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.”

Small Talk

It’s wednesday night. I have one class left this semester and one paper, which I of course have not started. My students are five days away from finishing Macbeth when they will then start preparing their final performances for their final. I am tired and frustrated with both my doc program and teaching. I am not sure if I want to do either any more. But don’t know what else I would do. But the basketball playoffs have started, and the Spurs won tonight. I am watching Dallas and having a large dark rum. Life can be good.

"The Citizen Factory" and the TAKS Test: I am a Schill for the Man

I am sitting in the hall of my school, monitoring student movement while the students are taking the TAKS test. Since I started teaching 18 years ago, one form or another of high stakes testing has been predominate in the Texas schools. From the start I have been troubled by the test. My first year of teaching I had to stop the kind of writing my students were producing, creative explosions of language, to teach formulaic essay patterns that would score high enough to pass the TEAMS. My students’ writing decayed. “By structuring classwork around exams rather than around dialogue between teachers and students, both became coparticipants in a simulacrum of learning that never required them to actively engage content or their own relationship to it; more important was “the ritual of seeming to deal with the topic” (McNeil 1986: 175 as cited in Luykx 1999, p. 182). One of the multitude of problems I have with the school system in which I am a part is the increasing emphasis on state mandated testing, the “skills” the students are supposed to be learning, which the test is supposed to be testing, become secondary to learning how to take the test. It is not just teaching to the test, but teaching of the test.
Yet, if one goes along with Luykx, the school is not necessarily a place where students learn to think or become adept in a given topic, but rather school is a locale where students are transformed into conforming citizens. Everything from the way teachers speak with the students to the structure of the curriculum lends itself to the reproduction of the goals and privileges of the hegemonic elite.
Not that this is all that new; Dewey in “Democracy and Education” viewed school as the main socializing instrument. However, a part of becoming a part of society is to create citizens who think and act the same. In order for this to occur much of what is seen as veering from the norm has to be oppressed; the school is the ideal location for this oppression to be taught. Luykx describes the school system in Bolivia, but as I read the book I kept having to remind myself that she was not conducting her ethnography in the U.S. “Bolivia’s public schools have accomplished their implicit social mission, if not always their stated pedagogical one” (Luykx 1999, p. 51). The implicit social mission is to maintain the status quo, although “the myth of schooling” is that the more school you have is directly related to economic benefits, in reality much of what occurs in the school contributes to the continued oppression of minorities and “others” who do not fit into the dominant hegemonic power structure. “Restricting access to education (or limiting it to the primary grades) is one of the most efficient ways of assuring this distribution of labor) (Luykx 1999, p. 51). In Bolivia Luykx pointed out the social differences in urban and rural students, I saw it as correlated to the increasing stratification by “ability’ groups in the U.S. The social structure of white dominance is reinforced by the de facto tracking of students into “regular” and “Advanced Placement” strands. While portrayed as open admission where students choose to take the AP classes, when one looks at the ethnic make-up of the classes the regular classes have a much higher percentage of African-american and Hispanic students when compared to the AP classes. Thus reinforcing the ideological and social control of the ruling elite.
While I found “The Citizen Factory” to be fascinating and pertinent to the concept of figured worlds and to schooling in general, it was also depressing. I am not sure that real change can occur. While I have a strong belief in the romantic idea that education is the mark of a free person, I also see the insidious control that the school exerts on society. It is a problem that has bothered me for several years now: how to be apart from and a part of society simultaneously. I guess that is why I am still in school: I am looking for a shape to assume.

polite conversation

I say something
perhaps about daffodils
or not about war
but wanting to nonetheless

some impertinence
lobbed like a spit ball
into a conversation
no one truly enjoyed

all offense without remorse
bluster clotted on a stick
just another bludgeon
to beat upon the weak

yet a semblance of decorum
disguises the edge on a smile
sometimes daffodils are not enough
and war, well, is always war
(2006)

Getting Wild With Willy

I started Shakespeare today. For the last eleven years (God I’ve been teaching forever), I have taught a Shakespeare play after spring break. I know it is near the end of the school year if I have started Billy. One summer before I even thought of teaching a play, I took the best workshop ever: Shakespeare in Blue Jeans, conducted by Paul Sullivan. It followed the methodology of the Folger Shakespeare Library (get the students on their feet with the words in their mouths from the very first day). The workshop has caused much of my teaching to change over the years. Shakespeare is the best part of my year; it is a massive amount of prep work and I am tired almost every day for the last nine weeks of school. I love it. And I think my students love it as well. When I run into old students who were in my classes as eighth graders, Shakespeare and the part they played in Twelfth Night are what they remember and talk about in a positive way years after they were in my class. I take my compliments where I can get them and I take that as a big compliment. Anyway, today I had my students up on their feet chanting lines from Green Eggs and Ham, clapping their hands and stomping their feet in time to the rythmn. Then we moved on to “double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.” After about six-seven minutes in the classroom, I took them into a nearby hall that has a very high ceiling and a magnificent echo. We chanted and clapped and stomped very loudly through the two lines from Macbeth twice, then ran back into the room. A science teacher stuck her head out of her door during first period and shouted down at us, “Is there a teacher with you guys?” My students and I laughed as we hurried back into my room. Sometimes it is hard to tell if there is a teacher in the room.

Lies?

Blind acceptance is a sign
of stupid fools who stand in lines
-The Sex Pistols

Brush aside the thought
like a tiresome dog.
Honestly,
I don’t want to be
challenged:

I’d rather wallow here – –
tracing the pattern
on the arm
of this familiar chair
comfortable in
who I say I am,
to myself.

(2007)

Notes on Semiotic Mediation, Inner Speech and the Formation of Intimate Aspects of Identity

Figured Worlds are the cultural spaces in which we as individuals participate. Through our participation, we begin to define ourselves and the worlds we inhabit. Upon entering the world, and overtime, we learn the rules of the “game” ala Vygotsky, eventually internalizing the rules well enough to improvise our moves within the allowed parameters of the world. Eventually we have inculcated the figured world to such an extent that we no longer think about the game, but have become the game.
I wonder at what point we stop being thinking agents in the figured world and when do we become so enmeshed in the culture of the figured world that we are controlled more by the unspoken aspects of the world than we are improvising agents in that world? Much of the concept of figured worlds reminds me of James Gee’s view of tacit and implicit ideologies. Everyone functions with/in an ideology, it is either an unacknowledged ideology (tacit), or acknowledged ideology (implicit). But no matter which one is in place, the ideology determines the kind of discourse that can take place. The same is true for figured worlds. We define ourselves, and are defined by, the worlds we have entered, or where we have been placed, either as an active participant, as the older members of the AA meetings discussed in Holland, or as hesitant/resistant members as some of the girls in the chapter on romance in Holland. Of course, we create our inner selves with the socially allowed discourses. As Mead wrote, “The mechanism of introspetion is therefore give in the social attitude which man necessarily assumes toward himself, and the mechanism of thought, in so far as thought uses symbols which are used in social intercourse, is but an inner conversation” (Mead 1913, p.377).
I do wonder how consciously the members of the AA group refigured their narratives to better fit the normative/normalizing narrative to better follow the palimpsest laid down originally in “The Big Book.” Does a person change to enter into a figured world or is he absorbed into the collective, changed by the figured world he is entering? Or perhaps both at the same time; the changer and the change shifting positions in an on going reciprocal relationship.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s description of the waiter as only being the waiter when he is in the act of waiting on tables, or Martin Heidegger’s hammer is only a hammer when it is being used as a hammer comes to mind, as well, when I read about figured worlds. A person’s existence is made manifest through her action in the world from an existential viewpoint; whereas, the identity of the individual manifests itself through active participation in the norms of the figured world. The participants in the AA meetings became alcoholics only when they accepted the narrative structures of the group. The Chicana/o activists through their similar experiences leading toward a “raised consciousness” (or culturally defined way of knowing), saw themselves and the larger figured world of whitestream society in a new light, thus defining themselves simultaneously in a new figured world, that of the Chicana/o activist, and as an agent in resistance to the oppressive hegemonic whitestream world.