If you walked into one of Assistant Professor of English Rachel Ellis Neyra’s classes in the past week, you might have found her talking to students about the “sonic color-line” or screening the opening sequence of Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets.” Among Ellis Neyra’s specialties are poetics and Latina/o and Caribbean literatures, and her research draws connections between these written fields and the worlds of music and film. Now in her second semester at Wesleyan, Ellis Neyra is currently teaching two classes, one of which uses New York City as a focal point for conversations about identity and belonging. The Argus sat down with Neyra to chat about sound studies, the importance of place, and her time at the University so far.
The Argus: What’s on your bookshelf?
Rachel Ellis Neyra: I’m always reading many poets at once. I’ve been rereading García Lorca a lot lately, especially his earlier poems, in the Suites—a lot of which were not published when he was alive. He has these great verses where, for instance, the moon will fall into the sea and it will become some tiny thing by the end of the poem. He’s very good at shrinking phenomena without losing force.
I’ve also been reading a poet named Eduardo Corral, a Chicano poet who is alive and well. I’m writing about him, in particular a poem he has where he is both making reference to a couple of Chicano poems, but he mixes into it these verses from two of Robert Hayden’s poems. One of them is called “Rungate Rungate,” and the other is called “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” both of which are about fugitivity, runaway slaves. And so Corral is brilliantly mixing together images of “illegal” migrants crossing the Mexico-US border, with versaic references and quotations to poems about fugitive slaves. So he’s creating a difficult, unsteady analog between the illegal body and the slave body in flight. And in so doing, he’s reworking the whole ground of Arizona. His English is reworking that ground, and reworking the ground of English, while he’s at it. So those poets—García Lorca, Hayden, Corral—there are many links between them.
A: It seems like your work deals a lot with connecting poetry and other forms to the notion of place. Would you say that’s your main focus?
REN: It is something I keep in focus. I think a lot about writers’ relationships to place—and I don’t mean that in a strictly biographical sense, but rather how they articulate, with the idea of carrying a landscape or cityscape in one’s imaginary map, what this means and what this reinforces about our very basic relationships to the earth and what we repeatedly betray in our basic relationships to that thing called nature. Part of what [art] has the power to do is utterly reshape and recreate whatever we think that might look like. So [in my classes] we’re doing stuff with music and with cinema and poetry. All of those aesthetic remixes of place, or on place, are important to me.
A: So is that how this class on New York City came together?
REN: Yes, and I am interested in doing this with more than one site. So next year I’m going to teach a course on the [United States-Mexico] border. Eventually, I’ll do an L.A. course that will bring together Latino writers, Black American writers, and some Asian-American writers. So yeah, I guess the point is also to look at places that are startlingly different from what I think you all perceive of them at this point in time. [Especially] with what is loosely called the “Disneyfication” of New York City, of the New York City we’re looking at in “Midnight Cowboy” or in “Mean Streets” or in Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ poems, or what you’ll see when you read [Ralph] Ellison. It’s not the same as what is now experienced when Elmo tries to accost you in Times Square. It’s just another world.
I’m interested in how a place or a site to which one feels one belongs strongly is always changing. I’m not really interested in it as a static or historical object or artifact, but as something that connects to the lives of peoples and the stories that they tell.
A: I think it’s interesting how you’re bringing sound into all of this, too, because sound is also something that changes over time.
REN: Of course. Depending on the circumstances, [sound] is marked. It’s colored. There are really amazing theorists working in an area called sound studies. There are people like Fred Moten, Alex Weheliye, people who have been writing about this stuff for some time now, but within black studies. Sound studies has carved out a relationship to that, but also a separate space. I am interested in sound, and I’m interested in the fact that for so many musicians, the metaphors they use for how to conceptualize ordered sounds as notes or music are wacky. I was listening this morning to one of my neighbors’ dogs barking his head off. That, to me, is noise, in the way that water dripping through a pipe that needs to be sealed off can also be perceived as noise. And yet, instead, we can read that as having meaning or being something that then sets up a sense of rhythm or syncopation. I’m intrigued by these sorts of stories.
A: I guess it’s all about how you approach it, and how you approach listening in general.
REN: Yeah, listening—exactly. And because I write about sound and I write a little bit about jazz, this is something I hope to do more over time in relation to literature: to examine how [sounds] are housed and held in a narrative form or a poetic form or a filmic form.
I think a lot about music. I’m a very mediocre drummer–a consistently mediocre drummer—but yeah, I think that’s part of it, too, that there’s this attraction to trying to intellectualize something that you love, that you love hearing and that you love participating in. But I think I’m also just interested in movement, when you get maybe weirdly essentialist about it. Like, what is it that is somehow drawing me to poiesis and cinema and music, these forms that are themselves grounded on the importance of movement?
A: So what else are you teaching this semester?
REN: I’m teaching this course on the senses and the subject…it’s a poetry and cinema course. The course isn’t so much about being like, “This is the property of poetry and this is the property of cinema.” The interest is saying, what is it about the two [that overlap], for example, in their intense interest in the encounter of the human face? This is a big part of the history of lyric poems, bringing those encounters into poetic existence, often because they have been lost outside of the moment of the poem.
It’s fun to get to teach what you want. Because all of this connects to things that I’m reading and thinking about theoretically, beyond the immediate classroom space.
A: A lot of planning and strategizing must go into these multimedia courses.
REN: When I think of a course, I think of [Dante’s] “Purgatorio,” for example, in which you have this guide with you who’s going to travel with you up to a point, and then you’re up there and then you’re going to go off into the Paradiso by yourself. But of course, it should feel like a path. I want there to be an inheritance of what we talk about from one class to the next. I have to tell students sometimes who maybe want an epiphany earlier on, “Just trust the course, hold the hand of the guide and follow it.” I’m not really into epiphanies, anyway. As much as I was raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, I’m more into accretions and accumulations over time. This is how I think people learn: learn intimately, learn slowly. By learning slowly, you’re holding it closer to heart, I think. That’s also part of my mission: to slow you guys down, to get you all to read everything poetically, which is to say, slowly.
A: Was there something in particular about New York City that influenced you to make it the first of this series?
REN: I’ve spent some substantial chunks of time in New York. I mean, I wasn’t raised there by any means. But part of it is that here at Wesleyan, I want to teach classes where I have a diverse student body—I want to have students of color, I want to have women in the classroom, I want to have a bunch of empowered people taking my class, but who are also attracted to my classes for both intellectual and emotional reasons. …It’s also just my way of teaching my field, of teaching Latino literature with black diasporic and African American literature. [I hope to] give students some sort of concrete way of bringing all of those together.
To date, New York City and Los Angeles have been major pulls of Latino studies. And in as much as I’m not polarized by them, I’m interested in both. I’m just trying to find funky ways to do the literatures I read all the time.
I do feel like a sort of role model. As a Latina, I am interested in empowering people who identify thereby. I mean, I’m not a missionary, and it’s not the only reason I’m doing anything, but it does matter. It does factor into how I organize things. But generally, a lot of this is field driven: how to organize this in not the traditional way. And then what do I learn from that? Was it worthwhile? So far it feels like it is.
A: So it’s some of your own identity coming into it as well.
REN: Yeah, it already has. [Identity] would come into it no matter what you’re doing.
A: You’re relatively new to Wesleyan. How would you reflect on your time here so far?
REN: This is my second semester, and I like it so far. I believe in learning curves. I’m comfortable with them. I’m not scared, usually, by the sublime. I like steepness and contrast. So I feel like I’m learning here, still. I learned and I enjoyed the essays that my students wrote last semester; I was very pleased with what was written, and I have some repeat students, which I also take as a good sign. I think there’s a demand for what I’m teaching, there’s a demand for what the other newly hired English professor [Assistant Professor of English Lily Saint] is doing, and so I’m glad we’re here. And I’m glad students are responding well to it. I’m excited about writers I want to bring to campus. There are a lot of resources here; there’s a lot of support. Everyone’s been very encouraging and welcoming.
Before this, I did post-doc stuff, and I was adjuncting as well. I was in very good places, but it’s nice to be somewhere and feel like you can take on traction—that you can dig in and move with ground beneath your feet.
This article was edited for length.