Unmade boundaries of acts and poems

I had a long bout of wakefulness last night, but W&L cancels classes on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so I slept until the cold January sun had actually risen, hallelujah. Over my first pot of tea, I picked up a section of Sunday’s paper, and found this article about the amazing playwright, memoirist, and poet Adrienne Kennedy, who in her eighties is still producing strong work. The opening made me laugh out loud:

“The playwright Adrienne Kennedy never wanted to move to Virginia… ‘Unfortunately, I’ve been here six years,’ she said of her new city [Williamsburg]. ‘I hate it.'”

The article also mentioned a new poem of hers that I’d missed–check out “Forget” in The Harvard Review. Major Jackson, I will forgive you for continuing to reject my poems as long as you’re putting Adrienne Kennedy out there once in a while. In “Forget,” she writes of her white grandfather, “like the South itself, he was an unfathomable.” Yes.

I never wanted to move south, either. Lexington makes Williamsburg look urban and hip by comparison. I often feel disconnected from literary conversations that would nourish me; attitudes here towards the Civil War and U.S. history can be both offensive and deeply surreal. But I don’t hate it here. There’s good work to do. My surroundings have beauty. It’s intellectually and artistically useful to be in constant talk with people who don’t share my pieties. And what Kennedy says about getting a lot of writing done  “because there’s nothing to do in Virginia”–well, I laughed with recognition there, too.

And then I bundled up and marched in our local parade, which was peaceful and joyous. And now I’m back to my desk, prepping for classes. My senior seminar on “Documentary Poetics” just finished working through Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” which I’d never taught before, but which I will definitely teach again. The title of this post is from the title poem of that series, which you can find here. I’m not entirely sure about the social good poetry does, even poetry of history and witness–compared to more direct kinds of activism, I mean–but I know lines from long ago and far away sustain my courage. I’m endlessly grateful for poetry’s camaraderie.

A few last marching words, from the same Rukeyser poem:

What three things can never be done?
Forget.     Keep silent.     Stand alone.

 

 

Respect in classrooms vs. crap outside them

Guys yelled slurs and catcalls from fraternity porches and dorm windows. At Rutgers in the late 80s, walking to class could be an ordeal, so one of the first things I learned at college was how to disappear behind an armor of apparent indifference. I often arrived at lectures and seminars demoralized, and sometimes what happened in the classroom compounded those feelings. One distinguished politics professor announced to a sea of nodding undergrads that Othello was about how attracted women are to violent men, then mocked me for sticking my hand up to protest (race haunted the dynamic he was evoking, but I didn’t have the words to call him on that). Or there was the French professor who spent the period discussing the bohemian chic of my outfit. Yes, it was a great sweatshirt, thanks, but I would have rather learned about Flaubert. It was painful to feel so looked at all the time, so minutely surveilled.

Yet while my English professors were a mixed bag in their temperaments and talents, not one of them ever reduced me to a stereotype. What mattered, in those Rutgers English classrooms, was the work I did, the quality of what I wrote and said.

I marvel, when I look back, at their dedication. I know now that the politics of teaching in a state system can be hard; the pay’s not great, classes are large, and support is often limited. Yet even when those professors must have felt intensely frustrated, they managed to make me feel respected. For instance, I’m not sure I even knew there was an award for the top English honors thesis until the winner was announced, so I had no expectation of receiving a prize–I just remember thinking, when I heard the winner’s name, that I’d heard his work (on Wordsworth) and found it unimpressive. But then a senior person in the department pulled me aside and said something like, “A number of us argued that you deserved the honor, but there was a faction in the department who wouldn’t let the prize go to a young woman working on Rich and Sexton.” He affirmed that I wasn’t crazy–that the game was rigged, and not in my favor–but also that I was doing good work. People whom I admired valued me, even went out on a limb for me. An instance of nearly-invisible bias was transformed into an affirmation I would carry with me for the rest of my life. Of course, that guy presumably still thinks his win was unrelated to gender, but maybe we’re culturally in a place to discuss that now.

These experiences came back to me at the end of this fall term, when I was asked to take part in a faculty development panel called “Tough Talk in Troubled Times,” convened by my wonderful colleague, the history professor Sarah Horowitz. The topic: what hard conversations are we facing in classrooms right now, and how do we handle them? A primary source of the toughness here in Virginia has been an intense argument about race and memorialization–our university is named partly after Robert E. Lee. But hateful talk from the President about immigrants, and harsh new immigration policies, have major implications for all U.S. educational institutions. Plus Fall 2017 was the #metoo semester, bringing a new honesty about the costs of assault and harassment. It’s a lot to manage in a writing seminar or a poetry course (or in any other context).

The panel was great, focusing on responding to anger and prejudice by asking questions–as another colleague put it, intervening with a calm, “Well, let’s talk about that.” Sometimes you have to name bias and tackle it head on, but you stand more chance of opening minds when everyone has room to do their own clear, hard thinking. As usual, questions are the answer. I felt like an impostor on that panel, giving advice about managing volatile class discussions, because I’ve made a ton of mistakes. I realized in preparing, however, that I do have a governing ethic, and it stems from my undergraduate experience at a busy state campus, so different from the pretty lawns and freshly-painted columns of Washington and Lee.

I never expected my professors to fix everything wrong with my university, because it was the same stuff that was wrong with the culture at large. In any public place, it just wasn’t safe to be a woman. Daylight hostility became, after dark, groping and rape. When I was assaulted, it never even occurred to me that I could or should report it–the lesson I learned was to protect myself with more vigilance.

But I was angry when the classrooms I entered failed to be zones of respect. It was fine to be criticized if I hadn’t done the reading well or my arguments were shoddy, but I shouldn’t be praised for cuteness or shamed for having strong opinions. My serious-minded Rutgers English professors encouraged mutual respect as well as respect for the literature under discussion. I still bring that egalitarian idealism to the classrooms I supervise, although I’ll never fully solve the questions of what fairness means and how to foster it.

Since I started in the 90s, I’ve seen enormous cultural shifts in what students feel entitled to say in W&L classrooms. Twenty years ago, I sometimes had to stop class to explain that homophobic slurs were not acceptable; this fall, when I assigned digital storytelling in first-year composition, one student chose to focus on the first time she kissed a woman. We workshopped the story as we did all the others, and while I was moved nearly to tears by witnessing that grand new normal, I kept my emotions to myself, mostly. Some things really have changed.

Of course, some haven’t. I know of repulsive behaviors that occurred on my pretty campus this fall, although they’re not my stories to tell. And while these days, I don’t hear brutal young men sneering from porches, that’s just because surveillance has gone virtual. I assume that some of my students–maybe even the ones who look like they have it all together–are coming to the room raw from verbal and physical assault, and direly in need of literary discussion as a sanctuary. I don’t mean that our discussions are apolitical; they can’t be when you’re teaching Yeats and Ginsberg, Hughes and Clifton and Carson. But our conversations are respectful of the work, and of human beings within and beyond the room.

I don’t have any particular resolutions for 2018 except to keep giving others careful, serious attention. Maybe if more classrooms could be zones of respect and compassion, disrespect outside of the classroom would become harder to sustain.

Yeah, I know that’s small-scale and slow, but it’s what I’ve got, and at least it honors the gifts I received thirty years ago. Happy New Year, stay warm, and I’ll be back in 2018 with more about reading, writing, and teaching poetry (plus a New Year’s Day piece on Poetry Daily!).

xmas 1988
Christmas sweaters, 1988

 

Imaginary journals with real poems in them

journals-all

If you’re not enjoying what you’re grading, maybe the problem lies in the assignment. I think I’m right in attributing this provocation to Paul Hanstedt, either during a faculty development talk he gave here or on a long-ago Facebook post, but at any rate, it was electrifying, and resulted in real changes in my course design. I still teach writing genres that any English professor would recognize: close-reading, motif-tracing, proposal, annotated bibliography, research essay, response paper, etc. Those genres are part of what my students need to learn and practice to succeed in their coursework, and, in some cases, their graduate school applications.

But underlying those genres are much more important skills people need for the rest of their lives: how to analyze nuances of language in a poem, a piece of legislation, or a comedian’s unconvincing apology; how to make evidence-based arguments in Philosophy papers, op-eds, or grant proposals; how to explore unfamiliar intellectual terrain through research, then cite reliable sources when mapping it. Another set of goals that may be more idiosyncratic to poet-scholars like me: I want my students to think hard about what they like in literature, versus accepting what they’re told is admirable. I certainly have my own tastes to advocate for in the classroom and elsewhere, but in an ongoing way, we all ought to accept challenges to our literary prejudices and keep trying to articulate what’s great about books we love. This is what passionate readers do, and I want my former students to remain passionate readers, no matter their day jobs.

So with all this in mind, I set up three writing assignments for my seminar this term on British and Irish Poetry since 1900 (not including response papers and a scansion or two). The October essay, on modernism, was of a conventional variety, requiring close-reading of poetry in service of a literary argument. The December essay, on twenty-first-century poetry, will be a review of a single contemporary collection–another important academic genre, but requiring evaluative as well as analytic moves.

The November assignment was the weird one, cooked up in part by W&L Associate University Librarian Jeff Barry, who has been working on a variety of Special Collections materials related to Shenandoah at mid-century, including correspondence with Ezra Pound from one of the magazine’s earliest editors, Tom Carter. In between seminar meetings on Auden, Larkin, Thomas, Smith, Heaney, Bennett, and other wonderful poets, we brought the students in to examine an array of rare old mid-century magazines. They also read old issues of Shenandoah, not yet digitized but in the stacks.

Then they had to cook up a mid-century literary journal of their own–perhaps with a transatlantic reach, but based in England, Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. They produced eight folio pages of their imaginary magazine, including title, mission, masthead, table of contents, and the first few pages of poetry. Finally, a reflective essay about the process was required, including bibliographical information on at least three journals they had studied for inspiration. Most of them read other materials, too, to learn about corners of the literary scene and locate poets from beyond the syllabus.

I’m convinced, as I read the products, that my students did illuminating research and learned a few things about periodicals, mid-century British history and culture, and even about fonts. They collected work from writers whom they and I had never read before. They also remedied my syllabus, finding materials of pressing interest to each of them that I had not included: more women writers, more poets of the African diaspora, more verse about war and cities and animals and the Welsh landscape.

I have to say, they’re really fun to grade.

Onto reading applications for the Shenandoah editorship, thinking about a real magazine’s possible new directions, which, though time-consuming, is fun, too. I also hope to post in coming weeks about some digital storytelling students are doing in my other class. Meanwhile, here‘s a guest blog from me that StoryCenter just posted, about how and why I took a workshop in digital storytelling last summer. I’ve got a hankering to try making another videopoem, but first: cranberry sauce.

Videopoems and problems of choice

IMG_0142If you’d asked me in early August whether I could carve out three full days at the end of the month for a digital storytelling workshop, I probably would have responded profanely. Too many other projects! But I had signed up months before–that was choice number one. I was committed.

Choice number two, what kind of text to bring to the workshop, was part of my decision to enroll. I’ve been keeping an eye on the very cool art form of the videopoem–Moving Poems is a good place to learn about it–and I wanted to experiment. So I knew I’d select a poem, and it made sense to pick one from the chapbook Propagation coming out this fall. Since this chapbook is a narrative in fragments, the first piece, “Absentation,” was a no-brainer for the script.

Babayaga_lubokChoice number three was really a months-long suite of choices, sometimes panic-inducing. What images and sounds should I be collecting towards this project? “Absentation” features a woman standing at the edge of a wood on an early spring morning, in crisis, about to go for a hike and think through her options. I figured it wouldn’t do any harm to stockpile literal images I might not use, so last April, I photographed and recorded woods scenes. Imagining other kinds of source material was harder. Propagation was inspired in part by Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, so I searched for public-domain Russian woodcuts and fairy-tale illustrations, as well as books from the library on folklore and wildflowers. I even organized a backpack resembling the one my main character is later revealed to be carrying, in case I wanted to film myself packing or unpacking it. I put books in it, snacks, and random items, like a single high-heeled shoe (why?). As “Absentation” hints and later sections of Propagation make clear, my protagonist thinks she might be pregnant and is carrying an EPT into the forest. Should I buy one for my hypothetical backpack shoot? If so, what if I bump into a colleague or friend in the store? On the Tuesday night before the workshop began, I wondered whether I could talk my husband or daughter into buying a pregnancy test for me. Didn’t seem likely.

It’s especially hard to make these choices the first time you try a form, because you just don’t know how the medium works. I did end up taking woods-edge video at dawn on Thursday morning, just before the second day of the workshop, although I only used five seconds of the twenty minutes I shot. The backpack stuffed with weirdness remains untouched in my dining room. I didn’t use any of the books or Russian pictures, except for photographing the relevant page from Propp and superimposing it over other images. I was going for a sense of old fairy tale structures hovering over the character’s adventures, but the poet Carol Dorf posted on Facebook that the superimposition suggested entering a forest of words. That’s cool.IMG_0163

The funny thing about how the video came together: I ended up selecting images from the pool available to me quickly, almost intuitively, sketching the sequence fast. I was actively avoiding simple illustration, on the principle that visual and verbal images shouldn’t be redundant. But mostly my process was like the process of drafting poems, in that you’re following associations, unsure where they’ll lead. Oh, I realized, those bloodroot flowers against the mulch look starry–let’s try them against the “ruminating stars” line. Later I went back and adjusted color and contrast to heighten the resemblance, and in fact adjusted colors all the way through my piece, so that the video moves from dark, cool tones to warmer ones. But the basic visual structure preceded conscious deliberation. I think I was trying to evoke an introspective mood–that very alive, slow-motion feeling one has during a crisis–but really, I’m rationalizing after the fact. I felt my way through it.

Making my first videopoem involved other decisions I didn’t know enough to anticipate. Crosscut, blurry dissolve, or fade to black? How should I manage ambient noise in relation to voice? What kind of music, among pieces one can use without royalties, would work best over the closing credits? What should titles and credits look like? I practiced reading the poem but in retrospect, I think I could have done better with certain intonations. I didn’t fully understand how hard it is to alter the audio once you have everything else in place, the beats and durations lined up.

It would be interesting to do this again with a very different kind of piece, perhaps even writing towards assembled visuals instead of the other way around. I fell back here on my basic taste in art: I’m attracted to a certain balance of lucidity and mystery, concreteness and abstraction, that I suspect this video reflects. But there are so many other approaches I could try! I’d also like time to digest this manifesto on videopoems by Tom Konyves, which I discovered after my venture. I feel perched on the edge of a world of possibilities.

But fall term is basically here, so my next venture is teaching digital storytelling (with help on the technical aspects!–an expert will teach iMovie and help us troubleshoot). My first-year composition course is on “Other Worlds” and in November and December, students will create videos on the theme of borders and boundary crossing. I don’t know if I’ll have time to make another video alongside them, but I hope so. My warm thanks go out to the Digital Humanities and IT staff at W&L and to our talented visitors from Story Center–without them, I wouldn’t even have set out on the path.

My video is also on Vimeo in case that’s easier: https://vimeo.com/231143331.

Oceanicartography

No, that’s not a real word. But last week, certain currents in my thinking converged, all having to do with maps and oceans. On Saturday, we dropped our daughter off at the Charlottesville train station then headed over to Chroma Projects to see a show by an old friend and collaborator, Carolyn Capps, called “Deep Sea Calculations”:

These pieces owe a lot to old-fashioned illustrated maps, but in a way they chart the mind, too–they’re process drawings, in which one image inspires the next in visual/verbal association. I was at the same time preparing to teach Ocean Vuong’s 2016 debut collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, a collection I find attractive but sometimes opaque. The book, reflecting on Vuong’s immigration from Vietnam to the U.S. and a family history of domestic assault, is full of thresholds crossed in violence. In sex, too. He registers a New York School influence through all those curly ampersands and via talky, sexy meditations like “Notebook Fragments,” but Vuong also deploys persona poems, footnoted blank spaces, punctuation experiments, perhaps the shortest “About the Author” page ever–in short, a host of strategies that occlude the poet’s presence.

During our first class session, we focused on the almost-title-track, “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds,” a poem I found intensely mysterious until I happened upon his published note about it (press “more” at the poets.org link). It helps to know that this poem’s perspective follows the trajectory of a bullet, even though the missile’s path transgresses the law of physics, crossing decades as well as geography. It’s a beautiful and disturbing piece, but my class couldn’t make much sense of the ending. How can the “I” lower himself “between the sights” of the gun? Vuong is identifying with both shooter and target for reasons the rest of the book makes clear, yet none of us could see the final image of the “self-portrait.” I confess I was hoping the hunters in the room could explain something about rifles I was missing, but they shook their heads. Usually when I bring a problem to a roomful of smart English majors, we figure it out together, but none of our readings were satisfying to me–except the general one suggested by the phrase “exit wounds,” that this book is a chronicle of absence and damage.

Sometimes you reread a book of poems and it all comes clear; other times it turns to mist in your hands. So for the second session, I deployed a teaching strategy chronicled here: asking students to produce a one-page visual representation of the volume. What else, I wondered, were my students seeing and not seeing, as they charted paths through all the lovely words?

One student, Bailey Brilley, reinvented the cover. The images brilleyhe photoshopped together include an aerial photo of a Vietnam bomb field, a propaganda poster by a Cuban artist, a Pulitzer-prize winning photo of a Vietnamese man’s execution (the arm and gun), and WWII-era beach towel ads depicting troops in the South Pacific.

Dana Gary made a Magritte-influenced wordless broadside for a single surreal pov danaoem, “Queen Under the Hill.” Thomas Ferguson tracked references to hands and aligned them to illuminate their associations with intimacy and violence.

ov thomas

Charlotte Doran found images and articles about the war and the fall of Saigon, streaming “White Christmas” across them as Vuong does, verbally, in “Aubade with Burning City.” Rosy-fingered dawn, and all. These visual and emotional engagements with the poems seem an especially apt way to handle poems that resist rational schema.
ov charlotte

And tomorrow, we all talk to Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street before their public reading–mappers of the ecopoetry’s territory, plus Ann is the author of one of my favorite long poems, Carta Marina, inspired by a phantasmagoric old woodcut-printed map that puts me in mind of Carolyn’s drawings again. And so we sail to the edge of winter term, to tell stories about where we’ve been.