The Hudson River Valley Institute

Meet the Intern: Michelle Linker

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My name is Michelle Linker and I am senior at Marist College. I was born and raised on Long Island, NY until the age of eight, when my family moved to the Poconos in Pennsylvania. Before attending Marist, I graduated with an Associate’s Degree in Education with a Social Studies concentration from Dutchess Community College. When I arrived as a transfer student to Marist in fall 2016, I decided to pursue history alone as my major because of my passion for the subject and my love of writing. Outside of school, I do volunteer work at the Mid Hudson Regional Hospital, spending time with and helping patients.

My two favorite hobbies are music and travelling. Before graduating high school, I almost considered becoming a music major. Music has always been central to my identity. I played french horn in high school and I taught myself piano and guitar and have been playing them since middle school. Michael Jackson in particular is a very important figure in my life who has inspired me both through his music and his charity to others. I am also very fond of travelling and learning about different cultures, especially trying different types of cuisine. I especially enjoy taking road trips and in the future, I hope to do more international travelling. This year, from April-July, I studied abroad in Japan. I was so lucky to have this opportunity to use my Japanese skills and study the language even more deeply. It was the most life-changing and amazing experience I have ever had, and my outlook on the world broadened immensely. I’m proud to say that I now have family not only in Japan, but from all over the globe.

My interests in travel and being abroad has led me to have an interest in working overseas one day. Specifically, I would be interested in going back to Japan one day since I have studied and speak the language and I really enjoyed living there. I want to use and mold the experiences I gain from my time at Marist to help realize my dreams and hopefully gain employment in a position with a global non-for-profit organization or embassy work. With the HRVI, I am very excited to learn more about the local history in the Hudson Valley and in New York state, especially with the region being so rich with culture and famous landmarks such as FDR’s presidential library and the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park as a few examples. I am looking forward to this internship at HRVI as an opportunity to expand my horizons and to gain useful skills for the workplace in the nearing future.

 

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3rd Annual American Military History Course Goes Off with a Bang!

On July 22, the American Military History pre-college course at Marist College concluded. Students and staff both had an exciting two weeks full of field trips, games, lectures, and most excitingly, an overnight encampment at Marist’s own Payne Mansion. Although it was a packed two weeks, everyone was sad to see it end.

 

Marist’s pre-college courses are designed for high school students to experience the excitement of college life and become more independent as they learn both academically challenging material and what it will be like to live on a college campus away from home. Students are fully immersed in a three-credit college level course taught by some of Marist’s outstanding faculty. The American Military History course just completed its third year as part of the program. The course aims to immerse students in military history with active learning from the War for Independence to Afghanistan. Students are given the opportunity to examine the history of the evolution of American warfare from the perspective of the pivotal role the historic Hudson River Valley played. The course is designed so that by the end of the course students will be able to analyze and understand all aspects of war in America.

 

My involvement in the course started long before the students even arrived on campus. As a Psychology and Special Education major, I was more than happy to help; It’s great practice for my future! There was a lot of organizing to do to ensure that things ran smoothly. The class was split into five separate groups each with their own team name and leader. My job in all of this was primarily to make sure that when they students arrived, each team would have all the materials they needed to be successful. This required a lot of copying, stapling, and sticky notes, but in the end, each team had everything they needed in a folder with their names on it. As the course began, I formed personal connections with the students through talking to them at any chance I got. During the first week, I ate lunch with them in the dining hall between classes. Through talking to them one-on-one, I learned what their interests were, why they took the course, and what they hoped to get out of it. Sharing this information with the professors ensured that the course was a unique experience for the students. During the first week, students visited sites such as Philipsburg Manor, Fort Montgomery, and took a full-day trip to West Point where they were given a tour by West Point Tours. Throughout the second week, students traveled to the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, Springwood, the home of FDR, and the accompanying museum, Val-Kill, and finally the encampment at the Payne Mansion.

 

The cumulation of the course for both staff and students was an overnight trip to the Marist’s historic Col. Oliver Hazard Payne Estate in Esopus, home to the Raymond A. Rich Institute for Leadership Development. In partnership with the Living History Education Foundation, Marist professors took the class of high schoolers on a trip back through history to experience what it was like for a Civil War soldier in the Hudson River Valley. Students dressed up in Civil War era military uniforms, learned how to pitch their own old-fashioned tents using canvas and wooden frames, cooked over a campfire, and shot off a real cannon. It was a unique experience and one that I wish I had in my history course. Being immersed in history was effective in teaching the students the parts of history you can’t get from reading a textbook; Were the soldiers hot during the summertime? How heavy were the coats they wore? What types of food did they eat? Where did they sleep? Exactly how loud is a cannon? With the help of our friends from the Living History Education Foundation, the students found the answers to all these questions and more.

 

Overall, the course certainly met its objectives this year. We couldn’t have asked for a nicer week for field trips and outdoor learning activities. Students walked away knowing more about the history of war in America and especially about the role the Hudson River Valley played.

-Gabi Perpignand, Frank T. Bumpus Intern

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Teaching the Hudson Valley: Using History to Teach the Future

Teaching the Hudson Valley (THV), began in 2003 with a mission to “help educators explore and share the region’s natural, historic, and cultural treasures with children and youth while fostering collaboration between schools and informal learning places.” As a first time attendee, I can confidently confirm that they are living up to their goal.

 

On the morning of July 25, a variety of educators and learners alike gathered in the Henry A. Wallace Visitor Center at the beautiful FDR Presidential Library and Museum. The theme of this year’s institute was “Building Community with Place-Based Learning.” Throughout the conference, I came to truly understand the definition of the term “place-based learning.” Some distinct characteristics of place-based learning are that it is grounded in the specific attributes of the area you are studying. In our case, it was the Hudson River Valley. It is very hands-on and is rooted in a drive to learn more about the region and it’s communities. Through place-based learning, students are able to see ways in which they can personally impact a place. These types of experiences are invaluable to students because as they grow to become adult members of their communities, they will truly understand how to best contribute to their region.

 

The conference started off with a keynote speaker (Gina Dellatte) after which participants divided into several different workshops. Topics discussed ranged from Eleanor Roosevelt to Historic Sites to Climate Change and everything in between. The vast list of workshops offered allowed educators to select options that best aligned with their specialties or specific interests.

 

Gina Dellatte’s keynote address was, to say the very least, inspiring. As an ELA teacher in the Newburgh Enlarged City School District for 13 years, she has met her fair share of teenagers. Her talk was titled “Mountain or River? Building Classroom Communities.” She began her keynote by having all attendees participate in an activity where we were asked to define ourselves using only binary choices; Are you the hammer or the nail, the wind of the leaf, the mountain or the river? It was harder than you’d think and that was the point Dellatte was trying to make. Teenage students already have so much on their plate and everything seems like the end of the world. Imagine growing up and on top of all the other confusing things you’re experiencing, you are struggling to fit yourself into one of the boxes we call “gender.” Dellatte spoke about her personal experiences with growing up and the challenges she faced while working out who she truly is. Her keynote speech addressed the importance of making all students feel comfortable in being themselves and provided ways educators can do so. She ran through the basic concepts using a great diagram and spoke about why it is necessary to use “person-centered language” as opposed to “person-first language.” The overarching theme I took away from the keynote was something Dellatte said. She said “Just being an accepting presence for students can sometimes make the entire difference.”

 

The first workshop I attended was “Hands (and Feet) on Learning: The NY Giant Traveling Map” led by Nordica Holochuck of New York Sea Grant and Susan Hoskins from the Institute for Resource Information Sciences at Cornell University. The first thing I noticed upon entering the room was the giant, GIANT, map of New York State laid out on the floor. It was hard to miss; The thing took up three quarters of the floor! The map was created by National Geographic with the purpose of “introducing geography and map reading skills to students, grades K-8” (Learn more here: https://www.nationalgeographic.org/education/giant-traveling-maps/). They began their session by asking participants to remove their shoes and walk around on the map. We were provided little orange cones with the instruction to “place them anywhere that means something to you.” People placed their cones all over NY state in places ranging from their hometown, to the place they were born, to places they would like to go, or places that just had funny names. We went around the room introducing ourselves and explaining why we placed our cones where we did.( I placed mine on the Long Island Sound because I live near the beach and learned to swim in the Sound!) After acquainting ourselves with both the map and each other, we participated in several different activities geared towards elementary aged children. As a future elementary educator, I was surprised to learn how versatile the map was. Though the games and activities we were doing would be perfect for students in 3rd or 4th grade, I could think of a million other activities for middle school, high school, and even college aged students! We completed a land features scavenger hunt, guessed where specific landmarks were, learned about why grids are helpful on a map, and played “Navigator and Explorer,” A game in which one person, the navigator, uses the cardinal directions to steer their explorer to the correct place on the map. Each participant left the session with an information packet containing details regarding renting the map among other things. The session emphasized the importance of spatial learning and how learning geography can help students to have a better sense of place.

 

After having a quick snack, I attended my second workshop which was led by Adam Sanchez, a social studies teacher at Harvest Collegiate High school and editorial board member, Rethinking Schools. The workshop was titled “Teaching a People’s History of the New Deal.” He began the session by explaining that students are primarily taught history through the lens of the presidents or leaders at the time. We hardly ever get to hear the viewpoints of those who were just like we are, the people or the general public. Sanchez’s lesson on the New Deal doesn’t focus solely on FDR and his involvement in it. Instead, it takes a look at the types of people the New Deal was made for. Sanchez utilizes a role playing activity to help students to understand what the New Deal really is. Participants in this workshop were split into equal groups and assigned a specific type of person in society to play. My group was given Corporate Executives. After reading a short bio about our character, we were asked to step into their mindset and answer questions regarding the different components of the New Deal. After completing the questions for our character, each group sent a representative to other groups in an attempt to form alliances thus strengthening their demands. After all alliances had been formed, each group crafted a short speech to FDR outlining their demands for the New Deal and a different representative from each group read it out loud to the room. Sanchez, in the role of Franklin Roosevelt himself, then explained why each of the alliances would or would not have worked in the time of the New Deal and went into detail about how each of the sections really worked out in the end. Participants were then provided with a copy of the actual Deal and asked to analyze who they think really won the New Deal.

 

My final workshop of the day was titled “Bringing the New Deal to a New Generation.” After learning all about the New Deal from the people’s perspective with Sanchez, I was interested in learning about it from FDR’s perspective. The session was led by Jeff Urbin, Education Specialist at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. He provided the group with a brief introduction to the Library and Museum and touched upon how teachers can get their students involved in FDR’s history by visiting the site. Urbin spoke about the newest exhibit, “Images of Internment: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II” (Learn about the current exhibit here: https://fdrlibrary.org/). After telling us how to navigate the museum, we were let loose to explore on our own. Though I have visited the FDR Presidential Library and Museum before, walking through it this time proved to be a different experience entirely. I now had a background of knowledge about the artifacts and information I saw before me. The displays only solidified my new understanding of the New Deal and was a great was to follow up Sanchez’s workshop.

 

On Wednesday, I attended a field trip to Newburgh led by Ginny McCurdy, an ELA teacher at the Newburgh Free Academy. The day was packed with interesting things to do and learn about in the city. We began the day at the ferry terminal and read aloud a poem, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry by Walt Whitman, that set the tone for the entire day. We rode the ferry out onto the Hudson and saw Newburgh in a whole different light. It looks strangely beautiful with the light from the water glinting off of all the buildings! After docking, we walked to the Newburgh Brewing Company where we learned about the historical significance of the building and how the brewing company is connected with farms and places all around the Hudson River Valley. From there we visited Washington’s Headquarters where we were given an extremely informative tour of the house and museum. After splitting up for lunch, we gathered once again at Safe Harbors and the Ritz Theatre where McCurdy explained how she came to develop this field trip. She explained how helping students to look at the historical significance of their town can open their eyes to all the different ways they can contribute to their very own community. Especially in a community like Newburgh, where many students feel as if they are stuck in a rut, the importance of exposing them to new and interesting things close to home can help inspire hope for the future. After weeks of studying history, art, and literature relating to their town, students spend a day exploring their town through a historical lens and gain a new appreciation for where they live. The last thing we did was tour the Crawford House at which we learned about the fashion and style of a wealthy family in the early 19th century. The day provided me with the foundation to potentially build a similar experience for my future students in their own town and has inspired me to learn more about where I live.

 

On Thursday, the final day, I attended two workshops. The first was “Safe Schools for All: Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Students” led by GLSEN Hudson Valley and the second was “Opening More Closets at Val-Kill: Finding American History” led by Frank Futral, curator at the Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites.

 

The first workshop, held by Rob Conlon and Peter Mostachetti from GLSEN Hudson Valley, was taught the best practices for providing a safe learning environment for every student, especially those who do not fall into traditionally accepted norms about appearance and expression of self. The workshop was geared towards opening our minds and striving to understand the plights of those who don’t follow traditional gender norms. We began the session by going around the room and writing the first thing that comes to mind when you read words such as “gay, bisexual, transgender, male, female, straight” etc. we were told there were no wrong answers as the point of the activity was to understand our own lens before working to expand it. The entire session was powerful but the part that stuck with me the most was when a high school student, Lee, spoke to us about his experience as a trans student in the Hudson River Valley. He talked about the steps he took to feel comfortable in his own skin and how he helped educators in his school to understand the right moves to take. Lee explained that the best thing a teacher can do for any transgender or gender nonconforming student is to “not make things awkward.” No student wants to confront the teacher in the first place and making it as painless as possible is an enormous step in helping them to feel safe and welcome in your classroom. A big theme of the workshop was that a safe and welcoming environment is the most conducive environment for students to learn and that’s what all teachers need to strive for so we can educate our students to the best of their abilities.

 

My last workshop was “Opening Closets at Val-Kill: Finding American History” led by Frank Futral. I found that this was the perfect follow up to the safe schools workshop I had just attended as Futral’s session discussed the mystery surrounding Eleanor Roosevelt’s sexual orientation. He spoke about the importance of understanding ER’s relationships with people and how through learning about her connections with others we can uncover why she did the things she did. The session touched on the LGBTQ history at Val-Kill and how by understanding things about the role of females during ER’s time, the couples that built and maintained Val-Kill, and Er’s work to build an inclusive society, we come to know more about ER as a person. A topic that emerged from discussions in the workshop was the fact that some people travel to historic places in search of LGBTQ links. The big question is are we doing those people a disservice by not calling Eleanor Roosevelt a “lesbian?” Futral responded to this with a poignant quote that has stuck with me for several days now: “If Eleanor didn’t call herself a lesbian how can we?” The sentiment behind this statement carries on into many other walks of life, especially education. Educators must remember that students are who they are and it is not up to us to try to fit them into a neat little box.

 

The THV institute came to a close late Thursday afternoon with a brief address by our very own Col. Jim Johnson followed by a keynote by Vinnie Bagwell, a sculptor out of Yonkers, and Ty Gray-El, a phenomenal storyteller. Bagwell is currently working on a project called the Enslaved Africans Rain Garden. The project’s aim is to shed light on the lives of the enslaved Africans who lived at Philipse Manor. The garden pulls talents from all over the art community. Ty-Gray EL is one such example. As a storyteller he was able to humanize Bagwell’s sculptures. His stories are what bring these characters to life and pull on people’s ability to sympathize. (More information about Gray-EL and his stories can be found here: http://www.tygrayel.com/).

 

Overall, my first experience at Teaching the Hudson Valley is something I’ll never forget. The lessons I learned through the institute are things I will carry with me throughout the rest of my time as a student and into my years as a teacher. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to attend THV and make connections with educators in the area and to learn information about a place I knew little about.

-Gabi Perpignand, Frank T. Bumpus Intern

The Henry Knox Cannon Trail: Monuments and Dedication

Hudson River Valley Institute’s Advisory Board member, Ms. Denise Doring VanBuren, helped to dedicate the latest monument at the start point of the Henry Knox Cannon Trail (HKCT) at Crown Point State Historic Site on 13 May 2017.

The fifty-six monuments (thirty in New York) erected by New York and Massachusetts in 1927 commemorate an epic journey of about fifty-six days by Colonel Knox and his teamsters from Fort Ticonderoga, New York, to Boston, Massachusetts.  The NYS Daughters of the American Revolution generously helped fund the project. Crown Point was the point of origin for twenty-nine cannons hauled from Fort Ticonderoga to Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1775-1776.

Since 1999 the Hudson River Valley National Heritage (HRVNHA) and the Hudson River Valley Institute (HRVI) at Marist College have been interpreting the Henry Knox Cannon Trail (HKCT) from Crown Point, New York, to Boston, Massachusetts, as a route of interest for heritage tourists.

cannon history plaque dedication PHOTOS_Page_2Colonel Henry Knox arrived at Fort Ticonderoga on the evening of December 5, 1775, accompanied by his nineteen-year-old brother William and a servant, Miller. Early the next day, assisted by the garrison of Fort Ticonderoga, he began to move the fifty-nine cannons and mortars.  By January 4, 1776, the guns had begun to arrive in Albany.  By January 24, Knox and his caravan reached Cambridge, Massachusetts.  In the second week of March 1776, Washington stood in position to bombard the British in Boston from Dorchester Heights, using the array of heavy guns General Knox had laboriously dragged from Lake Champlain. General William Howe recognized that only the evacuation of his army could save it, and beginning on March 17th the victorious American army reclaimed its city.
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A Day at Washington Irving’s Sunnyside

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The “Little Mediterranean”

It was far from sunny when I made the hour-and-twenty-minute drive from Marist to Tarrytown on March 28 to visit Sunnyside, the home of Washington Irving.  The day was gloomy but not too cold, and the snowy drive was still very pretty.  My first stop was the Historic Hudson Valley Library in Pocantico Hills.  I spent a couple of hours in the huge, quiet reading room adorned with paintings, including the George W. Waters painting of Rip Van Winkle that I had come across in my research.  Catalina Hannan, the librarian, took me through the history of Sunnyside and of Historic Hudson Valley.  Once I had compiled enough research, it was off to the house itself.

 

After parking by the museum shop (which used to be Irving’s stables), Catalina led me and two HRVI staff members down the wooded path through the former property of the author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  She explained Historic Hudson Valley’s mission to emphasize Irving’s life and achievements beyond his two seminal works.  She stressed the importance of Irving’s works to the literary culture of the young United States, as well as the fact that Irving is considered the first American to make a living through writing.  She reiterated a theme from the many sources I’d seen emphasizing the different “sides” or “personalities” of Irving: the “Spanish” Irving, whose time as American Minister to Spain and writings on Christopher Columbus have earned him an enthusiastic Spanish fan base; the “Western” Irving, who spent some time writing in the Western frontier before purchasing Sunnyside; and Irving as a Gothic writer, whose creepier, more supernatural stories mixed Gothic influences with dark humor and satire.

Passing Irving’s small man-made lake, nicknamed the “Little Mediterranean” by Irving and his family, we made our way to the cove, where we could finally see Sunnyside.  Scottish ivy, trimmed once every two years, covers the side of the house.  Catalina promised that if we were to come later in spring or summer, we would see the cottage adorned with honeysuckle and trumpet vine blooms.  We could also see the train tracks that Irving so despised when they were built in 1847.  In a letter he wrote to Gouvernor Kemble in 1850, he described being awoken at night by the “horrific sounds” and “constant calamity” of the train.  In fact, in 1854, when his neighbors petitioned to have the closest train station renamed “Irvington,” Irving alone did not sign.

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We finally made our way into the house itself.  The ceilings are low, the interior very cozy, just the way Irving liked it.  We saw Irving’s study, the desk decorated with two seafaring knives (there used to be three, but one was stolen just a few years ago!).  We saw the parlor, where Irving would look out at the view of the river.  Upstairs, we saw the rather creepy “Old Mammy’s Asylum,” a storage room with closets and a sewing area.  Irving, a lifelong bachelor and devoted sibling, invited many family members to live with him, including his aging brothers and their children.  Due to the large number of people who lived there, the house contains many bedrooms.  Irving himself switched bedrooms many times while living at Sunnyside (in one instance to distance himself from the sounds of the infernal train).  His original bedroom was my favorite; its pretty alcove decorated by a curtain was inspired by a room Irving had stayed in in France.

We passed the apple orchards, which Irving claimed were wandered by the benevolent ghost of the cottage’s original owner, as well as Daffodil Hill, which, Catalina assured us, would be in full bloom in mid-April.  She also described other Historic Hudson Valley programs in the area, many of which take place at or near Sunnyside.  Details can be found at http://www.hudsonvalley.org/historic-sites/washington-irvings-sunnyside.

Virginia Konchan: Writer-in-Residence at Marist College

On Friday, April 7, English intern Meghan Jones, Marist ’17, interviewed Writer-in-Residence Virginia Konchan about her writing and teaching techniques.  Dr. Konchan has been at Marist since January 2017, teaching Intro to Creative Writing and Art of Poetry.  She has degrees from Beloit College, Cleveland State University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Her chapbook of poetry, Vox Populi, was published in 2015.  Check out Dr. Konchan reading her favorite poem for Marist’s National Poetry Month celebration:

Q.  Do you find that your classes have a lot of English majors, or are they mainly people doing their core English requirement?

A.  It’s mostly [the latter].  I would say 85-90% of the students in [Art of Poetry] are Sports Comm majors, or Business majors, Accounting, Psychology….I don’t even think I have one [Writing] major in [Art of Poetry].  Maybe a couple minors.

Q.  So what’s the biggest difference between teaching English students and non-majors?

A.  I think for teaching non-majors, or a class of mostly non-majors, it’s all about finding lines of interest.  The first class, we always discuss poetry influences that they might have encountered before, either as kids, or in high school…everybody has some kind of preconceived notion about what a poem is, and what the genre of poetry is…This isn’t a conversion process.  It’s obviously wonderful when someone takes a Creative Writing class and decides to elect it as a minor or even a major, but I think it’s all about trying to make the class for non-majors as fulfilling and interesting as possible.

Q. So you recently published a chapbook of poetry. I looked up that term to find that they are pamphlet-like books with a long history in literature and poetry.  What inspired you to use that form, that style?

A. Most chapbooks are between 20 and 35 pages, so it was more a length thing.  The form I ended up writing in was the abecedarian, the alphabet, so obviously there’s only a fixed number of letters in the alphabet.  When I finished the project, it was only 26 poems, and then I was like, “Oh, this is a chapbook.”  It just made sense.

Q.  Oh, so you didn’t set out to write one?

A.  No, no.

Q.  So you were just writing alphabet poems, and it turned out to be a chapbook?   What inspired you to use the alphabet?

A.  It’s a time-honored form, both the abecedarian and what’s called a bestiary, which is kind of an encyclopedia or a compendium of animals.  I think it dates back to Biblical times, like Adam naming all of the creatures coming into being.   It has a creationist background in terms of both sacred literature as well as secular literature.  I wrote the A, the B, and the C poem, and then I was like, “Oh, I really love the form.”  I don’t usually do project-based poetry, at least it doesn’t come very naturally to me; usually I just write first and then I figure out what I’m writing about, but this was a defined form that I could write into.

Q.   How has that been, having that published?

A. It’s super exciting and fun!  It was my first bound publication, other than just individual poems and stories.  I gave some readings in Montreal, because when it came out I was living in Montreal, which was fun, and I’ve been able to give readings elsewhere in academic and literary contexts….It’s been reviewed, and that was really great to get that feedback about how people are receiving the book, so it’s been exciting.

Q.  You write in many different genres: poetry, fiction, essays.  What are the biggest differences between how you go about writing in the different genres?  Are there overarching similarities?

A.  I think nonfiction and fiction are more related because they’re both in sentences, but they do require…very different parts of the brain.  When I’m writing fiction, I start with either an image or a piece of dialogue that I put down to kind of work around, so in that sense it’s similar to poetry because it might often start with an image or a feeling, or a scene, or some kind of anecdote that I want to relay…I’m more inspired to write in all three genres by reading.…with fiction, often it’s just the quality of writing.  I read a story that I’m just floored by, and I’m just inspired to write in a similar theme… I love trying to capture a character’s voice…With poetry, it’s usually more language-based, like on the level of the word…thinking through what would happen if I bored really deep into, not a concept, necessarily, or a character, but the texture of a word, or a series of words…and then for nonfiction I’m more curious about playing with ideas about multiculturalism, or language differences, or issues relating to feminism, things like that.  More…not academic, necessarily, but more conceptual-type ideas.

Q.   How do you decide which writers and works to teach?

A.  I pick authors to teach that somehow define or challenge the genre….I pick books…that get students thinking and questioning about what it means to write a poem.  Some of the fiction stories I’ve been teaching this semester, some of my students have said, “Oh, these are really sad and depressing!” And that’s funny because I don’t read them the same way.…I’m thinking of a George Saunders story called “Home,” and another story he wrote called “Sea Oak” that my students read.  I read the satire, I hear the irony and the cultural critique in the stories, whereas my students are just like, “Oh, the plot is very depressing.”  It’s authors that both either challenge or reinterpret the form, especially in a contemporary sense.   In my opinion, as a professor, they kind of create canonical examples of what it means to write a compelling character, or create a heart-racing plot, or whatever it might be.

Q. You also seem to write a lot of things in a short period of time.  How do you find both the inspiration to continually write different things, as well as the time to do that?

A.  The broad answer is I don’t really find the time.  I just kind of try to make the time.  I’m definitely guilty…of biting off more than I can chew sometimes.  But having said that, I do what I love, so I work seven days a week.  I’m either always tinkering on a poem or a story, or emailing people and having literary conversations, or mentoring people. It’s my milieu, and it’s my context.  It’s kind of what I live and breathe.  If I didn’t love it, and it was just something that I taught that I didn’t really have an intimate relationship with as a practitioner, I probably would be like, “This is where my life ends and my teaching begins, or my art begins,” but for me it’s all kind of mixed together.

Q.  What are you working on now?

A.  My first short story collection comes out in September, this year, and then I’m working on a second short story collection, just cobbling together some stories.  And my first book of poetry, which is in press right now, is coming out early next year, so I’m working on a second book of poetry as well, and a few essays.  A friend of mine curates an essay series for Drunken Boat, so I’m working on a third essay in a series for him.  All these things feed each other, so if I’m working on a story, I might have an idea for a poem…it’s always kind of cycling around.

Q.  What advice would you have for aspiring writers, or for college students studying writing who are nervous about their futures?

A.  I guess my answer to that question is twofold.  I would say think widely…of other careers you can do besides careers in creative writing.  A lot of creative writers end up teaching creative writing, but not necessarily all creative writers have a gift or a calling for teaching, or even really like teaching.  There [are] a lot of other jobs you can do with a liberal arts degree and an English degree that don’t involve teaching, so I would say cast the net widely, think broadly.…In terms of creative writing itself, my number one advice is just to read widely.  That’s my number one inspiration for my own writing: reading other people’s work.  And also just [stay] active in the literary community, and [be] interested in other people’s work.   Zadie Smith…a great fiction writer and essayist…gave a really great piece of advice…that I’d love to share.  She said: “When you’re in workshop, you should read your own work with the kind of self-criticism as if it [were] someone else’s work.”  [Think] about it and [read] it when you’re editing it as if it’s not your own.

Q.  How long will you be at Marist?  Will you be at Marist next semester?

A.  I hope so!   A couple things are in the works…we’re hosting a literary salon [in October] with a couple regional writers on the subject of poetry and mythology.

Celebrating Heroes: A Review of a Vassar Art Exhibition

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On December 2nd, I got in my car and drove to the Frances Lehman Lobe Art Gallery at Vassar College to interview Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Strauss Curator of Prints and Drawings. I was interested in finding out more about the most recent exhibition she had curated and was then on display. The exhibit was titled “Celebrating Heroes: American Mural Studies of the 1930s and 1940s.” The exhibit ran through December and featured paintings and drawings from the collection of Stephen and Susan Hirsch.

In speaking with Patricia, I learned that the title of “Curator of Prints and Drawings” is no easy job. She is entrusted with the task of looking after about 10,00 drawings and prints from the early 15th, late 16th centuries to present. Before coming to Vassar in 2000, Patricia was in graduate school here in NY at CUNY Graduate Center. As a graduate student, she was lucky enough to have Linda Nochlin, a famous professor of art, as one of her instructors. Ms. Nochlin had attended Vassar in her day and was a great inspiration to Patricia. It became a sort of dream to her to work at Vassar where Linda Nochlin went and taught. As it turns out, when Patricia finished writing her dissertation and began searching for jobs, there were 3 different curator of prints and drawings positions open around the US. She secured the one at Vassar. In her own words, “it was kind of a dream come true.” Patricia has also previously worked at the High Museum in Atlanta as a research assistant and at the University of Georgia at the Georgia Museum of Art for 13 years. While there, she became comfortable working with art from the 1930’s/1940’s, as their collection was very strong in early 20th-century American pieces.

That came in handy with the “Celebrating Heroes” exhibition, where most works are from that very same time period. 45 of the 47 pieces come from the collection of Steven and Susan Hirsch who have been giving paintings and drawings to Vassar since the early 90’s. Patricia shared with me that the Hirschs began collecting art in the mid-80’s when they lived in Woodstock, a formerly buzzing art colony. Steve loved the art of the 1930’s and 40’s and he wanted to form a collection; He did so with the help of families of 20th-century artists still living in the area. His strong affinity for this time period sprung from the fact that it was before abstraction hit the mainstream in art and that there were so many prominent social issues that were being voiced by artists. During the WWII period, there was such a closeness among Americans (much like there was after 9/11) and it is easy to see evidence of this in some of the paintings.

One of the unique aspects of the exhibition is that it features several of the pieces submitted for Post Office Mural Projects around the country. In the 1930’s, President Franklin Roosevelt launched a series of federal programs, commonly referred to as the Second New Deal. As part of this deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created to give jobs to the unemployed building things such as schools and post offices. As a consequence, in the late 1930s, FDR launched the Post Office Mural Project. The aim of the project was to place several murals in the lobbies of thousands of post offices nationwide. As a resident of the Hudson River Valley, the president was particularly involved in the process of selecting art for five post offices nearby. He was involved from the start; helping to select the subject matter, reviewing the artist’s sketches as the work progressed, and making corrections as he saw fit. All artists would have most likely found out about the competition via bulletins that came through the mail or a press release in the local newspaper with the description of the post office and the dimensions of the sketch they should send in. The sketches would then be sent to Washington DC where pictures would be taken and the judges would judge them.

The major post office mural project that is represented in the exhibition is Anton Refregier’s panel series for San Francisco. Pieces by him cover about 3 walls of the entire gallery. According to Ms. Phagan, his project is one of the most important post office mural series from the 30’s and 40’s. Among other post office artists represented are John and Philo Ruggles for the Bridgeport Ohio post office and Andree Ruellan, who was awarded two post office murals due to the strength of her sketches; one in Georgia and the other in Virginia.

There is featured, however, one oil sketch done by Georgina Klitguaard. She won the panel in the Poughkeepsie post office that had to do with the historical Poughkeepsie, around the time of the 1840’s. Klitguaard was born in Spuyten Duyvil, New York attended Barnard College and the National Academy of Design, and lived near Woodstock for many years until she passed away. She was considered one of America’s leading landscape artists and had already done a small mural for a post office in Goshen. After submitting her original sketch, feedback returned saying that Roosevelt had requested the addition of College Hill, atop which sat the Poughkeepsie Collegiate School which his father had attended. Klitguaard added in the famed College Hill and her art was chosen as the winner. Also featured in the exhibition are two pieces by Arnold Blanche, a Woodstock artist who was well-known in the 30’s and 40’s, and Thomas Barrett, a Poughkeepsie native and American Scene Realist Painter prominent in the 30’s. Both artists had sent their studies to Washington in the hopes of being serious contenders but were unfortunately not chosen as winners.

After walking through the gallery discussing various paintings I asked Ms. Phagan about challenges she encountered while putting together the exhibition. She noted that a few of the artists are not very well known. To obtain information about them, she traveled to the national archives in College Park, Maryland and the Archives of American Art; There she conducted original research to obtain information about the artists. She felt that she needed to get some documentation in order to write the catalog and be knowledgeable when speaking about the exhibition. As her research progressed. she found out that three of the works they thought were only done by one artist were actually done by two artists who were brothers. This was completely new information and through online research, she was able to find one of the brother’s daughters and correspond with her to get more information. Another challenge that Ms. Phagan was faced with while curating the exhibition was the one-year time limit. Typically exhibitions can take anywhere from two to three years to put together, especially large ones, but that was not the case this time around.

As my time at the exhibit came to a close, I asked Ms. Phagan one last question: “What is your favorite part of this exhibition?” She smiled and said that it was probably seeing all of the works out in the galleries next to one another and across from one another. She explained that this is the only time she gets to see her mind’s work actually become tangible and that it is a great sense of intellectual and visual satisfaction to go from the idea and the drawing board and then see it manifested in reality.

Although the exhibition came to a close in December, Ms. Phagan is working with James Mundy, The Anne Hendricks Bass Director of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and Lecturer in Art, to create a traveling version of the exhibition.

-Gabi Perpignand, Dr. Frank T Bumpus Intern in Hudson River Valley History

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