By Kimberley Reyes
The best place to observe Professor Evie Shockley’s spirit of experimentation is in her poetry. “I enjoy using traditional forms, like the sonnet,” she explains, “and I even work with forms that some people don’t consider poetry, like prose poetry.” Professor Shockley’s poems resist the reader’s tendency to find a central focus, through their formal and thematic diversity. “I like to write about issues that concern me, including racial and sexual politics,” she says about her subject matter, “but I certainly don’t feel limited to those topics.” Her debut book-length collection is called The Gorgon Goddess.
Likewise, her academic work ranges over multiple topics, and although Professor Shockley comes to Rutgers as a specialist in African American literature, her scholarly interests include Victorian fiction and contemporary American poetry.
Professor Shockley pursued her undergraduate degree in English and Creative Writing at Northwestern University, where the department offered only one class in African American literature at the time. She then went on to the University of Michigan law school, and after graduation joined a firm specializing in environmental law. Three years into her legal practice, after finding herself more and more drawn to read literature in her spare time, Professor Shockley enrolled in a creative writing workshop at the University of Iowa. She says that her experience there, “being back on a college campus and talking to other people about literature in a very intense and rigorous fashion,” inspired her to pursue a Ph.D. in English at Duke University. There, she discovered a love of teaching and research as well as reading, and became a professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina before coming to Rutgers.
Her main interests include African American literature and poetry, but also Victorian Gothic fiction, which she sees as more similar to African American novels than it might first seem. Professor Shockley’s scholarly work compares both sets of texts to study connections between what she calls “domestic ideology” and “social terror.” Domestic ideology is the system underneath the hierarchical family arrangements of the Victorian period, in which each member of the family occupies a specific position of power: “think about fathers who are supposed to be the head of the household, mothers who have their place in the kitchen, and children expected to obey their parents,” she says. These relationships get mapped onto other social organizations, such as the “domestic” nation.
In the larger cultural context, domestic ideology helps to produce “social terror” among groups whose members find themselves trapped into predetermined social roles that are analogous to familial roles. It is here that Professor Shockley sees an important link between Victorian literature and African American literature, because, she explains, “the type of social terror in the Victorian gothic is also visible in texts by black Americans, as authors from both periods describe attempts to break out of social hierarchies.” By connecting these two different bodies of literature through a similar theoretical framework, she argues, “we can learn more about both of them.”
Professor Shockley sees her scholarly and creative work as part of a larger community, and she often invokes the many figures that have influenced and inspired her. In her current scholarship on the relationship between race and innovation in African American poetry, she examines ground-breaking but accepted writers such as Langston Hughes, comparing them to “poets whose experiments and postmodern approaches to poetry have marginalized them to the African American tradition,” such as Harryette Mullen and Ed Roberson. She is involved in fostering a sense of belonging for twenty-first century poets as well, and helped to create a close-knit literary community back in North Carolina. She cites having worked with the renowned poet Lucille Clifton and scholarly mentor Karla Holloway, during her years at Duke, as formative experiences. To her delight, she says, she now gets to work with another scholar whose work she admires – Rutgers English Professor Cheryl Wall – along with her other great colleagues on the Rutgers English faculty.
Throughout the shifts in her career from lawyer to poet to poet-professor, Professor Shockley has tried to explore a full range of options, working to develop a comprehensive way of understanding the world that is not limiting but liberating. She now hopes to ignite a similar experience for her students, wanting them to come away from her classes with a love for literature and the ways it can enrich our lives, including “the ability to see more than the surface, to find meaning in-between and underneath the words.”
Three poems by Evie Shockley