Spring Speakers Series: “Stop the Machine: Civil Disobedience and Maria Alyokhina’s Riot Days”

by Misha Saeedpour

On Wednesday, February 27th, faculty and students joined Dr. Charmion Gustke in the Bunch Multimedia Hall for the English Department’s first speaker of the Spring Speakers Series. Her reading examined similarities between Maria Alyokhina’s Riot Days and Henry David Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government.”

Dr. Charmion Gustke

Maria Alyokhina is a Russian political activist, best known for her role in the anti-Putinist punk rock group Pussy Riot. She was arrested in 2012 during a performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior and sent to jail for two years, convicted for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. Alyokhina played a main role in the Pussy Riot trial, making sure she could take part in cross-examining witnesses and questioning the proceedings. She is an advocate for the freedom of the individual and its inability to ever truly land in the government’s hands. She expresses these feelings during her closing statement for the trial when she declares, “For me, this trial only has the status of a ‘so-called’ trial. And I am not afraid of you. I am not afraid of lies and fiction, of the thinly disguised fraud in the sentence of this so-called court. Because you can only take away my so-called freedom. And that is the exact kind that exists now in Russia. But nobody can take away my inner freedom.”

Dr. Gustke tied Alyokhina and Thoreau together by bringing attention to they ways they chose to fight against government transgressions. Both individuals wrote about the “impure” authority of government and worked against oppression in their own ways, Alyokhina using performance as a way to protest and generate reaction and Thoreau advocating for paying closer attention to the choices one makes within the community, for example not supporting businesses that are tied to what you are personally against.

We closed the discussion with a Q&A, where faculty and students had the opportunity to expand further on the topic.

James Sanchez’s “Man on Fire”

by Misha Saeedpour

Filmmaker James Sanchez joined us in the Johnson Theater Monday, February 4th for a screening of his documentary Man on Fire. The film followed the story of Charles Moore, a 79-year-old minister, who set himself on fire outside a Dollar General as an act of protest against racism in his town of Grand Saline, Texas in 2014. Sanchez said he decided to film the documentary after finishing his dissertation on the same topic. He felt a strong connection to Charles Moore because he was also from Grand Saline and remembered the stories of racism shared throughout the town. While working on his dissertation he found that many newspapers and news networks didn’t fully cover the story, leaving Moore’s name and intention out of their reports, and therefore felt motivated to produce the documentary.

  Watch trailer →

Following the film, we had time for an extensive Q & A session. Students were able to ask Sanchez more about his filmmaking experience and his thoughts about the film since its completion. Overall, while the film was heartbreaking, it was inspiring to hear the story of someone who took such a passionate stand against the wrongs their community was perpetuating.

Nikki Giovanni at the JAAC

by Rachel Stallings, BU English Major

Poet, activist, author, and professor, Nikki Giovanni, addressed a full house on Monday, September 24, with an engaging and heartfelt Humanities Symposium presentation. Students filled the room of JAAC 4094, with many having to sit around the walls of the room, packed in to listen. She covered everything from her own personal life (followed by a flawless reading of her poem, “Tennessean By Birth”) to her desire for people to learn to love themselves, to her disdain for the story of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer (it encourages kids to bully each other!), to a final charge for those in the room to accept one another and end the hate that fuels racism.

Nikki Giovanni

Giovanni captured the audience with her lively presence and fluid approach to storytelling. She is a wonderful speaker and her readings of her poems flowed so naturally between personal stories that it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference between her natural spoken rhythm and her poetry. She approached each topic with a no-nonsense attitude, covering issues of environmental impact, racism, sexism, and rape, and even took strong political stands against many of the politicians currently in office. Despite the seriousness of her subject matter, her wit and sense of humor brought lots of laughter to the crowd and she even joked that she “wouldn’t get invited back” to speak after all of her strong political statements.

She made it a point to remind those in the audience to take care of themselves, telling the crowd that making mistakes is just a part of life and we ought to have more grace with ourselves. One example she gave was of weeds; they’re often seen as a nuisance, but in reality, they are something many people just “haven’t figured out what to do with yet.” She encouraged those in the crowd to never consider themselves as less than others because they don’t see themselves as a flower, but instead find a way to use their individual strengths to be the best version of themselves they could be.

After her animated and high energy presentation, she fielded a few questions from the audience. One student asked how Giovanni might respond to someone who disagrees with or feels victimized by her strong political views, and she encouraged the student to open up her perspective and understand that all of us are part of one another, we’re all connected in some way. She kindly explained that we must learn to love and accept people if we hope to end all of the hate in the world, which was a fitting end to her presentation.

Image credit: Sam Simpkins, University Photographer

The Monteverde Lecture, Take 1: “the Pasts that are still with us”

by Joseph Markferding, BU English Major

Dr. Doug Murray delivered the Monteverde lecture on September 17 at 10:00 a.m. in the fourth floor conference room of the Janet Ayers Academic Center.


In “Haunted–The Pasts that Are Still with Us,” Murray explored how the past crops up in our living present, and how the future is in ways destined to repeat the past. The talk was broken up into multiple different sections, with the first major talking point centering on the changing landscape in England. Recent increases in heat in England have revealed ancient architectural outlines in certain grassy areas; these crop marks remind us of the pasts that still remain. In this section, Dr. Murray brought up the concept of the palimpsest, which in essence is a page that is written on and rewritten over many times. The concept of the palimpsest corresponds to the way we view our history, as a single page written on over and over again.

The second talking point transported us listeners to Washington D.C., to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Murray explored how Isaac Franklin, a slave trader, had past ties with Adelicia Acklen (the person responsible for building Belmont Mansion), and provided Acklen with money and slaves. Murray then described the efforts to reconstruct of the stories of forgotten slaves, such as Eva Snowden Baker, who played a part in taking care of the Acklen family children and of the Belmont mansion, .

In the conclusion of the talk, Murray asked the crowd to keep in mind three things. He asked us to keep in mind where the ghosts of the enslaved are found on campus; to know strategies of annihilation; and to know ways that we may be replicating the past. I found this portion of the talk to be extremely powerful, and it had me thinking of all the different ways that we as people do unknowingly replicate our often unsavory pasts. Additionally, it had me scrupulously analyzing the surrounding environment of Belmont, and asking many questions about the current culture and environment that it provides. I questioned the legitimacy of that environment, and questioned whether the environment was something that I was proud to be a part of. For an answer, I look into the past and see what has taken place before me and then view the current environment through those eyes.

Image credit: David Curtis

So Poe: A Dead Poet’s Society Get-Together on Edgar Allen Poe

On Friday, the 20th of October, a handful of English students and professors Curtis and McDonnell congregated for a Dead Poet’s Society reading in the gazebo near Maddox and Wright Halls. It’s the gazebo with a statue of a raven on the tip of its roof that, with its endless and forbidding croak, seems to beckon for a group of nerdy Poe-enthusiasts to read and geek out there. While I obviously attended the meeting, I was not one of those Poe-enthusiasts only because I haven’t read that much Poe. I’m not certain if my colleagues were Poe-enthusiasts either, but there was one obvious Poe-enthusiast, the same one who organized the event and came up with the idea of having a Poe-day and a Dead Poet’s Society, and this was Dr. Curtis. Before the reading started, Dr. Curtis informed us of Poe’s life, and more specifically his death, since this was, after all, Dead Poet’s Society.

On an October night in 1849, Poe had disappeared from the city of Baltimore. He had been visiting his family in Richmond, Virginia. But he then turned up—and most likely turned up—in Baltimore on election day and was found unconscious in a gutter and wearing ill-fitting clothes. Many people suspected that because it was election day he was being used to conduct voter fraud. People now think he died of rabies because he kept falling in and out of consciousness and Dr. R. Michael Benitez wrote an article that pieces together various accounts of his death and argues quite persuasively for the possibility of his dying of rabies. So he very well could have been bitten by a rabid dog, a raccoon, or hopefully a bat.

The first reading was the hardest to start because nobody wanted to go first. Dr. Curtis didn’t want to start because he knew that he would get too intense. He told us that after “The Raven” came out it became a performance piece. Poe made a lot more money performing it and his other poems than he did publishing them. Curtis told us that women and nervous persons were highly affected in accounts of the time by what Poe wrote and that he developed a celebrity status by performing his works. Thus provided the context for Curtis’s reluctance to read first: when he reads Poe, watch out. He performs. “Let the crazy man in the gazebo do his thing” he said. Continue reading “So Poe: A Dead Poet’s Society Get-Together on Edgar Allen Poe”

Local Event Highlight: 2017 Tennessee Writing Workshop

By Charlsie Johnson

On Saturday, July 22nd, Writing Day Workshops hosted the annual Tennessee Writing Workshop at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Nashville Cool Springs. The summer 2017 event’s focus: “How to Get Published,” consisted of a full day of instructional meetings, pitch schedules, personal critiques with literary agents or editors, and an opportunity to not only ask questions about writing and publication, but also to communicate with 150 fellow writing peers.

The writing day was organized into five, one and a half hour sessions, split between three different conference rooms at the hotel. During these meetings, attendees were able to come and go in accordance to their personal pitch or critique schedules that they registered for online before the event. General admission includes attendance at any of the instructional meetings with the opportunity to pay extra for a 10 minute, one-on-one meeting with a literary agent to pitch original work, an in-depth critique of a one page query letter, or an in-depth personal critique of the first 10 pages of an original novel. All registration and pricing information can be found on the website, as well as an explanation for each critique option.


The 2017 schedule was jam-packed with very helpful and interesting sessions including: “An Overview of Your Publishing Options Today,” “The Art of Voice: How to Make Your Writing Come to Life,” “Writer’s Got Talent: A Page One Critique Fest,” and “Ten Keys to Writing Success.” Each session was led by a notable writer or representative from a publishing house that spoke about topics related to their experience with a specific aspect of craft or genre. Some of the speakers included freelance editor and author, Chuck Sambuchino, speculative fiction author, C. J. Redwine, and editor, author, publisher, Madeline Smoot.

The sessions covered many genres such as, Young Adult/Middle Grade Fiction, Memoir, Fantasy/Science Fiction, and Romance, while also instructing on helpful topics like, Self-Publishing, Agents and Query Letters, Revision/Self-Editing, and Self-Marketing your original writing. Participating in the event’s headline and most popular session, “A Page One Critique Fest,” were: Beth Phelan from The Bent Agency, Cate Hart from Corvisiero Literary, Mike Parker from WordCrafts Press, Lauren MacLeod from The Strothman Agency, and several other literary agents and editors. In this session, attendees were encouraged to print and anonymously submit multiple copies of the first page of an original novel they are currently working on, in order to receive conference-style feedback, without the pressure of a one-on-one meeting. This was an invaluable experience for those attendees that are seeking an honest critique from a number of literary agents and editors who represent literary agencies with different content focuses. Continue reading “Local Event Highlight: 2017 Tennessee Writing Workshop”