Episode 4: Ramie Targoff

15 April 2019


[Rebecca] Welcome to OpenBook, that’s the name of the Podcast, I’m Rebecca, I’m one of the UDRs for Creative Writing.

[Hannah] I’m Hannah, I’m also one of the UDRs for Creative Writing.

[Rebecca] And we’re here with Ramie Targoff, if you’d like to introduce yourself.

[Ramie Targoff] Hi, I’m Ramie Targoff, I am a Ramie of English and Director of the Mandel Center for the Humanities and co-chair of Italian Studies.

[Rebecca] That’s a lot of things.

[Ramie Targoff] Various things.

[Rebecca] So, we’re just here today, we’re going to ask you a few questions.

[Ramie Targoff] Sure.

[Rebecca] Yeah.

[Hannah] What is a book you could, or have, reread many times just because you wanted to or you love it so much? 

[Ramie Targoff] So, I thought about, I saw that question and I thought I have a great answer to this because I have read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina every decade.

[Hannah and Rebecca] Wow.

[Ramie Targoff] I read it at fourteen, twenty-five, thirty-five, and forty-five, and now fifty-one. Haven’t gotten to my, whatever that is, fourteen, twenty, thirty, forty…so I’ve read it four times and that’s kind of a big accomplishment.

[Hannah] Yeah.

[Rebecca] It’s a big book.

[Ramie Targoff] Because it’s a huge novel, but, every time I read it I have a completely different reaction to it. So, where my sympathies lie, what I think about Anna, what I think about Vronsky, have you guys read that novel?

[Hannah] Yeah.

[Rebecca] I actually haven’t read it.

[Ramie Targoff] You must read it!

[Rebecca] I know I need to—

[Ramie Targoff] Obviously!

[Rebecca] I realized that I needed to like, start reading things that just weren’t written by white guys that write in English. So I’ve been trying to do that.

[Ramie Targoff] Okay.

[Hannah] This is a white guy who writes in Russian.

[Rebecca] I know.

[Ramie Targoff] This is another dead white guy writing in Russian. But anyway, that’s a novel that I feel is almost like a touchstone for me as I change and grow and y’know, the difference between being a young teenager versus being a mother, or a married woman and so-on. So, that’s my choice for that. I plan to read it, I hope, seven more times.

[Rebecca] Yeah, and you recently just published a new book, would you like to tell us a bit about it?

[Ramie Targoff] Yeah! It’s right over there, Renaissance Woman. So, the book I just wrote is called Renaissance Woman, it’s actually a biography, which is the first time I’ve written a biography, of the first woman poet ever to be published in Italy. So, her name is Vittoria Colonna and she wrote hundreds of sonnets and in the 1530s before any woman had ever been published, her poems were actually published against her will. It was a pirated edition. So someone had collected them and published them but she went on to become a super famous poet. Meanwhile, she was also Michelangelo’s best friend, she was hanging out with Pope’s, with the Holy Roman Emperor, she was commissioning paintings from Titian, and Michelangelo, and Pontormo, she was a Catholic—everyone was a Catholic at that point—but she actually got really interested in Luther and ultimately was put on trial by the Inquisition for having Protestant sympathies. So, she was a really fascinating person who, as my title suggests, embodies to me, pretty much every aspect of life in the Renaissance. And, there’s no good biography of her, in any language actually, but not in English at all. There’s a German biography written in the 1880s that’s never been translated into English. So, I decided I would tell her story. And so, it was a really fun project for me because it involved a lot of archival research going into, you know, sort of monastery libraries and sort of small places and digging up letters that had never been translated and documents. So, there was a lot of kind of detective work as well as scholarship.

[Hannah ] Bit of a departure from the last bit, what were you like in college?

[Ramie Targoff] So I was thinking about that question! So I went to college from 1985-1989 so obviously it was totally different generation, a different moment. I would say I was not so different, I recognize myself now. I was really interested in a bunch of different fields, so I wouldn’t have predicted necessarily I was going to become an English Ramie, I started off college as a religious studies major, and that was because I had spent my—the summer after my Junior year in high school I spent in Indonesia on the island of Java, living in this very strict Muslim household. And I was a Jewish girl from New York, y’know, that was one problem. Second problem was I was left handed, which in that culture was not good.

[Rebecca] Yeah.

[Ramie Targoff] Yeah, because the left hand is used for all sorts of things, so I was sort of, a little bit treated with wariness and caution, but I found the whole experience so interesting. I was there during Ramadan so I actually fasted, or I tried to fast with them. And so, I just got fascinated with Islam and with my own religion, and I just was really interested in religion. So I started off college thinking I was going to be a religious studies major, then I decided I was going to be a classics major. I was studying Latin already, I’d been studying it, so I was studying Latin and so, I really came into being an English major kind of late. Sort of the end of Junior year I got interested in sort of Dante and Mediaeval things and I switched over to English. So, intellectually, I was really curious, but I wouldn’t have necessarily predicted what was, what was going to happen to me. And then, in terms of me as a person, I would say, I was really—maybe that’s not what you wanted to hear—

[Rebecca] No, that’s fine!

[Ramie Targoff] I was really intellectually very curious, I was very social. I was at Yale College so I was going in and out of New York a lot, which is where I’m from so I was sort of participating in both worlds I would say.

[Rebecca] I guess you kind of answered this then, but could you have foreseen where you are today?

[Ramie Targoff] Yes and no. When I graduated from college I thought first I was going to go into publishing.

[Rebecca] Like every English major…

[Ramie Targoff] Right! Which is a classic. And then I really had this epiphany which was maybe useful. I thought, why should I go into publishing where at best, maybe I’ll publish one or two things over the course of my career that I really love the way I love a hundred different things that were written in the past? Y’know in other words, the idea that I could work with texts that I already knew and loved seemed so much more appealing to me. It wasn’t about teaching, I had no idea if I would like teaching actually, it was about the material I was going to be working with. So I thought, if I could get paid to think about Hamlet and Paradise Lost, you know, that would be so much more fun than trying to find new talent, and, you know, working in the publishing industry. So it was really about the kinds of books that I was going to be reading rather than the teaching and I say that because it turns out that what I really love about my job is teaching. I love doing the research but I could be a writer without being a teacher, y’know, but I wasn’t thinking about it as a career as a teacher I was thinking about it more as a career as a reader I would say.

[Hannah] Yeah, so, speaking of teaching we were wondering if you could speak a little bit about your experience being a woman in academia and your path with that.

[Ramie Targoff] So I would say that—and I think this really depends very much on the field—so I think if I were a scientist—I have friends who are scientists—or in fields that were very male dominated I would probably have a different answer. But, given the humanities and specifically English departments have been, y’know, pretty evenly distributed gender-wise for a while. It certainly wasn’t the case 50 years ago but, y’know, in the last twenty, thirty years. I haven’t faced any kind of gender discrimination at all. I would say the things that have come up around being a woman for me had to do with pregnancy and with child care teaching schedules. And, the funniest little anecdote—it’s not funny, it’s not great—I can tell you is that when I was teaching at Yale and I was pregnant…excuse me before I got pregnant, one of my senior female mentors, she was a good thirty years older than me, told me I should try to plan my pregnancies around the Christmas vacation or the summer vacation so that I didn’t have to miss any work. As if you could sort of like, sign up, like: I think I’ll be pregnant on Tuesday! Y’know, so, anyway, and then, so, that didn’t happen, and I was scheduled to have a baby at the beginning of May, and I discovered that in the Yale faculty handbook about leaves it said, literally the sentence was, this is 2000, 2001, not that long ago: Pregnancy, comma, like any other medical disability, comma.

[Hannah] Oh my god.

[Rebecca] That’s awful.

[Ramie Targoff] Y’know, blah, blah, blah, so the point was, this is a medical disability, you are going to be incapacitated, and we expect it will take you six weeks to recover from the medical inconvenience to us. So for example, if you were a man there was obviously no paternity leave. If I’d been adopting a child there would have been no maternity leave. It was just this sort of horrible thing that happened, and the reason this was written up that way, I think, is so few women at that point had actually had babies while teaching at the college. Y’know I mean it was still, I’m sure the numbers were high enough that they should have corrected that. But anyways so, there were moments like that where I was sort of told—this was all before I got to Brandeis—that being pregnant was inconvenient for the university, you should try to organize to avoid it, and then, if we have to we’ll give you this amount of time because you’re physically incapacitated. So that was sort of the ugliest moment, but, I came to Brandeis right after that in the Fall of 2001 and because teaching—I really think teaching is a great career to balance family and work. I basically have organized my schedule, now I only have one child and he’s turning eighteen now so it’s been like, his whole life I’ve been at Brandeis, but for the first ten or even like twelve years of teaching here I tried never to teach past three o’clock. I think I never did teach past three o’clock. Except for maybe a graduate seminar every couple years. So the idea that you could organize—and I never start y’know, there are no classes at—so I was always able to take him to school, pick him up at school, be around in the afternoon, and y’know, I don’t know any friends with jobs—with serious, ambitious jobs—who could do something like that. So, in that sense it’s been really a terrific choice because I don’t feel that I had to take sort of the mommy path ever. I just did everything I wanted to do but I did it on my own time.

[Rebecca] What would you be doing if you weren’t teaching?

[Ramie Targoff] Well, as I said before—we’ve sort of, some of our questions are overlapping—y’know I probably would have gone into the publishing industry because I love books and I love reading, I love being around literature. And then I also am more interested probably in the market than some of my colleagues, so I have slightly more curiosity about y’know, the commercial world, I would say. So I probably would’ve gone into publishing. My whole family, everyone in my family, well, my parents, my brother, are lawyers. So, I really didn’t wanna be a lawyer, y’know that was sort of my—I think actually I would’ve been okay as a lawyer because I’m pretty good at making arguments, one of the skills you have for academia. But that was like sort of, what I wasn’t going to do, if you know what I mean.

[Hannah] Keeping with teaching, what is your favorite course or topic to teach?

[Ramie Targoff] I think my favorite class, no offense to any of the classes that you’ve taken with me, is my love poetry from Sappho to Neruda class. I love teaching that class. Why? Because the material is so varied, y’know, we’re starting with Sappho and I get all the way to Neruda so it’s a huge sweep but there are consistent themes that run throughout the class so you can trace both ideas and also forms. For example the sonnet which Neruda is writing sonnets, you know Petrarch’s writing sonnets, Shakespeare, so I like watching how a single form moves. But I just love the kinds of conversations we get into in that class. You haven’t taken that class right?

[Rebecca] No, that’s the one I didn’t take, yeah.

[Ramie Targoff] Yeah, it’s just everyone’s interested in love. People sometimes think the poems are therefore going to be happy and romantic which is certainly not the case. Most of them are miserably sad, complaining. But I like switching cultures and switching materials. So my primary interest as a scholar is in lyric poetry, that’s what I’ve written four books basically about. So, the love poetry from Sappho to Neruda class allows me to work on lyric poetry but through a whole set of centuries and different periods. Also, for whatever reason that class always has around twenty-five people which means that we can have a conversation. I always run it around a big table. But it’s big enough so there are a lot of voices. So that’s—I think that’s my single favorite class that I teach at Brandeis.

[Rebecca] And then is there a class that you would like to teach that you’re not teaching currently?

[Ramie Targoff] Yeah, I used to be able to teach—even when I first got here, but also at Yale—I used to be able to teach devotional poetry.

[Rebecca] Oh, wow.

[Ramie Targoff] And, I loved—so I’ve written two books about devotional poetry, my first book was called Common Prayer and it was about the relationship between prayer and poetry, and then my second book was just a full study of John Donne, who’s—I would love to just teach a class of John Donne. The last couple times I’ve tried to teach the devotional poetry class the enrollment has been so low that it was on the cusp of being cancelled, sort of seven, eight-ish.

[Rebecca] Yeah.

[Ramie Targoff] So, interest just seems to have shifted away and I don’t know exactly why. I would think that people are equally interested in religion or spirituality but for some reason, the marriage of poetry and religion doesn’t seem to attract students anymore so much. But I would love to be able to teach that class again because I think Donne, Herbert, Milton, a bunch of other people earlier that you’d be less familiar with are such terrific poets. And when you start looking at how they manage their religious lives through poems it’s really, really interesting.

[Hannah] So a lot of what we do as English UDRs and also as Seniors ourselves is, like, thinking about post-graduate life as an English or Creative Writing major so we were wondering if you could give our listeners and also us advice for students who major in English or similar field of study who maybe want to go into academia or a similar humanities related field after graduating college. 

[Ramie Targoff] So, I mean I would say, the best advice I could give the two of you especially as women, but I guess this applies to everyone, is to do what you love to do. Because I can’t tell you how many people I know who at forty have given up their professional lives, how many women. Because they had children and they decided “I don’t love this enough to manage it with, y’know, with having children because there’s no compromise in their job” and so-on so-forth. Y’know I think just not making compromises about what it is you like to do and want to do allows you a kind of freedom later on which—freedom maybe is the wrong word—but a sense that you’re committed to this and that you’re gonna try to find a way to make it happen. If you love being a lawyer, that’s great, but a lot of people end up deciding “I can’t manage that career” and so, being strategic a little bit and recognizing that there are gonna be choices whether you have families or not but there just are gonna be choices, I think that’s one thing. The second thing is, in terms of academia, academia is changing as you know so much and the number of jobs that you would want to have have gone down and so-on. That doesn’t mean you should give up. But I think being open to other paths within academia, so, y’know, full-time ladder faculty jobs are great, but y’know, what would it be like to teach, I don’t know, at a really great high school. Is that something that appeals to you? Figuring out what it is that you like about the idea of being in academia, because, if you love teaching, I know people who are way happier teaching at Milton, or, y’know, another really fine secondary school, than teaching, maybe, a really heavy course load in a community college where they feel kind of taken advantage of. So, like, your quality of life is really different. I think quality of life—we both said that we have a lot of lawyers in our families—quality of life as a teacher or Ramie is so fantastic. I mean, my dad who y’know spent his career as a partner in a law firm always says, “I envy you so much!” We have so much time off, y’know we have off—we basically teach seven to eight months a year. And we have the rest of the time to do our own writing. So even if your job isn’t giving you the hundred-percent satisfaction, you have to also—you’re both writers for example—you have to factor in the time, the freedom to write. I think not having to have a full-time job meaning be in an office from nine to five, is so fantastic. Unless you really love being in the office. But not giving up on what it is you want to do and being flexible about where that might bring you, that would be my biggest advice. In other words, don’t despair, “oh, there aren’t a lot of academic jobs so therefor I’m not gonna—“ y’know do it! And then see what happens and what opens up. And I’ve been working a lot lately with publishers because my last book is not an academic book, it’s a commercial book and I’m writing another commercial book now, and I had interviews with different publishing houses in New York around three weeks ago and I can’t tell you how many young women I met who were in their mid-twenties and they were having the best time. I meant they were all working at these New York publishing houses, they were acquiring books, they were mentors, some of them probably will go back to graduate school, but, it just seemed like a wonderful thing to be doing. And they were all English majors.  And I just think that’s so much better than thinking “oh, this is really implausible, I’m gonna go work for Morgan-Stanley.”

[Hannah]What’s an activity you enjoy doing outside of work for leisure?

[Ramie Targoff] Well, I decided around ten years ago that I wanted to play the cello. So I started taking cello lessons. For my fortieth birthday I embarked on this musical career—career is absolutely the wrong word. People always say when they see me with the cello they say, “oh I didn’t know you were a cellist!” I say “oh no, no, no I am not a cellist I’m just trying to play this enormous instrument that’s taking up half of my car.” But I love it. So, why I love it I think—I think I love it for a couple of different reasons, but one is that it allows me to have a practice that isn’t on a screen and has nothing to do with my work, and is really absorbing and it makes something beautiful. So, even though I honestly sound not very good, just the act of pulling the bow, I find it so soothing and meditative and I also—I do this less now, just my schedule changed, but I used to practice first thing in the morning when I would normally be sort of rushing around and just answering email. And before I did all that I would try to practice the cello for an hour and it was such a good way to start the day. I’d like to get back to it. I haven’t done it for a few years. But, I like just using my brain and my hands in a very different way. And also it’s very humbling because I’m really honestly not very good at it and it’s really hard to learn an instrument in your forties. Which I’d never played it before, so it’s also just a fun thing, mid-life thing to do, to just take on something that you’re not good at at all and just try to work with it.

[Rebecca] Tell us about the most interesting place you’ve ever been.

[Ramie Targoff] Yeah, I was thinking about that. I’ve been really lucky to travel a lot in my life. I think probably the most interesting for me was this experience I had on the island of Java, even though that was a long time ago. I was only sixteen. But I actually went back there for my fiftieth birthday last year and that was the most foreign place I could ever have imagined then, but what was really interesting was coming back to it now, it still remained really, really foreign to me. Obviously the religious orientation was so, so different. Just the atmosphere, the sort of, the smells and the colors and the food, the way I got around on one of those tiny little carts all the time to get to school. Everything about it was just so different, I was—because I was there—when I first got there as I said it was actually Ramadan. I was awoken every morning like at 4:45 by the chanting of the prayers in the streets and they were on loudspeakers. It would just be this beautiful sound. I mean, I didn’t like getting up that early but it was, it was a really magical experience for me having—actually, I’d never left the country when I first went to Indonesia, so it was my first trip abroad and it was so dramatic, y’know, it wasn’t like going to London or something. So that was—that was probably, that was probably the most startling experience I ever had.

[Hannah] Thank you so much.

[Rebecca] Thank you.

[Ramie Targoff] Oh, you’re welcome! This was so fun!