John Garrison waxes poetic as Grinnell Lecture honored speaker


Contributed by John Garrison

Professor John Garrison is the first professor in the English department to be the Grinnell Lecture honored speaker.

Taylor Nunley, Staff Writer

John Garrison, professor of English, delivered the 9th annual Grinnell Lecture, titled “It Takes a Long Time to Sound Like Yourself: Contemporary Writing in the Shadow of Shakespeare,” on Thursday, Feb. 23. His talk discussed ideas of contributing to conversations, scholarly or not, when faced with established figures like Shakespeare.

Every year, a faculty member, picked by the dean of the College and three divisional chairs, delivers the Grinnell Lecture. Determined by a faculty member’s outstanding contributions to their field and teaching ability, Garrison is the first English professor to have this such honor. He said due to the nature of his field, this year’s lecture will diverge from previous ones. Rather than only summarizing or presenting research, Garrison explored a poem: Rita Dove’s “Shakespeare Say.”

“The talk itself … is more of a communal experience of sitting with and immersing ourselves in the poem,” Garrison said. “It’s meditation on method, and it’s a guided demonstration of how I think we might read more deeply and write more profoundly.”

Shakespeare, an imposing monolith for some, dominates the world of literature; Garrison emphasized the importance of utilizing Shakespeare as a stepping stone to finding a voice rather than as an unobtainable mark of perfection. “I think if we were able to ask Shakespeare today how he feels about that [dominance], he would say he offers up his writing as a sort of plaything … Shakespeare is an example of writing that’s held up very highly, but his writing is just there to inspire us to do our creating,” Garrison said.

Shakespeare is an example of writing that’s held up very highly, but his writing is just there to inspire us to do our creating.

— John Garrison

Garrison, who has been on sabbatical leave for the current academic year, has recently finished a book called “The Pleasures of Memory in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” This work is related to his topic for the Grinnell Lecture, as it explores the idea of shared concepts between Shakespeare and contemporary authors and Garrison’s own feelings towards the works. He also began a new book discussing “Red Hot + Blue,” a 1990 music album’s response to the AIDS epidemic.

During this time, Garrison visited Portugal, a country he previously traveled to in the spring of 2022 through course-embedded travel for his peace and conflict studies class, PCS 230: Conflict Analysis.

Garrison discussed how being in an unfamiliar environment called his own identity into question and thus inspired his exploration with Shakespeare.

“Putting myself in a truly foreign environment, where it’s a different culture, different language, a whole set of different norms … has really thrown into relief for me, ‘Who am I? Who am I when I’m not deeply in relation to people who speak the same language, have the same thoughts, and ideas and politics as I did?’” he said.

“In both these books,” he continued, “I’m using Shakespeare’s poems or I’m using this tribute album to think deeply about myself, and then think about what in my experience I could describe to others that might help them think about themselves in a new way.”

Garrison ended his talk on Thursday discussing the Miles Davis quote, “It takes a long time to sound like yourself,” and how it has influenced his belief on always attempting to create.

“It seemed to me to give us permission to be human and to underscore for us that to be human demands, forgives, allows and bequeaths to us the propensity to make mistakes … of finding our voices by finding ourselves both within ourselves and within the world,” he said.