Words fail, & yet–

On December 24, 2012, I posted about a school shooting. So little has changed.

Words fail. And I work in a classroom setting, as do many of my friends and colleagues, and my children’s friends and colleagues (now in their 30s and willing to be teachers–bless them!). These events are not things we can ignore by staying in our own little bubbles of “it can’t happen here.”

~

Words have failed so profoundly that I’m out in the garden instead, or indoors cleaning my bathrooms or reading books. Books–always my solace when my own words fail.

My latest good read is David Crystal‘s 2004 The Stories of English, already out of date in its last chapter–a fact I’m sure he gleefully acknowledges. I adore his love of how language evolves and find his non-prescriptivist approach refreshing and necessary if we are to keep literacy and communication alive. This book gave me so much information, enriched the knowledge I already have about our language, and made me laugh, too. Granted, it is word-geek humor…but that’s how I roll.

And I needed a few laughs this past week or so. My heart aches; I am sore afflicted for more reasons than I care to explain at present, though the headline news certainly has much to do with my mood. Crystal’s book got me thinking about the course I teach (come fall) and how I’ve already toned down the prescriptiveness in order to convince my students they can write and can be successful with written communication; that they are not “wrong,” just that their audience for written work differs, in college, from high school and from text messaging and other forms of writing. Crystal says we who teach English need to get over the concern about split infinitives and pronoun antecedent agreement and focus on clarity and genuine expression. I have no argument with him there–but many people I know would quibble and complain. And the English lexicon offers us so many options for how to say we disagree!

~

A book about words–but no, a book about human communication through the mediation of words, spoken and written, and how we got to the forms (plural!) of English we now use to express ourselves. There’s a kind of splendid optimism in Crystal’s thinking about language that somehow made me feel a little less low in spirit. Ah, yes. The solace of books.

Shy

When I was in elementary school, my teachers described me as “shy.” A few of them commented that I was “creative” and “smart.” It’s strange how these adjectives for character traits came to shape how I perceived and pegged myself, and I suppose I’m not alone in this. I considered creativity to be something positive and smartness a little daunting, but I felt ambivalence around the term shy. In the 1960s, shyness could be an admired trait among girls because it meant we were not disruptive. But I didn’t think that was all so wonderful, when the children I admired were often loud and funny. While teachers might have appreciated shyness in a pupil, children tended to think me nerdy or, worse, standoffish and snobby. Shy was not much of a compliment.

shy (adj.) late Old English sceoh “timid, easily startled, shrinking from contact with others,” from Proto-Germanic *skeukh(w)az “afraid” (source also of Middle Low German schüwe, Dutch schuw, German scheu “shy;” Old High German sciuhen, German scheuchen “to scare away”).

Online Etymology Dictionary

Hence the metaphor of the shrinking violet, the wallflower. I was fond of plants, but I did not necessarily want to be one. The introverted, reflective young person is seldom socially popular in the USA, and my budding self-confidence took a hit in the public school environment. Was I really timid and easily frightened–or was I just dreamy, bookish, unconventionally funny, skinny, tall, bespectacled, and not particularly socially adept?

Elena Elisseeva, Spring Violets @ fineartamerica.com

One trait I developed as a shy child was a capacity to listen to others. I wanted to hear their stories, their points of view, their silly songs, their big ideas. What I regret is that later on, when I gained some self-confidence and began telling my own tales or dispersing acquired knowledge and advice, I lost some of my listening ability. It took hard work and practice on my part to feel secure when speaking to groups, and I started with the hardest practice: reading my own poetry aloud to other people. Eventually the shyness wore off, for the most part.

Then I had to get the listening back. Raising children was a tough balance between saying and listening. I fault myself for not listening quite enough. As an instructor, I found it difficult to listen to a group of students: too much cacophony, too many distractions, hard to gauge where the conversation was headed. I’ve always felt more comfortable with one-to-one tutoring, which makes listening so much easier. As this semester has wrapped, I find I am already dwelling on the fall. What did covid-protocol instruction teach me? Mostly that the listening is even more important than I thought. The students still feel freaked out; overwhelmed by, more than excited about, their futures. I can’t blame them and want to make room for their stories…not to shy away from them, especially if any of them are feeling “timid, easily startled, shrinking from contact with others.”

Prompted

I have been composing new poems, a welcome development spurred in part by my participation in a poetry workshop (see my last post here). Meanwhile, the college semester has resumed, and my colleagues who teach poetry have been discussing and sharing writing prompts.

For those readers who are not poets: A writing prompt is a sort of assignment in associative thinking or use of a craft strategy that the instructor offers as a form of inspiration or motivation to get creative writing started. There are entire books on this topic. Most writers go through dry spells or low motivation, and teachers need new ideas to keep their students doing the actual practice of writing even when bolts from the blue do not arrive to shake the creative spirit into gear.

I will admit to mixed feelings about prompts. Prompts can act as shortcuts to the process of composing, but I am the kind of writer who prefers the long haul; for some reason, the struggle of finding something to say, and an interesting way to say it, assists me in writing poems. I’m not in a hurry. I revise frequently. If it takes a long time to get to the finished poem, so be it. Sometimes I’ve followed a prompt and produced quite a nice poem, but maybe the voice or style or approach does not feel like my own. That’s a potential downside to prompt use. I have read poems by other writers that sound like prompt-produced poems. Some of them are fine work and yet…

This isn’t to suggest prompts lead to inauthentic or cookie-cutter poems (though that can happen, especially with inexperienced poets new to the task). I think it depends on how the prompt is presented or written and, in addition, the environment surrounding the process of thinking about writing. What works best for me is a prompt that makes suggestions I have to complete or devise for myself. Ambiguity with specifics, if that makes any sense–or specifics with ambiguity.

The environment in which I’m currently working includes a group of seven people, with whom I had not previously been acquainted, meeting online, and a moderator/leader who makes observations non-judgmentally and asks questions concerning where this poem draft could go next. And yes, there are also prompts. What I like about Elena Georgiou’s prompts is their open-endedness. Because none of us are beginning writers, we feel free to disregard any part of the prompt that doesn’t appeal to us–or to follow it closely to force us out of well-worn poetry habits–depending on our internal environment on the day we happen to be tuning in or trying the prompts. We are a group of independent people who are collectively thinking about writing. That’s something of value.

Winterwords

It wasn’t exactly a New Year’s resolution–I do not bother with those–but I have promised myself to spend more time on poetry again following a fairly long interval, not exactly a hiatus, but…

Serendipity, then, to learn of Two Trees Writing Collaborative‘s poetry workshop that is taking place online in the early months of the year when motivation’s most welcome. As well as a chance to meet other writers where they are as the pandemic limps along. This online workshop is facilitated by Elena Georgiou, who was one of my advisor/mentors when I was in graduate school at Goddard. Feels like old times (not. because modality-virtuality-experience much altered). I have drafted four new poems, and the process is fun though the output has been mediocre so far; well, one must sometimes prime the engine.

I’m also reading Anthony BurgessNothing Like the Sun, wildly Shakespearean rollicking-with-language, a novel that reads like iambic pentameter. I’m thinking of poetic cadence, which is a craft aspect of poetry that has not been much on my mind until renewed by this novel. Not that rhythm is unimportant to my work, but thinking about it hasn’t been foremost. I have been thinking more about lyricism lately, it seems my default mode.

And I’m thinking about winter, and snow.

A photo taken by Claire McCrea, in Colorado, earlier this month. Something about this image says “Winter” to me and conjures Japanese woodblock prints that act as visual haiku.

What I would really like to do: make more time to revise the huge stack of old poems languishing in various boxes. And perhaps submit work to journals again, and send out the most recent manuscript. Patience with self is what I need right now, but also a kick in the derriere.

Collecting & creativity

Somehow or another, I completed a chapbook manuscript. The longer collection is coming together, as well. Yet it feels to me as though I have not spent nearly enough time on my creative work. And when I find myself awake at 3 in the morning, it’s not poetry that runs through my mind. Usually those wee-hour thoughts are work-related. I guess that makes me normal.

The next step, once a writer has completed a manuscript, is to have another writer or two review it; I’ve done that, too. So now? I guess I submit the work and find out whether a publisher agrees the poem collection does the job of poetry.

And I get prepared for rejection. Comes with the territory.

Upon reflection, the reason I feel I haven’t been doing creative work is that I am not generating many new poems right now. Some, but not many. But let’s re-think the process of revision: it’s a process of deciding upon the order poems should appear in a book, and which of the poems ought to be there to speak to one another, to resonate with one another (and with the imagined future reader). Hey, I am using my imagination here, and I am doing creative work. If all I ever do is generate new poems, those poems won’t have a chance to go out into the world and endeavor to speak to other humans.

Figuring out how to make that happen is the creative work of revising, editing, rethinking. Imagining the reader. Striking the tone of each individual poem to see whether it adds harmony, or works with a fugue-like trope, or changes the mood to minor, or unleashes a surprise. The book of poems can have an arc or act as a chorale or zigzag about to keep the reader on her toes.

The collection of poetry, when it is not yet a book, presents problems the writer and editor must solve. Problem-solving requires creative thinking–I tell my students this almost every time I see them in class!

Will the manuscripts find homes? That’s a different “problem.” Meanwhile, more new poems, more revisions, maybe more manuscripts ahead…while I await the first frost, while the leaves turn and fall. All part of the cycle.

Practice

When students struggle, I nod as kindly as I can. Do they need to know they’re not alone? Seven billion of us, each with struggles of our own. It takes practice, I tell them, and practice takes time. But persistent patience isn’t common among young folk, who seek strategies, shortcuts, miracles.

They yearn to know what I know so easily, are astonished that words and thoughts can spool smoothly–they think so, bless them–as though there were dictionaries and references in my mind. If they would believe me when I say: it’s possible to learn–

They never realize I haven’t always been old or knowledgeable, that practice continues and, dear students, so does struggle.

We can practice that, too.

~

You noisy jays!
scattering
       the mourning doves

Why don’t you write?

I was an avid letter-writer once, a great correspondent, a reliable pen pal. In return, I received long, descriptive letters from far-flung friends and relished every trip to my mailbox to discover what had arrived that day. A letter from a friend? A poem rejection? A poem acceptance? A postcard from a family member off traveling? Critique and feedback from a poetry-colleague on a series of poems? Junk mail, bills…

These days, my mailbox mostly disgorges junk mail and bills. The few friends who write lengthy correspondence usually do so by email (which I do, truly do, appreciate). My keen interest in other people’s thinking, and my opportunity to acquire perspective into their lives, must now be satisfied by other means. That’s why I follow blogs and other “long-form social media.” (I thought I had coined that term, but apparently it has been in the lexicon awhile.)

Is a letter just a blog written for an audience of one? Is a blog a diary written for an imagined public, or is it a letter to the world? What purpose do private journals serve for those of us who keep them? And what’s behind the urge to keep old correspondence? The discovery of a cache of letters features in many novels and in a host of memoirs and histories, so there’s some kind of human-interest frisson resonating there. Perhaps the simple fact that such writings were intended to be private–that audience of one–piques curiosity.

For me the hardest aspect of letting go of past correspondence is that so many of the people to whom I wrote letters have died. In my attic, there are boxes of letters from these departed friends…suggesting a different meaning for the phrase “dead letter.” In a similar vein, there certainly exist blogs by now-dead writers that remain in the cloud, hanging stuck in the interwebs. Are these memorial pages, or are they digital ghosts, and to whom do they belong?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The intersections and overlaps between these related forms of written expression intrigue me. And the nosiness interests me, too. Isn’t that one reason we like to read literature–to get an intimate peek at how other people behave, respond, solve problems, form relationships, think about society and values? To imagine to ourselves what bad behavior feels like and what its consequences can be? Or to find insights as to what generosity and love can accomplish; to gain a sense of empathy, even compassion. Plays, memoirs, novels, and poems operate like that. I’m not sure blogs and diaries work quite the same way with their readerships, but they may do.

Maybe what keeps me following any kind of writing is just the fact that I love to read.

~

Why don’t you write me?
I’m out in the jungle, I’m hungry to hear you
Send me a card
I am waiting so hard to be near you
Why don’t you write?
Something is wrong
And I know I got to be there
Maybe I’m lost
But I can’t make the cost of the airfare
Tell me why (Why, why)
Tell me why (Why, why)
Why don’t you write me?
A letter would brighten my loneliest evening
Mail it today
If it’s only to say that you’re leaving me…

Paul Simon

Conferencing, distance

Rather at the last minute, I found out that West Chester University’s Poetry Center was hosting a virtual conference during National Poetry Month. Previous WCU poetry conferences have been in person, and often in June; I used to attend when I had the time and money, since I can drive to West Chester in about an hour. For years, my full-time job has interfered. This time, the fee was low and the panelists and readers were people whose work I enjoy. While I could not attend all of the sessions or enroll in a 3-day workshop, I could at least “zoom in” to many of the events.

I’m glad I did. But before I write about this year’s conference, a brief history of my experience at past WCU Poetry conferences.

Initially, the conference poets focused on formal poetry: writing in forms, meters, and employing rhyme at a time when the major forces in U.S. poetry leaned more toward free verse. Dana Gioia was one of the co-founders, and the conference brought in such writers as Anthony Hecht, David Mason, Rachel Hadas, Marilyn Nelson, Richard Wilbur, Molly Peacock, and Timothy Steele…to name just a few (I haven’t forgotten the others, I just cannot list them all!). If you’re not familiar with them, Google their names and locate some of their poems; their work is considered “formal.” By some. The term itself is rather fraught. I’ll skip that argument for now.

It took considerable bravery on my part to participate in the conference the first time I attended, because I was writing mostly free verse, was not an academic, and was more or less acclimated to being a not-very-ambitious stay-at-home mother. I’d started my MFA program, however, and told my advisor that I wanted to learn the things I’d missed concerning historical patterns of poetry. I loved and grew up with rhymed and metered poems but had no idea how to create them. Hence: the WCU conference, which happened to be near enough that I could get away and back for four days and not have to do too much re-scheduling to accommodate my kids, pets, garden, and spouse.

Frankly, I was intimidated. The poets were all so…accomplished. Most were college professors, many were critics, lots of them had written books–lots of books–and even many of the people attending had won prizes and had significant publications. They were keenly and frighteningly “smart” folks, well-read and well-traveled. But after awhile, I felt more at ease. Sam Gwynn, Molly Peacock, and David Mason were hilarious. Rachel Hadas demonstrated intense and generous listening, and was so kind. And I learned so much (and bought so many books…) that I attended at least four more WCU conferences. Then I got too busy.

The Poetry Center and the conference have changed directorship a few times. For awhile, the late (and wonderful) Kim Bridgford, who later established the Poetry by the Sea Conference, was at the helm; currently, the Center’s guided by Cherise Pollard, who came up with the theme that drove this year’s panels and workshops: The Healing Power of Empathy. Healing and empathy are qualities we need when times are hard and seas are rough. It’s important to remember that healing requires change. It’s a change-state verb. Sometimes those changes feel uncomfortable, painful–and empathy can help, as long as we employ it in an active way (empathy as a change-state).

I managed to draft a sonnet in 15 minutes, thanks to Molly Peacock, and heard some new-to-me voices in poetry, and listened to poets who are deeply engaged in the work and art of poetry discuss their processes, enthuse over their influences, and say what drives their curiosity. I found kindred writers who are, like me, endeavoring to put voice to people with dementia and express the grief we experience as our Best Beloveds lose personality, language, ego-consciousness.

Lesley Wheeler shared the writing prompts her panel put together on her blog, here; she and her four co-panelists (see blog) reflected on feeling across distance, another apropos topic in the current times. It seems we can and do find methods to be human together, even when we are apart. I think of all the letters I wrote when I was in college, and afterward, as I moved around the eastern USA, changed addresses, and tried to keep my friends and family informed as to who I was and what my interests were. In my attic, there are boxes of correspondence written in the days before email. Many of them are now letters from ghosts. Words I will never hear again from living mouths, but a way we kept “in touch” despite, and over, distance. And still do.

Expanding universe

I just finished reading Lisa Randall’s book about the Large Hadron Collider, which I read because…well, I knew it would be over my head as far as the applicable physics experiments go; but I was curious about what exactly the Higgs boson particle is and how it fits into the Standard Model of physics. And now I know. Sort of.

It is difficult not to feel a bit awed by the strides made in science as a result of rapid technological advances. On the sociological and personal level, I am not a big fan of rapid tech updates; they lead to planned or unplanned obsolescence and hence to constant capital expenditures and to waste (trash waste and time waste). The technology leads to experimental possibilities we would not have had otherwise, however.

At the close of the book, where the author wraps up the way engineering tech has dovetailed with abstract and speculative physics theories to show evidence for the Big Bang and the existence of quarks (among other things), there’s an illustration of the “ballooniverse,” an analogy physicists use to explain the expanding universe. I felt a rush of memory flooding me:

Freshman year in a seminar college. The class was Astronomical Physics and Cosmology. For context, Hubble had discovered red shift galaxies in 1929; cosmic microwave background was detected in 1964; Wilson and Penzias won the Nobel Prize–three years after my freshman year–for their work, which led to confirmation of an expanding universe. The term “black holes” was relatively new, coined during the mid-60s; and a theoretical explanation of them had not yet been determined. Oh, and because desk calculators were large and prohibitively expensive, my fellow students and I were using slide rules for calculations of stellar magnitudes.

Did I mention I had never taken a maths course beyond Algebra 2?

But our professor was enthusiastic and encouraging and loved using metaphors to help our teenaged brains decipher challenging concepts. I have forgotten most of his analogies, but the ballooniverse stayed with me. Everything in the universe is moving away from everything else. Our future is distance.

Physics classes in high school still use this 3-d visual analogy

So it seems at present. Each of us moving away from one another. Defoe’s narrator says the best method of avoiding plague was to run from it.

But oh, my Beloveds, how I wish to be close to you.

Opinion, argument

We have reached the part of my course in which I show my students what a fallacy is, how many forms of fallacies there are, and how a fallacy works–or, supposedly, doesn’t work–in an academic essay. This being an election year, and social media presenting so many examples of ideological opinions and shortcuts in thinking, there’s been no end of sources to demonstrate fallacies. Too many, in fact. My students have been so overwhelmed this year that I sheared my usual list-o-fallacies to four of the most common among freshman students. In doing so, I thought of my dad.

My father was well-instructed in formal argument at Wabash College in the early 1950s. His belief that people could disagree intellectually while maintaining friendly relationships probably stemmed from his experience there. His faith that people in groups could resolve conflict through careful listening and commitment to compromises came later. But what I want to mention here is how seldom it was that I heard my dad making an ad hominem attack, or any of the more frequent rational argument fallacies, until he was in his 60s or 70s and “the filter came off” a bit, post-retirement.

One time stands out in my memory. I was in my early teens and was telling my dad that I recalled being 6 years old and attending, with my parents and sister, an event at Dr. P’s house–a slide show of Dr. P’s trips to the Holy Lands. (Yes, in the 60s, that sort of event was a thing.) “Was he rich?” I asked, “Because I remember thinking his house was so big and so fancy compared to any other house I had been in.” And to my surprise, Dad gave a kind of derisive snort and said Dr. P was a “pretentious snob.” (A snob was one thing he couldn’t abide.)

Now, my dad had opinions, and expressed them bluntly; but he tended to frame his opposition to someone’s behavior or ideas, not to his (or her) person. He’d happily tell us that a friend was “just being a horse’s ass” (not that he is one), or say that someone was “talking through his butt” or that a politician’s proposals were “nothing but a load of horse manure”– “Oh, that fella, he talks like he gets his ideas from the back of a cereal box.” Or, “I don’t take him seriously when he yammers like a hypocrite.” Dad would say such things, but always qualified them with how a person spoke or acted–a subtle difference that I actually did pick up on. That’s why his ad hominem brush-off of the Dr. came as a surprise to me, I suppose. As my father neared 90, he got a bit more curmudgeonly, yet he genuinely believed that [most] people are inherently good.

I like to remember that about him.

~

Dark-eyed junco .. now appearing at our birdfeeders.