Alumni Life

Minds at Work

Three UB alumni recall coming of age as scholars, writers and friends

James Morrison, Mary Cappello and Jean Walton

FLASHBACK: The authors during their student years at UB, circa 1985. Clockwise from top left: James Morrison; Mary Cappello; Jean Walton; all three. Photos courtesy of James Morrison; Photocollage by Richard Klingensmith

By Sarah C. Baldwin

In 2013, Mary Cappello (PhD ’88, MA ’85) wrote an essay spurred by the death of Marty Pops, a beloved UB English professor. That led to a conversation with fellow UB graduates James Morrison (PhD ’88, MA ’87) and Jean Walton (PhD ’89, MA ’84) about the difficulty of publishing long-form essays, which meandered its way to discussion of writing a book.

Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration,” released this month and receiving glowing reviews, is the result of that discussion. The book is a compilation of three novella-length memoirs, each in its own way focused on the formative experience of living in Buffalo in the 1980s and pursuing graduate studies (as well as their own personal, sometimes intimate, interactions) in the heady intellectual atmosphere of the UB English department during that period.

At Buffalo spoke with Cappello and Walton, both professors at the University of Rhode Island, at their summer cabin in Maine. Morrison, an associate professor of literature and film at Claremont McKenna College in California, participated in the conversation by speakerphone.

book cover of "Buffalo Trace: A Threefold Vibration"

Kirkus Reviews called the book a “compelling hybridization of sex and critical theory.”

This book has an interesting origin story. Can you elaborate further?

Mary Cappello: Someone told me Marty Pops was dying of ALS. Jim and Jean and I decided to converge on Buffalo together to visit him. Carl Dennis, the Pulitzer Prizewinning poet and Marty’s lifelong friend, always had a pie party the week before Thanksgiving, and that year it would be at Marty’s.

When we went to see him, I returned a book I had stolen from him in graduate school. After he died, I wrote a long essay about the stolen book. Robert Boyers, the generous and wonderful editor of Salmagundi Magazine, said he would take the essay [to publish] as long as I let him cut it.

So Jean and Jim and I started to talk about this problem of the long-form essay and how there are no forums for it. Then we thought, what if we all revisited Buffalo from different perspectives, and each wrote a long-form essay about it?

Jean Walton: We decided it would be as much about our friendship as about being in Buffalo. We didn’t talk about how Jim and I would write ours. We just sort of went to our own writing tables, and it came out the way it came out.

Were you surprised by one another’s pieces?

JW: I was really pleasantly surprised to discover that “Lolita” appeared in each of our essays.

James Morrison: I was very surprised by the extent to which a kind of dialogical logic runs across the three essays. They are very much in conversation with one another about a number of matters—self, otherness, queerness, and the time and place we were in. It works in a kind of musical way for me. Leitmotifs keep re-emerging.

James Morrison

James Morrison. Photo courtesy of James Morrison

Were there any divergences in how you remembered a person or an event, given that memory is subjective?

MC: The most immediate thing that comes to my mind is that Jim’s memory is razor sharp and riveting. Jean was an avid journal keeper, so she had at hand a repository of memory. My way of working with memory is more impressionistic: What would it mean to reread a book in the present that had been crucial to you as a gift from a mentor in the past?

JM: Mary’s piece culminates the book so perfectly because it’s written in the voice of the present. My piece was an exercise of a very different kind. I do not refer to anything after 1988, the year that I left Buffalo. But I was thinking all the time about things that have happened since then and using the feelings conjured by such events.

How did studying in that time and place shape you?

JM: One thing that shaped me was the sort of lack of distinction between thought and creativity, the idea that thought is a mode of creativity. [English professor] Irving Massey figures very prominently in my piece. He’s significant in part because he was a more conventionally positioned academic than most of the major figures at Buffalo, and yet his work is artful. When you read a piece of his literary criticism, you have responses to it as if you were experiencing a work of art.

JW: I always pictured myself in some kind of combative relationship to my professors, or what I thought was this ridiculous sense of rivalry. And most of them were men, so there was always this tension between ambition and the erotic.

Mary Cappello

Mary Cappello. Photo courtesy of James Morrison

And yet what we got from your section was that you were really engaged and not afraid to think in your own way.

JW: I think Buffalo encouraged that. It made it possible for us to do that, with no repercussions. Part of it was the largeness of the department. And the fact that it was also kind of overlapping with the comp lit program and French. They were always semi-merged for me.

How is it that you were all so interested in film? Was that the influence of one another or of UB itself?

JM: I think it had something to do with the program. [The critic] Leslie Fiedler was well known for straying beyond the confines of literary study and moving into a more “cultural studies” milieu, including a lot of work on popular culture. That’s one of the reasons I went to Buffalo, the fact that the study of literature was very capacious and that it included the study of other cultural forms. And usually the idea that you were studying literature and only literature was taken to be a kind of establishmentarian complacency.

MC: “Interdisciplinary” would be so sterile a term for what was happening at UB. It was about thinking analogically: What happens if you put this near that?

And getting back to what Buffalo did for me, I don’t know if I’ve ever put it this way, but I think that it saved me in a lot of ways. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me if I had gone to study somewhere else. It reminds me of what happened when I went from a Catholic grade school to a public high school. It was liberating and it helped me to see who I could be.

James Morrison

Jean Walton. Photo courtesy of James Morrison

Does how you were taught influence how you teach?

JW: I think that all three of our essays demonstrate our earlier selves in the process of attempting to develop a series of thoughts into a piece of writing. That to me was something that UB encouraged, and I hope we are doing the same things in our own programs.

JM: I try as a teacher to model a lot of the kinds of things that I discovered at Buffalo, just the most basic kind of thing, like trying to get the students to see that thinking is a thing you do—and that the more you understand thinking in this way, the more valuable it will start to seem to you.

MC: What I try to cultivate in my classroom is attention to things like the unit that is the sentence. Nobody writes the kind of book that Irving Massey writes. Nobody does that anymore, at the level of the sentence. The sentence is where your heartbeat is, and your sensibility. What I cultivated at Buffalo was a sensibility. To this day, I rely on that concept.