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Anger is an Energy

A disheartening day. upon opening my email this morning, I found out that one of the founding teachers at ARS was resigning because of the covid return polices at AISD. Then, this afternoon just before 5, i got another email from the principal announcing that yet another long time math teacher at ARS had resigned. In one day the heart of the math department was ripped out. Ann Richards is an all-girl STEM school, having not just good math teachers, but fantastic female (role model) math teachers is essential. We had two of the best. Had. Math teachers are already hard to find, but math teachers of the caliber of these two are impossible to replace. The covid return policies trickling down from DeVoss/Trump, to Abbott and the TEA, to AISD and surrounding districts is directly responsible for the loss of these two teachers. There will be more resignations and retirements across the district and the state. These policies are causing irreparable harm to education in Texas, which will echo for years after the pandemic subsides. It does not have to be this way. There is no reason that TEA has to cut funding, which is the club they are using to force the schools to open. There is no reason that everyone has to return. There is no reason to put so many people at increased risk of a terrible and deadly disease. There is no Reason. Just Madness.

“Rock Rock Rock Rock and Roll High School”

“My life could have turned out differently, but it didn’t.”

                  –Jim Harrison

“I live with my contradictions intact”

         –David Ignatow

“I’ve got to lose this skin I’m imprisoned in”

                  –The Clash 

“Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by”

                  –Robert Johnson

It is easy to trace the twisted path which led me to where I am; however, it is a bit more difficult to see where I am going next. 

An obnoxious student asked me last week, in regards to this assignment, what my “rock” was. In my usual evasive fashion, I responded, “You are” meaning all of them, my students were my rock. However, even though I enjoy teaching most of the time, when I think of why I do what I do, or rather who I am, I don’t think about teaching. I have several roles I have taken on over the years: husband, father, friend, teacher, student, doctoral student, writer, poet, fool. I don’t think I am a Prufrock, yet, sometimes I feel as if I am no more than a sad man walking along the beach with my trousers rolled. Having a meaning or purpose, it is often said, leads to a happy (ier) life. With that in mind I guess, I would say that teaching gives me some of my purpose, and poetry gives it meaning, or helps me to create a meaning, to create sense out of chaotic universe.

Recently a friend wrote that she had a hard time calling herself a writer, even though I know she writes and writes well. A few years ago, a woman at the first meeting of a poetry group said she did not feel as if she could call herself a poet. I had just said as part of my introduction of myself that I had considered myself a poet since I was fifteen.  She seemed shocked that I would have the audacity to call myself a poet.  This inability to call oneself what one does came up again in another conversation between teachers. One man said that it felt somehow pretentious to call oneself a poet or a writer.  I asked the group how was it any more pretentious to say you were a poet than to say you were a teacher. To me it seemed more pretentious to lay claim to that title, to say, “I am a teacher.” I mean Jesus was a teacher. Who the hell am I? But I have over time become used to being called arrogant, so I guess that is why I have an easy time saying:  I am both: a teacher and a poet.  I don’t claim to be very good at either one, but I am both. Charles Bernstein said that if one says it is a poem, then it is a poem. No claims to quality, but it is a poem.  I am a poet.  I sit down with the intention of writing a poem.  I think about each line, the rhythm, the sounds of the words in relation to the other words, the phrasing, where I can cut and reduce, where something else needs to be added. I use poetry as a way of making sense of myself and the world I find myself in. As I have said elsewhere, poetry (both reading and writing it) helps keep the horrors of the world away and a way to find beauty everywhere and in everyone. I have consciously written poetry since I was fifteen; with luck, I will continue to do so the rest of my life. I am a poet.

Of course, I am also a teacher. If some magical seer had appeared to me when I was a 17-year-old senior, and told me that I would be a teacher for more than 30 years, I would have laughed out loud just before dying in horror. Yet, here I am working at one of the best high schools in Texas as the senior APLit teacher. Sartre famously wrote about a waiter at a Parisian café. The waiter, according to Sartre, is only a waiter when he is performing as a waiter. So, following that train of thought, I am only a teacher when I am at work talking to my students. I rarely think about being a teacher. It is still, after more than 30 years, difficult to think about me being a teacher.  I suppose my life as a teacher would be inauthentic since I don’t think about why I do this beyond making enough to feed my children, pay the mortgage, and send them off to college. Yet, in some small way I like to believe that what I do matters, even though I know it probably doesn’t. 

Maya Angelou said you remember how people made you feel, not what you learned. I think that is why when my former students run into me at HEB, or they come back to visit, they remember my class fondly. A few weeks ago, I was having a beer with a friend when I man in his thirties approached and asked if I was Mr. Neal, as if he were a process server for some lawsuit. It was odd to say the least. When I answered yes, he told me that he had been in my class when he was an eighth-grade student at Pflugerville Middle School. He said he heard my voice, and knew it was me. He remembered “The Road Not Taken.” (I used to have my students memorize poems). He said the first few lines. He said that had been his best English class, which I found embarrassing and kind of sad—his best English class was as an eighth grader. 

I am not retelling this event as an attempt at self-aggrandizement, but to show how one’s self-identity is often much different than how the world sees you.  I am always uncomfortable when people try to define me to me. I find their descriptions to be too pat, too much mired in the cliché, too many wrong associations. I am a teacher, and I feel in some small way I am helping create a better world with my students; yet, I never really know what it is I am doing. 

In a faculty meeting, several times, I have stated I don’t have any idea what my students are taking away from my class. In an age of standardized testing, to say I don’t know what my students learn in my class is tantamount to heresy. I don’t mean I don’t know what it is I am doing in class; I just don’t know what it is they are learning. And I certainly don’t see them as the number they receive on standardize tests.  I have had students tell me years after being in my class what they remember. It is always surprising to me what they found valuable, because it is never really what the objectives were in the class. 

When people ask what it is I teach, they mean what books are we reading. They seem confused when I talk about my students. My students are what (who) I teach. Books, poems, essays, are just the ephemera of my class. The tools that are employed in the teaching. About 15 years ago, I would respond glibly to my fellow teachers when I was asked what I was teaching that six weeks with “Nothing.” My students read what they wanted to read, and for the most part wrote what they wanted to write. I ran my class as a reading/writing workshop. The district where I worked claimed that ELA did workshop k-12, yet I was the only teacher in my high school who did. So it often took several weeks to teach the students how to read on their own, to have the stamina to read for 20 minutes without interruption. So, one day after the students were fairly proficient at the process, I was sitting on the floor in the doorway to my class. I was monitoring the students who read in the hall, and the ones who stayed in my classroom. A history teacher walked by and said snarkily, “I wish I could not teach, and sit around all day and just read.” My students were on the verge of rising up against her, when I mumbled (they had learned to understand my mumbling at that point as well)—I mumbled in response to her, “One would have to know how to read first.’ She walked on, not hearing what it was I had said, and the students laughed as they settled back into their books. I developed a reputation with the faculty pretty much as a smart-ass. Not that they were wrong, but I interpreted what they saw as smart-assness, as more of a way not to scream expletives at them. I refused to accept their definition of what it meant to be a teacher. I created my own definition. Even if some of that definition was simply a defiant rebellion against my fellow teachers.

I do think a lot about what I am doing both as a teacher and writer. So, I imagine I am attempting to be authentic in what I am doing. I question whether my praxis (my beliefs correspond with my actions) is authentic..not just me going with the flow because that is the easy way to go about life. As I said earlier, I am never sure if what I do is effective or worth doing at all. I will fluctuate between thinking I am a decent teacher, or writer, to thinking I am a fraud, fooling everyone, even myself. 

And that is the point I think of life: to try to be brutally honest with oneself, to never settle back and assume you know what it is all about, because one can never know. Which is not to say that we should not try to understand our lives, we should always be trying, even if we know we shall never know. Embrace the vast absurdity of the universe with a passionate intensity, not matter how pointless. It is the process and the awareness of the life you are living that makes the life have meaning and be worth living.

Today’s Lesson

“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”

—T.S.Eliot

my students work over the abstract

idea of redemption in three stories

as a preparation for the wasteland

which we will read for the next class

one thousand miles away students

hide as their classmates are killed

and we are told there is nothing

nothing we can do except pray

prayers are useless balms for the dead

and pale recompense for the living

who must clean blood from walls

and mix memory into the earth

devoid of hope near an open door

we are in a hell we have created

(February 14, 2018)

I wrote this two years ago on the day of the Parkland massacre. I think about my students every time there is another school shooting. And there always seems to be another shooting. And still nothing is done. This poem was published by Shantih Journal.

the future was a threat

from a work in progress: “process, not a journey” (13)

in school we were always on the move

field trips to museums to math class

with Mr. Buesing to middle school

to high school to college the future

was a threat brandished like a whip

by degrees our world turned

then it stopped and I stumbled

and found myself here in the mud

like a body dropped from the door

of a passing car

(January 18, 2020)

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)