Embodying the Object Johnson Museum Cornell

“Embodying the Object: Writing with the Collection” (Engl 3850-101, 5568) was a semester-long course offered at the Johnson Museum as part of a Museum initiative supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Spring 2016 seminar was cotaught by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, poet and associate professor in the Department of English, and Cathy Rosa Klimaszewski, associate director and Harriett Ames Charitable Trust Curator of Education at the Johnson Museum.

How might focusing on deep looking as a process change the way we approach writing poetry? What might researching an object reveal about the relationship between movement and meaning in a poem? When might the arrangement and exhibition of materials be useful for conceptualizing a sonic composition? These are among the questions explored with works of art from the collection and exhibitions that served as inspiration for the creation of poems in this intermediate level writing class.

The course incorporated significant readings of texts that foregrounded, among other things, visual arts, the art of description, ekphrasis, and ars poetica. Coursework involved in-depth viewing and discussion of art from a range of cultures and time periods, including works by Carrie Mae Weems, Jacob Lawrence, Margaret Bourke-White, Lesley Dill, Harry Bertoia, Lee Bontecou, Romare Bearden, Korakrit Arunanondchai, and Hassan Massoudy. Students created poems each week, at times in response to works of art on view. Selected poems were installed as interventions in the galleries next to the art they referenced. As part of “Prints, Piano, and Poems,” an evening event for students hsoted by the Museum Club, the class presented a public reading of their poetry, a formative experience for many of the students. A study gallery installation of poem scrolls created over the course of the semester by the students were inspired by the form and technique of works in the Asian collection.

Additional coursework included discussion of readings by Robin Coste Lewis, Emily Dickinson, Natasha Trethewey, Mark Doty, Chris Abani, and Elizabeth Alexander, among other poets and writers. Guest speakers artist Lesley Dill and poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths engaged students in class discussion and also presented talks open to the campus and community.

Students enrolled in the course were studying a range of academic disciplines—environmental engineering, English, biology, design and environmental analysis, industrial and labor relations, computer science, and government—but their common interest and passion was poetry. Through intensive peer review and workshopping, they shared their diverse perspectives and life experiences, developing and refining their poems for class presentations and inclusion in a final course portfolio. Junior Nathaniel Hunter commented on his experience: “What this course has given me is a whole new creative medium to work with. I see myself writing longer works of poetry (or perhaps hybrid poetry/prose) moving forward, and I see myself finding much more personal satisfaction in them, as I’ve found a personal voice, a unique set of joys, sufferings, and symbols that I can work with.”


Spring 2016 Embodying the Object students
Fatima Abdul-Khadir, Agriculture and Life Sciences/Environmental Engineering
Daniel Cooper, Arts and Sciences/English
Spencer Holm, Arts and Sciences/English
Nathaniel Hunter, Arts and Sciences/English
Jacqueline Inglis, Arts and Sciences/Biological Sciences
Ayman Itani, Human Ecology/Design and Environmental Analysis
Eva Jahan, Agriculture and Life Sciences/Interdisciplinary Study in ALS
Irene Lin, Arts and Sciences/Biological Sciences
Kite Miya, Arts and Sciences/English
Paul Orshansky, Industrial and Labor Relations
Alexander Pomerenk, Engineering/Computer Science
Larry Runnels, Arts and Sciences/English
Morgan Salama, Arts and Sciences/Government
Henry Schuth, Arts and Sciences/English