And as my brief stint as an English 101 instructor comes to an end, I give you the proofreading pep-talk of this new millenium.
And as my brief stint as an English 101 instructor comes to an end, I give you the proofreading pep-talk of this new millenium.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, a graduate of Yale University planned to move into her new apartment and begin work as Editorial Assistant at The New Yorker magazine.
Marina Keegan, age 22, made these plans after writing a brief and upbeat address to her fellow classmates on Facebook. In the post, she alluded to the “opposite of the word loneliness” as a way of describing her sense of community and blessing. She also offered this poignant clause: “We have so much time…”
Over the Memorial Day weekend, this vivacious young woman died when her boyfriend’s Lexus rolled over on a highway in Dennis, Mass. Michael Gocksch remains in critical condition, but Marina Keegan lost consciousness at the scene and never recovered… And so, the promising author won’t be learning the craft at the prestigious publication after all. The New Yorker will have to look elsewhere, and that’s sad on multiple levels.
First, as an undergraduate, Keegan had the nerve to contradict Mark Helprin, who rose at a collegiate event to discourage various would-be writers by telling them that genuine jobs in the field are few and far between. That’s the first level of melancholy associated with this rising star’s fade into oblivion: the fact that she won’t grow up and grow into her antagonistic polemic against the intellectual-property-rights twit of the year. And the second level of profound grief for the young woman’s absence is like unto the first…
Well, I’ve done it again. I’ve entered another writing contest, which means my bank account is $20 lighter and that I’ll receive a subscription to a journal that I’ll read later and remark while turning the pages, “That’s it! That’s the winning poem!”
Alas… One of my M.F.A. colleagues (on staff at Willow Springs) says that if I review a batch of poems that have been submitted and I provide reasons for it not to be accepted (or pursued further by my fellow editors), that must mean that my own verse is better.
Well, I’m not sure that it “must,” but for the time being at least, I am struck with how we rationalize by non sequiturs ad infinitum (and how we lapse into latin). Nothing follows nothing: good, better, best… And the grand prize goes to… Subjectivity!
Jorie Graham has loads of fascinating things to offer about the poetics we practice, the poems we write and the poems we judge (ie., compare and contrast with other poems). In this regard, the Poetess-in-Charge at Harvard U. even has her own rule named after her own controversial evaluation of various works in the University of Georgia’s 1999 contest. The rule essentially stipulates that a judge must recuse her or himself if the potentially award-winning poems are penned by the aforementioned judge’s students, or her future husband.
There’s something about a Dean Young poem being recited in public!
I’m nervous about writing, and perhaps I should be.
Growing up I never liked to read. Neither of my parents went to college. Neither of them took the time to peruse much more than a copy of Popular Mechanics, or maybe, the Readers Digest abridged version of Alex Haley’s Roots, which they would watch on television anyway… But I can’t blame my anxiety about reading and writing well on them.
All I can say is that I love the capacity of words to inject emotional energy into a Tuesday afternoon with the drive-through traffic at Starbucks swirling around me. I grew to love novels, short stories and poems, but first and foremost, I was impressed with the miracle of a well-chosen word. And sometimes, even an poorly-chosen word would suffice and set me off. Just the sheer effort of an individual to articulate his or her experience–that’s enough to make my hair stand on end. Hence: my apprehension!
What if I fuck it up?
Today I heard on National Public Radio a segment with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It dealt with “Roots Envy,” or the inability of some folks to trace their family ancestry back generation after generation like the legendary figure of the 1970’s best-seller. Gates, around that time, became enamored with the possibility and discovered some things about his mother and father that were remarkable. For example, evidently one of Gates’ kin had marshaled in and out of a Revolutionary War militia between the years 1777 and 1784. For an African-American that’s especially intriguing. Also, during the broadcast, Neil Conan asked the author of the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader to revisit what he had written about his mother’s funeral. (The audio of this reading, available today at 6 p.m., is worth listening to.) He actually didn’t appreciate the stale, blue-blood service that they had back in 1997. And so, with nothing more than a few words, he described the rowdy sermon and the swaying hymn-sings and the falling-down-in-the-aisle catharsis that would have been preferred. It would have been a funeral like they had had for this uncle or for that aunt. It would have been hot. It would have gone on for hours. It would have included those paper-fans, by which the mourners move the air about in vain…
I tell you, when I heard Gates read about this re-cast episode of his life, I wept like she were my own mother. While driving through road construction barriers on I-90, I nearly couldn’t see that I’d be losing the left lane. And I realized, while putting my foot on the brake, that I don’t have to be so nervous, that I’m not so much searching for that perfect word as I am searching for that intuitive trigger or that trap door that allows me to plunge into humanity’s collective subconscious. Is there such a thing… such an ocean of dreams?
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Non-Fiction’s tether to the facts has always been frayed. And we’re just now getting nervous about it?
A federal judge in Montana has saved the non-fiction writer’s proverbial ass. (Not really!)
He has, for the foreseeable-future, allowed the authors of memoirs, essays and sundry ‘aboutnesses’ to ostensibly do what novelists and poets do all the time. That is, tell little fibs. That is, craft big ones through which we can see, but the gist of which we want to believe so desperately, we pretend there are no holes. That is, fabricate the truth. That is, construct a world in which the center may not hold. That is, present the narrator as the legendary hero he, or heroine she, always imagined him or herself to be.
Yes, we have Sam Haddon to thank for the barrage of mythic forays to come. The U.S. District Gavel-Swinger has thrown out the suit filed on behalf of a million (alright, four) non-fiction readers, a suit that may have required author, Greg Mortenson, to pay damages to those who understood his Three Cups of Tea bestseller to be entirely factual (and cough up $15 per disillusioned reader), a suit initially brought to bear by another writer, Jon Krakauer in Three Cups of Deceit… (Boo! Hiss! What a party-pooper!).
And so, where do we go from here?
I, for one, am not going to take this lying (down). To my credit I have an entire half of a graduate course with Natalie Kusz, and the topic of embellishing on the events and adventures of our lives has been raised every Tuesday. Tonight we’ll do it again. We’ll say that we can’t make stuff up. But what puts the Creative in the genre of Creative Non-Fiction is how we beautify the gory details of our fragmented days, weeks, months and years. Then, of course, someone will wrinkle his brow and it will be assumed that in streamlining the crap of our experience we, as writers, have made everything up. This is as it should be.
I’m going to try an exercise today in English 101/Section 10.
In previous classes (for previous courses) I’ve done things like play Jenga (analogies TBA), arm wrestle (to illustrate dialectic), role-play a Greek tragedy (to flesh out the human condition), and lastly I’ve hurled a hard boiled egg into the throng of a crowed lecture hall. “Poetry differs from prose,” I proclaim with this latter demonstration… “Everything is coming at you — and potentially it’s going to be messy.”
And yet, with Tuesday’s educational schtick, my hope is to play things a little more close-to-the-vest. The exercise will consist of a free-writing response to five poems and will hopefully allow the students (ages 18 to 20) the opportunity to resonate with an image. An image or two… I’ll let you know how it goes. My thinking is that many of these first-generation freshmen have never encountered the likes of Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder, Sharon Olds, William Stafford and Anne Sexton, and that some of their word-explosions might shower down body-parts into the blend-in style of dormitory prose.
You see, thus far, we’ve muddled through one Essay Exam and assorted supportive gigs in which I’ve asked them to harangue the system in which they’re all clamoring to become a cog. How to write a thesis statement... How to identify key words, indexical concepts, supportive evidence… This is the standard fare of what every incoming neophyte should learn about academe. Later in the quarter, we’ll marshall our skills of mimicry in the service of a Persuasive Essay. Whoopee! Potential research foci may include The Decline of the Hipster In What Used To Be Pop-Culture, The Resurgence of Dallas and Other ’80’s Nighttime Dramas and Snooki: The Femme Fatale of A Post 2001 Generation. And, for all the fantastic insights these papers may elucidate, I’m not expecting that the full-throated ‘second naiveté’ of Paul Ricoeur has caught up with the budding intellects. That is to say, I trust the wounded hearts of these students more than I do the reductions of rationalism we often require them to make.
We teach how not to write and we teach writers to teach themselves how not to write.
When we teach how to write, the student had best be on guard.
–Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town, p. 64
There’s an institution, which shall remain nameless, whose H.R. Dept. has asked for a philosophy of teaching.
I thought I’d offer the readers of Bark both the ‘Erasure’ version (followed by the thing that I submitted for the job)…
Thinking The Other
shelter with flesh.
You ask the kind
out we are known, feel
exposed, full of
weeds worth even more.
The what splintered
too and filth-strewn
seek partners already
To Cultivate Critical Thinking and Imaginative Engagement with The Other
Not all questions are equal. In North America, for example, we often pursue answers like commodities, as if we’re constantly in the market for the idea or the semblance of thought that will make life easier or more convenient. Other answers are born into the marriage of curiosity and vulnerability. We want to know something that matters, that persists throughout generations, a thing that binds us to their pursuit of truth and makes it our pursuit too. Moreover, we feel exposed to the social vicissitudes of life and death without at least trying to find shelter with other flesh and blood participants. Where, you ask, do we find such shelter?
Spokane is the key. And if you ask me “the key to what?”, I’d have to say the key to the metaphysical fun park! It’s like the entire Lilic City, the hometown of Bing Crosby and Gonzaga basketball, is nothing more and nothing less than the glossy sign at the entrance to North America’s grand spiritual conundrum. You are here! (See the arrow! Or, could that be a question mark?) Why are you here?
Why I happen to be here over twenty-five years after leaving has nothing to do with church. It corresponds a little bit with this calling I felt to start another new church, known as Latah Valley. But the ultimate reason comes into view when that commercialized ecclesial wrapper has been peeled back… revealing what the Celts refer to as a thin place in the world.
Consider the odds. What are the spiritual hot spots of the world? The top-ten locales for communing with one’s deity of choice, or for congregating with the hoypoloi of doctrinal sensibility and decorum? Rome? Jerusalem? Tibet? Mecca? You see, as the last of these designations suggest, each so-called axis mundi has been overrun with familiarity. Spokane is familiar. Yet, not in the same way. Spokane is familiar like the brick wall in Diagon-Alley in the Harry Potter series. Spokane is familiar by way of the same metaphorical thinking that eventually made Mecca, Saudi Arabia into the mecca of every genre of culture on earth. Spokane is the nirvana-nexus into the new world without the Grunge-movement of Nirvana and Kurt Cobaine. Spokane is on the cusp of major, authentically enfleshed revelation, something akin to Joseph Smith before Mormonism went big (and even before Smith himself went big with his declarations concerning bigamy).
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In a rowboat on the Perkiomen Creek, near Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, I caught a 1 lb bass on a Pocket-Fisherman reel (one of those $9.99 promotional deals I’d seen on channel 29). And so, with my bass, dangling from the stringer, someone took this picture of me and in the background you can make out the shadowy figure of a girl, who would later become my muse. In the photograph, she’s wearing a t-shirt over her swimsuit that reads something about being the “REAL THING,” and she’s smiling because, well, she has fully developed breasts and I haven’t grown into my limbs yet. That, at least, is my theory on her smile and I could be wrong.
I hope I’m wrong. And if I am, the reason is that this girl was not a muse at all. She was just another self in a parade of selves, and as I celebrated my catch, I was doing that I And Thou thing that the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber talks about. He says, for example, “Persons appear by entering into relation to other persons.”
And here’s where you might want to excuse the kids from the room.
Perplexed doesn’t cover my state of mind as I contemplate what I perused recently in a 1977 essay by Sandra M. Gilbert:
While the male poet, even at his most wretched and alienated, can at least solace himself with his open or secret creativity, his myth-making power, the female poet must come to terms with the fact that as a female she is that which is mythologized, the incarnation of otherness… and hence the object of anthologies full of male metaphors…
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