Transatlantic Walt Whitman Association Week

From June 12-17, I had the amazing privilege of attending the tenth annual Transatlantic Walt Whitman Association (TWWA) Week, held this year at the Université Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne in Paris, France. Each year, the seminar brings together scholars and students from around the world to study Walt Whitman in what I can only describe as an incredibly refreshing, energetic, and inspiring way. The event was powerful and motivating, and at the very least deserves a blog post.

The students of the 10th annual TWWA Week.

Each day began with four 15-minute presentations from a panel of Whitman scholars- Jeanne Cortiel (Bayreuth Univerität), Vincent Dussol (Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3), Karen Karbiener (NYU), and Peter Riley (University of Exeter). These presentations were one of the most valuable aspects of the seminar for me. They were, in a way, “mini-lessons” on different aspects of Whitman studies. On Wednesday morning, for example, Karen discussed Charles Hines’ 1860 colored portrait of a notably red-faced Whitman and how it related to “Calamus 29,” Whitman’s time at Pfaff’s beer cellar (and the introduction of lagers during this period), and the reflective, inward-facing 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, while Peter’s presentation examined the collapse of the body into the book (and vice versa) and issues of commodification and labor involved in Whitman’s poetry and publications. Jeanne analyzed “Earth, My Likeness,” in which Whitman “dares not” try to describe the earth, in comparison to his very unabashed descriptions of earth in “Song of Myself,” and Vincent wrote his own 15 line poem that summarized “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” which he suggests was influenced by Poe’s “The Raven.”

The four expert panelists during a Q&A session.

These were four presentations by four experts with distinctly different perspectives and teaching styles, and that’s what made each morning so rich. As somebody who teaches Whitman and previously did not feel adequately equipped to do Whitman’s poetry justice in my classes, I found these presentations to be stimulating models of lessons I could incorporate into my own classes. And, of course, by the end of the fifth day of these presentations, I felt confident in my now detailed knowledge of Whitman’s life, of the various editions of Leaves of Grass, and of the work that current scholars are producing on Whitman.

Each day also featured small-group sessions in which students would analyze the texts closely under the guidance of one or more faculty members (and when I say “small-group sessions,” I mean it— groups contained only 5-6 students). These sessions were an opportunity for students to bring their own literary expertise to the texts, to perform close readings, to ask questions, and to become exposed to even more perspectives. On two of the days, the small-group sessions centered on the students’ own translations of Whitman into their native languages, adding a new dimension of complexity to the corpus of Whitman’s works and my understanding of translated texts in general. I should pause to say that students were from all over the world- South Africa, Singapore, Kazakhstan, Syria, Venezuela, Germany, France, Italy, the US, etc. The result of this diversity was a potent fecundity of critical thought- varying world perspectives, differences in methodological and theoretical training, and subtle and explicit nuances in each language that affected translations and called for constructive dialogues and new ways of thinking about texts, translations, and language. Add to this the input and guidance of the expert translators, also from different backgrounds— Marina Camboni (Università degli Studi di Macerata), Mario Corona (Università degli Studi di Bergamo), Marta Skwara (University of Szczecin), and Éric Athenot (Université de Paris-Est Créteil)— and one can begin to imagine just how special these sessions were.

I’ll keep this from going on too long by concluding with a few notes about the general atmosphere of the week. Yes, it was intellectually stimulating and academically rigorous— that is certain. But there was a powerful energy that permeated every aspect of the event, and I think that this energy was the most central element of the week’s success. We started the week by holding hands (as strangers) in a large circle. By midway through the week, students and faculty alike were tearing up during readings and discussions. By the end of the symposium on Saturday, this group of individuals from all over the world had become a family that, appropriately enough, reflected the ideals that Whitman’s poetry propounds- the ideals of inclusivity, celebration, openness, and sharing. The UPEC students who hosted the international students were essential to this- they took us into their homes, they fed us, they showed us the city and immersed us in the magical nightlife (shoutout to my host, Duy, for making my week absolutely unforgettable). And finally, the week would not have been the week it was without the incredible, hard work of Marie Olivier and Éric Athenot, who organized the event.

Marie Olivier (out of picture) took a group of us students to the Jardin des Grands Explorateurs for drinks and snacks!

I don’t know whether I’ll be able to attend again next year in Dortmund, Germany, but I will certainly try to be involved in one way or another when the event comes to NY in 2019. Thanks again to all who made the event such a success (and, of course, in the true spirit of Walt Whitman, every single person who was involved contributed to and was an essential piece of its success)!
Post Script: Special thanks to the Stony Brook University English Department for covering my travel costs to get to such a prestigious and worthwhile event!

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