English Department Newsletter
Spring 2023 | Volume 1 | Issue 2
Join Us in Celebrating Recent Awards & Accolades!
Save the Date for Spring 2023
Talbot Roundtable - April 17th & 18th
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Undergraduate Program Report
The English Department has partnered with many vibrant local and national organizations to provide a wide range of internship opportunities for our students, with places such as the National Civil Rights Museum, St. Jude, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Flyer, Teach for America, and many more. Some of these community partners have created intern positions specifically for our UofM English students. We currently have at least fifteen featured internships available to students in areas such as tutoring, advertising and media relations, curriculum development and instruction, and non-profit work, to fit the needs and interests of our diverse English student population.
All up-to-date internship program information can be found on our dynamic webpage on the English Department website. And the internship program is involved in active outreach within the Department and in the greater UofM community through regular classroom presentations, annual informational sessions, and appearances at University networking events. The English internship program is committed to supporting our students beyond the classroom to achieve academic, personal, and professional development and success!
The Department of English held two Teaching Conversations sessions in the fall semester to great success. The inaugural session was an assignment exchange where faculty volunteered to share and explain effective lesson plans and teaching strategies. The second session welcomed Dr. Brenna Breshears from the Department of Counseling, Education, & Research to discuss trauma-informed teaching.
It has been suggested that the department hold a follow-up session in the spring on faculty stress and self care. If there are any topics you would like to see covered in future Teaching Conversations sessions, please reach out to Joseph Jones or Sherry Lusk.
Tigers Smart Start & Open Education Resources
The Tigers Smart Start Program (in conjunction with Barnes & Noble) will begin this semester with all undergraduate students. This is an all-or-nothing program that allows students to pay one inclusive fee to have all of their required textbooks available to them on or before the first day of classes.
With this new program in mind, the English Department is still making progress on the adoption of OER materials that can be found in Canvas. Thanks to Rhonda Powers for leading the charge on this project! ENGL 1010, 1020, and 2201 are now completed and she is still working diligently on ENGL 2202 and ENGL 3210.
Graduate Program Report
Dr. Terrence Tucker has proposed a new literature course for the graduate program, "Afrofuturism and Black Speculative Fiction". This course has been approved by the Graduate Studies Committee and the University Graduate Council. The goal is to have this course available to students by the Fall 2024 registration period.
With its focus on the lives of people of the African diaspora, students will chart the history and theory of the black speculative tradition and apply the consistent invocation of antiblack racism and its recovery of marginalized voices to works that (re)imagine a distinctly black futurity. Student readings will emphasize the evolution of black speculative fiction alongside, and at times overlapping with, the larger African American literary and creative tradition.
The Pinch journal celebrated the release of issue 42.2 on Friday, November 4th at Novel book store, and the issue is now available for purchase! The Pinch Presents also welcomed Arthur Flowers and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah to campus last fall. Be sure to follow them on Instagram to keep up with all of their latest news @thepinchjournal
Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Cristina Maria Cervone on The Middle English Lyric
Dr. Cristina Maria Cervone is an Associate Professor in the English Department and currently serves as the Director of the English Honors Program. Dr. Cervone's areas of specialty include Chaucer, Langland, poetic forms and poetics, Ricardian England, and history of the English language. Her book What Kind of a Thing is a Middle English Lyric? was published in 2022, and she has joined us to talk a bit about the recent release.
Q: What is a Middle English Lyric?
A: That is a terrific question, and it might seem like a relatively simple one, but the category of “Middle English lyric” is really tricky. This book unpacks some reasons why that is so and offers new stances from a variety of disciplinary perspectives to gain a greater understanding of this body of material and to pose questions that have relevance for other sorts of poetry, too. The term “Middle English lyric” was generated in the early twentieth century when “close reading,” a method for looking minutely at poems as self-contained art objects to be interpreted in isolation without regard to their cultural, historical, or textual contexts, was relatively new and very much in vogue. Several editing projects throughout the twentieth century sought to anthologize a large, disparate body of short-form verse from the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries and to classify it according to topics defined by the editors as they sorted through their sources. Similar projects were doing the same with poems from other time periods and cultures. For several reasons, however, the poems and other things that came under editorial rubric as Middle English lyrics were unsuited to such treatment, which distorted scholarly and popular experience of them.
The terms of this made-up category are complicated: “Middle English” and “lyric.” The trilingual nature of late medieval English life is recorded in the poems both linguistically (Latin and French words or phrases alongside Middle English within individual poems) and (less clear from the anthologies) in terms of context. For example, many poems categorized as Middle English lyric are embedded within Latin sermons in the manuscripts that record them, and others draw from sources in which a language other than English predominates. So, in their native homes, many are not strictly monolingual, nor, perhaps, even poems. Then, lyric itself is fraught as a category. In recent years, lyric specialists have disputed whether lyric is a transhistorical phenomenon to be traced back to the Greeks or a historically contingent concept brought about by reading poems in a particular fashion that makes them into lyrics, such that the categories of “lyric” and “poem” have today become nearly coterminous. Complicating this situation further, “lyric” can be a poem or a quality. The relationship between lyric and music or song is yet another sticky subject. Moreover, some “poems” anthologized in those editing projects might better be described as rhythmic prose: do they really belong? What constitutes “verse”? The objects of our study continually call into question terms and their boundaries. These are just a handful of the many challenges this body of material raises.
Q: How did this project come about?
A: My co-editor, Nicholas Watson, and I felt the time was ripe to reimagine the frameworks in which Middle English lyric was habitually situated. As former fellows of Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, we were eligible to compete for funding to bring together a group of scholars who would not ordinarily be in the same room, even at conferences. Against stiff competition, we twice were awarded the means to hold seminars on our topic at Radcliffe. From these discussions What Kind of a Thing is a Middle English Lyric? was born. We designed our “lyric project,” as we think of it, to shift the usual terms of conversations that, to be sure, had been productive, especially in recent years, but also had entrenched certain lines of thought. We wanted to hear how scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds might respond to problems endemic to the study of this body of work. To these seminars we invited a few medievalist literary scholars interested in lyric but also some not working on lyric, as well as medievalists who are not literary scholars, and some literary scholars who are not medievalists. One participant, our psycholinguist, is neither a medievalist nor a literary scholar. All chapters of the book are informed by collective discussions, in person and later through electronic means, and thus all are aware of and respond to the others. From the beginning, we prompted our participants to raise questions more than they provide answers, a strategy that proved to be generative and illuminating.
Q: Which one of the chapters was the most unexpected or the biggest surprise?
A: Because of how we editors set up our seminars, all of the chapters were surprising to me! I suppose one thing we really did not expect was that we found ourselves more at the center of a tussle among lyric specialists over the nature of lyric than we could have predicted. I think many readers will be especially interested in the chapter written by our art historian, Aden Kumler, who discusses the object we selected for our cover image, the Asante Ewer. This large fourteenth-century bronze jug has a mysterious past, seemingly having been made for the court of the English King Richard II but somehow having traveled to the Asante Empire in present-day Ghana, where it was found by British forces in the nineteenth century. The verses on its surface are a puzzle to read. As for other chapters, Ian Cornelius offers an eye-opening account of metrics, from which I learned much, Christopher Cannon’s chapter on King Horn gave me new ways of thinking about time, my own chapter on reading and wonder introduced me to a black is beautiful poem I didn’t expect to find in late medieval English, one that still has me wondering — truly, I could go on at length about each of the chapters.
Q: What ideas or discussions would you like to see extended into a single-authored monograph or another edited collection?
A: From the first, we had an eye to our methodology as well as to our findings, so our volume offers a model for broad collaborations across disciplines and time periods, collaborations of a sort that are rare in the humanities, in part because of a lack of funding to support such studies. With respect to Middle English lyric, every chapter opens out to further possibilities, and we had to leave aside a number of issues worth pursuing, which we outline in our introduction. Among these are the stanza; the image text; the influence of insular French lyric; the macaronic, and aureation. As we also note, much work remains to be done on short-form poetry from all early insular periods and languages. Moreover, Middle English lyric could usefully be drawn into conversations about poetry from other time periods, particularly contemporary poetries in all their multicultural, multilinguistic forms. I envision more gatherings that draw unusual combinations of talent and experience into one room to open our eyes to new ways of seeing and understanding, especially of bodies of material that are remote from us in time and culture.
Q: What is the continued impact of the Middle English Lyric in contemporary art and culture? How does your book reinforce or re-envision that impact? What could that impact be going forward?
A: Some poems being written today, while not derived from Middle English lyric, similarly and deliberately stand apart from lyric as conventionally understood. Early English lyric was often written in isolation from continental medieval lyric, whose traditions and progeny are somewhat different, so it was largely not informed by lyric as such, though some was influenced by liturgical (Latin) lyric. Looking together at bodies of work from different time periods and cultures that nevertheless take up similar stances can illuminate what is interesting and special about each. Moreover, Middle English lyrics tend to be fragmentary, marginal, embedded within cultural contexts (rather than recorded in anthologies of collected verse), forged on the surfaces of household objects or posted on a castle wall. For some, their material existence forms part of their meaning. This, too, is a point of connection and comparison to certain contemporary works.
More pointedly, some poets today look to Middle English lyric and language and other medieval forms (including Old English language and poems) for inspiration or as models for their own work. This relatively recent trend has been encouraged by, among others, the New Chaucer Society, which has commissioned some poems. One interesting example of what I like to think of as New Middle English is Caroline Bergvall’s innovative Meddle English (Nightbook, 2011), which asks, among other questions, “What is the middling of English?”
Another is Jos Charles’s feeld (Milkweed, 2018). For Old English, a good example is Miller Oberman’s The Unstill Ones: Poems (Princeton, 2017). Middle English lyric was for a long time a body of work that, aside from certain art poems, could have been characterized (and often was) as short poems that nobody liked very much. Recent scholarship and poems have done much to change this, and part of what we want to do with What Kind of a Thing? is to bring the “things” themselves, and the issues they raise, to the attention of a broader audience than the medievalists and the few poets who have been reading them. There are bigger conversations to be had, but for that more awareness is key.
Q: What didn't we ask that you'd like to mention?
A: One unusual feature of this project is that we included a small chapbook of recent poems in addition to our scholarly chapters. Among them is one by an alumnus of our department’s creative writing program, Hunter Keough. “The Word Water” was written for a chapbook he worked up as a final project for a course on medieval literature he took with me here at the University of Memphis, for which he drew on poems we had read, as well as medieval cultural contexts, and used medieval verse forms for his contemporary poems. I was so pleased that we were able to include this poem inspired by Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale.” A lot of creative writers take my medieval courses and I always prompt them to be open to whatever inspiration they can find in the amazing poems written in this time period. I hope others will seek out my courses and find for themselves that, as Chaucer says in The Parliament of Fowls, “out of olde bokes, in good feyth, / Cometh al this newe science that men lere.”