Walking the Walk

Tenure: Music to Their Ears

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:23 am | By Mark Baechtel

 

Issue: 

 Summer 2007

Author: 

 Mark Baechtel

When Grinnell's English department brought Ralph Savarese to Iowa six years ago from Florida, he saw it as a chance to nourish a range of interests that -- to an outsider, at least -- looks not only exhaustive, but downright exhausting.

"I like writing poems, essays, short stories, memoir, translations, and good old-fashioned literary criticism," says Savarese, who has both a Ph.D. in English and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Florida. "We used to call people with this sort of highly varied output 'men (or women) of letters,' and I would submit that the liberal arts, as a philosophy of learning and of life, are indebted to, even embodied by, such people. I feel comfortable at a place that encourages multiple intellectual and artistic commitments."

As anyone who knows Savarese can attest, "multiple intellectual and artistic commitments" aptly describes the way he lives life. Bumping into him in the halls of Mears Cottage where he has his office is like meeting a man who's just stepped off a rocket sled, on his way to the starting line of a triathalon. In addition to publishing his poems in such journals asSewanee Review and The Beloit Poetry Journal and having an essay he published in New England Review designated "Notable" in Best American Essays, 2004, he has translated an anthology of Iraqi poetry with his English department colleague, Saadi Simawe, and keeps up an active schedule of scholarly publishing and presentation on subjects as diverse as Melville and the American literature of disaster. Savarese says Grinnell is a place where such a heterodox schedule is not only possible, but attracts collaborators.

"I'm particularly excited about an upcoming, interdisciplinary course that I will teach with (the music department's) John Rommereim, entitled Music and Text, which will bring together advanced composition and creative writing students," he says. "How many other schools would not only applaud such an endeavor, but also offer learning grants to its professors to bring it to fruition?"

Perhaps even more central for Savarese, though, is Grinnell's reputation as a place where working to right society's wrongs is given more than lip service. Social action is more than high-minded rhetoric for him; it's a walk he walks as well as a talk he talks.

"Grinnell's commitment to social justice is the other reason I took this job," he says. "I wanted to be at a place where I wouldn't have to explain, let alone defend, the essential connection between one's lived life and one's scholarly activities."

Perhaps the best Q.E.D. for Savarese's fusing of life and work is his new book, Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption, in which he details the struggle he and his wife, Emily, had in Florida when they tried to adopt D.J., an autistic boy who had been written off as profoundly retarded by the system that was supposed to be protecting and caring for him. Savarese and his wife persevered and committed themselves to helping the boy, now their son, to recover from severe institutional and parental abuse and neglect, and to make sure that, often against the resistance of prejudiced or poorly informed educators and bureaucrats, D.J. got what he needed not only to survive, but to thrive. Reasonable People gives D.J. the last word; now an honor roll student at Grinnell Middle School, he wrote the book's final chapter.

"I think of the book as urgent plea to reconsider the meaning of physiological difference and to recommit ourselves to more generous practices of inclusion," Savarese says. Grinnellians, present and future, can count on him to continue to deliver this message, whether it's on the page, at the speaker's rostrum. or in the classroom. He promises that, in the years to come, he will "continue to write and to teach and to stand up for the ideal of full inclusion."