Essay to Book to Blog

Began this entry on Friday, June 13, 8:30 am

In my application to be a 38th Voyager, I envisioned that my final product from the experience would be an open-ended essay enriched by my experience as a Melville scholar and a teacher of Moby-Dick. My plan was to begin keeping a journal during the trip to Mystic for the Training Day and to simply see what evolved from there. I was envisioning the essay itself as a work of creative non-fiction, a work which the immediacy of a lived experience can be enriched by imaginative associations ranging from the broadly cultural to the deeply personal (which describes quite well the wordscape of Moby-Dick in relation to Melville’s original whaling voyage).

By the time I was finishing the journal entry for my Training Day as my plane was landing in Cincinnati, it was already clear that the length of what I was writing more closely resembled the first chapter of a book than the prologue of an essay. As I finished up the last week of the Spring Semester, saw my students present their final projects in Dickinson and the Arts, and began to sort and store all of the classroom materials to clear the decks for the voyage itself, I realized that the process of making the transition from the classroom to the whale ship was itself worthy of mention in the narrative I now was writing. As I was writing the section I am calling “Stowing Down and Scanning the Horizon,” I already felt that this was the beginning of a new chapter-length section, one that I quickly named “All Astir” after the chapter in which Ishmael describes preparations for his own voyage in Moby-Dick. Just as Ishmael writes in the “Advocate” chapter that “the whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard,” so was my college classroom now buoying me out to the whale ship.

“All Astir” has been interesting to write because of the way one thing leads to another. I love the improvisational nature of creative non-fiction of this sort, where you do not know where you are going until the process takes you there. As I thought of this project eventually becoming a book maybe two years from now (that is, if I found a publisher), I realized how much of the immediacy of the experience would necessarily be lost. Also, as I transcribed one journal entry after another into my Microsoft Word document, I kept inserting images would make excellent illustrations for whatever I was writing. It almost began to hurt to insert some of these pictures when I realized that ninety percent of the photos themselves, as well as much of their immediacy, would be lost if this project were published only as a book several years from now. With regard to immediacy, consider the image I am posting immediately below that Mary K Bercaw Edwards sent as an email attachment this morning. It was taken six days ago by her former student Nathan Adams from the deck of the Charles W. Morgan in the first trial voyage out of New London to see how she could sail under her own wind power.

The restored Morgan's first trial voyage, June 6, 2014, photo Nathan Adams

The restored Morgan’s first trial voyage, June 6, 2014, photo Nathan Adams

Six paintings greeting visitors at Shawn's Memorial Art Exhibition

Six paintings greeting visitors at Shawn’s Memorial Art Exhibition

It was at Shawn Buckenmeyer’s Memorial Art Show where it dawned on me that my writing project had to be a blog. A blog would allow me to share the immediacy of the written experience enriched by a superfluity of images. I had never created a blog and I am digitally challenged, but conversations with my colleagues John Alberti and Jen Celio at our event for Shawn convinced me that I could learn to convert my Microsoft text into a WordPress blog that would be much better suited to this project than the open-ended essay that was already morphing into a book.

Web site Moby and the Net for Moby and the Arts Class, 1996-97

Web site Moby and the Net for Moby and the Arts Class, 1996-97

With the help of Ed Trujillo, technical advisor to our English department, I am now up to date. I have converted my Word files into a living blog that others can see. There were some bumps along the way. The first weekend I could not find my blog files on my home computer and thought I had lost them all. On the second weekend, I could find my files and edit them, but it was not until I saw Ed the next week that I found out there was a “visual” alternative to the “text” function in which I could edit the text in a format similar to that for Microsoft Word rather than in HTML code, which I had been doing all weekend. Fortunately, I had learned the rudiments of HTML from my Moby students who had created Moby and the Net, our own website, during the Spring 1996 class (http://www.nku.edu/~moby/index.html). But it is certainly easier to edit a text closer to the way you will be seeing it on the screen.

Now that I am into the rhythm of the blog I can’t doing this project any other way. I still write

First page of handwriten Training Day entry
First page of handwriten Training Day entry

out each new entry longhand—including this one—before transcribing it into a Word document from which I now convert it into a blog entry. I imagine that many younger people who are at ease with the new technology are creating everything from the get-go on the blog itself. But for now I like beginning with a handwritten journal entry. On NPR the other day I heard a report of what seemed like a fairly rigorous experiment showing that the human mind more securely retains information we have written out in longhand than that which originates on a screen. So, the starting point for this project will remain the handwritten word, even though the end result already certain to be something far different from what I had originally envisioned—as is, of course, the immediacy of its publication on the blog.

 

 

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Summer into Spring

Began entry Monday, June 10, 9:30 pm

If I am not teaching summer school, classroom preparation usually takes a back seat to my research projects until crunch time comes for the new semester in early August. One would expect that to be even more the case this summer in advance of a sabbatical year in which I won’t be teaching again until the 2015 Fall Semester. But Emma Rose and I have much to do, both singly and together, in preparing for the Dickinson and Moby-Dick exhibitions, catalogs, and related events during the Spring Semester before I leave for the whale ship adventure two weeks from today. I will also have to continue making plans for the art exhibitions I hope to bring bring to Cincinnati as supplements to Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera in June 2016.

Screenshot of 78 of 202 Moby images

Screenshot of 78 of the 202 images that Emily Wiethorn took for Moby catalog

Last week Emma Rose and I were excited to hear form Emily Wiethorn that she had edited all of the Dickinson and Moby-Dick photos she had taken for us and was now ready to transfer them to our computers. It took a while to get together because Emily was beginning a full-time job last Monday, but we were all able to meet after work last Thursday night to see and receive the images. They are beautifully done and they will enable us to make wonderful catalogs. There are so many high-density files averaging about 10 MB apiece that the only way to make the transfer was from Emily’s computer to our portable hard drives. I did not until now have one, so I bought a Toshiba with a lot of memory–and with a label saying it works both for a PC (which I have) and for Mac (which Emily has). What I did not know until Thursday night is that if my portable hard drive had first been installed on a PC (which I had made sure to do a few days before) it cannot receive files from a Mac. Fortunately, Emma Rose has a Mac, so she was able to transfer all of Emily’s files through a cable to her portable drive, and then relay them via CDs via my desk computer to my portable drive the next day.

Emma Rose Thompson presenting her final project in the Spring 2013 Moby class

Emma Rose Thompson presenting her final project in the Spring 2013 Moby class

Now that we have nearly all of the images for the art works we plan to feature in each catalog, our next priority is to design the layout and prepare all the texts and other supporting materials we will need for the Moby catalog. Emma Rose is primarily responsible for the design.  Right now we are planning to reproduce all of the images against a black background (because the color will look better) and print most of the text in dark ink within blocks of white. Each student artist will have a two-page spread, with a short bio, extracts from the artist statement, and supplemental photographs on the left side, facing Emily’s photographs of the art works themselves on the right.  After having consolidated my binders, I now have a catalog entry, a classroom presentation photo, and an artist statement for each student artist, so this week I have been making copies of these materials for Emma Rose so that she will have plenty to work with while I am away for the voyage. We have decided to structure the Moby-Dick catalog according to the chronological sequence of classes in which the art work was made, beginning with Fred North’s class in 1994.  This is working out extremely well so far in the material I have been assembling and generating for Emma Rose. I am posting here the photo I took of Emma Rose when she presented her final project to the Moby class at the end of the 2013 Spring Semester. Then she was proposing an imaginary Moby-Dick art exhibition. Now she is designing a real one.

Kimberly Gelbwasser, soprano

Kimberly Gelbwasser, soprano

Today was a great day for the planning of our Valentine’s weekend for Emily Dickinson next February. I met Kimberly Gelbwasser, who will be the soprano for our Dickinson song recital, for the first time. She is joining our faculty in August after teaching for several years at East New Mexico University. She was in town for one day, so we had lunch together and discussed plans for the Dickinson Festival in general as well as the kind of music she might like to perform with pianist Ingrid Keller in the recital itself. Kimberly has sung opera, but she loves art song best, and I can already feel that she and Ingrid will be an exceptional performing team. Kimberly is already familiar with Dickinson songs by Aaron Copland and subsequent composers, but she is not yet deeply familiar with Dickinson’s life and writing, so she was eager to borrow for the summer pretty much everything I had put on reserve for last semester’s class: the complete poems, selected letters, biographies by Richard Sewall and Martha Nell Smith, books on Dickinson and music by Larry Starr and Carolyn Cooley, and scores and recordings of Dickinson poems set to music by Copland, Jake Heggie, George Getty, and others. What a treat it will be for me and my students next February, in the midst of the Marathon Reading of Dickinson’s poems in the exhibition space, to walk across the plaza to Greaves Concert Hall to hear Kimberly and Ingrid perform a complete recital of Dickinson songs.

Cover of libretto for  Moby Dick Oratorio

Cover of libretto for Moby Dick Oratorio

I had another fine musical development last week when Molly Herron sent me a CD of the Moby-Dick Oratorio that she and three other composers, all in their thirties, premiered in Brooklyn in February of this year. Each of the four composers created three songs for various combinations of the five vocal soloists and nineteen instrumentalists who performed the premiere. I had been very interested in the way the four composers had gone about composing the pieces and structuring the concert, and the musical result, based on the CD, was everything I could have hoped. Molly had also sent me the program and the libretto in addition to the CD. She and her colleagues are nearly ready to post a video of the premiere performance; as soon as they do that, I will be sharing it with various musical forces in the Greater Cincinnati area, as it would be a brilliant supplement to the local premiere of the opera itself.

Poster for Denton premiere of Heggie's Ahab Symphony

Poster for Denton premiere of Heggie’s Ahab Symphony

In early May I met Robert Porco, director of Cincinnati’s May Festival Chorus, on a downtown street as Joan and I were walking to the restaurant at which we celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary. I had been extremely impressed with the way his chorus sang the two Dickinson songs in John Adams’s Harmonium a few days earlier, and he was interested in what I tlld him about Heggie’s Ahab Symphony for tenor and chous, which had premiered in at the University of North Texas in Denton in April 2013.  He invited me to send him a score and recording.  I would love to hear his chorus perform the Ahab Symphony in May 2016, one month before the Moby opera comes to town.

Shawn, Vali, and Alison

Began this entry Sunday morning, May 24, 5:50 am

Alison Lundergan Grimes looks to be about the same age as Shawn Buckenmeyer (Daniell). I just checked the internet, and Alison is one year younger, born in 1978. Both were experiencing exceptional personal and professional growth early in 2014. I do believe that Alison embodies many of the values of self-actualization and self-expression that Shawn embodied in the life she led and the art she created. I did not have a chance to converse with Shawn about politics. But I’m quite sure she would have been as enthused as I am about the senatorial race in Kentucky, and as hopeful as I am that like-minded voters in Campbell County can have a strong voice in its outcome. The “Voyage of one Shawn” is ending prematurely at very moment that the “Voyage of one Alison” is gaining national recognition. Given the history of Mitch McConnell, there is certain to be a “Bloody Battle in Kentucky” over the summer and through to the fall to the November 4 election.

Vali Myers, Stella Maris, NKU Honors House

Vali Myers, Stella Maris, 2001 giclee print from 1998 drawing, NKU Honors House. Photo Emily Wiethorn

Shawn was not one to remain confined to one location for long, so sometime this summer Chuck will carry her ashes to Italy, where they would have been honeymooning in early June. He will release them somewhere in the Bay of Naples, where they will enter into rhythms of the ancient Mediterranean. I like to imagine her remains, still buoyant, floating alongside the island that Vali Myers depicted at the heart of Stella Maris, the drawing in pen, sepia, and watercolor that she completed in 1998 (posted here). The island in the center of the drawing is the one Vali saw every day from the refuge for endangered animals she had established high up in a steep valley ocwelooking the Bay of Naples high above the town of Positano, between Sorrento and Solerno on the Italian coast.

Vali drawing White Whale in Stella Maris accompanied by her loving creatures

Photo of Vali drawing White Whale in Stella Maris accompanied by her loving creatures, gift to the author

Vali had mentoned to me that Stella Maris is the name of the Pagan goddess of the sea worshipped along this coastline before the dawn of Christianity.  She liked the fact that the island she saw through the tunnel of her secluded valley resembled the body of a female at rest. The Stella Maris of her drawing is weeping like a crucified Christ for the sins of the modern world, specifically for the destruction mankind has inflicted upon its fellow creatures. The white whale depicted at the upper right is rising one more time against the men who have attacked it.  The welcoming space below the teardrop of the Mediterranean sea sustains and shelters living creatures representing those that Vali actually sheltered in her own nature refuge (as seen in the photo she sent me of herself drawing the white whale in Stella Maris surrounded by her creatures curled in comfort)..

Vali Myers, Moby Dick, NKU Honors House

Vali Myers, Moby Dick, 1996 giclee print after 1974 drawing, NKU Honors House. Photo Emily Wiethorn

Rob Kallmeyer, one the students in my class in Moby-Dick and the Arts in 1996, had fallen in love with Vali’s 1974 drawing entitled Moby Dick when we saw it in Beth Schultz’s exhibition Unpainted to the Last on an overnight trip to Northwestern University. He found a way to telephone Vali in her Italian valley and had several very inspiring conversations with her that then led my correspondence with Myers about her Moby Dick drawing as well as the Stella Maris then underway. We ended up ordering special giclee prints of each work that now hang in the Honors House in which most of my Moby classes have been held.

The Fall 2013 Moby class in which Shawn enrolled met for three hours one night a week. On one of those nights we took an “art walk” through four buildings on campus that house Moby-Dick art. We were only a few weeks into the course but Shawn was already “in the process of figuring out what direction to take in my project” at the end of the semester. During our art walk, the artist she was “drawn to the most was Vali Myers: “Her use of dots to create beautiful, surreal, curved lines and shapes is what drew me to her piece Moby Dick. There’s so much going on.  In the fore front we have a lounging, sensual female unabashedly lying naked across the bottom of the canvas. Is she mother nature? A female representation of Ishmael? I almost envision her as a genie in a bottle. In the background we have Moby Dick and a ship battling. Notice a few dead bodies swirling in the waves. On both sides of the canvas, we have two faces, one looking angrily at the woman while the other looks at the battle between the ship and Moby Dick. Perhaps the faces are Man; looking, judging, angry men. The lounging female doesn’t seem concerned. I found it interesting when we were discussing eco-feminism and the fact that Myers wanted the whale to win. I don’t know much about eco-feminism, so I’ll have to do some research and maybe find a way to apply it to my project.” She certainly did.

Cover of catalog for Vali Myers retrospective in Australia, 2013-14

Cover of catalog for Vali Myers retrospective in Australia, La Trobe University Museum, 2013

Vali Myers died of cancer in Melbourne, Australia, in 2003. At the time of Shawn’s death in April 2014, six of Vali’s Moby-Dick drawings were part of major retrospective of her career on tour through her native country of Australia. The exhibition had opened at La Trobe University in Melbourne while Shawn was taking our art walk through the Honrors House in September. On April 14, when Shawn was giving her Celebration presentation, the exhibitioin had just arrived at the Maitland Regional Art Gallery, where it will still be on display when the Charles W. Morgan is scheduled to sail into New Bedford on June 25.  In addition to reproducing Vali’s Moby Dick on the cover of the catalog, the organizers of the exhibition invited me to contribute an essay discussing all of the works in the show with a Moby-Dick component.  I called my essay “Vali Myers, Moby-Dick, and Eco-Feminism,” and stressed that Vali’s lifelong engagement with the novel made her a pioneer in the eco-feminist movement that that has resulted in some of the finest literary and artistic responses to Moby-Dick in our new twenty-first century.

Vali’s admiration of the whale, not the men who were trying to kill it; her deep fellow feeling for the living creatures she assisted in her wildlife refuge and celebrated in her art; her unapologetic embrace of a female perspective centered in a female body; her prophetic sense of a sacredness in nature that mankind has mindlessly desecrated; and her extraordinary graphic ability to address all these themes in the context of Melville’s Moby-Dick—in all these ways Vali Myers has already inspired an impressive variety of female artists across this country and around the world. Here in my own classes in Highland Heights, Kentucky, male as well as female artists have been inspired by Vali’s example. In the photo posted here, Shawn and her I & Q are accompanied by the three other female students who presented their Moby-Dick creations in the April 2014 Celebration: Danielle Kleymeyer, Mary Belperio, and Ronnie Mitchell.

Danielle Kleymeyer, Mary Belperio, Shawn Buckenmeyer, Ronnie Mitdchell, and their teacher at 2014 Celebration

Danielle Kleymeyer, Mary Belperio, Shawn Buckenmeyer, Ronnie Mitchell, and their teacher at 2014 Celebration

Vali Myers, Holy Ghost, 2001-02

Vali Myers, Holy Ghost, 2001-02, p. 62 in Dusk to Dawn catalog

The academic thread of the “Voyage of one Shawn” that has suddenly ended will be completed in December when she will be awarded a posthumous M. A. degree in English from Northern Kentucky University. The corporeal component of her life voyage will find its last expression when Chuck releases her ashes into the Bay of Naples sometime this summer, enacting her own personal variation on Ishmael’s image of those who have “placelessly perished without a grave” as he contemplates those marble tablets memorializing sailors lost at sea in the Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford where they can still be seen today (“The Chapel,” chapter 7).

 

As for the spiritual element of Shawn’s life voyage, I would compare that with Vali Myers’ Holy Ghost (2001-02), the last major work Myers completed before her death. There is no whale in this drawing, but this is her last homage to Moby Dick, for she had written to me of the giant squid, “which lives in the deepest valleys of the ocean,” as being the natural prey and worthy opponent of her beloved sperm whale. In this work, Vali imagines herself taking her final rest under the sheltering arms of that enveloping creature, now as peacefully at rest as the recumbent female shape of the island at the center of Stella Maris (which reappears, heavily shaded, just below the horizon line in Holy Ghost). Turn one of Shawn Buckenmeyer’s corporeal, spiritual female nudes from vertical to horizontal and you have a fitting companion to Vali’s peaceful self-portrait at the bottom of the drawing..

Mark Milloff, Stripping the Whale, NKU Honors House

Mark Milloff, Stripping the Whale, 2005 giclee print after 1985 pastel, NKU Honors House. Photo Emily Wiethorn

By the time that Shawn Buckenmeyer (Daniell) is awarded her posthumous degree in December 2014, we will know the fate of the maiden “Voyage of one Alison Lundergan Grimes” into some of our nation’s most violent political waters. She is likely to encounter the senatorial equivalent of the passage in Moby-Dick in which the sharks feed on the body of the whale with such “incredible ferocity” they “viciously snapped, not only at each other’s disembowelments . . . but bit their own; till those entrails seemed swallowed over and over again by the same mouth, to be oppositely voided by the gaping wound” (“The Shark Massacre,” chapter 66). I am hoping that she will survive like the White Whale that turns on its bloody pursuers in Vali’s Moby Dick and rises with its fiercest pursuer lashed to its body in Vali’s Stella Maris, winning the election that will enable her to make the U. S. Senate a more functional body for the common good.