By Kazue Thomas and Gina Elbert
It was a pleasantly warm autumn evening as students, faculty, and lovers of literature gathered together for the Contemporary Literature Series Fall Faculty Spotlight, featuring NYU English professor Lytle Shaw and poet Lisa Robertson, on October 18. The Faculty Spotlight series aims to highlight the creative achievements of the NYU faculty and acquaint students ‒ and other faculty ‒ with talented contemporary writers in their very own community. Past Faculty Spotlights have featured playwright and professor Julia Jarcho (2015) and poet and professor Maureen McLane (2014).
Dozens crowded into the event space of the NYU English Department for the standing-room-only event. Professor Nicholas Boggs, who founded CLS when he joined the English Department in 2012, kicked off the event by introducing the student fellows who help run the series. Professor Emily Apter, chair of the Department of Comparative Literature, introduced the night’s featured readers and emphasized to the audience, “We don’t read our colleagues enough.”
Shaw is a poet, historiographer, contributing editor at the art and culture magazine Cabinet, and founder and co-editor of the literary magazine Shark. An Ithaca native, he graduated from Cornell University with a B.A. in architecture and literature in 1991 and went on to receive a Ph.D. in English from UC-Berkley in 2000. Shaw’s research interests center on contextualizing investigative and biographical work in the sociopolitical climate of its day. His works include The Moiré Effect and Fieldworks: From Place to Site in Postwar Poetics.
Robertson is a Toronto-born poet who has been a member of the Vancouver-based Kootenay School of Writing. She has also held residencies and taught at the University of Cambridge, UC-Berkeley, UC-San Diego, Princeton, California College of Arts, Simon Fraser, and Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. Robertson’s published work includes The Cinema of the Present, Nilling, and Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture.
Shaw read from his work-in-progress, 23 Things Unknown About Him, and his discussion mostly focused on Italy and twentieth-century architect Carlo Mollino. Mollino is famous in his native Turin for designing such buildings as the Camera di Commercio and the Teatro Regio Torino as well as for his energetic personality and wide-ranging interests. Shaw explained that he was drawn to researching this particular man because of his own father’s work as an architect and his interest in historiography.
The topics covered by the excerpts from 23 Things Unknown About Him varied as extensively as Mollino’s hobbies, covering everything from skiing to horse-racing to the Alps and, most important, architecture. He focused on examining Mollino’s Società Ippica Torinese and Casa del Sole buildings in light of the architect’s complicated aesthetic of the modern and the fantastic. Additionally, he showed pictures of a copy of Mollino’s book, in which the architect himself had drawn illustrations by hand of his designs. One of these illustrations closely matched the design of Casa del Sole. A facet of Shaw’s work worth noting is his tendency to insert himself into the narrative, not only telling the story of his subject but also relating his journey researching the subject as well.
Robertson’s readings supplemented Shaw’s architectural and biographical explanations with poetry and creative nonfiction about circumstance and technique. One of the works she read from was Selected Shipwrecks, the book that originally brought her and Shaw together. Shaw edited The Chadwick Family Papers, documents belonging to a “centuries-old clan of aesthetes and sea-faring dandies,” as described by the accompanying exhibition’s website. Selected Shipwrecks was the name of the 2012 exhibition as well as a book based on it, to which Robertson contributed a critical essay.
Robertson read from this essay as well as her poetry, juxtaposing the essay with photos of Shaw doing research on the Chadwicks, often in fun costumes or silly situations. One of the photos featured Shaw dressed in plate armor, his collaborator Jimbo Blachly outfitted in a suit of armor constructed by children out of cereal boxes and other craft materials. The contrast helped to highlight one of the main themes of the evening: that research can be educational and entertaining and that it can lend itself to creative writing even if its focus is nonfiction. The reading itself was strongly interdisciplinary, showing attendees that fiction, nonfiction, research, visual arts, and poetry can come together to tell a story so intricate and multi-faceted that one detail cannot be separated from another without losing the essence of the story as a whole.
The works that Shaw and Robertson read from were innovative, intriguing, and certainly new fare for the undergraduate students in the audience. An evening of readings that included unusual subject matters and forms could not better reflect Robertson’s observations about the correlation between technique and pleasure: by creating their work through their own techniques and forms, Robertson and Shaw are simultaneously creating new forms of enjoyment for their readers. In this regard, the event undoubtedly broadened the horizons of all who attended, reminding the audience ‒ and all the young authors in it ‒ that there are countless ways to structure a narrative, to enjoy a text, and to write a book.