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Thursday, October 30, 2008

What I Ended Up Doing

I thought about which poems and searched the web waaaaay longer than practically anyone has time for (especially in light of phone banks for getting out the vote, having to bake homemade mac & cheese for a potluck, being behind on grading--way behind--and the house being a mess), but this is what I decided. 

I came up with 3 pairings of poems for a compare/contrast essay they'll write during week 8:

Martin Espada's "Niggerlips" gets paired with Langston's Hughes' "Theme for English B." [What I love about this match up is that Hughes' is so painfully careful to NOT talk about race in a militant or angry way. He is so f-ing subtle it kills you. But Espada gets our attention even before the poem begins with that title.  By pairing these two, Hughes' unspoken (or barely whispered) oppression, his dance around and away from potentially sticky subjects (um, "somewhat more free"??!!)  are suddenly magnified. I want to ask my students: now that you've read Espada's poem, what's missing from the Hughes poem? Is anger maybe missing? Do you think Hughes wasn't teased, and that's why he doesn't mentioned it?]

Sherman Alexie and his "On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City" go head-to-head with Allison Joseph's "On Being Told I Don't Talk Like a Black Person" (Sorry, not on the web. I found it in an anthology titled 250 Poems: A Portable Anthology by Peter Schakel and Jack Ridl. [They're both very angry, in-your-face poems, but it's interesting that both of them attack the enemy in the poem but do not dramatize an actual confrontation with the offending party. Is this b/c direct confrontation is scary for a person of color, or b/c no one of any color likes to directly tell someone off ? What does that say about American culture? Alexie tells us in his poem that he's kind and polite to the woman who's going on and on about Walden Pond b/c he was raised to respect his elders. It's part of his heritage. Is it Joseph's heritage that causes her to throw out an olive branch at the end of her poem ("Let us simply speak / to one another"). Is Alexie going against his culture  when he gets more and more steaming pissed and does not offer solace to ignorant whites who don't know about his people? ]

Finally, Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California" is lovingly paired with the 2nd section of "Song of Myself" (I've prepared the discussion questions on this one, and I am so pleased with how the coupling lends itself to questions about voice, word choice, homage, humor, misplaced loneliness, the asking of questions, and all the shadows in Ginsberg's poem. I always liked "what peaches and what penumbras!" for the sound of it, but now I realize "penumbra" is a brilliant word choice for its meaning. Later when he writes "the trees add shade to shade," he's harkening back to that imperceptible place between a thing and its shadow--him, in the shadow of Whitman, even though he's kinda being humble here--he definitely broke new ground in this poem. I mean, Whitman never complains of having a headache or feeling absurd (correct me if I'm wrong). Anyway, I'm still trying to figure out the shade, shadow, and fog in this poem. If you have ideas, please post them.  

If you want to find any of these poems, they're at  Oh, except for the Joseph and the Alexie. 

Have you ever done a pairing like this in your classes, assuming you teach? Which poems/poets have you paired up? I would love to know. Also, if you've got anything you want to share about any of the above poems or poets, please post --I am new to these (except  for the Hughes and Alexie), so I'm sure I'm missing important stuff. Thanks!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Which Would You Choose?

This Halloween, as it so happens, I'm introducing my composition students to the world of poetry. 

I do this with my students quarter in and quarter out. Last time I taught English 101, I began by showing them a video of Hector Hernandez Cruz reading "Problems With Hurricanes," a poem that ends "beware of flying mangoes / And all such beautiful sweet things." 

I think we also read a Simic poem (the one about being stolen by the gypsies), and I showed a clip of Clifton reading that poem that ends "here lies, here lies. Here. Lies." 

For some reason choosing which poems to begin the poetry unit with is the most daunting task of all. Why is this? Maybe b/c I'm so afraid of turning them off. Maybe b/c it's so hard to decide which handful of poems would best introduce a skeptic to the language of poetry. Maybe it's that I so love so many damn poems I'm incapable of figuring out just which few might turn on a light bulb for someone born when I was--like--thirty years old. 

Okay, so no two students will react the same to whatever I choose. So, odds are if I pick four poems, most of them will like maybe one of them, but the one poem they like will be liked by 25% of them. 

I don't want to play God. I don't want to think too hard about what my criteria are.

Okay, but assuming I'm playing God, I would aim for:

A  poem with lots of musicality;

 A poem with a little muscle, a little weight (not "gotten" on the first try); 

A poem that does it job quietly and gracefully without much show of strength;

A poem that veers away from the mainstream--is experimental;

At least one poem outside of mainstream (white) culture;

A very loud and boisterous poem;

A very quiet poem (I would like to put a loud and quiet one together so they could talk about what makes them so);

A poem very dependent on allusion and or a certain historical fact;

A poem that is not tethered at all to a canon or any historical place and time;

A surrealist poem;

An obscure Emily Dickinson poem;

John Berryman's "The Ball Poem," 

A Sexton, a Plath, a Stafford, a Ginsberg, an Espada, a Berry (as in Wendell)  . . .

And why not Keats? And why not Yeats? And why not a little Shakespeare? That sweet John Clare? 

And they really need to read some Harryette Mullen! And how about Adrian Louis? 

But really, that's what happens. If I let one guy in, I gotta let in the whole damn circus.

So this is what I'm asking: if you had to choose four poems to show a group of non-poetry-people what poetry is (or begin to give them a sense of what's possible, what's been done), which would you choose? 

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hey, Guess What? It's Web 'Zine & Wiggle Wednesday!

And today I'm featuring AGNI online with a poem titled "The Guy Who Passed Me Doing 90 MPH and Playing the Trumpet" by Jay Rogoff. 

It must be that I've got jazz on the brain, but I still think this poem would've called out to me even if I'd been listening solely to country for the sum total of my days. 

But in this case my jazz brain has anything and everything to do with a CD called Jazz for Kids: Sing, Clap, Wiggle and Shake. It's got Ella Fitzgerald singing "Old McDonald"and "The Muffin Man" (both in a very fast and zippy way), Slim Gaillard and His Baker's Dozen doing "Potato Chips" (crunch, crunch, I ain't gonna eat my lunch), and Louis Prima doing a fine rendition of "Yes! We Have No Bananas," among others. 

This is the CD you want to have blaring in your car when you're racing to beat the late bell. Or, even better, when you glance out your window and see a guy driving with one hand, the other belting out a little Kind of Blue on his trumpet. Hit it!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Who Knew?

Sunday morning, 6 am. My son begging for the Nintendo DS-Lite. Me: Nope, I've just declared it a screen-free day.

Word search puzzle on forms of transportation:






Not in my American Heritage Dictionary. Ach, must google it. Break no-screen rule? For knowledge, yes.

In 1926, the year the pop up toaster was invented, the same year Harry Houdini died of a ruptured appendix (which once aided in the digestion of leaves, presumably as we swung through the trees), Henry Ford predicted that we'd all be cruising around in flying cars. 

And the name of his new invention? The Flivver.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The What Ate Your Homework?

Okay, so one of my students came into my office the other day and said you're not going to believe this, I mean, you're gonna think I'm making this up. I go, try me. She goes, well, my brother came back from Hawaii a few months ago and he's been on this mission ever since to go back to the Big Island and buy himself a pot-bellied pig. So, I go, really? And she goes, yeah, and he actually did what he said--he flew back to Hawaii, used up all his savings and bought himself a pig, so now he owns this pig and he lives in our house, so the pig does too,  and the pig just really loves paper, so actually why I'm here is to tell you the pot-bellied pig . . . ate my homework. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lifestyles in Toad (less) Land

Well, two days later and still no toads. I just went into my son's room to make his bed (I've avoided stepping on the rug--can you imagine squishing a toad!?!?), and did some poking around, but (big surprise): it *appears* there's nobody home. 

Just where would a toad go? Behind the bookshelves? Under the bed (I looked)? Okay, just about any-fucking-where. I am coming up empty-handed here, but thanks to all the wonderful comments, I'm feeling less like a mean and un-green mommy. Thaaaaaanks.

Meanwhile, I've been revising a poem I started in Kelli Russell Agodon's lots-of-good-juju Poetry Barn. I just sent it to a far-flung correspondent/friend/critiquer extraordinaire Moira Linehan; her book If No Moon (Crab Orchard Review 2006--selected by Dorianne Laux and reviewed in the Summer 2008 issue of Rattle) just received Poetry Honors, along with Robert Pinsky's Gulf Music,  in the 8th annual Massachusetts Book Awards.

Hey, while I'm plugging friends and such, I might as well let you know that two of my poetry pals, Tom Hunley and Michael Heffernan, and my best poetry teacher, David Wagoner, are all about to have their poems read on The Writer's Alamanac. David's will air October 16, Michael's on October 19, and Tom's on October 25.  Please tune in or have a listen via PodCast. You'll be glad you did. 

Cricket report:  they've completely stopped chirping. Absolute silence. I think this happened last autumn too, though it was less noticeable cuz we didn't have quite so many on the loose. Do you think their breeding time is August/Sept, or perhaps it's their swan song to summer?  

Monday, October 13, 2008

Oh, cripes!

My son came home late last night from a birthday party. One minute he was jumping up and down with glee (a nerf gun in his goody-bag), the next weeping like I haven't heard in years: I left the cage door open; the toads got out! 

Oh, cripes is right. 

Sooo, what do you do at 9:15 on a Sunday night in a room that's filled with all order of crappola said toads could be hiding under? I was so concerned I'd squish one while in the process of searching that I bailed out. I wasn't very comforting either, which struck me as a little strange. Suddenly I was reprimanding myself (almost aloud, but I restrained myself) for thinking an 8-year-old could take care of a pet that lives to hop.  My husband started telling him things like They'll be our wild toads; we'll put out food for them now and then . . . and We had a hamster that got away when I was a kid--we used to catch glimpses of him now and then . . . Hampy the hamster. Meanwhile, I was trying to make sense of my crossness. I mean, he's only 8. They're just a couple of toads. But I couldn't help feeling responsible, sorry, lame, like a bad person for killing those animals that traveled so far to that cage. And now what? Would you spend hours searching for what might well be a couple of dried up toads? But my guilt is growing.