“I contain multitudes“: The Seventh Annual International Whitman Week at the University of Bamberg

By Mareike Spychala

For one week at the end of July 2014, Bamberg became the meeting place for a group of national and international scholars and students of Walt Whitman. For me, this summer school was one of the most exciting and enriching academic events I have ever attended. Here is why:

The Annual International Whitman Week, which took place for the seventh time this year, brings together some of the most acclaimed scholars of “the good gray poet”, young academics from all over the world and international students new to his poetry. With its interesting mixture of people and opinions, this year’s seminar was an especially great opportunity for us students, because it gave us the possibility to discuss Whitman with some of the leading researchers in the field. Or as Erica, one of the American attendees, put it: “Whitman Week was an incredible experience. Interacting with students and scholars from around the world gave me new insights into Whitman’s works and into literature and poetry in general. I had the chance to observe scholars who were truly passionate about their research, at times to the point of argument, which was both refreshing and moving.” Thank you again to our instructors Ed Folsom, Betsy Erkkila, Walter Grünzweig, and Peter Riley, as well as to the translators Maria Clara Paro, Marta Skwara, Mario Corona and Marina Camboni. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and your passion for Walt Whitman with us.

A typical Whitman Week morning started with each of the instructors giving a short presentation on one interesting aspect of Whitman’s poetry or prose – of course after everyone had been equipped with coffee and cookies. These presentations were followed by questions and spirited debates, making it hard for the organizers to make sure we didn’t run overtime all too badly. Later in the day we gathered for small group sessions, joining a different instructor every day. Just like the presentations in the morning, these sessions offered inspiring conversations and exciting insights into Whitman’s works. Twice we met for additional translation sessions, in which mixed-language groups worked on selected poems by Whitman and discussed the intricacies of translating his verse. Especially interesting and rewarding for me was not only the painstaking work of translation itself, but also finding how similar the problems in languages as different as German and Bengali can be when trying to capture Whitman’s multilayered meanings.

In the early evening or afternoon, the relaxing part of the Whitman Week began, leading us alternatively on a trip to Nürnberg, a guided tour of Bamberg, or to a pint of beer at one of the local beer gardens. These free time activities afforded us yet another opportunity to pick each other’s brains about Whitman, and more time with newfound friends. It is fair to say that the Whitman Week group, which soon felt like a big Whitman family, was the loudest and the merriest, wherever we went, which would probably have made Walt himself proud.

The fact that the 17 international students were partnered with and hosted by the participating Bamberg students for the week created especially close ties between us. Staying with Bamberg students, several students told me, made them feel more welcome in Bamberg, even at home. As Ann Kaiser, one of the international participants, put it: “The hostesses of the Whitman Week were friendly, generous and gracious (read: endlessly patient with us Bamberg amateurs) - not to mention fun to be with”. And when, after the five days of the Whitman Week seminar, and the two days of the symposium, people had to pack their bags again, the overwhelming majority agreed that it would be better for everyone to just stay here. (One American student, who need not be named, even claimed on the last evening to have lost his passport, we assume, because he just couldn’t face the idea of having to leave in the morning).

But before the Whitmanites dispersed and went back to their homes, we gathered for a farewell party, our last chance to sit, eat, and drink together, enjoying the food organized by the team of the Amerikanistik. And for those still interested in learning something new, a Bamberg student with some experience as a somelier offered a selection of German wines and all the information one could want, and a student from Munich presented her very own version of Whitman to us – a selection of songs based on and inspired by Whitman’s poems. Unfortunately, this last evening eventually had to come to a close as well, and we all had to say our goodbyes, many hugs included and even more promises to stay in contact. Hope to see you all again for the Whitman Week 2015 at the University of Munich!