Michael Martone

Digest: What’s Happening Oct. 13-19

Welcome to the English department digest. Published on Fridays, the department digest provides a comprehensive list of events for the upcoming week.

If you need to look further ahead, be sure to check out our calendar.

Week of October 13-19

Wednesday, October 15

Faculty: Book Orders for Spring 2015 are due to the bookstore. 

Thursday, October 16

The Marilyn K. Cory lecture series presents Susan C. Herring, who will deliver her lecture, “E-grammar, or What Digital Communication is Doing to the English Language,” in RB 125, beginning at 7:00 PM.

Friday, October 17

Susan Herring will be available to talk about her research, 12 noon in RB 361.

Faculty: Schedules for Fall 2015 due from Area Chairs.  New Deadline: Monday, Oct. 27

#bsuenglish

Don’t forget to share what you learn each week on Twitter and use the hashtag #bsuenglish. Tweet of the Week wins a flash drive or a great book. Faculty and students are both eligible to win!

Next week’s prize book is: No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy.

Mark Your Calendar

  • Fall Break: Monday, October 20 and Tuesday, October 21.
  • Visiting Author: Michael Martone: Thursday, October 23, 3:30-4:45 PM in RB 361
  • English Graduate Programs Open House: Saturday, October 25 from 10-1 in RB 292. Register here.
  • Career Week for English Majors: Monday, November 10 to Friday, November 14. Check bulletin boards and social media for details!
  • Visiting Author: Michael Poore: Wednesday, November 12, 7:30 to 9 PM in LB 125.

Check out what happened last week in our Storify.

Have a great week! Fall Break is almost here. 

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What it means to be a man: a new faculty profile of Silas Hansen

Silas Hansen

Silas Hansen

To begin the week, Ball State English brings you the first installment in the new faculty profile series. Be sure to check out past profiles, which include but are not limited to Prof. Susanna Benko and Prof. John King.

Meet Silas Hansen, one of our newest assistant professors of English.

Born and raised in western New York, he graduated from SUNY College at Brockport with a bachelor’s degree in English (with minors in Political Science and Women and Gender Studies) and earned his MFA in creative writing from The Ohio State University. His essays have appeared in Slate, Colorado Review, The Normal School, Puerto del Sol, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere.

Below, Silas gives us insight into his creative journey.

How did you get interested in creative nonfiction?

I have always written.

I remember writing my first “personal essay” in the first grade not long after I learned to read. I actually made up about 25-50% of it to make it more interesting. But I didn’t know you could study it, or that it could lead to a job until I was in college.

Until I took my first creative writing class the summer after my sophomore year of college, I never shared my writing with anyone–just a friend or two, and sometimes my high school English teachers if it was for an assignment. At the time I took that class, I was a Political Science major and had signed up to fulfill my fine arts general education requirement. By the end of the class, though, I had changed my major for what was at least the eighth time in two years.

I was hooked.

I enjoyed a lot of the classes I was taking, but I didn’t know I could be that excited to go to class, or to do my homework. I started out writing fiction, but I was a mediocre short story writer at best. I have never been particularly good at inventing characters and plots, so most of my stories were really thinly veiled nonfiction. The characters were always a little flat, and the plots were always a little confusing. I didn’t want my classmates to know they were really about me.

Finally, one of my professors—who knew what the problem was—told me to just try writing nonfiction. I wrote my first real, serious essay for her class—a piece of memoir about working as a dishwasher in a restaurant when I was sixteen, my unlikely friendship with one of the line cooks, and my ambivalence about leaving my small hometown behind—and everything suddenly clicked into place.

It was the first time I felt like I was really good at something, and I knew I needed to stick with it.

How did your creative journey continue into graduate school?

I applied to graduate school right out of undergrad and got into Ohio State’s MFA program.  I got there a few months after I turned twenty-three, thinking I was a big shot, and almost immediately realized just how little I knew about writing.  Thankfully, I had the next three years to study with incredible teachers.

I worked most closely with Michelle Herman—who always read my work and told me where I was holding back and when I needed to just let myself make a mess in my second draft—and Lee Martin, who taught me everything I know about structure and how to make sense of the mess when I was done. I know a lot of people who feel burned out after finishing their MFAs, or who end up realizing that writing isn’t for them.

I was lucky: I still can’t believe that they let me spend three years doing exactly what I love to do, and then gave me a degree at the end of it.

I love nonfiction because…

  1. it’s like putting together a really good but difficult puzzle without knowing what it’s supposed to look like when I’m done.  I have all of the pieces and I can see what each piece looks like on its own, but I can’t see what they look like together until I’ve tried to put it together.
  2. I love the process of trying to make sense of it all, even when I have to throw it out and start over from scratch.

How would you describe yourself as a teacher?

I think it’s important—especially in a workshop environment—for my students to feel comfortable making mistakes, asking difficult questions, and being honest about who they are and what they think.

For that reason, I try to strike a balance between an environment where we get the work done and ask important questions about the things we read and write. I want to create an environment where we can get to know one another and learn to trust each other as writers, as readers, and as people.

I also try to create a classroom environment where students feel comfortable disagreeing—with each other, and with me. My favorite part of teaching is getting to hear my students’ interpretations and opinions of the work we’ve read.  I have read most of the essays I assign numerous times—so many times that I can probably quote long sections of several of them from memory—but I always learn something new from how my students read them for the first time.

I see my role as one where I teach my students what I know—what the experts have said, what others have done, what has and hasn’t worked so far—and then ask them to think critically about whether or not that rings true for them and their work.

What are you most proud of as a teacher?

A few years ago, I went to a panel on innovative teaching practices for the creative writing workshop at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. Michael Martone, who teaches at the University of Alabama, talked about his idea of “success” for a creative writing program: whether or not students are still writing after the class is over—a year later, or maybe twenty years later.

I think there are a lot of measures of success for creative writing programs, and creative writing teachers, but that is definitely the one that means the most to me.  I love it when my students graduate, get jobs, and still write.

That makes me feel like I’ve done something right.

What are you working on right now?

I have been working on a collection of personal essays for the past few years. It started as my MFA thesis, but I cut about 70% from that draft about a year ago. Quite a bit of the manuscript is complete. I resist the temptation to call these essays done just yet, as I’m keeping an open mind about what the finished manuscript might look like. Right now, I am writing a few new essays and revising a couple of older ones.

Once I’ve finished those, I’ll go back and revise the entire manuscript to work more cohesively and to bring some of the older essays up to date.

I write primarily about questions of masculinity: what it means to be a man (particularly a white man) in different places and in different situations—my rural western New York hometown, the Midwestern city where I spent a good chunk of my young adulthood, the classrooms where I teach, the communities in which I claim citizenship—and the ways that my concept of what it means to be a man has been shaped.

Right now I am revising an essay about learning to bake bread, and I’m jotting down notes toward an essay that looks like it might be about participating in a fantasy football league for the first time, my obsession with TV shows and movies about football teams, and my passion for the Buffalo Bills—all of which is complicated by the fact that I know very little (and care even less [except for the above list]) about football.

Welcome to the English Department, Silas!

Slash Pine Poetry Festival: Day #2

Matt Mullins reading, photo courtesy of Layne Ransom

I was most excited for the second day of the Slash Pine Poetry Festival. My nerves were operating at a low hum, as I didn’t have to read, and had logged a day’s worth of experience in Alabama, so I could operate the whole day with just my wonder gaze on. The belly full of fried catfish, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and cornbread didn’t hurt, either. Cornbread everywhere you go—how hospitable, how comfy.

The first reading I attended was at the Green Bar. The area of the bar was somewhat narrow, but stretched far into a dark space that ended at a raised stage. Green Bar’s scene was reminiscent of the local Be Here Now readings—cramped, dusky—and while BHN readings tend to have a fair attendance, the Green Bar’s reading was brimming with people. By the time us Ball State visitors arrived, it was standing room only, save for a few seats sparsely dotted throughout, and only visible seconds before someone else smoothed into them.

Michael Martone and Abe Smith, two University of Alabama writers and teachers in attendance, had quickly become iconic in my mind. I remembered Martone’s Blue Guide to Indiana only somewhat from Professor Sean Lovelace’s fiction class, and I’d only discovered Smith’s work the night before. Still, they each had a quality about them that made me glad to inhabit their vicinities. Almost as if the genuine and original quality their writing held was also something they exuded—something you could inhale and catch.

I hoped there would be some happenstance, some alignment of supernatural elements that would result in Martone and Smith reading at the festival, but it must not have been in the cards. I didn’t leave Alabama feeling literarily deprived, though. There were too many good writers, and if anyone left with that feeling, they didn’t pay attention well enough. Some highlights from the Green Bar readers were Brandi Wells and Oliver de la Paz. Wells read from her Worst Times series. Something about her, and her writing, seemed genuinely tough. And in a room full of writers—a group generally thought to bruise easy and over think making a fist instead of blocking a right hook—Wells’ writing aesthetic was refreshing. Oliver de la Paz was one of those readers that maintains a gentle cadence and looks to be talking in a somewhat hushed tone, but you realize you can hear him clear as day because he’s mind-controlling the entire room. You realize he’s doing something with a combination of mood, sound, and vocabulary that hooks into everyone in the audience. Just after he read, I found myself bobbing my head up and down, saying, “Mhmm, good stuff, good stuff.”

The next reading was at the Bama Theatre. It was a weird environment: a production of The Wizard of Oz letting out scattered munchkins, Wicked Witch of the West guards, and flying monkeys, while throughout the reading gussied-up kids passed by the wall-sized windows on their way to the prom. Ellie Isenhart, who graduated from Ball State’s M.A. Creative Writing program in 2010 and is now part of the University of Alabama’s M.F.A. Creative Writing program, read from a letters series with a bite. Christopher DeWeese put me back in my too-baggy clothes and heavily gelled hair with his collection of poems inspired by 90’s alternative music (nobody talks about the song “Lightning Crashes” anymore, and I’ve been waiting for this a long time—thanks, DeWeese). When Matt Mullins started on the mic, I felt pretty proud to be affiliated. Just as Lovelace had one of the best crowd responses at his reading, Mullins got to the audience. In his reading style, you can tell he has a good grasp of rhythm and sound; that he revels in that locus where the oral and written aspects of literature hold equal importance.

The Slash Pine Poetry Festival was a lit dog race, a lit endurance trial. But I imagine most of the readers have sat through long, dry, odyssean readings themselves, though. They seemed to make effort to keep things lively. It’s a great thing to be surrounded by people that share your passions and are excited by the same things you are. You’re great hosts/hostesses, U of A people. Thank you kindly for an awesome experience.

Signed,

Jeremy Bauer

Slash Pine Poetry Festival: Day #1

Photo courtesy of Sean Lovelace. Left to right: Jeremy Bauer, Elysia Smith, Layne Ransom, Tyler Gobble

The Slash Pine Poetry Festival is organized and executed by a mix of University of Alabama faculty, interns, and students. On March 31st of this year, four creative writing undergraduate students, including myself, descended on Tuscaloosa, Alabama to fulfill our part of a literary exchange with the University of Alabama. We were chaperoned by creative writing faculty Sean Lovelace and Matt Mullins. We were in a van for eight to ten hours—time was hazy, so goes the road. We may have passed through the Midwestern Bermuda Triangle as well. When we arrived, we were greeted by sunshine and warm, complimentary cookies and milk. This boded well for our Southern literary adventure.

The University of Alabama campus was well groomed. It looked as if it had just gotten a haircut to ready for a big date—and we were happy to court. Pink, white, and yellow flowers added to a genial atmosphere, along with a mid-60’s sun. This made things comfortable and cradled any anxious nerves anticipating the undergraduate reading.

The Undergraduate Exchange Reading featured students from the U of A, Flagler College, a private four-year liberal arts college in St. Augustine, Florida, and us BSU undergraduates. We read in front of the Gorgas House, the first structure built on the U of A campus with an abundance history behind it (relating to the Civil War and otherwise). It was great seeing our exchange friends from U of A read again, and fun seeing what a new group of peers, those from Flagler, were writing.

The reading was scheduled to last three hours, as were all the festival’s readings. Even to those who love literary readings, this is one petrifying block of time. Mercifully, none of the readings took the full amount, and our Undergraduate Exchange Reading even had an intermission that included four or five different kinds of pie and apple cider. I don’t know if this is a common Southern custom, but a pie and cider break definitely keeps a reading lively.

The next reading was at the Children’s Hands-On Museum, where Lovelace would read. There were stuffed bears frozen in funny faces, an artificial Mission Control that took my retinal scan (I believe a blue light just clicked on and off, but it seemed legit), funhouse mirrors, and an old drugstore. Lovelace considered reading from an American wilderness scene with some critter pelt on his head. He tested it, and he really had something there, but we eventually found a stairwell leading to the actual reading space, so we conformed.

As I haven’t been to many readings outside of the BSU area, besides Vouched Presents, I was really interested to witness different reading styles and to see what writers brought to the performance aspect of literary readings. The first reader, T.J. Beitelman, made apparent his technical poetry style with a soft voice and careful pauses. Occasionally, he would put a tape recorder up to the microphone and play songs and outtakes from Bob Dylan sessions. Overall, his performance seemed very practiced and fluent.

Lovelace read various works from his chapbook How Some People Like Their Eggs, and a new series he’s been working on with the central theme of Velveeta. By far, he had the best audience reaction of any of the readers. His work also seemed the most contemporary, greatly regarding the now rather than discarding it, which many writers seem to do. BSU affiliations aside, he was my favorite reader, and if you have the opportunity to take a writing class with him, do it. Lovelace’s work was funny and vibrant, and every word seemed as deliberate and careful as Beitelman’s.

Some ending highlights of day one: Shook hands with Michael Martone after Lovelace’s reading, who was uniquely styled in his appearance and reminded me of Albert Grossman. Watched a video of an Abe Smith reading on Lovelace’s iPhone—even through the internet and small screen, it grabbed and shook the viewer with Smith’s attention to sound and performance. Smith wasn’t featured as a reader at the festival, but he could be seen slinking around at the different readings. I sincerely hope I get the chance to see him read live someday.

In Alabama, there are signs everywhere saying not to litter and “Keep Us Beautiful.” The hotel floor mat said, “we love that you’re here,” and the doors and walls simply said, “thank you.” Sorry you get so stuffed with tornadoes, Alabama (tenfold what Indiana experiences). You seem like a nice place.

Signed,

Jeremy Bauer

P.S. Still have one more day of the Slash Pine Poetry Festival to report on, so keep watching, BSU!