Thursday, May 10, 2012


One of the undergrad ceremonies at UNI
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. You are the guy who'll decide where to go.”
-Dr. Seuss

There weren't as many people at the Graduate ceremony as at the undergrad ceremonies, but I'd guess probably around 1500-2000. On Friday evening, I had the distinct pleasure of giving the commencement address to the Graduate college. It was great to be recognized for my work and to share that writing with so many others. I think it was the largest crowd I've ever spoken in front of. The more I think about it, the story of how I got the job is pretty interesting.

In 2009, my teaching position was eliminated. I'd always told myself I wanted to go back to graduate school at some point, so it only seemed like the best time to do it. I looked around for MA in creative writing programs and found that there were basically none in Minnesota, but a few in Iowa. I came down here for a visit and that settled it. Though I didn't know anyone, I took a gamble and moved down here. In the fall of 2010, I registered for classes but was unable to get into one of the ones I wanted. As a replacement, I registered for an ecopoetry class which ended up being one of the best classes I had at UNI. During the class, I wrote a series of responses to books of poetry we read. They were assignments, but I enjoyed writing them. One in particular stuck out. My professor Jeremy Schraffenberger said I had a very natural nonfiction voice and encouraged me to present the brief paper at the graduate student symposium. I took second place in the creative division, then in the fall of 2011 I presented the same paper at the Spiritus Loci conference in Anderson Indiana, where I took first in the graduate student creative division. In April of this year, I got an email from the president of the graduate college asking if I could perform the graduate commencement speech. Excited, I told him I would and he remarked that he'd particularly enjoyed my essay at the graduate symposium. It's so interesting to me how it all worked out. I came here knowing almost no one and ended up receiving recognition for my work by the university in front of so many people I never knew. I am so grateful to those who helped me along the way. I know I wouldn't have made it without their encouragement.

Here is the final copy of my commencement speech for UNI for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

Commencement Address
            President Allen, members of the platform party, faculty members, ladies and gentlemen, fellow graduates.
What does it mean to be a graduate student?
            The combination of words sound like an oxymoron. When I first heard them put together, they had me confused. I thought, if you’ve graduated, then you’re done, right? There’s no more left to say. I’d heard of people getting their Master’s Degrees and college professors having earned their doctorates. We’ve probably had a few people in our lives that have expressed similar confusions about the term “graduate student,” and more to the point have been confused as to why we needed more schooling.
            “Aren’t you done, yet?”
            “How many more years do you have to go?”
            “What more is there to possibly know?”
            The decision to become a graduate student is not an easy one. It’s a bigger commitment than a bachelor’s degree. It demonstrates a seriousness about the work you choose to do. The most obvious feature of it is taking more classes, many of which require deeper and more challenging work than undergraduate courses. It means more stress in our lives, writing longer papers, doing more research. For some, it may mean the difficult task of working a full-time job while taking night classes, leaving them with more than one boss who expects nothing less than the best. It means taking comprehensive exams and writing thesis papers which require months of planning and development. It may mean taking out more student loans or stretching our financial budget to the point of eating cheap dinners and experimenting with whatever food’s left in the fridge, wondering how long a carton of eggs or a gallon of milk will last past their expiration dates and asking ourselves one of life’s most important questions: am I a Ramen person or Easy-Mac?
            Being an English major, I’m fascinated by word origins and their meanings. Naturally, I looked up the term “graduate” and found that it was derived from Latin, meaning “to take a degree, or a step.” How poignant. What is the life of a graduate student, or the experience of graduation but just another step forward towards our own life goals? We have gone through the long hours of high school, the years of our undergraduate work where many of us had our first “real-world” experiences, endured the countless hours of extra study and stress that accompanied us during graduate school and now have arrived here, taking the next step.
            A big question facing us now is what next? Some of us are going to continue with the current jobs we have as more informed and more productive workers. Some of us face the task of joining and rejoining the workforce, looking for jobs and getting ourselves out there, slowly building ourselves up in new positions. Some of us still have more schooling ahead at other universities and institutions. 
But in the years to come, we will all take one step together. We will continue to learn. Graduate school has been about learning and furthering our desire to learn. At UNI, with the aid of professors and administrators, friends and family, we’ve culminated a wealth of knowledge. To be a graduate student must mean we have an interest in the fields we’ve chosen, enough to go back for more, but also that we have a passion for learning, for wanting to know more about the world around us. You can’t spend four or five years as an undergraduate, followed by more schooling without that passion. Ours is the practice of expanding our minds as a way to better ourselves and our environment. We are addicted to information.
In the years to come, it must surely be our task to continue that passion, to feed that addiction. We all know that learning is a life-long process. We know that it doesn’t stop at graduation. It doesn’t stop at the stage, or when you get home, or even settle in to a new job. We cannot afford to lose this desire. Once that flame goes out, it may be hard to relight. Once that flame goes out, we get too comfortable with ourselves and may lose our capacity for empathy and compassion, our need to understand others.
            Today is graduation. Today we are getting another degree. Today it can be visibly proven that we know more than we did years ago, when we first started and may have faced criticism from the naysayers. “Aren’t you done yet?” they’d asked us. Our response to that question, even today, is “no.” “What more is there possibly to learn?” they’d ask. And, even today, the answer is “much.” Graduation is taking a step forward in our education, but it’s not the last one.
            Thank you and good luck to the class of 2012.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On the Subject of Biopics

Sylvia Plath

“I write only because 

There is a voice within me 

That will not be still” 

On the Subject of Biopics

The other night I was by myself and a tad bored, so I did what typically comes naturally for me. I hopped on NetFlix and browsed their “New Releases” and “Recently Added” movies. Finding few things of interest there, I started looking for movies about one of my favorite topics: mental illness. Psychology has always been a fascinating subject for me and as someone who is addicted to creating fictional people with interesting problems living in interesting situations, I love learning about how the brain works. I didn’t find a lot on NetFlix after doing a keyword search and then I started to realize what I really wanted to watch, one that for some reason I’d never gotten around to renting over the years.

Sylvia, directed by Christine Jeffs, stars Gwyneth Paltrow as the poet Sylvia Plath, and Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes, her husband. I’ve always loved reading Sylvia Plath’s poetry since I first encountered it. Sadly to this day, she remains one of that unfortunate series of poets I love, but have only read in anthologies. Plath herself seems to be remembered by the laypeople more as the tragic artist figure than for her moving, confessional poetry. Like Anne Sexton, Hart Crane, John Kennedy Toole, John Berryman, Ernest Hemmingway, and Virginia Woolf, Plath’s death was a suicide. People seem to know that she stuck her head in an oven and few can name her poems, let alone their topics. I wanted to watch Sylvia because I wanted to know more about Plath’s life and I simply don’t have the time or the inclination to read a biography. For the most part, I also think Gwyneth Paltrow is a talented actress. As an added bonus for me, some of the movie was filmed at Cambridge University, a place I enjoyed visiting on a trip to England, and also where Plath attended college on a Fulbright Scholarship.

I watched the movie half the movie and was enjoying it. Paltrow’s performance was deep and believable. I found it an interesting casting decision for the filmmakers to include Blythe Danner, Paltrow’s actual mother, as Plath’s mother. If you watch movies by yourself and have a laptop, you probably do what I do and look up the film’s Wikipedia page during a lull. Frieda Hughes, Plath’s only surviving child, her son having committed suicide in 2009, was outraged at the making of the film. She even went so far as to write a rage poem which she published in Tatler. Frieda Hughes’s issue with the film might not have been so much with the film itself, but the making of it. Understandable. They were making a difficult time in her life into entertainment for the public’s sake. I stopped watching the movie after I read that, feeling a little guilty but also realizing it was time to leave soon anyway. I’m sure I’ll return to it later.

I think Frieda Hughes’s complaint is an accurate one for her to make, based on her experience. I can’t even imagine some of the emotional pain that Frieda has had to go through. Making a film of those experiences forces a person to relive that time in his/her life. I would imagine that Holocaust survivors shy away from films about Auschwitz. Some may even be upset that they are made. The frustrating thing about biopics is that they often overdramatize events at the altar of entertainment. People’s lives rarely have “arcs” like they do in fiction, so character arcs are created and teased out in order to make a story.


Well-made biopics also can be informative and encourage learning. After having watched John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti, I feel more informed on some aspects of the Revolutionary War and have the urge to sit down and read 1776 over the summer. Having watched the first half of Sylvia, I know more about aspects of Plath’s life, some I’d forgotten and some that were totally new to me. Biopics have a tendency of being formulaic at times, but those that are approached with respect for the person of interest are worthwhile. It may suck for people like Frieda Hughes, but I feel that if it informs others about a person’s life and most importantly makes the person in question more sympathetic, then all the better.

Check out this moving video of Plath reading her own poetry.

"Daddy" by Sylvia Plath