Thursday, January 30, 2014

on thinking, and failing, teaching, and moving on

I am thinking about Lyn Hejinian. I used to do this a lot. I was optimistic and had time to think about the relationship between theory and practice in writing. I have more often since spent time jumping around from one quick thing to another, focused on teaching any variety of introductory topics in writing, in composition, jumping around trying to send things out to be rejected by publishers. But right now I am thinking about *rejecting closure* and I am going back to the text. And the text means more to me now, or means differently, 12 or so years after initially encountering the essay and finishing  my MFA, two years after finishing a Ph.D., a process which has/had its own effect on thinking about form and the open text. I am reopening to rejecting closure, or opening differently. Hejinian writes:

"The implication (correct) is that the words, and the ideas (thoughts,      
perceptions, etc.--the  materials) continue beyond the work. One has simply 
stopped because one has run out of units of minutes, and not because a 
conclusion has been reached nor "everything" said."

I often have drawn analogies between (open) writing and real life. Teaching what Bernstein calls "difficult" poetry, teaching innovative or experimental work, one has to think about how to articulate ideas about form. Form is at times like life: it is messy; we don't think in linear, coherent narrative ways; we rarely reach conclusions but rather spend much more time in the process; the thinking or the work exceeds the parameters of the work...etc. Hejinian writes, "Form is not a fixture but an activity."

It would serve well to keep this in mind in other ways. The process, the activity is what is important. As writers, we are supposed to enjoy the process, love the activity of writing, feel vocationally drawn to the work. The point is not to focus on worldly success and publication popularity. But it is, or it has become. Ultimately it doesn't matter what I teach my students or how I spend my writing time and practice if I don't have the more important things to put on my CV: publications in nationally recognized presses, fellowships, and brand-name awards. And this is confirmed constantly. I am looking for places to send my poetry manuscripts. I look up the judge of a current contest. She has studied with important(ly recognized) poets. On her blog, she write:

 ..."Every time I checked it[Facebook], there were ecstatic statuses like “My book just got picked up!” “My children’s book just won a big award!” “I just got a giant grant!” etc. And I was really happy for everyone. Really happy. Happy. Really. Until, as the night wore on and I wore out, all of the success started feeling like constant tiny pinpricks. And, to make it worse, if it wasn’t good news about writing or publishing it was pictures of their super stylish, cozy fireplaces. And suddenly I didn’t feel like writing anymore, I felt like feeling sorry for myself. I felt like I should get a full time job being the Director of Feeling Sorry for Myself." (go here:

I spend a lot of time feeling sorry for myself. But lately I have been thinking, maybe I am just tired, exhausted, cynical, out of energy for the kinds of things I am supposed to be doing to be a successful person. I cannot do the writing and revising and submitting of all of the different projects which make me an attractive candidate for jobs. I cannot do the lengthy applications and get reference letters for distinguished residencies and fellowships. I don't want to apply for things that will take me out of the country for extended periods of time because I would miss my dog too much, and where would she go while I was gone? I have to teach a lot of classes to pay the bills and so I hardly have time to think about the kinds of projects I want to do. Or, rather, the projects I want to do (new essay writing projects, writing small poems for fun, thinking about how to write a novel of my own...) are completely distorted by the lists of writing and publishing I should be doing for professionalizing purposes. And this makes me feel schizophrenic, and exhausted. I was reading an article recently, which I may or not have marked to go back and find later, written by a woman who for years wrote on a *successful* blog about I can't remember what in relation to her academic field of interest. The blog had many readers, received positive feedback and comments regularly, was a personally fulfilling endeavor for the writer. And she decided to give it up, in order to economize I guess, to focus more time on other (more professionally recognizable) kinds of publishing in her academic realm. (Oh wait, I did save it, here it is: What's the Point of Academic Publishing?)  And interestingly, she is a fiction writer. I say interesting, because one would think there would be more room in the academic creative writing world for more freedom of writing and publishing (than say in the academic literature world, which can be oppressive in terms of publications and resume building), which is in fact, becoming less and less true. 

And so I am ruining what little is left of my academic career by writing this nonsense here. But then I also read this, from the poet quoted above:

"I tried to remember my old meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, at the Tibet House in New York City—where I first learned how to be more myself—and what she said about “sympathetic joy.” She writes: “The term is unusual; sympathy is commonly used in the sense of feeling bad for others. Learning to share their joy revolutionizes our thinking about where we can find happiness. Usually we rejoice in what we get, not in what others have. But sympathetic joy is a practice of generosity." 

"It’s one of the four brahmavihāras (Buddhist virtues). And apparently, I’m bad at it. Something that happens to me when I am faced with a barrage of other people’s good news is, I make a list of all my failures. Here's where I take a deep breath and admit this: The novel that I've been working on for three years--that has so much life in it, so many great characters, small powerful moments, well-crafted rants--doesn't work. And I guess I’m finally ready to say that out loud. It’s hard to admit that something you’ve focused on for 3 years is a failure. But it’s true and I’m better at other things—like poetry, like walking the dog."
I do that, I list my failures. Though I have also been practicing, making a more concerted effort at being more happy for other people. And I am also a failure, or I have been failing at many of the things I have been working on, not for three years, but for almost 15 years. I have an MFA, a Ph.D., and no real books that count in the academic creative world, or in the regular world for that matter. Even part-time instructors get hired now, because they have publications and are known as writers, into jobs that shouldn't require such kinds of CV glamorizing. Instead of spending extra time in my Ph.D. program (it took seven years as it was) to publish papers before finishing the dissertation, I finished the dissertation and graduated, which would seem like an accomplishment. But really, the people getting the academic jobs publish first, graduate second, and then get jobs while they are still fresh(ly indoctrinated), before they have time to learn about the violence of academia from an outsider perspective.

And yet, I have come back to Hejinian, because instead of reading her as a student, I am now teaching her essay. Even though no one else can see the kinds of successes that happen in my classroom except me (and students realize success in different ways during or after any particular semester of a class), I have learned, continually, so much from teaching. I have learned about myself. I have learned how to have faith in people. I always learn new ideas and new ways of thinking about material that we read and discuss together, whether I have read it a hundred times before or never encountered it at all previously. And although teaching is exhausting, and one cranky student can wipe me out completely, the fulfillment that happens when one student shares a feeling of accomplishment, or a realization, or says thank you, or grows in a way that is so amazing to me to watch is an irreplaceable feeling of fulfillment. I have had amazing students, and I hope I help some of them to be the people they are in the world. Some of them I know are better and stronger and more confident writers when they leave the class at the end of the semester. And some of them may be more thoughtful people when they leave too.

But none of that goes on my CV, not really. Instead my long list of teaching experience, my narratives about teaching in my application letters, highlight the fact that I spend much more time teaching and thinking about teaching than writing and publishing. This isn't actually true though either. I spend so much time thinking about writing and publishing, and I spend a lot of time sending out submissions for possible publishing, and I get a lot of rejections. I am failing at that all around. And I would prefer to have more time for writing and publishing, because I know that part of the problem is not having enough time to go deeper, in terms of writing and revising, and being thoughtful and doing better research for publishing. But I also know I need to focus on the kinds of writing projects that are important to me, and not to some other fuzzy world entity that I imagine is judging me.

And I don't have any answers, but I love this section from Hejinian's essay:

"Because we have language we find ourselves in a special and peculiar relationship to the objects, events, and situations which contitute what we imagine of the world. Language generates its own characteristics in the human psychological and spiritual conditions. Indeed, it nearly is our psychological condition.

"This psychology is generated by the struggle between language and that which it claims to depict or express, by our overwhelming experience of the vastness and uncertainty of the world, and by what often seems to be the inadequacy of the imagination that longs to know it--and, furthermore, for the poet, the even greater inadequacy of the language that appears to describe, discuss, or disclose it. This psychology situates desire in the poems itself, or,  more specifically, in poetic language, to which then we may attribute the motive for the poem.

"Language is one of the principal forms our curiosity takes. It makes us restless." Yes it does. And I wouldn't give this up, even if sometimes I let it make me crazy. 

And this, in part, is why I write, why I am interested in the kinds of writing that I read (like Hejinian), and why I teach.


Friday, January 24, 2014

the form of content

how detroit is half full, of color, graffiti lines etched
on a postcard, coral against blue, outline of a skyscraper

a skyscraper, against a forest, can you hear it, in color
like graffiti that is art, publicly, on a wall, that is a city

a quixotic illusion of space, on a horse or in a dream
a city is a heart full of water, pumping, like life in the veins of an ocean

an ocean of coral colored art, on posters that surround the city
of water, against a building of glass and dreams, or excursions

from one story into another, adventure etched in lines
on a wall, against a city, as large as Quixote, as real as the fantastical

postcard, layered in blues, pumping like veins half full
of illusion and scenery, a windmill falling, a knight striving

a striving etched in opposite pages, of space, layered in colored graffiti
like an ocean, told on walls, in grooves, at the very tip of the tallest building

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

you have to use words...

on Frank O'Hara's long poem Second Avenue:

"Second Avenue is a poem of brilliant excess and breakneck inventiveness, beginning: "Quips and players, seeming to vend astringency off-hours, / celebrate diced excesses and sardonics, mixing pleasures, / as if proximity were staring at the margin of the plea. . . ." This is language in love with itself. The poem is dedicated to Mayakovsky, one of O'Hara's great heroes (though an early draft is inscribed to de Kooning), and certainly the images throughout are as wide-ranging and as startling as Mayakovsky's, but they arrive more rapidly and with less continuity, jostling for attention, a bewildering mixture. Moreover, they do not have Mayakovsky's large, carrying, unifying voice. O'Hara himself explained: "where Mayakovsky and de Kooning come in, is that they both have done works as big as cities where the life in the work is autonomous (not about actual city life) and yet similar." Here the result is a highly mosaic-like, patterned surface. "The verbal elements," by the poet's own insistence, "are extended consciously to keep the surface of the poem high and dry, not wet, reflective and self-conscious." But it is perhaps the most difficult of all accomplishments in art, the texture of surface appearance. "Perhaps," O'Hara continues, "the obscurity comes in here, in the relationship between the surface and the meaning, but I like it that way since the one is the other (you have to use words) and I hope the poem to be the subject, not just about it." At this point O'Hara began adapting the processes of surrealism to the conception of poetic form founded on the idea that the poem is an enactment of the actuality of perception and the realization of thinking. The achievement of a form, then, which was also the imperative of Abstract Expressionism, brought O'Hara into the creative ambience of the painters.""


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

under glass

i painted you
against a wall
in a gallery

seen over
these words

under glass

silence of words

on canvas
out of the world

like fog
under glass
words covered
in paint

against a wall

Monday, January 13, 2014

Poems in Split Lip

See new poems from a collaborative project with Laura Wetherington and Hannah Ensor in Split Lip:

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

if you could, the dishwasher. and then some, the snow. in any case, some cheese. on another hand, sitting stationary. in this case, hunger. I'll tell you what, scraping by. somehow soon, the dog. if you please, my finger. and then some, more blankets. if one might suggest, ham with the cheese.if you could, there is still light lingering above. if you will, the sharing of the laundry. I might add, I have been reading the poems. in this case, a degree of language. and then some, metaphor. if one might be so inclined, the continuous warming. in this case, a continuous freezing. one might suggest, more cleaning. one might suggest, fewer accidents. one might consider, an improved condition. in any case, a layering of cold. in every case, the accumulation. if you could, the litany of requests. if you might, the perseverance. I might add, the scales of the fish, shimmering, just before. one might suggest, cooking thoroughly. if you are inclined, the tender caress of buttons. if you please, domestic bliss. if you please, a consideration of geography. one might imagine, the topography of emotion. one might imagine, texture. one might encounter, exactly this moment.