Deep Thinkers Needed: English Professor Allison Grimaldi-Donahue
Raised in Middletown, Connecticut, English Professor Allison Grimaldi-Donahue joined JCU’s faculty in 2017. A writer, translator, and editor, Professor Grimaldi-Donahue has been published in Words Without Borders, The Brooklyn Rail, Electric Literature, Funhouse Magazine, The New Inquiry, Dead King Magazine and Cosmonauts Avenue among others. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Critical Thought at the European Graduate School with a thesis on translation theory, memory, and the body. Professor Grimaldi-Donahue teaches Creative Writing and English Composition at JCU.
In Spring 2020 Professor Grimaldi-Donahue will be teaching DJRN/CMS 329 Writing Criticism and CW/ITS 358 The Art of Literary Translation.
What brought you to Rome and JCU?
I came to Rome about two years ago after many years in Bologna. My family is Sicilian and after years of going back and forth between New York and Italy for my studies, I eventually decided to stay in Italy. I came to JCU because it seemed like an interesting place to teach. I went to a liberal arts college and I wanted to be a part of that sort of tightknit intellectual community again.
You’re a writer, translator, and editor. What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
The first thing that comes to mind is read! Read everything you can get your hands on, whatever interests you in any field. I think discipline and persistence are the things that make a writer. Sure, talent is something, but it’s mostly just hard work that you need. You have to be ready to face rejection and push onward. I would also say to look at living writers you admire and talk to them about their paths, what steps they took to create a writing life.
You just published a poetry book called On Endings in response to Maurice Blanchot’s Awaiting Oblivion. Where did the idea come from?
A couple of friends of mine from the European Graduate School in Switzerland and I have had a long and ongoing conversation about the work of French philosopher Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003). He writes about the impossibility of writing (ironic I know) and he also writes about community. We wanted to find a way to continue our collaboration since we all live in different countries. Julia, who lives in Vienna, asked us to respond in whatever way we saw fit to the text. My way was through poems, poems that are largely about relationships and intimacy.
In 2016 you published a chapbook called Body to Mineral, a collection of “poems about our bodies as they go through loss and are also lost, about changing relationships and magical processes.” Can you tell us more?
In Body to Mineral I collected the poems I had been writing after my mother’s death three years prior. I was discovering (and I still am) how our relationships with the dead are so very alive and how much they change over time. I am very interested in how the human becomes something else in death but still remains very much a part of the earth.
What is your teaching philosophy?
I really see writing as a very personal process, so whether I am teaching composition or creative writing, my hope is that students learn to identify and trust their own process more and more. I like to show students a variety of texts that may be part of a given genre, to engage in a tradition and see what is out there. In teaching creative writing my task is to help writers see their strengths and their weaknesses and meet them where they are, to help them be the writer they are trying to be. When I was an undergrad I had the privilege of working with the great Vermont poet John Engels. I think a lot of my teaching philosophy comes from my time with him, he expected great things of us, he expected a real contribution to discussion, and he respected our ideas.
Please tell us about a challenge you encountered in your professional career. How were you able to overcome it?
After I finished my BA I was living in New York City, bartending, feeling lost. I was writing but I had no idea how to publish anything, how to even talk to the people who might publish something. I think it is like this for a lot of creative fields, the keys to the kingdom seem far off and hidden. Eventually, I learned that I had to put myself out there and ask for help. I wrote to former professors to ask for advice, I talked to older friends I had who were doing things that were interesting to me. I went to graduate school, got an MFA, asked my mentor a million questions (I still seek her advice regularly). I’ve been rejected from so many magazines, publishing houses, been yelled at by editors, had pieces of my writing torn apart to the point that they’re unrecognizable. Once an editor told me he wasn’t sure if I actually really knew English! I don’t think the challenges ever end, we just get better at adapting to them, knowing ourselves, and learning.
What are the benefits of studying English in this day and age?
Studying literature is timeless, it teaches you skills humans have always needed: critical thinking skills, communication, how to see multiple points of view and respond to them, and how to write. Professions will continue to change but the need for sharp, agile, flexible thinkers will not. Young people today will change their jobs over and over again during their lifetime so specific training is less relevant than educating people who can adapt and perhaps, more importantly, think deeply. Serious thinkers will always be needed.
Please name 3 books that everyone should read and why?
Oh wow, this is an impossible question. I am staring at my bookshelves as I write this and they all seem absolutely necessary…I will just choose three I really love that are always relevant to my own work and maybe are a bit less well known. I really believe books come to us when we need them.
The first one is Anne Carson’s translations of Sappho titled If Not, Winter. Carson is one of the greatest living poets in the English language, and if you take one of my classes you will hear this often. But this book is particularly special to me. Carson translates Sappho’s poems, the fragments we have of them, but she does it as if they were contemporary to us. She is a classicist who is able to make the ancient world seem infinitely distant and current at the same time. The book is also a great example of the varied possibilities that translation offers to us.
My second choice is Elizabeth Hardwick’s Collected Essays. I fell in love with her when I read this line in her essay “Boston.” “For the New Yorker, San Francisco or Florida, perhaps—Boston, never.” I grew up a diehard New York Yankees fan so I deeply appreciate her bias and her allegiance. But rivalries aside, she is my hero when it comes to the essay. She manages to be funny and serious, erudite and direct. She writes on topics ranging from travel and film stars to literature and philosophy. Hardwick is always present in her writing but whatever or whomever she is writing about is at the center. And you know she is having fun, you can sense how much she cares about the writing, you can sense she knows that it matters and wants it to matter for you, the reader, too.
Last but not least…Robert Creeley’s Pieces. I came to Robert Creeley later in my life than I would have liked. I was writing poems with very short lines and taking a workshop with Mi Yong Mi Kim in New York and she told me to read Creeley. He writes such short precise poems, he leaves small, wise bits of language for us but he is also playing with the sounds of English, how much can be condensed into a small space. When I was in high school I read a lot of the Beats and a lot of Zen Buddhist texts and koans, his poems remind me of that. Some habits never change.
come and go.