Mary Slowik: Layer Through Nearly Transparent Layer
Mary Slowik speaks with Barry Pelzner about narrative, teaching, and student voices through the years
This spring Mary Slowik retired from a long and illustrious career on the faculty of PNCA. She began teaching as a part-time instructor at PNCA in 1982, became a full-time faculty member in 1999, and was Chair of the Liberal Arts Department from 2000 until 2007.
Mary holds a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa with areas of specialty in American Literature, American Poetry of the 1960s and 70s, and Modern British Literature. She has published essays on Maxine Hong Kingston, Leslie Silko, Frank Basso and Greg Sarris, Garrett Hongo, Asian American immigration poetry, and the role of narrative in writing and visual art. She has also published articles on short animated films. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, The North Dakota Quarterly, MELUS, Gargoyle 50, Northwest Edge, The Literary Encyclopedia (litencyc.com), and Narrative.
At PNCA, Mary taught English Composition and a variety of upper division literature seminars in poetry, fiction, and drama. Most recently, she taught a seminar on the intersection of art and story and a seminar on magical realism. Several years ago, Mary began a Writing Center for both advanced and beginning students. The center has now developed into ACE, the Academic Center for Excellence. As a department chair, Mary developed the science and math parts of the curriculum with the help of her extremely able faculty. She also brought the Forgiveness Project, a series of portraits from the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to the Feldman Gallery. The show was designed and mounted by the Communication Design Department. Over the years, Mary has organized numerous poetry and fiction readings on campus, a tradition that has at last found its flowering in the Liberal Arts Department’s new Writing Major.
At commencement on May 25 of this year, Mary Slowik was named Professor Emerita by President Tom Manley, acting on behalf of the Faculty Senate and the Board of Governors of the College. It seemed a good time to elicit some of Mary’s thoughts on her career at PNCA, and so we exchanged questions and answers, which have been edited a bit for the account of our conversation that follows:
Barry Pelzner: In your first years as a professional scholar and writer, and as you began your teaching career at PNCA, what ideas were at the heart of the scholarly work you were pursuing?
Mary Slowik: I have always been interested in hybrid forms, that is, novels that are structured by folk tales, folk tales that contain novels, memoirs that dip into historical documents, prose that borders on poetry. Such writing, at its best, arises out of the tension of difference. Native American oral stories, for instance, are not told by an idiosyncratic speaker expressing an interior life. Coyote does not have an interior life. And yet, the great cross-cultural American writing frequently has deeply interior speakers who are quite aware of the almost unbridgeable gaps between their own isolated, disaffected voices and the communal voices of their heritage. Such writing requires sophisticated, hybrid, narrative forms to bridge the gaps, while respecting them. Everyone should read and reread Leslie Silko’s Ceremony and Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men.
What I did learn from writing and publishing articles on these works and others like them, was that as a third generation Polish American who had spent years studying American literature for my Ph.D., I should also have been reading Polish literature since my family wasn’t even in America before the 20th century. And so, I started a confusing and puzzling study where I attempted to tease out the different strands of my heritage. Some of the Polish culture that I understood and experienced, in its emphasis on good manners, and formal decorum and love of lace (doilies, collars, tablecloths), for instance, seemed so Victorian, so British to me, not seemingly Polish at all.
But what I did recognize in the stories my mother and father told me was that emigration from Poland left them bereft, sometimes in the most grievous ways. Both my mother and father lost parents when they were very young. Many emigrants died in their first years in the United States, including my own grandparents. Even if they did not die, members of the first and second generations were “sickly.” There is a Polish word for this that I do not know. Mostly, I suspect Polish emigrants missed home, but with a painful ambivalence because the “Old Country” had not provided for them. And there were family tensions between those who left for the “New World” and those who stayed behind. Reading and writing about Asian emigration poetry, more available to me than Polish emigration writing, helped me understand some of these contradictions though of course in quite a different cultural context.
BP: Has your interaction with PNCA faculty in other disciplines, especially in the visual arts, brought changes to your scholarly focus?
MS: Yes. For a little while, Rose Bond, Chair of Animated Arts, had a desk across from mine in the faculty office space in the Goodman Building. I asked her once about East European Animated films – there is a long tradition of puppetry, street theater, and animation in Poland, Russia, and Czechoslovakia. Rose gave me a copy of Yuri Norstein’s Tale of Tales. The film wrenched my heart the first time I saw it. I “understood” it in such a visceral and immediate way. It resurrected the “old” stories and sayings my mother had told me that I had forgotten, even those I never knew I knew. There were the stories of the “little boze,” not the big God of Gods, but the little household god who tweaked people’s lives so they would remember to keep their obligations to others, to be kind and thoughtful. Yuri Norstein made this house god a little wolf, the one who remains near the family home even when it is evacuated during war, even when the house is abandoned. My dad believed such a spirit existed and would stay under the remains of the old hickory tree in our yard even after our house and the tree were both leveled in the early 1970s.
In Tale of Tales, there was the image of the long table set up in front of the house on hot Russian summer days. It was spread with housework during the afternoon and filled with dinner at night. We peeled endless bushels of fruit for canning on such a table set up in front of our own house in Michigan. In Norstein, the father at the head of the table served soup from a big tureen. My mother would imitate her uncle dishing out such a soup, bowls handed out one at a time to each of her five cousins, her uncle’s voice reproving and laughing at the same time,” “Jacek!” ‘Felix!” I swear that is my Mom’s Uncle John in the film. My Mom would imitate the way old Polish men sang hymns and lullabies. It’s my Mom’s old, cracked Polish/Russian voice that opens the film. I swear it. And the stories Mom had heard from Polish people who survived World War II, how they hid caches of potatoes and root vegetables in the forest and then unearthed them and very carefully cooked them over fires that wouldn’t give them away to the enemy — those are in the film too. And the 60’s style cars parked around the derelict house? Didn’t I grow up with the same cars parked around the abandoned farm house next door to us? And didn’t the same cars flash lights across my bedroom window when the cars pulled away fast?
But it was the way that a single house in Tale of Tales could have all this family history in it, all the “Old Country” flavoring it, with catastrophic off-stage events filtering through it, all occurring at the same time that made the film important. In Norstein, there is the ghostly presence of World War II, in my life, the ghostly specters of Communism and the Iron Curtain – the onion skin letters with censored words cut out of them, the stories of family members I never met, from another time, another place, still present as if they had never been gone. I knew these non-people people. And here I was seeing all of these things – history, myth, family story – all at once, layer through nearly transparent layer, in a mere thirty minutes of film. And so began my study of animation. Simultaneous story-telling, such a clumsy operation with words, could be so deft in visual art.
BP: This is beginning to suggest that you found animation might be able to achieve narrative goals that writing alone cannot?
MS: Perhaps. Especially, given a certain kind of subject matter. In the stories and songs and sense of immediacy in my own childhood, the world was so tangible and intangible, so present and ghostly. We lived in one place, but there was always another place just on the other side, out of reach. Animation has the means to probe this metaphoric place because animators are interested in the gaps between images. And in some films, they make this interest apparent. We may see, for instance, the palimpsest, that is, the shadow of one drawing left behind another or images being erased or images disappearing into or emerging from the picture plane in marvelous figure-ground reversals.
Writing that appeals to me has a similar play between objects carefully observed and a perception which renders them ephemeral. One of my favorite works, “To Go To Lvov” by Adam Zagajewski, is a return emigration poem which suggests what I think my family was doing all along when I was growing up:
To go to Lvov. Which station
for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew
gleams on a suitcase, when express
trains and bullet trains are being born. To leave
in haste for Lvov, night or day, in September
or in March. But only if Lvov exists
if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just
in my new passport, if lances of trees
of poplar and ash – still breathe aloud
like Indians, and if streams mumble
their dark Esperanto, and grass snakes like soft signs
in the Russian language disappear
into thickets, . . .
Only now do I see why I really wrote a dissertation on the poetry of W. S. Merwin. At the time, I was using Merwin as an introduction to literary theory; it was so much easier to read Merwin than Derrida when it came to issues of absence and presence . . . though actually my dissertation was inspired by only one set of lines of Merwin’s I could never get out of my head:
. . . and what is wisdom if it is not
in the loss that has not left this place.
BP: So, now, with retirement affording you more time without the concomitant demands of teaching, where will your interests take you?
MS: Certainly into a more focused study of animated film and into a more systematic look at magical realism as a viable literary genre. A few years ago I published a piece of literary criticism titled, “More to the Story: Ethnography and Narrative Form in Greg Sarris’s Keeping Slug Woman Alive and Keith Basso’s ‘Stalking with Stories.’” There is indeed “more to the story” and perhaps my mission in retirement will be to keep Slug Woman alive and to keep stalking a history that refuses to quite show itself, but refuses to remain hidden as well.
BP: Finally, let me ask something about your work in the classroom. Among your strengths as a teacher has been your ability to elicit the authentic voices of students through their writing. Have you perceived changes in those voices as the college and the culture have changed over the course of your career?
MS: Finding an authentic voice is probably a lifetime endeavor, but students do seem to come into college with a fairly firm notion of what they think is inauthentic. And that notion has changed. In the early 1980s when I started teaching here, students prided themselves in belonging to the counter-culture. I don’t know if we even use that term anymore, but students hated authority, in what they took to be its many guises – parents, old high school teachers, landlords, bosses, real and imagined enforcers of small town religion. Their favorite literary form was the rant, the long-lined angry poem with a different target in every line. I could easily move from their own rants to study of the sophisticated rants of Allen Ginsberg, particularly “Howl” and its sorrowful companion piece, “Kaddish,” and from there to Ginsberg’s later meditative poems. Critical detachment was slow in coming, but thoughtful and heartfelt when it did blossom.
Last year, I asked my students to write about politics and art after we looked at a variety of visual and literary work and then went to a gallery show with sharp political content. Their response, to me, was surprising. They wanted nothing to do with this kind of art. They admitted to the difficulty of connecting to people geographically and politically distant from them, but most of all, they wanted their own art to come out of the privacy of their own lives and out of their deep need to express aspects of themselves which they felt had not been seen nor heard. But it was obvious to me that beneath their objections was the fact that their relationship to authority had shifted. While students wanted to be recognized, they also needed to fastidiously do what was asked of them, sometimes to the very letter. They needed to please. Ultimately, they needed jobs, financial security, social status. And so, their confidence in expressing displeasure with the powers-that-be was less communal, less exuberant, less comic, less fun than it used to be. And definitely, they were less outraged.
I hope their response was not coming out of a profound despair. I hope what one student told me does not stand for all: “Well. Of course, the earth is warming up. Of course there are surveillance cameras everywhere. It doesn’t matter. Most of the human race is not going to be here in forty years anyway.” Well, forty years, as I know, is not a particularly long time. And if students were really this convinced, there would be no purpose in going to school at all, nor for getting a job for that matter.
Literary and visual arts, of course, do not shy away from despair . Nor do they necessarily fear its depiction. But in my years of teaching at a visual arts school that demanded me to be a generalist, teaching “everything,” — seminar rotations in fiction, poetry, drama and later, Shakespeare, ethnic American writing, and most recently, Art and Story and Magical Realism — my students and I have discovered again and again the riches of human experience, its variety and ingeniousness, and in this, the exuberance and willingness, in the poet, William Carlos Williams’ words, “to begin to begin again.” And in my words, “to continue to begin again.” One of my students once told me, “Mary, you lead us into green pastures and then you just let us graze.” A bit Biblical, a bit goofy, but hopefully near the truth. And thankfully, there is a lot of pasture yet to discover, many gates yet to be opened, and much thinking and grazing to be done.