Kyle Graber: Reading Comes First

The LPR staff is pleased to welcome our new poetry reader and my friend, Kyle Graber. I met Kyle my sophomore year of college, and amidst many of our similar interests, we found that poetry provided us with a common bond.  Over the years, I’ve asked him to edit many of my poems, and here he shares his trials and errors of writing poetry in college. We look forward to his insight and input on the LPR team. Welcome, Kyle.

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To forgive, or merely to make sense of our younger selves from the perspective of our currently occupied selves, can be very hard work. When we stumble upon an impressive, but inept drawing from childhood, we laugh, maybe even get a little sentimental. But I challenge anyone to revisit a poem written at age eighteen, three years later, and try to find that kind of inability adorable. For most people, the experience will be disturbing and maybe a little embarrassing.

When I look back at the poems I wrote as an 18-year-old freshman, I’m acutely aware of how different a person and, invariably, a writer I was. For example, I used to write much more than I read, much more. Sometimes I’d even watch people recite their poems on Youtube and call that reading. I also took no issue with length — excepting the work of others –which might be indicative of a belief that everything and anything that I wrote was fundamentally pretty good. Naturally, I wasn’t big on revision, though one can name any number of admirable writers who’d claim not to be either. But what really matters is, from then to now, I didn’t possess anything you could call doubt.

It wasn’t until late in my freshman year that I was introduced to a little emotion called shame. Along with a friend, I attended my first poetry workshop — which, as it turned out, was a casual one, facilitated by a senior, Noah. As a kind of parody of fraternal initiation, Noah joked that “the new kid” would be the first person work- shopped in the group. (But then, how much of a joke could it have really been, seeing as I was, in fact, made to go first?) I read my poem and received a couple comments of timid praise. Then, it was Noah’s turn. He spoke disinterestedly and proceeded to all but instruct me to re-think my personality, publically, no less. There was even a point, toward the end, when my work actually got him reflecting on his younger self.

“Y’know, ha-ha, when I was a freshman, I remember, I thought I was really smart,” Noah said, not quite looking at me, “like, really smart, but then I kind of realized, actually, ha-ha, I didn’t know shit.” Here he gave his most expansive laugh of all. “Anyway, thanks for sharing your stuff, uh, Kyle?”

“Yeah, Kyle,” I said.

What’s funny is that, aside from being a senior, Noah didn’t even have any intimidating credentials. He was just a guy who was openly unappreciative of my work. But since I had a hot streak of confidence, I suppose it’s true that no one had yet challenged me so directly. This might explain why I took it as hard as I did, allowing doubt, for the first time in years, to seize the higher ground. I didn’t produce any writing for a long time.

When I tried to, it always came out as unbearably self-conscious. Every poem I wrote was about how I was struggling to write an unselfconscious poem. Although, amidst all the turbulence, I stumbled into a genuinely fulfilling relationship with books. It was a novelty, really, to read a book just for the purpose of enjoyment. I’d previously conceived of reading to be a type of necessary training for writing, but it was around this time that I understood reading as a pleasure unto itself. Memorable books from that time are Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings, to name a couple. Both writers nurtured in me this kind of poetic value of focusing on the small things, even if, and especially when, what you really want to say is something big.

Looking back on what I’ve learned, it’s the reading- comes-first mentality that I’m most grateful for developing. When I ask myself now, What’s more important to me, writing or reading? the question is at least tougher than it used to be. To enjoy a book, without constantly having to worry about my own writing, instills a kind of modesty that ultimately works in my favor when the time finally comes to write.

If I have any advice for a young writer who’s about to enter their first workshop, it might be this: Prepare to be fractured. Or, even better, perhaps: Don’t prepare. Don’t prepare at all.

Bio: Kyle Graber was born and raised in New York City and is currently studying psychology and English at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

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Introducing Julia Gerhardt: LPR’s New Online Editor

The LPR staff and board are happy to welcome Julia Gerhardt as our new online editor. Julia worked as an intern for us and volunteered as a poetry reader from August 2016 to May 2017.  Desiree Magney, our co-publisher,  and I met her when we all worked at the AWP conference in February of this year. We’re all looking forward to Julia’s contributions and the fresh energy she’ll bring to the LPR blog. Welcome, Julia.

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Julia Gerhardt

Dear LPR Readers,

Hello there! My name is Julia Gerhardt, and it is with great pleasure that I write to you as LPR’s new online editor. I’ve noticed that whenever I want to speak honestly with a family member, friend, or beloved, I find myself bent over my desk writing a letter on my old Betty Boop-themed stationary. Now, while I cannot address a letter to every single one of you, the readers, consider this online blog post my personal, open letter to all of you.

Like all the LPR staff, I too, love reading and writing, although my relationship to literature had a fairly tumultuous start. When I was in first grade, I refused to read and write. I have a sister who is five-and-a-half years older than I and was getting straight A’s at the time, so the bar in my family was set pretty high. Instead of trying to reach for it, I gave up thinking that I would never be as smart as her (completely unaware that I would ever get any older and smarter). So, after refusing to read and write, it was either repeating another year or attending summer school. Summer school it was, and I abhorred it. My teacher was tough, the workload was heavy, (for a five-year-old that is) and the summer was hot. Yet, it was that tough-love attitude of my teacher that finally got me to start reading. Her stature may have been short, but her big, frizzy, gray curls, commanding voice, and piercing brown eyes always made her presence known in a room. The best way to avoid that eye contact was planting my face in a book, and so I did, again and again and again until I loved it.

My love for reading and writing continued into Goucher College where I received my bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in creative writing. Prior to entering college, my only editors were my mother and my sister who were the equivalent of the good cop, bad cop dynamic of writing. My mom was in constant praise of my work (even when undeserving), and my sister would take a literary knife to my essays until they bled red ink, always holding me to a higher standard. In all honesty, while I’m grateful for both types of feedback, my sister prepared me for only half the critiques I would get in college.

I wrote my first short story for a beginning fiction class my freshman year of college. It was a stream-of-consciousness piece from the perspective of an eight-year-old British boy. Friendly reminder: I had never been to England at that time, and all the British vernacular that I used I found on the internet. Needless to say, it was not a success story, and my classmates’ responses were clear on that score. While devastating to my freshman ego, that failed attempt at a story was the best thing to happen to my writing process. I realized that the more people critiqued my writing, the more they cared. After four years of people caring, I’ve grown a tough hide to criticism, but an open heart to feedback. My efforts resulted in my first short story being published during my junior year in a magazine called Sun & Sandstone.

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Since graduating college, I took the opportunity to travel and backpack through Europe alone. I should mention that I am so geographically inept, I once got lost in my own city for over an hour. However, this extended trip was an opportunity to prove to myself that I could trust my instincts and my intuition a little more. While abroad, I traveled throughout England, Scotland, and Italy. In the United Kingdom I visited various friends; however, while in Italy, I worked as a farmer for an organic vineyard through the World Wide Opportunities for Organic Farming (WWOOF) network. I earned a fellowship from Goucher College to write a short story based on my experiences working in a vineyard and learning more about Italian wine culture. Now that I am safely back in the United States, I’m happy to report that I have not gotten lost in the city.

So there you have it—my troubled writing past and my hopeful writing endeavors for the future. While navigating post-grad life as a young writer isn’t easy, I’m grateful to be writing and learning the way with you.

Yours truly,

Julia Gerhardt

The Emma Project

Dr. Juliette Wells

Dr. Juliette Wells

Dr. Juliette Wells, Chair of the English department at Goucher College and resident Jane Austen specialist, has a strong interest both in Austen’s writing and in the broader context of her life and times. Dr. Wells also remains fascinated with Austen’s continuing influence on modern readers and writers. In 2012 she published her first book, Everybody’s Jane, which includes her research on the Alberta Burke Austen collection at Goucher and her experiences at the Austen House (detailed in the post of May 8), and explores Austen’s presence in popular culture. When she began teaching at Goucher as an assistant professor in 2011, Dr. Wells also made it a goal to help build the Austen collection and make it more publicly known. The collection now includes modern retellings of Austen books and spinoffs, such as a mystery series with Austen as a detective and the popular fan-fiction sequels to Pride and Prejudice. Academics tend to be hostile toward these modern interpretations, but Dr. Wells sees young readers engaging with them, and through them, with the originals.

Dr. Wells thinks readers love Austen because of both Austen’s writing style and her personal life. The world she creates in her books looks peaceful and ordered. Her good characters marry the right people and her bad characters get disappointed. Though Austen herself never married, she uses happy marriages as the traditional ending to comedy. The personal relationships she shows in her books also resonate with readers. Siblings are very close with each other (Jane and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility), while parent-child relationships tend to be dysfunctional (the Bennet parents, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park). In her personal life, Austen’s determination to be a serious artist makes her inspiring to many readers, especially women. She comes across as a confident writer, and in her personal correspondence she is strong and certain, in contrast with other women artists (like Charlotte Brontë) who focused on the frustrations and limitations of their lives. Austen also had limited formal schooling and had to develop the skills she had, another part of her personal history that inspires readers.

For new Austen readers, Dr. Wells often recommends Pride and Prejudice as a starting point: it’s one of Austen’s most familiar books, with two strong movie adaptations, and is also one of the funniest. Dr. Wells is also bringing out her own new edition of Emma, which will be published this fall as part of the Penguin Classics series. Dr. Wells sees Emma as Austen’s greatest novel, because it does so much with minimal material. The whole story takes place in one small town (Highbury), and the plot hinges on mystery and the intrigue caused by strangers coming into a tight-knit community. The main character, Emma Woodhouse, has a wonderfully skewed take on herself and her world. It’s both funny and moving to watch her open her eyes to reality. Dr. Wells’s edition of Emma has first-time Austen readers in mind and features a new introduction, contextual notes on Austen’s time and place and a new glossary.

Emma was also the only one of Austen’s books to have a U.S. printing in her lifetime. The first American edition of Emma came out in 1816. The Goucher library is currently working on a digitization of this extremely rare Philadelphia edition, which will be live online in 2016 to celebrate the book’s bicentennial. Visitors to the site will be able to see a page-by-page view of the book and take part in an interactive online exploration. To learn more about this project, visit www.goucher.edu/emmainamerica.

Online Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, November 3, 2015, Goucher will also host a lecture by writer Alexander McCall Smith. Smith is writing a modern version of Emma commissioned by HarperCollins as part of a series of modern Austen adaptations. HarperCollins currently has modern takes on Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility also available.

Jane Austen Celebrated at Goucher

Every once in a while, we learn of something extraordinary right in our backyard. Such is the case with Goucher College’s collection of Jane Austen’s original materials. LPR Contributor Kris Faatz visited with Dr. Juliette Wells in April 2015 to talk about this superb find.

Jane Austen, born in 1775, lived only 41 years. Her parents raised their children to be literate and creative, sending both their daughters, for a time, to boarding school. Austen published anonymously and three of her novels received critical acclaim immediately. Her brother Henry disclosed her identity after she died in 1817, and Austen’s popularity began to soar.

Jane Austen, 1775-1817.

Jane Austen, 1775-1817.

Jane Austen always knew what she wanted. She grew up in an era when young women learned how to paint, dance, write and play music mostly to use those skills as bargaining chips in husband-hunting. Unlike many of her peers, Austen committed herself to serious artistic work at an early age. She wanted to be a writer, and she was lucky enough to have the support of her family: her father’s work as a clergyman meant that young Jane had access to books, and her brothers were able to support her financially as she steered clear of a woman’s usual role as wife and mother. All her life, she stayed close to home and looked out at a small slice of the world, but her keen observation and sense of humor helped her to draw portraits of people and places that still touch readers two centuries after her death.

Towson’s Goucher College celebrates Austen’s life and work with an extraordinary collection of source materials, early published editions and translations. The College Library’s special collections offer a feast for Austen fans, scholars and new initiates alike. Dr. Juliette Wells, Chair of Goucher’s English Department, specializes in Austen and recently sat down with the Little Patuxent Review’s contributor to talk about the collection and her own research into Austen’s life and writing.

Dr. Wells didn’t plan to become an Austen specialist. She did her undergraduate work at Johns Hopkins and Peabody, receiving dual Bachelor’s degrees in English and music. At Yale, where she did her doctoral studies, she focused on eighteenth and nineteenth century women’s literature. Her work in music gave her an interest in how women writers portrayed feminine artistic accomplishment in their books. She looked at female characters drawn by Austen, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, and also looked at the influence the arts had in the lives of all three of those writers. All of them were artistically talented in other areas; Austen and Eliot as musicians, Brontë as a painter (Brontë in fact wanted to be a professional painter, but only her brother received formal training). Dr. Wells became interested particularly in what Austen’s work said about education for middle- and upper-class women. Women’s education during that period had controversial undertones; it wasn’t considered entirely appropriate, except as a way to impress men.

When Dr. Wells began teaching, one of her first classes was a seminar on Austen in popular culture. She found that her students connected especially with film adaptations of Austen, and she was interested in how feminine accomplishment translated onto the screen. Women worked hard to develop their artistic talents. The smooth veneer of a polite upper-class life hid an intense element of tension and competition that audiences understood. Dr. Wells saw her students engaging with the films and with modern interpretations of Austen and saw the excitement and sense of connection Austen’s work inspired. She decided to dig more deeply and find out what about Austen’s work makes it so compelling to readers today.

Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen House Museum, Hampshire, England.

Chawton Cottage, Jane Austen House Museum, Hampshire, England.

She became involved with the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), a group for scholars and enthusiasts alike, and received a fellowship for a month-long visit to the Jane Austen House in Chawton, England. Now a museum, the Austen House was Austen’s residence from 1809 until her death in 1817. The security and stability of her life during that time gave her the freedom to write prolifically. Dr. Wells interviewed visitors to the Austen House to find out why they had come to see it. Some were casual tourists, but many were enthusiastic Austen readers. Visitors of all ages, from all over the world, told Dr. Wells how much Austen had inspired them: “Jane Austen is my hero.”

Dr. Wells also received a fellowship from Goucher and spent 2009-2010 as the college’s Austen scholar-in-residence. She researched the college’s Austen collection and the story of the woman who had compiled it, Alberta Hirscheimer Burke, who attended Goucher as a student from 1924-1928. Burke and her husband Henry visited London in 1930, shortly after the first Austen bibliography was published, and visited Charing Cross bookstores to start collecting first editions. From 1930 until her death in 1975, Alberta collected not only early printings of Austen’s books, but also personal Austen correspondence, her own correspondence with book dealers, and translations of the books. The translations in particular set Burke’s collection apart from others; no one else had started gathering those. Burke also developed her own particular interest: immersing herself in Austen’s world. She researched and collected period magazines and books that featured hand-colored illustrations of private homes and the clothing of the period. Those original materials are still available in Goucher’s Austen collection. Students and enthusiasts can explore them and get an insider view of Austen’s life and times.

It’s clear that Alberta always planned to build an enduring Austen collection, because as early as 1935 she wrote to Goucher and offered the college her materials in the event of her death. In spite of that, she never reached out to scholars or wanted to be recognized as one herself. She was very private and kept her research to herself, creating her own field of study and becoming an expert in it. She knew that scholars in her time wouldn’t be interested in the broader historical perspective on Austen’s life. Scholarship has only started to move in that direction recently. She never had formal training in putting a collection together or cataloguing it, but Goucher’s collection is now recognized as one of the finest Austen resources available. The private Austen correspondence that Alberta collected is now part of the Pierpont Morgan collection in New York, and is considered the best private collection outside the Austen family.

Visitors are encouraged to come and explore Goucher’s Austen collection for themselves. The library welcomes specialists, fans, students and new Austen readers alike. In August 2015 the library will run a special exhibit of the Alberta Burke collection, which will be open to the public through the 2015-2016 academic year. To learn more about the exhibit and other public events, or to learn about scheduling an appointment to visit the collection, visit www.goucher.edu/specialcollections.