Monday, August 30, 2010

Arguing for Poetry During a Recession

At the University of Hawai`i, the best verb tense one can hope for these days is the conditional. Our building might be renovated next year. We might get a new secretary. In truth, we will get a new secretary, but we will also lose one who works for us now: a gain and a loss equals a might. We might get a new hire in creative writing. This last has occupied my weekend, as I am--for this semester only--director of creative writing. And because last year alone we lost five creative writers from our faculty.

I am arguing for a hire (albeit still a hypothetical one) in poetry. I am arguing that the literature and oratures of Asia and the Pacific (part of our university's mission statement is that we specialize in that region) are more often than not poetic: there are mele, chants, poems in English and translation. I am arguing that our offerings in literature and cultural studies, to say nothing of composition and rhetoric, are heavy on narrative fiction. (Each semester I wade through course reading lists, only to discover that many of the courses whose titles are "Literature of..." are actually courses in "Fiction of . . ." or increasingly "Non-fiction of...") Where poetry is taught, it's taught more as content than as the result of a process, a language game, an art. I am arguing that, while I sometimes find it hard to fill a class in the reading of poetry, courses in writing poetry are well attended, that the only exposure to poetry many of my students get is in such courses. (Easy to avoid that phobic subject, if it's simply not available.) I am arguing (again) that the cultures of Asia and Pacific are often best seen in their poetry, music, hula. I am arguing that, if we are to create an MFA program, we need more than two faculty members who teach poetry on the graduate level. I am borrowing an argument made by Adam Aitken, our current Visiting Writer, that all writers should study poetry, because poetry is all about language. I am arguing that the community is full of poetic energies in its journals (Bamboo Ridge, `oiwi, Tinfish) and in the slam scene, which draws enormous audiences and--more importantly--draws young people into poetry. I am arguing and arguing and arguing.

But we live in a time of scarcity, so my arguments do not seem practical. We live in a time of scarcity where there is more demand for fiction than there is supply of fiction writers to lead workshops. We live in a time of scarcity, when poetry is (as ever in our culture) marginalized as extra, as luxury, as something very few people want to buy. That they don't go to the store to buy it proves that they don't want it (surely a Catch-22 for the poetry pedagogue.)

It's easy simply to get angry, but the fiction writers have a point, too. We work with a lot of graduate and advanced undergraduates who write fiction because they want to. Many of them are extremely good at it. (I know, because I am often called upon to be on their committees, and I read their fiction.) Given too many holes in the curriculum, perhaps all we can do now is fill them in, as we watch fresh potholes form. The ride is awfully bumpy. We could use some of that "slope maintenance" going on down the highway from where I live.

One colleague asks why we are so hung up on genre, anyway. I suspect the reason is that job descriptions are easier to write for fiction and poetry than for "writer." I would much prefer the latter, myself, sometimes, but in a time of scarcity, damn it, I want a real poet who can spread the love of the art, and of its various engagements with language and culture, to our students.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Allyn Bromley at "the Whitney of the Pacific": art, environment, age

["What Color is Invisible"]

One of the aspects of blogging--my own and others'--I most enjoy is the way in which personal and intellectual concerns weave together in unexpected ways over time. In recent weeks I've been thinking both about what it means to be a Haole artist in Hawai`i and about issues of old age and illness. Allyn Bromley's work provided a surprising bridge between them. This morning I attended a walk-through of her retrospective show at The Contemporary Art Museum in Honolulu; our docent was none other than Bromley herself. She's an 83-year old woman with bright red hair, a refreshingly irreverent view of herself and her work, and a lively sense of humor. At the point a baby started to cry loudly, she said, "I'll outdo the baby!" On one of her pieces about there being too many tourists walking up the Mānoa Stream, she declared that this was her way to say, "oh shoots." On the bottom floor we found a couple of mummy-like bodies, composed of woven strips of unsold prints: one is Mr. Pontificate and the other Mr. Knew It All. Both of them inert and fully recycled--Mr. Knew It All from her print, "Miloli`i," which is itself a commentary on over-development.

We get to know others through their repetitions, I suppose, as well as their reputations. Bromley pointed out that printmaking involves the creation of multiples, that it resembles what we see on teeshirts, that it is chamber music to the symphonies that are one of a kinds. So Bromley's repeated uses of words such as "personal" (as in, "this work is very personal") and "doubt" (her doubting dog was popular with the group of 60 or so who walked with her) and "indignations" and even "recycling," offered up a portrait of the artist as a cultural-confessional worker. While she claimed toward the end that she's not good with ideas (the ideas she ascribed to younger artists like Anne Bush, with whom she has collaborated), the most engaging of her artworks are idea-rich.

Many of Bromley's doubts and indignations center on Hawai`i. Born in San Francisco in 1928, she moved to Hawai`i at a time when it took over four days on a ship to get here, when you could smell Hawai`i before the ship docked, when the small fishing village of Miloli`i on the Big Island existed completely off the grid. She began visiting Miloli`i in the 1950s, but felt "anxiety over what was coming" not too long afterwards. Her print about Miloli`i starts on its left with a surveyer's stick, then moves rightward toward a lava field that has lines imposed upon it that demarcate "tracts." Let's face it, she said, developers here have not done a good job. She contrasted the rapacious development of Hawai`i with concern shown in Austria for keeping things Austrian. (Her intense localism is met by an equally intense internationalism, and the museum catalogue begins and ends with lists of places she has been. their longitudes and latitudes.)

Even her print of the doubting dog contains an indigenous coconut palm, and the yen scattered across the right side of the piece were inspired by Japanese real estate speculation in the 1980s. So a dog who began its art life in a children's book was then blown up 1000 or more percent by Bromley and entered into a very different scene from that of a children's book. It's a scene in which nature is under threat from yen, in which the doubting dog turns his nose toward great changes in Hawai`i.

That the dog began as French and forms part of commentary on Honolulu housing issues is apropos. Bromley, like the dog to whom she has given new, and larger, life, has stationed herself in a new space and has found valuable ways to intervene artistically. And so, after the print about bulk pickup and dumping, we find the print about Mānoa Stream, and then this piece that covers an entire wall:

In "Green Piece," 300 pieces cut out of recycled prints, which took some six months of cutting, is less direct in its intent on its audience than are some of the others. It's not "about" dumping or "about" development or "about" real estate, and yet somehow it engages all these issues. The piece contains what a poet might call refrains, or repeated images that serve to anchor the eye, even as it's invited to wander. If the piece is set up somewhere else, it will wander, as it can never be done the same way twice.

Then there are the prints of Waikiki, which were put into the Honolulu Convention Center by the SFCA (State Foundation on Culture and the Arts) and then taken out again because they were not the image the Convention Center people wanted visitors to take home with them. There is Bromley's large installation on homelessness, which brought out her own anxieties about audience (how about homeless people, the ones who are not here today?) and the value of art (where to put it post-retrospective). While no one on the tour was homeless, there were two or three women who know and work with homeless people (several degrees of separation that don't involve Kevin Bacon). "I can introduce you to the woman who sits on the steps of the building," one woman said. While something in me wants to use an ironic tone in telling this part of the story, there was a kindness to the artist's own questions that obviates the need for it. The truth is, perhaps, that most of "us" do not know homeless people, but are disinclined even to say so.

These pieces about the environment, development, and homelessness strike me as wonderful examples of what a Haole artist can do here, without apology. One of my past and future students, Alexei Melnick, mentioned the other day that there is a big difference between a "Haole" and a "white person." The Haole has grown up as member of a minority group; the white person lives an unmarked life, freed from the very notion of race. Though "post-racial America" may simply be an America where white people have a race, too. While her art is cooped up in the upper class art museum, Bromley attempts to make connections with communities in Hawai`i. Outside communities, those that live outside. That these linkages have not been made directly is not her fault, but that of a culture in which art is assumed to be divorced from the streets, even when it reproduces them on the museum's floor (as with the homelessness piece). She does not claim to be from Miloli`i, but is able to comment upon its loss of isolation from the world, perhaps because she was herself an intruder upon it.

The remaining pieces that struck me most were those about her parents. In recent years she has returned to them as her subject matter. When her mother was dying of cancer, her father came and sat with her. That love is a form of patience was the subject of one painting, in which a man and a woman simply look at one another, A at B. Then there was this painting, which you can see to the left, of her mother reading as she was dying of cancer. It's as if the Stevens poem about "reading in a chair" were being wrenched back into time through the title, "Mother With Cancer."

Bromley had thought that these "very personal" images, like the one of her mother, would not be seen, that they might be "offensive" to viewers. She was surprised at the positive reactions to her work on death and transition. I suspect that there are many viewers, like myself, who want to see this stage of life represented in art. While her portrait of her mother is not "realistic" in the way Elizabeth Berdann's portraits of old women are, the effects are similar. Yes, here they are, the old people; they are granted life in art, too.

The last piece she showed us was a collaboration with Anne Bush. Perched on clear ledges are shredded bits of colored paper, representing all the previous catalogues from the museum. There was something light about this installation, as if the death of catalogues made a beautiful material joke. Bromley talked of having a ritual burning of some of her art, including this piece (a perverse take on the 14th century Pope who burned books). To render them into mandalas would be a logical next step. But the audience was more taken by the idea of selling pieces at auction and giving the money to an organization that works with homeless people. The shredded catalogues playfully de-present Bromley's many concerns, with the environment, recycling, transcience, age, humor. They seemed a good place to stop. For now.

And here's "Breakfast Buddha."

There's a fine catalogue of the exhibit, with an introduction by John David Zuern of the UHM English department. John is on the board of Tinfish Press.

Ed. note: Anne Bush referred to TCM as "the Whitney of the Pacific" in a conversation with Allyn Bromley.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sentences to Paragraphs: More English 100 Exercises

Because one sentence does not an essay make, the gaps between sentences require connective tissue, ligature, flex.

Since each sentence is a lonely one, you will need to make it friends.

If you hatch a few sentences in a row, you can grow a paragraph. That paragraph will cackle, or crackle.

Thus, sentences are to paragraphs as words are to sentences.

Nevertheless, the mere use of a transition word will not get you from here to there on the turnpike of ideas.

Therefore, your linkages must make a higher sense/sentence than words alone provide.

On the one hand, sentences; on the other hand, a fully fleshed out idea.

Hence, you will find that a paragraph requires not simply a statement, but also evidence of that statement's innate goodness.

In other words, line your sentences up in a row like ducks, or bowling pins.

For the most part, the art of linking ideas on the micro-level (the sentence or paragraph) will provide you a model for creating larger arguments.

Instead of counting on ideas to descend from the sky onto your shoulders, shoulder the burden of rubbing words together until a spark appears; then blow on the spark until your idea illuminates itself. Campground songs will follow.


In small groups, link your sentences together (the ones you wrote about photographs you took of the neighborhood you live in), using some of the following words or phrases:

--if . . . when
--on the contrary/on the other hand
--whether or not
--[your word or phrase here]

Now act out the transitions in your sentences for the class. This will require you to collaborate with another student or two. You'll have 10 minutes or so to figure out what movements to use to enact the movements of your sentences as they move forward and then bind together like strands of DNA or like adoptive parents meeting their children for the first time.


Thought problem: What is the purpose of a paragraph? What does a paragraph do? How does it work? To what purpose do we write paragraphs?

Write three paragraphs about your photographs (you can take new ones, if you wish). Your paragraphs need to be at least four sentences long. Use three of these structures:

--Start from a main idea you have about the photograph and use details to illustrate it. Let's say you've taken the photograph of a church and someone tells you that the church used to be the local mom and pop store. Make a statement about your neighborhood (its ethnic shifts, its economic ones), and go from there.

--Start from a detail and move to a main idea. Usually we are attracted less by a grand panorama than by a telling detail within it. Start by sharing that moment with your reader, then cast your zoom lens outward.

--Assume that someone has just criticized your photograph. They might have criticized its composition or something about its content. While responding to their criticism, you must present their point of view fairly. Or assume that someone has criticized an aspect of your neighborhood represented in your photographs (a new ditch, a new neon sign, new housing area, etc.)

--Compare and contrast two angles on the same image. Which one seems more striking, and why? Here you might compare the grand panorama to the detailed view. Perhaps they are both striking, but in different ways; you can go there, too.

--Use your photograph to make an assertion about contemporary Hawai`i (a small one, as you have only one paragraph). What issues/conflicts/arguments are raised by the image?

Discuss your paragraphs.

Now you will be ready to think about making larger arguments, those that use words to make sentences, sentences to make paragraphs, paragraphs to make essays. Before you move on to an essay, do the following. Conjure up in your mind the vision of a five-paragraph essay. Meditate on it for a good minute or two. Now, take a piece of paper on which you imagine you have composed five perfectly engineered schematically organized paragraphs, and crumple it up. On the count of five, throw your paper ball across the room and bid it farewell.

This is college-level writing. No moa need da kine!

Monday, August 16, 2010

_Old Women Look Like This_: an ebook

I have a new ebook from Argotist Press on-line, available for free download here. I don't use my Kindle, but perhaps you do yours! (You can also print it out in troglodyte fashion and read it off paper.) The chapbook is an off-shoot of the Dementia Blog project (and of that project's several off-shoots), and takes seriously the simile that old age is like childhood. It tests that too-simple comparison by placing very old people into children's stories--Pippi Longstocking, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Are You My Mother?, A Mother for Choco, Anne of Green Gables--and gauging what happens to them. I guess it's fair to say that the version of Pippi Longstocking (independent, high-spirited, living alone) does not work so well for a woman with dementia. Or that an 85-year old woman looking for her mother is bound not to find her. Sadly fascinating that children's stories, which so often praise the virtues of independence and even orphanhood, seem to maintain their power in American culture, despite evidence to the contrary. Or is it Ralph Waldo Emerson again (my favorite bogeyman these days)? (I can hear Ben Friedlander reminding me that Emerson himself suffered from dementia late in his life.) It's a power that turns against the elderly, prevents many of them from agreeing to care and from deciding how they want their final years to be lived. I'd link to another post, but there are so many at this point!

The project had its origins at Honolulu's Contemporary Art Museum. The Educational Curator, Quala-Lynn Young, was my student in two poetry classes last year. She organized a tour for writers of the museum's special exhibit of art about the body. After the tour, we went home and wrote poems about our favorite pieces. Mine were a series of portraits of old women by Elizabeth Berdann. You can find some of them here. There's a blog post about the event here, as well. I worked off google searches "old women look like," as well as off the paintings themselves.

After writing about her portraits, I began using residents of my mother's Alzheimer's home as "models" for other poems in the series. Along with those that use children's stories, I wrote one that adapted Wallace Stevens's "To an Old Philosopher in Rome" into a poem about Alzheimer's care, another about the World Cup, as if it were taking place in the common area of my mother's home. I also took the liberty to transcribe Ronald Reagan's later memory of his famous Challenger disaster speech--from the point at which Alzheimer's had undone him. Finally, I adapted one of those heart-wrenching lists of "waiting children," which an adoption agency sends us nearly each month, into a poem about Alzheimer's patients. On re-reading it, I'm not sure what it is they're waiting for, but perhaps that is part of the problem. Perhaps that is the problem.

In any case, I hope you'll make the free download. If you prefer books that you pay for, consider investing in a Tinfish book or in Dementia Blog, the book.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Slouching Toward English 100A To Be Reborn

I haven't taught English 100 in several moons now, and wanted to revamp it. While it's down as "composition," I think of it as a course in thinking. That's why I usually enjoy teaching it, along with the fact that it includes material not usually found in my classes, like current events. This time around I have an honors section and have decided to focus us like a laser on issues of place. Putting the course together is tricky, because there are different kinds of content: there's the content provided by readings about place (this time I'll include several creative pieces, along with some essays), and there's also the writing I ask the students to do. Sometimes I feel like a sports coach who's trying to teach players to do the weave even as they're conceptualizing what they're doing on the field or court.

(The sudden decrease in font size is not a formal choice here, but something over which I seem to have no control at the moment.)

I want to start fairly small, with sentences. Of course sentences are not small matters at all. They're the building blocks to everything the writer does. If you can't do somersaults, you can't do gymnastics. If you can't write a sentence, the essay, the story, the poem, the non-fiction, will not follow.(And if you have Alzheimer's, you might have sentences in isolation from other sentences, or sentences in which words and phrases are confused.) So I'm trying to figure out how to get students to conceptualize The Sentence through a process of writing a lot of them. The subject, as it must be, is place. So here's assignment one!

Assignment #1: Sentences

Thought problem: What is the purpose of a sentence? What does a sentence do? How does it do it? To what purpose do we employ commas, semi-colons, periods?

Take four or five photographs of the place you live. It can be your house, the street outside your house, shops nearby, anything that is not touristy. I will not ask to see these photographs, at least not yet. Instead, I want you to write off of the photos. Think of a painter who works off photos instead of models or scenes.

Look at the photographs you took and write about them in sentences. You must write at least 12 sentences (total) about these photographs. These sentences may include the first person pronoun, namely the "I." Among your sentences you need to have most of the following; you can do more than one thing at a time. After each sentence, write briefly about what it does. Have some fun with this; you'll find that you can do a lot with sentences!

--A short tactile sentence (using the senses).
--A sentence that sounds spoken.
--A sentence that sounds like it might have been in the newspaper.
--A long, loopy sentence.
--A sentence in which you use cause and effect (because this happened, that happened).
--A descriptive sentence.
–An analytical sentence (one in which you think about why something happened).
--A dramatic sentence.
--A wimpy sentence.
--A sentence about one of your sentences.
--A sentence that pushes your reader away.
--A sentence that invites your reader in.

The step after will be paragraphs. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

When does life end? A multiple choice test.

I've had a series of conversations lately about my mother and other residents of her Alzheimer's home. Politics and dysfunction are not the sole province of English departments, soccer clubs, or the U.S. Senate. Her home, too, is going through a period of turmoil, which I sensed when I last visited in late May. So "Corporate" (as everyone calls it, which means ManorCare, which means Carlyle) has stepped in, replaced the Director of her home, and we hope for the best.

We hope for the best. In my mother's case, I no longer know what the best is. As my conversation with her current social worker ended this morning, she told me, almost as afterthought, that an orthopedic surgeon reported that she has several breaks in her elbow, but is not a candidate for surgery. That they should watch for symptoms of pain. That she is not exhibiting them now. (Not in pain from a severely and multiply fractured elbow?)

So I told the social worker about the problems I'd noticed--too few staff to cover dinnertime and sundowning chaos at the same time; overheard complaints about management, and so on. But I added that, while my mother had had a couple of years in which a flower could bring her joy ten times in five minutes, she does not seem to feel that now. That I hope for release. It felt odd, even dangerous, to say that.

Later in the day I found Atul Gawande's essay in The New Yorker via Daily Kos. It's titled, "Letting Go: What should medicine do when it can't save your life?" He writes about how hard it is for him--a surgeon--to know what the term "dying" means, since medical interventions keep people alive so long past the point they would have died a century ago. Some quotations from the piece resonate for me:

For all but our most recent history, dying was typically a brief process. Whether the cause was childhood infection, difficult childbirth, heart attack, or pneumonia, the interval between recognizing that you had a life-threatening ailment and death was often just a matter of days or weeks.


Dying used to be accompanied by a prescribed set of customs. . . Reaffirming one's faith, repenting one's sins, and letting go of one's worldly possessions and desires were crucial, and the guides provided families with prayers and questions for the dying in order to put them in the right frame of mind during their final hours. Last words came to hold a particular place of reverence.

Generally speaking, lastness is akin to firstness in lack of reliability or even interest. But as a formalist measure of dying, last words put an end to a story that can then be told from beginning, middle, end, or some usual crazy patchwork of all three. Hence:

"Is she dying?" one of the sisters [of a terminally ill woman] asked me. I didn't know how to answer the question. I wasn't even sure what the word "dying" meant anymore. In the past few decades, medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die.

Gawanda writes about a woman, a specialist in end of life issues, who went back to her father's sickbed to ask him questions that she herself wanted to avoid. When asked what quality of life meant to him, he responded that he wanted to be able to eat chocolate and watch a football game. When called upon to decide if the next treatment was worth the risk or not (in their case, it was, and it worked), that was all she needed to know. Many cases do not have that ending, which is the lack of an ending--for now.

In 1991, according to the article, medical leaders came up with questions for the very ill. They were:

1. Do you want to be resuscitated if your heart stops?
2. Do you want aggressive treatments such as intubation and mechanical ventilation?

3. Do you want antibiotics?
4. Do you want tube or intravenous feeding if you can't eat on your own?

But even these simple questions elicit complicated answers. My mother gets antibiotics for her occasional pneumonias. She is not dying, she has dementia, the logic goes (I guess). While she has often failed to feed herself, she does not get fed by a tube, but by a caregiver bearing a spoon or fork. Often the "feeding supply," as it's called on the records I receive in the mail, is Ensure, which she drinks through a straw.

Would she want these interventions? Food, medicine, for the body that still ticks, despite her mind's vanishing? I believe not. But what can I do? What can I (effectively) not do?

Are these the questions to ask? Yes, but. Multiple choice can't cover the range of issues medicine permits us to avoid. In a culture saturated in violence and death, we cannot bear it when we most should, if not welcome death, think it inevitable, natural. Yet multiple choice is what we get, time after time. Do you want this or this or this? Not: would you prefer if we lay off, give you palliative care, stop prolonging life in the interest of--what? Here's a form I recently filled out for Corporate about my mother's care. The issues not raised leap from between the circles to be blocked in with black pen. Is it for this we learned to fill in the bubbles with our #2 pencils in elementary school? Click the image to expand it.

I can answer the question about my mother's room; it is clean. I can answer the question about variety in the meals; they are various. I cannot answer the questions about friendships with peers or staff; I cannot answer the questions about spiritual and religious life; I cannot answer the question about staff responsiveness to my mother's concerns. She cannot have them; she cannot voice them. (They now look to physical symptoms of pain rather than to verbal expressions of it--which she made when she first broke her elbow in pieces.) I can't answer them in multiple choice fashion. Nor can I answer them here, where words spool out month after month, year after year, if you include the book I adapted from a previous blog. In good passive voice fashion, they are "simply" not to be answered. Or, in Dr. Seuss's lingo: I cannot answer them, Sue I am.

I am not a Catholic, but I prefer "Father, Son and Holy Ghost" as multiple choice options to those listed on the form above. I'll give up the ghost and take the Father and the Son. And then in words my former student Father Bob says on that significant occasion, "Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up." I'll take the multiple choice that includes a raising up. But where do I find it? I can repeat words from the Chanrezig puja here at home. But what is there for my mother? Ensure does not live up to its name. (Last) words fail us, yet again. I'll keep saying them for her.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Toward a Documentary Poem about Alzheimer's Care & the Carlyle Group

As part of our ongoing efforts to continuously improve upon our level of service and convenience to you and your loved one, we are making changes to our billing timeline and procedures.

Carlyle was ranked in 2007 as the largest private equity firm in the world . . . however, the firm moved down to second largest as of May 2010.

TOLEDO, Ohio, December 21, 2007--Manor Care, Inc. (NYSE:HCR) today announced that global private equity firm The Carlyle Group has completed its $6.3 billion acquisition of Manor Care . . . "We are pleased with this successful outcome, "said Mr. Ormond. "We look forward to working with Carlyle and continuing to provide quality care to our patients and residents."

There are many family members who share our concerns & are eager to work together and do all we can to assure that our family members receive the best care possible. We took the liberty of including your email address in the "Family Council" distribution list. We hope that this hasn't created a problem. Even though you're far away & unable to participate directly, we thought that you would want to be kept abreast of what's going on.

Dunkin Donuts
Water Pik
United Defense Industries (maker of the XM2001 Crusader self-propelled howitzer)
Small Smiles Dental Centers
Synagro Technologies, Inc.
Allison Transmission
Manor Care

On December 18, 2007 David Rubenstein, representing the Carlyle Group, purchased the Magna Carta (one of seventeen copies) at Sotheby's Auction House in New York City. He paid the Perot Foundation $21.3 million.

* (52) To any man whom we have deprived or dispossessed of lands, castles, liberties, or rights, without the lawful judgement of his equals, we will at once restore these. In cases of dispute the matter shall be resolved by the judgement of the twenty-five barons referred to below in the clause for securing the peace (§ 61). In cases, however, where a man was deprived or dispossessed of something without the lawful judgement of his equals by our father King Henry or our brother King Richard, and it remains in our hands or is held by others under our warranty, we shall have respite for the period commonly allowed to Crusaders, unless a lawsuit had been begun, or an enquiry had been made at our order, before we took the Cross as a Crusader. On our return from the Crusade, or if we abandon it, we will at once render justice in full.

Directors of one of the world’s largest armament companies are planning on meeting in Lisbon in three weeks time. The American based Carlyle Group is heavily involved in supplying arms to the Coalition forces fighting in the Iraqi war.

A dementia patient at an Urbana nursing home was raped by another resident in July but wasn't taken to a hospital for more than 24 hours, a state investigation found. (10/2007)

Dave Regan, the union's president, said private equity firms that buy nursing-home chains commonly reduce staffing to increase profits, causing residents to suffer. The New York Times reported last month that residents of nursing homes bought out by large Wall Street investment companies wind up with worse care.

But Ullman, of the Carlyle Group, dismissed the union's "smear and fear campaign" as an attempt to attract employees into the union. SEIU has 1,100 members among the 60,000 employees of HCR Manor Care.

"This is about gaining more dues-paying members for the union. It's not about quality of care," he said.

On my last visit, I noticed that the place was under-staffed and the caregivers were highly stressed. There were a lot of little crises and not enough caregivers to watch over everyone. He noted that the families are worried that their loved ones are not being adequately hydrated, as there are not enough staff to help them eat and drink.


10 are the lifeblood of our business.

C. The rights and responsibilities of residents shall be printed in at least twelve-point type and posted conspicuously in a public place in all assisted living facilities.

"There are the large windows & sunshine."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Teaching Documentary Poetry in Two Hours to Non-Native Speakers

Tomorrow I'm giving a two hour seminar on Documentary Poetry to a group of visiting teachers from Asia (Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore are represented in my group). So the first question is how to engage a group of people who do not readily speak out loud in English. (When they did yesterday, when I attended to get the lay of the land, they indeed had things to say.) The second question is how to present the material, both for listeners who have difficulties with the language and for listeners who do not have an entire semester to read and think about the subject.

Background texts and some of the reading can be found at a website I created for the seminar. A more extensive syllabus for such a course, taught by Prof. Dee Morris at the University of Iowa, can be found here.

Tentative outline:

Ask participants to bring up one historical event that they find meaningful. Ask them to write it down (5 minutes)

--Ways in which certain situations--political, economic, cultural, historical--make documentary poetry necessary.

--The question of what happens to poetry when it includes documents: medical documents, photographs, testimonies, and so on. Examples.

--Ways in which documentary poetry creates a new kind of historical writing. Finally, I want to talk about what might happen to historical writing when it is rendered in poetic form.

Begin from definitions of poetry: write on white board.


Brief examples of what has been done with these forms, especially epic and lyric. "I wandered lonely as"; "How I love thee, let me count"; "You left, and I'm bereft," etc. And "there were some wolves and they made Rome"; "a couple people appeared and ate the wrong fruit and that's why your life sucks now."

Then, turn to what each form of poetry cannot do. Epic and lyric have a single omniscient speaker. The epic speaker knows everything about a nation's origins and development (or a religion's). The lyric speaker knows everything about his or her feeling at a particular moment in time. Periodic omniscience? The epic is about time; the lyric about getting away from time. (God do I love generalizations!)

What happens when you write about an event about which you know very little, about which there are many narratives, many moments in and out of time? What happens when you want to make a statement about the past, but without using polemic? What happens when you are the detective and the historical record is scanty?

Documentary Poetry.

Discuss subjectivity, the province of the traditional poem. Then talk objectivity, the province of a certain kind of 20th century poem. William Carlos Williams, Charles Reznikoff. Ask students to consider the difference between describing the garden out back of the building subjectively or objectively.

Bring out xeroxes of Charles Reznikoff's "Negroes." Brief biographical blurt. Read out loud. Talk about what he leaves out (both out of what you expect in a poem and what he leaves out of the narrative). What are the effects on you? (Note to self: make the xeroxes!)

Muriel Rukeyser's "Book of the Dead," which I asked you to read before today. The Hawk's Nest Incident in W. Virginia in late 1920s and early 1930s. Congressional testimonies in 1936. Read a few lines from the testimony of Philippa Allen, and then read Rukeyser's rendering of it.

[Click to enlarge; note the use of "camera" in the "Gauley Bridge" poem]

Cha's DICTEE: the way she engages poetic form, historical documentation, memoir, letter, and so on. Also her uses of Korean, English, French, to get at the colonial (and educational) contexts of her own life.

So what is it that documentary poetry does?

--It is based on documentation, but it leaves things out.
--It points: references to "there" in Rukeyser.
--Sometimes mediated by photography: the camera as actor in Rukeyser, the camera as witness in CD Wright, Mark Nowak, Kaia Sand
--The tone is dispassionate; the reader's response is intended to be passionate. How does this work?

Different ways to use documents: Lawson Fusao Inada and Kaia Sand use Japanese-American internment notices in Legends from Camp and Remember to Wave, respectively.

[Inada's "Legends from Camp"]

[Sand's "Remember to Wave"]

How Inada's poem lives inside the camp as his family had, and how his document inhabits the poem. By contrast, Sand's poem is about taking a walk, so the walk's stitching covers the document, as do some of her words typed on top of it.

Other uses of documentation:

Maps, as in Craig Santos Perez's from unincorporated territory [hacha]:

Map by Ben V. Guam as Perez's subject: brings together documents about the achiote plant, early Catholicism, his grandparents' stories and cultural instructions, family narratives, and so on. Documentation helps him put together a colonial history (of disjunction, multi-lingualism, and so on) and to make connections between himself (who does not know the language as well as he wants to) and Chamorro culture.

Photography and found language, as in Mark Nowak's "June 19, 1982," from Shut Up Shut Down, about the murder of Vincent Chin:

C.D. Wright's One Big Self based on photographs from prisons in Louisiana:

Questionnaires, as in my Dementia Blog use of an intake questionnaire for an Alzheimer's home, one that I filled out on behalf of (so nearly as) my mother:

Government & medical documents, as in Joseph Harrington's forthcoming memoir of his mother's death and Nixon's resignation, Things Come On: An Amneoir

To the participants: Stop for five minutes and write down a document you would use in composing a poem about the historical event you chose at the beginning of the seminar. Discuss briefly.

How would you want or expect your reader to react to the document you've chosen? How else might you help them, by "pointing" to something significant in the document or in your experience of it?

Also think beyond this seminar of how you might put the information and the poetry on the page; how you might weave back and forth between information and poetry, visual documentation and language.

In summary(!):

What happens to history when it's read through documentary poetry?

--The reader becomes an investigator, historian, witness, interpreter, rather than merely an absorber of a pre-existing narrative;

--History, like the self, is seen as being multifarious, with many voices, many outcomes, many versions;

--Feelings are not imposed upon the reader--though often encouraged upon her!--but engendered in him;

--History is a creative process, just as poetry uses materials that are not considered creative, but informational.

Now to try to get my slides together. I would really like to get the participants cutting and pasting and writing around their found items, but I fear there's not enough time.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

"What is our children learning?" and other late summer notes

On stepping down from his post the other day, our last English department chair sent us a long report. He's a man possessed of an apocalyptic streak in the best of times, but in recent months the times have met him on the level. While he's able happily to tell us that our crumbling building will be renovated next year to the tune of millions of dollars, he also passes on a reminder that we have lost 15 full-time faculty in the department since 2006. (I don't believe that includes the several faculty now on leave because they have left.) We are mostly losing bodies to retirement, and those are the bodies who have taught Literary Studies. Our curriculum now resembles a Soviet-style literary encyclopedia: one is hard-pressed to find the 18th Century or 19th Century Romanticism or even much Modernism to go with your little remaining Shakespeare. Composition and rhetoric has become a revolving door. Creative writing (a very popular concentration, indeed, with one third of the graduate students in it) is down to a skeleton staff. In the last ten years or so we on the poetry side have lost Nell Altizer, Juliana Spahr, and Faye Kicknosway/Morgan Blair. We gained Robert Sullivan for a few years, but lost him. Albert Wendt was here for several years as Citizen's Chair; he and Reina Whaitiri added amazing energies to the writing program, especially for Hawaiian and Pacific Islander poets. They're gone now. Cultural Studies is still relatively healthy, but will soon lack energies given it by students who have read widely and closely in literature.

I could say a lot more about the demoralization that is upon us, but won't for now. Let me just say that UHM, which is quickly becoming Manoa Community College, is not alone in suffering public neglect. The public schools have just started up again. At least this year there will not Furlough Fridays, or two Fridays a month when Hawai`i's budget was somehow salvaged on the backs of parents needing to find day care, if not mental enrichment, for their children. As Mari Matsuda notes in her essay in The Value of Hawai`i: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future, "A true economic stimulus would flood the schools with funds" (99). Then teachers would have money to spend on their days off--and not days off foisted upon them by the state's economic crisis and an intransigeant governor who would not raise any new funds to ease it. Then students would be educated to take jobs beyond those in tourism and the military, sectors that dominate our economy the way Big Sugar and pineapple did in the past.

Last year my daughter Radhika, who is 8, had almost no science in her curriculum, let alone art or music. She had a teacher who was out for months with knee surgery and a substitute who spent almost all those months trying to figure out how to control the class. At least in the elementary school, parents still come around, attend assemblies, go to Lei Day and cheer for their children. My husband, who works part-time at a local high school, says parental involvement tends to end with grade school. The public high school kids are on their own. Some of them are on what he terms the "school to jail" program. Others are being set up for jobs in the service industry, jobs that won't pay the rent here. The best come to UHM, where they can get a good education (but see above).

In his essay on the university, Neal Milner argues that at least part of the solution to the mess is a nitty gritty approach , climbing "down to the local and the personal," as Anthony Grafton writes (106). "Cultural change," Milner writes, "involves small-scale, everyday grunt work--persuading, reassuring, keeping in contact, and resolving conflicts." That last item must gall Milner, who worked in the ombudsman's office until it fell victim to the budget cuts. That was a place where students and faculty went to talk about their workplace conflicts. And so we return to the departmental memo, and see how likely that might be, given this--and other similar--verbiage:

5. It should go without saying that faculty who are assigned to
department committees are also expected to (1) make themselves available
for committee meetings and (2) attend all scheduled meetings. What should
not be acceptable are eliminating whole days in the week from one's
potential availability for meetings, eliminating other hours that can be
rearranged when needed (e.g., office hours), and failing to provide timely
information about availability to committee members. Such situations may
need to be brought to the attention of the chair. Members should also
expect to be doing work outside of regular committee meetings in
preparation for meetings and/or in consultation with other members.

That's a situation--faculty not doing their committee work--that sounds more nitty than gritty. It's one among many that suggests that we cannot be easily "reassured," especially as we see the building getting emptier, even given the promises of renovation and (heaven forfend!) a new elevator. Milner has more to say about the cynicism that infects us in his essay in The Value of Hawai`i, edited by Craig Howes and Jonathan K. Osorio and published by UH Press. I'm not writing this with any answers in mind. Nor do I feel abject despair over the situation, although that feeling beckons like an over-sweet candy. It's awful to see an institution (higher education, if not any particular university) being destroyed by a thousand tiny and larger cuts.

It strikes me that the public university is quickly becoming a bit like a small poetry press, requiring an entirely local (in all the senses of that word) fullness of care. If we are not given adequate technology, let's bring our scissors, our glue, and our wildness to class with us, and hope that the lights are still on.


Another--happier--note. This summer has brought several poets to O`ahu, including Jules Boykoff, Hank Lazer, and Endi Bogue Hartigan, with whom I had coffee just this morning. Craig Santos Perez has taken the radical step of actually moving here. Jules and Kaia Sand will be coming in October for readings and talks. Some subjects of conversation:

--Hank: we talked about loving poetry that you can't remember as soon as you've read it. What's that! He was thinking of Lissa Wolsak's new collected, which he is reviewing and I have written a sequence of poems off of (with, around, over, under, about). A long conversation on forgetting ensued--rather on the difference between forgetting and recognizing that there is a residue to one's reading. How that residue affects us, or re-emerges in our own work, is something worthy of more thinking.

--Jules: oh, Jules mostly taught my daughter new soccer tricks. But we talked a mean streak about politics & poetry. His description of a project on leaf-blowers found its way into a line in a poem I was writing about their being our Aeolian harps. I write as one churns away in the field out back.

--Endi and I talked (but not long enough!) about the influence of Hawai`i on work that is not, strictly speaking, about it. I'm looking forward to reading her poems with an eye to the influence of her growing up here. Again, not an "about" per se, but a series of riffs. She has a new poem about prepositions, apropos.

--Craig will be guest editing a couple of projects for Tinfish next year. I'm going to put the press on sabbatical with me, and try to resist the urge to return immediately to the field of publication. The process is exhilarating, but wearing. And wearing out was how I felt before the summer's calm (before the leaf blowers).

And now they're off, for now, and the mynas are on again.
Having edited this, the mynas are off, and leaf-blowers are dopplering again.

Later: Al Filreis has written a kind blog post about Dementia Blog. "
To witness is to adjust. The illness becomes the medium." I wish I could say it half so well as that.