‘Poetics of Place’: Exploring Connecticut through literature
When Yale English professor Alanna Hickey designed her first-year seminar “Poetics of Place: Literature In/of Connecticut” it was partly for selfish reasons. It was an opportunity for Hickey, a new faculty member and recent transplant from the Midwest, to orient herself to Yale and Connecticut.
What Hickey, an assistant professor in the Department of English and a new educator, didn’t anticipate is that she would go on a journey of discovery about Connecticut and its literature right alongside her students.
In developing this course, Hickey says she was “trying to identify a set of commitments and communities both within and outside of Yale to understand the long history of literary production within these territories and my place in this history as a newcomer to Yale and to Connecticut.”
The Yale scholar focuses her research and teaching on the intersections between early American literatures, poetry, and poetics, Native American and Indigenous studies, and settler colonial studies.
In the course “Poetics of Place,” students were asked to consider literature’s particular relationship to space by reading past and present literature about Connecticut. The course objectives — which were to be modified with her students, Hickey noted on the syllabus — included surveying texts written within and about the territory that now constitutes Connecticut. Hickey also challenged her students to develop an ethical relationship to their surroundings by analyzing theoretical texts on occupation, environmental responsibility, historical narration, and communal reciprocity.
Hickey paired some of the readings in the course with visits to various locations at Yale and in Connecticut to further reinforce the themes that she identified for her students.
“So many of the thinkers in Native and Indigenous studies that I have learned from are interested in long histories of our territories in an effort to understand the places our institutions occupy. I wanted to design a course that would give me and my students a way into that history and to think about the many competing, simultaneous claims on this space in literature,” she says.
YaleNews spoke with Hickey about her “Poetics of Place” course and what the literature the class studied reveals about Connecticut, what she is most excited about being on the faculty at Yale, and what she and her students learned from each other.
What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
What did you and your students discover from this course?
One of the many powerful texts we read in the class was William Grimes’ “Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave.” Grimes was a fugitive slave who settled in New Haven in the early 19th century. He opened a barber shop and started his family here. He was a very well-established member of the New Haven community when his master located him and demanded that he pay for his freedom or return to slavery. Grimes found himself in destitute poverty after having to surrender his shop to come up with the money to pay for his freedom. In order to achieve some financial stability after this loss, Grimes wrote and published the story of his life. It is the first fugitive slave narrative written by an American-born ex-slave and it stands as a devastating portrait of the hardships of freedom. Grimes’s narrative gives us a set of coordinates so we can see exactly where he was in New Haven, and what his experience in this place was like. We were able to locate Connecticut newspaper articles eulogizing him after his death, and the class visited his grave in Grove Street Cemetery to pay tribute to him as best we could. Through this narrative and other readings, we were able to get a sense of the public figures that made Connecticut what it was during different — and often difficult — moments in this history.
One unexpected discovery that we made as a class is that some of the 20th century literature about Connecticut provides us with a disappointingly two-dimensional portrait of this place. For instance, “Revolutionary Road,” a novel written in 1961 by Richard Yates, is about the failure of the American dream in suburbia and the disenchantment of a couple as they settle down into married life. Here and in Ira Levin’s “The Stepford Wives,” Connecticut is portrayed as a kind of place-less place in which an urban elite play out a set of national anxieties.
For their final projects, I asked my students to bring questions of community engagement, historical representation, and place-making to one of the primary texts on the syllabus and to conduct extensive research around this text and the political issues it addressed. Many of their projects were not born directly from the texts but were inspired by the organizing principles of the course. For example, we watched the film version of “The Stepford Wives” about the failure of the women’s liberation movement in Stepford, Connecticut. This inspired one student to correct this misconception of Connecticut by writing about the women’s liberation movement in Connecticut as it actually existed. She interviewed some of her relatives to understand what it was like to be here in the 1960s and 1970s, and what women’s organizing looked like in New Haven during that period and today.
How does literary writing structure our encounter with our surroundings in both obvious and imperceptible ways?
This is always a question in my mind. In addition to reading literary texts in class, we’ve also been thinking about literature rather expansively. I want my students to consider how our textual engagement structures our lived experiences and vice versa. We went to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum to see how this Indigenous community chronicles their history. We were given a tour of their incredible space and were asked to consider a narrative of this territory that exists outside of the story Connecticut tells about itself. It was powerful experience that I was grateful to share with my students.
We had also done some reading from William Cronon’s book “Changes in the Land,” which is about the ways that colonization literally disrupted and changed the geography of New England. We paired with a visit to the Yale Farm, where we heard more about the ecological history that makes New Haven what it is today.
As a class on the literature of Connecticut, we of course had to read modernist poet and long-time Hartford resident Wallace Stevens. Much of his poetry represents and recreates a primary encounter with the natural environment that shapes the speaker’s internal and external life. He describes a kind of religiously imaginative experience with the world around him. Some of Stevens’ writing is very particular to Connecticut, including his long poem “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.” In it, Wallace contrasts an abstract longing for heaven with what he calls “The instinct for earth, for New Haven, for his room.” New Haven comes to represent the promise of something real and experiential for the speaker.
What excites you most about being a faculty member here at Yale?
I feel incredibly lucky to be able to work with students who are so bright, committed, and earnest in their thinking. It is such a privilege to be able to think with such inquisitive and dedicated young scholars. Planning this course has been an education in the wonderful resources that exist on this campus, and I’m eager to continue to build connections here.
What are you learning from your students?
As an educator, I think you have to become professionalized in certain ways, and I’m relearning curiosity from my students. Because the “Poetics of Place” was a new course, my students came with me on a journey while I was teaching the class, and we discovered things together. I was able to really live in some of these texts with my students, ask questions, not know the answers, and say “Let’s find out together.” I’ve been genuinely and pleasantly surprised by how generous the students are with one another, their willingness to share what they know, and be candid about what they don’t yet understand. They also ask each other questions — which is, I think, quite rare. The most exciting things happen when students really start interrogating alongside one another as co-collaborators.
What do you hope your students learn from you?
I try to model a kind of generosity in the classroom. I want my students to learn to be critical about their surroundings, still curious, but not cynical. I want them to dig a little deeper; that is what this class has ended up being about. They may think they already know everything there is to know about this place, but I expect them to ask the next question and reflect on the set of assumptions and perspectives they carry with them. Hopefully that’s a kind of commitment that they take with them beyond their studies at Yale.