Sunday, September 12, 2010

Report from the academic front-line

Semesters are forces of discombobulation, competing force fields of teaching, meetings, more meetings, soccer practice pick-ups, reports and write-ups, grading . . . so the blog threatens to implode from the sheer energy of scatter. So, some notes from the front:

--Foundations of Creative Writing, 625D, is intended to get incoming graduate students to think about writing. It's a poetics course. Last week we started from Plato's Republic and moved forward through Sir P. Sidney, P.B. Shelley, Laura (Riding) Jackson, and Charles Bernstein. I wish I'd been in Adam Aitken's section of the course, because he knows about Shelley. In mine, we lingered over Riding's attack on writing poetry; I framed it as a discussion of professionalism, apt because incoming M.A.s are beginning their own journey into the workplace (a chimera in this economy). Do we write to publish, to get jobs? If so, what does that do to our writing? Or do we write to look for some truth outside of the marketplaces of wages and competing ideas? Do we dress up (I was wrapped in a blue fitted sheet, which substituted for a toga)? Or do we peel off the layers, render ourselves unmarketable, and call it a day?

A subset of these unanswerables is the one about defending what we do to those in power who don't answer to inherent value, but only to the bottom line. One student, who works in politics, suggested we argue to the Speaker of Hawai`i's House, Calvin Say (what a good name he has!) for new positions in creative writing. What struck me, as we came up with our arguments, is that there is always a leap of faith. Yes, students are less literate than they once were, but how does a new hire in creative writing (someone with a big name, say) help us to make them into readers and writers? Don't we need more low-paid composition instructors for that purpose? Yes, thinking creatively is a good thing, but how does one translate the writing of poetry into a "useful" technical skill? (I love how "useful" includes such things as the invention of video games, which sell better than do poems.) If we make the argument on Say's terms, we fall into the market driven economy. More students write fiction, therefore we need a fiction writer. But who needs fiction, when our problems are so real?! If we make the argument on Shelley's terms, we pose a threat to Say, because we, too, are legislators, albeit unacknowledged. It's a no win situation. Which may be why Riding threw in the verbal towel. But we are stubborn. (I waved signs for Neil Abercrombie on Friday; he is running for governor on a strong pro-education platform.)

--English 100A: a lively class of students who are driven, responsible, considerate, and--on some level hard to define--scared to death. Scared of failure, mostly, of bad grades, of authorities who will not judge them well. Question: how to teach them the value of failure? Another institutional problem: inside the structure of grades and judgment and especially within the larger structure of a terrible economy, how to say (it's easy for me to say!) that the best thing you might do for your writing is to compose an astounding failure that stretches you, a compositional yoga position that hurts like hell, but limbers up the muscles later on?

--This past week's department meeting was one of the best in years; we sat in a large circle and hammered out a couple of big issues, some detailed language, and left the room more or less in one piece. But finding myself defining "mixed genre" to members of a group of English professors who think of it as someone who writes poetry and fiction, felt frustrating (as all these f's testify). Anyone read William Carlos Williams's Spring and All (1923!!!!). Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee (1980)? Now part of the thrust of the question was strategic; it came from a colleague who knows better, but doesn't want to truck in such things. But others?

--As this semester's Director of Creative Writing, there are some perks in the form of quirky notes and phone calls. The first came as a telephone call from a local Vietnamese man who runs a hair salon. He wants to work with a ghost-writer (that's where we come in) on a novel about the afterlife of Lady Diana. And then there was the hand-penciled letter from a prisoner in Ohio who wants to correspond with students in an effort to improve his writing. The letter was a full two pages long, and included his prisoner number, lest someone want to look him up. It all sounded fine until he got to repeating that he only wants to correspond with "ladies."

--I've finished three sections of a new series of Memory Cards, each 10 poem set working off phrases and lines by a poet whose work is meditative, open. Lissa Wolsak, Norman Fischer, Wallace Stevens. In the midst of thinking again through and about memory, I opened Al Filreis's blog this morning and found this. We had been talking through Charles Bernstein's "A Defence of Poetry" in my Foundations of CW class this past week, with its amazing last lines, from Karl Kraus about how the closer you look at a word the stranger it appears to you. After struggling to read the poem out loud (it's written in "typos"), those unscrambled words at the end seem themselves to come out of an alien place. To see my own words on Filreis's website, from an interview with Leonard Schwartz about Dementia Blog, is itself an exercise in memorying. My recollection of my words comes in reading them back as they were spoken into a telephone a year or so ago. I would not know them otherwise. Rememory, as Toni Morrison calls it. The urban dictionary weighs in here.

--Having asked my graduate students to write their manifestos about literature, an exercise developed with Adam Aitken, I asked them to render them anti-absorptive, and for a purpose. One student rewrote hers in columns, as if in Chinese; another wrote in jejemon, a Filipino "dialect" based on mangled English, texting, and Pokemon monsters (in that order?). I can't recall what their purposes were--it was 8:45 p.m. and all of us exhausted--but the results were exhilarating.

--Finally, a shout-out to Jaimie Gusman, a Ph.D. student at UHM, who has a fresh poem on Ink Node, here. Some of my favorite lines here:

The last glint of humility
among the bank-lines of humanity.

I borrow your eyes from time to time
and from time to time I can see myself

--PS of sorts: I have given up the St. Louis Cardinals for the season (after over 40 years of fandom), since Tony LaRussa and Albert Pujols attended Glenn Beck's (and Sarah Palin's) rally on the Mall. As Joe Harrington put it on Facebook, they refuse to rally otherwise. I called the Cardinals' front office to express my displeasure, only a momentary stay against confusion on my part. If I am not a Cardinals fan, then who am I?

1 comment:

rodney k said...

Hi Susan,

What provocative areas of inquiry. The CW program's lucky, I think, to have you as its head.