Saturday, September 8, 2012

Field notes from the teaching life

The students of English 273: Introduction to Literature and Creative Writing: Documentary Writing, were terrified. My course apprentice, doctoral student No`u Revilla, had asked them to break into pairs and push their desks up against each other, so that each student could look at another student face to face. Nervous laughter. Some blushing. Lots of chatter. They were to spend five minutes taking notes on the other student's face, in preparation for writing a portrait of the other student. (We've been reading Eleni Sikelianos's The Book of Jon, which is an extended portrait of the poet's usually absent, heroin-addicted, father.) The five minutes of observation reminded me of the 4 minutes and 33 seconds of John Cage I imposed on a composition class once. The anxiety became palpable in that class when one football player began drumming on his desk and another leaped to his feet to perform a dance for the others. In this class, the silence was only part of the unease; the rest brought together a fear that often blocks us writers from writing with clarity.

The equation goes like this: observation = judgment. We live in a culture where a famous person can proffer judgment even on an empty chair. We go to college and learn to think critically, which too often gets interpreted as "with moral judgment." Our churches leave out the "lest ye be judged" part of the proverb. Perhaps it would have been easier for each student to write a description of an object: rock, paper or scissors, say. I've had classes do that exercise before, and it works well for generating metaphors. What the portrait exercise achieves is the crisis of associating observation with judgment, when the student realizes that he or she is also being observed. What will my partner (who doesn't even know me!) write about me? Has anyone ever looked this closely at me, or I at them? No`u eased their minds retroactively, when she described these portraits as "gifts" from each student to his or her partner. That's a beautiful way to put what I would describe as a lesson in realizing that the world not only calls out for observation, but that such close observation can be done most lovingly--or merely effectively--if we put aside our fears of being judged.  (I know, that's especially difficult when you're 20 years old!)

Our early discussions of Sikelianos's book were fraught with questions of judgment. One student wondered why Sikelianos sometimes portrayed her father in a loving way, and sometimes called him a bastard. Why not one or the other? Perhaps we can bring this conversation around, pointing to the way in which human relationships are inevitably complicated. But even more instructive is the way in which Sikelianos's book is most effective (to my mind) when she is trying to paint a picture of her father apart from her interest in him. Who was he as himself? How utterly impossible is it to create such a portrait, when you are the neglected daughter? And yet, how beautiful the task of trying to give him back his life.

Ed. note: the morning after I wrote this post, I found something about Maria Abramovic's MOMA exhibition/performance (where she sat and invited people to come look at her for as long as they wanted to) on Andrew Sullivan's blog, with a link to an earlier post about people who began to cry as they looked at her. Find that link here. 


In more personal poetry news, the new issue of NAP, an on-line journal, includes my mash-up of The Little Prince and King Lear, which originally appeared on this blog. The last book her social worker read to her was the pop-up version of Saint-Exupery's book. I bought my own copy to "read along" with them. The new issue (#100!) of Bamboo Ridge includes three of my memory cards from the recent Singing Horse Press book. I will be participating in the September 30 BR reading at the UHM Art Auditorium at 3 p.m. There are two other BR readings, as well, at Native Books and at Kumu Kahua Theater.

1 comment:

Carol Peters said...

Thank you for this blog post, Susan. Wonderful. Wish I'd been there.