New Faculty Interview: Alanna Hickey

How did you get interested in your research subject?

Very broadly, I research the history of poetry in territory claimed by the United States, and I think it was an undergraduate class on the Modernist avant-garde that made me wonder if poetry was only a genre for the highly educated—if the poem was reading and writing material of the university alone. I got lucky and happened to be taking a Linguistic Anthropology course cross-listed with American Indian Studies around the same time with a professor who, in the middle of campus-wide debates about a racist mascot, had asked us to withhold support for the university bookstore and to purchase texts for her course elsewhere. Her attentiveness to the content of the course and its place in campus life stayed with me, but it wasn’t until I had already begun graduate study that I started to notice that the poets we think of as stalwarts of the university– widely taught and read in the nineteenth century and beyond— were citing Native writers and thinkers in both obvious and oblique ways. I wanted to know what these Native poets were saying, why we weren’t reading more of them, and to understand the importance of poetry to their specific communities. I couldn’t have known how much I had to learn!

What are your intellectual passions?  What are you passionate to teach?

I get excited when I stumble upon writers using their writing for something other than its intended use. In my current project, I see writers manipulating this supposedly familiar and immediately legible thing called poetry and making it do totally surprising and sometimes radical work. While she was meant to be doing other tasks, one writer jots down a poem to her lover, requesting he buy her a new pair of earrings. Before he’s sent to the gallows, another writes a goodbye letter to his wife as a hymnal poem. These things are somehow recognizable to us as poems, but their function in the world is unfamiliar. The texts I look forward to teaching are the ones that have most challenged my ways of seeing the world—that have made me reflect critically on my most basic assumptions and have thus become companions in my daily thinking.

What is the value of studying literature in the current political climate?

There are too many possible answers to this question, so I’ll offer up something small that’s struck me lately. I find that my life is increasingly flooded by demands on my attention—whether these be news alerts, Instagram stories, or email notifications. Nothing is so restorative as giving my time and concentration over to deep engagement with a single text. To quiet these things, even for twenty minutes, and live with someone else’s thoughts, in a world of someone else’s making, brings a different set of investments and rhythms to my own. This is always a valuable exercise, but it may be an increasingly necessary one.  

What are you reading for fun right now?

I’ve just moved to New Haven from the Bay Area and the best thing I’ve read all summer happens to be Oakland-set. There There by Tommy Orange was published earlier this year and I can’t say I’m “reading” it right now, because I devoured it too quickly! The narrative unravels polyvocally to tell a story about the diverse Native community of Oakland. As the characters share bits of their lives chapter by chapter— bits that range from mundane to world-shifting— the wide-ranging cast of protagonists is eventually brought together by a single event at the novel’s end. It’s a careful and capacious meditation on the fragility of place, history, and identity, as they inevitably collide and reassemble within each individual life.

What was your favorite job before becoming an academic?

When I was in college, a girlfriend and I got hired by the same small restaurant in town. I baked pastries for them on weekend mornings, and tried not to spill fondue and red wine onto the laps of innocent diners during the week. It was the kind of place that played whisper-soft jazz and laid crisp white linens on the tables in the evenings. That maybe doesn’t sound like much, but I loved it. And every so often my friend and I would use our steep employee discount to split what felt like an outrageously fancy meal. We’d put on our best outfits, sit up very straight, and carefully dip carrots and bread into a vat of bubbling cheese.