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Fall 2011

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Mary Cappello, PhD ’88 & MA ’85

Swallow Tales

Scholar examines life of noted otolaryngologist and odd things people ingested

Story by Jenna Pelletier; photo by David H. Wells, BA ’89. X–ray image from the collection of the Mütter Museum, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

Mary Cappello, PhD ’88 & MA ’85, describes herself as a quirky thinker. Her wide-ranging professional interests include poetry and politics, 19th-century American literary and cultural studies, medical humanities, and psychoanalytic theory, all of which she studied at UB. Writing creative nonfiction allows her to draw on all of them, often in one book.

“Every one of my books is what I call a thought experiment and it takes a different shape based on the subject that I’m treating,” Cappello says. “I always try to find the form that will suit the problem I’m writing about, rather than say, ‘I have the form in advance,’ and pour my subject into it.”

Cappello, a professor of English at the University of Rhode Island, has published four book-length works of creative nonfiction. Her latest, “Swallow,” explores the life of Chevalier Jackson (1865-1958) and the collection of swallowed objects—now housed at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum—the pioneering laryngologist extracted nonsurgically from thousands of patients. Objects included wristwatches, safety pins and even a pair of toy opera glasses.

It’s the first nonautobiographical book about Jackson, but it’s not a typical biography, something that “gets me into a little trouble, too, because people expect that,” Cappello admits. She arranged the chapters to resemble a set of contiguous drawers; the juxtaposition more closely resembles the poetic practice than the standard chronological biography following an individual’s life from birth to death.

“It’s not linear,” says Cappello, who lives in Providence with her partner Jean Walton, who also holds a PhD in English from UB. “You have to be patient with opening and closing a drawer and opening another one.”

“Swallow” is more research-based than her previous works, although, like the others, some sections are written in the first person. Cappello’s first book, “Night Bloom,” is a memoir about three generations of her Italian family. Her second, “Awkward: A Detour,” is a book-length essay that evolved out of a project in which she gave herself the imperative to follow awkwardness and “see where it took me.” She also wrote “Called Back,” a memoir about her breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

“I wrote ‘Called Back’ like it was the last book,” she says. “There was a sense of ‘well, I better write something because this might be my last opportunity.’ When you have a cancer diagnosis, it speeds things up, no question.”

Cappello recently received a prestigious Guggenheim Foundation fellowship for the 2011-2012 academic year. She’ll use it to take a break from teaching—also a passion—to work on another book-length essay. She expects the project to be somewhat similar to “Awkward: A Detour,” but this time she’s given herself the wondrous task of exploring mood, particularly through sound.

“I’m always interested in things that are pervasive, or ubiquitous, but that we don’t really understand,” she says, adding that with this project she’s thinking of creating a literary form that mimics cloud patterns.

Cappello started writing genre-bending creative nonfiction while working as a professor at the University of Rochester, her first job after receiving her PhD. The lines of her poems were getting longer, morphing into sentences, as she was simultaneously questioning the notion that creative writing had to exist apart from literary scholarship.

“That to me is a Buffalo influence, that idea of learning how to think in counterintuitive ways and bring incompatible knowledge into the same space,” she says. “We experienced Buffalo as a place that encouraged originality and imaginativeness.”

Peace Bridge

Outtakes

Hometown Darby, Pa., outside Philadelphia

Downtime activities Gardening and cooking Sicilian cuisine. One of her specialties is pasta con sarde (sardines).

Doctoral thesis “Representations of Illness and Health in 19th-Century American Literature”

Fond academic memories of Buffalo Hearing then-visiting faculty member Susan Howe lecture on Emily Dickinson, and studying the intersections of visual art and literature with the late Professor of English Emeritus Martin Pops

How UB shaped her as a writer-scholar “As a graduate student, I felt like the creative writing classes and the ethos of creative writing was never sequestered from, or understood as separate from, the classes in literature and literary theory. That’s huge. You don’t get that everywhere.”

Learn more about the book “Swallow”