Monday, December 27, 2010
The breathing, sensing body draws its sustenance and its very substance from the soils, plants, and elements that surround it; it continually contributes itself, in turn, to the air, to the composting earth, to the nourishment of insects and oak trees and squirrels, ceaselessly spreading out of itself as well as breathing the world into itself, so that it is very difficult to discern, at any moment, precisely where this living body begins and where it ends. (46)
--Hello. Good to hear from you and to know that you're ok.
We can experience things--can touch, hear, and taste things--only because, as bodies, we are ourselves included in the sensible field, and have our own textures, sounds, and tastes. We can perceive things at all only because we ourselves are entirely a part of the sensible world that we perceive! We might as well say that we are organs of this world, flesh of its flesh, and that the world is perceiving itself through us. (68)
--Hello. Good to hear from you and know that everything's ok.
The differentiation of my senses, as well as their spontaneous convergence in the world at large, ensures that I am a being destined for relationship; it is primarily through my engagement with what is not me that I effect the integration of my senses, and thereby experience my own unity and coherence. (125)
--Hello, hello, I can't hear you.
Prior to the spread of writing, ethical qualities like "virtue," "justice," and "temperance" were thoroughly entwined with the specific situations in which those qualities were exhibited. The terms for such qualities were oral utterances called forth by particular social situations; they had no apparent existence independent of those situations. . . "Justice" and "temperance" were thus experienced as living occurrences, as events. Arising in specific situations, they were inseparable from the particular persons or actions that momentarily embodied them. (110)
--H e l l o?
In the waters that surge in waves against the distant edge of the land, still stranger powers, multihued and silent, move in crowds among alien forests of coral and stone . . . (49)
[Italicized language from David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. NY: Vintage, 1996.]
[The other language is that of my mother's typical phone conversation for the past two or three years. In recent weeks, she has begun to drop the phone almost as soon as it's passed to her. Add in the sound of ambient noise: television, caretakers, gathered plates.]
Saturday, December 25, 2010
Yesterday, the Affect Theory reader arrived at our doorstep in a manila air-bubbled envelope soggy with the frequent rains of winter on O`ahu. I've hardly opened it, but suspect that it will be a good companion for two other books I've been reading this week, John Elder Robison's Look Me in the Eye, an Asperger's memoir, and David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous, an argument for finding transcendence inside of nature, rather than without it. I have neither book in front of me now, as they have both migrated to my in-laws' house--one as a gift, and the other as a symptom of my forgetting. So I blog blindly, though "deafly" would be perhaps the better word, as these books are as full of voices as of images. Robison writes about his own voice as one that is recognizable to other autistic people for its flatness of affect, its cadence. His voice does not betray (consider that word!) his emotions when a crisis occurs; to the news of a neighbor's death, he might say "oh," instead of the listener's desired tonal shift upward, outward. Abram's affect is anything but flat, is as mellow as a Steinway's middle register. For Abram wants us to attend to the world as it is, and that involves the recognition that we can touch the world with our hands because our hands can themselves be touched. We are in a reciprocal relation with nature; it, too, has affect. It's a relation of mutual effect.
It would be too easy to say that placing these books next to one another, putting them in a boy-meets-cat kind of staring contest, might suggest that the contemporary world--infinitely mediated, placed at all the distances provided by iPod, iPad, iPhone--creates an autistic field in which we all lose ourselves to abstraction. There is something moving in the persistence Robison displays at learning how to be in the social, natural world. But this feeling becomes one of disturbance when you consider your last walk down a sidewalk where you were the sole unplugged-in traveler. I assigned my freshmen to take the Circle Island bus this semester and to write about it. "Do NOT take an iPod, and do NOT use your phone," I told them, adding with some measure of pedagogical sadism, "and do not even take a friend, unless you intend NOT to talk to them!" I wanted them to experience what Kathleen Stewart calls "ordinary affects," those that are as strong as they are sometimes cushioned in dullness. (I had thought my own ride dull for at least two hours, when the conversation I'd been overhearing for that long turned; the young man being described in such banal terms from Sunset Beach to Mililani became the abuser discussed in hushed tones from Mililani to downtown near Bishop Street.) So, at semester's end, when all the blog posts came flying in, last minute-like, I arrived at one about by a young man who related that he had started by making sure he had his iPod with him. Many of the narratives were curtailed suddenly with an admission that the author had, halfway around the island, fallen asleep. Many of their stories, vivid, annoyed, well told, simply fell off a cliff. And then I slept.
TheBus is a fascinating place because it is both a sealed container from which you cannot touch the outside world and because it is so utterly social (if not sociable) a place. It's like my writing perch, from which I see a sliver of the field behind our townhouse, a mown green lawn, alighted on by white egrets, the occasional dog (black lab, English shepherd), fallen palm frond, boy with bat, girl with soccer ball. Just a sliver of a view. The perch is more peaceful--usually--than a bus seat, and it moves more slowly. But it suggests to me that I can touch the outside world without really allowing me to. And it contains me in a space where my daughter asks me over and again to spell family names to write on packages she's making for Christmas dinnertime. I am inside and outside the game. The one promises peacefulness, the other is as annoying as it is ultimately gratifying (I'm useful; I can spell!). Oh, and there's the constant triangulator, the computer screen and keyboard, on which thoughts about these things form and then dissolve as the blogger box moves up, line by line. "Mom," my son interrupts, "I may have gotten the first cardboard cut in the world, ever," then comments on the cat (asleep), the packages (the visiting student's name is hard to spell), then reads the screen ("spell!") and, when I tell him I'm writing about him "right now," he sits. "Let's see!" he says, then smiles. "Anything?"
Maybe it's parenthood that taught me to write about what's happening at the very moment that it's happening, something a recent Ph.D. said that she absolutely did not want to do, because she wanted time to pass, measuring (in all senses of the word) her experiences of betrayal and loss. (I remember those days.) But it's writing the distractions rather than trying to evade them or even parse them after a decent interval has passed that draws me to blogging and, increasingly, to the activity of daily life. (In those days, daily life seemed dull, an awful Musak that went with the ceaseless search for abstractions that might relieve it.) A mixed state that is neither Abram's full-bodied experience of nature nor Robison's constant act of translation from outward chaos to his internal logic maker. A mixed state that sometimes leaving me wanting either extreme. The full-bodied is harder to achieve, what with the kids and the computer. The logical parsing of moments cannot be done with kids, and cat, and partner, and egrets to attend to. (You should meditate more, the raven says from my shoulder.)
It is perhaps no mystery that this mixed state of perception brings together what is lost (chronologically) in Alzheimer's. First the present disappears into the sometimes invented (collapsed) past, so that the past is what is and the present is what gets abstracted from it (perhaps). Later on, the past itself disappears and only the present exists. My mother looking over and over at a flower, at which she exclaims each time, freshly. Finally, the mind/body shut down until whatever (metaphorically autistic) perceptions are completely closed in and down. It's a wavering between states that is finally the states' withering away.
Where is the mystery in any of this attending to, caretaking the moment? Isn't it mystery that we often want, whether spiritual or plot-based? "So what happened then?" applies equally to God and funny French detectives. Where is the rock we're meaning to turn over to find the bugs and the scary snake? Mystery perhaps becomes less mysterious over time. The mystery is that being in all these things (even in the inability to be there, in Robison's case, or that of the iPod wielding bus rider) seems to make more of them happen. It's the mystery of my one semester of teaching when every book I taught came true in my daily life over the course of about six weeks straight. It's the mystery of love and hostility in the classroom. It's the mystery of how things cluster. Rilke's "you must change your life" becoming "you must apprehend your life," and your recognition (sharp or flat!) that there's as much drama in the second as in the first demand.
Friday, December 17, 2010
I know no graphic novel theory, although I assume there's a body of work on the form by now, in or outside the world of drawing. But I'm taken by the word "graphic." Not only does it refer to the
[and how appropriate that I lost what was here to the vagaries of blogger's forgetting so that what follows will be, in part, a reconstruction of missing pieces of last hour's thinking]
pictorial, the vivid, the distinctive, the lineated, but also to what hits the reader as disturbing, unforgettable. What is graphic cannot be easily forgotten. It seems an apt form for writing about old age, self-loss, Alzheimer's. The story works inside a form where moments are caught in boxes, panels, discrete pages with beginnings and endings. For the witness of Alzheimer's, the victim's forgetting is memorable, hence the outflux of memoirs about the subject in recent years.
I've been thinking about writing Alzheimer's in recent blog posts, and especially about formal questions. How do we convey this subject matter in form? How can we use form to evoke the illness's affects and effects? So I sent a link to my recent post to Goro Takano, whose With One More Step Ahead is a novel whose narrator is demented, and asked him to share his thinking with me. He has kindly given me permission to quote from his responses to my questions. (Because I do facebook in French, the temporal markers may appear odd.)
Goro Takano 13 décembre, 04:21 Signaler
[And here Goro describes his new work:]
My new story is about a Japanese aged male novelist who realizes that he is gradually falling into a heavy case of senile dementia. He decides to write his "last" novel, and my whole story is actually what he is writing now.
Once he finishes writing the first chapter, he forgets what he has written. And he starts writing another first chapter (which is totally different from the one he has written before), and he repeats this first-chapter writing almost endlessly, assuming that his story is somehow in progress. In other words, every chapter in my novel will be titled "The First Chapter." And each chapter is confusingly self-reflective and linked quite awkwardly with one another. In the early chapters, the relationships among the main characters --- the protagonist (who is an aged Japanese novelist named Goro Takano --- Is this me? Is this the author who is writing this "last" novel? Or, is this the protagonist of the "last" novel?), his "double" (whose name is Fumio Takano, which is also Goro's penname), his wife (Yoko Takano), his editor and others --- seem to be pretty much fixed, but as the story progresses(?), they begin to be weirdly overlapped and the reader wil begin to be awfully confused about who's who. That is partly why what I'm writing now seems to be even beyond me. But this awkwardness may be the story's primary quality. I'm now writing it in Japanese --- Hope its English translation will be someday published and reach you in US...
Where Joyce Farmer's memoir is graphic, Goro Takano's work is anti-graphic. Where Farmer draws unforgettable lines and characters, Takano deliberately makes his forgettable, because his characters are distinguished by their forgetting. Farmer's memoir is very material; she writes about the duties of caregiving, the laundry, the bathing, the taking to the hospital, the anger at authorities, the health system, and so on. Takano's take is immaterial. The contents of the mind in the process of dissolution is something that happens not simply to his characters but also to his readers. The point is to blur the lines, dissolve the squares, unbox the text.
Both these strategies are incredibly effective. I find myself drawn to both in nearly equal measure, as if to a wavering between Reznikoff and Stevens, Rukeyser and Dickinson. In my Dementia Blog I think I attempted both the objective path of the witness and the subjective blurring of story by way of the blog's backwardness. In any case, as Goro writes, we who experience the illness from any perspective are all "dementia holders." How we release our knowledge, whether graphically or anti-graphically, matters less than that we share it with the lucky (and increasingly few) who do not yet have it to hold.
Some good poetry news. My poem, "World Cup," about the slow fall of an Alzheimer's patient to the floor, will be choreographed and danced by the Bellingham Repertory Dance Theater in April, 2011. The poem comes from Old Women Look Like This, a free e-book. The Bellingham Reportory Dance Company can be found here.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
The imperative to write, so obviously an imperative to make right, says a lot about how we write when we write about disasters. There is an impulse to fiddle, to fix, to make the villanelle work because the keys are lost, the cities are lost, the loved one is gone.
I write Alzheimer's, though I cannot make it right. So how can we who write about Alzheimer's represent it so that others who know (or will know) it have access not just to its ravages, but also to their forms? What is the form a disease takes in literature? This is what I asked myself as I wrote a proposal for a conference on Women and Aging in fiction. At the risk of losing a reader not charmed by the abstraction of abstracts, here goes:
“An Ongoing Whose Plot Cannot Find the Door”: Narrative Strategies in Alzheimer's Literature
In The Forgetting: Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic (NY: Anchor Books, 2001) David Shenk writes: “For better or worse, the strange notion of reverse childhood turns out to be the best map we have to understand the terrain of Alzheimer's” (125). Shenk is hardly the first to think of old age as a “second childhood,” or to note that “Alzheimer's patients in the middle and later stages find a tremendous comfort in children's books and music” (130). In my recent e-book, Old Women Look Like This, I tested this idea by placing Alzheimer's sufferers inside the plots (and language) of well-known children's books, including Anne of Green Gables, Are You My Mother?, and Pippi Longstocking. When the translation is made, the comic hero of the children's book becomes a tragic one. What is a forward-looking genre—the child looks forward to having more power than she does now—cannot sustain the narrative of a backward-looking disease. In my earlier book, Dementia Blog, I preserved the backwards order of the blog (where one reads from present back into the past) in order to evoke the confusions of Alzheimer's for the sufferer and her family members. Hence, effects precede causes; what one sees today seeming to influence what one sees tomorrow. The question I would like to pose in my talk is this: what narrative strategies best convey structures of perception in Alzheimer's, for patients, their relatives and caretakers? I will argue that linear, diachronic narrative strategies assume a logic that the disease has already destroyed, and that we need to use other forms to get at the illness's chaotic thinking.
That last sentence, as one reader informed me, is polemical--there's "need" in my argument, as well as description. That's the writer in me, trying to justify my means, if not my ends (or end). Joe Harrington has blogged a couple of times on What Old Women Look Like; what has struck him as most powerful about the e-book is something that bothers me about it. He calls it tragedy. He writes: "While it would be an overstatement to say that Old Women Look Like This makes me want to slit my wrists to avoid growing old, let me put it this way: if I were the sort of person who liked to get drunk and drive real, real fast, this book would not be an argument for changing ways." I wrote him to say that was not what I had intended! In thinking through his response, he writes later: "But I still think that the power of Old Women comes from its unwillingness to try to give a happy ending to a process that resists it - a rare resistance to the forced optimism of American culture."
So the pieces, based as they are on children's books into which I poured Alzheimer's patients (my mother Martha becomes the little bird of Are You My Mother?, Juanita Goggins becomes Pippi Longstocking, Anne of Green Gables resides in Manor Care Gables) undo the children's narratives of power, independence, heroism. Where Pippi lives alone happily, Juanita Goggins dies of hypothermia. Where the little bird finds his mother, my mother looks but cannot find hers. The method do the tragedy in different voices, a lot of them.
But I pull up short. I do not want them to do that. Is it my own surrender to "the forced optimism of American culture"? Do I want an Hollywood ending, in which there's a cure and my mother and her fellow residents walk off into the sunset on their own two feet, singing the multiplication tables? Or is there something else at stake? I think there is, which is why these pieces are only partial portraits of the Alzheimer's epidemic.
Alzheimer's endings are often not happy or sad, but mixed--mixed up. An ending is not a crash, though it may seem to be, if your relative has Alzheimer's, especially in the later stages. An ending, which is literary, can also point to a spiritual sense of opening. There is more to the Alzheimer's home than tragedy. Even if "reverse childhood" doesn't return us to the joys of childhood, but only its incapacities, it can return us to notions of community, care, fellow feeling. Am I romanticizing? I hope not, because the kind of care I'm talking about is often banal. It amounts to helping someone who can't wield a fork to eat. It amounts to teasing someone who doesn't understand the joke. But it reflects back on those who can.
This is the subject for another post, I'm sure, but in my work on master's and doctoral dissertations in fiction (short story, flash fiction, novels), I've noticed over the past few years that when the writer addresses spiritual matters, he or she does so as a joke. We have the yoga enthusiast who is type A; we have the seeker who goes shopping; we have a repeated series of failures to connect to anything greater than ourselves, because we are hypocrites and so easily mocked. (Let me add that these theses and dissertations were damn good.) But we do not have the difficult work of finding that "ordinary affect" that is more than ordinary, is luminous.
I have only started to read a new novel by one of our doctoral students, Joseph Cardinale, The Size of the Universe, but I find it a brave venture into the world where something is possible beyond the one so many of these narratives seem to demand (or to fall into). Cardinale also tells a kind of children's tale, or fable. His subjects are over-determined in ways that could be dangerous for a young writer. "The Great Disappointment" begins this way: "After the flood began I was alone with Mother in the house from before. Neither of us knew what to do" (15). Uh oh, one mutters. We've got both Mother and a flood. It's the full Freudian: mother and monotheism all in one sentence. Then we get fish and Christ. Not just Freud, but also Faulkner stalks this story. (And you thought it was hard to write about love!) And then the Savior comes, caught on a fish hook, and he is an orangutan. It's a long story, but in it the speaker comes to free his Savior, rather than the other way around. The end of the world, where we are situated, requires stillness, rather than a forward narrative.
He [William Miller] had discovered a new strategy for searching for Christ. His strategy was to stop searching, to remain where he was in the forest and wait for God to find him. His mistake, he decided, was to believe that he had to hunt for the Savior, when in fact the Savior was hunting for him and would only appear in the moment his mind grew still and silent as the stars . . . . Let us then go backward, he wrote on the final page of his journal. It is death to go forward; to go backward can be no more. (40)
The story ends with the savior searching, the narrator knowing that "I was all around him all the time" (51). This blog post is leading me to an ending, an ending that I'm coming to believe is about form (the fable, the children's story), about searching (for the Savior, for meaning), and about ending (not happy or sad, but something more mixed up). It's an ending where the searched for becomes the seeker, where the Alzheimer's patient becomes the heroine of a children's book, where American culture is at least tinged with another--more ambiguous--sense of an ending. It's a heroism of the bedpan, or the blown nose. Our savior may be an "ape," but he has at least found us.
[A bit later] Blogging an essay is as much a temporal as a logical form, moving as it does by accretion more than rhetorical superstructure. The narrator of Joseph Cardinale's chapter, "Proportions for the Human Figure," which concludes The Size of the Universe, has a fascination with astronomy. He watches TV shows about the stars. "The astronomer drew a circle on the blackboard. Inside the circle he wrote Black Hole. The border of the black hole was called the accretion disk" (110-111). Some particles stay inside the disk, while others are thrown out of it.
This narrator is also fascinated by his wife's decline--her de-creation--into Alzheimer's. Joseph Cardinale wrote to alert me that the book I had not finished, but had already blogged on, fit more neatly into my ideas about it than I yet knew. He noted: "In certain ways the entire book is about memory and identity, stillness and movement, particularly the final three stories, and in all of them, too, I was aiming for just the the kind of mixed-up endings you discussed in your post (particularly in final sentences). In the last story, though, the narrator's wife is literally suffering from Alzheimer's. Most of this story was based on the relationship between my grandparents -- my grandmother died after a long period of dementia a few years ago. And some of the dialogues and details in the story are drawn directly from the journals my grandfather kept during that period, which I wove together with a lot of other themes and texts." Historical and fictional time thus are braided in ways that family members of Alzheimer's patients recognize. While our histories accrete, theirs are thrown outward, lost.
The story is as much about origins as ends. The universe is formed, an orangutan (whom we met before in another incarnation) learns to say "Papa Cup," the narrator vividly remembers a children's story about a turtle written by his wife, Marie, many years before. The turtle lived along in "a time before Eden" (111). He sees a hawk, who tells him he is entirely alone (well, except for the hawk). This leads him to remember a box turtle named Harry who had lived in their garden years before, who was accidentally injured by a lawn mower. Amid these past memories, which are his alone--he has become the turtle of his own stories--Marie says "I want to go home." Stories accrete, but they also dissipate in the mind of one of their tellers.
When I was in Vancouver, Fred Wah and I talked briefly about the concept of "home" for people with Alzheimer's. It seems a constant, at least at some point in the disease. My mother wanted to be home for a long time, except home was not where I had ever known her, rather the place where she had known her mother and her brother in Ohio.
And so the narrator tells his wife that she has shared a home with him for nearly 60 years. But the home she alludes to more approximates heaven. When told that her mother and father are in heaven, she responds that she wants to go there. "But it has been a long time, and I don't know when this is going to end." In middle Alzheimer's metaphor and fact cannot be divorced. Home is a house and it is also heaven. (Middle Alzheimer's gives its sufferers unconscious access to Emily Dickinson's brain.) It's a shell that finally breaks.
Monday, November 22, 2010
[What follows is today's message from a social worker who visits my mother. An earlier message from this month can be found here.]
Martha was sitting in the living room not doing anything. I came today with a stuffed dog which was quite cuddly. When I offered it to Martha she immediately took it out of my hands and wrapped her arms around it. When I asked her if she had a name she said she did but unfortunately said it so low I couldn't hear it. I stayed for awhile and pet the dog with her. She told me that she had a dog in the past. I hope this gives her some joy.
Martha's weight is stable and she continues to carry on the same.
Yes, she had a dog to whom she had given many names. I wish I could remember them all, and recite them to you with the same delight she once chanted them to me. The sequence of names included a creek in western Pennsylvania (or was it eastern Ohio? as she lived there, too), and ended with "O'Mallary O'Keefe." The portrait of two dogs above is signed with her maiden name, M. Keefe, '38, which would have been the year before she graduated from college. In the dogs' eyes you can see something of her wit.
Just now I googled "creeks in Meadville, Pennsylvania" and then "creeks in "Canton, Ohio," and found nothing so multisyllabic that it could be one of the names she had given to her dog. John Emil Vincent, who studies library science, tells me our very culture has Alzheimer's; no digitized materials last longer than five years, he assures me. Then you have to pour in more money to copy the information, the articles, the books, the archives, into another format. Has google already forgotten the name of the creek, as I have forgotten the dog's name?
I do remember that my mother's mother had her dog put to sleep while my mother was away. The deed was unforgivable. I do not know that it was the same dog, a collie.
[An hour later] I found the creek, by googling "creeks near Meadville." It's the Cussawago. Here's a picture of it in the snow in 1957, the year before I was born.
This image is from the California Museum of Photography. There's place, and then there's the archived place.
So it was, perhaps, Cussawago O'Mallory O'Keefe, except there was yet another name, a first name. I will have to rely on my own memory to retrieve that one.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
I was teaching 273: Creative Writing & Literature, an introductory class where students read analytically and write creatively. We were reading Craig Santos Perez's from unincorporated territory, a book that isn't an easy read at any level. I was having them work in groups with their laptops to look up terms and references, and we were blogging with Craig. Students would ask questions, and he would pop up with answers. Craig is not a pompous guy. When I asked the students what they'd taken away from their exchange with Craig, they responded: "he's like us!" Not what I expected, but a wonderful perception. The poet does not hearken from a different life form; he is one of us.
I've chosen this story, not one about a student's wonderful poem (I get those, too), because many of the successes in my creative writing classrooms--especially on the introductory levels--have less to do with finished products than with perception, what one of my facebook correspondents calls ATTENTION. (My question about what we teach when we teach creative writing elicited a wonderful comment stream on facebook; I'd like to thank everyone who wrote a comment on my wall.) My Foundations of Creative Writing class this past week thought about issues of pedagogy. They were split between those who liked their reading for the week, the experiment-based approach of Hazel Smith's The Writing Experiment. These students took exception to her claim that everyone can be taught to write. One student thought her approach "soulless," and wanted a course that included a basis for compassion.
I began teaching creative writing in the mid-1990s. I was hired as an academic to teach "20th Century Poetry in English," and moved into creative writing several years later. At the outset, I too was worried that creative writing could not be taught, or that the less-than-wonderful-writing I was bound to harvest would somehow influence my own, according to some odd contagious lack of magic. But I've come to love teaching the subject (insofar as it is one), but perhaps not for the reasons I would have expected.
And why have expectations? The terms we use in talking about writing are so ambiguous (even in their earnestness) that they are as hard to hold onto as a greased pig on a pole. Even the seeming certitude of a word like "craft" slips out of its holster as soon as you start looking at poems whose content is cliche. Words like "emotion" and "heart" and "expression" seem to make sense until you use them in a sentence in class to a group of 18-22 years olds, or even to the occasional senior citizens who grace the classroom. The problems are manifold. Here's a list of a few of the problems I (as everywoman CW Pedagogue) have faced:
--Students have not read much literature, poetry, fiction, or drama.
--Students have a notion that creative writing equals "freedom of expression."
--Students themselves believe they are not writers and cannot be taught to be writers.
--Students think that writing is about a very limited set of subjects. In poetry these might be feelings--love, depression--or family or vague ideas.
--Students think in blocks of words, phrases rather than in images, details, particulars, sounds, syllables.
--On the upper level, student assumptions are stronger, harder to contest; there's a lot of resistance. Such resistance can be good or it can simply get in the way of playing around.
--Students have forgotten how to play.
That last item is crucial. As any creative writing teacher knows, students are scared. And why not be? The semester is only so long, and risks often lead to worse grades than do tame attempts to fulfill the assignment and move on to another. For me to say "take risks!" is also to suggest the possibility of jumping off the cliff of assessment, which is also a necessary mystery to creative writing students. "How will you grade our work?" is one of the FAQs.
So if I think through how I present creative writing (at almost every level, but in different ways), I try to do the following:
--Break the ice. Start from an exquisite corpse and keep playing. Have students make collages, get on the floor with scissors and glue, do Bernadette Mayer exercises several times a week, limber up. Make sure the class is loose, laughs a lot. Set that model of compassionate action, if not by approving of everything you read. Challenge students to address their favorite subjects in new ways.
--Begin with the material, which is language. Content is very important in creative writing, but don't start there. Writing block lurks around every corner, or its false antidote, the cliche.
--Move into content by using themes. I've taught several courses in Poetry & the City or Poetry & Place, which channel students into working on subjects they think they know but do not. Having them write about their neighborhoods tends to prove to them that they are not paying close enough attention to what is in front of them at all times.
--Have them read books. Not poems, but books of poems. Or novels. Or memoirs. Something whole, not chopped up. A book that shows writers as perceivers with stamina. Have them write about the reading (on a blog, say) and talk about it at length. Break them into groups and have them "teach" the reading. Insist that they google words they don't know. (I have been putting off a student the past couple of weeks who asks me over and again what the term "eminent domain" means. Every time she asks, I tell her to look it up.)
--Have them talk to authors, however they can, either on Skype or on a blog or in person. Direct contact makes it clear to students that writers are people. It's sometimes hard for them to realize this, when they've been told how great Shakespeare and Milton were. Those guys are dead, and besides, dey wen nevah talk da kine.
--Have them write about familiar subjects in vocabularies not usually associated with them. OK, write a love poem, I might say, but use the vocabulary of a social science class or physics or car mechanics. Write a poem about feeling badly, but never tell us that's how you feel except through the language of the Hawai`i Tourist Bureau. Ah, how cliches can be turned on end and used to good effect! Have them write in other languages they know, are learning, or have partially forgotten.
--Have them walk around the halls of the classroom building, or around their neighborhoods, finding language on the walls and then return to the class to write with these found words. Have them go to a pond on campus and take notes. Tell them to go sit in a public area and eavesdrop. Make sure they realize that all language is up for grabs, not just narrow bands of it that include flowers and clouds.
--Make sure you explain that writing can be offensive, but needs to make a claim on the reader that is not merely shock value. This one's tough, but I learned the hard way in a class of young men who all seemed to want to write about rape and violence. Limits are ok; you just need to explain them and then hold fast.
--Be prepared to argue, especially with graduate students, and to meet resistances. You will remember feeling your own resistances. You still have them, but cannot hold them against your students. If a student wants to write out of a very personal point of view, don't shut him or her down, but suggest ways to speak to an audience of more than one. Even if we write "only for ourselves," we want readers and those readers are not ourselves, so we need to touch something in them that is not ours. That place of not being ours is also sacred.
Above all, since not all of your students will continue to write, make sure that they use their semester with you to discover how to look at the world, really attend to it. (An attendance policy is also recommended.) If all you do is have them write a haiku in which they see--actually see--a frog or a turtle or a lily pad or someone's facial expression, and then make a quick shift to abstract statement, one that may be quite amusing, then you have done something. Then he's not like you so much as you are also like him!
Thursday, November 11, 2010
ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH, Poet and/or Novelist, full-time, tenure-track position in Creative Writing starting August 1, 2011 (position number _____ ); position dependent upon funding and availability. Teaching Duties: teach introductory composition and literature courses as well as upper-division and graduate-level courses in Creative Writing, as well as courses in literature; 2-2 teaching load first year and at least one other year during probationary period; 3-2 load in other years. Minimum Qualifications: Ph.D. or M.F.A. in English; with strong publishing record. Desirable Qualifications: creative and teaching interest in any of the following areas: Hawaiian and/or Pacific literary traditions, international literature, non-realist writing, gender and sexuality, mixed genres, translation. Salary: commensurate with experience and background. Send letter of application and CV to Professor Jeffrey Carroll, Chair, English Department, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, 1733 Donaghho Road, Honolulu, HI 96822. The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa is committed to equal opportunity and affirmative action. Closing Date: December 1, 2010. Initial interviews will be conducted at MLA in Los Angeles in January 2011
Monday, November 8, 2010
Martha was in the living room sitting next to 2 people. I gave her a hearty hello and when I said "hello girlfriend" she laughed.
One of the people sitting next to her was Janice, the same name as me. Kidding around, I said "her name is Janice, my name is Janice and what is your name?" Martha answered, Janice. A couple of minutes later I asked her her name and she said she didn't know. (She was serious). I think Martha when called by that name will answer, but she can't identify herself as Martha.
I then touched her nails and said how beautiful they looked. She snapped them away. I forgot that she does not like to be touched in any way. I apologized and repeated how beautiful her nails looked.
The aide said that everything is status quo. Martha occasionally goes to an activity but its less than more. Before I left, Martha said everythings fine.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
--One woman had just gone on a cruise and discovered that the cruise company now caters to the elderly. You could get dialysis treatment on the Dutch ship and have it covered by Medicaid.
--Another woman had a story about a man who wanted to die and be buried at sea. So as the time approached, he was booked on an around the world cruise. Everyone at the table had the same question: "and did he die?" Yes, he did, and his body was put to sea in a burlap bag.
--"What do you do with the hoarders?" another woman was asked. After saying she used patience and love, she spoke of a woman who lived on a thirty year pile of stuff, naked, surrounded by the corpses of dead cats. Her first effort to engage with her involved organizing a burial for the dead pets. (Again, I wonder about the connection between Alzheimer's and the work of Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein: did they have relatives who suffered the disease?)
--Someone talked about a study done on a woman with dementia who had meditated for many years and was aware of what was happening to her. She made a pact with a friend to help her die when she said it was time. The friend could not follow through. The woman with dementia, aware of what was happening, kept begging to die.
--The woman next to me asked a man on one of his clear days what it was like inside his head. "It's like scrambled eggs," he said. Some days thoughts got through the scramble, other days they did not.
--To the families of the demented, one woman suggested saying, "you're speaking to a disease. This is not your mother or father." To which, after a night's sleep, I would respond: "it is your mother and father, but they've changed." It's not only their body, but also some element of them-ness remains, even at the end. But the point remains that we cannot act toward them as we had toward their previous incarnation, as parents, as care-givers, as independent beings.
I appreciated the opportunity to take my work into the community. Kaia Sand and I talked a bit when she was here about getting our poems out into places where poems don't usually travel. Her walks through Portland are an instance of community work. My conversation with care-givers and gerontologists was also, in a much small way than Kaia's, a moment of community outside the world of poems.
I am always humbled by these stories. My book, based as it is on my mother's experience of Alzheimer's, works over long distances. I have never been my mother's caretaker; I have watched others give care. I have been given the freedom to observe, and retain the hope that observation, too, is of assistance--if not to my mother, then to others going through the experience of watching a loved one deteriorate. But caregiving can be an extended act of heroism, even when (as is probably inevitable) the caregivers responses are not always perfectly patient, absolutely loving.
When Secretariat won the Triple Crown, Time magazine put him on the cover. I vividly remember a Letter to the Editor the next week. "Thank goodness you're showing us the front end of a horse for once, not the back end." It was during Watergate, or so my gauzy memory tells me.
Many people associate politics and politicians with horse shit. Little did I realize, as I waved signs for Neil Abercrombie this past Tuesday, that the metaphor would become so literal, so in my face, so smelly. As a few of us were waving our signs and chatting, who should come up the rise but State Senator Clayton Hee on a white horse. As he dismounted, we could see that he wore boots, that his spurs were shining in the hot light of afternoon. He and his horse stood on the street in front of us for a time, and the children approached to pet the horse. Well, the horse (Jessica) pooped. Right in front of us. Hee and his horse disappeared, but the poop remained. So I have written the following email to Mr. Hee. (There's nothing political about this; he and I are both Democrats.)
Aloha Clayton--I was waving signs near Ahuimanu School when you appeared on a white horse. Certainly not what I expected from a day of standing around. But I just wanted to suggest that the next time your horse shits in front of a group of sign wavers, that you pick it up. We stood there for the rest of the day staring at it and smelling it. Of course we could have probably picked it up, too, but it was your horse.
[I received a reponse from State Sen. Hee, as follows:
Thanks for your email regarding last week Tuesday afternoon. I actually came by later in the day for the purpose of picking up for the horse. While I wish I could have come back sooner the ride home by horse takes place in its own time. Along the way, several youngsters happily took turns doing what they don't have the opportunity to do - ride a horse.
I apologize to you that I could not come back sooner. I also apologize to you personally that you had to endure the smell of horse manure or "shit" as you call it. Nonetheless, your suggestion is one that I support.
Thanks again for your thoughtful email.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
From Alain Cressan of Metz, France, I've just received a couple packages of Memory Cards: Wolsak Series. As is perhaps appropriate for a small chapbook whose composer's obsessions are memory and (mostly) forgetting, there's no indication on the chap where it was published, printed, stapled, or by whom. The cover reads Ink, and then #13. So I take photos and put them to float here in interstitial, internetted space.
The chaps arrived while I was in Vancouver reading from the Wolsak poems to an audience that included Lissa Wolsak herself; the next evening, she read from her new book Squeezed Light: Collected Poems 1994-2005. At that reading she made of herself a juke box (juked box!) and read poems requested by Dorothy Trujillo Lusk and Steve Collis, namely her early book, The Garcia Family Co-Mercy, followed by a recent poem, "Thrall." It was in writing about that first long poem that I was persuaded that Wolsak knows exactly what she's doing; like Hart Crane, her words come eight levels deep, many of them. In looking up her new book, I find more on "squeezed light," another reference that pushes the phrase beyond the lyrical and into the speculative world of physics. The word "mercy" made communal--"co-mercy"--with its play on "commerce," as on the more spiritual meaning, is also a constant in her work. She invokes mercy, while often railing at commerce. (Jocelyn Saidenberg, who read with Lissa, referred aptly to Lissa's "graceful rage.") "Thrall" is an extended railing, at once attack (on the Bush administration) and a support (for those who also rail on). This last poem ends with these lines, which I cannot make work in the blogger box the way they appear on her page. So here is content without her chosen form, but not without an echo of Pound as his best. Here is her priority: mercy.
In the stumbling that speaks for me / I say death to vanity, / solipsism's potency / let the pyrrhic / burning thorn / in deeper / Mercy above Justice
When, after a gap of a decade, I began again my memory cards (prose poems that each fit on an index card), I found random lines or phrases from Wolsak's book off of which to riff. The first poems begin from Behold one orphan, then from Compassion is largely exile. Once the tone was set, the poems put in motion, I spent more time looking consciously for lines--cheating, in other words on my own rules--. It's an odd way to read a book, to open it and look for lines and phrases. This cannot be said to be "reading" in the usual sense of the word, at least not until responses are launched, reading occurs actively; this is not to read poems, but to parse phrases inside of poems, to recast them from another imagination. (Since then, I've composed sequences based on poems by Norman Fischer and Wallace Stevens, poets whose work is abstract and philosophical, can be worked through a specific context or set of contexts--response poem, poem in Hawai`i, memory poem, forgetting poem.) Click on the photograph to read the first two.
One of my freshmen lamented on our class blog that she thinks by way of class conversations, but she cannot think on the blog. Lyz Soto and I wrote back that the blog is itself a conversation (if only you read each other's posts!). Each post becomes a conversation once the links are found and installed; they talk back to the writer, and then the reader in their different ways. The new set of memory cards is also a conversation, or a set of them. Speaking back to poets, thinking back on earlier selves. Appropriating words in order to realign them in another space.
Publisher Alain Cressan has new work in Ligne 13; my chap is #13, and my daughter's number on her Eastside Soccer club is #13. There is no randomness in this world that is not an opening to something sturdier, if only "momentary in the mind." His poem is "Angle mort." My foreign eye spies the word "memoire" at least twice therein, along with the dampness of a photograph in the last line. You can read more about the issue here. And because every publication contains a train of thought (on rails . . .), you can find out more about Ligne 13 here. The mysterious Ink can be found here, if anywhere, and Alain Cressan, blogger, at this address.
Friday, October 29, 2010
A lot of ink has been spilled about poetry readings as an institution: what does a poet's voice tell us about the work, the poet? How do communities coalesce around reading series? What are their histories? What is the relationship between the page and the poet's performance? How does the audience factor into a poet's work, and how is that displayed at the reading? What is the sense of sound? How do oral poetries differ from those whose origins are the page or the screen? What is the pedagogical significance of sites like PennSound and UbuWeb? Without doing my due diligence as a scholar here, I allude to Peter Middleton and other writers in Charles Bernstein's edited collection, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, as well as the essays in Sound States, edited by Adelaide Morris. And then there are the PoemTalks at UPenn, which use recordings by poets as entry points for discussions of their work. Those recordings and more can be accessed from PennSound.
But, having just returned from doing readings in Vancouver and Boise, my question to myself is: what does the writer want from his or her audience? Is there a poetics of audience? How could such a poetics bring the poet and her audience closer? How can we measure such intangibles as engagement, as warmth (or coolth), as exchange? What does the poet stand to gain from giving readings, aside from a modest honorarium and a cv reference? Why go out there and read? And to whom? What purposes are served beyond poetry itself?
There's a lot of silence around readings. It's hardly the same thing as the silence around traumatic events (death, miscarriage), but I'm reminded of those silences in our inarticulate efforts to respond to the words of others. It's as if we fear saying too much, being intrusive, and so we don't say.
But when a middle-aged man in a bright orange Boise State shirt approached me the other night (you can see him sitting next to the aisle in this photograph, halfway back), having said during the Q&A of my reading that I should "start praying" for the University of Hawai`i football team, which is playing in Boise on November 6, I learned what it is that I want from a reading. He said that he is going through the third case of dementia in his family. He wondered what one does the third time around. But then he engaged his questions with the content of my reading. I will not soon forget these questions:
--You write about the degeneration of your mother's mental state; have you ever written about your own?
--When I said that I try to keep myself out of the story, thinking that the subject is my mother and not myself, he responded, slyly, "oh, you're in there!" (Smart man, Janet Holmes said later.)
--Do you ever write for therapeutic purposes? (When I deflected away from poetry as therapy, he referred to a memory card I'd read about an Iraq vet who was calling in airstrikes to Afghanistan on Waikiki beach.) That was a therapeutic moment, no?
--Have you ever tried to write as your mother?
His questions were clearly self-interested in the best sense; he wanted to know how to deal with his feelings about dementia. But they were more than that. They were craft questions that also engaged issues of content. They were questions that created a momentary community between him and me. He was followed by Ruth Salter, a teacher of creative writing who said she also writes in response to Wallace Stevens (I had organized my reading around poems that engage his work). That was another moment of connection. In Vancouver, two graduate students had approached me about their own work; one is working on David Chariandy's work of memoir/fiction, Soucouyant, the way he writes about children trying to preserve their parents' culture (true for any child of Alzheimer's, I suspect), and another on a Canadian novelist who writes about Alzheimer's. These questions point to the usefulness of the visiting writer; she is a resource, a traveler who comes through with information, as well as her peddled wares.
But back to those silences. Often they are benign; what to say is often difficult matter. Questions also require muses. They have often left the room already, like someone running off to answer a cell phone. Sometimes silences are a mark of disinterest that also indicates self-interest. If the reader does not show a way to write your own work, they are less useful to you. Another way to say this is that sometimes the freshest questions come from those audience members with the least invested in the poetry world, if not in poetry itself. Those inevitable questions of territory, of form, of how you write and about what, and the ways in which we poets juggle to place ourselves in relation to others can be important, yes. But they can also get in the way of attention, of those "ordinary affects" that my semester seems otherwise concerned with. They are acts of judgment, ultimately, acts that we need in order to find our way (acts I have performed in my own mind against other poets). But these acts also interfere with our absorption of what is there as possibility, or simple expression. Far be it from me to advocate pure absorption; I'm enough a fan of Charles Bernstein's "Artifice of Absorption" to know that absorption per se does not challenge us. One of Janet Holmes's MFA students asked about Bernstein, in response to my assertion that Tinfish tries to join together Language writing with what I have found in the Pacific during my years here. I commented on the ways in which even avant-garde poets often come to rely on personal content as they get older. Content is content (if not a site of contentment.) And content exists outside poetry, as well as within it. It's toward that site that I want most these days to reach. More on that soon.
[Boise State audience, Janet Holmes & Alvin Greenberg at bottom right, with her MFA students in the first three rows.]
Monday, October 18, 2010
Oddly, my memory of one of those baseball games is pretty acute. We watched Vida Blue in his phenom season, when he and his A's beat the Senators, I think, 8-2. When I look the game up on the internet, I find that it was actually 8-1. When I post my memory onto my Facebook page, Dave Taylor in Washington, D.C. reports that he was at that game, too. The box score is here. I remember more of the Oakland players than the home town Senators, though Toby Harrah is a name I recall fondly, if only because I liked his name. Later, Laurence Sterne would remind me of him. Were it not for Wikipedia and the internet, Harrah would be a blank page to me now.
Two details astonish me. The opposing pitcher was Denny McClain, whose 31 victories in 1968 I remember a bit less than Mickey Lolich's defeat of Bob Gibson's Cardinals in the 7th game of that year's World Series. Marianne Moore, I found out in another context, had called the Series for the Cards due to Gibson's prowess. (That was the year before they lowered the mound to prevent other pitchers from ERAs verging on 1.) The other detail, which I find now as I return to the page that contains the box score, is that the rookie Vida Blue was paid just over $12,750 dollars that year. The minimum rookie salary is now $390,000.
A 40 year old memory. Over $370,000 in would-be Vida Blue wages, were he now 21, instead of the man in his early 60s that he now is. I'm now 52; I was then 12 or 13. There were 40,246 fans at the game, as it was a Children's Hospital benefit game (something I did not remember). We sat in the corner of left field, and I think I remember wearing my glove on my right hand, hoping. Zero foul ball snags. My father died November 4, 1992 at age 78, and I'm inhabiting again that space just before he died. It's been 18 years. There are many scores to box, settle, account for, enumerate.
I share something of this memory with Dave Taylor in DC. I share something of it with Nick Smith of Luray, Virginia, who cared enough about the game to ask the folks at Baseball Digest to print the box score. The numbers carry affect. They make an equation that is not mathematical but emotive. They remind me that words themselves have no affect; it's the layers we place upon them, or (conversely) the layers we peel off (the first is P.B. Shelley, Hart Crane, the Kumu Lipo the second William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Wing Tek Lum). Word genealogies are like resonant waves, the waves Kaia Sand talked about in my classes, where moments in history touch in unexpected ways. This is not to force them together, like memories of tectonic plates before they split. It is to trust a momentary hunch that they might. A hunch requires trust. It's an equation that has a right answer, but one you have to find accidentally.
If I were a freshman in my own English 100A class, Kaia Sand would have taught me one important thing. That is that we operate on our hunches--our hypotheses about how the world is connected--but that these hunches do not always come true. She talked about her walk poem by taking us on a pre-walk, the one that got her to the place she started the poem, not the place where we start it. That her hunches led to to immerse herself in details; that if the details did not pan out, neither did her prospective argument. As a freshman, I often helicoptered in from the idea I wanted to be true, parachuting into details that hardly mattered, but existed for purposes of "proving" my point. Kaia stays on the ground, though her leaps are real, between internment centers to PODS, between what we see and what is now invisible to us. "Do we need our ruins visible?" she asks in Remember to Wave. Whoever sets up memorials, or maintains ruins, believes we do. By bringing forth the documents that made possible or recorded what we no longer see before us she makes the invisible seeable again, if not in the place it was, then in the text. It is not a book, the designer Bao Nguyen insists, but an experience. (I'm confused, as I thought I published and paid for a book to be made!) The book is what is visible; the walk that we contemplate making, is an invisible analogue to it. Hunch confirmed.
[Jules & Kaia]
The affect in Kaia Sand's work arrives in the sound. Her voice (on the page and in the air) is lyrical, melodic. She and Jules Boykoff and I and Alex Dorcean read at the MIA series this past Wednesday in Chinatown. She got us to her walk by way of Honolulu International Airport, Portland's airport and several public transportation stops. Behind her, on the wall across the alley from the Mercury Bar, images flickered as she read "Uptick," also from her Tinfish volume. What is ghostly is also lyrical, though hers was not nostalgia but intervention in its possibilities.
Jules Boykoff, whose concerns are very like hers (economics, politics, history) read poems whose tone was utterly other. They reminded me of Charles Bernstein poems sent through a laser machine; they did not wander, but they playfully inhabited very structured spaces. Das Greenspan became a machine of late-capitalism; Reagan and other 1980s politicians met reggae singers and sang odd lyrics. It was postmodernism as stern ethics, but it was damn funny. Alex Dorcean's work was about his Haitian mother, her language. It too was hilarious seriousness.
The launch of Tinfish 20 occurred yesterday at Revolution Books. It's our first perfect bound journal issue, paradoxically more expensive to buy than the others because of the prestige of its cover. It did not take weeks to put together, like the last issue, which was made of recycled covers. It did not take months of gathering materials. It simply took a pdf to Bookmobile in Minnesota. Vida Blue might understand the odd monetary differential, albeit at a ratio much more extreme. As per ritual, we had guest readers for writers not from Hawai`i, and we had real live readers, the ones who got the lei. Gizelle Gajelonia, who turns 25 in a couple of weeks, read Cheryl Quimba's "Self-Portrait at 25," and Craig Howes, of Toronto, read Steve Collis, of Vancouver's poem, "Stroke." Those were the opposite ends of the age spectrum that the issue contains; I had asked for poems about aging, thinking I would get poems about OLD age, but got instead quite a range. Jaimie Gusman read her "Anyjar Elegy" about her Aunt Rose; Joe Tsujimoto read a poem to Toge Sankihi (1917-1953), using my favorite word, "gimlet"; Kai Gaspar read an allegorical rendering of Le`ahi (Diamond Head) as a homeless woman in Kapiolani Park; Jade Sunouchi read about old Mexican women and their dolls for sale; Amalia Bueno celebrated Filipino writers' texts by making a cento of them; Lynn Young read for Janna Plant; Eric Butler for Xi Xi by way of Jennifer Feeley; Lyz Soto for Lehua Taitano; current Distinguished Visiting Writer, Adam Aitken, for future visiting writer, Craig Santos Perez. Fifty people came to hear.
The Senators/Rangers just defeated the Yankees in New York, 8-0 on a two hitter. It's autumn on the east coast. I went to see my dad for the last time 18 years ago this week or next. The leaves were yellow and orange; they were on the trees and on the ground, too many to count. He had helped me with my "new math," and my later, so much more difficult, math. He had led me marching down apartment building corridors while calling out the steps, in military style. "Hut two three four! Hut two three four!" (That was before we moved to the proper suburbs in Virginia!) He'd read my dissertation, all umpteen pages of it. We're joined by the numbers.
In two days I leave for Vancouver, where I'll read at Simon Fraser University and the Kootenay School, with David Buuck. A few days later I'll head to Boise, where I'll read for Janet Holmes's students and talk Tinfish. I hope to report from the road.
Friday, October 15, 2010
As I ran out to drive Kaia Sand & Jules Boykoff to the airport yesterday, I suggested to Lyz Soto, a Ph.D. student in our department, whose book Eulogies was published by Tinfish Press, that she guest blog the Value of Hawai`i event at high noon. Here is her post [to the left, you can see her at the right with fellow grad student, Danielle Seid]. Here goes Lyz:
The third installment of the Teach-In sessions for The Value of Hawai`i focused on issues troubling government, law and the courts, public education, University of Hawai`i, and prisons in the Hawaiian Islands. The speakers were Chad Blair (government), Mari Matsuda (public education), Neal Milner (University of Hawai`i), Kat Brady (prisons), Meda Chesney-Lind (prisons), and Melody Kapilialoha MacKenzie (law and courts). As with the last two sessions, Kuykendall, room 410, was packed to standing room only with an audience that actually listened to what the panel had to say on their subjects of expertise.
What did I get from this talk?
Each speaker was thoughtful and passionate about their topic. The Value of Hawai`i, and organized events surrounding its publishing, is not a casual event for any of these people. They are participating in this dialogue because they want to activate and see real and substantial change in our community.
My first reaction to their analysis was to feel discouraged. The status quo that they outlined has been in place for most of my life. If anything, circumstances appear to have worsened in my lifetime. No one wants to hear that, especially when it is acknowledged that most of the people in current positions of power appear to have no real desire to effect change, or at the very least a renovation of the status quo.
My second reaction was hope, triggered, bizarrely, by Kat Brady’s and Meda Chesney-Linds’ analysis of the prison system in Hawai`i. Do not get me wrong; the picture they painted was far from rose-tinted, and it touched upon the fallout of the continuing drug problem in our community, without really wrestling with it as an active component in our state’s social problems, however, time was severely limited, and their focus was the problems of the criminal system and the role incarceration is playing in Hawai`i.
The brought up Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which is a for-profit company that, in the words supplied by the company website, provides “…the design, construction, expansion and management of prisons, jails and detention facilities, as well as inmate transportation services…” The community of Hawai`i has experience with this corporation, because a number of people incarcerated in our state have been moved to CCA prisons on the continent. All involved in that decision, apparently, said that “housing” Hawai`i people in continental prisons was cheaper than keeping them at home. Please go to the Corrections Corporation of America’s website! The same language used on that site could be applied to building sewer lines. They focus on "innovation, cost effectiveness, and efficiency." I would not have guessed that this company deals exclusively in the imprisonment of people, were it not for a single paragraph that is one sentence long, in a company description that goes one for six paragraphs. Apparently, they do provide rehabilitation and education programs, but these receive far less emphasis than the fact that CCA has been mentioned in Forbes magazine as one of “America’s Best Biggest Companies”. I digress…
The hopeful reaction! This moment came when Kat Brady and Meda Chesney-Linds pointed out that there is money in the system that can be shifted to fund productive educational programs. Now back to the bad news; it is currently directed at prisons, and incarceration in Hawai`i is a growth industry. This brings me back to the language used on CCA’s website, “[the]… expansion and management of prisons…”. The predicted and desired growth of an incarcerated population is built into this company’s vocabulary, which leads me to an interesting point made by Laura Lyons during the question answer period of the session. She said that it was important to acknowledge the difference between privatization, which is the word most of us use to describe the shifting of programing from government to private sectors, and corporatization, which is a word that more accurately describes what is happening in the American prison system. CCA proudly defines itself as a for-profit corporation, thus by its very nature it will do well to place fiscal interests above the interests of the people it contains. There is nothing private about responding to the will of shareholders.
Chesney-Lind and Brady stated that the economic benefits of a state like Hawai`i using CCA’s services are fictional. It is not cheaper to send Hawai`i prisoners to continental facilities. This begs the question:
Why is the corporatization of this system so appealing to our government officials? If there is no economic benefit, where is the advantage, and perhaps more importantly, who is benefiting from these choices?
All of our mainstream economic models, including those that apply to education, health care, prisons, and government, are built on the incongruous idea that expansion and sustainability are actually synonymous, and that success must lead to more. More of what is not always clear, I have not even touched education, and I could go on for another fifty pages, so I will close with this thought; most of the machinations (I mean this in the best possible way) we employ in trying to effect change involve some element of force, and perhaps this is inevitable in a dialogue that involves people, but I like to hope there are other options. The words creative and imagination were mentioned more than once, and I think the ideas behind these words must be key components of how we approach a bureaucracy supported and sustained by systems of self-protection. If we relegate ourselves to a counter-culture reaction that promotes protest as the main, and sometimes only, catalyst to make a difference, we can never hope to transform or even modify present structures,. We must be the difference, not just in our conversations, but in how we conduct our daily lives.
Here's a longer bio of Lyz: Lyz Soto is a Ph.D. student with an emphasis on creative writing. She is also the Executive Director of Youth Speaks Hawai`i, a non-profit organization dedicated to mentoring youth in the art of Spoken Word. She has worked in construction and archaeology, and received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, and her M.Phil. in Archaeological Heritage and Museums from Cambridge University. Lyz is a performance poet, who enjoys working cross-genre in multiple media fields. Her book, Eulogies, was recently published by TinFish Press.
Tinfish editor added links.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
My desires in teaching often focus on (the unfocusable) future tense. While what happens in the classroom each day matters, and while the essays and poems my students write matter to me, what matters most is an imagined later moment when any student (no longer my student) makes a significant connection between an everyday occurrence and something that happened in the now disappeared course. This is also true for me; what I teach and how I teach it changes, and those changes often become significant stories for me. They are stories about change, but they are also stories about synchronicities. Kaia calls them "situational rhymes," those moments that create waves of resonance across time. Sometimes they're even situational puns or analogies or chords (major and minor, at times dissonant). And tastes change. Where I used to detest poems by Wordsworth and Williams I now use them (especially the good doctor's) quite frequently in my classrooms.
But a student is more rooted in the present, and its necessities. There are books to read, discussions to have, essays to write, presentations to present. They happen in such quick succession, and in different classes at the same time, that the time for expansiveness is merely theoretical. Hank Lazer has told me that he enjoys not-teaching because he can devote more time to reading, not rush through things simply to get on to the next on the syllabus. Life's syllabus is slower, potentially, and less demanding of actual material effort. For the student, the syllabus is a life, but it's a life that lasts only several months before the engine restarts and she's onto something else. There are grades to work for, tangible returns on actual investments (first of tuition, then of time, effort, toner and paper). There is a sense that what one does in each class should fit neatly into the next. That foundations should apply to workshops, for example.
And that brings me to the source of contention in my Foundations course, that there is no fiction on the syllabus. We have passed through two weeks of poetry, which I used to get at issues of place, and we did a book of non-fiction, Katie Stewart's Ordinary Affects, which I used to get at forms of attention, but no short stories, no novel. My defense of the course involved an invocation of "writing" as the mode we are talking about. All writers, I argued, need to consider questions of language, of place, of tradition. (And I would argue, contra some of my students, that even if you don't intend to stay in Hawai`i, questions of place and space are worthy of consideration, framed as they are for many of us here.) I get up my goat a bit, say to myself that I want them to think about issues they do not consider relevant because, damn it!, they will on that five year plan I have in my mind. But their plan is for one semester. So here is my list of foundational questions about fiction. I hope to generate more, and invite readers to send in their own.
--Given that the novel's origins were in journalism in the 18th century, what links do these genres still have to one another? Can Kaia Sand's work help us to think about relationships between creative writing and journalism, as she claims to be a "journalist-poet"?
--One semester I taught short stories by Lydia Davis. She writes stories that tell more than show and that contain no dialogue. She provokes the question: why do most of us place so much value on dialogue and on "showing" rather than "telling"? Replace these items with any items that are repeated over and over in CW classrooms ("write what you know"; "write from your imagination"; "climax & denouement"; "narrative arc" and so on). Imagine how you might write a story that deliberately broke all these rules and succeeded. What would that story be?
--Mikhail Bakhtin loved the novel for the way in which it includes all other genres; it is (arguably) the most multi-voiced of the genres. How do you approach your fiction, knowing that you can use ALL the tools out there?
--Poetry's market is tiny, a fact that allows poets enormous freedom, because their work is not considered marketable. Fiction is, at least potentially, another story. Think about ways in which market demands affect fiction. (Uzma Khan has interesting things to say along these lines, as she has had an editor who demanded certain kinds of writing from her.)
--Writing workshops tend to devote more time and space to issues of craft than to issues of content (such as politics and place). What do you write about? Why? What would you like to write about, but can't yet? How do you mean to get there?
--Write a resume/cv for a fiction writer (or poet or dramatist). What does this writer need to know to write well? What are the books s/he he should read? What languages should s/he learn? Where should s/he travel?
--Consider the ways in which the truism "you can reach truth best through fiction" works and does not work. What truths are we talking about?
--If you write fantasy fiction, what are links between your genre and poetry, say, or science fiction? How can you use symbols in ways that realist novelists cannot?
--Why is realist fiction generally privileged in university MFA programs? How might you learn more about experimental fiction and adapt its techniques and fascinations to your own work?
--Rewrite a short piece--a Shakespeare sonnet--as a short story. What happens? In what ways do these pieces of writing work? What gets lost, or gained, in translation?
--If you write in more than one language, how do you use them in your fiction/poetry/drama? Do you translate? Do you draw your reader in or alienate him or her? Are you Brecht or are you Spielberg?
--What do you want to do with your fiction other than "tell a good story"? Do you want to engage political, cultural, linguistic issues? Do you want to create a certain music in your work? What is the relationship of sound to sense in your prose?
--What writers have you read who operate successfully in more than one genre? How do they do that? Do they do different work in each genre, or is there significant overlap?
--What happens when you mix genres? If you are a novelist, have you ever put a poem in your fiction, or a section of a play? What would be the point of doing so?
As you can see, many of these questions work for more than fiction only, but I've framed them in such a way that fiction is foregrounded. But try to re-frame other questions we've asked this semester--questions about tradition, place, publishing, form--in the context of your particular genre.
This evening I am reading from and talking about my dementia work with Prof. Miriam Fuchs's class on memoir. I'll blog soon on that and especially on the wonderful visit by Kaia Sand and Jules Boykoff that ended at noon-time today when I left them and Jessi at the airport for their return trip home to Portland.