For Schuylkill's Charles Cantalupo, travel informs his writing, teaching

Dr. Cantalupo with student in his Schuylkill office

Charles Cantalupo chats with a student in his eclectic Schuylkill campus office.

Credit: Samantha Bower

SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. — Writing poems at 14; studying and teaching 17th-century British literature, including writing a dissertation on political philosopher Thomas Hobbes; studying and teaching American literature; translating African languages and literature — Charles Cantalupo has researched, written about and traveled a good part of the world. The students in his classes benefit from his vast knowledge, impressive scholarship and multicultural mindset.

Cantalupo, distinguished professor of English, comparative literature and African studies at Penn State Schuylkill, has taught students about writing, language and literature for 37 years. He clearly enjoys teaching and working on the Schuylkill campus. It’s not unusual for students to follow him after class to continue the thread of a lively classroom discussion. One of his plays was performed as part of an educational equity initiative with Schuylkill campus students in Morocco — a highlight of his teaching career — in collaboration with the Office of Students Affairs.

So, what motivates the professor to write?

“If I hear something beautiful, when I see a conflict or when I feel I want to articulate what I see as beautiful and representing a conflict, then I am compelled to write,” he said. 

He explained that beauty is more than just physical and can be defined in many ways. This includes his recent visit to the ruined city of Adulis, hearing an awe-inspiring symphony or walking by the gravesite of Hilda (H.D.) Doolittle, an early 20th-century American poet and novelist who is buried in a cemetery within walking distance of his house. He often walks around his neighborhood to clear his mind and find solutions to literary problems. 

Although when he writes is “slightly more predictable than the weather,” where he writes is a constant. Place is important to Cantalupo’s work and life and includes his tranquil garden that contains meaningful artifacts from his travels. Not a continuous, but an intense writer, “I compose on the third floor of my house that I share with my wife, Dr. Barbara Cantalupo, an established scholar of Edgar Allan Poe who teaches at Penn State Lehigh Valley, and my office is an emblem of who I am.” There, lines may flow easily if he is writing or perhaps more slowly if he is translating poetry or prose. 

As the leading translator of Eritrean poetry, he said he is helping to create new knowledge. He is not as sanguine about using the terms global or world literature as he is about comparative literature.

“There should be no boundaries, only bridges that help local or national languages cross into the international map of letters,” he fervently said.

To write, he can’t stay in one place. “I am the mouse that has to leave and cannot stay; I am not an armchair traveler,” said. Cantalupo. He said he has to go to a place to write about it and invariably become the place. This belief has taken him on an ongoing adventure through the U.S. for American literature, to Europe to study the Renaissance, to Israel for religious and scriptural writing, and Eritrea for writing about and translating African literature.

Cantalupo has written 12 books and countless poems, verse essays, articles and other creative works. In one of his works, “Poe in Place,” which he premiered in a reading at the Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia, he recounts his visits to Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia and Richmond — all of the American cities where the poet who famously wrote “The Raven” lived.

In 1995, Cantalupo’s editor suggested a trip to Eritrea. His travels there included a visit to Massawa, which is located along the Red Sea. He was amazed to find a city enveloped in coral, including a huge 20th-century palace belonging to the emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selasse. The edifice was in ruins but was still gorgeous and elegant. 

“I saw a raven on a wire just sitting,” he said, “and I thought this is a place Poe would have written about.” He later learned that Poe had, indeed, written a poem titled “The Haunted Palace.” This example lands at the heart of Cantalupo’s cultural belief: one place does not exclude the other.

In his newest book, “Non-Native Speaker — Selected and Sundry Essays,” he addresses his work and travels that took place over the past 25 years, including a Euro-American perspective in a continuum with African literature and languages. The book includes three interviews with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, one of Africa’s greatest writers who was exiled from Kenya. In 2000, the two men collaborated and established a large international conference at Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea, “Against All Odds: African Languages and Literature into the 21st Century,” which resulted in an historic declaration that was translated in many languages. 

“Art,” he concluded, “is a humanizing force and speaks to us as citizens of the world, bringing us together in one place.”