National Poetry Series Winner Launches First Book

BurnLakethumbFountainCarrie Fountain, an alumna of the University’s Michener Center for Writers’ MFA program, will celebrate the publication of her first poetry collection, Burn Lake, at a reading and signing at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 27, 2010 at the Off Shoot, located at the Off Center theatre space at 2211 Hildago Street in Austin.

Fountain—who hails from Las Cruces and did her undergraduate work in theatre arts at New Mexico State—completed her graduate degree at UT in 2004 and now teaches at St. Edwards University.  Her poetry manuscript was selected in 2009 by Natasha Tretheway for the National Poetry Series, a literary awards program began in 1978 to heighten the visibility of good poetry in American publishing.  Curiously, MCW benefactor James A. Michener was one of its earliest supporters. When the proposal to start such a program was put before the Library of Congress, Michener read of it and was immediately moved to contribute.  He released a statement to the press explaining his decision:

I thought it deplorable that…the poet was at such a disadvantage. I also suspected that while I was writing my long books of prose, there might be some gifted young woman…who was saying it all in some eight-line verse, and saying it much better. There was a real chance that her verse might live a hell of lot longer than my eight hundred pages, and I deemed it deplorable that I could get published while she could not.

Fountain is just that gifted young woman.  Set in southern New Mexico, the poems in Burn Lake take as their setting the rapidly changing American Southwest—where the Fountain family settled in the 19th century—and weave together the region’s rich history with her own, exploring issues of violence, sexuality, and the self.  Tretheway, in her citation of the book for the National Poetry Series, said of it, “Reading Burn Lake, I was reminded of Heraclitus’ axiom ‘Geography is fate.’ With grace and a keen attention to the implications of history, the poems in Burn Lake grapple with what it means to be tied to a place, knowing that our own losses are not only what is taken from us, but also what we take from others.”

Marie Howe, a visiting poet Fountain worked with during her MFA at the Michener Center says, “I sat down to take a quick look at Carrie Fountain’s book and suddenly an hour had passed. Then I noticed I’d dog-eared almost every page I’d read.  I’m stunned by the power of these poems.  Here’s all the real trouble we’re in: death and time and pain – held in a clear crisp collection that seems made of joy.”

Copies of the book, released by Penguin this month, will be available for purchase at the event from Austin’s BookWoman.

Religion, Robots and a Second Life

6acdc6cbdd1848e480564e179aaa0dd5ShelfLife asked Robert Geraci, author of “Apocalyptic AI,” (Oxford University Press, Feb. 2010), to shed light into the world of artificial intelligence and the making of his new book. Geraci, an alumnus of The University of Texas at Austin (Plan II ’99) says the interdisciplinary approach that characterized his time at UT is apparent in his research now, where religious studies meets anthropology and science.

As an author, how do you feel your Plan II education factored in during this experience?

Along with all of the many lessons in culture, politics, science, and practical skills like critical reading & writing, my professors in Plan II encouraged me to study with passion. I would name Betty Sue Flowers (English), Bob King (linguistics), and TK Seung (philosophy) as the most influential upon me–all were brilliant and encouraged brilliance in all of their students, helping us develop our critical thinking skills and our ability to express what we thought. I firmly believe that Plan II offers the best undergraduate education in the country and think it founds much of what I do today. The intellectual excitement of my faculty and classmates at UT made learning a joy and continues to bolster my attitude toward learning, teaching, and research.

What sparked the idea to write “Apocalyptic AI?”

The book flowed out of my desire to think about how religion and science interact in contemporary culture. As a grad student, I read and commented on pop science books in robotics and AI that promised we would become immortal by uploading our minds into robots and/or virtual reality in the future. As I started teaching at Manhattan College, it seemed to me there was a connection between that idea and apocalyptic traditions in Judaism and Christianity. After I wrote an essay on this (published in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion in 2008), I wanted to do a full book treatment that would consider whether those apocalyptic ideas actually mattered in public life.  I find that the most interesting questions in religious studies end up being about real people doing real things, so I set about trying to find out if the ideas of pop science authors like Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil actually matter to anyone.

How did you prepare and conduct research for the book?

The book involves three basic areas where I wanted to think through the consequences of Apocalyptic AI ideology: robotics research, virtual world residency, and public policy discourse. For the first, I went to Carnegie Mellon University’s famed Robotics Institute as a visiting researcher during the summer of 2007 and interviewed folks there about immortality, mind uploading, the future of intelligent machines, etc. It was a fun and fascinating time…I wish it could have lasted longer! For the second area, I conducted conversations and did interviews in the virtual world of Second Life. I met a wide variety of people and found that many feel a sense of transcendence in their activities in SL and there is a transhumanist community there which actively looks forward to mind uploading into SL or similar environments. I construed public policy discourse very broadly to include philosophical, theological, legal, and governmental discussions about machines and machine intelligence. In all of these areas, the Apocalyptic AI authors are of considerable influence. All told, my research was anthropological and sociological, seeking to evaluate the nature and significance of certain ideas, but not their moral worth.

What exactly is “cyber-theology?”

That would be any theology that is grounded in digital technologies. In my own work, the term refers to the ways in which some people hope to address traditional religious claims through advances in computer science. For example, the Apocalyptic AI authors advocate that we will create a transcendent new (digital) world, upload our minds into that world (providing immortality and rejecting the limitations of the earthly body), and even resurrect the dead through high fidelity computer simulation. Those are three things that, for example, Christian theology has promised for two thousand years but that people now hope to receive from technological progress.

What were you most surprised to learn during your research for the book?

One thing that really surprised me is that there are people in Second Life who think of their personalities in that world as distinct from and potentially severable from their personalities in conventional reality. Some of the folks whom I interviewed think (or at least talk) in terms of identities that are separate from their “primary” or “other personality.” It is a fairly unique form of self-consciousness and I enjoyed learning from the people willing to share with me.

Any misconceptions about AI you’d like to clear up?

Well, I’m pretty skeptical about terminator scenarios where the robots all wake up and take over the world. More importantly, however, I think we should steer away from the idea that technologies develop according to their own logic without concern for the choices of real people. Such technological determinism disregards the contingency of life and the moral and practical agency of humanity. We can make choices about what kinds of technology (including AI technology) we’d like to develop.

Creative Writing Graduate Wins Keene Award for Literature

Nora Boxer, winner of this year's Keene Prize.

Nora Boxer, winner of this year's Keene Prize.

Nora Boxer, a graduate of the Creative Writing Program in the English Department at The University of Texas at Austin, has won the $50,000 Keene Prize for Literature for her story “It’s the song of the nomads, baby; or, Pioneer.”

The Keene Prize is one of the world’s largest student literary prizes. An additional $50,000 will be divided among three finalists.

Boxer’s story was chosen from 61 submissions in drama, poetry and fiction. Laconic in style, it unsentimentally evokes the artistic, old hippy, new punk eco-lifestyle in New Mexico. In a sharply evoked landscape of bare mesas and changing seasons, among a cast of characters ranging from the shallow and self-aggrandizing to the stoically compassionate, the pregnant heroine tries to make sense of her commitment to a life “off the grid.”

“As we watch the devastating consequences of our oil addiction unfold in the Gulf of Mexico, Nora’s story takes on particular resonance,” said Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, chair of the Department of English and chair of the award selection committee. “She examines the costs and consequences of an attempt to live responsibly as well as creatively.”

Boxer graduated Brown University in 1996 with a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature and earned her master’s degree in creative writing from The University of Texas at Austin this year. She has had a varied career in arts, agriculture, community and non-profit work, including an apprenticeship at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in California and work with a literary organization in Taos, N.M.  She is developing a nonprofit, sustainable urban arts residency in Oakland.

In addition to Boxer, the three finalists are:

Roger Reeves, master of fine arts graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, for his collection of poetry, “King Me.” These allusive poems appropriate paintings, classic literature and history to build a formally inventive, emotionally intense and rhythmically powerful structure.

Fiona McFarlane, master of fine arts student of the Michener Center, for two stories, “Mycenae” and “Exotic Animal Medicine.” McFarlane’s prose is polished, elegant and witty, while her displaced characters are sharp observers of the original and awkward situations in which she places them.

Virginia Reeves, master of fine arts student of the Michener Center, for three stories, “Investments as Big as These,” “Why Don’t You Put that Down” and “Her Last Dead Child.” These stories employ strong dialogue and rich descriptive detail to evoke the complicated relations between parents and children.

Members of the 2008 selection committee included: Cullingford; Randy Diehl, dean of the College of Liberal Arts; Holly Williams, chair ad interim of the Department of Theatre and Dance; Joanna Hitchcock, director of The University of Texas Press; and resident author Tom Zigal, novelist and speechwriter for President William Powers Jr.

Established in 2006 in the College of Liberal Arts, the Keene Prize is named after E.L. Keene, a 1942 graduate of the university, who envisioned an award that would enhance and enrich the university’s prestige and reputation in the international market of American writers. The competition is open to all university undergraduate and graduate students, and the prize is awarded annually to the student who creates the most vivid and vital portrayal of the American experience in microcosm. Students submit poetry, plays and fiction or non-fiction prose.