Alum Feature: Christen Leppla and Ryan Kauffman

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NKU English graduates, Christen Leppla (MA, 2011) and Ryan Kauffman (MA, 2011), discuss their graduate studies at Northern Michigan University, including their summer grants and recent publications.

What are you doing now?  Tell us about your MFA program, especially.

CL: I was lucky enough to get a fellowship in poetry to Northern Michigan University’s MFA program. It’s a teaching fellowship, so I teach one course a semester that will range from Composition to Creative Writing. In the fall, I will also be an associate fiction editor for Passages North. Since I’ve begun the MFA program, I’ve become the first person at NMU to duel track, so I’m now getting a MFA in poetry and fiction. It’s a lot of work, but I’m having a blast. The program is 3 years, so as of right now my thesis will entail a novel and a book length poetry collection. Needless to say, with that amount of work I’m glad the program is 3 years instead of 2!

RK: I’m a creative nonfiction candidate in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University. At first, I was considering dual tracking in nonfiction and fiction, but I’ve decided to concentrate solely on nonfiction for my coursework. The fiction faculty members, despite not having me as a student in their classes, have all been very helpful and encouraging of any works of fiction I’m working on outside of my nonfiction classes. Like Christen, I’ve been awarded funding for the program – mine in the form of a teaching assistantship – in which I teach one course a semester. So far, I’ve taught EN 111 Composition 1 and EN 211B Narrative and Descriptive Writing, and I’ll be teaching EN 211D Technical Writing in the fall. Also in the fall, I will be an associate nonfiction editor for Passages North.

Tell us about your summer grants.

CL: I received the Excellence in Education Grant to work on my novel over the summer. Basically, it covers some of my living expenses so that I can focus on finishing the first draft of my novel. The novel is centered on characters within diasporic Appalachian communities on the outskirts of what is considered the traditional Appalachian region, and the grant also paid for research materials to help me with authentic representation. I hope to have the first draft finished by September 1st.

RK: I received the Excellence in Education Grant to write a series of essays (that will hopefully become the centerpiece for a book-length work) interrogating memory through the lens of whale watching and the history of whaling in New England. With the grant, I travelled to Portland, Maine for archival research at the Maine Historical Society Library and the Portland Observatory, as well as two whale-watching tours in the North Atlantic for experiential research – in which I saw several Fin Whales (the second largest animal in the world) and Humpback Whales. My goal is to have written through at least three drafts of four essays by September 1st.

What have you recently published?

CL: I recently had two poems accepted in East Coast Literary Review. They were both poems that I’d workshopped at NKU and were part of the writing samples I sent with my MFA applications. It was great to see them find a home! I’ve actually published quite a few of the poems I wrote during my time at NKU, and I’m so grateful to the people in those workshops who challenged me as a writer.

RK: I’ve recently had several acceptances: One poem was accepted in Jellyfish Whispers, another poem was accepted in Poetry Quarterly, and a nonfiction piece was accepted in Punchnel’s. I worked on all three of these pieces, in earlier forms, during my time at NKU. The poem in Jellyfish Whispers has since been anthologized in the journal’s “Best of 2013” publication. I also have several pieces hanging out there in the ether between submission and rejection/acceptance, so my fingers are crossed for some more good news in the coming months.

Any current projects?

CL: Of course, my novel is the top priority this summer. To fulfill my grant proposal, I will need to complete at least twenty thousand words by the end of August. I’m also working on the beginnings of the poetry portion of my thesis, as well as trying to write a few nonfiction pieces that have been keeping me up at night. I will be presenting at the Writing Across the Peninsula Conference in the fall, so I will be polishing that presentation towards the end of the summer, as well.

RK: Along with the “whale” essays, I’m working on several other things this summer. I’ve been toying with a few flash fiction pieces, a novelette, and some ideas for a couple poetry/essay hybrid pieces that I’d like to get down on paper and start polishing. Another major project for this summer is centered on my reading list. Right now I have quite the stack to get through!

Any advice for current students?

CL: My advice is really for creative writing students. I think the most important thing current students can do is take advantage of every opportunity, whether that be working on Licking River Review, attending the readings the department organizes, or joining a workshop outside the classroom. The people I met when I got involved have continued to challenge and support me, and every experience helped my writing. I always wish I had done more. Also, commit to, and be present for, every workshop you take. Take risks. Experiment. Accept what is working and what isn’t. If you do that, the writing that will come from those workshops will be stronger and your ability to revise your work will be greater. Lastly, enjoy every minute! We are all so fortunate to go into a classroom that is devoted to what we love. I often can’t believe how lucky I am when I remember that my homework is to read a good book and write a few poems. I know I will look back someday and think how great this experience was and how I would do it all again if I could.

RK: Christen said it pretty well. In addition to her comments, I would encourage current students to take advantage of the wonderful creative writing classes and faculty at NKU. When you edit another student’s manuscript, take it seriously. By being a good editor/critic, you help yourself establish the literary moves you want to make in your own writing. Ask questions, and pay close attention to the faculty’s answers/suggestions. They know what they’re doing!

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Faculty Feature: Dr. Parmita Kapadia

Dr. Parmita Kapadia, Associate Professor of English at NKU, discusses her research and her reasons for pursuing English Studies. She also offers advice for current students.

Please tell us about your recent publication.

My most recent publication, Bollywood Shakespeares, is an essay collection that explores how the Indian sub-continent has appropriated, adapted, and consumed Shakespeare. Specifically, the book traces the historical origins of Bollywood’s engagement with Shakespeare’s plays and examines how the Bard continues to be reimagined and reproduced through Bollywood conventions, styles, imagery, choreography, costuming, and music. This book builds on my previous scholarship on Shakespeare in a global context.

How did you know you wanted to become an English major and then a professor?

I actually did not major in English. I majored in Economics and Finance; my plan was to get an MBA and work on Wall Street. I still enjoy reading and learning about financial management. I was an English minor and had a professor who coaxed, cajoled, and finally pushed me to think about pursuing a doctorate in English. First he encouraged me to take a few more English courses. Then, he suggested I help the then-still-being-formed English Club write a budget and with general management issues. I loved being in the club; it was great to be with people who loved to read about, talk about, think about, and write about literature as much as I did. I wanted to keep reading and writing and I hoped to learn how to produce scholarship. At that point I realized I needed to get the Ph. D. I am still in touch with my former professor and I asked him if his getting me involved with the English Club through my economics background was intentional. He just smiled. I guess I can give him the credit or the blame.

What do you think is important for our current majors and recent graduates to know?

I think it is important for our majors to challenge themselves. Students should take courses in areas that are unfamiliar to them and in areas that sound hard or unusual. They should not be afraid of stepping out of their cocoons and trying something completely different. College should be a time of learning and experiencing new things and our majors should take advantage of this time.

Any current projects?

My current project focuses on how literature and immigration law represents and treats characters/individuals who come to the United States on various types of visas. Particularly, I am interested in individuals—most of them are women—who enter the US on what is known as a “Dependent Spouse” visa. This visa does not allow recipients to work, access public services, and in some cases drive, have a bank account, or rent a residence. Postcolonial literature’s depiction of such characters and immigration law’s treatment of them provides a space through which to examine issues of gender, race, and global capitalism.

Anything else you would like to tell us?  (For example, I know you have to balance lots as professor, writer, mother, wife, and daughter. You must know a great deal about balancing such roles.)  

Balancing different roles is the key to being productive, but it is important to keep one’s focus.

Alum Feature: Kevin Kehl

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Kevin Kehl graduated from NKU in 2012 with a BA in English and a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies.  He’s currently completing a MA in Literature at the University of Massachusetts Boston and is planning to apply to apply to PhD programs. 

What are you up to now?  Can you tell us a bit about your transition into the MA English Lit program at UMASS Boston?

Currently I am finishing my last semester in my Master’s program at the University of Massachusetts Boston and writing my thesis as well. In the upcoming fall, I plan on applying for Ph.D. programs. Besides my own studies, I teach a course at the University and I am also working with a professor to coordinate a study abroad trip this summer in Siena, Italy.

Once I graduated from NKU, I moved to Boston at the end of the summer to begin my M.A. in English Literature. My transition into the program was actually very exciting. I was one of many transplants into the city with many colleagues from different parts of the country. The idea of moving into a city with no previous connections was a bit nerve-racking, but the faculty and fellow students have provided a wonderful atmosphere for learning. For me, it has been a very profitable decision in both my academic career and personal life—mostly because Boston is an amazingly vibrant city, packed full of opportunities. The city is never a dull moment! Of course, running into random NKU professors at conferences is nice as well!

What is one of your greatest memories and/or greatest lessons from your time at NKU?

Hmm…that’s a tough question. Well the greatest memories, I will say, have always come from the interaction with the English faculty in-and-out of the classroom. Particularly, I always looked forward to the energetic classes taught by the professors. Topics such as Shakespeare, Faulkner, Romanticism, and…I hate to say it…Literary Theory, always seemed to be fun even at their most grueling moments. The best parts were being able to have study groups and conversations with other people about the things we enjoyed or suffered. I know that one semester, our theory class banded together to form a study group to help us understand what the heck these guys like Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes were teaching us. On a separate occasion, a bunch of students and faculty would get together to read and discuss novels written by Charles Dickens. The overarching sense of community that I found in the English department was the most enjoyable experience I had as an English major.

What is your main research interest?

Besides trying to find a steady balance between work, sleep, and personal freedom, my main research interest focuses primarily on literature of the English Renaissance and Romantic periods. My current research project aims to look at the influences of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene on the ‘mature’ poetic style of John Keats.

Do you have any advice for our current students?

Find what you love. Do what you love. Don’t miss out on your opportunity. I say this with a grain of salt, because, sometimes life does hit you hard. If you are serious about your goals in school and life, don’t delay them any further. Read your material, write your papers, make friends with faculty and students; become immersed within your profession. You don’t want to be sitting on a park bench one day, pondering the meaning of your life, and say: “Wow, I really wish that I did that while I had the chance.” Of course this may sound like typical motivational mumbo-jumbo, but hey, they keep preachin’ it for a reason. Overall, know what you want to do with your life and have goals set to help yourself get there, but be smart about it. Have a backup plan prepared in case you don’t make it your first or second time. Of course, enjoy it all while it is happening.

Faculty Feature: Dr. Andrea Gazzaniga

 

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Dr. Andrea Gazzaniga, Assistant Professor of English, discusses her latest projects and how she became an English professor—as well as why she feels close reading skills are so utterly important.

How did you know you wanted to focus on English studies?
I’ve always loved the way literature allows me to engage with people who inhabit distant times and lands. Reading all types of literature makes me feel connected to the world.  Reading poetry especially intensifies my experience of life because it articulates feelings and thoughts that we all share and yet believe to be ineffable.  The way poetry captures in words an idea, an impulse, whatever, is pure joy.

Why did you want to become a professor?
I did not realize English studies could be a profession until my last year in college when a few of my English professors encouraged me to pursue my passion for literature further. I distinctly remember turning in my last college essay for a Jane Austen class and wandering around campus in a daze.  I ended up on a bench by the lake crying my heart out. I thought, “I’ll never be able to discuss and write about literature like this again!” Very melodramatic. That same afternoon I was walking through the library and my Shakespeare professor said, “You need to seriously consider academia as a profession. You could do it.” A profession? I had no idea that was possible! I always thought my professors were fairies who magically appeared for class to feed my mind with ideas and then retreated back to the forest for supper and a nap. I had no understanding that they actually worked for a living! I decided I needed to figure out whether or not I liked teaching, so I taught English as a second language in Morocco (long story) and realized I absolutely loved it.  So, being a professor weds my love for research and writing about literature and my love for teaching.  The combination of intellectual pursuit through scholarship and inspiring students to intellectually engage with texts in the classroom is my idea of a perfect life.

I recently listened to a paper you gave at the MMLA conference, and it was fascinating.  Can you summarize it for us?
First of all, I was so honored to be on a panel with you and Mary Ann Samyn. What a treat! I created a special session called “The Pedagogy of Poetry” to address, among other things, my question: How can teachers of poetry cultivate close reading skills while still preserving a sense of wonder and ambiguity?  My specific paper, “The Ethics of Close Reading a Poem,” argued for the importance of teaching close reading skills not only as a means of textual analysis but also as an embodiment of ethical behavior.  Close reading asks students to listen to what a text is saying rather than make assumptions or guesses about what it is saying based on preconceived notions and expectations.  In this way, teaching students to close read is a way to resist prejudicial thinking.

Tell us about your recent publication.
I published an article on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and its revisionist take on the Western genre. Specifically, l examine the way the film challenges and revises the female archetypes in the Western tradition. I have another article under review on the Victorian poets Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper who wrote under the male pseudonym Michael Field.

What are you working on now?
I have a couple of projects going right now. I am currently writing a pedagogcial piece on integrating creative assignments into literature courses.  I’m also finishing an article on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. Next up is a journal article on George Meredith’s sonnet sequence Modern Love.

Any advice for current students and recent grads?
Stay engaged. For current students, talk to your professors about the material you are studying in class. Ask a lot of questions. Being able to ask the crucial questions about something is a skill that will serve you well in whatever you choose to do.

Alum Feature: Sara Moore

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Sara Moore with her son, Cohen, and her fiancé, Jon Wagner.

Recent MA grad, Sara Moore, talks about teaching in Korea, her studies at NKU, and her work as a poet.  

You spent three years teaching in Korea.  What was that like? How did you find this program and secure the position?
It was a phenomenally life changing experience. I first heard about the opportunity through a friend who was already living there. She helped me find a good recruiter who placed me in an amazing school. Recruiters can often be motivated solely by self-interest, but I found Footprints Recruiting to be extremely helpful and attentive to my needs as a foreigner (it’s run by previous teachers). It’s hard for me to sum up such a long and complex experience. I will say that I feel so differently about the world now, and about people. I think it’s easy to get caught in a worldview bubble, which is fed by media, etc. To get out and live in the world was a gift to me. It was at times beautiful, terrifying, boring, enriching, and humbling. It was like living anywhere else; you get used to it and it becomes a part of who you are. For me, it gave me a deeper sense of adventure, and a real love of teaching. The kids were the best part!

Why did you choose the MA program at NKU?
I chose this program because it really met all my needs. I had been out of school for seven years, and back in the US for about three. I was teaching at the high school level and raising my young son, but I wanted to be able to further my education that I might have more employment opportunities. I wasn’t sure that an MFA would do this for me, and at this time I wasn’t writing much poetry (I have a BFA in poetry from BGSU). The program here did not pressure me to decide what I wanted to do/study right away. I was allowed to explore and choose my own path. It was also affordable and offered all evening classes, which worked well for me as a single mom.

How has writing poetry changed your life?
I feel like I’ve always been a poet…I know it sounds cheesy. When I was as young as seven or eight, I would write my diary entries as rhymed poems. I don’t know if I thought this would make it harder for my brother to figure out what I was really saying or what. Regardless, I’ve always loved poetry. It helps me make sense of the world and my connection to it. Reading poetry does the same thing for me. My first poetic love was H.D., reading her made me want to learn and explore the world, and to play with language. She also led me to mythology, which is another passion of mine.

During the seven years between my BFA and MA, I wasn’t writing poetry as much, for whatever reason. Coming back to poetry through the writing program at NKU changed my life significantly. I am much more balanced and happy, and I’ve met an amazing community of writers who push and support me. I’ve learned to connect with my own voice, and to be regimented in my writing and revising.

Tell us about your recent publications.
One of the things I’m most proud of recently is my acceptance into Vine Leaves’ Best of 2013 anthology for my poem “Imaginary Bodies.” Also, two poems from my capstone project, “His Coffin” and “Explaining Origins and Ending” will soon be featured in Arsenic Lobster. Over the past year, my poems have appeared or are scheduled to appear in The Rappahannock Review, The Red Rose Review, The San Pedro River Review, and Illuminations. 

What are you up to now?
I am currently teaching as an adjunct at NKU and at a private school for homeschoolers. This schedule allows me to spend a lot of my time with my son, who is just finishing preschool. I recently got engaged, and am looking forward to starting the next chapter of my life. I also see a PhD on the horizon.

Any advice for current students and recent grads?
My main advice is to make connections with both faculty and students, especially if you are a writer. This world has so many distractions. It’s easy to get off-task, or to forget things we promise ourselves we’ll do. Meet people who will help you be that person you want to be, and help them too.  Offer the best of yourself in every class, and in the feedback you give your peers. Be present and engaged and take every opportunity you can.

Alum Feature: Rich Shivener

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Rich Shivener (BA 2006, MA 2010), Assistant Director of First Year Programs at NKU, discusses his position, his recent publications/conference papers, and his advice for recent grads. 

How did you become the Assistant Director of First Year Programs at NKU and how did your English studies prepare you for this role?
In Fall 2010, I had a good connection with First Year Programs when I was teaching University 101 and finishing my last semester in the MA program. FYP was seeking an assistant director who could coordinate FYP’s communications and the Book Connection, its common reading program for freshmen; a bonus was that the 2011-2012 Book Connection would feature a graphic novel by NKU alum David Mack. I felt prepared for the position, since I studied writing technologies, creative nonfiction and graphic novels. What’s more, my final project in the MA program was a graphic novel script on Cincinnati music. I was advised by Profs. Andrew Miller, Allen Ellis and John Alberti, the latter of whom serves on the Book Connection committee. It’s a joy to stay connected with the department!

Tell us about your publications.
Simply put, I love writing in a variety of contexts, and I’m thankful for the opportunities. I’ll name some recent ones. Writer’s Digest published my interviews with A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin and The Walking Dead writer Robert Kirkman. Cincinnati CityBeat published two chapters from my graphic novel script. I have credits with PasteSports Illustrated online and Publishers Weekly, for which I write features on digital publishing and comics. Beyond freelancing for magazines and online, I have presented scholarship at New York Comic-Con, the Conference on the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition and Comic-Con International: San Diego.

What did you present at Comic-Con International?
I was part of the panel “Crossover Series: Comics to College Writing” at the Comics Arts Conference at Comic-Con International. Fellow MA alum John Silvestro and I were sharing a lot of ideas since graduation, and we decided to propose a panel that discussed ways we use comics in ENG 101/College Writing. I thank Dr. Jen Cellio for offering me classes. 

Any current projects?
I just finished a chapter on crime graphic novels, set to be published later this year in the book volume Critical Insights: The Graphic Novel (Salem Press). In December, Cincinnati magazine will publish my six-page comic on King Records in Cincinnati, where James Brown got his start. I wrote the script and recent grad Brian Wolf illustrated it.

Other than those, I have a few presentations and freelance pitches in the can. At FYP, I’m working with some colleagues on an assessment project regarding the Book Connection program. We want to know how the program impacts students’ opinions on such topics as child labor and globalization, two from this year’s book, Where Am I Wearing? by Kelsey Timmerman.

Any advice for current students or recent grads?
Stay persistent and form relationships as you pitch your ideas – whether you are connecting those with a professor or a potential employer. A little anecdote: When I was seeking an internship my senior year, I stalked (his words) a magazine’s editor-in-chief. I found out where he was holding special events and made sure to introduce myself each time. I had nary a writing clip to my name, but I sent over some recent creative writings and my first three clips with the student newspaper, The Northerner. The magazine decided to hire me because they knew I was eager to learn more about magazine writing and wasn’t afraid to fail many times in the process of sharpening my skills. I’ve been persistent in every pitch and application since.

Alum Feature: Mary Anne Reese

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Mary Anne Reese is an attorney based in Cincinnati.  She graduated from the MA program May 2012 and she is the author of the poetry collections Raised by Water (Finishing Line Press, 2011) and the forthcoming Down Deep (Finishing Line Press). 

Since you were/are a lawyer, why did you decide to pursue an MA in English?  And why did you choose our program?
Most of my legal practice involves analytical writing. I knew from my undergrad experience that studying English would sharpen those analytical writing skills, and it has.

My real hunger, however, was to turn my creative side loose in a supportive environment and see what might happen. I searched online and found NKU’s new graduate program. From the first course, I knew I was in the right place. The learning community, the mentoring and feedback I received, and the extensive reading I did all helped me to develop as a writer.

Also, while many fields of study provide useful skills, I think the humanities are a lifeline. Our professors, students and the coursework taught me a great deal about living fully, with steadfastness, compassion and resilience.

What have you been up to since graduation?
I’m still working as an attorney–I do a lot of writing in the area of criminal constitutional law. In my spare time, I love to swim. I’ve also taken up tai chi. Since lawyering and writing require a lot of sitting, it really helps to move around. I’ve also found some good community writing programs–the Cincinnati Writers Project, Grailville, library series. . .

You just had your chapbook, Down Deep, accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press.  Can you tell us a bit about those poems?  How did they come together as a collection?
Most of the poems were part of my capstone project with Kelly Moffett, and one came from the 2012 First West Retreat. To arrange them, I did what I once heard Billy Collins suggest–pull out the strongest poems and lead with those.

Three topic areas predominate in the collection–gifts and struggles in family, in the natural world, and in my faith tradition. To keep the collection dynamic, I mixed up these topic areas. I also mixed up poems from different time periods and those with different voices/tones. Somehow there’s an inherent, nonlinear kind of logic to it. Almost every poem has water in it. The collection starts with a childhood scene and ends at a grave.

What is your writing process like?
Something strikes me that I need to respond to–it might be a film, a letter, a life event or a leaf. I sometimes make a note of it on my phone. Then I ruminate for awhile, or put it aside and then revisit it. For the actual writing, I like to have long stretches of time–the Friday night before our CWP poetry group meets on Saturday, or a Sunday morning. Then I revise and revise over at least a couple of weeks. I like to get feedback from a critique group before writing the final draft or submitting it anywhere.

Who are you reading right now?
Edward Hirsch

Do you have any advice to the student-writers in our program? 
Take every chance to read your work to an audience–at readings, conferences, the radio, open mics. NKU gave me a lot of those opportunities. It helps to hear how your work sounds out loud–what flows and what trips you up. Readings also let you feel audience response in a way that doesn’t happen alone at your computer. Giving readings is also a good counter to the critical voice that says “you can’t really write” or “you’re just wasting your time.”

For many of the same reasons, it’s great to attend writing conferences and retreats.