My "English 1102: African American Literature from the Harlem Renaissance to the Digital Present" students' final assignment this term was a version of one that Anne Sexton gave in her "Anne on Anne" course at Colgate University in the spring of 1972. Sexton taught a class on her own poetry and her teaching notes for it are in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin (regarding Sexton's teaching see also Diane Middlebrook's Anne Sexton: A Biography (1992) and Jo Gill's Anne Sexton's Confessional Poetics (2007)). I discuss Sexton's course and assignment in greater detail in Annotating Modernism: Marginalia and Pedagogy from Virginia Woolf to the Confessional Poets (Ashgate, 2015). During her first class meeting, Sexton asked the students to read two interviews she had given and then for their final projects, they were to craft fictional interviews with her that did not repeat what she had already been asked and provided answers she would give. She would be evaluating the answers. If the students did not desire to complete this assignment, they could also write a critical essay on her work. At least one student whom I interviewed chose that option. In the lectures that Sexton prepared, she would walk her students through close readings of her poems and she prepared answers in response to her own questions about aspects of her poems. In many instances, Sexton may have been answering these questions for the first time. She had, however, developed a sense of close reading from workshops and literature courses she attended. While scholars and her own students were skeptical as to whether she was following notes, two of her students sent me copies of the marginalia in their books from the course indicating that Sexton did stay close to her original plan. Following Sexton's example, my students began by viewing and reading interviews with contemporary writers we had read this term. The assignment then asked them to compose a written script that they would then film or record as a podcast.
In preparation for this project, the students completed several short blog assignments that allowed them to research and interpret different aspects of the relationship between the author and the text. In their blog postings analyzing Toni Morrison's Sula (1973), the students investigated the relationship, or lack of one, between the years in the chapters' titles and their content. The novel exists in a world of its own, both in and out of time, rarely referring to the historical events of each year. Drawing on the novel's location, the students searched an Ohio newspaper archive and other online historical resources to research the year in which one chapter is set. Returning to the novel, the students began to ask new questions, such as how Morrison could have ignored the flood in Ohio, how a character's amputated limb recalls the soldiers returning from World War One, and why it matters that a heat wave in the novel really did take place. Investigating the significance of Morrison's chapter titles, the students not only became more conscious of the novel's design, but also asked new questions about the relationship of fiction to the realities it depicts. When we read Pearl Cleage's novel of the Obama campaign set in Atlanta, Till You Hear From Me (2010), I gave students the task of interpreting some of her manuscripts, which I had photographed, in relation to the published novel. Cleage's manuscripts at Emory University are uncatalogued,so my students were among the first to decipher the codes she used in her drafts, which included numerous colors of ink. As they discussed in their postings, the materials that I gave them included a segment that Cleage later abandoned, and this led to innumerable questions about her development of the novel. We were also grateful to have Cornelius Eady, co-founder of the African American poetry foundation, Cave Canem, visit Georgia Tech. The students were not only able to attend his reading, but also had the opportunity to ask him questions. The blog postings then provided a space for the students to examine in greater depth the difference between hearing Eady read a poem and reading it themselves on the page.
In their interviews, the students were encouraged to build from their blog postings to create discussions with Morrison addressing the years in which Sula takes place, Cleage regarding her manuscripts, and Eady involving his readings. The students also investigated the current genre of the online interview and podcast, in which visiting writers answer questions about their work. They watched and read interviews in order to ask new questions and imagine how the writer they had selected might respond. This assignment asked students to consider the differences between the writers' and readers' perspectives. An author is not the only interpreter of her work; she is both the creator and a reader of it. A final component of the project involved the students' discussion of a quotation from the text with its author. This led to fascinating responses in which students discussed such elements as the form of a poem or novel, word choice, and creating characters. Imagining an author's response inspired students to take texts apart in new ways and discuss them from more than one point of view.
After the students finished developing their written scripts, they filmed or recorded their interviews. Because they were dramatizing their conversations, the students often discussed the way a poem or novel works with greater appreciation and enjoyment than they might have communicated in an essay. As you can see in the image above, the students sometimes brought in a friend to read one of the parts. Working on their own, students also recorded themselves in both roles and would "do the police in different voices," to adapt Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend (1864-65), which famously inspired T. S. Eliot's initial title of The Waste Land (1922). One student filmed himself as both interviewer and Cleage, stitching both versions together using video editing software. With his permission, I have included a link to his project here. Some students also used voice altering software or software where the computer read out what they had typed (sounding a lot like Siri). The result was nearly seventy-five (in my three sections) engaging, often humorous discussions about literature, language, history, and craft.
Collecting, Curating, and Researching Writers’ Libraries, edited by Richard W. Oram and Joseph Nicholson to be published by Scarecrow Press, Rowman & Littlefield, in 2014.
Collecting, Curating, and Researching Writers’ Libraries, edited by Richard W. Oram and Joseph Nicholson, will be published by Scarecrow Press, Rowman & Littlefield in 2014. My contribution to this volume, "Anne Sexton's Modern Library," is the first essay to address Sexton’s personal library, housed in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. This essay considers Sexton’s annotating strategies in the context of her academic self-fashioning, particularly regarding the writers she began to read and annotate as she attended Philip Rahv’s literature course at Brandeis University in the summer of 1960.
Here is the editors’ description of the volume:
Although there are many bibliographies and reconstructions of the private libraries belonging to individual authors and to “association copies,” this is the first general consideration of these libraries, many of which in academic collections. In recent years, book historians have become considerably more interested in the study of provenance, while literary scholars have devoted more attention to authorial annotations. At the same time, the Internet has encouraged both scholarly and hobbyist reconstructions of private libraries (see, for example, the “Legacy Libraries” on Librarything.com). This collection begins with principal editor Richard Oram’s historical overview of writers’ libraries and institutional collecting, focusing primarily on English-language authors. The co-editor, Joseph Nicholson, has provided a definitive review of best cataloging and arrangement practices that facilitate scholarly access. The bookseller Kevin Mac Donnell discusses the marketing of these collections and obstacles to placing intact author libraries in institutions. Also included are case studies by Amanda Golden and David Faulds relating to the personal libraries of the poets Anne Sexton and Ted Hughes, indicating how these collections have the potential to enhance archival research. Fiction writers Iain Sinclair, Russell Banks, Jim Crace, poet Ted Kooser, and biographer Ron Powers describe their (sometimes passionate) relationship with books. The concluding chapter, a location guide to over 500 individual libraries, will be invaluable to scholars and librarians who want to know where writers’ libraries are currently located, what happened to them (if they are known to have been sold or dispersed), and what has been written about them.