Inside Rensselaer

Sepia & Wool: Rensselaer Professor Shares Memoir  With Local Community

Poet Julie Gutmann, who teaches creative writing and literature at Rensselaer, recently presented a public reading of her latest work, Sepia & Wool, at the Arts Center of the Capital Region.

In a mix of voices laced with poetry and prose, Julie Gutmann, poet and clinical professor in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, has captured the tones and textures of women’s hidden history in her latest work, Sepia & Wool. Gutmann shared her memoir with an intimate audience of 50 people during a Nov. 17 public reading at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in downtown Troy.

“How did our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers communicate the unmentionable, those griefs and longings we witness in the sepia eyes of old photographs?” said Gutmann. “As we hold inherited lace collars clipped from worn dresses, or sleep beneath fraying afghans, we just catch a murmur of voices over the knit and purl of women’s craft. These poems listen for that murmur. Words and phrases translate inheritance, generations of twilights, and women knitting on blue sofas.”

Gutmann says her book began as an experiment with Poetic Memoir, serving as an investigation into the ways individuals construct identity in relation to memory. Gutman has been influenced by the work of poet and memoirist Mark Doty, who said that “. . . over the course of a life, as perspective shifts, we keep moving into different relationships to the past.”

A project that took two years to complete, the title is meant to suggest the sepia tones of old family photos, antique ink, and the glazes in a Rembrandt painting, focusing on a meditative mood, a stillness. Additionally, “Wool” conveys texture, another non-verbal way that women have communicated through the generations in their fabrics and the knitting of beautiful afghans, sweaters, and scarves. The communal craftwork is designed to protect the sleeping and waking lives of family and community, to be passed down the generations, a living voice, according to Gutmann.

“In writing this memoir, I hope that readers’ experience will be one where they hear their own submerged stories in the subjects, cadences, and images of these poems,” Gutmann said. “In the act of remembering, we identify and claim ownership of the power to connect our individual experiences to the times we and our ancestors have lived through. By recapturing the textures and tones of felt moments and stories passed down, in anecdote, artifacts, fabrics, and photographs, I hope readers will become present to their own ways of constructing identity.”

A native of Troy, Gutmann attended schools in the area, and later graduated from Syracuse University and the University at Albany, earning a bachelor’s in English and creative writing and a Ph.D. in creative writing. Upon graduation, Gutmann traveled to Florence, Italy, where she lived for 15 years, and taught English at the University of Florence and the European University for five years. Presently, Gutmann teaches creative writing and literature at Rensselaer.

A published writer, she has translated the poetry of psychiatrist and poet Giorgio Antonucci, and others, for the Italian literary journal Quasi. While in Italy, she co-wrote Life in an Italian Town, which chronicled the daily life of a northern Italian town based upon a combination of Perugia and Florence.

The reading was part of the free and public presentation hosted by the Arts Center’s recently launched Book Marks literary series. The program features poets, novelists, playwrights, and nonfiction writers whose work derives from or reflects memoir writing.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 2, Number 20, December 5, 2008
©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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