The literature that most moves me are the works that help us to not be confined by the experiences we've had, but to imagine something greater.

Carmen Gillespie

Turn off your cell phone. Unplug your iPod. Shut down the computer. Read.

These are the goals of the Dancing Mind Challenge — to encourage Bucknell students to turn off their electronics and spend eight undisturbed hours doing nothing but reading. The challenge will be sponsored by the Toni Morrison Society and was prompted by a speech by the Nobel Prize-winning author. In it, Morrison reflects on the importance of reading without distraction, time spent alone with one's mind as it dances with another's.

Carmen Gillespie, professor of English, is not opposed to cell phones and iPods. She is just hoping to encourage students to reconnect with a primary creativity that flourishes in isolation. "The sanctuary of one's own mind is a place we all need to visit more often," she says. || Related story: Ask the Experts: Carmen Gillespie on poetry

Gillespie recently finished a poetry manuscript, Jonestown: A Vexation, which was named one of three finalists for the 2009 Lotus Prize. She was 12 when her family returned to the States from Guyana, just months before the infamous 1978 mass deaths in Jonestown, Guyana. This personal connection, together with the 30th anniversary of the tragedy, prompted her to research and reflect on the event through poetry.

Gillespie has written critical reference books about African-American authors Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, and is now working on another book titled Washington, DC and the African American Literary Imagination. It begins with the first African-American novel, written in 1854 by former slave William Wells Brown. Clotel tells a fictionalized story of the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress Sally Hemings. The protagonist commits suicide by jumping into the Potomac River rather than returning to slavery. Gillespie follows to the present the proposal that Washington, D.C. functions in African-American literature as a metaphorical location where the ideals of the country confront the realities of slavery, segregation, and discrimination. She plans to conclude the study with an examination of the contemporary implications for her reading of Washington, D.C., a city that has now become home to a mixed-race president, whose election may represent the potential for new understandings of race and race relations not only in the United States but also in the world at large.

A thread running through all of Gillespie's work is the search for home. African-American literature often reverberates with the displacement from Africa as an ancestral home, as well as from the mass movements from the southern to the northern United States. Gillespie's father is a retired Army general, so she moved frequently as a child. "Literature has always been a kind of home, a sanctuary for me, even when I was very small," she says.

Gillespie finds inspiration in literature and in her students. "The literature that most moves me are the works that help us to not be confined by the experiences we've had, but to imagine something greater," she says. "It's one of the things I love about teaching. It keeps me intellectually pliable. When I think I understand something, my students invariably help me have that Alice-in-Wonderland, dropping-through-the-hole experience of 'Oh, I didn't see it that way.' After these classroom interactions, the universe looks a little bit different."

Just as she draws inspiration from her students, Gillespie hopes to help them find their own voices. "If students have creative impulses, I encourage them to trust their instincts and not to be daunted by the specter of the greatness of others. I wish for them to find grace in the process of harnessing their own imaginations and languages," she says.

Updated March 8, 2010

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