reduction

the onslaught of random thoughts
which crush past during the span
of time it takes this sentence to end
would take a life to document
if only i could recall them all

to gather them at pen’s nib as they occur
like athene fully formed from zeus’s head
would be to write the world in a word
the chaos compacted into a syllable
with no ambiguity to slip over my horizon

(summer 2007)

horizon’s edge

sense lives outside
along a perimeter

an inability to maintain
within articulated bounds

what worlds words open
as many unsaid close

on approach it grows no nearer
a reproachment to hubristic control

in possibility extant only in
ossified remains of meaning

(summer 2006)

Waiting on the Rain

I’m sitting in the PCL waiting for the rain to stop so I can head over to the Erwin Center to participate in the graduation ceremony of my students. I like doing this, the kids are excited and proud. They are oddly happy that I am there which makes me feel oddly happy. I guess we all want to feel wanted and loved. I have been reading lately entries on the blog’ “Rate Your Students.” I think I will stop however because it is the equivalent of listening to my fellow teachers gripe about the students at lunch. Yes, there is a need for venting to someone who has a clue what it means to teach; yet there is something to the old saying : “You are what you talk about.” It is easy at this time of year as the semester is coming to a close to be bitter, to focus on what went wrong; after all teaching is emotionally and mentally draining work. So, I go to watch my students “walk” as they call it. It ends my teaching year on a positive note and sends me off in a happier mood to recover my own positive attitude about the world, teaching, and the importance of public education in the building of a better world.

Get Your Story Staight, part II

The real battle is not about the facts, facts as the band Talking Heads sang, “all come with points of view, facts won’t do what you want them to.” The real struggle is which story will become the one through which we see our world. “What I have to say does not answer the question, ‘This is how things are,’ but rather, ‘ This is how they are to be understood,” wrote Leo Frobenius.
Which story line we come to believe is not merely a difference of opinion. The centuries of religious wars sparked by the Reformation, as well as the philosophical and very real blood letting between various religious sects from the Shia and Sunni in the Middle East, to the more benign Baptist and Episcopalian squabbles here at home, have hinged on which version should win out of the same story one group espouses over another. My mother and oldest sister have not spoken to one another for twenty years because of differing versions of the same story: their life and relationship together. Neither one will surrender control of their version of the narrative to the other, nor accept the difference. Another sister and I argued several years ago over how we treated each other. “Then there was that time you… and then you. . .” Followed quickly with, “No, that is when you did. . .” We have not gotten along since then. No one likes an editor.
When my students spin their stories off of each others stories and the stories we read, they bring a divergent set of tales and beliefs. Rather than relying on their own narrative to determine the meaning of a text they begin to welcome the deepening of their own stories brought by others in the class telling their tales. The divergent personal narratives bring a universality to the common text; while the “canonized” text gives a significance in return to their personal stories which the students did not recognize before. When something one has to say is similiar to what one finds in Shakespeare more than a boost to one’s self-esteem occurs, one takes part in a conversation, as Mortimer Adler remarks, that has been going on for centuries.
In a graduate class, which ostensively was a survey course of Medieval English Literature, called English Identity and Cultural Formation, the professor tried to make us ask the question: Why these texts? What did the canonization of these texts create? Being a simplistic person I said they are the stories we tell each other. They are the stories we share. I once heard a story about the philospher, George Santayana. At the turn of the last century, Harvard was re-evaluating the literature they were having the boys of the American elite read. They came to Santayana and asked him what the students should read. He told them it didn’t matter as long as they all read the same books. By reading the same texts, no matter what they were studying or what they went on to accomplish in their later lives the students would have a base from which to conduct the conversation required of a democracy. Daphne Key quotes Robert Scholes, “What students need from us now is the kind of knowledge and skill that will enable them to make sense of their worlds, to determine their own interests, both individual and collective, to see through the manipulations of all sorts of texts in all sorts of media, and to express their own views in some appropriate manner.” The skills they learn from making connections between the stories the students read and the stories the students tell are a means to this end. The students own stories allow them access to the techniques and manipulations which authors use to tell their tales. Or as Richard Rorty writes, “ What a human being is . . is largely a matter of how he or she describes himself or herself. We have to take seriously the idea that what you experience yourself to be is largely a function of what it makes sense to describe yourself as in the languages you are able to use.”

End of Year

My students concluded their performances of Macbeth today. For the last two weeks, after working through the play using the Folger Shakespeare Library’s “Shakespeare Set Free,” and other stuff I have made up, my students break into self-selected groups and choose a scene from the play. Earlier in the week I video taped their “dress rehearsals;” they were terrible. Each year, they always are. Three days later after seeing themselves on tape, they performed in front of 40-60 peers in my classroom. They were nervous and pissed at me, but they were great. They did it all: blocking, interpretation, how to say the lines and react to what was said. They knew their characters, the motivations from line to line, even the minor characters. The audience applauded, and my students finished the year with the feeling that they had done something difficult successfully. Maybe I am deluding myself, but for the last decade I have ended my year with my students doing, really doing, Shakespeare, and it works. They are engaged to the last day they are in my class, and they are thinking through a difficult text making meaning in a social context. What more can an English teacher want to happen in her class? Success on a standardized test? Affirmation from some outside testing service? Are we, after years of being good students ourselves, such grade whores, that we as teachers willingly sell our students as commodities so we look good when they come back with good AP scores?

Two Haiku

1

With what word will I
wake, walking into the world?
The wind whispers, “Why?”

2

The fog dissipates;
trees in the creek refocus,
momentarily.

(summer 2006)

words, story, quotes

. . . you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps its done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my own story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

Samuel Beckett from The Unnamable p.382

In the beginning was the word, the always already there of the world we are born into. The story we are and are to become does not begin neatly with a question in French like War and Peace. Yet the novel does begin, as does our own story as well. What were they talking about before the topic of Napoleon, the quality of the tea, the taste of the madelines? Language is ongoing, yet simultaneously new. Eliot wrote that we only know how to say something when we no longer need to say it; is life a quest to to find the words we need to tell our story? Jimmy Britton said that reading and writing float on a sea of talk; language is the ocean we are flung into at birth. Who’s up for a swim?

I’ve thought for several years, at least since I was working on my Master’s , in the early nineties, that it would be interesting to write an essay that was comprised of only quotes. No linking bits of prose from me, just straight quotes; the reader could make the connections herself. It would be like Mortimer Adler’s great conversation except that I would be in control of who was invited to speak and who could say what when. A dinner party where I could pause and delete the conversation at will. A bit micromanaging, but then what writer isn’t an anal retentive control freak at heart. At least if they are honest. The necro-beat attitude espoused by Allen Ginsburg fans, “First thought, Best thought,” is true only if the first thought can lead to another and
then another in an endless chain of overleaping like dolphins in front of a ship’s bow.

This is where the quotes come in: I will be reading and a line or a phrase, or a paragraph, jumps out at me from the flow of prose sending my own thoughts in directions not followed by the rest of the passage. I used to be bothered by this, upset that I could not concentrate long enough to follow the complete thought pattern of the author, but I have grown accustomed to the tangential nature of my mind. It is not that I cannot follow other’s thoughts it is just that what they have to say makes me think of something else someone other than the original writer has written, or I think of something on my own. Although I am never sure if what I come up with is all that original. I must have stolen it from somewhere else; I felt a compulsive need to provide foot notes to my own thinking. Synthesis was not a virtue for me for many years. I remember wondering in high school how I could avoid plagiarizing when everything I wrote was not my own idea. Now as I have reentered academia the question comes up again as I read research articles where authors are cited seemingly at random since the writer’s themselves are never quoted. Perhaps I read too much, or have read for too many years, because I can’t remember where I read the idea I am pursuing. Like now, I am sure I have stolen this thought of stealing thoughts without knowing from where from somewhere but I do not know from where I have stolen it.

Of course nothing is original since the words I am using have all been used by someone else. The language is always already there, but at the same time it is always already changing to something else otherwise we would still speak like the Beowulf poet. My students, every year, when we start on a Shakespeare play complain about how they can’t read “Old English.” I tell them they are right, but Shakespeare is written in modern English. I show them Old English, Middle English, then a passage of Shakespeare: we do speak differently, but not enough. The language is still the language we speak, the language we were born into, the language in which we tell our story. You can quote me on that.

Werewolves Live Close to the Border

It’s as if;
Metamorphosis:
in probability,
improbability
to transformulate.
Translate the form;
refine, define
the infinite:
cross boundries- – –
land to land a step,
the word changes.
Is metaphor logic,
being different,
irregular when compared
like it’s as if?
Similiar to, yet
dissimiliar enough
to a simile to
name names like
It’s as if.

(Fall 1990)

As if

your own words are different
products of some other world
not the soft decadence slumbering
in the suburban streets

you speak of such important matters
full of precisely correct phrases
a discourse most unnatural
to those who talk to one another

have I been gone so long, so isolated
that the simple seasonal patterns
have lost the neighborly charm
of small talk upon the lawn

(summer 2006)

Storytelling: Get Your Story Straight, part one

Connie told a story about Daddy telling a story.
“ ‘The Jap plane came flying in over Diamond Head,’ the cigarette trailing smoke as he made a diving motion, mimicking the Zeroes with his hand, “their guns blazing. I dove for cover . . .’ He stopped in mid-sentence when the back door opened announcing Mom’s return from Dick’s Supermarket. ‘Go help your Mother, ‘ he mumbled, leaning back into the red velvet chair and lighting another Tareyton. Dad never came back to that story,” Connie laughed.
Neither of the other two of us kids ever heard him tell that one. We knew from previous stories, that he didn’t arrive at Pearl Harbor until after the attack on December 7th. There were countless other stories about his time in Hawaii: meeting Admiral Nimitz, avocadoes two for a nickel, the daily rain storms, watching Mauna Loa erupt, V-J day. All confirmed by the 16mm films he took, even if the footage of the volcano was store-bought, not made by him as he let us believe. My father told stories and never let truth get in the way of a good story. He knew instinctively it is often as important what the listener brings to the story as what the storyteller puts into the tale. The stories we tell ourselves and each other define who we are as individuals as well as who we are as a society.
The anthropologist, Emile Durkheim, says, “representative rites and collective recreations are so close to one another that men pass from one sort to another without any break in continuity.” My father told stories from his life: Austin gamblers in the early twenties giving him and his fellow Austin High football players cash tips after they won a game; voting illegally three times in a Chicago city election in the thirties, building an air field in Alaska right after the attack on Pearl Harbor; and countless others inspired by some seemingly small occurrence in our childhood lives. My father’s stories formed a nimbus of meaning that was somehow more significant than the world I knew on Flamingo Drive in Victoria, Texas. He created a mythos through his tales that has shaped my life. “It is true,” says Paul Rodin, “every primitive community, are clothed in magical and ritualistic dress.” The material from which this cloth is cut comes from the stories we relate to one another talking over breakfast, sitting around the teacher’s lounge, working with our students in the classroom. In my class, my students, with my encouragement, make connections between their lives and the books they read, a text-to-self connection in the jargon of reading teachers. Daphne Key writes, “As teachers and students, we have the opportunity each day to create stories of hope set in a respectful and loving world. As teachers we have the power in our always-being-imagined stories to identify meaningful markers for ourselves and our students; it is our obligation to ensure their reflection.” Often as my students make the connection, or as they attempt to explain a statement about a character they tell a story about their father or mother, or aunt, sister, or themselves. More often than not one student’s story inspires several other students to eagerly relate one of their own. From these stories, we all tell and share, come the mythology through which we live. Ernst Cassier wrote, “There is mythology now as there was in the time of Homer, we do not perceive it, because we ourselves live in the very shadow of it.”