Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A sestina!

My students in History of Poetic Form seem especially intrigued by the sestina--two of them wrote their own, unbidden.  So our last class was devoted to generating six words (out of 20 or so), forming small groups, and then writing sestinas.  The students came up with wonderful end words, several related to the Halloween season.  You can imagine the pies made of phalanges, the manatees in graveyards, the zombies in Paris.  Each group performed their sestina.  The class was so successful that I'm taking them pie tomorrow, pumpkin, not phalange.


And here is the sestina I wrote. I feel very sheepish in noting that I've never before written a sestina.  But what fun!

Manatees & Zombies in a Parisian Graveyard

A horrible, hot Florida vacation. All I saw was a manatee
who lolled in the rancid water like a zombie
trolling around a 19th century graveyard,
all the bodies decayed, except for some stray phalanges--
is that a word you'd use in Paris,
I wondered, when you're asked for tart, or pie?

We drove past Pres. Nixon's favorite bakery for key lime pie
still seeing in our mind's eye the bulbous manatee
wearing a whisker as stylish as any Paris
haberdasher sews, the slow-moving zombie
drifting among fans of hands wearing their phalanages
underneath gloves as gray as any graveyard

when, through the hard rain, we spied a graveyard
and decided it was just the place to eat our pie,
taking care to keep clean our smudged phalanges
lest they get lost like dice, like a manatee
that earned a big prize as Zombie
of the Month at a prime cafe in Paris--

I do so miss the Spring in gay Paris,
Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison in Pere Lachaise graveyard.
Pedestrians near the Eiffel Tower look like zombies
out in search of a proverbial pie
made of cherries, apples, strawberries, or manatee
jam that really stickies your phalanges.

You! with the oddly bent phalanges,
your arthritic hands like a bare tree in Paris
that one winter we went from manatee
to zabronkey in the dictionary's graveyard,
slowing down only once for pie
and a hard look at the word zombie.

Zombie Land's the new Disney, where Phalanges 
is a rollercoaster ride, the Pie a bird in Paris, and climate 
change a graveyard for my late pet, Manatee.

I'm not sure my last three lines follow the directions very well, but there you have it.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Bob Holman & R. Zamora Linmark rock the classrooms of UHM

[Bob Holman, top; Zack Linmark & Amalia Bueno, bottom]

The heavens aligned yesterday in a marvelous twofer of guests in my classes, English 353 (History of Poetic Form) and English 273 (Documentary Writing).  The early class--it's an 8:30 class in a city with too much traffic in an engineering building classroom with no windows, dingy white paint, and aged plastic coated desks--found themselves confronted by Bob Holman, slam poet, poetry enthusiast, defender of endangered languages. I'd suggested he was welcome simply to talk story, and that my students lit up most when we did a unit on signifyin, rap and performance poetry. And perform he did. The opening act was Holman as Benjamin Bratt (6' 2" white guy) as Mikey Pinero (5' 2" Puerto Rican guy). Holman played both roles, Pinero as himself, Bratt as Pinero. Then he played himself--older hipster, slam poet, charismatic teacher--to a group of students wearied by a long semester and still smarting from a recent unit on the elegy.  (I just got off Facebook where Kathy Lou Schultz was lamenting that her students may never come back to her class after reading elegies.) 

Holman recounted his ur-moment as an oral poet, when he found himself dancing to a poem by Kurtis Blow, "These are the breaks." One student in class helped him chant the poem. He then riffed into the following topics: the sound of Lower East Side in Nuyorican English (Loeesida); how he started memorizing poems after his first attempt to read a poem beneath lights that flashed too much for him to see his own text; how what you do if you are a poet is what a poet is; his work with PBS's United States of Poetry, which included videotaping Lois-Ann Yamanaka's "Boss of the Food"; his experiences with a blues poet; signifyin' two levels of a single story, one X-rated, one not; orality not as poetic form but as consciousness; Homer; how he was left out of the second edition of the Ron Padgett book of forms we're using in the class; the question of how many languages there are, and the fact that we're losing one language every two weeks, and are slated to lose 1/2 of all languages in the next 60 years; corporate global capitalism; his study with a griot; how poets are paid in West Africa; the difference between an epic that is "long long long" (oral) and "very long" (written); how a poem shifts from day to day because each day is different, according to his griot mentor; Hawaiian orality and literacy; digital consciousness; how literature comes through the body; multi-linguality as a natural tradition; kids as sponges; the sadness of being the last speaker of a language; talk story vs. talk stink; how he was left out of edition #2 of Padgett; rainforests and cancer treatments, both of them being life forms out of control; Welsh; definitions of poet; verb tenses in the Amazon; ecology of consciousness; his courses on "exploding texts" (Columbia) and "poetry census" (NYU)

and then he was gone.

Zack (aka R. Zamora) Linmark came to my early afternoon class, where we've been reading his new novel, LECHE.  The course is on documentary writing, so the mix of history, postcards, tourist tips, and other documents, real and imagined, made the book fit the syllabus nicely.  Many of the students are local Filipino, and most of them are from Hawai`i, so the book is close to home for them. (Its central character, Vince, comes to Hawai`i from the Philippines as a child, and is now returning for a visit, only to realize no one in the Philippines considers him anything other than American.)

After my students had finished taunting me over my Cardinals' pummeling at the hands of the Giants, Zack began talking about homecoming narratives, starting with those by Homer; about how the motherland often rejects the traveler; how he detests linear narratives; how digressions and plot are related; how it took him 12 fucking years to write the book, which he started as a UH student; how it only took him one year to write Rolling the Rs (a book he says he detests); how LECHE is a prequel and a sequel to that book; how this novel relates to Gulliver's Travels, which the students have not read; how Vince is Gulliver; how he also uses elements of Dante's Inferno; how he used Swift's model in the long long scene of Vince trying to take a shit but finding no toilet paper; about how Vince's story is developed through nightmares, tourist tips, and postcards sent home; how he uses 3rd person, 2nd person, 1st person and dialogues in the book (this fit in well with the fiction-writing tips Donovan Colleps had offered the class period before); how difficult it was to divorce himself from the main character; how much research he did on history, popular culture, the US military, superstitions; how he has no audience when he writes, but means for more than Filipinos to enjoy the book; how place is not setting but character; Kalihi, Manila; how he had to become a sociologist/anthropologist to write the book; the signage he saw in Manila ("Elizabeth Tailoring"); on how his next novel will be set in Tokyo, a city he only lived in for six months; how you need eight pairs of eyes in Manila; how the energy of his prose is intended to echo the frenzy of Manila; how to develop character through dreams; a dream he had about shitting in his pants while naked; the reading his friend, Justin Chin, gave of this dream; procrastination; satire; how to spell "da kine" or "da kind"; how people don't speak in italics; how texting is unfixed, like language

and then he was gone.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

An open letter to Wanda A. Adams of the _Star-Advertiser_

This morning's Star-Advertiser (10/14/12) contained a review of the 100th imprint of Bamboo Ridge Journal of Hawai`i Literature and the Arts. Penned by Wanda A. Adams, the awkward headline, "Points of entry are myriad in 100th Bamboo Ridge issue," is prescient. For Adams's review contains several lines of thinking that prevent much of the literary world in Hawai`i from moving anywhere but closer to the comforts of home.  She takes swipes at experimental writing, nay, even poetry and short stories, acknowledging her preference for "long, character-rich novels and deeply researched non-fiction" of the realist kind.

The review begins with a note of comfort: 100 is a pleasing number, Adams writes, because it's so round, so base-10, and "the least you can spend on a good dinner for two" (where on earth does she eat?). While she notes that compared to earlier issues of the journal, this one contains "more troubling places and no fear of going there; less nostalgia, more nuance," she then eases back into well-worn slippahs.  Let me quote: "Some works are so spare and experimental, I frankly couldn't understand them. Others fit like an old slipper, worn ball-and-heel grooves, straps that slide between the toes, so familiar they're like wearing nothing. You put on these pieces and you know just where they'll slide over your consciousness and tuck into your experiences."

No nostalgia there, but also no nuance. Failing to make the link that could be had between "experimental, spare" and "less nostalgia, more nuance," Adams promptly runs back to those pieces "so familiar they're like wearing nothing." Granted she's writing for a deadline (though the issue has been out for weeks now), but am I not alone in NOT wanting to read work so comfortable that it seems not to exist? "There's more enterprise in walking naked," Yeats wrote, but his nakedness was not dreamed of in this philosophy.

Adams finds a moment in Albert Saijo's work--which I'm delighted to see Bamboo Ridge has published, likely against Saijo's own posthumous wishes!--that rings a bell for her: "I WANT THERE TO BE NO DIFF BETWEEN WHAT I THINK AND WHAT I SPEAK . . . NO BELLE LIT IDEAL--JUST UTTERANCE--LIKE BOW WOW LIKE MOO." That mini-rant of Saijo's may seem to chime with Adams's notion that writing should fit like a slipper, but of course it absolutely does not.  Saijo's work is searing, angry, strips naked our notions of authority ("DIRECTED THINKING LIES AT THE BOTTOM OF ALL OUR ILLS"), decorum, pretentiousness, and yes, comfort. Saijo's nakedness, the big caps that are all revelation, no hiddenness, is an ornery stew. NO BELLE LIT, but also no BULL SHIT.

Still, the reviewer slogs on, quoting from some slips of paper she used to take notes, which bring her back to her discomforts and possible ways to justify them. She admits to preferring fiction to poetry, development to spareness, then comes around to a defense of poetry that might make Shelley et al flip in their watery graves: "But this 280-page anthology proves short works can be valuable scraps, vital scraps, even if elusive, like the piece of paper with the phone number on it you just have to find. At best they leave you with a thought, an impression, an uncomfortable feeling, an aha that flirts with your mind's edge, sometimes for days." As someone who tries to show her students that the telephone number on a scrap of paper is found poetry, I find myself oddly in agreement with Adams. Yes, the short form is vital. And yes, fragments are a significant literary form, one that opens poems to the reader, "sometimes for days"!, but "scraps"??

My problem with this review is not the review itself; god knows, I've read enough of these in the past two decades to see them coming, predict the next paragraph, realize that anything but easy, narrative, non-scraps will please most local journalists. But really? In a place so complicated, with so many stresses, so many competing (or neglected) communities, is this the best one can come up with?  I am not one to savage Bamboo Ridge: I know far too well how hard they've worked, and how much shit they've caught over the years, sometimes for good reason, other times because it's easy and comfortable to call them "bourgeois." And I also know that the "darknesses" of this issue, the ones Adams brings up and then neglects, are crucial. Amalia Bueno writes in this issue about women in prison; Wing Tek Lum writes about the Nanjing Massacre; even the typical BR-funny stuff ain't so funny if you really listen to it. I'm looking at you, Lee Cataluna.

So yes, this issue deserved a better review. But, more importantly, Hawai`i's literary scenes merit better journalism and listeners with fresher ears, like the ex-UH football player I met at the reception after one of the readings for this issue, spoke with some eloquence, in response to what he'd heard, about his own growing up in Ka`u, where a local politician had tried to impose a rocket project, only to be turned back by citizens he later savaged at a talk in Honolulu. It's not even that we need to read more work published outside the state, it's that we need to read, and attend to, the work right in front of us.

Editor's note: This issue included three of my prose poems from Memory Cards.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Documentary Poetry & Being in the World

Several years ago, when we still walked our kids to the neighborhood school in the morning, my husband did a photography project he called "sidewalk blog." Each morning he took a photograph of the sidewalk, one of those concrete suburban walkways that runs parallel to the asphalt road. Looking back nearly at random I find these photographs, some of which he thinks I took. No matter:

--A soap bubble
--A bic lighter
--A worm
--Some leaves
--Metal cover
--Pre-paid movie card

And then are the photos that he printed out and hung on the wall, among them:

--A red curb, fluted cement gutter, leaves
--Manhole cover filled in with multi-colored leaves, twigs
--What appears to be a moon crater

The term isn't used in this way, but these are "found photographs," images in which the world rises to meet us, unmediated (except in the angle of the shot). Photographs like these may prove a corrective to what happens when introductory level poetry students are asked to "write a poem." Even after setting up topics that accentuated the documentary nature of the course (English 273: Docuwriting), most students succumbed to the lure of "Poetry." Instead of looking at the world as it is, they did dervish dances of mediation, remediation, imposing their thoughts, feelings and (alas) cliches on their subjects.

But when my Ph.D. apprentice, No`u Revilla, asked these students to take their own photographs of walks they'd been on, they came up with many stunning images.  The ratty stuffed bear who lives under a bench beside Kuykendall Hall, the stylized image of a man's face at the bottom of another bench. They see the world, but can't describe it.
We've set to work removing the veil of anxious subjectivity and clotted multi-syllables from their writing. Having asked them earlier in the class to write verbal portraits of each other (an exercise that caused great consternation), we more recently asked them to compose "verbal portraits or photographs" and to post them on the class blog. I asked them to go for a walk and to take nothing (no phone, no iPod, no iPad, nothing) except for a pad and pen. When they saw an image that they would otherwise take a picture of, they were to stop, sit down, and write the image as they saw it. No commentary. The ticket should emerge from the sidewalk not as evidence of "a lonely night," but as a ratty piece of paper with the numbers 1446-2023 on it.
The results have been good, sometimes stunning.  One that begins with two women talking about pronouns (yes, sound images work, too) includes this series of vivid lines:

Red flowers in clusters, no in umbels,
Behind a brown, rusting fence,
Beneath black lamp posts.
Rows of shrubs line the boundaries of the grey building.
A man in pink picks a leaf.

There are tables shaped as hexagons; there's a girder; there are roofs, pigeons, canoes, a baseball field, motorcycles, a woman in a tank top. Suddenly, we see what we see when we look at the world without so many distractions (such as our electronic devices, our monkey minds). 
Alfred Corn asked on facebook the other day whether we read Stevens or Williams. I responded that I read both, but teach Williams more. In college, when I took a couple of courses from Alfred, I was enamored of Stevens. My poems were full of blue musical instruments, fluttering ideas, lots of ifs. He told me to try to write a poem so utterly like Stevens that I might cure myself of the tendency; at another point, he pointed to Chieftain Iffucan as my muse. I learned later on to appreciate the value of writing about the world as something that was not so much an hallucination behind the eye, but (scary thought when you're 20) a place that confronts the eye, is not the I.
That this is a spiritual, as well as a quasi-scientific, discovery brings the opposition into focus for me, if focus is a kind of synthesis, as I believe it is. This is what I learned best in writing about my mother, that to watch her and to describe her decline as it happened, was difficult precisely because it meant pulling away the veils of my own emotions, memories, desires. Talking yesterday to a colleague in Family Resources with whom I will be teaching a class next semester on Alzheimer's, I was gratified to hear her talk about this act of witness (of a parent's dementia) as one that involves pulling away from personal desires, and of settling into the present tense. Meaning comes after, but only when words themselves can be seen as precisely as that bear who sits under the concrete bench, a companion for the black cat who eats there.