Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 26, 2020

Hopkins professors showcase their work

By EMILY WHITNEY | December 6, 2018

Dora Malech and Danielle Evans, two professors in the Writing Seminars department, read their new works to a packed audience in Gilman Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 27. Arriving at the starting time, every seat in the room was taken, so I squatted in the back, on the floor with other students who sat in the aisles and along the walls. 

A new professor, Danielle Evans teaches fiction with the department and had accomplished multitudes before coming to Hopkins. She graduated from Columbia University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, before embarking on a career as a short story writer. Her stories appeared in The Paris Review, A Public Space and were also anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2010, The Best American Short Stories 2011 and The Best American Short Stories 2017. In 2011, Evans won the PEN/Robert Bingham Prize and became an honoree of the National Book Foundation as a “5 Under 35” fiction writer. It’s quite an impressive resume.

Dora Malech teaches poetry with the department and graduated from Yale University with an art degree before deciding on a career as a different kind of artist: a poet. She authored four poetry books: Shore Ordered Ocean, Say So, Stet and the upcoming Flourish. Her poems appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The Best American Poetry, American Letters and Commentary, Tin House and Poetry London. She also received the Amy Clampitt Residency Award and a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, among a plethora of other awards. 

Evans was the first reader, explaining that she normally likes to try out new material, but chose to read a section from her story “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” this time. The story follows Rena, a well-traveled photojournalist, at the wedding of her friend Dori. Dori has waited 10 years for her high school sweetheart JT to return and marry her, and their wedding day finally approaches. To complicate things, Rena and JT crossed paths several years before, sharing an intimate and difficult time as detainees. Rena arrives at the place of the wedding, navigates Dori’s bachelorette party, and remembers the beginnings of her relationship with both Dori and JT. 

Evans’ story captivated the room. The backdrop of a wedding makes for natural drama, and the story is tense as the clock ticks closer to the special day. The characters in the story are uncertain and melancholic; Evans illuminates how the expectations of big events like this always fall short. Her writing is often very funny, honing in on the absurd occurrences in life, yet serious at the same time, showing the way these events carry weight and stick in the memory. In identifying these moments, Evans writes some deeply memorable passages such as, “All her adult life people have asked Rena why she goes to such dangerous places, and she has always wanted to ask them where the safe place is.” I found myself rushing to jot down this quote. In the context of the story, it’s clear that home is much harder for Rena to visit than her professional destinations. 

After the story finished, Malech replaced Evans at the stand. Malech introduced her first pieces from her third book of poetry, Stet. She explained how she became obsessed with recombinant forms such as anagrams, where she rearranged the letters of another poet’s original phrase to form different words. For example, some poems in the book are made up of an anagram of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Metaphors.” “Metaphors” lists off a bunch of things that the poem “is,” such as a melon strolling on two tendrils, an elephant or a ponderous horse. Malech’s poems end up sounding quite similar but each takes on very different meanings. This is a way, she said, of making and remaking ends. She mentioned that some of her poems dealt with the final months of her pregnancy, an “end” she wanted to thematically address.

Malech’s poems were musical and rhythmic; she arranged words with similar sounds close to each other, making everything feel anagrammed. For example, the poem “Flourish” begins, “Clematis, sweet pea, sweet alyssum / sweet asylum.” The similar words and sibilance create new meaning when placed together, and sound nearly like tongue-twisters. As Malech reads her poems, she enunciates the syllables clearly. Every single word down to the letter felt expertly calculated and precise. 

The reading displayed the great creative talent in the department. It’s one thing to hear the critiques from professors but another thing to hear how they craft their own artwork. 

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