Alumnus Matthew Martello Wins Graduate Award for Essay on Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt

March 4, 2020

Alumnus Matthew Martello Wins Graduate Award for Essay on Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt

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Matthew Martello ’18, now a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Virginia, has continued his research interest in reclaimed poet Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt (1836-1919)—an interest that began in a class taught by Professor Elizabeth Renker. The collaboration between student and professor has persisted. Martello has won a graduate award for his essay on the poet, and Renker and Martello are leading a digital initiative collaborating on a new student-written component of The Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt Recovery Project.


We know those American writers who routinely appear in a nineteenth-century course, such as Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane and Mark Twain. But oftentimes, it’s a break away from a routine that opens the opportunity for a new revelation, as was the case in Professor Elizabeth Renker’s 2018 class English 4552, “Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.” Renker’s class studied the recently-rediscovered poet Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt, about whom Renker is writing the first biography.

For then-undergraduate student Matthew Martello ’18, this break from routine made for more than just an interesting class. Martello is now a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia. At UVA, Martello has continued to pursue his research on Piatt, which culminated in his essay “Toward a Rhetoric of Dramatic Poetry: The Case of Sarah Piatt’s ‘Mock-Diamonds,’” which won the 2019 Thomas J. Griffis Prize for Graduate Students in English. Additionally, Martello and Renker have remained close collaborators on the digital humanities project “Students Read Sarah Piatt.” Sponsored by Ohio State's Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, this new project will be part of the ongoing Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt Recovery Project that was launched in the autumn.

In his graduate studies, Martello focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and American poetry, narrative theory and various questions of poetic form—all areas for which Piatt’s work provides lucrative substance.

“Piatt sits perched atop those first two conjunctions, as an American writer who spent much time abroad and wrote prolifically before, during and after the fin de siècle,” says Martello. “She also created many of what she called, in the title of one volume, Dramatic Persons and Moods—a mode that forces connections between rhetorical narrative and poetic form and challenges standard narratological assumptions about time and space, story and discourse, mimesis and diegesis and so on. In a sense, then, Piatt here serves as the point of convergence for each of my scholarly interests…We’re always thankful for such writers.”

For his essay “Toward a Rhetoric of Dramatic Poetry: The Case of Sarah Piatt’s ‘Mock-Diamonds,’” which garnered him $1,000 and the accolade of best essay by a graduate student in their first year, Martello broke down his broad interests into two objectives. First, Martello shares, he tries to conduct a detailed reading of Piatt’s dramatic dialogue “Mock-Diamonds,” with especial attention to its rhetorical subtleties and their conveyance of Piatt’s complex postbellum politics. Second, he uses “Mock-Diamonds” as a test case for more general hypotheses, rooted in contemporary narratology and the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, about the rhetoric of dramatic poetry tout court.

To achieve these objectives, Martello broke down his research into three questions: 1) How do dramatic poems (i.e., poems spoken by characters) work, uniquely, as means of communication between poets and their audiences?; 2) How does Piatt, specifically, use the dramatic mode in “Mock-Diamonds” to communicate with her audience?; and 3) How can answers to question one help us answer question two, and vice versa?

The causality between Martello’s undergraduate studies at Ohio State and his current research is indisputable. Martello completed an undergraduate thesis under Professor James Phelan called “The Rhetoric of World Building,” which consisted of readings of several twentieth- and twenty-first-century narratives and an attempt to posit a general theory of how fictional worlds function as rhetorical resources.

In spring 2017, Martello took his first class with Renker, “Alternative Rock Lyrics as Poetry,” for which he wrote what ultimately became the basis of his graduate-school application: an essay on non-semantic signification in Bon Iver’s “Calgary” and John Ashbery’s “Errors.” A few months later, Martello appended to it a “narrative theory of the lyric” for his writing sample.

“I learned a couple things in [the rock lyrics] course that have remained very important for me—first, how to treat clarity as a sort of prerequisite to anything else in my own writing, and second, how to think about ‘poetry’ and poetic form broadly across media. So these were one set of Professor Renker’s influences on me,” says Martello.

But the most apparent influence from Ohio State was Renker’s 2018 “Reconstruction and the Gilded Age” class. The course introduced him to Piatt and kick-started his longer-term research interest as well as the collaboration between him and Renker.

Renker discussed with her students how difficult it was to find detailed close readings of Piatt’s work on the internet. “Students posed the question: ‘Can we create the close readings?’” Renker recalls. This collective questioning catalyzed the project “Students Read Sarah Piatt,” for which Martello contributed several readings.

“Before this class, I’d run far, far away from any mention of the archives, but Professor Renker required exactly such archival research from us throughout the term. In the concrete, then, I learned how to sort through piles (figurative piles, of course, thanks to digitization) of ostensibly ‘ephemeral’ documents in order to find sources of lasting literary interest. In the abstract, I realized the importance of historical awareness—that poems aren’t autonomous ‘texts’ but works by human agents, and that some understanding of what Jerome McGann calls the double-helix of production and reception history is not optional for scholars of poetry. All four of these principles, from this paragraph and the previous, I can and do trace to Professor Renker,” says Martello

After his graduation at the end of the semester, Renker approached Martello about collaborating on this student-written component of The Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt Recovery Project.

The Recovery  Project, Renker explains, is a multifaceted public humanities initiative serving diverse audiences interested in Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt and her era by compiling, collecting, explicating, contextualizing—and, in many cases, digitizing—unique and rare materials by and about Sarah Piatt and her era that readers cannot find elsewhere. 

Students will be able to consult as well as contribute to a store of glosses and readings, shares Martello, who likens the project to song-lyric sites such as Genius.com.

“[Students will] learn to participate in the development of a scholarly investigation. And a development it is: we hope also that the amassing of readings will begin to image the various interpretations that these poems can sustain. In this latter way, the site will itself perform a sort of reader-response criticism—particularly pressing because of the relative dearth of Piatt scholarship out there today. The subfield is wide open, and students’ contributions can truly help to give it shape,” says Martello.

Martello reflects upon the opportunities that digital scholarship offers, including better coordination for cross-institutional collaboration. Martello has continued to think and write about Piatt’s poetry at UVA and has made small-scale contributions to other digital resources on Piatt. Additionally, over this past year, Martello became the Assistant Director of the Center for Poetry & Poetics at UVA, where he invests himself in the more general operations of poetry—its production and reception; its place in our markets and institutions; the reading, writing and studying of it; etc.—in the contemporary world.

“The ‘recovery’ of a poet as special as Piatt potentially constitutes a major event in the life of anyone with such preoccupations,” says Martello about his work.

Reflecting on her former student and current collaborator, Renker says, “We share a fascination with Piatt's work as well as a conviction about her importance as a poet.  He's a terrific and smart reader of poems, and I'm looking forward to collaborating with him to find ways to bring student voices, student research and student interpretations into this important project reclaiming Piatt's poems for future readers.”


Martello’s advice for students

What suggestions do you have for students to make the most out of their undergraduate experience?
For many, undergrad presents an unusually fortunate opportunity—especially at a place like Ohio State. For four years you have something like an acceptable role or identity in society (you are “a student”), and yet you have material resources and temporal liberties that may never recur in your life. My generic advice to every undergraduate, then, is the same and simple: use the libraries, use the study and social groups, use your time. Read and listen and think and talk and write as deeply and as widely as you can manage (which also means: find out what you can manage, which also means…). And, if you have the opportunity, study abroad! My May term in London made important lasting relationships and, as that dog in Bellow’s The Dean’s December barks out, “opened the universe a little more!”

What are your tips for those who want to get involved with research or work with a professor?
Well, a few things. First, those injunctions to “stop by office hours” are real: your professors do want to talk to you, hear about your interests, help you along. If one doesn’t, then feel likewise. Second, treat your seminar papers very seriously. They are the trial venue for your hunches and intuitions, the seeds of future research ventures and the best way to initiate a scholarly relationship with your professors. Be as ambitious as you can, in both the hypotheses you test and the work you put into testing them. That last is number three: follow the questions wherever they take you (e.g., to and through Thompson Library stacks).

What recommendations do you have for those preparing for graduate school?
See “Making the Most of Undergrad.” But also, if you plan to go to graduate school in English or some other literary/cultural field, read (now) the scholarship relevant to your interests. It is at least in part what you’ll be trained (and expected) to produce. The transition will be much, much easier if you come in with a handle on the dos and don’ts of scholarly inquiry, as well as the quirks and rhythms of its writing. You can, of course, learn the rules in order to break them—but note well the sequence of that clause.

How does one survive graduate school?
Qualifications not yet conferred. Check back c. 2023.


By Madalynn Conkle

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