When the University of Georgia announced a two-week suspension from classes on March 12, faculty suddenly found their schedules completely transformed. For Eidson Distinguished Professor in American Literature LeAnne Howe, however, finding out how to spend her free time was easy. She’s devoting it to finishing her book.
Howe and her colleague, Dean Rader, an English professor from the University of San Francisco, have been friends for 20 years. After connecting over shared interests, such as their home state of Oklahoma and Native American literature and writing, they started collaborating. They have been working on their poetry book, “Both/And: Writing/Righting Oklahoma,” for around 10 years. The Red & Black spoke with both Howe and Rader about their lives, their book and how the coronavirus has impacted both.
The Red & Black: How you both have been doing over the last couple of weeks. How has it been transitioning to online classes?
Dean Rader: I mean depends, on one hand, has been absolutely zany and unprecedented. On the other hand, we've been basically okay. USF is this traditional liberal arts college that prides itself on small classes and intimate interactions with students, and we don't have online learning. I've never taught a class online. But health-wise and quarantine-wise, you know it's bizarre. San Francisco is the first city to shelter in place, so it's been a lot.
LeAnne Howe: [My students] are very tech-savvy, better than me. I really miss seeing them in person. Georgia has a lot of conveniences but the one thing that we all like of course is being in-person with our students. That's how I have always worked, and learning is collaborative, especially in creative writing. So, we'll see. I'm looking forward to it, but with some trepidation.
R&B: I know you are both from Oklahoma, but I wanted to know how you met and how you started collaborating.
Howe: I can't remember, this was in Austin, Texas when you were teaching in Seguin, right?
Rader: Yeah that’s right.
Howe: I was at Grinnell College, and I was one of their visiting people. Austin had a group of artists doing various work and we had friends in common who introduced us. And, and then later you asked me to come visit your class. I think that's it. I think that's how we met.
Rader: Yeah we met through mutual friends who knew of our common interests, we went in for a beer at that one outdoor restaurant one day —
Howe: White Elephant.
Rader: Yeah, and then I brought you to my class — we read some of your work. We read some short stories. We did a public reading for you in Texas. And then we started doing road trips.
Howe: I remember one of these road trips I said, “I don't think I ever want to teach,” which is kind of hilarious now. But anyway, we began collaborating around the things we had very much interest both in and out of the academy and being from Oklahoma. I think both of us being from different parts of the state, really meant there's a shorthand between us that has to do with Oklahoma. And that’s been this common theme that I feel has been very important to our work. That's been going on for probably 20 years, don't you think?
Rader: I do. I was just remembering the first piece we collaborated on was for the NALS [Native American Literature Symposium] conference we did this collaborative scholarly-dramatic piece. Lo, these many years ago.
Howe: I know that was really fun. And so we continue to do that over all these years. And at some point, we decided, and you'll have to remember this, we should do a book of poems. So that's the beginning of our friendship and then how that work translated into a book of poetry, that I'm actually very, very keen to finish.
Rader: Yeah, me too.
R&B: I know you said you don’t remember exactly when you decided to do the book of poems, but could you elaborate a little bit on the timeline of the book?
Rader: I would say what I think about as a catalyst for it was when we were together, we found ourselves really lamenting the current Oklahoma and how much different it is as a state than when we grew up there. I think Oklahoma City was voted one of the most dangerous cities in the country given the quality of the schools and the quality of healthcare, the likelihood that something bad will happen to you via tornadoes or earthquakes or fracking.
The state has really, in one generation, it seems to me, done almost complete 180. I would say we were talking about this in 2007 or 2008. I was writing this piece on public art, and the statue of the Choctaw man on top of the dome of the Oklahoma State Capitol, and we were saying we should really write a piece that sort of reclaims Oklahoma and revisits its past.
Howe: Yes, and we both have a couple of essays we had written that will eventually find their way into the book. What we're trying to grapple with is what happened to my state? I think it's an important thing to look at, especially now.
R&B: So, what are your future plans for the book?
Rader: Distinguished Professor Howe?
Howe: I would like for us to finish this book this year. Some of the themes that we've talked about that we've already kind of attended to are things like the Great Land Rush that was part of Oklahoma's history. I just sent him a couple of poems on my grandmother.
Rader: Yeah, they’re so good!
Howe: My grandmother lived through the 1918 flu virus which really hurt her physically. Her husband, they both had it at the same time, her husband dies laying next to her. I knew those memories and it just dawned on me with the coronavirus [pandemic] to write her life.
R&B: Has that helped you connect with your grandmother’s history?
Howe: As a matter of fact, I always knew. Granny had pockmarks, they weren't pockmarks but they looked funny in her face. And as a little kid growing up I never said a word about it, but I noticed it. Well, I didn't put two and two together. People that lived through the pandemic in 1918 turned completely mahogany. Their face was pockmarked with these mahogany marks and they could recognize each other. So in her case, she had turned kind of mahogany reddish-black her face, and that took a long time to get well.
R&B: It’s really incredible you have stories about her like that, so thank you for sharing them. That really wraps up most of my questions, is there anything else you want me to know about the book?
Howe: Tell them the title, Dean, because I always forget. We picked out a title.
Rader: Oh man. So for a while, it was going to be “Both/And.” Somewhere in our emails or texts, we've got the title of the book, and I think it's gone through about 10 different titles over 10 years.
The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.