Patricia Hampl: Heading Out Without a Map
After bidding farewell to the U, the decorated memoirist is writing a novel
June 20, 2019
Patricia Hampl (BA 1968), Regents Professor and Distinguished University Teaching Professor Emerita, avoids using the word “retirement.” When she gave a reading last November celebrating her 37 years at the University of Minnesota (see photo with accompanist Dan Chouinard, above), she characterized the event as a “farewell” to campus, not to her life’s work of writing, or even to teaching. (She’ll continue to serve as permanent faculty for the Prague Summer Writing Program.) Beginning her career with two poetry collections, Hampl discovered her prose voice with a 1981 book exploring her Czech heritage in then socialist Prague—and A Romantic Education, along with books by writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Audre Lorde, marked the emergence of the contemporary literary memoir.
Professor Hampl went on to shape and challenge the increasingly popular genre with “passionate inquiries” into her Catholic faith (Virgin Time), a St. Paul childhood (The Florist’s Daughter), and, in I Could Tell You Stories, autobiographical writing itself. Her ninth book, The Art of the Wasted Day (2018), continues the exploration with a look at leisure and solitude; she's edited three anthologies as well. Hampl has also collaborated with composer Libby Larson on an opera and a choral work and with composer Alvin Singleton on two projects, including the requiem Brooklyn Bones. She has been recognized with a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, multiple National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships as well as a Guggenheim and Fulbright, membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, honorary doctorates, and, of course, the highest University award for faculty, the Regents Professorship. In addition, Hampl has been honored for her teaching at both the graduate level (University Award for Outstanding Contributions to Graduate and Professional Education) and undergraduate (Ruth Christie Award). An MFA graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was the first woman writer tenured in Creative Writing at Minnesota, “a homegirl from St. Paul,” she says, “who got my BA in this very department.”
Since you published A Romantic Education, the memoir genre has become a major literary genre with celebrity authors and recognizable tropes. What was it like writing that book: helping to create a form, venturing out on a frontier?
“I think it’s useful to be
a little uncertain and
unsteady even as you
plow ahead with
- Patricia Hampl
Hampl: In those years, the term “nonfiction” suggested something that belonged in the Journalism School, not the English department. The word “memoir” was not yet established as the genre now is understood, but that's what A Romantic Education was. I had no idea, of course, that I was on the frontier of anything. I was just writing a book about a subject (the lingering life of immigration) that I couldn't corral any other way than by using myself as a protagonist. I think it's useful to be a little uncertain and unsteady even as you plow ahead with determination.
I established the courses for memoir and literary nonfiction on the curriculum. (I remember wondering if the University oversight committee in charge of vetting new courses would frown on a course that sounded like let-me-tell-you-how-I-got-to-be-me.) The political and historical aspects of the genre only deepened their attraction for me—and I think for a lot of writers. I do feel I'm practicing without a license—I've never taken a prose writing course (except for freshman English), and my own MFA is in poetry. I sometimes think back over my early heroes—and there is Whitman, who was both a poet and a journalist and the writer of those powerful pieces in Specimen Days which today we would call literary nonfiction.
You joined the English department in 1982. What changes since then have been significant?
I suppose the biggest change from my early years in the department is that we didn't have an MFA degree in Creative Writing in 1982. Things were more feral, less professional maybe, but seriously literary always. In my early years, I taught mostly poetry, usually to undergrads and community writers. We had a lot of courses that were open to “adult special” students so it was often a mixed bunch generationally. The MFA came much later, in 1996. I credit [Regents Professor Emerita] Madelon Sprengnether especially for shepherding the MFA degree through the University bureaucracy.
The MFA in Creative Writing Program has become one of the most popular and highly rated in the nation. What factors do you credit for its success?
Two things: the three-year degree (instead of the usual two-year version) which makes long-form prose a serious endeavor rather than a mad dash to the finish line. And the fact we are committed to full support over the three years. Ours will always be a small program, no doubt, but we punch way above our weight because of the effects of these two structural components. Our students are a cohort, fully invested in each other (rather than duking it out for small funding packages). And the faculty is fully committed to the thesis. Our track record of book publications by alums prove the truth of that vision.
What was a memorable classroom moment?
I think the most profound experience I had in the classroom (not the funniest or most delightful—a long list of those) was the day I was teaching a C.K. Williams poem, “From My Window.” This was very early in my teaching life, and I often felt terrified, wondering if I had anything to “teach.” I had been a freelance writer for many years, but teaching was something else: I felt so at sea. I liked Williams's long lines, and his almost laconic style. I wanted to show the students especially how the usual advice to “cut the adjectives” was brilliantly ignored by Williams, with the pile-up of adjectives creating a pounding, penetrating rhythm.
We went around the room, each student reading a stanza aloud. The poem was about the poet watching from the second floor as two probably drunk Vietnam vets were weaving their way along the sidewalk, one in a wheelchair, the other pushing the chair. At the curb, the wheelchair gets upset, and the paralyzed man falls out. In his attempt to get his buddy seated again, the other guy inadvertently pulls off his pants. Williams used a crude word for penis (which was perfect for the poem), and as that word was read, a young woman jumped up, began crying, and ran out of the room. I caught up with her running down the shadowy halls of Lind. She was sobbing. She said her brother was a Vietnam vet in a wheelchair, and she thought the use of that word was so disrespectful she couldn't bear it.
I asked if she would be willing to come back into the room, and explain that to the others. She would, and she did. I was able to ask the students to think about what had occasioned this passionate response—it wasn't the fact of the brother's wound, it wasn't a photograph or picture. It was language itself that had the power to inflict pain. (Of course, conversely, it can offer solace.) I felt confirmed as a writer and a teacher of writing at that moment. Language was the business I was in, and this student made me realize it was real and true work. I never looked back after that.
You helped establish the Scribe for Human Rights Fellowship here at the U, which supports MFA students in studying and writing about a significant sociopolitical issue. Could you describe its genesis?
The Scribe program is one that Barb Frey, the Director of the University's Human Rights Program, and I devised and administered over the past 10 or so years. We met at a brunch—just a social event—and immediately hit it off. I mentioned that, despite all the statistics about alarming human rights abuses, the problem was that numbers didn't penetrate the heart. I think we had our idea for the Scribes within minutes. And off it went. When I was reading admissions files for the MFA program in recent years, I would regularly come across applicants mentioning that part of the reason they were hoping to come to us was the Scribe program.
What is the most intriguing/enjoyable book you've read this year?
Maybe the greatest pleasure of this new phase of life, post-teaching, is the liberation of reading time. I don't have to read anything. So I'm all over the place. I was knocked out by a nonfiction book by Philippe Sands called East West Street, which is a reconstruction of the lives of three men whose lives begin on the same street in Lviv in Poland (though they don't know each other then) and come together on opposite sides of the table at the Nuremberg Trials after World World II. I've also recently read novels by Jane Gardam and Alice McDermott that I loved. And a splendid short book by the wonderful writer Mary Gordon on Thomas Merton—her subject is Merton as a writer. Most recently, a chilling short book titled The Order of the Day by Éric Vuillard. In English it's published as “a novel,” but in French it's considered un récit, something hovering between a narrative and an essay. I'm often drawn to mixed forms like this.
What characterizes the next stage?
I'm working on a novel. My first. I've written and published enough short stories over the years to make a book, but I won't even “collect” them because I think today the expectation about short fiction is that any group of stories should have a focus. Mine are all over the place. This novel is something I've had in the wings a long time—that is, several images have been with me, refuse to disappear, and insist on being housed. There is a historical dimension to the book which makes me happy—I like research.
I also hope to spruce up my French, and though I've always traveled a lot for my work, I hope for some longer ventures.
What do you think will be the impact of having a renovated Pillsbury Hall as English’s home?
Pillsbury will invite us to open our doors not only to students but to the broader community as well, for events and conferences, readings, performances, and all manner of gatherings. It's absolutely the best thing on our horizon. And, hey, will there be an Emeriti Room?