Did you have a favorite class or text in college? What made it your favorite?
My favorite classes in college were creative writing workshops, in part because the primary texts for those courses were the students' poems themselves. Of course, we read poems from the literary tradition as well as contemporary work by established authors too, but there was something particularly exciting about imagining one's own writing as existing in dialogue with (or alongside) canonical works of literature. It made literary history feel like an ongoing work in progress.
What would you have liked to tell the 20-year-old version of yourself about college?
I suppose I would remind my 20-year-old self that I was just beginning to learn, rather than nearing the end of any particular phase of my education. (Then again, I probably ought to remind myself that I'm a beginner on a daily basis in the present tense as well.) I've changed my mind about so many things since then—from favorite poets to dissertation topics and beyond—I sometimes wince to remember my sense of certainty on literary matters around the end of the last millennium!
Did you go straight to graduate school after college? If not, what was the most interesting thing you did in the interim?
I spent a year on a fellowship in Madrid in the year between college and graduate school, and I always tell my students that time abroad is a terrific way to punctuate one's undergraduate education. After spending nearly two decades of one's life in school, it's good to travel, or bartend, or work in a bookstore, or do any number of things before jumping back into academic life.
What made you decide to specialize in your current subfield in English?
I think meeting practicing writers in the creative writing classroom had a real impact on my decision to try to become a poet. Before, literature seemed disembodied, the product of some mysterious creature called an "author." But after working with living writers in the workshop setting, I came to see how poems and novels and whatnot are written by everyday people. That seems obvious now, of course, but at the time it was a meaningful experience.
What is the most intriguing or quirky idea that you have learned from your recent research?
I'm always learning odd little facts as I browse around looking for something to put into a poem. Just yesterday, I read that the number of people alive on the planet today outnumbers the number of people who have ever died. (That's due to the population explosion in our present historical moment, I imagine.) I'm not sure what I'll do with that, but hopefully it will work its way in somehow . . .
What is your favorite work of literature to teach to undergraduates?
I hope it isn't too coy to say I most love teaching undergraduates to read their own poems with the same degree of seriousness, care, and ambition that they bring to great works of literature. So my favorite work of literature to teach would be the student's poem that happens to be on my desk at any given time.
What do you like best about teaching college students at the University of Chicago?
I like their willingness to question whatever pieties I bring to the classroom. They always teach me to keep an open mind about things. I learn as much from them as they do from me.