Monday, November 22, 2010

"She had a dog in the past": Mother news, November 21, 2010

[What follows is today's message from a social worker who visits my mother. An earlier message from this month can be found here.]


Martha was sitting in the living room not doing anything. I came today with a stuffed dog which was quite cuddly. When I offered it to Martha she immediately took it out of my hands and wrapped her arms around it. When I asked her if she had a name she said she did but unfortunately said it so low I couldn't hear it. I stayed for awhile and pet the dog with her. She told me that she had a dog in the past. I hope this gives her some joy.

Martha's weight is stable and she continues to carry on the same.


Yes, she had a dog to whom she had given many names. I wish I could remember them all, and recite them to you with the same delight she once chanted them to me. The sequence of names included a creek in western Pennsylvania (or was it eastern Ohio? as she lived there, too), and ended with "O'Mallary O'Keefe." The portrait of two dogs above is signed with her maiden name, M. Keefe, '38, which would have been the year before she graduated from college. In the dogs' eyes you can see something of her wit.

Just now I googled "creeks in Meadville, Pennsylvania" and then "creeks in "Canton, Ohio," and found nothing so multisyllabic that it could be one of the names she had given to her dog. John Emil Vincent, who studies library science, tells me our very culture has Alzheimer's; no digitized materials last longer than five years, he assures me. Then you have to pour in more money to copy the information, the articles, the books, the archives, into another format. Has google already forgotten the name of the creek, as I have forgotten the dog's name?

I do remember that my mother's mother had her dog put to sleep while my mother was away. The deed was unforgivable. I do not know that it was the same dog, a collie.


[An hour later] I found the creek, by googling "creeks near Meadville." It's the Cussawago. Here's a picture of it in the snow in 1957, the year before I was born.

This image
is from the California Museum of Photography. There's place, and then there's the archived place.

So it was, perhaps, Cussawago O'Mallory O'Keefe, except there was yet another name, a first name. I will have to rely on my own memory to retrieve that one.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

What we teach when we teach creative writing

Let me share a creative writing success story with you.

I was teaching 273: Creative Writing & Literature, an introductory class where students read analytically and write creatively. We were reading Craig Santos Perez's from unincorporated territory, a book that isn't an easy read at any level. I was having them work in groups with their laptops to look up terms and references, and we were blogging with Craig. Students would ask questions, and he would pop up with answers. Craig is not a pompous guy. When I asked the students what they'd taken away from their exchange with Craig, they responded: "he's like us!" Not what I expected, but a wonderful perception. The poet does not hearken from a different life form; he is one of us.

I've chosen this story, not one about a student's wonderful poem (I get those, too), because many of the successes in my creative writing classrooms--especially on the introductory levels--have less to do with finished products than with perception, what one of my facebook correspondents calls ATTENTION. (My question about what we teach when we teach creative writing elicited a wonderful comment stream on facebook; I'd like to thank everyone who wrote a comment on my wall.) My Foundations of Creative Writing class this past week thought about issues of pedagogy. They were split between those who liked their reading for the week, the experiment-based approach of Hazel Smith's The Writing Experiment. These students took exception to her claim that everyone can be taught to write. One student thought her approach "soulless," and wanted a course that included a basis for compassion.

I began teaching creative writing in the mid-1990s. I was hired as an academic to teach "20th Century Poetry in English," and moved into creative writing several years later. At the outset, I too was worried that creative writing could not be taught, or that the less-than-wonderful-writing I was bound to harvest would somehow influence my own, according to some odd contagious lack of magic. But I've come to love teaching the subject (insofar as it is one), but perhaps not for the reasons I would have expected.

And why have expectations? The terms we use in talking about writing are so ambiguous (even in their earnestness) that they are as hard to hold onto as a greased pig on a pole. Even the seeming certitude of a word like "craft" slips out of its holster as soon as you start looking at poems whose content is cliche. Words like "emotion" and "heart" and "expression" seem to make sense until you use them in a sentence in class to a group of 18-22 years olds, or even to the occasional senior citizens who grace the classroom. The problems are manifold. Here's a list of a few of the problems I (as everywoman CW Pedagogue) have faced:

--Students have not read much literature, poetry, fiction, or drama.

--Students have a notion that creative writing equals "freedom of expression."

--Students themselves believe they are not writers and cannot be taught to be writers.

--Students think that writing is about a very limited set of subjects. In poetry these might be feelings--love, depression--or family or vague ideas.

--Students think in blocks of words, phrases rather than in images, details, particulars, sounds, syllables.

--On the upper level, student assumptions are stronger, harder to contest; there's a lot of resistance. Such resistance can be good or it can simply get in the way of playing around.

--Students have forgotten how to play.

That last item is crucial. As any creative writing teacher knows, students are scared. And why not be? The semester is only so long, and risks often lead to worse grades than do tame attempts to fulfill the assignment and move on to another. For me to say "take risks!" is also to suggest the possibility of jumping off the cliff of assessment, which is also a necessary mystery to creative writing students. "How will you grade our work?" is one of the FAQs.

So if I think through how I present creative writing (at almost every level, but in different ways), I try to do the following:

--Break the ice. Start from an exquisite corpse and keep playing. Have students make collages, get on the floor with scissors and glue, do Bernadette Mayer exercises several times a week, limber up. Make sure the class is loose, laughs a lot. Set that model of compassionate action, if not by approving of everything you read. Challenge students to address their favorite subjects in new ways.

--Begin with the material, which is language. Content is very important in creative writing, but don't start there. Writing block lurks around every corner, or its false antidote, the cliche.

--Move into content by using themes. I've taught several courses in Poetry & the City or Poetry & Place, which channel students into working on subjects they think they know but do not. Having them write about their neighborhoods tends to prove to them that they are not paying close enough attention to what is in front of them at all times.

--Have them read books. Not poems, but books of poems. Or novels. Or memoirs. Something whole, not chopped up. A book that shows writers as perceivers with stamina. Have them write about the reading (on a blog, say) and talk about it at length. Break them into groups and have them "teach" the reading. Insist that they google words they don't know. (I have been putting off a student the past couple of weeks who asks me over and again what the term "eminent domain" means. Every time she asks, I tell her to look it up.)

--Have them talk to authors, however they can, either on Skype or on a blog or in person. Direct contact makes it clear to students that writers are people. It's sometimes hard for them to realize this, when they've been told how great Shakespeare and Milton were. Those guys are dead, and besides, dey wen nevah talk da kine.

--Have them write about familiar subjects in vocabularies not usually associated with them. OK, write a love poem, I might say, but use the vocabulary of a social science class or physics or car mechanics. Write a poem about feeling badly, but never tell us that's how you feel except through the language of the Hawai`i Tourist Bureau. Ah, how cliches can be turned on end and used to good effect! Have them write in other languages they know, are learning, or have partially forgotten.

--Have them walk around the halls of the classroom building, or around their neighborhoods, finding language on the walls and then return to the class to write with these found words. Have them go to a pond on campus and take notes. Tell them to go sit in a public area and eavesdrop. Make sure they realize that all language is up for grabs, not just narrow bands of it that include flowers and clouds.

--Make sure you explain that writing can be offensive, but needs to make a claim on the reader that is not merely shock value. This one's tough, but I learned the hard way in a class of young men who all seemed to want to write about rape and violence. Limits are ok; you just need to explain them and then hold fast.

--Be prepared to argue, especially with graduate students, and to meet resistances. You will remember feeling your own resistances. You still have them, but cannot hold them against your students. If a student wants to write out of a very personal point of view, don't shut him or her down, but suggest ways to speak to an audience of more than one. Even if we write "only for ourselves," we want readers and those readers are not ourselves, so we need to touch something in them that is not ours. That place of not being ours is also sacred.

Above all, since not all of your students will continue to write, make sure that they use their semester with you to discover how to look at the world, really attend to it. (An attendance policy is also recommended.) If all you do is have them write a haiku in which they see--actually see--a frog or a turtle or a lily pad or someone's facial expression, and then make a quick shift to abstract statement, one that may be quite amusing, then you have done something. Then he's not like you so much as you are also like him!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Job opening at University of Hawai`i-Manoa

Please send around.

ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH, Poet and/or Novelist, full-time, tenure-track position in Creative Writing starting August 1, 2011 (position number _____ ); position dependent upon funding and availability. Teaching Duties: teach introductory composition and literature courses as well as upper-division and graduate-level courses in Creative Writing, as well as courses in literature; 2-2 teaching load first year and at least one other year during probationary period; 3-2 load in other years. Minimum Qualifications: Ph.D. or M.F.A. in English; with strong publishing record. Desirable Qualifications: creative and teaching interest in any of the following areas: Hawaiian and/or Pacific literary traditions, international literature, non-realist writing, gender and sexuality, mixed genres, translation. Salary: commensurate with experience and background. Send letter of application and CV to Professor Jeffrey Carroll, Chair, English Department, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, 1733 Donaghho Road, Honolulu, HI 96822. The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa is committed to equal opportunity and affirmative action. Closing Date: December 1, 2010. Initial interviews will be conducted at MLA in Los Angeles in January 2011

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mother news

Every month I get a note from a social worker who goes to visit my mother and reports back to me. Most of these notes are fairly undetailed: "I went, she seems much the same, hope this helps," is a typical message. But today's note went as follows; it includes the news (is it?) that "Martha when called by her name will answer, but she can't identify herself as Martha."

Dear Susan:

Martha was in the living room sitting next to 2 people. I gave her a hearty hello and when I said "hello girlfriend" she laughed.

One of the people sitting next to her was Janice, the same name as me. Kidding around, I said "her name is Janice, my name is Janice and what is your name?" Martha answered, Janice. A couple of minutes later I asked her her name and she said she didn't know. (She was serious). I think Martha when called by that name will answer, but she can't identify herself as Martha.

I then touched her nails and said how beautiful they looked. She snapped them away. I forgot that she does not like to be touched in any way. I apologized and repeated how beautiful her nails looked.

The aide said that everything is status quo. Martha occasionally goes to an activity but its less than more. Before I left, Martha said everythings fine.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Re-entry: Gerontology, & an email to State Sen. Hee

Yesterday, sandwiched between conferences with my composition students, I went to Fook Yuen restaurant in McCully (for you bilingual punsters, it's located very nearby the Phuket Thai restaurant) to speak to a group of people who work in gerontology and aging. Aside from the organizer, Michael Cheang, the group was mainly older women who had earned their caregiving spurs (as it were) over decades of personal and professional work. As requested, I talked about my writing about dementia, and read a few pages from Dementia Blog. During the reading, diners at the next table down in the restaurant erupted into a loud conversation about root canals. As ever, I was impressed by the density of stories and images, their humor and pathos:

--One woman had just gone on a cruise and discovered that the cruise company now caters to the elderly. You could get dialysis treatment on the Dutch ship and have it covered by Medicaid.

--Another woman had a story about a man who wanted to die and be buried at sea. So as the time approached, he was booked on an around the world cruise. Everyone at the table had the same question: "and did he die?" Yes, he did, and his body was put to sea in a burlap bag.

--"What do you do with the hoarders?" another woman was asked. After saying she used patience and love, she spoke of a woman who lived on a thirty year pile of stuff, naked, surrounded by the corpses of dead cats. Her first effort to engage with her involved organizing a burial for the dead pets. (Again, I wonder about the connection between Alzheimer's and the work of Samuel Beckett, Gertrude Stein: did they have relatives who suffered the disease?)

--Someone talked about a study done on a woman with dementia who had meditated for many years and was aware of what was happening to her. She made a pact with a friend to help her die when she said it was time. The friend could not follow through. The woman with dementia, aware of what was happening, kept begging to die.

--The woman next to me asked a man on one of his clear days what it was like inside his head. "It's like scrambled eggs," he said. Some days thoughts got through the scramble, other days they did not.

--To the families of the demented, one woman suggested saying, "you're speaking to a disease. This is not your mother or father." To which, after a night's sleep, I would respond: "it is your mother and father, but they've changed." It's not only their body, but also some element of them-ness remains, even at the end. But the point remains that we cannot act toward them as we had toward their previous incarnation, as parents, as care-givers, as independent beings.

I appreciated the opportunity to take my work into the community. Kaia Sand and I talked a bit when she was here about getting our poems out into places where poems don't usually travel. Her walks through Portland are an instance of community work. My conversation with care-givers and gerontologists was also, in a much small way than Kaia's, a moment of community outside the world of poems.

I am always humbled by these stories. My book, based as it is on my mother's experience of Alzheimer's, works over long distances. I have never been my mother's caretaker; I have watched others give care. I have been given the freedom to observe, and retain the hope that observation, too, is of assistance--if not to my mother, then to others going through the experience of watching a loved one deteriorate. But caregiving can be an extended act of heroism, even when (as is probably inevitable) the caregivers responses are not always perfectly patient, absolutely loving.


When Secretariat won the Triple Crown, Time magazine put him on the cover. I vividly remember a Letter to the Editor the next week. "Thank goodness you're showing us the front end of a horse for once, not the back end." It was during Watergate, or so my gauzy memory tells me.

Many people associate politics and politicians with horse shit. Little did I realize, as I waved signs for Neil Abercrombie this past Tuesday, that the metaphor would become so literal, so in my face, so smelly. As a few of us were waving our signs and chatting, who should come up the rise but State Senator Clayton Hee on a white horse. As he dismounted, we could see that he wore boots, that his spurs were shining in the hot light of afternoon. He and his horse stood on the street in front of us for a time, and the children approached to pet the horse. Well, the horse (Jessica) pooped. Right in front of us. Hee and his horse disappeared, but the poop remained. So I have written the following email to Mr. Hee. (There's nothing political about this; he and I are both Democrats.)

Aloha Clayton--I was waving signs near Ahuimanu School when you appeared on a white horse. Certainly not what I expected from a day of standing around. But I just wanted to suggest that the next time your horse shits in front of a group of sign wavers, that you pick it up. We stood there for the rest of the day staring at it and smelling it. Of course we could have probably picked it up, too, but it was your horse.

thanks, Susan 

[I received a reponse from State Sen. Hee, as follows:

Hi Susan:

Thanks for your email regarding last week Tuesday afternoon. I actually came by later in the day for the purpose of picking up for the horse. While I wish I could have come back sooner the ride home by horse takes place in its own time. Along the way, several youngsters happily took turns doing what they don't have the opportunity to do - ride a horse.

I apologize to you that I could not come back sooner. I also apologize to you personally that you had to endure the smell of horse manure or "shit" as you call it. Nonetheless, your suggestion is one that I support.

Thanks again for your thoughtful email.

clayton hee]