URI professor awarded Guggenheim Fellowship in nonfiction

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KINGSTON, R.I. –April 21, 2011 –As you might expect University of Rhode Island English Professor Mary Cappello was in a celebratory mood this month when the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation officially notified her that she was the recipient of one of this year’s 180 Guggenheim Fellowships. The competition fellowships, awarded on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise, went to a diverse group of scholars, artists, and scientists in the U.S. and Canada.

Cappello, a resident of Providence, was one of 13 creative artists who won awards in nonfiction. (Interestingly, another Rhode Islander, Rosemary Mahoney of Bristol, also won a Guggenheim in nonfiction.)

The prestigious award means that the English professor will be able to devote a year to write a book-length essay about a subject that fascinates her: mood.

“A great deal of thinking and writing in America has been carried out in the name of understanding ‘feeling’ and its newly minted cousin, ‘affect’, but mood remains untapped,” says Cappello who began collecting materials for the book for the past five years. Mood, she says, is elastic –it can be stretched into various meanings — yet while pervasive, it remains indefinable.

For example, you either can be in the mood or not in the mood, in a good mood or a bad one. Your boss can be moody, but so can your country. Consider political pundits discuss the country’s mood. You can wear a mood ring if you can still find one or you can listen to mood music.

Cappello’s book, which she tentatively calls In the Mood: Toward a Psychology of Atmosphere, will be her literary contribution to a psychology that takes mood seriously.

“I have a hunch that moods are more ethereal than feelings and follow a different set of rules,” Cappello says, noting that she wants to give mood a sound and palpability, but doesn’t want to pin it down. Rather she wants to take it on and discover the ways mood resists and yields unexpected significance.

Cappello sees, rather hears, sound as central to her mediations on mood, instead of relying on sight, which is too often used by Western culture. She talks of “composing” her book, and employs riffs, a lyrical phrase that is repeated in songs, in her description of the book.

The author dates her interest in sound, or its absence, to childhood when she imagined becoming either a radio announcer or a teacher of the deaf.

While not every writer takes such an ethereal as mood, Cappello successfully tackled awkwardness in the book-length essay called Awkward: A Detour. The literary hybrid: part memoir, part cultural criticism, part philosophical meditation became a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

While Cappello didn’t set out to write about awkwardness, a set of serendipities led to her meditation on the singularly human condition, she says, one that is a wholly pervasive, but woefully ignored and unexamined.

Inspired by an exhibit in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum of pins, teeth, toys and more, Cappello wrote, Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them. Part psychobiography, part cultural history, part philosophical meditation, Swallow emerged out of a collection of nearly 2,000 “foreign bodies” saved by pioneering laryngologist Chevalier Jackson who extracted them nonsurgically from the air and foodways of people in the early 20th century.

Other books include Called Back, a critical memoir on cancer that won a ForeWord Book of the Year Award and an Independent Publisher Book Award; and the memoir Night Bloom.

A recipient of the Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination from Teachers and Writers Collaborative and the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, Cappello was a Fulbright lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow).

Cappello teaches creative writing at URI. She has been a nominee and finalist for its Teaching Excellence Award numerous times since she joined the University in 1991. She will present at URI’s Ocean State Summer Writing Conference Saturday, June 25 from 2 to 3:30 p.m. in Swan Hall. For more information, go to http://www.uri.edu/summerwriting/2011.

For more information about Swallow go to www.swallowthebook.com and for more information about Cappello’s other books and ventures visit www.awkwardness.org.