Sunday, February 28, 2010

Language Acquisition: _Dictee_ and the "Radhika Book, 2005"

When I speak my native language, English, I eagerly await error. John Shoptaw wrote about the "crypt words" Ashbery employs to wrench surprises out of pat assumptions, to find gold in the lead of cliche. Thus "borders" become "boarders" and one can be caught trying to cross a fellow boarder as easily as by the Rio Grande. My mother thought "ticket to ride" began with the word "chicken," which amuses me to this day. "To air is human" I saw the other day in an on-line publication. But when I try to write or speak in French, which I sometimes do, I anguish over any slip of the tongue (well, in French it's usually not a "slip," because my tongue lacks the solid palate of sound equaling sense). I want to get every syllable right (I wrote "write," but that takes me to an Elizabeth Bishop villanelle, which is probably not where I want to be now, except that I'm thinking about the loss of a language). When I told my French family decades ago (when my French was good) that "j'essuie donc je suis" (I was wiping the table at the time), they thought I was making a mistake; I knew I was making a pun. But that's as close as I ever got to playing with that language consciously. These days, I dream of being as true as a ruler in French, even as my skill is as wobbly as an old tape measure.

Tomorrow I teach Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee. It's a book I very much admire, but never quite get the hang of teaching. This time a record of my daughter's past has given me fresh access to the book, to its record of learning a "foreign" language, of taking down dictation (which aims to be perfect, no errors!). At the beginning of Cha's book, we hear a dictee in progress; the paragraph being read is very simple. At least half of what is said involves instructions about punctuation: "point" "virgule" "guillemets" "ouvre" "ferme": "period" "comma" "quotations" "open" "close." Clearly, this is not the acquisition of language as transparent meaning, but acquisition of the mechanics of grammar, with just a few words slipped in for good measure: "Elle venait de loin" or "She had come from a far," and a few others. By the end one sees the puncutation coming from a far, not the "she" who is merely a pronoun. Having just read Ashbery, we know all about those pronouns that refer mostly to themselves as words.

The text is replete with typos, errors of all sorts, both conscious and unconscious (we think we can tell them apart). Sometimes what appears to be an error is not, comes to us from that other language. So "DISEUSE" means "speaker," but in the way "FCUK" looks like something else, this word looks like "disease" or "disuse," and so the word intends to be read, as the language itself has intention, translating from the French to the English in such a way as to make more than a simple transfer between them. The word is an immigrant, crossing those "borders" that might also be "boarders." The "she" "mimicks [sic] the speaking" here early in the book. And then she says, in italics:

It murmurs inside. It murmurs. Inside is the pain of speech the pain to say. Larger still. Greater than is the pain not to say. To not say. Says nothing against the pain to speak. It festers inside. The wound, liquid, dust. Must break. Must void. (3)

Her efforts to speak English are very physical, and quite painful. "From the back of her neck she releases her shoulders free. She swallows once more . . . Endless drone, refueling itself. Autonomous. Self-generating. Swallows with last efforts last wills against the pain that wishes it to speak." The "it" is at once the "she" and her "neck," the "tongue," the machinery of speech. No transparency here, only gears and levers and an ungreased engine.

Much of the drama of Dictee, of course, is that coming into language, at once painful, political (she is not learning her mother tongue here, but bearing the story of education, imperialism--her mother's forced use of Japanese, while living in China--the languages that alter us in ways we don't mean to be altered). And yet, translate this into French, or any other language:

1. I want you to speak.
2. I wanted him to speak.
3. I shall want you to speak.
4. Are you afraid he will speak?
5. Were you afraid they would speak?
6. It will be better for him to speak to us.
7. Was it necessary for you to write?
8. Wait till I write. (8)

That last line is marvelous. "Wait till I write." No longer is someone demanding that another speak; instead, the writer asserts her power to make sense on her own terms, at her own time, even inside of the language learning exercise.

The other day my husband found an old composition book, a blue marbled one, with the words "Radhika Book (2005)" on the cover. Such are the delights of living in a persistently messy house. I opened it to find notes I'd taken in the early months of Radhika's life with us. We adopted her in December 2004 when she was three years old, and traveled from Nepal to Hawai`i with her as she spoke Nepali to us and we English to her. In those early days, Radhika spent several hours a day with a Nepalese woman who spoke her native language to her. But quickly it became clear that Radhika had opted out of her native language and insisted on speaking English, even to Aunty Khusum. When we left day care and got on the choked freeway, she would yell "Traffics!" from the back seat. The day I took her out of Aunty Khusum's care to put her in a place closer to our home, I felt the incredible weight of her language loss. But Radhika had other things in mind.

First entry:

R points to the stone Buddha.
I say, "Buddha," "Buddha's hands." She says "mouth."
R points to a smaller statuette, also Buddha.
R thrusts a hot wheel truck at me, says, "Buddha!"

Knowing her as I know her now, I suspect she knew full well that she was being funny. But then, who knows what I thought; I mostly wrote down our conversations, not usually my reactions to them.

There is my question about what she sang that day with Aunty. She did sing songs, she said. Which ones? "Chicken!" She would see a temple in Bakhtapur when we left a walk-up apartment in Honolulu. She would run into a class to look for the "durdle" and the "peesh" that Sangha's teacher kept in aquariums. In early February, 2005, she was at the noun blurt stage of English; by the end of that same month, she was creating sentences: "I'm go home" and "I'm close door" and then in early March, when she switched to Aunty Rose up the hill, "Radhika fish no!" and "Radhika Sangha dinner no!" When asked if she liked a little boy at day care, she responded, "No, Keoni very hitting." Then on the 28th of March, a curious comment in my hand: "As she learns more English, she gets harder to understand." By May, she was saying "I have flower for you hanging." And in June, "I don't want chicken. I want other eating."

A constant, from the third to the last page of this composition book, is Radhika's obsession with paper. In February, she was calling her drawings "books." That same month she wanted to take paper to day care: "Tomorrow Khusum paper no!" In March, she wanted to draw: "Mommy paper no. Barney paper." (How that purple dinosaur entered into her desire for paper I'll never remember.) In May, there was a "picture for you hanging." These days, paper and pens are constantly disappearing into her hands. She draws and writes cards, practices her signature, leaves traces of herself everywhere.

That summer, we spent a month in Madrid, where Spanish entered her world (she has proved to have a real gift at picking up languages); there, she and Sangha invented their own language, which they called "Melaconese," a mix of English with Spanish and Hawaiian sounds. By then, I'm not sure how much of her native language she remembered; like other children, her gift at language acquisition was matched by a gift at language loss. Where that loss takes her, I can't say. "Sang. Encre" (65)? Following Timothy Yu, will she find that "a model of how blood--the basis of race and nation--can be the product of writing rather than its basis" (134)? What she will think of that ghost language when she's older I can't imagine. But one thing that binds us together is our love of paper, pen, and pixel. "Wait till I write"!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

An interview with Adam Aitken

Our Distinguished Visiting Writer for Fall 2010 will be Adam Aitken, who lives in Sydney. You can find out more about Adam here. His blog is here. And his new book, Eighth Habitation (Giramondo, 2009), which includes an amazing sequence of poems based on Adam's time in Cambodia, can be purchased here. I recently sent him a flurry of questions and give you his responses here.

--What originally drew you to poetry and why have you stayed?

When I was eight or nine I had to write a poem about a class outing. The teacher chose my poem as the 'best', and it was the first and last time I ever came first in anything! When I was fifteen I started writing little poems in math class, as I had fallen way behind and couldn't keep up. I also had a crush on a girl and since I had no confidence at direct communication, and since I was in a segregate all boys college, I wrote a poem as a substitute for a "billet doux" or love letter. Around the same time my mother had been invited to look after a flat that belonged to my Godfather, and he was a famous Australian poet who was planning to move to Tuscany and write novels. While he was away, I read a lot of his collection of poetry books, and especially Australian titles. This gave me a real context for writing back to. I was also fascinated by his collection of Penguin European classics, and in particular a volume of German Contemporary poetry, a particularly dark and brooding collection of 20th century angst, edited by Michael Hamburger. It suited my adolescent imagination. I came to poetry by reading poetry, and when I got to University I was already writing regularly. This was back in the late 1970s and my Uni didn't have creative writing classes. Instead I attended a lecturer's informal lunchtime workshops. I was very happy meeting all these older people and a few of them mentored me. I suppose I have stuck to poetry because I have been able to see my work in print regularly, and feeling that I was always part of community of poets in Sydney.

--What are your central concerns as a poet? Have these changed over time?

All the philosophical questions - the big ones! In the mid 90s I studied linguistics and I have been interested in language, discourse and power. Poetry as social critique is important to me. I have always been interested in poetry as a domain of rhetoric, as a domain of emotion, affect, persuasion, but an interest in language as a social construction of meaning has always been balanced in my case by an interest in lyric, in questions about life and death, love, hate, hope, despair etc. All that German Expressionist poetry I read as a teenager still haunts me and I still believe poetry is an alternative to "normal" speech. I have become more interested in displacement in poetry, in translation, and in the liminal space that poems open up between language and the signified. I was always thinking about the function of poetry in society, but have moved away from thinking that poetry should express all that's 'good and noble' in a culture - those post-Victorian, Leavisite notions of literature's pedagogical role. I have moved away from what I learned about the English Literature canon. I have found that my education in literature was Oxbridge centred, and while I got a huge amount out of studying Renaissance, classical, and Romantic literatures, I am more interested now in what is produced elsewhere. I guess I am a postcolonial in many ways in the sense that my own education was so mainstream, but being Australian I was exposed to American poetry and now poetries in other Englishes. My own displaced ethnicity and connection with Thailand and my mother's first culture has also taken me into cross-border poetics, and into Southeast Asian contexts. I am VERY interested in how modernity and tradition interact, in Asia but also in the west.

--What forms do you employ, and how do they help you get where you mean to go (or don't!)?

I've written verse and used William Carlos Williams' staggered lines. I have written a few sonnets, a sestina or two, and a lot of free verse. I really favour epistles, and the casual note poem ( Dear Susan this is just to say / I put the crab / in the freezer / and it's gone to sleep / for good / Forgive me /... I also recently wrote a series of aubades for my book Eighth Habitation. I also have a poem based on my father's letters, which are like diary entries. I have never been able to stick to any form, or write a chain of sonnets, or series of elegies. I experimented with mock odes, and elegies.

--Travel seems crucial to your work. I remember you wrote a poem about Gilligan's Island after coming to Hawai`i, which was published in Tinfish's journal. Can you say something about travel poetry writing?

My father was a travelling advertising gun for hire, so between ages 4 to 11 I was already a transnational subject. My mother, oddly enough is happily settled in tropical Northern Australia, and doesn't travel back to Thailand often; but travel for me is a means of reconnecting and maintaining a diasporic connection. I also travelled for work, as an English teacher. I met my English wife in Indonesia, and she is a keen traveller, and she's encouraged me to keep moving. Members of her own family live in France, Britain, and New Jersey, so if we want to see them, we have to travel (they have family and find it hard to get to Australia). Gilligan's Island was my favourite TV show when I was a kid. I think I was fascinated at these frustrated white people displaced and stranded on a "tropical" island. Their making do struck a chord with me. I think that Australians have always wanted to travel as we get quite isolated, physically speaking. I have also travelled internally, to Central Australia, which is its own world. My father sent a few years working for National Parks and Wildlife in Alice Springs, a central Australian town, and I wrote a lot about my time staying there with him in the mid 80s. Recently my wife and I spent a year in Cambodia, where she worked as a teacher.

Travel poems can be about the superficial pleasures of tourism, or they can be about the way living elsewhere effect our own deep transformation and learning. For me travel and staying put is a dialectic I explore, as the need to put down roots is more powerful I think than the need to travel. It's a dialectic with gender issues, for my mother for example, is a homebody and I am too in many ways. Travel can be a lonely experience, especially if you don't know the language, and in most cases travel does not integrate you with the place and culture you are moving in. You are merely a "sojourner". I am interested in how migrants go through the process of putting down roots, but also in how they maintain, if they can, a freedom to travel back to origins. Also, at a very local level, travelling can involve a move into an unfamiliar part of the city you live in. Travel need not be imagined as international, and more often the other place is as familiar as home. For example, shopping malls in Singapore are not much different from Sydney ones in terms of the food and commodities you can buy and the language people use.

--The Cambodia poems, from Eighth Habitation, are particularly intense, as they engage the aftermath of one of the 20th centuries genocides. How did you come to write these poems? What are some of the poetic difficulties involved in writing about "someone else's" (truly awful way to put it) genocide? Can you compare your work, say, to Tinfish Press's Corpse Watching, by Sarith Peou?

As i said above, my wife got a job teaching disadvantaged women in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and I went along. I was always interested in learning more about Cambodia, as it is the neighbouring country to Thailand. I also had a personal investment as my mother once rented out a room to a Cambodian student in Sydney in 1973. I returned to Cambodia to be with his family just before the Khmer Rouge took power. We believe he he probably perished, along with his fellow students. In Sem Reap I studied some of the key histories written about modern Cambodian history, also studied French 19th Century Indo-chinese travel literature (translated), and studied Khmer. Living in Siem Reap we did meet Cambodians, and my wife worked in an NGO with an ex-Khmer Rouge cadre (her co-teacher) and her "boss", a Chinese-Khmer urbanite who was the sole surviving member of his family. I found it incredible that these two could ever work together at all, and in reality, they really couldn't bear each other. Everyone in Cambodia has been effected by the genocide, and everyone has some kind of story, even those born after 1990 who are not orphans have parents who remember something of the 70s.

Trying to write about other people's genocide requires a lot of sympathy, but that should come from quite personal encounters with witnesses, and at the same time one should be aware that memory is unreliable and that informants may have a vested interest in lying about their past, or in exaggerating it. Caution and scepticism need not detract from sympathy. For instance, I met an ex-boy soldier who's MO was to befriend tourists, ask for money for a "village school", then if the conversation called for it, he would tell about his experiences. In a sense genocide has become a business activity for him. Another challenge is to not fall back on the most frequently cited images, stories and symbols of genocide. The challenge is to ask yourself: what can I show or say that's new? I remember reading the visitors book at S-21, the Khmer Rouge killing camp. A European visitor had compared S21 to the Nazi concentration camps. I realised how misleading this was, and how "genocide literature" can distort particularities and differences. For a start Pol Pot's program was not about purifying the Khmer race as such, but was designed to crush political dissent among his own party members. Another difference was the methods of killing - the Nazis used gas, the Khmer Rouge resorted to drowning and bludgeoning - to save bullets. All of these specifics I mention in order to reveal something new about the subject. Emotionally, there's sympathy, but it's important to allow your subject to transcend the status of victim - how to let their voices through without editorialising them is difficult. Ultimately, the challenge is the same one that faced poets after WW2 - after the horror, what is there to write about and why bother?

With Sarith's work, I can say that he's closer to the experience in some ways than me. I feel I function as an interpreter, a conduit. I feel my work approaches the subject with a detachment that is intellectual and filtered through literature and history. I want my readers to think about their difference and detachment and the consequences of being outside of the horror. My poems at now point try to create that illusion of presence, of being on the spot. I am far removed from the scene of the crime, and the dead bodies have rotted away long ago. One similarity is the sense that we know how trauma is experienced as a visceral memory. Another similarity is that I know from personal experience (of being mugged in Malaysia) what it feels like to be a target of a murderer and to be close to death or mutilation. Perhaps I have displaced my own personal trauma onto the Cambodians in my poems, and that makes them intense and felt.

--You studied film, linguistics, and creative writing. How do these various interests inform your teaching?

I learned just as much about narrative from film as from reading novels. Film offered me different sense of the image and of mis-en-scene which I have tried to use in poetry. The duration of events in film is close to what you get in poetry, the zooming in, the jump-cut, the close-up. It's all there in poetry. Linguistics focussed my attention on the incredible power of language, the choices available in forming the syntactic unit, and the choices available in semantics. Grammar is for me a dynamic tool, and I do think about linguistic descriptions when I am trying to describe stylistic features of a certain piece of writing. Linguistics a very much about systems, but as writers know, language can't be imprisoned by system. It's a very interesting relationship between linguistics as a discipline and science, and poetry as the wild child. Creative writing is I think a field that tries to make sense of creative processes, and the various approaches have merits and drawbacks. I very much like to read narratology, semiotics etc, but I don't think I helps every creative writing student to write better. I am fond of learning new terminology (or techne) to describe writing, for example a flashback can be termed "analepsis", and "prolepsis" is foreshadowing. This only becomes meaningful in the workshop situation, when you want to suggest, for example, that a bit of prolepsis might make the beginning chapter more interesting. It really depends on the student's own level of knowledge of such things. I think of sport here: if you didn't know what "bunt it to center field" meant, you probably could still play baseball but you might not understand your coach or fellow players.

Linguistics certainly offers descriptions of formal and stylistic patterns, and I have consciously taken on L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E inspired ideas to create poems. For example, I wrote a poem based on a Malay-English phrase book of the 1930s, and each section of the poem follows chapters in the phrasebook. So, for example, a chapter on "verbs" offers phrases for the most common Malay verbs, like menjadi (to become). I write a poem using variations on sentences where every line includes a variation on "to be". Another section riffs on Malay adverbs.

On a more familiar level, the literary "genres" are all material to be played with, subverted, re-mixed, defamiliarised, and I suppose this describes much of the modern poetry I enjoy.

[Adam Aitken, Tinfish Editor, and Hazel Smith, Cronulla, November 2009]

I, for one, look forward to finding out what "bunting it to center field" means when Adam gets here in August!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Grace as chance": teaching notes on elegy

Needing an elegiac sonnet to show my poetry workshop yesterday, I opened a selected Seamus Heaney volume in my office to find "Clearances," a sequence Heaney composed for his mother (M.K.H., 1911-1984). Tucked in between two pages of the book was a single piece of paper, dated 27 October 1992; on it were notes toward a class on Heaney, typed in printer-generated Courier type, old school. The first line read, "Travel plans."

My father died on November 4, 1992. This plan described the class I taught before leaving for northern Virginia's colorful autumn (wide curtains of brightest oranges and reds) and several days in the hospital with him. "You came!" he said when I arrived.

I can't describe what came over me in my office yesterday. Sharp intake of breath says it best, perhaps. Or, according to John Ashbery, in "The System," a sense of "the obscure workings of grace as chance" that happens more often in teaching than merits the word "chance." Call it grace, then.

Frederick W. Schultz, 1913-1992.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The poetics of rage: cant and Cantos

Yesterday I read the manifesto of Joe Stack (1956-2010)--after he set fire to his Austin, Texas house and then flew his Piper Cherokee into an IRS office building. I found myself for the first time in many years wanting to turn to Ezra Pound's Cantos. I am an insufficient Modernist scholar, one who adores Hart Crane but never quite took to T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound; this may explain why I now teach contemporary poetry more than any other and get at the Modernists through allusions rather than texts. But when I taught a Foundations in Creative Writing Course several years ago, I assigned Pound's ABC of Reading--less as an instruction manual than as a model. I wanted students to think about their own canons, and about how they might present those canons to their own students. I also love the voice in that book, that of an American hick auto-didact, as once folksy and tyrannical, learned and self-consciously entertaining. My students balked. They did not want to read the book. They knew Pound's politics were malicious, racist, fascist. The more I tried to get them to separate out the tone and content of this book from the Pound they knew of, the less they wanted to follow me. Now I might complain (as I did) that the political atmosphere of my English department, one that sometimes emphasizes "correct thinking" over (or as) literary value, was to blame. As perhaps it was. But none can argue that the Pound problem is an easy one.

So I put the stack of Joe Stack's print-outs down and came to the computer to look for Pound's "Usura" canto. Stack's life-long obsession with the economic system seemed ripe for comparison, however attenutated, with Pound's Canto. The first google link comes us this way: "CANTO XLV — WITH USURA, by Ezra Loomis Pound (1937)." Fair enough. On the Pound page there's a link to a recording of Pound reading, and there are two columns, one of the Canto in English and the other of the Canto in a language I don't know, which I'm pretty sure is Portuguese. Click to the home page and you get a curious mix of advertising on how to program computers, advice on how to learn Hebrew, and ending with, "The Big Lies of Our Times," which includes these statements: "Language evolved from bird whistles and chimpanzee chatter"; "Man has stepped on the moon"; "Democracy is good" and "Mortgages, bank loans and credit cards aren't usury."

When I went to the next screen of my google search for Pound's Canto, the second item came up from Stormfront, a white supremicist website. I had just gone to their site a week ago by accident, when I looked for the victims of Dr. Amy Bishop, the biology professor who shot up a faculty meeting at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. The victims were there, names and photographs, as proof to the Stormfront people that diversity is a bad thing, and that of course a white woman from Harvard shot the non-white members of her department. So here again they were, with a page devoted to Pound's "Usura," printed out in its entirety. It is a beautiful poem; in fact, one of the commenters on the stormfront stream notes that this is "Perhaps the best poem ever written, IMO." Another remarks, "Beautiful, thank you."

This is hardly the Pound of the radio speeches. I have not read those speeches, but when I open a termite-gnawed copy of Ben Friedlander's "Draft Text of Pound's World War II Radio Speeches," I find this: "The American has the head, evidently, of a chicken. He is incapable of political reverie. The existence of a secret and irresponsible government does not worry him." A couple pages later: "Why does the intelligent American, the bright lad who can write but doesn't, why does such a man take it as a matter of course that to earn his living he has to hide his intelligence and work for some blob-headed vulgarian slob?" This was from a Pound's address on "Violence," delivered on 16 June 1942.

Now we've located the proleptic voice of Joe Stack, who winds up toward the end of his manifesto with a call to revolt: "I can only hope that the numbers quickly get too big to be white washed and ignored that the American zombies wake up and revolt; it will take nothing less. I would only hope that by striking a nerve that stimulates the inevitable double standard, knee-jerk government reaction that results in more stupid draconian restrictions people wake up and begin to see the pompous political thugs and their mindless minions for what they are." What an American voice this is. Stack lacks the imagination of Pound's "blob-headed vulgarian slob," but he does have his "pompous political thugs" and "zombies." Radio has given way to the internet, but the voice is fairly consistent, churning away against taxation and advocating for violence.

None of this is surprising. Joe Stack, like Ezra Pound, is full of rage. He writes in an American voice. His manifesto, like Pound's radio addresses, "rambles," is a "diatribe," presents no clear politics except anger. But there's a moment in Stack's manifesto that I return to this morning, one closer to Pound's poetry perhaps than to his rant. It's a moment I wish Stack had interpreted differently, because it is the single moment of compassion in his document. In college, Stack lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His neighbor was a widow (of a retired steel worker) who was even poorer than himself. He lived on peanut butter and crackers, she on cat food. When he gets to her his prose loses its rage for a moment and becomes more Dickensian than Poundian:

"When I got to know this poor figure and heard her story I felt worse for her plight than for my own (I, after all, I thought I had everything to in front of me). I was genuinely appalled at one point, as we exchanged stories and commiserated with each other over our situations, when she in her grandmotherly fashion tried to convince me that I would be 'healthier' eating cat food (like her) rather than trying to get all my substance from peanut butter and bread. I couldn't quite go there, but the impression was made." This is the one point in the piece where I can identify directly with Stack. Not over the piano, his business asset, that he needs to declare on his taxes but can't figure out how; not over his tax code obsession (even if, like me, he is something of a literary critic on that score). While I understand his anger over big business and a system that crushes some while advancing the wealth of others, his final act makes me a lot less inclined to sympathize with him. (That his politics are incoherent is telling, but also not inclined to draw this reader in.) But here is a woman for whom he--and I--can feel compassion. Through her, I feel for Stack.

This is a moment of beauty, of feeling. It is not the beauty of Pound's lines, which mingle rage with music ("no picture is made to endure nor to live with / is it is made to sell and sell quickly" . . . "Stonecutter is kept from his stone / weaver is kept from his loom"). But it is a moment of connection. That Stack uses it to return to his obsessions is perhaps inevitable: "I decided that I didn't trust big business of take care of me, and that I would take responsibility for own future and myself." Nonetheless, at one point he saw his own "sad figure" in the person of another. I wish he'd gone elsewhere with the moment than toward his act of terror thirty or so years later.

I'm not the only one making the Pound connection this morning. Tim Yu has posted this link, for example, on his Facebook page. Nor am I the only person who feels unsettled by the way in which Stack gets at some truths about our economic and governmental system. (Why are we surprised that an irrational person is also thought-full?) But what strikes me, moves me even, is that Stack has used the language of fellow feeling in the middle of his manifesto. Stack was not a racist or a hater of particular persons, unlike many who preceded and will follow him. He includes himself among "blacks and immigrants" rather than blaming them for what has happened to him. He turned to writing as "therapy," he notes, but there was no therapy there. I don't teach writing as therapy, but I do consider it a vehicle of and toward compassion. Had I been his writing instructor, I would have circled the paragraph about the old woman and asked to see more of that.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Walmart University

After a long weekend of a soccer tournament at which my eight year old daughter was a guest player (truth be told, she was invited mostly to sit), I'm back at the computer, several texts demanding my attention at once. There is the long prose piece by John Ashbery that my graduate students are reading, which begins this way:

"The system was breaking down. The one who had wandered alone past so many happenings and events began to feel, backing up along the primal vein that led to his center, the beginning of a hiccup that would, if left to gather, explode the center to the extremities of life, the suburbs through which one makes one's way to where the country is." (53)

The second is by Political Science professor and Kumu Kahua actor, Neal Milner, from Sunday's Honolulu Advertiser. He writes about the three sustainable urinals installed in his department's restroom, urinals advertised to save water and reduce costs. It's as if he's translating Ashbery's breaking down systems theory:

"The middle urinal is in fact as sustainable as a toilet can get. It uses no water at all because it has been broken for months, covered with a large gray plastic trash bag. You can't get any easier maintenance than that. No one expects it to be fixed anytime soon. No one complains. It is no longer a problem to be solved. It is now a fact of life. Sustainability versus the old order at work. The old order is winning, as it has for years."

But of course Milner's toilets are also stand-ins for the University of Hawai`i itself. "AT UH," he writes, "the old order is the most sustainable thing of all." That is, if the old order does not include hiring new faculty (which my department cannot do this year, even in the face of eight retirements); maintaining our wages (after turning down a first contract offer from the Administration, the second one passed, cutting our salaries by the satanic figure of 6.66%); or paying for toner cartridges, new computers, and postage for presses like Tinfish.

Add to the tragi-comic toilets and the farcical proposal by a Republican state senator in Utah to dispense with 12th grade, since no one learns much that year anyway, the actual tragedy this past week at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, where a biologist killed several of her colleagues in a workplace shooting, and there seems much to lament about public education in this country. The Chronicle of Higher Education published an essay by Thomas H. Benton (sounds familiar, that name!) called "The Big Lie about the 'Life of the Mind'" in its February 8th issue, which evoked passionate responses on my Facebook page. Among his assertions is that "graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon 'the life of the mind.'" Where some of the comments that arrived quickly to my "wall" came in support of Mr. Benton (a pen name, after all) and attacked graduate programs themselves, others argued that he was simply complaining and one should really go out and read Marc Bousquet's work.

So, knowing a long weekend was coming, I went to that heaven of on-line purchasing, Amazon, and ordered How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation by Marc Bousquet (New York University Press, 2008) and read it. It's the most devastating portrait of work I've read since Fast Food Nation's dissection of the meat industry and McDonald's. What the book accomplishes is to make a firm connection between the academy and the sweat-shop, between intellectual labor and the kids who flip burgers for a living. Bousquet argues that these people are often the same people. Students work more and more hours while in college; instructors work more and more hours at highly contingent jobs (non-tenurable, lacking health care and other benefits). Forget the graduate programs; it's the entire economy that works this way.

But Bousquet does not claim that the system is breaking down; his more sinister argument is that everything is working exactly as it "should" for those who aim to make money. The ever-increasing numbers of administrators in higher education, with their high salaries and insistence on assessment, are like lunas in plantation era Hawai`i (ok, that's my simile, not his). The university is now managed to make money, increase "efficiency" and raise the numbers of untenurable labor even as the tenured class remains as a dying relic of the old order. If I, at my office desk where I look at a dying computer and dead printer, feel that my system is breaking, it's because someone else's version of this system is succeeding. If my husband and daughter get many Fridays off this year, it's not that the education system is floundering, but that the governor is "saving money" and hence de facto privatizing schools and the child care system. A tenured full professor, I feel demoralized by the comment streams in the newspaper about my institution (it's always the "greedy professors and their unions" at fault), but I do not feel as contingent as the Ph.D. student who doesn't know where next year's money is coming from, or my office neighbor, a lecturer with a Ph.D. and a MBA, who never knows if he'll be teaching next semester. He keeps his hotel job, because that one has benefits. [Ed. note: it turns out his situation is much more difficult than I describe here, but he does not want me to write about his situation in any detail, so that his future job prospects are not endangered.] Over the years my department has tried several "fixes" to the contingency problem, sometimes exacerbating it (by laying off a tier of "Visiting Assistant Professors" in the early 1990s) and sometimes coming up with clever, if one-off, solutions (creating another layer of untenured assistant professors, some of whom now have tenure, if not the SAME tenure I have). But "the university clearly does not prefer the best or most experienced teachers; it prefers the cheapest teachers. Increasingly, that means the creation of nontenurable full-time instructorships and other casual appointments, a casualization that has unfolded unevenly by discipline and is especially pronounced in English and writing instruction" (Bousquet 204).

So, according to Bousquet, there are not too many Ph.D.s or graduate students at all. There are not enough jobs for them because they are too expensive. Like casual labor at Walmart or UPS, these workers get worn down and tossed out. The most telling chapter of his book to me, perhaps because it's one subject I had heard nothing of before, is about how UPS hires casual student laborers, promises to pay for their education, then puts them on grueling late night and early morning shifts where they get exhausted and injured. Most of them never complete their education; many sustain injuries to last a lifetime, and none of them is able to live off the wages UPS provides. It's a terrible scam, one that promises advancement through education, but actually uses workers up and spits them out.

In the late 1990s, my husband Bryant and I played on a local softball team in Kailua. We ran into our coach at a Halloween party; he was dressed as a gypsy, as I recall. He began singing the praises of the football coach, then came on with an attack on UH faculty. "How many hours a week are you in the classroom?" he asked me, insinuation in his voice. When I said that the football coach only coached his team three hours a week, he argued that the coach was responsible for the lives of his young people! I tried to explain that I was, too, advising students, working on thesis committees, serving on departmental committees, doing all the real work that sounds so unreal to anyone outside the academy. He would have none of it. His solution to the budget problem that afflicted us even then was to get rid of the art and dance departments, saving only music, because they trained the marching band. (I gather that to be a "practical" use of music.)

While I wonder how to explain what I do to people for whom it seems frivolous to sit around a classroom and talk about poems or about how to write an argument or even to chew the fat about the university's situation, Bousquet suggests a more active solution. He wants us to organize, not simply among ourselves, but across the borders of this economy of contingency. His ending is happier than not, happier than seems merited by the book itself: "It is at least possible that soon enough the majority feeling among graduate employees (who eventually become all of the labor in the system, term faculty and tenure stream alike) will become the concerted will to make the 'market' responsive to their needs, and not the other way around" (209). This seems more hopeful than Benton's declaration that higher education is at fault, or than the "Broken things stay broken for so long that no one considers them broken anymore . . . Don't fix them or replace them. Put it on the user," that Milner mutters sardonically at his urinal, or John Ashbery says to us from a time of contemplation that seems alien to us in this era of overwork:

"The allegory is ended, its coils absorbed into the past, and this afternoon is as wide as an ocean. It is the time we have now, and all our wasted time sinks into the sea and is swallowed up without a trace. The past is dust and ashes, and this incommensurably wide way leads to the pragmatic and kinetic future" (106).

In the allegory we are living now "Goods" has been divorced from "Good." Shave off that s! Let's replace the false pragmatism of cost-cutting with a truer pragmatism, argue for the usefulness of education workers. Then, as Bousquet suggests, if we are valued for what we do, then education may be valued for itself (again?).

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In Praise of Blurbs

I've long been a fan of those parts of a book that aren't the book itself, but situate themselves in the book's suburbs. (Yesterday, in talking to graduate students about Ashbery's Three Poems, I found myself in a long digression about Ashbery's use of the trope, the ways in which his poems are almost inevitably suburbs of a city that cannot be mapped.) Among the suburbs of a book of poems or criticism are the acknowledgments, awkward testimonies to professional debts, previous publications, friends, lovers, and children. Never have I felt so strangely happy in opening a book as when I saw a scholar dedicate his book to himself, with thanks to himself for all the hard work he had done on it. Must have been that I was writing a dissertation at the time, a thankless task if there ever was one. I have not yet had the courage to thank the pharmaceuticals that make my work possible, but those too belong in these testaments to literary non-solitude. Then there are the indexes, governed by alphabetical order, that guide us through books and--if we read them on their own--offer myriad juxtapositional jollies. Janus and Jesus. Teabagger and tempest. Derrida and deep image. Bernadette Mayer's exercise, mandating that you write a poem as an index, is a brilliant prompt.

When I first began composing blurbs, I assumed that the only rule was to use the word "brilliant." My first blurb, as I recall, contained that word (as an inside joke, as well as praise for Michelle Murphy's work). The book is Jackknife & Light, published by Avec Books in 1998. But I quickly realized that the blurb form was to criticism as haiku is to the epic poem, or a tweet to a blog post, a blog post to a vetted essay. It was the jar in Tennessee that claimed to order the wilderness of the text that (usually) preceded it. It was a see-through containment principle. And so I fell in love with the blurb form. I only wish Ron Padgett had written one of his down home, pragmatic descriptions of "the blurb" in his handbook of poetic forms, because blurbs can be poetic (if you leave out tired words like "brilliant"). Such a Padgett definition might read as follows:

"According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the blurb is 'said to have been originated in 1907 by Gelett Burgess in a comic book jacket embellished with a drawing of a pulchritudinous young lady whom he facetiously dubbed Miss Blinda Blurb. (D.A.)' The blurb is very like a definition: short, active, exacting, if also necessarily a song of praise. An extension of the marketing arm of the publishing house or office or small room (the latter devoted to small press work), the blurber (or blurbista, as she is often under the spell of caffeine) seeks to seduce a jacket reader into opening the book to gaze upon the naked words within. The blurb writer's name is crucial. It ought to be recognizable, crisp, a blurb in and of itself. Often, the blurbist's name will be followed by something of their own that is blurb-worthy--a book, a journal, a department, an institution, some prizes. How do you write a blurb? Imagine yourself privy to writing no one else has seen, but ought to read. Look in your heart and write. Make it snappy."

Late in the process of putting together Kaia Sand's new book Remember to Wave, we realized that, while Lawson Inada had sent us both delightful letters, full of riffs on Tinfish and the book, he had not come up with the requested blurb. He does not do computers, so I pushed some buttons and informed him that I was "calling in his blurb." His blurb came in much less satisfying than the letters, so Kaia had him agree to present letter copy as the blurb, which came out this way:

"Woooo weee!--this book is really something! It's both "too much" and the "total package," and then some--sort of like an "All You Can Eat" site--a "smelter"--in a rock-alcove below petroglyphs. "Sand" plus "Wave" plus "Tinfish"--that's the cool combo, combined with Vision, Heart, Smarts, Reach, Diligence, Direction, and good doses of downhome, downright Whimsy! Are you ready? Step lively now. Be on alert. Keep up with Kaia. And REMEMBER TO WAVE!"

Lawson Fusao Inada, Oregon Poet Laureate

Let me append some of my recent blurbs, with links to where the books can be bought. I've never signed a blurb, but why not begin now? Buy the book, send it to me, and I'll sign the blurb. Appropriation has its place.

Bartleby, the Sportscaster, by Ted Pelton

Ted Pelton has written an allegory about an allegory about real life. The memoir of the end of his first marriage, sandwiched between chapters about a fictional sportscaster and his silent colleague, Bartleby, offers us a sober frame for interpreting the fiction (his and Melville's). More importantly, perhaps, fiction gives us access to the life. Bartleby is real; marriage is allegory. Vice versa, too. Neither life nor art can be imitated in Pelton's novel, for they are one and the same. For an avowed Mets fan, Pelton's a pretty savvy writer.

I really enjoyed that last sentence, as the Mets have been rivals of the St. Louis Cardinals forever, and in my mind since the mid-1980s, when Doc Gooden and that catcher with a perm regularly took on Whitey Herzog's crew, and sometimes won.

Ted's book is very short; Goro Takano's, on the other hand, is a hefty piece of lumber. He wrote his novel as a dissertation and it still includes an extensive bibliography. Were I to blurb it again, I'd mention that a very fine graduate course could be made of the book and its bibliography alone. So there.

Goro Takano, With One More Step Ahead, Blazevox

In One More Step Ahead Goro Takano has composed an amazing post-national post-apocalyptic encyclopedic philosophical trans-genre literary critical untranslated novel with poems about post-war Japan, African America, Hawai`i, film, Japanese literature, television news, dementia, paralysis, a sex cult, the atom bomb, gender, race, culture, the corporate state and much more. Read this book and chant after Virginia Woolf: What a phantasmagoria the mind is and meeting-place of dissemblables!

Linking the blurb to a blog post I wrote on the book was a technical mistake, but I'll own it by keeping it there. As I said to a student yesterday, everything's intentional once you've put it down.

Bill Howe also has a new Blazevox book, Translanations:

iPod to a postmodern aeolian harp, William R. Howe projects the altered music of Emily Dickinson’s poems through our ear’s buds. His is not a lyric “I,” but the first person of a dyslexic subject at once trapped and transformed by the sounds of a language that perpetually evades him, and us. While his method is ostensibly that of homolinguistic translation, Howe also ventures into synecdoche (“sign that doc”), as when he offers us Dickinson’s line, “I felt siroccos crawl,” as “Eiffel Volkswagens – scrawl --” Like Janet Holmes in THE MS OF MY KIN, Howe discovers our present in Dickinson’s own. Her “The Soul has Bandaged moments --” becomes “These mole his Baghdad ad foments.” One could write the history of America from that bandaged moment to this Baghdad ad. Perhaps this is Howe. —Susan M. Schultz

Sometimes I'm asked to write blurbs to books by writers whose work I don't know. I was very happy to pass word of Jean Vengua's Meritage Press book, thusly:

Jean Vengua, Prau

Jean Vengua is a poet of the typo, the missed step, the happy and unhappy accident; in short, she is a poet of linguistic and global migration. Prau moves its reader from the Philippines to the Bay Area and back, "always mining past present tenses." In her aptly titled prose poem, "Momentum," Vengua links Gustav Mahler, her mother, Buffalo Soldiers, Marie Curie, Roberto Matta, and Jose Rizal in a dance of histories real and imagined. The momentum of her writing brings together what is otherwise ripped asunder: "That is to make beautiful where the dissonance begins to tear."
--Susan M. Schultz, Editor of Tinfish Press

And there, with my moniker, Editor of Tinfish Press, I end this blog on blurbs. Someday I may get around to blurbing the blog from my perch in the Ahuimanu suburbs.

[Ed. note: the critic who thanked himself was Thomas Vogler in Preludes to Vision: The Epic Venture in Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, and Hart Crane. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 1971. 222pp. I remember it was a good book.]

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sarah Palin assails euphemisms & Ann Dunham details blacksmithing

In my undergraduate poetry workshop last week, I asked students to take a brief walk in the corridor of our building or, if they hurried, to go outside. Their assignment was to be surprised by something they noticed; on their return, they wrote haiku, the poetic form best equipped to relate and evoke surprise. One method in seeking out surprise is to look for odd juxtapositions of language or image; irony is surprise's best trope. That I attended a talk about Ann Dunham's book of anthropology about Indonesia and watched Sarah Palin's keynote to the Teabagger convention this week seems an apt launching pad, if not for a haiku then for this shortish form.

Sarah Palin's speech opened with her proclamation that she is proud to be an American, that the military keeps us free, and that Teabaggers are good people. So far, nothing unexpected. What drew me in, however, was the part of her speech where she criticized Democrats' (Obama's, in particular) misuse of language. Because the speech was closed to the press--even as it was shown on CNN, cspan, and Fox--there is no full transcript of the speech available on-line as I write this. So I'll use what scraps I've found, mostly in Sam Stein's blog on and from my memory. Andrew Sullivan's live blog is here. Palin's first "catch" was to point out that Obama does not use the word "war" (no matter that he does, of course), but that the action in Afghanistan now has a fancy euphemistic title, namely "Overseas Contingency Operation." She then launched into Obama's handling of the Christmas (underwear) bomber, the fact that he was given his Miranda rights, an American lawyer, and "the right to remain silent." (No matter that reports have come out in recent days that he has been talking a lot, under the influence of his family, flown in by the U.S. government). Here's the gist of Palin's claim: "It scares me for my children, for your children, to treat this like a mere law enforcement matter . . . It puts our country at great risk . . . To win that war we need a commander-in-chief not a professor of law standing at the lectern."

I will ignore the plea to sentiment by way of her children and my children and head straight for her literary critical moment. Palin seems to be attacking a euphemism, namely the administration's use of the term "law enforcement" for the actual word "war." Hence, as she would have it, the administration uses the legal system instead of military courts, and the "commander in chief" is actually just "a professor of law." What fascinates me is the way in which Palin describes the law itself as a euphemism of sorts, even as the term "law professor" becomes synonymous with weakness. (Ah, academics, so easy to attack!) To follow the law is thus a problem; to cut to the chase--use the word "war" where it should be used!--means cutting away the euphemistic legal system and acting. To act is to go beyond the law. That will keep our children safe. And so the attack on euphemism itself becomes one, a dangerous stand-in for delegitimizing the Constitution itself.


This past Thursday I attended the Biography Center Brownbag featuring Alice Dewey, Ann Dunham's dissertation director in the 1980s and early 1990s, who has co-edited (with Nancy Cooper) the 1000 page manuscript, based on 14 years of research, into a book just published by Duke University Press as Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia. The book enters a context much larger than its declared purpose, that of analyzing a blacksmithing village in Indonesia, because Ann Dunham was Barack Obama's mother. And so, under the able marketing staff of Duke University Press, the book also includes fascimiles of Dunham's field notes and photographs (some in color) of her and the subjects of her work. Alice Dewey seemed torn between talking about her former student and about her former student's work. At one moment, she'd say, "study something you can buy or eat, because that's how you get to know people," and then she'd tell us that Dunham, when she stayed with Dewey, would get up at 3 a.m. to start work. On the one hand, she gave us a brief biography of Dunham, and on the other she explained Dunham's exquisite sense of the significance of detail. Dunham had worked on four villages in Indonesia--villages organized by their trades, blacksmithing, basket-weaving, puppet-making--and incorporated intimate detail of her subjects' lives with a grasp of statistics and sense of how the government worked, or failed to work. The session ended with a long discussion of the kris, or sword, which Dunham had gotten a local craftsman to make for her. Dewey described the process of making the swords, even as she told us how Dunham wrote ahead to people in Bali to say she was bringing a kris in from somewhere else, an act of diplomacy. (The kris is known for its supernatural powers, so dealing with it can be dicey.) While the event seemed a bit confusing to someone unfamiliar with Indonesia or Ann Dunham, I appreciated the way in which Dunham was remembered lovingly through her work.


Sarah Palin came to meet the Teabaggers ostensibly not as an Orwellian figure, but as the George Orwell of "Politics and the English Language." That she could also trot out sentences like, "freedom is a God-given right and it is worth fighting for . . . and Americas' finest are men and women in uniform . . . a force for good throughout the world and that is nothing to apologize for" (from Sam Stein's blog), suggests a rhetoric that is more Orwellian than Orwell himself could have imagined. To use an old Harold Bloom phrase, she troped him. Let us hope that she has not also roped in more than the 20% of the American public who automatically believe what she says. We need not so much an Orwell as Hemingway's "shit-detector" on this one.

Her attack on Ann Dunham's son was, in ways I've not fully described here, an attack on detail: the law is composed of details, the language we use to talk about war involves details (and yes, I agree with her that "contingency operation" will not do). No accident that she used "law professor" as a term of opprobium against Ann Dunham's son. (I gather law professors are even fairer game than lawyers themselves.) Dunham was an academic, and it sounds like she was a good one, immersed in detail, taking notebook after notebook of field notes. Far be it from me to defend the academy against all comers (the university is full of cliques and fads, just like any group), but perhaps we can start defending what we do--and doing it better--by talking about detail. Detail describes our world in ways that resemble it. Details offer us those surprises that tell us this object does not belong with that one. In our laughter and in the momentary confusions we feel in noticing such things, we can come upon a closer reverence for the world as it might be. Euphemism that that phrase is, it becomes less so once you act on it. Start taking notes.

[the photo of Sarah Palin shows her reading notes off her hand during the Q&A after her keynote address to the Teabaggers]