November 13, 2003
Mary Ann Travis
"Professor Cooley, are men still writing?" In all seriousness, a Newcomb College student asked Peter Cooley, poet and professor of English, this question a year or so ago.
"This is true!" he says, still astounded. "I don't make up stories. I don't need to invent. I don't need to make up reality. It happens."
Poetic license aside, Cooley claims that the student thought male authors were all dead and in books. Her question led Cooley to apply for funding from the Duren Professorship program, which he received this fall, for support of a male authors' literary reading series.
The series includes novelists and poets Wayne Wilson, Reginald Shepherd, Rodger Kamenetz, John Blair and Michael Waters. Every two weeks throughout the semester, one of these writers has visited campus for a day to participate in Cooley's creative writing class.
Each writer is interviewed by students during class. Then the visiting writer "workshops" the students' writing, giving them feedback and criticism. In the evening, the author reads from his own work. Usually the reading takes place in Cudd Hall, home to Tulane College, and a reception follows, where students can spend informal time with the writer.
"It's so stimulating for the students to have this many visiting writers," says Cooley. Tulane's English department began offering a creative writing emphasis as an option for English majors three years ago, partly in response to student demand. "This is what students are interested in," says Cooley. "It's nice to study, whatever you're going to do. That doesn't mean they'll all be writers."
But some may be. In any case, "Practicing an art is a part of the liberal arts education as well as studying it," says Cooley.
This year Cooley is focusing on male authors, but he has long taught courses on literature written by women. He has wanted his students to read women authors because he himself never had a chance to read them when he was in graduate school. In 1968, Cooley proposed writing a paper on Emily Dickinson, the 19th-century iconic woman poet. But his professor at the University of Iowa nixed the idea saying, "You can't because women aren't writers."
How shocking and anachronistic this story seems now. But women often were ignored in the literary canon. As soon as Cooley had the opportunity, in 1972, in his first faculty position at the University of WisconsinGreen Bay, he started a new course, Women in Literature. The course was eventually taken away from Cooley because he says, "They said, if you want to get early tenure, which they put me up for, we can't really have a man teaching Women in Literature."
Since he joined the Tulane faculty in 1975 Cooley has been free to teach about women writers, and the first course he taught here was Women Poets. Cooley has been a Newcomb Fellow since 1988, and in 2003 he was named the Distinguished Fellow of Newcomb College. From the belief that women aren't writers to the notion that men are no longer writing, "shows how the pendulum swings," says Cooley. "We've gone from one extreme to the other, entirely."
Cooley hopes eventually to have the literary reading series permanently established, if an interested donor can be found. By their presence on campus, visiting male authors prove after all to today's students: "Men can write, too." Peter Cooley will read from his latest book of poetry, A Place Made of Starlight (2003), on Wednesday, Nov. 5, at 7:30 p.m. in the Myra Clare Rogers Chapel. Cooley is the author of seven books of poetry including The Company of Strangers (1975) and Sacred Conversations (1998).
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