By Allison Counasse
e-Communications Coordinator, Penn State Behrend
In recognition of Women’s History Month, we’d like to introduce you to just a few of the dynamic women in Penn State Behrend’s history. Our college has a rich history of leadership and involvement by strong, forward thinking, and generous women. Each Monday in March, we’ll highlight a woman who has made, or is currently making, her mark on the college.
Today, we’d like you to meet Dr. Diana Hume George, Professor Emerita of English and Women’s Studies.
Diana Hume George taught English and Women’s Studies at Penn State Behrend from 1978 to 2004. She is now a member of the core faculty at Goucher College’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction program, which combines online and on-campus education. She has published ten books of poems, essays, and criticism, including the Pulitzer-nominated Blake and Freud. She also co-directs the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival.
I caught up with her by email to ask her about the importance of women’s studies, why she doesn’t (yes, you read that right!) miss teaching at Behrend, and what she’s been doing lately.
You taught women’s studies at Penn State Behrend. Why is it important for college students to learn about this subject?
Yes, I taught women’s studies and I worked for years on founding what became the women’s studies program at Behrend—I’m so glad it’s still going.
As much progress as women have made in this country and around the world, there’s nothing like genuine equity yet. Women can still be owned, enslaved, beaten, and maimed in many places, including in some parts of this country—and control of women’s bodies is still a primary political aim. Sometimes I am heartened by all the advances—no one’s surprised by women in the so-called professions any more, as doctors or professors or politicians or talking heads on TV, and that progress is genuine. But it’s just as true that in many cultures and countries, there’s still a war against women’s equality that is violent and terrifying.
Without women’s studies, younger women would be even more likely to backslide, to lose touch with all that has gone before, and to become re-enculturated in ways that disable and disenfranchise them—I see it every day. The lack of a feminist awareness among young women scares me deeply and daily and a lot.
What do you miss about teaching at Behrend?
I don’t miss teaching at Behrend, because I took the best of it with me. I’m still in contact with a bunch of my previous students over the years—one became among the best friends of my life, another student-turned-friend I meet up with at the Cleveland Film Festival every year. I visit one in Baltimore regularly, another is getting ready to run the Boston Marathon and makes me great beach-glass earrings, and yet another sends me his wonderful poems. And there’s another fellow writer, and another is a magazine editor—come to think of it, I’m in touch with someone from every generation of my career there.
I also stay in touch with department colleagues—I met up with John Champagne and Sharon Dale in Rome last year and stayed at John’s place in Perugia, and I see George Looney because along with Phil Terman at Clarion, we run the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival together, which is how I also run into Greg Morris as well as newer colleagues like Kim Todd and Tom Noyes. Other writer colleagues from long ago, names current people might not even remember, like Melissa Bender and Ann Pancake, are part of my life, too. And after leaving Behrend, I got to know a couple of colleagues that I never had time to know when I was working constantly—I love and miss Toby Cunningham, whom I barely knew at Behrend, but once we were gone, we ended up in a writers’ group together and my partner John Edwards published his wonderful book.
My son Bernie is back at Behrend finishing up his degree—so put it all together and it’s like I never left.
What have you been working on since leaving Behrend?
Since I left Behrend, I’ve been teaching creative nonfiction in an MFA program at Goucher College in Baltimore. I’ve also been to several colleges and universities as a visiting writer, teaching for a few weeks or even a semester, at places such as Davidson in North Carolina, UNC/Wilmington, and Ohio University.
What do you enjoy about teaching in the MFA program at Goucher College?
I live in Pennsylvania, and work online, going to Baltimore a couple of times a year. I mentor writers who always wanted to write a book. Our program is geared toward helping them write voice-driven narrative—some have been professional journalists all their lives and they haven’t yet gotten to write long-form. It’s great fun and I get to learn as much as I teach, because whatever they’re writing a book about, I’m reading that book as they write it. And we also get doctors and psychologists and professors, as well as people who want to write about their own lives, so I edit memoirs on trauma and on travel, and sometimes that can be the same book.
You mentioned in our email exchanges that you have been traveling. Please tell us more.
I have the privilege of shaping my life so that I can do my favorite thing, which is to travel with my friends or my partner, John Edwards. I wrote one travel book and I’m always writing the next one. I try to go to Italy for about a month every other year. Lately I’ve been alternating Italy with the Yucatan peninsula, from which I’m just back right now. I stay on Isla Mujares, an undeveloped island right off Cancun, where I first went with a fellow writer on a retreat back when I was at Behrend. I got hooked on those Caribbean breezes in January.
What are your other interests?
Even more than travel and writing, I want to read. I don’t get to read enough. That’s my goal, lots of good books, the kind where you can throw yourself down on a bed and get lost in an imaginary world.
And I love long-form drama on TV, where a lot of the best storytelling takes place, both comic and tragic—Deadwood, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad were almost as important to me as literature.
You wrote and edited books on the American poet Anne Sexton. Does her work still resonate with you? How has your relationship with her work changed?
I wrote or edited three books about Anne Sexton, and she was a wondrous enough poet that I never got weary of her writing—but I did get battle fatigue about her psyche. She was a joyful and delightful person, witty, wicked smart, and ironic, but she was also bipolar, and being in the presence of that kind of mind can yank you around. My friend and the co-editor with me of Sexton’s Selected Poems, Diane Wood Middlebrook, lived inside Sexton’s head for a decade, and she said it was nearly too much.
I was attracted to her sense of joy, and I still admire her willingness to also say the depth of her pain—but she couldn’t live, in the end, and I can. So although my affection for her poetry remains, and I think she was tremendously important, and deserves to endure, I am a bit distant from her now.
But if you’re lucky, your old literary loves from early in your life stay with you in some sense throughout, they get internalized and are part of who you are, and all of my early loves became part of me—Sexton and Adrienne Rich and William Blake and Freud.
If someone is unfamiliar with your writing, what might be a good introductory work?
Personal essays I wrote, such as “Wounded Chevy at Wounded Knee” or “The Last of the Raccoon,” still represent my work.
Diana Hume George will do a public reading at Clarion University of Pennsylvania on April 17, 2014. The second edition of her book The Lonely Other: A Woman Watching America will be released in April, with several new essays.