Thursday, January 26, 2012

Week Three: Waxing Nostalgic

Regarding Rumpelstiltskin:  did you know that, at the end of one of the Grimm versions, Rumpelstiltskin actually tears himself in half?  He has a fit, stomps his foot into the ground so far that he can't get it out, and his solution is to literally divide himself.

Are we doing our children a disservice by "Disneyfying" folk and fairy tales?  What are the consequences if Hansel and Gretel are not going to be eaten by the witch, but instead, say, lose their cell phone privileges?  What if Little Red's grandmother is not eaten by the wolf, but is instead, say, locked in a closet?  Is the lesson learned?  Do we coddle our children, even in their stories?

Should my six-year-old understand that Snow White's step-mother wanted her step-daughter's heart ripped from her chest and presented to her in a beautifully crafted wooden box?

These are some of the ideas my classes discussed as a result of their research into Maxwell's poem.  Good discussion; interesting topics.

Then, we read this week's selection:  "Snow on the Desert" by Agha Shahid Ali.  The poem is from the book A Nostalgist's Map of America.

When I picked this poem, I did so knowing full well that it is (for my students) long.  But it is so beautiful and compelling (for me) that I wanted to try it. 

One of my students compared the imagery of the fog opening and then closing as the speaker's world closing up, and several others mentioned liking the idea of driving through the desert knowing it used to be the bed of an ocean.  Everyone got that this poem was about the relativity of the passing of time.  If you're reading this, I hope you read the poem and get what I'm writing about.  If you haven't yet, let me give you the first lines:

“Each ray of sunshine is seven minutes old,”
Serge told me in New York one December night.

“So when I look at the sky, I see the past?”
“Yes, Yes,” he said, “especially on a clear day.”

I don't think I'll ever look at the sky the same way again.  How much do I want to write a poem that does this? 

Back to my classes though - I found that many of my students have never actually been to a desert.  It is so much a part of my upbringing, going camping across the southwest, growing up in Southern California, that it is hard to believe that less than 10 of my 75 students can visualize driving across a landscape so desolate that one doesn't need to be told it once was a sea to believe it.  Pictures do not do the desert justice.  It is something one has to experience first hand.  I wonder how many of these students will ever actually go.

There were plenty of opportunities for research in this poem for students of all areas of interest.  Some of the things they are looking up are the Bangladesh War, singer Begum Akhtar, the Papagos, saguaro cactus, and the book (?) The Desert Smells Like Rain.  Can't wait to see what interests them come Tuesday. this working?  Yes.  The poem warm-ups are putting my students into the thinking mode.  They are actively engaged from the beginning of class:  reporting their research, listening to the new poem, blogging, reading and listening to the blog entries.  This has translated into more actively engaged students overall.  Today, we did our first whole-class critique of a student's first draft, and I got better responses than is usual. 

And...I'm reading poetry not just for my own enjoyment, but also for my students' range of experience.  Perhaps we'll get some new readers of poetry?  Perhaps someone will venture out to the desert and feel the passage of time.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Liar, Liar, Pants on...

Week two:  poetry experiment.  So this week my students returned with their research on Moore's "Baseball and Writing."  Elston Howard was the first African-American to be on the Yankees.  He held all kinds of records, and he played in ten World Series, winning six.  A-mazing.  This is just one thing they learned.  We discussed how writing was similar to baseball in that writer's block is an "injury" one must treat, that writing is difficult, but worth it, and that, again, reading effectively is a process and a practice.

Then came Thursday.  I have all kinds of fantastic poets on my reading list for this semester.  These are writers whose poems examine American identity with artful thought.  But I could not find a poem that I felt was appropriate for the second week of teaching my freshmen.  One of the reasons last week's poems were what they were was for their "ease of use."  Establishing trust in my classroom is the most important thing I can do in the first few weeks.  No trust equals no results.  I didn't want to drop an emotional bomb week two.  So...I spent three hours Thursday morning searching for a poem about identity that was not too heavy, man.

Then, I found Glyn Maxwell's "Rumpelstiltskin."  What a fantastic little huge poem.  We read it.  Then they blogged.  We talked about lying, living two lives, privacy issues including OnStar and GPS, color theory, what nurses need to know about patients who lie and the reasons they lie, what teachers need to know about students who lie and their reasons, the nature of signifiers (!), and the relativity of truth.  Yes, yes we did. least 50% of my second semester freshmen have never heard of Rumpelstiltskin.  Seriously.

Tuesday, I expect to hear about how knowing the folk tale makes (or doesn't make) a difference in understanding the poem.  I expect to hear about spinning straw into gold.  And I expect to discuss the importance/significance of naming.  Most of all, I expect (hope?) to hear interest in their voices and to see passion for learning in their eyes.  How fantastic.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Week One Critical Paper or What Percentage of College Freshmen Despise Poetry?

So I've decided to document my progress on my critical paper using this blog.  For those of you who are not Converse College MFA the third semester, we are required to write a +/- 25 page critical paper on some aspect of our chosen genre.  I am a poetry student and a composition teacher, so I thought it would be a great idea to try to combine the two.  Here's my snappy paper title:  Using identity themed poems to encourage critical thinking in the composition classroom.  Huzzah!

There are two reasons why I went in this direction instead of analyzing a specific poet or group of poets.  One:  one of my classes last semester came to the conclusion that they don't like poetry because they "have to think about it too much."  Two:  critical thinking is necessary for good writing, and many of my freshman composition student need help in this area. If I'm honest, that's an understatement.  Businesses regularly lament the lack of writing skills of their newly graduated hires, and the rest of the university regularly asks us folks in the English Department just exactly what we are doing with writing, 'cause their students can't.

Week one:  I presented my idea about using poetry to encourage critical thinking.  I gave a survey to my students asking them about their experiences with poetry and research.  My students inwardly (and outwardly) groaned.  I assured them they would not be graded on their analysis of the poems.  We would be using poetry as warm-up exercises to get into the critical thinking/writing mode.  They felt a bit better. 

On Tuesday, I read Billy Collins' poem "Introduction to Poetry" and had the students blog about their responses to the poem.  That went OK.  They "got it."

On Thursday, I read Marianne Moore's poem "Baseball and Writing."  They didn't "get it."  I discovered something wonderful, though.  After the first reading, every student understood that the poem talked a lot about baseball, and that there was supposed to be some connection with writing.  Their blogs showed that they "got" more than they thought they did.  And I was able to explain the process of reading actively without having read a single chapter in our textbook.  Read the piece through once.  Write down what you understand.  Read it through again.  Look up what you don't understand.  Read it through again.

The fact is that many students stop reading whatever is required for their courses because they don't "get" the first few lines.  Ethics, philosophy, logic, sociology, and psychology texts may seem to be beyond their understanding, and so they stop reading.  I contend that if a reader can simply read through a piece once without stopping and ignore what they think they don't know, that reader will be able to write down something about that piece.  That something will then be clarified on the second read, or possibly the third.

This is when my students say, uh-huh.  Right.  I barely have time to read all this stuff once, and you're asking me to read two or three times?  And I say, yes.  That's what it takes until you become a better reader, and becoming a better reader will help you become a better writer.  That's the goal.

Assignment for next Tuesday:  write down one idea, word, phrase, or name from "Baseball and Writing" to look up.  Look it up.  Report back to the class.  The idea behind this assignment is to get my students to take a small second look at the text through research.  We'll see how it goes. 

At the very least, I had fun introducing myself to my classes and going over the syllabi for the first time in a long time, I got to share some poetry with composition students, and I got them thinking right off the bat.  Yay me! 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

For the Love of Books

I'm back from my third of four residencies at Converse College, and, once again, I have nothing but good things to say.  Hilarious readings by Leslie Pietrzyk and Keith Morris reminded me once again that literature is for everyone.  Informative lectures by Susan Tekulve and Denise Duhamel pointed out the writing opportunities inherent in travel and the craft involved in using humor in poetry.  But the session that I want to elaborate on here was presented by Betsy Teter on small press publishing.

Teter is the editor of Hub City Press, a nonprofit organization that "publishes well-crafted, high-quality works by new and established authors, with an emphasis on the Southern experience."  There has been much talk about shopping local and buying from local artists, artisans, and farmers since the Occupy Wall Street movement began.  Whatever your opinion of the Occupy phenomenon, it is worth noting that authors are among those who can benefit from this trend.  Small presses are committed to publishing literature, and they are committed to promoting authors they believe in.  This may or may not come along with commercial success.  The books published by small presses and sold in independent bookstores like Hub City and Quail Ridge Books are largely not promoted or sold in the two big booksellers left in the US.  In other words, your patronage of independent booksellers directly affects the writers working in your communities.

Some of the practical advice Teter offered to us were questions to ask small press publishers such as:  Do you send out galleys?  Do you send out review copies?  How many review copies do you send?  Teter's explanation of her process of sending review copies to get buzz going for a book was informative, and it showed her dedication to the authors Hub City publishes.  When (yes when!) I publish a book, I can only hope that it is backed with the enthusiasm Teter showed in her presentation.

Read local.  Buy local.  Love books.