Faculty Focus: Naming the World Anew
The winner of the 2017 Distinguished Teaching Award, poet James Allen Hall has a new book of personal essays—and a handful of mints and tissues to help young writers find their way as they struggle and grow.
When James Allen Hall first came to Washington College, it was for a job interview, and he was required as part of that process to give a reading of his work at the Rose O’ Neill Literary House. After the reading, he sat down with about a dozen students and talked about poetry and writing.
“I was sitting in this exact space,” he says from one of the couches in the Lit House’s main meeting room, “and we just talked. It was only about thirty minutes, but I just wanted to keep doing that. It was amazing. … I wanted to keep talking to everyone I met. So, I guess that’s why I took the job and ended up here. The legacy here is incredible, and I felt like I could connect with the students, and I felt like I could make a difference.”
It’s fair to say that he has done that and then some. Hired in 2013 as an associate professor of poetry and nonfiction in the Department of English, he was named director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House last year, and at Commencement in May, he was awarded the Alumni Association’s Award for Distinguished Teaching.
“I was so surprised. I had not even thought of it,” Hall says, although he did think it odd that his partner agreed to attend Commencement with him—a first. Turns out, his colleagues at the Lit House had slipped his partner’s contact info to English Chair Kate Moncrief, who in turn secretly suggested that his partner might want to be there when the awards were announced. Earning the award, Hall says, was a joyful shock. “I’m not under the dream that I am the best teacher at Washington College because I think there are a lot of incredible teachers here. I’m just happy to be among them.”
One of the things he has liked most about his role here is that he has been able to teach both poetry and nonfiction. Already an award-winning and widely published poet, his latest book is a collection of personal essays. The winner of the Essay Collection Award from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Press, I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well was published this spring.
“I love the essay form and I love messing with it, especially using the poet’s tools to experiment with prose,” Hall says. “I’ve been working on this collection of essays for something like 13 years. I started writing them when I had some time, or an idea came to me that I wanted to approach in non-poem form.”
Chris Kraus, who judged the essay collection competition, calls it “a tragic, funny, graceful book.
“Growing up queer in Florida in the 1980s, James Allen Hall’s life has taken him to places that high culture rarely treads,” Kraus wrote in his review. “In these essays, Hall lives alongside, and empathically lives through, his family’s meth addiction, and mental illnesses … and considers his own penchants for less than happy, equal sex with an agility, depth, and lightness that is blissfully inconclusive.”
In a May 2017 interview in The Rumpus, Hall tells interviewer Julie Marie Wade, “I was in love with language, then uneasy with its borders. You know that queer narrative. Names never fit so easily, and I think it may be the poet’s job to name the world anew. Maybe by reinventing language—its maps and purposes. … I wanted to be bad. Say all the unspeakable stories.”
Hall says the students he sees coming into Washington College’s creative writing program more and more are willing to test the boundaries of language, form, category, and definition. For example, he cites “poems about gender but through the lens of insects and nature, which is a really awesome way to critique nature versus nurture.” Many of these students, he says, “come in with the sense that they are writers.”
“One of the things I’ve seen here in talking to alumni is that when the Lit House first started, it helped the students who were here see themselves as writers. Now, I think the shift has happened, and when students arrive here they already know that they love writing, that they love beauty and the change it can make in the world. They want to know how to do that better and join a national conversation.”
Working with them and watching them grow as writers and as humans, he says, is one of the great joys of his job.
“As you get older there’s something incredibly empathetic about watching someone in that moment of changing themselves,” something moving about the vulnerability and bravery that change requires, he says. And then, with his typical, disarming humor: “I feel like someone’s grandma. I always have tissues. I always have mints. And I will take care of other people’s kids – at least for a little while.”