a process that is in some ways similar to the Millsaps comprehensive exams.
You've spent time in France as a writing fellow at the Camargo Foundation and the CAMAC Centre d'Art in France. How did these experiences affect your writing?
My first extended residency was at Camargo, an elegant colony endowed by an American for scholars and artists from North America. There were about twelve of us in residence, including two other writers, two composers, and one visual artist; about five of the residents were Canadians. Other residents were scholars of French music, literature, history or art. My apartment had a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean and the massive cliffs of Cap Canaille. I usually got up before dawn to watch the colors change in the clouds, water and sea, and I often went walking along the cliffs and "calanques," the high fingers of stone projecting into the sea with pools of various colors of blue, green and black between them. I also spent a good deal of time in the diverse city of Marseille, which has large populations of immigrants from North Africa, Spain and Italy, talking to people in the open markets and shops. The Southern French are so warm and chatty. Camargo treated us like royalty, and we had the added opportunity to listen to visiting French writers and scholars at the Spring Festival of the Book. We sat in an open-air amphitheatre and listened to presentations and debates, the sea flashing behind the speakers. I met visiting poets from the South of France, too, at receptions held for us. What a delight those five months were.
My time in Champagne was equally wonderful. The Camac Centre d'Art is located in a medieval priory that has been renovated, so you have plumbing and electricity added as well as stone walls and a tower. I looked from one apartment window at the Seine and waterbirds (swans, wood ducks and loons) and from the other at the walled orchard, blooming apple, plum and pear trees. The walls of the adjoining parish church bore haunting ocre drawings of lions and saints that had been uncovered in a recent renovation (whitewashed for centuries), as well as Renaissance paintings and sculptures. I got to be good friends of the barkeep and his wife, too, next door, having coffee or a beer with my friends from Camac (including a Spanish playwright, a Mexican poet, a Hungarian poet, a Korean sculptor, an American photographer and a Greek artist). This colony was smaller--there were usually about eight of us at table in the evening. I travelled a good bit, too, to Roman ruins in Arles and Nîmes, to the lovely Alsacian city of Strasbourg, the nearby cathedral town of Sens, and the little city of Troyes, largely unchanged in architecture from the 16th century. (I hope to take my students to Troyes as part of our class.) Just before I left, there were excavation by archeologists of the field adjoining Camac's host town, and I was given a tour, walking through millennia of cultural artifacts, including a "long house," Bronze Age tumuli, a Merovingean sarcophagus--the buried man's dirk and bottle of ointment still beside him--a Roman road and monument, and many, many other findings, none of them, I was told, particularly exceptional.
I wrote many poems during my residency, many of them about works of art and cityscapes, most of them to be included in my forthcoming book Watch, to be published by the University of Chicago Press in the fall of 2009. Many of the poems I wrote followed, I think, from the course on Poetry and Painting I had taught at Millsaps a few years earlier, in turn the fruit of previous collaborations I have had with visual artists at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in the mid 90s. Working with visual artists has been liberating for me as a writer, so I thought I would share this connection, too, with my students. I am not alone as a poet in feeling a deep connection with the visual arts.