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Sunday, April 15th: Dr. Fred Steier

Fred Steier is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, and a member of the Humanities Institute Faculty Advisory Board. His Ph.D. is from the University of Pennsylvania, and his research focuses on cybernetics and systems approaches, reflexivity, action research, and organizational communication. He chose “Visions of Johanna,” by Bob Dylan.

One criterion of a favorite poem that comes to mind for me is the quality of surprise - in the sense that key lines from the poem appear when you might least expect them and create a persistence of engagement even though you didn’t invite them in. And that persistence of engagement brings a smile to your face as the key lines also evoke the poem as a whole. It’s kind of like the now increasingly rare front door pop-in visit from a friend (even those you know will overstay the visit, but yet you are glad to see them, and don’t worry about how the place is a mess).

With the pop-in in mind, my favorite poem is Bob Dylan’s Visions of Johanna. I suppose this could be seen as a strange choice because in a technical sense it is not even a poem, but a song. At the same time, for me, it’s the very lyrical and poetic quality of Visions of Johanna that has haunted me since first hearing it on Blonde on Blonde, back in my undergraduate days of 1966 (when pop-ins were still ok). In fact, its, for me, rather puzzling and distinctly non-easily-hummable melody adds to its poetic power.

And ever since that first hearing, I find lines from Visions of Johanna surfacing in odd places and situations, inviting wonderful conversations of ambiguous meaning-making with the poem as I have long ago let go of controlling when and where Dylan, through Johanna (or is it Louise?) invites himself in.

For example: I am a distance runner, and have been for most of my adult life, although the pace and quality of my running has certainly dissipated over the years. The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami writes eloquently about running and writing in his “What I talk about when I talk about running” and on reading this recently, it made me think about what I think about when I think about running – and, more to the point, what I think about when running, as the miles, solitary or with colleagues, seem to invite lines from Dylan into my head. And making an appearance most often and in unpredictable ways are lines, and entire poem, from Visions of Johanna.

On one occasion, I spent an entire marathon puzzling over the lyrics. Of course, you are supposed to focus on running itself, on your breathing, your rhythm, when racing, but on this occasion the drifting afforded by Visions of Johanna seemed to help me glide along. It helped that the course – the Penn Relays marathon – was not one where there was much traffic to be negotiated.

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin’ to be so quiet.

There it was right on the starting line, showing up totally uninvited as I wondered why, in spite of having plenty of horizontal time the night before, the night indeed did play tricks in its silence keeping me awake. Was I rested enough? The line kept reappearing, itself playing tricks on me, for the first 3 miles or so until we rounded the front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Fortunately, the course did not have us “Rocky”ing up the steps, but just past there, who shows up but:

Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial.

As we headed out along the Schuylkill River, this line kept reappearing, turning back on itself, as questions of the infinite recursively opened up other questions about museums, and then questions about questions, etc. etc., etc, step after step after step. Was the river itself a museum? Am I a museum, inviting the infinite? Shouldn’t I be focusing more on the race? And yet Visions of Johanna was offering me a curious calm as I played with its evocative ambiguity.

And then, on the return journey coasting along on the Wissahickon Bridle Path, making a rather surprise appearance (was it the woman on the bicycle riding in the opposite direction?)

The ghost of ‘lectricity howls in the bones of her face

And so on for the rest of the marathon.

This was just one race, made memorable because I am convinced that the evocation of the lines relaxed me – in spite of, or perhaps because of my puzzling over the lines whose meaning kept shifting as I ran along – in ways that you cannot plan for no matter how hard you try, needing to let go of control here. But isn’t that what a good poem does?

It is not just this one occasion. Visions of Johanna continues to reappear even on easy runs. The lines enter, they disappear, only to reappear in a race, on a path, each time inviting a new and even more evocatively ambiguous meaning, as the lines become associated with the place they appear, a trail in the woods, a traverse across a golf course. Is this a way to judge a favorite poem? Who knows, but it works for me, in spite of the fact that writing this has itself become a marathon as the joy of the uninvited guest of “the ghost of ‘lectricity” interrupts my writing. Ain’t it just like the night . . .

Visions Of Johanna, by Bob Dylan (b. 1941).

Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re tryin' to be so quiet?
We sit here stranded, though we’re all doin’ our best to deny it And Louise holds a
handful of rain, temptin’ you to defy it Lights flicker from the opposite loft In this room the
heat pipes just cough The country music station plays soft But there’s nothing, really
nothing to turn off Just Louise and her lover so entwined And these visions of Johanna
that conquer my mind.

In the empty lot where the ladies play blindman’s bluff with the key chain And the all-
night girls they whisper of escapades out on the “D” train We can hear the night
watchman click his flashlight Ask himself if it’s him or them that’s really insane Louise,
she’s all right, she’s just near She’s delicate and seems like the mirror But she just
makes it all too concise and too clear That Johanna’s not here The ghost of ’lectricity
howls in the bones of her face Where these visions of Johanna have now taken my

Now, little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously He brags of his misery, he likes to live
dangerously And when bringing her name up He speaks of a farewell kiss to me He’s
sure got a lotta gall to be so useless and all Muttering small talk at the wall while I’m in
the hall How can I explain?
Oh, it’s so hard to get on
And these visions of Johanna, they kept me up past the dawn.

Inside the museums, Infinity goes up on trial Voices echo this is what salvation must be
like after a while But Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues You can tell by the way
she smiles See the primitive wallflower freeze When the jelly-faced women all sneeze
Hear the one with the mustache say, “Jeeze I can’t find my knees”
Oh, jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule But these visions of Johanna,
they make it all seem so cruel.

The peddler now speaks to the countess who’s pretending to care for him Sayin’, “Name
me someone that’s not a parasite and I’ll go out and say a prayer for him”
But like Louise always says
“Ya can’t look at much, can ya man?”
As she, herself, prepares for him
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed The fiddler, he now steps to the road He
writes ev’rything’s been returned which was owed On the back of the fish truck that
loads While my conscience explodes The harmonicas play the skeleton keys and the
rain And these visions of Johanna are now all that remain.

Listen to Dylan sing "Visions of Johanna"

Monday, April 16th: Coach Skip Holtz

Skip Holtz has been Head Coach of the USF Bulls football team since 2010, coming to USF from East Carolina University. His choice is popular among sports coaches, and was often recited by his father, Coach Lou Holtz. Though often described as anonymous, it is generally attributed to Skip Myslenski and Linda Kay.

This poem is very important to me because it is a reminder that every day we choose our attitude. Our attitude defines whether we will succeed or fail. It is just a reminder of how much we can get done when we are positive and build, rather than be negative and tear down.

The Builder, by Skip Myslenski & Linda Kay

I saw a group of men in my hometown.
                I saw a group of men tearing a building down.

With a heave and a ho and a mighty yell,
                they swung a beam and a side wall fell.

And I asked the foreman, are these men skilled;
                the type you would hire if you wanted to build?

And he laughed and said “Why no indeed, common
                labor is all I need. For I can tear down in a
                day or two what it takes a builder 10 years to do.”

And I asked myself as I walked away, which of
                these roles do I want to play?

Tuesday, April 17th: English Department Chair, Dr. Hunt Hawkins

Hunt Hawkins is Professor and Chair of English, and a member of the Humanities Institute Advisory Board. His Ph.D. is from Stanford, and he came to USF in 2006. His academic specializations are modern British Literature and postcolonial literature, and he is an accomplished and award-winning poet. He chose “somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond,” by e.e. Cummings.

I first got excited about poetry in high school when I encountered Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and e. e. cummings among others. They wrote exuberant, splashy, unconventional poems that caught my imagination. For cummings, I liked his embrace of love and nature, his anarchism and pacifism, and his rebel typography (only later realizing it often concealed formal structures). Most of all, these poets showed that language didn't have to be simply utilitarian. You could play with it and do more.

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond, by e. e. cummings (1894 -1962)

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skilfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

Listen to cummings read his poem.

Wednesday, April 18th: Dr. Annette Cozzi

Annette Cozzi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities & Cultural Studies and a member of the Humanities Institute Advisory Board. She received her PhD in British Literature from Tulane University in 2005. She studies the relationships among food, literature, and the construction of British national identity in the nineteenth century. She selected “Toast” by Brook Sadler.

My favorite poem, "Toast," is by my friend Brook Sadler, who is a professor in the Philosophy department. It is not really typical of her usual style, which is fiercely intelligent, edgy, and brimming with a raw emotional power not foregrounded here. But it still has an emotional impact—and one that is invaluable to me: it makes me happy. It is on my refrigerator door, and it cheers me every time I look at it. I am delighted by the gorgeousness of her language; I am brightened by the ebullience of its spirit; I am reminded to cherish simple pleasures; but most of all I am inspired by how she has transformed something so humble and mundane—so commonplace and "unpoetic"—into art.

Toast, by Brook Sadler

Oh, wild blackberry jam, your galaxy of seeds,
your summer’s night, your bruised kiss!

Oh, apricot preserves! Your luscious,
sun-drenched curves spooning
like nudes asleep amidst the dunes!

Oh, strawberry jelly, your impeccable taste,
your red velvet robes, stitched with specks of gold!
Your highborn grace!

Oh, orange marmalade, bitter as you may be!
Still, your pith, your wit, a tang,
a sparkling jelly nonetheless!

Oh, red currant and black currant, you dears!
How different your dress!

Oh, raspberry, dare we speak your name!
Your exquisite form, your shameless color!
Your plump heart! You unforgettable tart, you!

Even you, grape. You humble spread
elevated by a Tyrian purple drape.

Oh, where would you be without toast?

Thursday, April 19th: Dean of the Graduate School and Associate VP for Research & Innovation, Dr. Karen Liller

Karen Liller is Dean of the Graduate School and Associate Vice President for Research & Innovation , as well as being Professor in the College of Public Health. She received her Ph.D. from USF, and specializes in public health and injury prevention. She chose “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe.

The reason for this is that since I can remember my father recited this poem to the family, as he did so many others from the works of Poe. My father loved reading poetry, which might be a surprise to some, since he was a banking executive in Florida and Pennsylvania and knew the world of accounting better than anyone I have ever known. He was a very strong man and wonderful father. However, he did have this side also that loved poetry. This poem is beautiful. I was very close to my father and when he passed from this world in 2007 this poem was read. Three years later my great-niece was named Annabelle.

Annabel Lee, by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Watch an animated rendition of this poem.

Friday, April 20th: Doctoral Student and Special Assistant to the Provost, Stephanie Williams

Stephanie Williams is Special Assistant to Provost Ralph Wilcox, and is also a doctoral student in the Department of Government and International Affairs. She chose “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why),” by Nikki Giovanni.

This is my favorite poem of all time. My mom gave me a book of Nikki Giovanni poems when I was in junior high school. I didn't have many friends in school and my teachers were very unsupportive. This poem made me feel special.

Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why), by Nikki Giovanni (b. 1943).

I was born in the congo
I walked to the fertile crescent and built
      the sphinx
I designed a pyramid so tough that a star
      that only glows every one hundred years falls
      into the center giving divine perfect light
I am bad

I sat on the throne
      drinking nectar with allah
I got hot and sent an ice age to europe
      to cool my thirst
My oldest daughter is nefertiti
      the tears from my birth pains
      created the nile
I am a beautiful woman

I gazed on the forest and burned
      out the sahara desert
      with a packet of goat's meat
      and a change of clothes
I crossed it in two hours
I am a gazelle so swift
      so swift you can't catch me

      For a birthday present when he was three
I gave my son hannibal an elephant
      He gave me rome for mother's day
My strength flows ever on

My son noah built new/ark and
I stood proudly at the helm
      as we sailed on a soft summer day
I turned myself into myself and was
      men intone my loving name
      All praises All praises
I am the one who would save
I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
      the filings from my fingernails are
      semi-precious jewels
      On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
I am so hip even my errors are correct
I sailed west to reach east and had to round off
      the earth as I went
      The hair from my head thinned and gold was laid
      across three continents
I am so perfect so divine so ethereal so surreal
I cannot be comprehended except by my permission

I mean...I...can fly
      like a bird in the sky...

Listen to a reading of this poem.

Saturday, April 21st: Director of the USF Office of Community Engagement, Dr. Elizabeth Strom

Elizabeth Strom is Associate Professor in Geography, Environmental Sciences, and Planning, and is Director of the USF Office of Community Engagement. She holds a PhD in Political Science from the City University of New York, and her research interests include housing policy, community development, and downtown development. She chose “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” by Richard Hugo.

What I love about Hugo's poetry is the driving rhythm. Today we may have a better appreciation of the musical qualities of the spoken word, but when I encountered Hugo's poetry in the early 1970s, pre rap and hip-hop, the strong beat of his work was striking. I also like the deceptive simplicity of his language—this is especially true of his "letter" poems (such as a favorite of mine, “Letter to Matthews from Barton Street Flats,” but can be seen throughout his work. It seems so informal, so conversational, but it's actually rich and evocative. When I was in high school I had two wonderful English teachers who were poets and "followers" of Hugo—they actually brought him to our school to read his work. When I read one of his poems I can hear it in his voice.

Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg, by Richard Hugo (1923-1982)
You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn't last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he's done.

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can't wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs--
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won't fall finally down.

Isn't this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn't this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don't empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?

Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I'll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You're talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it's mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.