Category Archives: Readings

~from communications intern Joyce Bohling

The Creative Writing Reading Series is a special opportunity for CSU students to hear established and esteemed authors from around the nation present their work, and when fiction writer Ethan Canin came to campus on Thursday, January 26, students were given an additional chance we don’t often get: to ask questions directly of the author and solicit his advice.

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Canin is the author of seven novels, including, most recently, The Doubter’s Almanac. As fiction M.F.A. student Yash Seyedbagheri said in his introduction: “Mr. Canin lets his characters trip themselves up.”

Canin himself would agree with this assessment. Fiction, he says, is fundamentally about people misbehaving; he actually described novels, in his talk, as “compendiums of misbehavior.”

At the question and answer session in the Gregory Allicar Museum of Art on Thursday evening, whose audience mostly consisted of graduate students in the creative writing and creative nonfiction programs, as well as some faculty and undergraduate students, topics of discussion ranged from techniques for outlining and mapping a novel, the role of electronic communication in fiction, and the existence of objective truth.

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Myself a graduate in creative nonfiction, I found some of the advice familiar. Write every day, for instance, is a tried-and-true mantra of the writing profession that Canin re-iterated, describing how writers he knows went so far as to purchase or rent their own office spaces so that they could commute in to “work” like nurses or engineers or lawyers and spend the day on their craft, free from distractions.

He told his mostly student audience that they should be learning two things: “how to write,” and “how to be a writer.” By the latter, he meant that students should establish the habits that will make them successful writers, like writing every day.

But Canin also described aspects of his writing life that are unique. Before becoming a full-time writer, for instance, he worked as a doctor. He even joked that when his short stories were published in literary journals, his colleagues in the medical profession sometimes commented that they liked his “articles.”

Canin was also honest about the hardships of being a writer: the difficulty, he seemed to be saying, in placing the success of one’s career on a piece of art. Writing is “the hardest freakin’ thing in the word,” he said: more difficult, even, than being a doctor. He has “not written one [novel] when [he] wasn’t distraught” about whether the work would be successful.

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Yet Canin believes writing is worth the challenge because of the way it creates empathy for other humans, something which, he said, is especially important in a time of such political polarization.

One of the “only” pleasures of writing, he said, is “the moment when you become somebody else.”

And indeed, Canin has deep empathy for his characters, even though they are flawed and so often “trip themselves up.”

Of his characters: “I feel like I am every single one of them.”

Though it may seem to strike a dark note, to talk about just how difficult writing is to an audience of people who have committed to or are in the process of committing to the writing life, I found it weirdly encouraging. If grad school has taught me one thing, it’s that writing is a messy, long, sometimes painful, sometimes even embarrassing process. More often than not, I am, to use Canin’s word, “distraught.” And so to hear a writer tell us that he still feels this way, seven published books down the line, makes me weirdly sort of hopeful. Maybe distress is something normal, even healthy, to the creation process.

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And I agree with Canin that this distress does have its payoff. In a time when our country’s emotions are running high, when we are quick to point fingers, to accuse, or to explain away the things really troubling us, creating thoughtful literature that builds empathy and wrestles with difficult questions is an especially important pursuit, whatever challenges we face doing so.

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Leslee Becker recommends Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy:

Two summers ago, I finally read Anna Karenina, the Richard Pevear/Larissa Voloanna kareninakhonsky translation. I loved the novel. The cover, though, is kitschy, like someone’s fervid dream about tubers and tumors. What can I say that hasn’t already been said about Tolstoy’s novel? Faulkner called it the greatest novel ever.   Okay, it’s about adultery and agriculture, and it features sexually robust characters and others of a persuasion I call pious, fussy, and aggressively undermedicated. Everyone knows the opening line: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” After this, Tolstoy plunges into details about adultery and confusion in a particular household, where children are running around, and where the English governess of the feral kids quarrels with the housekeeper. The cook has already fled the premises. Oh, the horror, the horror! And then we see Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky rolling his “full, well-tended body over on the springs of a sofa, as if wishing to fall asleep for a long time.”

I happen to love the stuff of Russian fiction, especially stories and novels that show lazy characters, pampered princes of postponement, like Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, a man who’s terrified of leaving his bed and participating in the real world. Tolstoy’s characters dream a lot, but they do get out of bed to attend to business affairs and amorous affairs. By the way, I’m not wild about folks saying they love a novel because the characters are “relatable”; in fact, it would take an epic to describe why I love Tolstoy’s epic tale, so I’ll steal from Anna’s thoughts: “Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?”

 

significant objectsLisa Langstraat recommends Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories about Ordinary Things (Ed Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn.  Fantagraphics Books, 2012.)

Over a period of 5 years, the editors of this collection acquired hundreds of objects, all donated or purchased for under $5 at thrift shops, yard sales, and flea markets.  They then recruited writers, as various as William Gibson and Meg Cabot, to write brief stories/histories/profiles/memories that “attributed significance” to each of these seemingly insignificant objects.  But the experiment didn’t end there.  The editors then listed each object on eBay, posted the stories as the item description, and watched the items sell for 2,700% of their initial price.

The point of the experiment (still active at significantobjects.com) wasn’t about profit per se, but about value more generally:  how do we ascribe value to things and how do things add (or not) value to our lives?  The project intersects with recent research in cultural materialism and “thing theory,” and it engages all kinds of interesting questions about how narrative shapes meaning and how objects have agency separate from that which humans ascribe to them.  But I especially like the book because the stories are often hilarious and moving (who knew a meat thermometer could seal a romance, or that a cheeky “All American Necking Team” button could help a son understand his long-dead father?).  This is the kind of project and writing that collapses the academic and the popular, the theoretical and the visceral–all that.   Significant Objects isn’t just a empty celebration of stuff, nor is it a caveat about Mammon and conspicuous consumption.  It’s about the complexity of things now, in this moment, and  it’s about making sense of the objects that shape our identities and relationships. Great graphics and photos, too.

 

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Sue Doe recommends Dave Eggers’ Hologram for the King. 

 Read the book and then, OK,  see the movie, though you should be prepared to be disappointed with the casting (and here I don’t mean Tom Hanks but the lack of Middle Eastern actors).  The book captures the decline of the U.S. as a superpower, personified in the form of protagonist Alan Clay. He’s a healthy white guy without any real justification for excuses, but his cancer as well as his broader malaise and his past success are just holograms.  Eventually, he finds love and a new home in the Kingdom, essentially outsourcing himself in order to find his relevance. On the way, Eggers provides some remarkable moments such as the scene early on when he describes the work of the professional stager, preparing Clay’s suburban house for sale.

 

 

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Nancy Henke recommends Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is set 30 years in the future when the energy crisis has wreaked havoc on the standard of living in the world.  Gas is so expensive it’s only available to the super rich and the suburbs of major cities have become massive, multi-story trailer parks with several families cramped into a single mobile home.  Since reality is harsh, many people turn to the virtual world of the Oasis for comfort, since there their avatars can live, fight, and explore in a world much more appealing than the real one.  But when the creator of the Oasis – a man obsessed with the 1980’s pop culture of his adolescence – dies, he decides to bequeath his billion-dollar fortune to whichever avatar can solve riddles that lead to three keys that open three gates.  Ultimately this book is an amusing sci-fi adventure story that’s rich with 1980’s nostalgia.  If you’re looking for thoughtful literary fiction, look elsewhere; this book is brain candy – pure and simple.
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Zach Hutchins recommends Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

This book is just as cool as it sounds, a perfect summer read. I’ve never read anything quite like Winter’s Tale, but I’ll be reading it again soon. What I love is Helprin’s exquisite language. On several occasions I turned to whomever happened to be close by—my wife, my mother-in-law, a stranger—and told them to listen so that I could share a particularly scintillating sentence. I imagine that someone like Neil Gaiman was influenced by Helprin; their books certainly belong to a similar sub-genre of magical realism. If you love snowballs, or white horses, or New York City, or life itself, Winter’s Tale is the book for you.

And if, after you read it, you’d like to talk about Moby-Dick parallels, I’m dying to have that conversation with somebody.

 

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Dan Beachy-Quick recommends Bird Relics: Mourning and Vitalism in Thoreau by Branka Arsic 

Though I’m not sure it really qualifies as “summer reading” so much as reading one could do during the summer, the book I’ve been most deeply moved and challenged by in recent months is Branka Arsic’s Bird Relics: Mourning and Vitalism in Thoreau. Her approach to criticism is one I can believe in–not a species of judgment or critical-theoretical stance, but an effort at affirmation that seeks to read Thoreau according to his own concerns, to walk down the path he’s cleared, and say what can be seen. What is seen is astonishing reversal of the “common sense” Thoreau derided. Moving from the ancient world and its notion of “perpetual mourning” as a way to maintain a vital connection to the dead, to 19th century Vitalism and the wildly porous sense it gave Thoreau of the boundary between self and world, the book never fails to open up a wider sense of what work thinking is when thinking is also a form of life not circumscribed simply by or as thought.

 

Aparna Gollapudi Robot Dreams by Sara Varonrobot dreams

Robot Dreams is a nearly wordless graphic novel in which the friendship between the two protagonists – a dog and his robot – is portrayed powerfully without the use of dialog or textual narrative. The art of Varon’s novel might look deceptively simple, with cartoon-like figures, pastel tints, and minimal cross-hatching, but the story it tells is emotionally sophisticated and nuanced — funny, poignant, whimsical, and pragmatic by turns. A must read…or must view…well, a must.

 

 

Debby Thompson recommends Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George 

Lately I’ve been re-vjulie of the wolvesisiting books of my childhood, back when I read for the sheer pleasure of reading and the delight of discovery. In my current life as an English professor, I read critically for a living. That mode of reading I also value, but, when I’m immersed in it, it’s easy to lose track of that other kind of reading that cast its initial hold on me. In re-reading books that sparked my imagination as a child, I’m enjoying the dual poles of reading, feeling the pulls of both creative mystification and critical demystification.

Currently I’m re-reading Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves. This book, which I read eagerly when it was published in 1972, and which captured my childhood imagination, is now problematic to the critic in me for all kinds of reasons. Not least is the (white) author’s depiction of Eskimos as one with nature and at the same time—like much Arctic wildlife—as hopelessly doomed. Thirteen-year-old Julie, living among the wolves, plays the role of what some cultural critics have dubbed the “mystic Indian,” more primitive and more wise than mainstream inhabitants of the lower 48 states. I value my critical ability to see the problems with such depictions, but at the same time I value this book’s historical role in teaching children like me that wolves and other animals communicate and form complex social structures, that these creatures are inherently valuable, and that there were alternative approaches to the natural environment and its creatures than the one I was being raised in. As I re-read Julie of the Wolves, I’m learning how to be, simultaneously, both the questing child and the denaturalizing adult.

 

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Sharon Grindle recommends The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey

As with most dystopian science fiction, part of the fun of this novel is figuring out what exactly has gone wrong in the world–which I won’t spoil for you (though many reviews will, so be careful). Should you be familiar with the plot twist and are the sort to shy away from this particular flavor of dystopia, let me still encourage you to give this one a read. The first halfish of the novel is told through a child’s POV, one that is necessarily focused on what someone her age wants most in the world: acceptance and nurturing–and a little less on the bloody mechanics of survival in a harrowing post-apocalyptic world. As we find out why she isn’t being given that emotional support, we’re drawn into a cataclysm that’s more plausibly explained than most. I love a good humans-in-the-face-of-adversity read, and this one kept me thinking even after I finished.

 

Amanda the god of small thingsMemoli recommends The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

I re-read this about a year ago, which confirmed what I suspected (though couldn’t fully articulate) when I first encountered it as a teenager in my high school AP English class: there is something singularly special and magical about this book. Against the backdrop of encroaching modernity and a shifting caste system, the narrator Rahel travels back to her, now crumbling, childhood home in South India, upon discovering that her mute twin brother Estha has recently returned as well. The two of them, once inseparable, have not seen each other for 25 years. The rest of the story works to unravel the past and reveal the pivotal events that transpired long ago, which continue to mark their present lives. It’s a story about moments of unexpected joy, the transgression of boundaries, and the loss of innocence. What is most compelling about this book is the lyric nature of Roy’s prose which are both luxurious and insightful. I don’t think that I’ve ever come across a book that was so enjoyable to read from start to finish. I would definitely recommend it for a summer reading list!

 

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Pam Coke recommends A. J. Juliani’s Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom 

  • “How often do we allow students to ‘find their talents’ in school?”
  • “Does homework actually prepare students for the real world?”
  • “What does the real world look like?”

These three questions and have been haunting me for months, and they are the exact questions A. J. Juliani, K-12 Technology Staff Developer at Wissahickon School District in Ambler, PA, tackles in his book Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom: Using 20% Time, Genius Hour, and PBL to Drive Student Success (Routledge, 2015, 152 pages). Juliani promises to connect inquiry and innovation through stories and examples from the field, and he delivers. He asserts, “When students are able to be curious, and to explore their interests and passions, innovative work happens” (p. xvii). This is why I sought out this book. I want to make curiosity a central part of my English Education courses, and Juliani is helping me learn how.

If you are looking for ways to actively involve your students in the curriculum, Juliani’s book is for you. He explains what 20% Time is, the concept of allowing students 20% of their learning time to pursue their passions, to learn about what they want to explore. While Google has become well renowned for how it uses 20% Time, Juliani does his homework, tracing the roots of this valuable practice back to Maria Montessori’s work in the early 20th century. What sets Juliani’s book apart, however, is how he walks the reader through how to apply 20% Time in your own classroom. He describes what 20% Time can look like for elementary students, secondary students, and teachers. He shares students’ sample passion projects that foster and showcase innovative thinking, including creating an anti-bullying campaign and making a video game on digital citizenship.

I am convinced that problem-based learning can have an impact on improving the teaching and learning that takes place in my English Education courses. Revising my teaching methods course for Fall 2016 is requiring some radical revision, not only in texts and assignments, but in in thinking and strategies.   Inquiry and Innovation in the Classroom is a relatively easy read; I can read it any time, night or day, and take something away from it. However, it is also an extremely challenging read; it is challenging me to question how and why I do what I do in the classroom. That is what keeps me reading.

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James Roller recommends the Dalai Lama’s Little Book of Wisdom: The Essential Teachings

Broken into brief vignettes, the reader receives ideas on developing contentment and joy, dealing with anger and emotion, and evoking personal transformations of mind and perspective. It is an experience that can be rewarding when read for very brief intervals of a minute or two, or as a part of longer moments of reading, thought, and meditation. Interestingly, even the ideas on difficult things like “Facing Death and Dying” translate easily to facing any reality of life that cannot be avoided or denied forever. More about reflecting upon one’s own interpretive process than upon any religious dogma, it can facilitate one’s pursuit of a happier, and more contemplative life.

(All images taken from Amazon.com)

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~From English Department Communications Intern Beth Campbell

Night had settled over the whole of Fort Collins, but Old Town still shown bright with the glow of street lights, shop windows, and the strobing pulses of lasers to the beat of bar playlists. Groups of people milled over the sidewalks, their voices weaving a delicate harmony to the melody of cars rushing by and shouts from the pubs. A dog barked as I turned down a darker street and found a parking spot outside the Wolverine Letterpress & Publick House.

It was quieter here, the roar of the crowds now just a dull buzz. Warmly lit windows and the smell of coffee and hops beckoned me in from the cold. People in hipster skinny jeans, beanies, and plaid clustered around the bar and the tables under the windows, sipping lattes and microbrews. It was how I imagined a hobbit hole would be-hidden away, but full of laughter, welcoming, and bustling with activity.

I was directed to the upstairs loft by a smiling young woman in a purple fleece shirt and leggings where Matthew Cooperman, a professor here at Colorado State University, was holding his book release. The wooden stairs creaked to life under my steps as I made my way up. A small door at the top of the stairs opened into a room that felt bigger than it was. A lofted ceiling lit with low lamplight bounced conversation back toward the crowd of people who were already jostling about. A wall of windows let the stars look in on our gathering and made me feel like we were standing on the edge of the roof. I glanced around as I took my seat. I recognized faces from the hallways between classes or from glances exchanged in Eddy between meetings, but I knew no one personally. That was fine. I wasn’t there to people-watch. I was there for the words.

Writers are a unique breed. In large groups, they all treat each other with almost a British form of respect and kindness, but most remain extremely humble. They let their work speak for them, and some look flustered or slightly embarrassed when complimented on it. They all speak very softly, too, for some reason. There must have been sixty people in that room, yet the volume never rose out of control, maintaining a gentle hum. Someone even spilled a glass of beer, but no commotion was raised. It was mopped up and over before a second thought could be given to it.

Everyone settled extremely quickly when the first reader was introduced. It was like a calm before a storm as we all sat waiting to hear what Dr. Graham Faust, a professor of poetry at the University of Denver, would read from his work. He had been asked to read as well, and we waited with baited breath. His poetry spoke of childhood, of memories we all had but maybe had never looked back on. His hands shook as he read, but his words never faltered. The emotion behind several of the poems made the lines catch in his throat and our hearts pause for a brief second. I closed my eyes and let the poems paint themselves before my eyes. Some were short snippets of his life as a graduate student. Others trailed on about the power of feeling, actually feeling. The poems made me feel like I was floating somewhere else, that I was in a new unfamiliar place just drifting about.

It was the harsh slapping applause that jerked me back to reality. Dr. Faust gave a half-grin before nonchalantly making his way back to his seat. As he did so, the master of ceremonies introduced her husband, Dr. Matthew Cooperman, and his new book, Spool. Behind the microphone, he was a little more at ease than Dr. Faust, but his words were just as powerful. He explained that he had taken on a new style, only allowing three words to each line in each poem. When asked how he came up with idea, he laughed and said that he had begun to run out space in his notebook on his honeymoon with his wife, so he came up with a way to save space. It had just grown from there.

Those three word lines dripped in to the room like a slow flood; we had no idea we were drowning in his work until he would pause between poems and we would come up for air. Then he would plunge us down the Poudre River, guide us through the Rocky Mountains, and walk with us through the field behind his neighborhood. We heard his daughter laugh and smiled when his son begged him to come play on that steamy July afternoon. The love he had for his wife filled the air, as did his sorrow when the way ahead was not clear. Yet through it all, he read with a steady, clear voice. His tone rose and fell with each passing phrase, his eyes darting across the page before him almost faster than he could speak. He seemed to be the only one immune to the beautiful chaos flowing from his words, while the rest of us were willingly tossed back and forth.

The new book is bound to be a success, judging from the loud applause and the heaps of compliments that were piled on after the reading. Both featured writers simply smiled and nodded their thanks, taking it humbly and blending into the crowd when possible. The cheery music of conversation slipped out the door with me when I left, a light tune to carry me out to the car. Everything was still, and the stars twinkled just a little bit brighter, but I suppose poetry has that effect on everyone.


Stay tuned for an upcoming faculty profile of Matthew Cooperman, also from Beth Campbell.

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by Communications Intern Ashley Alfirevic

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The comfortable blue armchair in the middle of the Children’s Section at Old Firehouse Books felt like a stark contrast to the reading about to start. Compared to the bright soothing covers on the shelves, the sleek new book jacket of Dr. Robinson’s new novel Death of a Century depicts a gargoyle solemnly watching over a foggy Parisian morning. In between small talk with fellow English students in the audience, I wondered if Dr. Robinson’s own writing would sound like the novels assigned for his “American Prose Since 1900” course that I took with him the fall before. If it did, it would be compelling, fluid, and violent (recalling our disturbing end to the course with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian).

Though his novel already gave off a decidedly noir vibe, Robinson himself stood before the audience in an open, relaxed manner. With cowboy boots and a classically western appearance, he already looks not quite a part of this century, something he later confirmed when someone asked a question about the setting of his book. “I like the direct world of the twenties and thirties,” he said as he pulled out an ornate pocket watch. “This is how I tell time. I don’t like cell phones.”

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A fellow CSU colleague introduced Robinson, commenting on his history of firefighting both literally – flying helicopters over western wildfires – and figuratively – managing to teach and grade students while producing three novels to date. Used to working under pressure, Dr. Robinson defines himself as a “sprint writer.” Being a full-time professor doesn’t leave much time for long-distance writing, not allowing a day or even a few hours at a time to do the work of writing. “I just sit down and get a couple hundred words on the page,” he stated casually. While some of the writers in the room were left in awe of this notion, these moments – some 2,000 hours of moments, to be exact – add up to more than two years of his life.

Before starting, Dr. Robinson explained that each epigraph in Death of a Century comes from the hours of research he conducted for the novel. “Write what you know about versus what you know… it’s about the essences of life,” he mused before quoting Warren G. Harding: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing… Let’s get out of the fevered delirium of war.”

With that, he continued into the first pages of the book. Stoic protagonist Joe Henry is a veteran and newspaper writer, reporting on World War I battles with a removed sense of scientific observation in order to distance himself from his own painful flashbacks and nightmares. After finding his best friend and fellow veteran Gresham murdered in his home, Joe must flee to Paris when he becomes the prime suspect in the investigation. He must discover who is behind the murders and why they’ve chosen Gresham… and stolen his manuscript.

As he read about, “The rain, steady and loud, [in] feathered rivulets of water down his windshield” (Robinson 9) with the same lilt he read passages of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon or Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” to our class, I had to remind myself that this was not (at least, not yet) a classic of the canon. Although, Robinson mentioned, several canon members from the Lost Generation do make cameos in Century. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Ernest Hemmingway (and his notorious missing valise) all make appearances, though he pointed out that, “the story is not about them.”

The passages selected for the reading previewed a novel full of intrigue, an exploration of the human consciousness rather than a whodunit. “It’s more about the reasons why, not the murder itself,” Robinson comments. Yet despite the thrilling plot line, the glamour of noir, and a prose rooted in classical modernism, I had one simple question on my mind: “When you were teaching our class, you mentioned that your editor wanted to change two words in the text that you made up. Did you get to keep the words?”

He chuckled, “There are now four words. I figured if Faulkner can make up words, so can I.”

And so, with that mystery solved, it was time to delve into the thriller that is Robinson’s Death of a Century: A Novel of the Lost Generation.

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Camille Dungy, professor of English at Colorado State University, will be honored at a Distinguished Author Reception April 16, 4 – 6 p.m., 108 Johnson Hall on the CSU campus. The reception is free and open to the public, and hosted by the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at CSU.

Camille T. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, and co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology. Her honors include an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, a California Book Award silver medal, and a fellowship from the NEA. In the Fall of 2013, Dungy joined the faculty of the CSU English Department as a professor.

Dungy’s latest book, Smith Blue, offers a survival guide for the modern heart as Dungy takes on 21st-century questions of love, loss, and nature. From a myriad of lenses, these poems examine the human capacity for perseverance in the wake of heartbreak; the loss of beloved heroes and landscapes; and our determination in the face of everyday struggles.

The poems explore the dual nature of our presence on the planet, juxtaposing the devastation caused by human habitation with our own vulnerability to the capricious whims of our environment. In doing so, they reveal with fury and tenderness the countless ways in which we both create and are victims of catastrophe.

In the end, the book demonstrates how we are all intertwined, regardless of race or species, living and loving as best we are able in the shadows of both man-made and natural follies.

At the reading, copies of Dungy’s recent book, Smith Blue, will be available for purchase and refreshments will be served.  For more information, go to http://www.camilledungy.com/Poetry.htm

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