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Elena Passarello

Distinguished Visiting Writer 2018

About Elena Passarello

Elena Passarello is an actor, writer, and recipient of a 2015 Whiting Award. Her first collection Let Me Clear My Throat (Sarabande, 2012), won the gold medal for nonfiction at the 2013 Independent Publisher Awards and was a finalist for the 2014 Oregon Book Award. Her essays on performance, pop culture, and the natural world have been published in Oxford American, Slate, Creative Nonfiction, and The Iowa Review, among other publications, as well as in the 2015 anthologies Cat is Art Spelled Wrong and After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essay.

Passarello has performed in several regional theaters in the East and Midwest, originating roles in the premieres of Christopher Durang’s Mrs. Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge and David Turkel’s Wild Signs and Holler. In 2011, she became the first woman winner of the annual Stella Screaming Contest in New Orleans. She lives in Corvallis, Oregon and teaches at Oregon State University.

More About Elena Passarello

Hughes, Kathryn. "Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello review – brilliant essays on immortal beasts.The Guardian (November 15, 2017). See also "On Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello" by Jen Hirt in the Kenyon Review.

Although these animal case histories lodge under the label of “essay”, Passarello tests and stretches the form in thrilling ways. Particularly brilliant – but, honestly, they are all brilliant – is an extended fantasy written from the point of view of Harriet, the Galápagos tortoise who Darwin reportedly brought back on the Beagle [ . . . ] All this might come off as charming but essentially whimsical were it not for the fact that Passarello underpins her wild imagination and pyrotechnic prose with rigorous research. She doesn’t do footnotes, but an extensive bibliography of 255 sources bears witness to the huge accumulation of reading that has gone into her book.

Kibler, Jen. "Thank You, Magical (But Horrible) World: An Interview with Elena Passarello.Tin House (March 20, 2017).

There are a lot of people who use research without later articulating about what it’s doing. I don’t think I’m breaking any ground when I celebrate what research can do. I think I’m just naming shit that happens naturally. If the major components of a great essay are form, scene, commentary, and some kind of research, then form, scene, and commentary always get all this creative applause [ . . . ] There are so many different ways we can look at research as an equally creative mode, and that Roger Moore example is creative work on the sentence level. The original sentence was, you know, “The gastric brooding frog was both discovered and declared extinct in 12 years.” Twelve years is an abstract term, because nobody really knows what a year is, and 12 years’ time when you’re writing an essay about about centuries worth of extinctions cheapens the value of the sentence even more. So if I can find something ridiculous to represent that time, then the language makes sense; it does that work. That’s an example of using research in a creative way—it makes you a better writer on the sentence level.

Passarello, Elena. "Twinkle Twinkle, Vogel Starr: On Mozart's Feathered Collaborator." VQR (Summer 2016). See also the audio recording from Dinner Party Download.

Whistle a little Mozart to a starling in a cage. If it knows humans as creatures that sing and are sung to, the bird will shut its beak. It will arch its starling neck, bending toward your puckered lips. It might bob its dark head back and forth at the line you’ve sent out—the dotted pops of “Papagena, Papageno” or the crystalline shards of the Adagio and Rondo for Glass Harmonica. Though a caged starling is chatty during the day and downright garrulous at night, the moment it locks in on your Mozartean whistle the little bird will only blink, aiming its entire soundless self toward the music coming from you. Note how it nods along with your tuneful body as if to say, Yes, yes, I have it.