Auld Lang Syne

Friday, August 24, 2012

Tricks of the Trade, or just "tricks"

We writers have our favorite strategies, our conventions, our "tricks of the trade" so to speak. For some of us it is a particular way we begin or end our writing. For others, it may be a favorite phrase or word. For still others, it is syntactical techniques that make our writing "ours" and unique.

Out of these strategies was born, at some point, the "five paragraph essay." It was certainly a hallmark for organizations like Toastmasters, who used the format to give its members a safe way to approach a speech. It goes like this: tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell it to them, then tell them what you told them that you said you'd tell them. Ah, my eyes glaze over.

This particular "strategy" gets tricky when it filters down into and pervades school systems.  The typical student-written five paragraph essay follows a toastmasters-style format, the result of which creates an atmosphere in which  students write this way all the way through from 6th grade into high school, mistakenly thinking this is how everyone writes who writes. Gone is the creative impulse, the subtle shifts in approach that make reading so pleasurable. Teachers of English/Language Arts are frustrated (the good ones I mean to say) with the lack of creativity this "formulaic" kind of writing fosters. Many of them, and many school systems are pushing back hard against this mind-numbing writing.

Writing, simply put, would not matter without readers. So many students, and perhaps their parents, have come to see writing as a means to an end: students have to do it (write, learn how to write) to meet a standard or get a grade or get a job. This mistaken idea about writing is putting the civilized world in a precarious position. We live in a post-modern society that exists almost devoid of nuance and metaphor. We revere pundits and sloganeers. We listen for just the right sound byte to support a given position.

I say that the "tricks" of writing to culture, instead of writing from inside culture, damage that culture. We, as poets, essayist, journalists, etc. need to take the long view, not the efficacious view. We need to model for those who would write. We certainly need to engage at the school level and demand that what is taught is NOT the five paragraph essay, but a playful and creative approach filled with imagery, nuance, curiosity. We need to offer ourselves as models, get into classrooms and support those teachers who want their students thinking for themselves, in and out of the box. We need to shine a light on great writing, ours and others'. What kinds of exemplars are used in the schools of your area? I have been asking [as a school board member] to see the writing standards and exemplars for our district. I finally, after months of asking, got these. I took one look (and I did not have to look far) and saw that the exemplars of writing put forth were AWFUL. When one looks at an "essay" that has over a dozen misspellings in the first long paragraph, it is AWFUL writing. To say (as this report did) that this writing "met minimum standards" is dangerously worse. Somewhere, somehow, we have set the bar so low that we accept terrible writing as minimum. It is like saying "well the student arrived at school and stayed all day, so we're good because he/she met the minimum standard." Seriously? It is so with writing. We must set the bar high enough to tantalize student writers. We must let them know that creativity, within guidelines and standards, is key. We have a remarkable facility for language and usage. Let's employ these skills toward a new way of teaching writing. Let's give students in all settings, public or private, the tools they need to be their true creative selves. Being creative is not a means to an end, it is the end itself.

Let us not play tricks on our students, in school or in private workshops. We don't need to give "strokes" for any piece of writing we see. If we can be constructive in our criticisms and offer real strategies that live on the page as vibrant and nuanced and unique, we will foster that kind of critical thinking in all areas. Of course this begs the question of how much and what kind of criticism we give. It is fine to praise the effort, but without a way forward through revision and a tool box of strategies used daily by those of us who write now, it is empty praise and not at all helpful. In large part, it has to do with how we FRAME the message. We know the pitfalls in writing. We circle the edges of those daily. But we have developed ways to monitor our own writing, have learned  to enlist the help of our writing peers, and have come up with methods for revision. We ought to share those strategies with those who will stand on our shoulders in the future. It is largely up to us who live with our writing every day to set the example by doing, and by sharing and mentoring. We have passion for writing. Let that infect all who look to us for how it's done.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Seamus Heaney is poet of the day for me today, but he is not alone

I'm up early, although I certainly don't believe in this practice. I have tidied my desk and sharpened a few pencils (highlighter pencils) and all my electronics are charged and ready for today's use. I have now turned on my music and am listening to "Deep Purple" by Nino Temple and April Stevens. All set. (breakfast once my stomach is awake)

In my straightening out of desk, I came upon my copy of Seamus Heaney's Selected Poems, 1966-1987, buried under some papers. I laugh as I recall that I once decided that I ought to always read poems from this volume alongside Richard Wilbur's New and Collected and Anthony Hecht's Collected Earlier Poems. These poets are my holy trinity of poets. I know, I know, where are the women poets? I have female poet heroes too, of course (Elizabeth Bishop, Kay Boyle, ESV Millay, Marianne Moore, et all) but these particular male poets share the aesthetic that has formed, and continues to form me as a poet. Blame it on "the canon" that I was exposed to the poetry of my triumvirate before I got tuned in to the women poets. Nevertheless it is true that when I need a big awakening in what poetry IS, I go to these three and their poems to "revise" me. I see how important it is to be well-read. I see how important diction is to embodiment in a poem. I'll quote here from each of my "guys" to show you what I mean about diction and how careful use of concrete details can make a poem SHINE on the page:

Wilbur (from First Snow in Alsace)

The snow came down last night like moths
Burned on the moon; it fell till dawn,
Covered the town with simple cloths.

Absolute snow lies rumpled on
What shellbursts scattered and deranged,
Entangled railings, crevassed lawn.

Heaney (from Digging)

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun


Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

Hecht (from The Grapes)

I stood beside a table near a window,
Gazing down at a crystal bowl of grapes
In ice-water. They were green grapes, or, rather,
They were a sort of pure, unblemished jade,
Like turbulent ocean water, with misted skins,
Their own pale, smoky sweat, or tiny frost.


And all those little bags of glassiness,
Those clustered planets, leaned their eastern cheeks
Into the sunlight, each one showing a soft
Meridian swelling where the thinning light
Mysteriously tapered into shadow,


And watching I could almost see the light
Edge slowly over their simple surfaces,
And feel the sunlight moving on my skin
Like a warm glacier. And I seemed to know
In my blood the the meaning of sidereal time
And know my little life had somehow crested.

Well, it can hardly get better than this. These lines make me weak in the knees, make me want to write, make me want to give each of these poets a huge hug. [Two of the three are still living, so that's a possibility I suppose.] At any rate, I am determined to keep these three volumes ON my desk in case of a fire. I would certainly grab these if I were told I could only have three books for the rest of my life. Marooned on a desert island? Yep. These three in my rucksack. I never tire of the poems in these books. I learn something new every time I read the poems. EVERY time.

I won't taint YOUR experience of the above lines by analysis of them. But suffice it to say, I want you to digest them in a way that is meaningful and helpful to your own writing or reading of poetry. In my Wilbur study, I may make a comment on Heaney's or Hecht's poems from time to time, placing Wilbur's poems in the company of poems from the other two. They exist for me in a triangle, perfectly supporting one another, balanced, solid.

For today, it is Heaney. I will take notice of how he does what he does in the following [recommended] poems: Bye-Child, Follower, Bone Dreams, From the Frontier of Writing, and The Guttural Muse.  I will read each poem several times, at intervals throughout the day. I find this to be a great way to let the poems IN to my unconscious mind.

NOTE: I also will read Dana Gioia's Nosferatu's Serenade, as I am committing that poem to memory which requires repetition on a daily basis.

It makes me smile to know that I have these poets available to me as teachers, by way of their poems. It is comforting to know that I don't have to travel to find help when I am bogged down in my own work and feeling like I am writing the same poem over and over (am I?) or when my diction seems to fall flat.   I can read Bye-Child  and find permission to write the unspeakable, have the freedom available to me as a poet to take a stand and do it in stunning language and image. I have skills with language, but often fail to give myself permission. Heaney and the others give me not only permission, but also urge me.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dream Job(s)

I am unemployed. Well, I an "unsalaried" at the moment. I work harder than I ever worked when I was employed by someone else. I don't keep regular hours, often working into the dark while the rest of my family sleeps. Sometimes however I need to go photograph the boats in the harbor or meet someone for lunch downtown.  Sometimes I write in front of the TV if the Red Sox are on or the Patriots. I am inspired by sports (more on that at another time). Sometimes I just need to sit on the porch. Mostly I am at the desk daily.

My workplace is my office, a few steps from my bedroom in a nice little victorian house on the coast of Maine. At any given moment, my CFO may come in and ask me what I bought at Amazon, or how much of the Staples receipt is for business and how much is for home. He often reminds me that I ought to consider eating something. I don't have dress-down Fridays at work. I work in my pajamas most days, so to "dress down" would be quite the sight — even for me, my sole employee.

This sounds like a dream job. And it is. But it pays very poorly. In fact, it hardly pays at all. The IRS is on point constantly trying to say this writing business is a "hobby." Stamp collecting, coin collecting: those are hobbies. What I do is WORK. I send out my writing in hopes of publication. I have been fortunate to have many poems accepted and published. I have 4 books under my publishing belt. I am Poet Laureate of my city. Success! you say. Of course. But where is the cash, the scratch, the green, the dough? The truth is that poets are EXPECTED (in the world of publishing) to give away their work, to be happy to have the poem in a reputable journal, to get excited about the one or two contributors' copies that arrive, poem on page such-and-so. Don't get me wrong, it is fine to see one's poem(s) in print. It is great to have the "publishing credits" and get nice comments from other poets when they pick up a copy and see the poems there. But none of us could live on contributors' copies.

What do we do then? We often take teaching jobs. I did this, fresh out of my MFA program. I was hired to teach Freshman and Sophomore Comp at a community college, Victor Valley College to be precise. I did this very well. Although at times mind-numbing, the class provided me with the chance to be fully engaged with students. I loved them and their interesting lives which poured forth into their papers. I fought to get them to be more creative in their writing by inserting as much poetry as possible into our assigned work. I raved about the things poetry can do to make life worth living. I got through to them and many of them became joyful in their writing. I had one class of 12 students who just shone! I loved that class and it was mutual. Still, it was a drag on my own creativity. What time was there to write? I wanted to teach creative writing rather than comp. I went to my department chair and asked to be allowed (yes, ALLOWED) to teach what was my degree: writing, creative writing. She informed me that those classes were "plums" reserved for full-time faculty (I was an adjunct). I asked if it wouldn't be better for the students to be taught by someone 1. with a degree in writing and 2. who actually is a working, published writer. Her response shocked me."It's not about the students." Well, wow. I pointed out to her (in vain) that not ONE of those "plum" faculty members wrote a word, published, or had a degree in creative writing. No problem for her or the college. It was NOT about the students (beyond their tuition and fees). This was the slippery slope to no more typical teaching for me. I quickly lost heart.

Fortunately for me, I am noting if not creative. I realized that 1. I needed more time for my writing, and 2. I could teach privately. I scrabbled together a plan and that is the path I travel these days. I conduct workshops for interested writers who want to know what I have learned and discovered about writing. I am putting my degree to good use. HOWEVER... the pay stinks. If I could do a workshop a week, I might be able to make a decent living. But let's face it... it's workshops twice a year, at best three times a year if I am lucky. In this economy I am grateful for that. And my books sell well enough to make me happy that they are out there for people to read and enjoy. The shining star is the plenty of time to write aspect of my "employment" situation. My dream job? Not quite. But very satisfying on a number of levels. I am not complaining (much). But my dream job IS out there. I know it is. How to make it happen is another matter.

I have had several notions of what a dream job might look like for me. The one that is the quirkiest and which makes my family laugh at me is to be a toll-taker in a toll booth on I-95. It would be so interesting to see all the people who come through, what they are doing as they drive, how they ae dressed — to imagine where they are going or from where they have come. OK, so not going to happen. I live on the coast, AWAY from I-95. Probably would not be too healthy either, breathing in all those fumes. So... what to do and where to go for the dream job that wouldn't end up killing me.

My real dream job is teaching in a low-residency MFA program like the one where I got my MFA, no wait! AT the one where I got my MFA: Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, Vt. Yes, I suppose I'd take a job in another program. I would. But my DREAM job is at VCFA. The facts and the problem: I am certainly qualified. I have a degree in CW, I have 4 published books, I have an intimate knowledge of the program and its workings. I am motivated, there are already on faculty a number of grads. Ha! That may be the problem. Due to accreditation (apparently) there is some kind of limit on how many former grads they can have on staff. Oh and there is some kind of hiring freeze (I've been told). Hmmmmm. Not good for me getting the dream job. But I may have a solution. I hope it is a solution. My proposal is that VCFA hire me as an ADJUNCT. I could be the girl in the dugout, waiting to be put into the game when one of the poetry faculty is absent for a semester on LOA (Leave of Absence). This happens, more than one might think. How they have handled this is to add to the student load of the other faculty members. Why not, instead, have me do it? I think this is a brilliant plan. I am working on this plan. Seriously, I want my dream job. The one without the gas fumes.

Until this becomes a reality (and I am working on it), I will apply to other MFA programs and stay here at my desk in my pajamas writing the best poems I can, sending them out and being grateful for the credits and the contributors' copies.