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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Space Alien Abducts Seattle Poet's Forthcoming Manuscript

At 22:00 hours on Monday evening, an alien spaceship landed on a Seattle poet's roof. A little green man crawled into her bedroom window, stealing a proof copy of The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception off her desk. When asked why he was absconding with a copy of her as-yet unpublished book, said alien replied "because she assumes space aliens know nothing about human beings and planet Earth, which is absolute poppycock. We know infinitely more about you French fry and orgami-obsessed weirdos than you will ever know about us!" The poet, though we left her many haiku-inspired text messages, declined comment.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Swag Dreams

So . . .

It's the half-way point between the day I found out I would have a book and the day the book appears in print. Just about the right time, I figure, to start thinking about SWAG.

I'm thinking magnets, keychains, bookmarks, & postcards of aliens, rocket ships, and flying saucers carrying my book around with them. If you're lucky enough to be heading to DC in 2011, or if you live near Seattle, then you're almost certain to land yourself some cool alien swag if you come to one of my readings.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Paddling Around in the What-Makes-Us-Human Puddle

I came across a blog by a poet I'd never heard of. Her name is Stephanie Goehring. I seems she recently up and moved to Iowa to attend/teach at the Iowa Writer's Workshop in Iowa City. Here's her poem Epic, which I found at 42opus and really liked. But best of all, this photo of a chalkboard with her students answer to the question "What don't you like about poetry"?

Didn't I do a similar brainstorm with my students last week? Ask them why they didn't like poetry, then write it up on the board? Okay, hers is an honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned chalkboard and mine is a white board, but same thing right?




I'm generally not one to make much of coincidences (even though I know they tend to increase exponentially when I am doing the poetry writing thing), but I got a kick out of the randomness of finding another teacher of poetry doing the same "why don't you like poetry" thang with her students in another part of the country. And the similar responses the students gave! No surprise there, really. I mean, I wasn't expecting her students, or my students, or anyone's students, to say "I love poetry!" Because that would be the equivalent of a young man saying "Today I start wearing skirts!"

But I've been thinking a lot about what writing and reading poems, and whether these are necessary acts for a culture to be engaged in. I've heard it said that contemporary society's art and culture have been replaced by the Super Bowl and the Olympics, when we all tune in to watch the pomp and circumstance--Bruce Springsteen doing his half time show, the elaborate synchronized dances at the opening ceremonies of the Games.

Poetry in English went underground--when? 1900? 1860? 1266? 1492? Did everything fall apart poetry-wise with the invention of the printing press, when poetry no longer had to be rhyme-y and sing-songy, memorizable? Beowulfian?

If you are reading this, you will tell me poetry is not dead. But you are most likely poets, or at least avid reader of poetry. In other words, out of touch with reality.

As am I. In a big way. Or a hopeless believer in winning over the disinterested, the uninspired, the lovers of plot.

I guess you could say I like a challenge.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Eng 101: Millions of Peaches, La Dolce Vita!, Sublime Chowder, Little Bastards of Vine, & Hot-Water Cornbread

I don't even know where to begin, but I'll do my best. In fact, I'll make a list, though this is not necessarily in order of preference.

1. It occurred to me I never quite fully comprehended the magnificence of "Ode to Conger Chowder" until I saw/heard it paired with slide images of an actual conger eel, a heavy black cauldron, a steaming bowl of chowder, and a serene ocean shore at dusk. I also very much appreciated the slide with a map of Chile, so we could see exactly where this guy Neruda hails from, along with the visual/verbal list of all of Neruda's books. In Spanish. Without translation.

2. When the You Tube video of Patricia Smith's "Let the Burning Begin" conked out, the group leader stepped in and picked right up where she left off . . . reading her poem without hesitation or stammering, as if he'd practiced it many times.

3. The group presenting Li-Young Lee's "From Blossoms" passed out sliced peaches after arguing that the poem is a reminder to live life moment to moment, not worrying about what sorrow or pain lies ahead.

4. The "Linguine" group outdid themselves, analyzing the poem stanza by stanza, grappling with the literal and figurative supping, slurping, and sucking. [Diane, I wish you could have been there; it was amazing.]

5. The "Cherry Tomatoes" (poem by Sandra Beasley) group figured out that the speaker's childhood wasn't actually "perfect." That was made clear to them as they looked closely at how the tomatoes were being described (bastards, demons, collapsed, rotting, etc.). They did a wonderful job with their slide presentation--pairing words from the poem with photos of cherry tomatoes, parents arguing in front of a child, and the city girl plucking a tomato from a plastic carton.

I learned so much from them, from sitting back and watching and listening. We never discussed these poems in class; they had the opportunity to ask me questions during group conferences,
but mostly they were on their own; I was impressed with how willing they were to trust their guts about what their chosen poem was up to--how structure, image, and metaphor could all add up to the experience of the poem. They seemed to understand a poem cannot be reduced to an unadorned prose summary of its "message" or "about"-ness. I'm not sure I taught them that, or that their own "take" on a poem is valid if it can be substantiated with evidence from the text, but if I did, I'm especially glad.

I'm not sure why I care so much about poetry, but I also know I care about them--each of my students--and in particular, since we're done with poetry for the quarter--how they approach poetry the next time they encounter it. Who knows, maybe I did engender a passion for poetry in one or two students. But even if I didn't, the last two days was like sitting in poetry church. I loved every minute of it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Poetry Presentations: Here They Come

For the last several years I've introduced my students to poetry by making them write a comparison essay about two poems. They did their best with the complicated structure, having to come up with a supportable basis for comparison, and getting their quotations integrated, etc., etc., but it always left me feeling like I'd failed as a teacher because while the assignment showed me they could follow directions, it didn't pass the torch in terms of conveying the wow of poetry, the umpth, pop and kazam. Instead, they took two poems and made them wrestle until they were sweaty and dirty, barely breathing, face down on a mat.

This time I decided to do something different. I wanted them to examine a poem closely, to take a poem's pulse but not beat the poor poem into a bloody pulp.

So this time around I bypassed formal literary analysis altogether. Instead, I put them in small groups where they are preparing PowerPoint presentations on one of nine possible poems:

"From Blossoms" (Li-Young Lee)

"Linguine" (Diane Lockward)

"When the Burning Begins" (Patricia Smith)

"How to Make World Unity Salsa" (Juan Felipe Herrera)

"Ode to Conger Chowder" (Pablo Neruda)

"Cold Solace" (Anna Belle Kaufman) [in The Sun Magazine]

"Problems with Hurricanes" (Victor Hernandez Cruz)

"Cherry Tomatoes" (Sandra Beasley)

"Shopping for Pomegranates at Wal-Mart on New Year's Day" (Campbell McGrath)

I've assigned poetry presentations before, but I've never actually demonstrated by example exactly what I was looking for. (Yes very lame of me, I know!) After viewing a bunch of physics lectures online this past summer courtesy MIT’s Open Courseware, I decided my Poetry Unit could use its own little infusion of baking soda and vinegar.

While perusing the current issue of River Styx, the poem "Free Bird" by Rose Kelleher, with its allusions to Frye Boots, Brooke Shields, Jodi Foster, bongs, tresses, and the strutting ManFest that was the 1970s, screamed out “Transform me into a Powerpoint Demo!” So that’s exactly what I did.

Here’s a sample from said demo:

Seventies Man—how unabashedly

he struts his stuff! You gotta love those long

gold chains that loop across that naked V

Of polyester-free, unbuttoned chest

I don't know how much they enjoyed Kelleher's poem (or my "take" on its ironic message regarding so-called female empowerment), but the nice thing was that they now have a better sense of what I'm asking them to do. In fact, we spent very little class time on clarifying my expectations, and most of it figuring out what they wanted to assert and how they would support it with specific examples from the text. Small victory!

Tomorrow they'll use class time to finalize their slide shows, and Tuesday the fun begins . . . seven presentations over two days. I'm almost certain these will be the best two class days of the quarter. I'll keep you posted . . .

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Digital Poetry

Today I introduced poetry to my English 101 students. I walked in, asked "What is Poetry?" and we went from there. The first student who spoke said "boring," so okay, we started with that. What makes it boring, etc. What we finally got to, in terms of definition, happened about 2/3 of the way through class, after we'd read Mary Ruefel's "Kiss of the Sun,"* when a student blurted out: "Poetry is saying something that needs to be said!" I loved that definition. It seemed as good as any, and much better than that quote from Wordsworth about recollection in tranquility, though I do like the best words in the best order.

Then I showed them a bunch of digital poetry websites. Their favorite (or maybe my favorite?I'm not sure they were particularly impressed with any of it) was from a site called Secret Technology, which I'm so glad I shared because they helped me to figure out how to spin Jason Nelson's awesome cube around. There was this one piece called My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, which got to the crux of their incredulousness about this stuff being poetry: one student finally asked "but what order do you read it in?" and I said "your choice!" and she didn't sit well with that at all, so we talked a bit about linear constructs, structure, narrative, the expectations of what a poem should do, but that didn't make anyone suddenly become a huge fan of any of this stuff.

My favorite moment of the hour was when I said "yeah, poetry--it's not so straightforward. I mean, it's not like reading a newspaper . . ." and then went on to quote the famous WC Williams line about men dying "miserably every day from lack of what is found there," and the most diligent and hard-working student in the class turned to me and said, totally earnestly and without any hint of distain:

"But I don't need poetry."

And the sad thing is, though I go through most days thinking the opposite, he's right. He'll do just fine without poetry. He'll get a good job, get his teeth cleaned twice a year, have a beautiful wife in the suburbs--I mean, what's poetry going to do for him?

I left class feeling a little ridiculous for getting so excited and worked up (and for prepping for hours!) about a genre only 1-2 out of 25 of my students said they had one iota of interest in (one guy said he wrote seven haiku, but only because they were assigned). But still I walked out of class jazzed and sunny.

I'd given them a little taste of poetry. I'd emphasized that poetry isn't a locked safe that needs the teacher's key to be opened (understood, experienced), I hinted that finding meaning was sometimes beside the point, and, instead of pontificating all hour, I gave them a writing prompt and they wrote recipe poems.

Let's see what happens tomorrow, when I demonstrate The Oral Presentation of a Poem.

*"Kiss of the Sun"

If, as they say, poetry is a sign of something

among people, then let this be prearranged now,

between us, while we are still peoples: that

at the end of time, which is also the end of poetry

(and wheat and evil and insects and love),

when the entire human race gathers in the flesh,

reconstituted down to the infant's tiniest fold

and littlest nail, I will be standing at the edge

of that fathomless crowd with an orange for you,

reconstituted down to its innermost seed protected

by white thread, in case you are thirsty, which

does not at this time seem like such a wild guess,

and though there will be no poetry between us then,

at the end of time, the geese all gone with the seas,

I hope you will take it, and remember on earth

I did not know how to touch it it was all so raw,

and if by chance there is no edge to the crowd

or anything else so that I am of it,

I will take the orange and toss it as high as I can.

-- Mary Ruefle

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Kelli Russell Agodon, Today's Poetry Daily Goddess

Kelli Russell Agodon
The Kelli Russell Agodon Fan Club

I am happy to report that Kelli Russell Agodon's poem, "If I Ever Mistake You For a Poem," is being featured today on the Poetry Daily website. This poem is from her new book, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, just out from White Pine Press.

When I first read this poem, it gave me sparks like I was wearin' a polyester sweater while flying down a plastic playground slide. Wheeeeeeeoooo, can this woman write!

Congratulations to Kelli on her first (of many) Poetry Daily appearances.