Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Letter #91--Colleagues

Dear Governor Ducey,

            It is the first week back at university! The campus is bustling. The students are rapt. There are many changes afoot. New buildings and ped-ways. New systems to make classroom assignments more efficient. New parking rules. New grant-procurement incentives. It’s like a whole new university. And, in a way, it is. Since I started teaching here only 8 years ago, the number of students has doubled. You can tell when you’re in downtown Flagstaff. You can tell at the restaurants that have waiting lists and in the traffic and in the hallways. We are squeezing in and making room and I would say, it’s kind of exhilarating. It’s a great thing that more people want to come here and a sign that the university is getting recognition it deserves. My colleagues do awesome things: win Guggenheim’s, National Endowment of the Arts grants, National Science Foundation Grants.

            They also write books. Two of my colleagues, Lawrence Lenhart and Erin Stalcup, had books released this summer. Lawrence’s book, The Well-Stocked and Gilded Cage, is a fantastic collection of essays about animals and mythologies, babies and sinking countries. The blurb I wrote for the back of the book goes like this:
There are books with turtles in them. And books with dogs. And books about bullies. And books about hoarding birds. There are books about Bangladesh and books about the end of the world but I do not think there is another book that pulls back the veil to reveal how woven together dogs, bullies, birds, babies and Bangladesh are. Lenhart does something in The Well-Stocked and Gilded Age that only someone with a special kind of genius can do: train his focus as sharply inward as he does outward. Intense awareness combined with his intense concern make for a big heart and a big brain and a big, as in important, book. 

            Erin Stalcup’s And Yet It Moves, is an amazing collection of short stories. This book is wild in the way it incorporates science, sex, and sauciness into a wide array of characters. What I love most about the book is the variety of narrators. Erin is just one person when I work and hang out with her but inside that one person’s head, she’s crafting believable and far-ranging people. 
            Justin Bigos worked on his novel all summer. He had good reason to. His novella was chosen by TC Boyle for the Seattle Review’s novella contests. If that wasn’t a big enough win, right before his short story published by McSweeney’s was chosen for The Best American Short Stories. And right before that, his chapbook, 20,000 Pigeons came out. He’s on a winning streak that doesn’t seem to stop.
            Did I mention that Erin and Justin’s lit mag Waxwing published a poem by Maggie Smith that went so viral articles in The Guardian were written about it?
            Ann Cummins, author of the collection Red Ant Hill and Yellow Cake, both big books from big presses, finished her nonfiction book this summer. I’ve a good portion of this. You may have heard her read from this manuscript around town. I don’t want to jinx it by saying out loud how big I think this book is going to be. So I’ll just say. It’s already amazing.
            Jane Armstrong, who’s on sabbatical, just won a Viola Award for her project Aphasia: Neurological Aphasia in Text and Image, which is still on display in Riles Building on campus. Even though she’s not on campus, she’s still working on building a writing community. She’s directing and acting in plays that the Northern Arizona Playwriting Showcased. NAPS, founded in part by our colleague Ann Cummins, showcases seven winning ten-minute plays every year—this year, September 9-11. In between playwriting and lyric essay writing, is researching a big book about her ancestry: Please see Charlemagne.
            I went back to teach this week and stood in front of the incoming Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing students and was able to tell them how happy we are to have them here and that the creative writing faculty, who write all summer long and on the weekends and sometimes between classes, are here to share with the students what we’ve been working on and how we got to where we are with our working.

            A lot has changed at NAU, including ever-diminishing resources. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the way the professors do what they do not only because they love it but because they love to share it and show their students how it’s done. I’m lucky to have such awesome colleagues that do it and show it and share it so well.

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