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Alexi Zentner

Meet Alexi Zentner, English

By Jessie Kalish

Although 2013 is associate English professor and published author Alexi Zentner's first year teaching at Binghamton University, he is ready to share his passion for writing with Harpur College.

"I'm excited about the quality of the students," Zentner said. "A teacher's job is essentially to pass on knowledge, but it's easier if the students come in engaged already."

As a new faculty member, Zentner assists with graduate job placement when he is not teaching creative writing classes. In the spring, he will conduct independent study courses.

"My goal for the first year or two is to really get a sense of all the things that are working extraordinarily well in the department," he said. "My question is not what can I change, but what can I help with."

Zentner also expressed enthusiasm for the "vibrancy" of his Harpur colleagues: "One of the things that's exciting is how many students I've talked to who come into one of my classes excited because of something else a different English professor has taught them."

Zentner developed his love for English growing up surrounded by literature in Kitchener, Ontario.

"Since I was very young I always loved books and stories," he said. "I was very fortunate my parents were big readers so our house was full of books. ... I remember when I was younger I would start curling up on the couch and reading books and having the light on too late and reading under the covers and tearing my way through the library.

"One of the things my parents did that was really lovely was they didn't restrict me to the children's section," he said.

Zentner listed Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje as his favorite authors.

"Those are the first serious writers that I read that made me understand that literature can be vibrant and entertaining and exciting and meaningful all at the same time."

"And they're Canadian," he added.

Zentner came to the United States to pursue an education at Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school in Iowa, where he majored in political science and minored in women's studies.

"I had no clue what I wanted to do," he said.

Zentner juggled being a journalist, a freelancer, a stay-at-home dad, and a rock-climbing teacher before attending Cornell University, where he received his MFA and taught creative writing.

He said that one of the things he loves about teaching is facilitating students' thoughts.

"That look on a student's face when he or she grasps that concept that has been eluding them is incredibly rewarding."

In the fall semester, Zentner instructed "Every Story is a Love Story," a class about relationships in fiction, and "Serious Comics," a course focusing on graphic novels. In the spring semester, he is offering a course called "In the Beginning Was the End," about how writers "enter [their stories] with force and exit gracefully."

Zentner himself has written a novel called Touch, which has received critical acclaim. The Washington Post calls it "dreamy and riveting" and "a lovely debut."

Touch is set in a small northern Canadian town where the temperature gets so cold the glass of the schoolhouse thermometer breaks. The protagonist comes home on the eve of his mother's death and looks back on the losses of his youth and the mythic stories of his grandfather.

"My inspiration for (Touch) was just simply an image of a girl trapped under the ice," Zentner said, "and this idea of what it would be like to have somebody you loved in danger and so close to you that you could almost touch her, and yet be unable to do anything."

The writer, however, did not believe that inspiration carries the weight of the creative process. "There's this lovely romantic idea of inspiration and the muse," he said, "and I think the truth is if you're not already at your desk working, you're not there when the muse shows up."

Zentner said that it is mainly this work ethic that distinguishes those who write from those that do not, more so than talent. "There's nothing inherently different about certain imagery that comes to me or the ideas that I have. The difference is that I pay attention to them and actually write them down."

Zentner hopes to get his students working hard at their writing as well.

"One of the beautiful things about creative writing is that many writers don't hit their stride until they're much older and so the students I'm working with now will continue learning after they've left the University," he said.

"The question I ask is not can I teach them to put a shiny façade on a building, but can I teach them to build a strong foundation."

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Last Updated: 3/1/17