O’Brien, Kevin

Kevin O’Brien, Associate Professor of English and Director of Tabula Poetica

The theme of Sapere Aude for this semester’s issue is the concept of entropy. I was wondering how you might approach this idea from the perspective of literature studies.

Well, right now I’m teaching twentieth century British literature, and lots of the works have to do with what I would call destabilization—so there’s this sense of things coming apart or falling apart. You could say something like entropy in relationship.

Something that really interests me in everyday life in terms of a sort of psychology— it seems to me that the opposite of entropy in some ways is will, and it think that will is a huge question in terms of student lives, like a sense of agency as opposed to a sense of being moved by things around you.
One of the things that I think about a lot is that most students now at universities are women, and women are—often there’s a sense that they don’t really have a voice, so the relationship between that and entropy could be interesting—like sort of gender and entropy. Things like marginalized voices—I’m just noticing it constantly. I was just rereading a story by Katherine Mansfield where she’s talking about two sisters whose father has just died, and they still feel this sense of an authority figure—they feel guilty like he’s going to be really mad when he finds out how they buried him—that’s like a kind of entropy—a force that’s still holding them down.

What advice would you give to undergraduates looking into publication?

I think it’s difficult as an undergraduate. As a graduate student there are all kinds of conferences that encourage grad student submissions, but I think as an undergraduate you’re kind of limited. I think that it’s a very good thing to do though, to go to a Sigma Tau Delta conference or any kind of conference that would be open to undergraduate participation. Where I really see it more is on the graduate level. To give an instance of the graduate level: I had a student in a graduate course who had a really good paper that I thought was on an unusual topic which hadn’t really been addressed. It was very basic—it was on Joyce’s Ulysses, but I felt like she was saying something that was amazing and that nobody had said, so I had her contact a fairly famous Joyce scholar to ascertain whether that woman knew whether anything had been done on her topic. She said no and so I encouraged her to find places to submit it. She has two different conferences that she’s considering submitting it to, so she can submit it to one which is a U.S. conference and there’s another one in Ireland. But that’s on a graduate level.

Is there a danger of foolhardiness in the submission process? Submitting to a non-academic source, for example?

I think there’s a very simple solution for that: I would encourage any student who is giving a paper to a conference to run it by professors. What a student may not realize is that professors do that—it’s absolutely a normal part of being in academia to solicit feedback. All of us have our own set of eyes and you need another pair of eyes sometimes to have someone say, “Oh did you consider this,” or, “Is this what you’re saying here? I’m not sure it comes across.” I think one of the most important things is that sort of feedback loop.

I know you have a book out, Saying Yes at Lightning: Threat and the Provisional Image in Post-Romantic Poetry—what’s your opinion on finding representation for your work? Is that how you went about it?

No—the opening chapter I submitted to a journal. I was hesitant to do it because I’m, you know, I’m not not one of those people who is strutting my stuff, but it wound up becoming the lead article for the journal, so I was really surprised—it was a major journal. They sent it to a couple scholars, that’s pretty traditional, and they gave me a little bit of feedback, and that’s basically it. Unfortunately, on the undergraduate level there’s just not a lot happening, even for a graduate student it’s a little bit challenging. The traditional route would normally be—if you have a dissertation then you have something that’s already very polished usually, so you could submit it to a journal. In lieu of that, if you have an essay, would be to try and give that at a conference and then when you’ve given it at a conference it gives it a certain kind of stature that makes it easier to then submit. But I don’t know of anybody in terms of essays that would go through an agent. Maybe in certain kinds of venues. It might be a brave new world—I’m really out of the loop so it’s possible there’s stuff I just don’t know of.

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