Laura Stevens Archives - Kendall College of Arts and Sciences

Laura Stevens

Department of English and Creative Writing expands partnership with Tulsa Artist Fellowship

The University of Tulsa’s Department of English and Creative Writing recently welcomed four Tulsa Artist Fellowship (TAF) participants as adjunct faculty members for the 2022-23 academic year: Kaveh Bassiri, George Henson, Quraysh Ali Lansana and J. Preston Witt. Each fellow will teach a section of Introduction to Creative Writing one semester and, in the other, an upper-level creative writing course that draws on their individual craft.

Individual TAF writers have taught courses at TU during the past few years and, through a project with the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities, served as mentors for English and creative writing students. “I am thrilled that we are now bringing this collaboration to a whole new level,” remarked Chapman Professor of English Laura Stevens, the department’s chair. “Thanks to funding from the Office of the President, we are now positioned to offer our majors as well as other students across the university an array of learning opportunities from a group of brilliant writers who represent an eclectic range of interests and expertise. I am also hopeful this venture will spawn further innovative collaborations.”

TAF’s executive director, Carolyn Sickles, is equally enthusiastic, noting the program “welcomes an expanded partnership with our cultural neighbor TU. Cultivating meaningful opportunities for awardee and student exchange deeply aligns with George Kaiser Family Foundation’s commitment to making Tulsa a place for inclusive and profound growth. We look forward to experiencing the impact of this arts-centered learning and mentorship in the year ahead.”

TU President Brad R. Carson believes deeply in the power of the arts and humanities to transform the college experience. “From poets and playwrights to novelists and adept literary translators, it is important that students have access to tenured professors and visiting faculty who enjoy varying levels of research projects, published works and teaching acumen,” he said. “The Tulsa Artist Fellows complement our exceptional resident faculty and provide students with the best of both worlds.”

man with black hair wearing a white collarless shirt standing in front of a stone archwayKaveh Bassiri

Kaveh Bassiri is an Iranian-American writer and translator. Among his many publication credits are 99 Names of Exile, winner of the 2019 Anzaldúa Poetry Prize, and Elementary English, which received the 2020 Rick Campbell Chapbook Prize. “Soon after moving to Tulsa, I worked with a talented student poet at TU and met some wonderful faculty,” Bassiri said. “Those experiences have made me very excited about teaching at the university this year.”

For his specialized offering, Bassiri is planning a new course called Research for Poets. “Poetry and research may seem to be contradictory pursuits,” he noted, “but a lot of good poetry comes out of an investigative process.” The kinds of research Bassiri has in mind include reading letters, documents and other poets, as well as interviewing people and visiting places. “Research provides information and introduces fresh ways of thinking about a topic, even if that topic is personal,” he said.

close-up photo of a man with short hair wearing glasses and a bow tieGeorge Henson

George Henson is one of the foremost translators of contemporary Latin American prose. His eight book-length translations are Cervantes laureate Elena Poniatowska’s The Heart of the Artichoke, Luis Jorge Boone’s Cannibal Night, Alberto Chimal’s The Most Fragile Objects and five books by Cervantes laureate Sergio Pitol.

“As a fifth-generation Tulsan, I’m honored to be able to be a part of TU’s legacy of excellence,” commented Henson. For the spring semester, Henson is deciding between offering two possible courses: literary translation and short-short fiction. “I am drawn to short fiction,” he said, “because as a genre it tends to receive short shrift, excuse the pun, in creative writing programs.”

black-and-white image of a man with short hair wearing an open-neck white shirtQuraysh Ali Lansana

The third member of TU’s TAF quartet is poet Quraysh Ali Lansana. Widely published, Lansana is the author of the skin of dreams: new and collected poems 1995-2018, The Walmart Republic (with Christopher Stewart), mystic turf and They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems, among many others.

Saying he is “excited about working with new students and becoming more engaged with TU campus life,” Lansana plans to offer a course titled Writing on Greenwood, in which students will write poetry, nonfiction and children’s literature. It draws on Lansana’s extensive research on the evolution of the Greenwood District and its destruction: “My emphasis on the economic and cultural values of Greenwood residents examines the relationship of ideas and cultural values to a historic culture, and how it continues to inform North Tulsa currently.”

man with short hair wearing an open-neck blue shirtJ. Preston Witt

“I can’t wait to get to know my students and colleagues at TU,” remarked J. Preston Witt. A fiction writer, playwright and script consultant, Witt is currently at work on a novel. He is the recipient of the Able Muse Write Prize for short fiction and has recently published in Ninth Letter, The New Guard, Able Muse and elsewhere.

“The practice of creative writing has far more in common with dance or music than it has with studying literature or philosophy,” said Witt. “It is my (controversial) belief that a weak or dull first draft is rarely worth fixing, that a writer is better off attempting far more first drafts than edited final stories (10 to 1) and that such an approach is even more helpful for a student still trying to find her voice.” In his specialized course, Witt will lean into this philosophy to help his students strengthen their writing habits and narrative intuitions “by writing a lot, by taking one another’s early drafts very seriously and by training their writing instruments as if they were musicians.”

Don’t hold back – now’s the time to explore and express your unique creativity through poetry, fiction, literary translation and more!



EGSA symposium 2022 review: Performance and the Body in a Time of Contagion

On Saturday, April 9, the English Graduate Student Association (EGSA) hosted an online symposium titled Performance and the Body in a Time of Contagion.

Twelve master’s and doctoral students from The University of Tulsa and other institutions presented papers alongside keynote speaker Pamela Gilbert, the Albert Brick Professor of English at the University of Florida.

a screenshot of a computer screen with 21 people on a Zoom conference
Symposium attendees during keynote presentation by Professor Pamela Gilbert (top row, center)

English Ph.D. student and EGSA President Jacob Crystal said that the symposium planners settled upon the theme when considering the non-stop academic rigor demanded during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I began to wonder what it might look like if we talked about how all of us must perform daily routines and functions while many of the world’s populations are battling the virus’ spread,” Crystal remarked. “Students were trying to work through what it means to be forced to function like everything is perfectly fine, when in fact the world is being ravaged by the pandemic.”

Meshing perfectly with the symposium’s theme, Gilbert’s keynote presentation was titled “Contagion, Bleak House and the Limits of Community.” Following this fascinating account of Dickens’ novel in the context of sanitation processes in 19th-century London were remarks by TU President Brad Carson. After that, attendees enjoyed three student-chaired panels focusing on “The Body and Its Spaces,” “Race and Colonialism” and “Gender and Queerness.”

A network of peers

For Crystal, one of the major benefits for students of participating in the symposium is that it enabled them “to hear from other cohorts on what their current research interests are, which oftentimes leads to a collective of students who are then able to talk about and engage with the same topics. This fosters a network of peers that want to help each other with their research and educate them on their findings.”

For her part, presenter and English MA student Mikala Richardson was a fan of the virtual delivery mode: “I think the advantage of a symposium like this one is that it’s accessible. Students and professors who might not have been able to attend due to distance and situation are able to simply find a Wi-Fi location and attend.”

Faculty support

Throughout the day, faculty support was strong both on and off screen, as many professors from the English department watched students present and interacted with them by asking questions about their papers and ideas. Crystal also emphasized how two professors, in particular, assisted with the creation of this year’s symposium: “I do want to give an acknowledgement to Drs. Dennis Denisoff and Laura Stevens for their constant support of what EGSA does, especially our annual symposium. We couldn’t do what we do without them.”

Recovering 17th-century Indigenous lives and voices

Relatively recent scholarly and political developments in the United States and many other parts of the world have produced widespread interest in the history and words of Indigenous peoples and the history of settler colonialism. Here in Oklahoma, for instance, people from all walks of life and government are dealing with the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s affirmation of Muscogee national sovereignty in the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision. In addition, what meanings – political, cultural – attach to the marking in late November 2022 of the four hundredth anniversary of the first Thanksgiving?

woman with long dark hair wearing a red collarless shirt while smiling
Chapman Professor of English Laura Stevens

Turning back the hands of time nearly four centuries, the part of the U.S. now known as New England constituted one of the first areas of sustained and intense contact between colonists and Indigenous peoples. For the past several years, Chapman Professor of English Laura Stevens and two colleagues – Kristina Bross at Purdue University and Marie Balsley Taylor at the University of North Alabama – have been engaged in research that combines literary, anthropological and historical analysis focused on understanding that era and its cross-cultural encounters.

woman with long blonde hair wearing glasses and a green top
Kristina Bross

At the center of their work is an eclectic group of writings published in England between 1643 and 1671. These tracts were written by Puritan ministers who were preaching to and endeavoring to convert Wampanoag, Nipmuck and other Algonquian communities. The goal of the publications was to raise funds and good will back in England for the missionaries’ work.

In 2022, Stevens, Bross and Taylor will publish a scholarly edition of two of these tracts with Broadview Press. In addition to the annotated seventeenth-century texts, the volume will possess an extensive introduction, including discussions of the Native peoples of New England, and 18 appendices, such as information about Indigenous peoples’ kinship networks and excerpts from other contemporary writings having to do with exploration, conquest and missionizing by the Dutch, French and Spanish.

woman with long brown hair wearing glasses and a blue top
Marie Balsley Taylor

According to Stevens, the project’s goal is “to provide a carefully annotated resource for scholars, incorporating the latest research in colonial history and Indigenous studies.” The team is also seeking to open new doors for students in literature, history and other disciplines to appreciate the complexities of colonial encounters through a highly readable edition.

Windows onto the past

The first tract Stevens and her co-editors are including is called Tears of Repentance. Published in 1653 and written by the ministers John Eliot and Thomas Mayhew Jr., this widely read document features the “confessions” of 14 Native men seeking approval from the white ministry to found their own church. According to Stevens, Bross and Taylor, the Native men’s speeches respond in “creative and conflicted ways” to the pressures that English settler colonialism was exerting on their resources, kinship structures, moral codes, spiritual outlooks and emotions.

title page of 1653 edition of Tears of Repentance
Eliot, John. Tears of Repentance. London, 1653. Call number: *KC 1653 (Eliot). Rare Book Collection. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, Tilden Foundations.

The second publication included in their anthology is from 1671. Authored solely by Eliot, it is entitled Indian Dialogues. Within the tract’s pages are three dialogues between Indigenous people who have accepted Christianity and others who have not.

With Tears of Repentance, Stevens explains, “we encounter some of the earliest and most extensive recordings of seventeenth-century Indigenous voices.” Despite the authors’ colonizing aims, careful reading, she argues, provides “unique insight” into Indigenous cultural and religious practices. Indian Dialogues, meanwhile, is clearly a “fictional account” that deploys more forthrightly elements of plot, character and narration.

By publishing these tracts alongside each other, Stevens and her co-editors hope readers will be able more clearly to see the structural and formal differences between historical accounts and historical fiction. This is one of the topics – addressed through attention to literary production, form and audience — the editors discuss at length in their introduction. “It’s important to stress that this project stands at the nexus of research and teaching,” Stevens noted.

Ancient voices, desires and disruptions

For Stevens and her colleagues, one of the most exciting elements of their project has been tuning in, as it were, to the voices of Indigenous people that have been silenced by victorious settler colonialism.

title page of 1671 edition of Indian Dialogues
Eliot, John. Indian Dialogues. Cambridge, 1671. Call number: *KD 1671 (Eliot). Rare Book Collection. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, Tilden Foundations.

“Many scholars, including me, have mined Eliot’s and other related tracts in the so-called Indian Library for information about the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies, in addition to shedding some light on their relations with the Native communities they sought to subjugate and convert,” Bross commented. “In a sense, this project is a response to the limitations of my earlier scholarship, an expansion of my vision made possible by collaborations with Marie and Laura, among others. Building on such previous work, our focus is on how, within these tracts, one can see and hear New England’s Indigenous peoples themselves.”

Accomplishing this goal requires extensive knowledge of the Indigenous cultures the English encountered and an awareness of the prejudices that shaped the missionaries’ writing. “Both parties brought desires and fears to their interactions with each other,” noted Stevens. “We believe that these publications offered unparalleled access to discerning those long-ago states of mind and being.”

Stevens and her co-investigators emphasize that the process of ascertaining those Indigenous perspectives must be approached with care, keeping in mind that the tracts speeches were translated from Wampanoag into English, were transcribed by English ministers and were printed by English people for an English audience. “We are especially attentive to moments in the speeches that disrupt what we know a Puritan English audience would have wanted to see and hear,” said Taylor. One example of this is a speaker named Monequassun, who talks about what a hard time he had cutting his hair and then describes himself “grieving” for his hair after he cut it. Explained Stevens, “this kind of departure from the usual language of Puritan conversion offers an important clue for us to explore as we try to understand and represent Monequassun’s values and world view.”

Laura Stevens is a past president of the Society of Early Americanists and a specialist on English colonial encounters and writings about the First Peoples of the eastern seaboard. In addition, she is the principal investigator on a Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge project aimed at discovering the names and identities of the young women who attended TU’s precursor institution, the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls.

It is also crucial to realize where and how English desires shaped these texts and their representations of Native peoples, Bross noted. “There is, for example, a notorious moment in the third of the Indian Dialogues, when two Massachusett converts talk with ‘Philip Keitasscot,’ a figure clearly modeled on the historical figure Metacom, or King Philip, whom Eliot was hoping to convert to Puritan Christianity along with an acceptance of English hegemony in the region.” Four years later, however, Philip led a Native insurrection in King Philip’s War, the most deadly war per capita in the history of the U.S.

“So, here we have a dramatic example of English desires leading to a dramatic misrepresentation of Native perspectives,” Stevens cautioned. “That kind of error – an error of colonizing fantasy, really – needs to be marked as such for our readers.”

Reading for Indigenous perspectives

To read for Indigenous perspectives requires the realization that Puritan missionaries were not just asking Wampanoag, Nipmuck and other Native peoples to alter their religious beliefs and rituals. “They demanded a thorough transformation of the self, community and culture, with new clothing, new hairstyles, new family structures and new gender roles,” Taylor explained.

partial image of a Wampanoag dwelling made of bark and tree limbs
A bark-covered Wampanoag nush wetu or house with three fire pits. Courtesy of Plimoth Patuxet Museums.

By way of illustration, the editors point to the episode in which Monesquassun was told to cut his hair. On the surface a simple act, this Indigenous leader was actually being told to understand his masculinity and his identity in an entirely new way. And, as Stevens and her colleagues point out, accompanying these cultural demands of course were other pressures – and devastating effects — on Native land and resources.

“What we are seeing in the Wampanoag confessions, therefore, is not just a process of choosing one belief system over another,” Stevens emphasized. “We are watching people struggle with incredibly hard decisions about how they should move forward with their lives in a setting of incredible turbulence and loss.”

Next steps: Consulting with Native Americans today

While their quest to find Indigenous perspectives from the 17th century is driven by literary, cultural and historical scholarship, a further major component for Stevens, Taylor and Bross is consultation with relevant Native communities today.

“This project is moving slowly,” Stevens noted, “because we want to make sure it proceeds with the input and approval of Indigenous linguists, historical preservation officers and other knowledge keepers.” In addition, the team’s research will require extensive conversations and site visits, the kind of work that the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily made impossible.

To these ends, Stevens and her colleagues are beginning the process of reaching out to Native communities and planning a highly anticipated visit to southern New England. The purpose of this travel is to confer with representatives of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe as well as visit their museum and other key experts and sites.

Archival research and discovery are mainstays of literary and cultural studies. If you are fascinated by past lives, communities and writings, graduate studies in TU’s vibrant, welcoming Department of English and Creative Writing could be an ideal choice for you.