Associate Professor of English Stephanie Kuduk Weiner has been teaching English literature at the University for eight years. Besides her focus in 19th-century British literature and culture, Weiner specializes in Aesthetics, Art History, Poetry, and Poetics. She took time out of her busy schedule to chat with The Argus about 19th-century publishing, blind contour drawing, and putting together the University curriculum.
The Argus: So what’s on your bookshelf right now?
Stephanie Weiner: I just stumbled across a book about Wordsworth’s late poetry, by a Dutch scholar named Peter Simonsen whom I’ve never heard of. It’s called “Wordsworth and Word-Preserving Arts,” and it argues that Wordsworth who, early in his career in the 1790s, wrote a lot of poems that pretend to be found inscriptions on either rocks or benches or trees, or a piece of paper that was left by somebody. Simonsen argues this never goes away—it just changes. The surface on which the inscription happens is altered. And ultimately, by the end of Wordsworth’s career, the surface is the page. So there’s a brilliant chapter on the sonnet as visual poetry, in which Simonsen argues that the shape of the sonnet on the page matters a lot. Which I’ve always been really interested in—the rectangle that isn’t a perfect square. It turns out that Wordsworth changed publishers in 1885 to this guy named Moxon, who discovered Tennyson. He was the only person who was really publishing original poetry in the 1830s. He and Wordsworth had this extensive correspondence about how to publish sonnets and that there had to be one per page. So this book is just fascinating me in the way that it opens up Wordsworth’s late poetry, and because it really takes seriously the shape of the poems on the page and imagines that the way that the poet actually imagines that shape has something to do with an idea about the permanence of that document, of what’s produced.
A: What led you to read that book?
SW: I read that book because I just finished a short piece about publishing in the 1830s. In 1835, when Wordsworth made this switch, John Clare—who I had been writing about—just published his last book of poems. I wanted to write about the small miracle it is that this book ever got published. And, indeed, it sold fewer than a hundred copies. It was just a disaster.
A: Do you think there’s a way to teach English in a visual sense as well as in a textual sense?
SW: I do. I don’t think all poems work this way, but some poems definitely do. There’s an interesting history of it. You have to have a moment where the poet has some role in how the poem is going to appear on the page for this to happen. So it’s basically a product of the entry of poetry into the marketplace, and poets actually having some say in whether there’s one sonnet or two sonnets per page. Often it wouldn’t matter, but it definitely matters in post-World War II poetry. There’s actually a movement called Visual Poetry. Over in Special Collections, they have an amazing collection of ephemeral poetry. They have a huge collection of postcards, pamphlets, and other kinds of poetic publication media that are ephemeral. Some of the words are upside down or sideways. It’s neat! In short, I think we should all be thinking about [the visual element of poetry]. It’s kind of neat to think about the poem in this way.
A: What else have you been working on recently? Any novels?
SW: No, no novels. But I’ve been writing a lot of poems. Last winter I took a drawing class, and somehow it changed the kinds of poems that I was writing. The way that I learned drawing—which I don’t think is the way you learn it if you’re a proper studio art major—was all about blind contour drawing, where you’re not looking at the page but you’re looking at the object. It’s all about training your eye, and then what happens according to my teacher—and I thought this was so cool—is you get the spirit of the object rather than a recognizable representation of it. And the more you do it, I’ll be darned if you don’t get to produce something that looks like the object! So after only six weeks, I could draw birds that you could tell was a cardinal, or a blue jay. And I never look at the page! It’s absolutely phenomenal to me. So I became really interested in the question of the outlines of things, and the fact that in blind contour drawing you never lift up your pen. I got really inspired by the mechanisms of producing the drawing, and how they were like and unlike the mechanisms of producing the poem.
A: You once were responsible for planning out the English curriculum. What was it like to have to plan that far in advance?
SW: It was incredibly cool. I started doing it when we instituted the concentration requirement. We were really thinking that we wanted the curriculum to make sense as a kind of platonic ideal form that no student would actually experience but that would be a map of a cogent and coherent field of inquiry, and a potentially cogent course of study for students. So part of the idea behind the concentration requirement was to just have students think about a course of study that went from introductory to advanced courses, and to give a label to what students were probably doing anyway but probably hadn’t planned in those terms. So the curriculum really does work this way, and much better than it used to before various curricular reforms that allowed the concentrations to happen. Somehow, when we started thinking cogently about the curriculum as a whole unit, it made it really exciting for us to do that kind of balancing. It created lots of changes that students will never see that made it much more rational and much more interlocking, like different pieces of a puzzle.
A: Do you have a favorite field of interest?
SW: What I like about Wesleyan is that I get to teach so many different kinds of courses. If I were at a big university, I would teach nothing but Romantic and Victorian poetry. But since I’m here they let me teach the novel, poetry, and poetic theory, Shakespeare. So that’s what I like.
A: The structure of English 201 recently changed drastically. How do you think students and professors have been responding to this change?
SW: I think it was a good change. There are three trajectories converging to make 201 a better experience. One is that we used to have a huge range of students: some who really wanted to major in English and others who had no idea what to do. And that has been eliminated. The second trajectory is that the increase in University class size means that the Wesleyan admissions policy has given us more humanists. When I first came here, hardly anyone was majoring in the sciences. That’s now changed a lot, which is great. But we’ve been getting more humanists as more students are admitted. Lastly, I do think that the reorganization helps students choose better which section of 201 would be best for them. It used to be too random. There was this fiction that they were all the same—and they weren’t all the same! So students wouldn’t necessarily get the one that worked best for them. So I think all these things are converging. I’ve really been enjoying teaching 201, much more than I used to.
A: Over the 12 years you have been teaching here, how do you think Wesleyan has changed?
SW: I think it’s become more at home with its distinctiveness. And a lot of this can really be credited to Michael Roth. There seems to be a much greater awareness of how Wesleyan is different from Swarthmore and Williams, and why those differences don’t need to be erased, but rather celebrated. Wesleyan has been changing in tiny ways, and these changes add up to a much more cohesive, happy, affirming atmosphere, as opposed to an uncertain, anxious, what-are-we-doing kind of atmosphere. I sense a greater sense of collective purpose—I don’t think anyone has promulgated it from on high, but I think a certain style of leadership seems to have helped. And I don’t know how admissions does it, but they somehow find this “Wesleyan student.” Wesleyan students are really unique, and somehow they figure it out from the admissions process, which is really amazing. Because there are all kinds of idiotic essays that people have to write in the admissions process—how can those give you a sense of the intellectual caliber of the students writing them? But admissions has somehow figured it out.