Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Writing Off of DICTEE: A Lesson Plan

The creative writing workshop need not be all talk; workshops are also places where things are built, sturdy objects like cabinets and window frames and old-fashioned toys. So to illustrate how DICTEE works from the inside rather than from the safe distance at which we often regard works of literature, especially the "difficult" ones, I made up an exercise for my graduate students. I'm pretty sure it would work for advanced undergrads, as well. Here are the directions I gave them (the 45 minute idea proved pure folly):

DICTEE exercise

I will give you a very healthy amount of time for this, at least 45 minutes. Do this in groups of three, and do it with colleagues you don't know in the class.

You have six documents in front of you:

“Aloha `Oe”: words and music by Queen Lil`uokalani

Congresswoman Patsy Mink, “Statement Before the House Commerce Committee Subcommittee On Commerce, Trade, and Hazardous Materials Product Liability Reform,” 1995;

Selection from DA JESUS BOOK:

USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, February 25, 2020, report on Kilauea:

Honolulu Police Department, How to Acquire a Gun:

47-491 Lulani Street, Kaneohe, House for Sale:

Choose at least FOUR of these documents and create a narrative/story/idea stream with them.

Then, write between the documents (or on top of them) in ways that are personal, political, cultural, etc.

Give your piece a title. Prepare to discuss it.

[May I have your permission to blog on this exercise? SMS]

I chose the documents almost at random, although they are all about Hawai`i and range from song to real estate, handguns to Kilauea volcano, and a Pidgin translation of Genesis to the testimony of Congresswoman Patsy Mink about the effects of DES on mothers and their children. Aside from the emphasis on this place, I had very little in mind for the documents, thinking the exercise would work better that way. I knew full well that serious issues were raised in the documents, from the status of Pidgin and Hawaiian languages to handgun violence to the high cost of property (and the issue of development) in Hawai`i. I also knew that I had chosen documents about at least two famous women from Hawai`i, Queen Liliu`okalani, the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawai`i, and Patsy Mink, the first Asian American woman in Congress. So there seemed ample documentation. The results would not be as focused as are Cha's, nor would they be autobiographical. But other of Cha's genres would participate--from document to poem to image.

Here are three images from class groups:

[Kevin W. and No`u R.]

[Jaimie G. and Marcus A.Y.]

[Lyz S. and Kate S.]

Aiko Y. and Davin K. did not do a collage, but Davin sent me a poem; the end goes like this, and combines material from several of the documents as it connects Eve to Pele, childbirth with the volcano, women with bad medical practices perpetrated on their bodies, and the Puritan prurience of American culture.


Always this odd device designed for women,
claimed away from women,
from the beginning;
Akamu possessing Ewa from the start
Inheritance of body by body,
chest of chest,
rib of rib:

She da wahine for me.
Her bones, come from my bones,
Her skin, come from my skin.
Dis one, I goin give her da name ‘Wahine’
Cuz God wen take her outa me, one guy.”

The oneness from the separateness,

claiming the body that stands apart from the body,
and yet is still made whole in da eyes of Ke Akua.

This dalkon shield, extended limb.
IUD, body’s I.E.D. waiting for implosion.
Tampon in my cleft, waiting to cleave me twain.

This shield of dalkon, increased member.
IUD, I.E.D. of implosion—waiting in carnate.
Plug in my column, waiting, hurtling into
tampon death.

Always dichotomizing, categorizing, probing with instruments.

Midwives displaced:
no holistic body, space embraced by women.
Only the “draped” area.
The cold stirrups.
Vulcanologists probing and assessing the pahoehoe folds
with aplomb, excess.

Cold speculum of devices into Pele, raw.

And now Aiko send me hers:

A substantial and valuable part of the science of volcanology is based on simple but careful observations.

What is reported felt:
SO2, H2O, CO2,
all of which are clear and colorless gases,
rates of dense white plumes and thin, wispy blue ones,
about one-tenth the diameter of a strand of human hair.

What is reported felt:
SO2, H2O, CO2.
Well-behaved, collated gases
unfurl their flaming hair,
red and colorless glass.

When the volcano ”reinflates.”

The concrete details:
Newly remodeled, top to bottom, custom cabinets and remnants of state-of-the-art appliances.
2/2/2, w/d & over 600 sf of decking w/panoramic view of
the rubble of the Koolau mountains
--in excess.

And the people far and wide gathered
And the people came together and held hands
And silence was lost in the voids after words
And the obligatory strains swell to a crescendo:

Unfurl the banners and let them wave
over this land, our inheritance.

We stand and we sway
We shed tears
strong in our convictions
to conspire or act alone.

I didn't write anything, but made a list of the women I found in the documents:

Queen Liliu`okalani
Patsy Mink

Eve was the first woman; Pele built the Hawaiian islands from her lava streams; Queen Liliu`okalani wrote the famous song "Aloha `Oe," and was deposed by American businessmen; Patsy Mink fought the pharmaceutical business, even as she, like Eve, was a first woman and, like Queen Liliu`okalani, she also lost in politics when she ran for the Senate against the old boy establishment. Like Cha's mother and the Korean heroines and Joan of Arc, they are part of a typology of heroic women. There's something there. And marvelous languages (click the links to the documents and you'll see). And for some strange reason, my imagined piece ended with a speaker looking out over Kane`ohe bay from the house listed for sale and chanting T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

Since the class ended, I've heard from two of the students who teach English 100, who say they want to adapt the exercise for their classes. Students are often stunned by the need to make an argument, lacking the material structure on which to hang their ideas. An exercise like this one shows them how they can create narratives by putting documents in different sequences.


Tinfish Press has just published a new chapbook by Gizelle Gajelonia entitled 13 Ways of Looking at TheBus. This often funny collection of 13 poems revises significant American poems, even as it chronicles rides on Honolulu's bus system. Gizelle has an amazing rewrite of The Waste Land that places the poem in Hawai`i; it likely influenced my speaker's chant at the top of Lulani Drive in Kane`ohe.

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