Thorburn Records 'Poetic Conversations'

NMU student and Wildcat soccer player Alessandro Scialanga and NMU English Professor Russell Thorburn

NMU English Professor Russell Thorburn recently wrapped up an eventful academic year. He published his latest poetry book, “Let It Be Told in a Single Breath,” and used NMU's Studio 102 online media production space to experiment with a video podcast idea titled “Poetic Conversations with NMU Students.” He recorded two segments: one with Alessandro Scialanga from Sutri, Italy, who is also a member of the Wildcat soccer team; and one with Jennifer Figler, a nontraditional student and mother.

Over the last couple of years, Thorburn had assigned students in his composition class a multimedia oral presentation that involved analyzing the text of a writer's piece and reading from it with an appropriate musical backdrop. This past semester, students reviewed “The End of Days: Vienna 1918,” one of 12 short stories in the Blank Pages collection by Bernard MacLaverty. The story is about the decline of Austrian painter Egon Schiele and his wife, who was pregnant, during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

“Some students who were not as strong of writers fell right into this assignment and came up with magnificent and creative presentations,” said Thorburn, who has performed his own work accompanied by the subtle stylings of local musicians. “Others who weren't as tech savvy got help from fellow students to use various audio and video technologies that enhanced the material they presented. This got me thinking about a controlled visual experiment that would involve conversing with students about favorite writers and their own writing process, then reading some of their work. That's when I discovered Studio 102 and its capabilities for facilitating that.”

“It's equipped with a lightboard, studio lighting and sound and a nice camera and microphones,” said Stacey DeLoose, instructional technologist in the Center for Teaching and Learning. “We can set it up for interviews with chairs in a comfy, cozy space. There's also editing capability so faculty can make their videos look more polished by tightening them up and incorporating music and graphics. Once Russ became aware of this multimedia room, he was very enthusiastic about the project. It is a great example of how faculty can use those assets.”

During his segment, Scialanga, whom Thorburn describes as “an outstanding writer and student,” read works by a favorite author of both: Italo Calvino. The Italian journalist, short-story writer and novelist's whimsical and imaginative fables made him one of the most important Italian fiction writers in the 20th century, according to Brittanica.

“I first heard about Calvino in high school from my professor who loved to give us introductions to different writers,” recalled Scialanga during the conversation. “We didn't have time to explore them in depth during class, so we would go to the library. The writer I decided to learn more about was Calvino. The first book I read by him was Invisible Cities. … I wanted to write about a new invisible city that would pull together Rome, my hometown of Sutri 25 minutes away, and Marquette. I had some great ideas, but not the words. My first draft was not good.”

Shifting gears, Scialanga listened to music, as he often does when seeking inspiration for his writing. When his Spotify playlist ended, a random Italian song came up. It was Dream, Boy, Dream by Roberto Vecchioni, a high school professor who wrote it the night before he retired and launched a new career in its wake. The last line of the lyrics is, “There is just one line missing from the poem; you can finish it.” Scialanga was inspired to begin a poem with that final line and finish it, as the writer encouraged. He titled it Dream Boy and read a portion during his conversation with Thorburn. View the full video here. A brief trailer with excerpts from both shows is available here.

“A second show featured Jennifer Figler, who works for Rep. Jenn Hill and also takes classes, despite having a very busy family life,” said Thorburn. “She's an interesting story and she agreed to participate in a video conversation. Jennifer took a Henri Cartier Bresson photograph and wrote a description of what was happening in Paris in the 1960s. She read it and added music to create a really nice piece.” View it here.

Thorburn's poetry collection, Let It Be Told in a Single Breath, revolves around locations ranging from the Upper Peninsula, Detroit and Los Angeles to the Mojave National Preserve. In one poem, he imagines author John Keats living near Lake Superior. Michigan poet/novelist Jim Harrison is mentioned in “Wandering the Yellow Dog,” in which Thorburn notes that Harrison wrote of the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who hanged himself after writing his last poem in blood. Other subjects range from a snowy owl to musicians Richard Manuel of The Band and Bob Dylan.

Thorburn will read from his book, accompanied by musician Michael Waite, at a Poetry on the Pier event during Marquette's Art Week. The event is scheduled at 5 p.m. Friday, June 28, at the new public pier near Founder's Landing.

In addition to writing several poetry collections, Thorburn's other achievements include being a National Endowment for the Arts recipient and the first poet laureate of the Upper Peninsula. The Central U.P. and NMU Archives maintains a collection of his papers, which consist of unpublished and published manuscripts of his literary work and correspondence from 1977-2013. The collection also includes audio CDs of Thorburn's poems and plays, and photographs from a book signing.

Prepared By

Kristi Evans
News Director

Categories: Around NMU