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Christophe Wall-Romana

Christophe Wall-Romana, one of 11 new McKnight Land-Grant Professors

Christophe Wall-Romana and cinepoetry

McKnight Land-Grant Professor brings back poetry for a new generation

By Andi McDaniel

Feb. 12, 2007; updated March 7, 2007

When Christophe Wall-Romana is honored by the Board of Regents March 9, he'll be acknowledged for his work in a genre he calls cinepoetry. An assistant professor of French and Italian, Wall-Romana is one of 11 junior faculty members engaged in critical and timely research who have been named McKnight Land-Grant Professors for 2007-09 (see box, below). The awards provide financial support, beginning July 1, as well as a research leave in the second year.

Like his field of research, Wall-Romana is hard to describe in a nutshell. With a Ph.D. in French literature from Berkeley, an impressive array of awards for his research, and a growing international reputation as the go-to guy for anyone interested in the intersections between cinema and poetry, Wall-Romana has certainly earned his status as an esteemed professor of French studies. But that's not all that makes him such an effective teacher. He's also funny, enthusiastic, and full of stories that testify to his innate quirkiness--like the one about proposing to his wife five days after he met her in a coffee shop.

2007-09 McKnight Land-Grant Professors

Awards support the University's most promising junior faculty at a crucial time in their professional careers. They are made by the Office of the Provost and the Graduate School.

* Daniel Bond, microbiology and BioTechnology Institute
* Kathleen Collins, political science
* Christy Haynes, chemistry
* Karen Ho, anthropology
* Nihar Jindal, electrical and computer engineering
* Marta Lewicka, mathematics
* Helene Muller-Landau, ecology, evolution, and behavior
* William Schuler, computer science and engineering
* Kathleen Vohs, management
* Christophe Wall-Romana, French and Italian
* Chun Wang, biomedical engineering

For more information, see the award Web site.

Perhaps that's why he's drawn to cinepoetry, a writing genre he is the first to identify as such and that's quirky in its own right. In addition to writing his dissertation on the topic, as well as a slew of articles, Wall-Romana is in the process of writing a book about cinepoetry. Cinepoetry, he explains, is the merging of film and poetry, and it can take a wide variety of forms--a poem in verse or in prose, a visual poem, or even a longer novelistic poem that is unmistakably cinematic. The underlying idea is that poets are inevitably influenced by film, so why not use that artistic relationship to teach poetry?

One easy way to get a feel for cinepoetry is to think back to silent films.

"Before 1928, you couldn't go to the movies without seeing words on screen, so that's probably one way poets began thinking about writing in relation to the moving image," Wall-Romana explains.

While cinepoetry has been around since the late 1800's--when poet St?phane Mallarm? first began visually arranging his poems in a distinctly film-inspired way--it has gone in new directions as film technology has evolved. Hence its appeal to the younger, media-focused generation and its growing status as the hot new thing in French studies.

"One of the things that initially fueled my research is the question of 'How can we still teach poetry to our students?'" explains Wall-Romana. "These days, it's like a dead language to them; it might as well be cuneiform writing." The way Wall-Romana sees it, cinepoetry is an opportunity to bring poetry back to life for today's students.

Born in Paris, Wall-Romana came to the United States in his early twenties, fully intending to return to France. As fate would have it, he met his future wife in a coffee shop in New York City on his first day. He never moved back to Paris. (As the story goes, he complained that the caf?'s coffee "tasted like cat pee," and as a New Yorker, she felt like she had to show him good coffee. So they walked to another caf?, and the rest is history.)

As a Franco-American, Wall-Romana shrugs at the American media's representation of France.

"There's much less anti-Americanism [in France] than you would expect," he remarks. "The media promotes this rhetoric of 'They hate us, we hate them.'" But that's just a side effect of the current jingoism, he suggests. In fact, most French people enjoy Americans, and as for the United States, "The vast majority of Americans dream of nothing but living in Paris," he says laughingly.

"One of the things that initially fueled my research is the question of 'How can we still teach poetry to our students?' These days, it's like a dead language to them...it might as well be cuneiform writing."

Wall-Romana received a grant from CLA's Infotech Fees Committee to create a digital film clip database, a tool that will allow all instructors in cinema to access examples of specific techniques at the click of mouse. The project will be part of the new Digital Image Database that will soon revolutionize visual studies on campus. And he has joined with his colleague Rembert Hueser from the Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch to organize screenings of French and German experimental filmmakers with Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Given Wall-Romana's dedication to film and cinepoetry, it might seem that he's left traditional poetry behind. Thankfully, that's not the case.

"I'm proofing a book of poems by W. S. Merwin [who received the National Book Award for poetry in 2005]," says Wall-Romana happily. "It'll be the first book in French by this great poet!"

FURTHER READING Read about more 2007-09 McKnight Land-Grant Professors.

* Christy Haynes, chemistry
"Why Jell-O jiggles and other mysteries explained"

* William Schuler, computer science and engineering
"Two young faculty take it from the top"

* Kathleen Vohs, management
"The root of all effort?"