Michelle Clayton sees the world through both the eyes of an artist and an academic. Take, for instance, her view of her newly adopted hometown of Providence. “The whole city has an artistic dimension, even the playgrounds. There’s a sense of tweaking things slightly and reimagining the ordinary.”
She even approaches the act of unpacking beloved possessions that she’s brought with her from Los Angeles with an analytical view. “At home, I’m beginning to take things out of boxes, and the question is how to divide up your library? Do you divide it by genre, do you divide by language? It’s quite interesting.”
Knowing this, it’s no surprise that her research has taken her in much the same direction.
For her recently published book Poetry in Pieces: Cesar Vallejo and Lyric Modernity, Clayton chose the Peruvian poet precisely because of the multiple meanings for which his works are known, particularly for his way of using language as a human body. “Vallejo really pushes the limits of intelligibility in poetic language, but he does it by amping up the amount of meaning that you can fit inside a word. He works the awkwardness of the body into language, with little ouches and ahs, notes of pleasure and pain and shame and delight,” Clayton said.
Clayton was first drawn to Spanish while a student at an international school in her native Ireland, where the Spanish language was a requirement.
She immediately felt a familiarity with the writers she was assigned to study. “I think they connected very interestingly with my training in Irish literature, which has a strong tradition in poetry. I became interested in the metaphysical poets writing in Spanish and the condensation of a certain number of meanings in a knotted language. It meant disentangling a language which was itself playing with layers of difficulty, finding the foreign with the familiar and vice versa.”
Clayton’s next project will also bring together both her artistic and scholarly inclinations. It’s an examination of the migration of early 20th-century avant garde artists through Europe and Latin America and the differences in how local communities reacted to their work.
Collaboration is something that Clayton feels strongly about, and she’s looking forward to engaging others both within and beyond her department.
Clayton says she’s particularly excited to work with Julio Ortega, professor of Hispanic studies, someone who she cites as “one of my models for really thinking and writing” about avant garde Hispanic poets.
She’s also hopeful for future collaboration with members of Brown’s experimental poetry community, particularly Forrest Gander, “who has done so much to expand our sense of how to read and write poetically across cultures,” and faculty colleagues in the Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies, “who are making Brown a crucial site for dance scholarship, which is very exciting for me as I tackle my new project.”
In between her research and teaching, Clayton also hopes to find time to organize film festivals showcasing everything from silent screenings through avant-garde and neo-realist films up to contemporary Latin American films.
Clayton comes to Brown after living across the country from her husband, Stuart Burrows, associate professor of English, while working as a professor of comparative literature and Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California–Los Angeles for the last 10 years.
“I have a real sense right now of being able to lead an everyday life on the one hand, but also being able to forge different collaborations at the intellectual level, which is exciting. Things have come together on two fronts, which is great.”