Too Many Conversations to Slough Off

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After the teacher conference

spent listening to others

speak of techniques

to hold their students

locked around an idea

of reading and writing

with little actual reading

or writing of consequence,

 

I am reminded of a Greek

statue of a wrestler,

who stands silent

scraping sweat and

filth from his arm,

his day done.

 

(November 11, 2018)

My 30th Year of Teaching

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(part one)

I never wanted to be a teacher. Yet, I am about to start my 30thyear teaching in public schools in Texas. I have worked in four middle schools and three high schools, taught 7ththrough 12thgrade, taught newspaper, yearbook, English 7th-12thgrade, pre-AP English (8th-10th), Gifted and Talented middle school English, Advanced Placement Language and Composition, Advanced Placement Literature and Composition, Dual Credit English through Austin Community College, and The University of Texas at Austin. I even taught a German class for a semester. This year I will be teaching four sections of Advanced Placement Literature and Composition, and for the first time a creative writing class, as well as a film studies class, also for the first time. With an average of 150 students a year, I will have had contact with 4,500 students in my classrooms. My first students, 7thgraders in Beeville, Texas are turning 43 years old this year. It is possible that their 13-year-old children could have been in my class at one point in the last decade.

Over time I have come to like teaching, although every year I think about quitting and doing something else, but am never sure what it would be that I could do.  Every few years for the last 30, I start to think I am pretty good at what I do, then something happens to make me realize that perhaps I am not as good as I think. Teaching is a humbling profession.

As a high school student I would have scoffed at the idea of becoming a teacher. The last thing I wanted was to return to school after graduating. Now I feel at home the most when I am in a classroom, either as a student or as a teacher. I left high school to become a journalist, but a professors advice to find the victim’s mother to get a good quote, drove me that same day to change my major to English. I like to write, although my first English advisor told me cynically and accurately, “One does not necessarily learn to write in English.”

Right out of college I worked as a baker at a local bakery in Austin, Texas French Bread. It was only for a few years that I worked there, but it still holds some of my fondest memories. One morning  (4am) on the way to work, as I waited on the stop light to change, I thought I should do something with my English degree. When my shift ended at noon, I walked over to UT and found out what I needed to do to become certified to teach in Texas.  A bit more than thirty years later, that quick, almost whimsical decision at a stop light led me to where I am now, teaching at an all girl public high school in Austin, Texas— and my life’s work.

 

(My plan is to write about my life as a teacher over the course of this school year. Topics will be determined pretty much in the same manner I decided to teach—through chance and whimsy).

Teaching

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I’m not sure I do much,

but open doors, set up chairs,

provide a place to read,

talk, write; which is enough

and yet, is not enough

to beat back the belligerence

barking like a spittle-flecked

beast. I can’t save them

from what is to come,

nor always be there to speak

amiably into their distress,

and voiceless traumas.

But there is this room,

an open door, and a chair.

 

(March 27, 2018)

Narcissus Talks to Echo


 
The Interview
 apologies to The Paris Review
Context:  Why poetry?
Subtext: (Laughs) What else is there? No, really I don’t know.  It is what has come to me.  I have tried to write fiction and I don’t seem to have the attention span for a sustained narrative.  Not that poetry doesn’t require precise attention, because it does.  But it requires a different type of attention: attention to the moment.  Fiction requires attention to the end, the resolution.  Everything is focused on how the story will end.  Poetry’s focus is in the word by word movement; the unfolding of the moment, which is what makes it so hard to read and write well. It requires one to attend to everything, all the possibilities in a very intense focus, knowing all the while that one is missing most of what is happening: kind of like life.  That kind of attention is hard to maintain in fiction: maybe a Proust, or Melville, could pull it off.  I think one almost has to be ADHD to follow the leaps and psychic shifts when writing poetry.  You know:  Look! A chicken!
C:  But you also write essays.
S: Yes, but essays are as Virginia Wolfe said, “the mind tracking itself.” Much like poetry. I find myself leaping along after my thoughts in both poetry and the essay.  Neither, initially requires plotting out what I am going to say.  I can rely more on the moment to moment flow of my thinking.  In both forms discovering what I have to say as I write and focus on the play of words and ideas is part of what makes writing exciting to me.  Not to sound Romantic, but it is as if I am possessed by something greater than me that is leading me toward some revelation.  Eratos, I guess.
C: You just said you don’t have to plot out what you are going to say, yet in several of your long series you have fairly complex writing structures.  I am thinking here of  “My Book of Changes,” “115 Missing Days,” “Primogenitive Folly,” and in your most recent, “Sonnet.”
S: True, but in all of those poems, I used a number system to either create a limitation, either small or large, to help me, or maybe better to say, force me to either write very tightly in the case of  “Book of Changes,” and “Sonnet” or to expand on my thinking as in “115 Missing Days.”  I did not have a direction, or even some kind of idea in regards to what I was going to say, I simply wrote.  Again it is more of a chasing after an idea, or image that is just out of reach constantly.  Kind of like Robert Browning’s pursuit of love, in “Life in Love:” where the speaker is always, like a hunter, in pursuit of his love, but never quite capturing his prey.  Browning is more interested in the pursuit than the capture, it seems to me, and I see that now as analogous to how I write when I first sit down to write a poem. As I said earlier, I am much more interested in where the poem will take me as I am writing it, rather than having a set idea of what I want to say and then figuring out how to say it.
C:  So, if you don’t know what you are going to write about, how do you start?
S:  I start with a phrase, a word sometimes, or an image, then go from there.  I don’t mean to sound so willy-nilly.  I write all the time.  Or I, at least, get out my notebook and stare at the page.  Sometimes I will re-read snatches of writing which led nowhere at the time they were written and find something there to salvage or something to prod me on in another direction.  Somedays, I just write badly, but other days I can re-read the bad writing I abandoned weeks or months before and find something, some fragment of an idea, which leads me into a larger world. Last year I even found several partial poems in notebooks I abandonded at least ten years ago.  I have learned over time that anything can start a poem; so I have tried to enable that by making a conscience effort to pay attention to everything: the short arc of a bird from one branch to another, trash caught in a whirl of wind, the beauty in the everyday occurrence.  Of course, for the most part that is a failure, but I do try.
C:  Do you write everyday? Do you have a routine?
S:  I try to write everyday, but I rarely ever do.  Even when I was writing “My Book of Changes,” I didn’t write everyday, although that was the intention when I started it, to cast the I Ching then write a six line poem using the hexagram I cast as a palimpsest through which to read my life in that day, and to do that every day for a year.  But that fell apart quickly because of work and having three children under the age of 5 in the house.  However, it made sense to try to write one everyday but to let chance operate allowing for some days where I just didn’t have time to write.  I wound up with 250 poems over the course of the year, and that led to the next series of poems, “115 Missing Days.”  But I am not really answering your question, am I?  There goes that chicken again; one thought distracts me from my original intention.
            No I don’t have a routine. No I don’t write everyday. There, that is the short answer.  I used to worry about not writing, the actual putting pen to paper kind of writing, but over time, I guess as I’ve gotten older I don’t worry so much about that anymore.  I think that as I go through my day, trying to pay attention to stuff, I am writing.  I am filtering out the ephemera, collecting images and thoughts, which I will later use.  Not necessarily consciously, but I find when I finally find time to write that often these thoughts and ideas flow back into my thinking sometimes from a few days before, other times from years in the past, in a non-temporal flood of memories. 
            I do carry a notebook with me at all times. I have done that for more than twenty years.  I like unlined sketchbooks.  I write in the book whenever I can catch a few minutes, or if I have an idea all of a sudden. Once on the way home from dropping my oldest off at college, I wrote an entire sonnet as I made the eight hour drive.  I stopped finally at a truck stop and wrote it down. So I guess my routine is to write whenever I can, but not on a schedule. Does that still qualify as a routine, if it is not in a routine manner?
C: Yes, I think that would qualify.  Let’s talk about your “training,” as it were, how important do you think poetry classes are, or MFA programs?
S: I don’t really have anything to say about MFA programs, since I have not been in one.  The two people I know who went through a MFA program, one at Iowa and the other at the New School in New York, seemed to get a lot out of the programs.  How much they learned to write in the programs, I am unsure.  At least one of them was a fine writer before he went through his MFA program.  I think like any school, a person gets as much as she puts into the program. I found the poetry workshops I took as an undergraduate and in graduate school allowed me a unique environment to write and talk about poetry with a very diverse group of people with different aesthetic visions.  It is rare, at least for me, to have that kind of environment after school.  I have written and thought about poetry on my own since I finished at Bread Loaf almost twenty years ago. I was lucky from the very beginning to have several people who took the time to read and talk about my work with a kind attentive eye.  It helped me learn to write on my own.
C:  Talk about these people.
S: Well, in high school when I first started thinking of myself as a poet, I had the good fortune to come into contact with two teachers, one a writer, the other a visual artist, Cliff Berkman and Ann Lockstedt, who took my poems seriously, or at least pretended to well enough to make me believe they took me seriously.  Berkman gave me books of poetry to read, probably the best thing any young poet can do; read voraciously, as Dylan Thomas said, “until my eyes fell out.”  Lockstedt introduced me to Art with a big A.  Something that was out of the realm of the milieu of small town south Texas, she took a bus load of kids to see the Cezanne exhibit in Houston, as well as several buses to Dallas and Ft. Worth to see the Kimball and several other art museums.  That kind of trip with today’s lack of funding for the arts in the public school system would be unheard of now.
As an undergraduate at the University of Texas, I was lucky to be in several workshops run by Albert Goldbarth.  In the late 70’s and early 80’s, he taught there before moving to Kansas.  Again he talked to us as if we were poets, not as dumb-ass students, which we were.  He was sarcastic and cutting, but he also found something good to say about everybody’s poems.  What Katherine Bomer calls the hidden gems in students writing.  It takes a very patient mind to do this well, and Goldbarth made us want to write better, or at least made me want to write better.
As a graduate student in English literature at the Bread Loaf School of English, I had one poetry workshop with Carol Oles, but just being at Bread Loaf was a writing workshop. The conversations about literature and writing with the professors and students that I had over the course of the four summers I was in Vermont were life altering, as far as my thinking about poetry was concerned.  Lunch conversations with David Huddle, Robert Pack, Ken Macrorie and others over everything from the weather to literature, to politics is indescribable in its influence on my literary life.
C: What about your own teaching, how does that affect your poetry?
S: I would say in an indirect manner.  When talking to my students about the “great” works of English literature I have come to see it in deeper more meaningful ways, not just because I have to explain the poem in ways the students can understand, but also because of the ways of knowing a poem the students bring to the work.  Also as I try to teach my students how to write, I garner insights into my own writing processes.  Teaching has deepened the initial training I had through the university, and taken my understanding of poetry further, I believe, than if I had gone off to sell insurance.  But that is because I am able to think about poetry on an ongoing basis, and have discussions with fellow teachers about writing and poetry. 
C: How important is having a community of writers?
S: Very important.  Writing is such a solitary activity. So much of the time is spent in your own head, wrestling with your own demons, caught up in self-evisceration that just being able to talk to others who have some common understanding of what it means to write becomes a balm to the doubt and insecurity that comes with being a writer. Even if all you talk about most of the is how the local sports team is doing, or how crappy your job is.  You also have the love of words and writing, which brought you together in the first place. 
C: Do you think about your readers when you write?
S: Yes, in the very real sense that I am one of my readers.  That makes me think of a line from Tom Raworth when he said he started to write because he liked reading what wrote. But as for making it easy for my readers, not really.  I write what I write.  I like it when someone says they have read and liked what I wrote.  I often wish they would be more specific about what they liked, but any kind of  positive response is welcome.  I think any writer who tells you she doesn’t care what people think of her writing is lying to you. As human beings we all want to belong, and writer’s want people to read what they write.  I think that is why so many writers seek out workshops, so they can have someone read their work.  The danger becomes that you change your vision to better conform to others’ view of the world.  That is also the horror of writing that no one can see the way you do, and you wind up screaming into the wind.  I haven’t sent out anything for more than 20 years, but I post on my blog in hopes that someone will read my poems, and maybe even respond. 

(March 2012)

Making Time

In a class on the Essay at Bread Loaf, Shirley Brice-Heath said that reading and writing are leisure activities. She said this in explanation of why so many writer’s in the 19th century, or any other time period, were upper middle class and/or wealthy. It takes time to read and time to write, one can’t be working all hours on the factory floor if one is going to read and write. Over time I have hacked away at the “stuff” I teach that takes up the time of the classroom; I have abandoned entire beloved lesson plans and units because they ate into the time my students have to read and write. My students live busy complex lives. They work at their jobs, often more than one, they have many classes in addition to mine and some of them have babies that they have to take care of as well. So I schedule huge blocks of time to read and write in class everyday. It is not a “Read-in” Friday, or “let’s write an in-class essay today”, but every day we are reading and writing together and alone. It is what is expected in my class. Over time the students come to expect the time they have to reading and write and become irritable when they don’t get that time because of scheduled and unscheduled administrative dictates. The time to read and write is important, because it is time the students don’t get.

(begun as a quick write during a presentation by Amber Futch at a Heart of Texas Writing Project conference December 2010)

So Say Us

“past literacy practices have served different national goals, different markets different contracts, different tools, and so forth. It is clear that the k-12 teachers of the United states are being asked to aim for a new standard of literacy for all students and that this new standard, like others from the past, results from a convergence of new insights into texts, new models of learning, and new national needs – – in this case, the new demands of contemporary economic problems and the workplace, the new demands of pluralism and diversity in our democracy and the new demands for new supports for personal growth.” (Myers, p.117)

New literacies emerge over time. I think that to insist upon a type of literacy (the internet, visual, print etc.) is to insist upon a literacy that is already past. I wonder, (without losing the importance of all of these qualities: “the new demands of pluralism and diversity in our democracy and the new demands for new supports for personal growth”), why we must impose our version of what we think it means to be literate. There are numerous ways of knowing/being literate. (Heath) When we as academic literates look about the world and demand that we know how to know better than others (now there is a word), we are making huge assumptions about our ability to predict what is coming down the road. When we do this, it is also to cooperate with and reinforce the demands of the hegemonic structures, which control and oppress all of “the new demands of pluralism and diversity in our democracy and the new demands for new supports for personal growth.” As I said in a comment on another classmate’s blog, I insist (yes, I am aware of the irony here) that there has to be an underlying literacy that is common to all of the literacies as they are elaborated in Myers and others. It is the underlying literacy, how we read anything (from books to people to the world), how we make meaning out of the barrage of symbols we are inundated with everyday, that should be what we try to help our students learn to manage. What that literacy entails, I do not know. I guess it goes back the question in our first class: what does it mean to be a better reader?