Poem in Albatross #26

Thanks Richard Smyth for including “False Spring” in Albatross #26.

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The Newest Difference

This week started out slowly, that is, if I begin my week just after the last blog post.  Not the posting of the presentation I gave as part of the Faculty Association professional development panel, but the one called And And And.  I didn’t write anything more that day, and the day that followed found me constipated.  Two measly pages.  Still ideas were coming, and I was jotting them down.  I keep a MS Word document for just such a purpose.  Mostly it’s a list of cryptic messages only I can decipher, but it’s proven useful, especially when the well is dry.  I don’t necessarily use the prompts to get me going, but I know there’s a place where I can store my half-formed ideas, scraps of dialog, characters I’d like to explore, memories, etc.  Also, I keep there a list of notes on the writing of fiction, questions that keep arising for me which I hope to solve, eventually.

So the week started off slowly, but has since gained momentum.  I’ve written more pages this week than any other so far.  The last  two sessions yielded 8 plus pages each of good useable material.  I don’t exactly know what the change is, but it reminds me of the experience I had when I began to write poetry in earnest.  I was in therapy at the time, and I remember telling my therapist, with some surprise, that I’m a poet.  It was important for me then to identify as a poet, because to me poetry is a way of looking at the world.  It would be the same if you were a philosopher or a religious.  Saying, I’m a poet, declares a certain perspective on experience, that is, reality, which is different especially from those who take what is given to them without question.  It’s a more difficult route, one Frost questions in “The Road Not Taken,” wondering, I think ruefully but certainly ironically, is this “all” the difference?

For me the newest difference happened a couple of days into last week, when I wrote three separate chapters, each equaling about 3 or 4 pages.  Now, I began writing this novel about 20 years ago.  I don’t have any pages from that early draft, thank God, but I was in grad school then and thought I was going to be a novelist.  A bad experience with a mentor/workshop instructor and other personal matters led me in another direction, and I became a poet, both on paper and in action.  I’ve written about that false choice elsewhere, but suffice to say that while I wrote some short stories and a few longer pieces over the years, nothing quite approached a novel, and further, I didn’t work on fiction.  I worked on poetry, poems, and writing about poetry.  This blog is a testament to that life, the life of a poet.

But somewhere along the way, as I approached 40 (I’m 43 now) and after reading Marc McGurl’s book on fiction in the program era, I began to think about my earliest ambition to be a novelist.  That summer, 2013, I wrote about 90 pages.  I couldn’t even call it a novel then.  Instead, when I labeled the folder on my hard drive, I called it “Fiction Experiment.”  Only one other person has read those pages, Shannon, and she is the one who encouraged me to continue working on the book, when she read it in late 2013, early 2014.  It is worthwhile, she said, and I knew she meant it because given the choice to read anything else from a rather large library of books–fiction, non-fiction, poetry, philosophy, etc.–she picked up instead the half-complete, less-than-half complete manuscript which was then untitled.  Before this the only notion I got that the endeavor was successful was when I showed just one paragraph to another person I won’t name here, and she, who hadn’t ever shown much interest in my life as a novelist, who indeed flat out didn’t like my earliest attempts, started when she heard those sentences.  It was like she hadn’t seen me in forever and now, come upon me in some unfamiliar setting, perhaps bearded, older, she couldn’t believe the change, the difference.  She liked it.

My plan when contemplating this post was to examine a paragraph or two from the pages I mention above, but now it occurs to me the difference, if there is one, is likely to be imperceptible and to illustrate my point I’d have to examine many many pages, most of which are bad.  Like with so many changes, great and small, this one happened incrementally, and it’s likely I’m the last one to fathom the consequences, not the first.  So it dawned on me, even though I’ve already committed myself during this sabbatical to write a draft of a novel and I’ve taken workshops on the novel and read from the pages I’ve already written and the rest, it dawned on me that, yes, I am a novelist.  I am a novelist engaged in the writing of a novel, and it doesn’t feel like I am wearing my daddy’s shoes, shirt and tie, wielding his briefcase like I did when I was small, pretending to be an office manager.  I am not pretending to be a novelist.  I am a novelist.  This has nothing to do with the end product.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with writing pages or publishing manuscripts.  This has to do with a way of seeing the world.  The shift, then, hasn’t been away from poetry so much as it’s been an integration of what I am, what I was and what I still might be.  Joseph Campbell, when he talks about Jungian therapy, talks about this integration.  I used to think it was a flowering, but that metaphor seems not quite to fit anymore.  Who can talk about flowering when his hair is thinning, his middle expanding, and his eyes creasing, sprouting feet?

Next week will be a whole new story.  This feeling will pass, and then I’ll be left struggling again with the more concrete aspects of the problem.  I will be struggling with the actual writing, the putting of one word after another.  But I’ve been there before.  That is familiar territory.  I’ve disciplined myself to do that work.

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Yays & Nays: Making Love and Meaning Out of Nothing at All*

71_Francis-Bacon_Triptych_1991When SKG asked me to participate in this panel (or, rather, when I volunteered), I was pretty sure I knew what I was going to talk about. Early in my career here, at Suffolk, I was told there was no difference, in the eyes of the College, whether you served on Faculty Association committees or administrative-governance committees. For me, it made the most sense to work with the Faculty Association. I’m not sure why this is, but I felt more comfortable, philosophically, associating myself with the union. I can remember when I was a kid, my father, who was a teacher, took me to a political rally hosted and endorsed by NYSUT. He also served as union president for his local before making the leap, later in his career, to become an administrator. My dad isn’t an ambitious guy. I mean, he isn’t ambitious the way careerist are ambitious. My dad is an ideas man. He is also a man of principles. This meant, at least for him, that he could only go so far as an administrator. When he finally swallowed this truth, he retired, not out of resignation, I don’t think, but more from the notion that says leave Sodom to the Sodomites.

I share my father’s distaste for mere careerism. Maybe that’s why the Faculty Association felt, back then, like a better fit. There I was free to discover novel ways in which to serve the college and the community. I didn’t think I’d find the same opportunity chairing, say, the curriculum committee with all its yeas and nays and Robert’s Rules. Not that the FA doesn’t abide by these stuffy procedures. It’s just I found a place where, like a hermit in his shelter, they didn’t affect me. First, I became an EC rep, and very soon after—after the first EC meeting, in fact—I became co-chair of the community outreach committee. I learned very quickly that speaking in a meeting means chairing a committee. Before long, I was so full of ideas I became the community outreach chair. This was my first college-wide responsibility, and it promised to be fairly high profile. I was under the direct tutelage and, I might even say, patronage of one of my most favorite people in the world, Ellen Schuler Mauk. For whatever reason, she believed in me, my visions and my talents. She encouraged me to experiment, take risks, discover. Like my dad, I could be an ideas man. Like my dad, I could live by my principles.

I should back up a little here and say something about the role artists play in academia. I am, first and foremost, an artist. I didn’t get into this racket to teach and I didn’t do it to sit on panels like this. However good I am at either of these things and however much fun I have doing them, my aim, when I set off to study creative writing at the tender age of 25, wasn’t to be here. Truth is, I thought I would’ve been equally happy pumping gas during the day and writing through the night. Maybe I should’ve done that. But, as the saying goes, that ship has sailed and, being one traveler, as the poet says, means there is no turning back. Might as well make the best of it. And so I try. I do. But it wasn’t until I read Marc McGurl’s book, Fiction in the Program Era, that I really understood what being an artist in academia requires of me. It isn’t that I make great or even good art, it turns out, and it isn’t even that I should be an excellent teacher, producing excellent scholarship and serving on the most important and essential committees. Rather, McGurl points out, the artist’s role in academia is to fuck shit up.

Now that’s not exactly how he puts it. But that’s what he means, when he talks about the fresh perspectives artists can bring to a staid academia. McGurl cites the case of the early 20th Century novelist and author of Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe, who NYU hired to teach freshman how to write, though he wasn’t a scholar. McGurl contends that artists have found refuge in academia not only because the economic climate in America is hostel to their endeavors, but also because academia needs artist to tell them, among other things, to take more risks. The artist’s only criteria for success, despite all talk of theory, is simple. She asks herself: Does this work? American artists in particular are pragmatic that way. And pragmatism, to work, must be experimental. A pragmatist must take risks, not unnecessary ones, but necessary ones. An artist experiments in her own work because practice and patience only get you so far. Take the case of the British painter Francis Bacon. He was a master draftsman and a fabulous colorist. He could paint anything he pleased. But, for an artist, that isn’t enough. Doing what you set out to do, well, any craftsman can do that. When Bacon had taken a painting as far as it and he could go, he’d commit some act of violence against the canvas. He’d smear it with white paint or gouge it with his knife. This would open up things in his paintings he couldn’t have otherwise imagined. He saw, then, in his work not what he was capable of, but what he wasn’t capable of.

Risk taking, and the synthesis which follows, is a characteristic of creative thinking. You must be willing to fail to do more than what you promised. Careerists are afraid of failure, so they hide behind statistics and titles. I don’t mean to insult anyone here who cares about his career, by the way. I care about mine. I agreed to be here because, at the time this talk was first scheduled, I was still up for my final promotion. I’ve since been promoted to full-professor. So there is a careerist in me, too, though I’ve learned to make him listen to me and not me to him. There have been times, I think, when I might’ve been better off letting him do the talking. My father knew this trouble all too well. An artist’s role might be to fuck shit up, but all times aren’t the right times to fuck shit up. This is a valuable lesson and jives nicely with the morphology of organizations and leadership, which I first learned about at leadership camp (that’s what I called it) at Cornell University. The theory goes, that organizations, like all living things from stars and galaxies to humans and insects, develop according to certain predictable patterns. Organizations just beginning their lives require a transformational leader, just as a larva requires the release of a certain enzyme to become a pupa. Release the wrong enzyme or let there be an absence where that enzyme should be and all sorts of bad shit goes down for the organism. Organizations are no different. Later in the life cycle of an organization, when it reaches adulthood and really is firing on all cylinders, to mix my metaphors, it doesn’t require the kind of experimentation and risk taking the younger, less established version of itself did. What it requires is that the business of business gets done. There may be room for improvement and innovation, but not if it gets in the way of the day-to-day routine. Of course, no organism stays in peak condition forever. As the organization ossifies, as its bones and organs begin to grow brittle and malfunction, resurrection awaits but only if it heeds the signs and allows, again, for the risk taking and innovation that brought it to health and stability in the first place.

What made this all clear to me was applying this model to the Old English poem Beowulf.   For those of you who don’t know the story, essentially it tells of the adventures of the Anglo-Saxon warrior Beowulf. In the first two parts, Beowulf is a young man out to prove his worth. He travels across the sea to defeat the monster Grendel, a loping marshwalker, who wreaks havoc on a neighboring kingdom’s hall and kills its men while they lie sleeping and half-drunk on mead. Here, Beowulf’s courage and strength sustain him. He is victorious. The monster Grendel is slain, his mother is slain, and the king adopts Beowulf as his son. The story’s last part takes place many years later. Beowulf is back home, and his people have enjoyed a fairly stable reign with Beowulf as their ring-giver, that is, until a dragon emerges from the shadows and threatens the relative peace and harmony. To make a long story short (it is an epic poem, after all), there are no young men willing or able to fight this supernatural power. Only Beowulf, old as he is, can meet the challenge. And so he does, with a little help, after much handwringing, from a young warrior named Wiglaf. Unfortunately, this will be the last fight Beowulf fights. He and the dragon exchange mortal wounds. Beowulf dies, and in the aftermath, a keening woman prophesizes bad times ahead for Beowulf’s people. Now that their shield is dead, who will protect them?

The idea I’m driving at here is this. Beowulf ought to have been a wiser leader. It is the job of young warriors to defeat the threats that face a kingdom, not old men—even if that old man is Beowulf. Studying the morphology of organizations helps its members know when it’s time to innovate and take risks and when it’s time to give rings. The artist’s role, however, is always the same. No matter where the organization is in its lifecycle, the artist challenges, creates, takes risks. What I admired about Ellen was her willingness to listen. We didn’t always see eye to eye, and many times I thought she was being obtuse. Still, I learned a great deal about myself, the union, the college and the world from those years. I don’t work as closely with the FA as I used to. I’m no longer a EC rep, and I don’t chair the community outreach committee, but the lessons I learned when I was a junior faculty member have stayed with me and served me and the college well.

I’m supposed to talk about the service I’ve done that means the most to me, so I might as well get to it, since I’ve already eaten up a lot of time theorizing. Like I said above, when I promised SKG I would participate in the panel, I thought I knew what I was going to talk about. Even last semester, I thought that the most meaningful service I rendered the college was the creation of the very successful program you probably know as Professors on Wheels. I don’t speak much about my involvement in the creation of the POW program not because I’m not proud of my efforts, but because I kind of like the credit going elsewhere. I mean, I didn’t create the program alone. It didn’t leap out of my head fully formed like Athena or something. Rather, it took many years of asking some essential questions, which were finally answered during a rather long summer session at the Chair Academy Leadership training.

I was part of that first class, which required a two-year commitment and the promise of doing great things afterward. The promise was implicit, and the measurement of great things was largely left up to us. For me, I used that time to think and rethink about the role the community outreach committee could and should play. We had started our outreach by doing the things many outreach committees do. We participated in cancer walks, we collected food for food drives, and the like, only to conclude that while we were doing some good, we weren’t doing enough. The fruits of our labors were going unnoticed. Sure, the organizations and institutions were grateful, but how many thank you letters can you hang on your wall or, perhaps more relevant to this discussion, put on your A-Form? So we decided to ask larger questions. What problems was our community facing and how could we help? At the time, housing prices were skyrocketing. I’m sure many of you remember what that was like. One day, a house could be selling for $300,000 and the next a bidding war between two buyers could drive the price up by tens of thousands more. Poorer people were being driven out of their neighborhoods and young people, with limited income—like new hires, for instance—were finding it difficult to buy a home.

Charity requires abundance. It requires, not anonymity or altruism, but excess. You can’t give away what you don’t have to give. Even Francis could only give to the poor and the needy what he had in abundance. He had love. Many nights his followers, the Franciscans before such an order existed, starved and shivered for want of food and shelter, but then Francis would sing and they would be filled up again. I cite Francis now only to underscore the problem we faced. It wasn’t just doing good. We wanted to do good that mattered. There were selfish reasons for this, of course. The FA didn’t sponsor the outreach committee just because its heart is big. The outreach committee was formed as part of a PR effort to show the community that we professors benefit the community in more ways than one. I chaffed against this idea at first because I wanted our charity to be the kind of selfless charity I had read about in hagiographies. The problem was, I was doing this on someone else’s dime. And also, I’m not a saint. So back to the drawing board we went.

For a while, we focused on affordable housing. We branded ourselves, ordering more FA Affordable Housing mugs than was good or natural. We screened original T-shirts and wore them proudly. We raised money to sponsor Habitat for Humanity build days, where we could volunteer to help build a house. Pictures were taken. Hammers were swung and nails driven home. Everyone seemed happy. But after several successful HFH build days, we put down our hammers. For all our efforts we found ourselves in the same predicament as before. We were doing good, no doubt, but the reach of that good was limited. However handy a professor or a poet might be, what he has in excess certainly isn’t carpentry skills, or he’d be doing that. And each build cost around $3000, and despite rumors to the contrary, money isn’t something professors or poets have in excess either. So what do we have? That was the question that changed everything. That and the recent experience I had had with my late father-in-law.

I wrote a piece for The Word a while back that sketches out the Professors on Wheels origin story (Sept. 2009). I’m not going to rehash the contents or the sentiment of the article here. Follow the link if you want to read it. But the gist goes like this. My father-in-law had just died. He was a difficult person. He was also a sad person. A lonely person. I lived with him for about three years while his health declined. I spent many hours cooking for him, caring for him, binding his wounds, cleaning his sores, scrubbing his infected legs and washing his swollen feet. No matter what I did for him, still he was essentially alone. Luckily for him, he had had opportunities less fortunate people don’t get. He had been college educated, so he read. A lot. He had made quite a lot of money during his working years, so he lived in a beautiful place and wanted materially for almost nothing. His wife had died twenty years before him, and that was a terrible blow, but his children and grandchildren lived close. His daughter, my wife (we are nearly divorced now), and I lived with him, too. But his loneliness was existential. There was nothing or nothing much we could do to alleviate it.

After his death, I got to thinking. What are our responsibilities to the aging people in our lives? What do we owe them? What can we do? It is a good sign that you are working on a worthwhile project, when you see where your life intersects with your work. When Robert Frost talks about need and desire being one, I think this is what he means. The poem I’m talking about is called “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” and it ends like this: “Only where love and need are one/ And the work is played for mortal stakes,/ is the deed ever really done/ for Heaven and the future’s sake.” For me, the joining of my guilt and grief over my father-in-law’s life and death and the need to find a new focus, a more relevant and necessary focus, for the community outreach committee led to the creation of Professors on Wheels, because what professors have in abundance isn’t money or time or muscle but this: what we teach. I didn’t realize the success of this idea until Dan Linker and I attended the first graduation of the first class of POW students at a nursing and rehabilitation facility in Farmingville. Newsday was there, and they did a feature story on the POW program. Some college administrators attended the ceremony and saw what we had been up to. And wept. But this was nothing compared to the outpouring of thanks and gratitude that came from the patients, their caregivers and their families. None of the POW grads had graduated from college. Most had never taken a college class. Ours was the first, and we had brought it to them.

Emerson says that charity means living fairly. I think that’s true. But I also think it’s true that it means giving away our talents. Milton says that God doesn’t need our work or our gifts, so we do this for some other reason. Perhaps the simplest reason is that what is best in us can’t and shouldn’t be quantified. It isn’t charity what I do everyday at work. I am paid for my efforts, and now that I’ve been here more than 15 years, I’m paid handsomely enough. It is the best part of me, then, that helped create Professors on Wheels. I know that. I also know where my talents lie. I’m an artist. I like to create. I left the POW program right after that graduation. Just when the college started to notice and praise, I stepped down as chair of the committee. I didn’t even mind when a colleague of mine was publicly given credit for its invention. I’d done what I set out to do. It wasn’t mine any longer. There were many reasons for leaving, but ultimately I realized I had given my one talent which, as Milton points out, it is death to hide.

I started out writing this piece hoping that I would transition, at some point, away from the POW to another project I’ve work to help create. This one is more timely and more contentious, I think, because while I was a junior faculty member and cared about avoiding the limelight, in more recent years, I thought I might better serve the college if I spent my talents working on those things, which the college deems important. I’m talking now about the ILOs. When the prospect of working on the ILOs was presented to me, it was sold as a chance to change significantly how the college does what it does. The members of that committee, I was told, would have a hand in shaping the future of the college. We were asked to consider what we wanted a SCCC student to look like when she graduates. We were told this would change things. I wonder if that’s even possible now. That’s sad. It’s sad not because it’s impossible to affect change, which is experimental and radical, on the institutional level. That probably has never been the case. It’s sad for me because I once believed we could. But maybe I exaggerate. Why did I involve myself in this or any other committee work? I’m an artist. I’m most comfortable taking risks. I’m most comfortable making nothing into something. What happens to it after that isn’t my business. Maybe that’s the lesson. I can live with that.

*This essay was presented as part of a professional development panel discussion on our favorite faculty service achievements.  The event was sponsored by the Faculty Association.

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And And And

This week’s writing has been characterized by the feeling Dante describes in the first canto of the Inferno.  I find myself lost in a deep dark wood, fearing it’s a wood of error.  Still, I’m old enough and mature enough to know that all long projects feel this way in the beginning, and for the kind of work I’m proposing (to myself, at least), I may be in the beginning a long time.  Likely, I won’t know I’m in the middle until I’m in the middle of the middle, if that isn’t too confusing.  Anyway, the point is this.  I wrote about as many pages as last week, but I don’t feel as good about it.  All of this is to be expected, and I’m not vexed in the least.

In addition to writing pages for the novel (I’m assuming I can keep up the pace for the duration of the sabbatical, that is, about 20 a week, giving me at the end of the seven months approximately 560 pages of raw material, not all of which will be used, I’m sure), I’ve been reading theory, essays about the novel.  I’ll probably have more to say once I’ve digested what I’ve read, but for now I’m interested in a few dimensions of the novel, which align with my aims as a writer.  For me, the reason to write literature is a desire for reality.  I chose poetry over fiction because, back then, I believed poetry to be the better vehicle to reality.  In this way, whatever I write now must do at least what writing poetry did for me then.  The novel, its pages and especially its language, must bring me closer to what is, not farther away.  The past, my specific past and a more general, generic past, is part of that reality, but so too is the present and the probably future.

One of the features I’ve always liked about the novel (which is also a characteristic of better books of poems, whether a linked series, like The Dream Songs, or a perfect collection, like A Coast of Trees) is the sense that you can dip into the book, at almost any point, and get to know the writer, the characters, the world in which these live.  It’s almost like meeting a new person, an acquaintance become a friend, and realizing no matter when you meet, there is a before and an after you must get to know.  Further, there is a present you can’t completely see, so must pause over it, chew and digest it.  Ruminate on it.  Ask it questions.  You can’t always do this in life (unless you’re a therapist, but then the interrogation isn’t friendly or loving, but clinical, and as readers we should avoid this attitude), but in fiction you must.  Also, this emphasis practically obliterates plot as a driving force.  When we talk about the story being everything, what we mean then isn’t what happens.  What happens only matters in as much as it illuminates character, the ones in the book, the one writing the book, and our own.

To read a book like this you can only reread it, to paraphrase the modernist aesthetic.  Ulysses shouldn’t be read front to back, except maybe the first time.  Instead, when I read it now, I open almost at random and begin to meet Mr. Bloom, Molly and Stephen again, often transformed, more illuminated here, enshadowed there (the depth of the characters and my own developing character accounts for why).  In this way, the novel relates to the epic.  A recitation of the Iliad makes more sense when you think of the episodes as distinct and desirable in and of themselves (the reasons for wanting to hear one episode over another may have to do with development, not of character necessarily, but from one age to the next).  One critic I was reading points out that to the ancients, plot wasn’t important because, well, the audience knew how things turned out, the world for them was complete, while for us completeness isn’t possible and may not even be desirable.  The framing, then, of the epic was almost arbitrary, he goes on to say.  The novel is the beginning of a plot which must be revealed to us.  But revealed to what end?  Surely, the end can’t be the end we’re after.  Otherwise, rereading could bring no greater pleasure.  The first reading would be the best, all subsequent readings fruitless, diminished.  But the exact opposite is true of a good book.

The aim, then, is to create a book which must be reread, which warrants and rewards rereading.  It might even be desirable to allow the reader to dispense altogether with the initial reading, that is, the conventional front to back reading, which emphasizes plot.  Knausgaard’s books can be read like this, I think, and that’s their greatest charm.  Plot bores me.  People are endlessly fascinating.  When readers criticize My Struggle, saying it’s dull (and it is in spots, but so too is reality, life boring, as Henry points out), it’s because of their approach.  We might tell a good friend, when they go on about something in which we have no interest, “Please, get on with it,” or if we are less friendly, we might, from politeness, merely endure the telling.  Because this is a book, it isn’t rude to skip ahead or go back to previous accounts which interest us more.  It is a lie to think we are always interesting.  It is unreasonable to expect, even from the most clever people, that they should, above all else, entertain us.  The novelists job is to represent reality.  If reality were only linear, no one would ever tire of plot, and all our relationships, with brothers and sisters, parents and gods, could be easily reflected to us with and and and.

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On Sabbatical Number 2 and the Big Genre Change

I haven’t regularly blogged here for many years, despite the posts about publications and other things, but now is as good a time as any to begin again.  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say begin again again because I know there’s already a post in here that talks about beginning again.  I wrote it the last time I went on sabbatical seven years ago.  This is one of the two reasons why I want to blog more regularly.  I’ve started another sabbatical.  The second reasons is this.  I’ve shifted from writing poetry to writing fiction.  Specifically, I’m working on a novel.

If this shift seems sudden, it isn’t.  I’ve always written fiction even if mostly for my own pleasure.  In some ways, I don’t see the writing of prose any differently than I see the writing of poetry.  Still, I think we write as a way of listening to ourselves, to others and to the world.  But what I’m listening for and to has changed a little.  Maybe this is a consequence of middle-age, but fiction seems to me the better vehicle to listen to part of human consciousness I’ve more or less ignored, and that is, the past.  For me, poetry has always been about the present, and when it’s really good, about the future.  But I’ve never been comfortable writing poems about the past.  Poetry is a digging tool, sure.  But prose fiction seems a tool better suited to discovering what was and, therefore, why what is, well, is.

I probably never should’ve stopped working on fiction in the first place.  I know gradschool and a particular workshop instructor (not the one mentioned below) are the reasons I made the arbitrary choice between the two genres.  In the process, I abandoned a novel-in-progress I’m sure now I wasn’t ready to write.  So I don’t know if I was pressured to choose between poetry and fiction from without or within or both, but I made the choice.  But like I said, I never stopped writing fiction.  I just stopped working on it.  Instead, I worked on poetry.  I identified as a poet.  I wrote about poetry, seeking some understanding of how it all worked, like poets do, should do.  The work was fruitful for me, which means it was necessary.  Then something changed.  Actually, a lot of things changed.

It’s hard to say what changed first.  I know my life is different.  I also know it will be more different still these next couple of years.  And these changes contributed to my decision to shift my focus as a writer.  But there were other factors, too, like reading Marc McGurl’s book, especially the sections that deal with the lower-middle-class modernists and shame.  It was after reading that book that I understood what had happened to me in gradschool, what had been happening to me ever since I took my first workshop at the Rocky Point High School extension center of Suffolk County Community College and my workshop instructor told me never to use the word soul in a poem and that it was should’ve not should of.  I began writing fiction again as a means of shedding the consequences of that shame.  I began writing fiction to reclaim my voice.  I don’t yet know the connection between the past and voice, but I’m confident that this isn’t the last time I’ll muse about it.

And I’m sure I’ll talk more about all this stuff over the course of the next 7 or 9 months, so I’ll begin to end this here.  I’m not sure how frequently I’m going to post.  Nor do I know what the nature of those post will be.  They will be different.  I know that.  Especially if this is any indication.  The blogging platform used to feel very natural to me.  Not so much right now.  Maybe I’m just rusty.  I guess we’ll see because, however awkward this seems to me right now, I know the uses of keeping a blog.  When I look back at the posts I’ve written in that past, I still recognize the man who wrote them.  That’s an accomplishment.  He knew more than he thought he did.  He knew nothing.

Finally, I wanted to say I’m off to a good start.  This was the first week that I really worked.  I’ve made a schedule, to which I’m mostly keeping.  I completed reading a novel I started before the holiday madness, which was useful and interesting.  I’m on to another book, this time a book of essays, criticism.  And I wrote approximately 20 pages of good writing.  Perhaps most important of all, though, is that I know where I am in the writing process.  Shannon’s got a puzzle going on the coffee table right now, where only the vague outline of the whole can be seen.  Yes, that sounds about right.

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An Essay Published in Straight Forward Poetry

Thanks to Lindsey Lewis Smithson and Straight Forward for publishing my essay “What It Means to Be Contemporary: A Meditation.”  You can read it now here.  I wrote this some years ago while teaching a contemporary lit class.

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Poem Forthcoming in CPR

Thanks to Caron Andregg and the other editors of Cider Press Review for accepting “That’s What You Call a Baby Whale?” for publication.  For years, CPR has supported and published me.  Thanks to them I can boast two Pushcart Nominations.  Thank you, CPR, and may you enjoy continued success.

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An Essay on Risk Taking in the College Classroom and the Creative Writer’s Role in Fucking Shit Up*

An Introduction:

Freshman writers have particular trouble with two aspects of writing, for which creative writers have answers.  The first is revision.  Still many composition professors assess product rather than process, and therefore stress editing rather than revision.  Creative writers, because of the way we understand the writing process and practice it in creative writing workshops (ideally, anyway) bring fresh and refreshing attitudes to the issue of revision and the assessment of revision, especially where risk is rewarded.

This brings me to the second challenge of teaching freshman writers.  Creation, and therefore creative thinking, tops Bloom’s taxonomy.  Many learning outcomes confuse critical thinking for creative thinking (our institution is now having this argument), but creative writers know there is a difference.  According to AAC&U’s definition, creative thinking “is both the capacity to combine or synthesize existing ideas, images, or expertise in original ways and the experience of thinking, reacting, and working in an imaginative way characterized by a high degree of innovation, divergent thinking, and risk taking.”  Creative writing, more than other disciplines, values and encourages innovation, divergent thinking and risk taking because it is this kind of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and drama which makes for the most enduring, satisfying and life-changing reading and writing experiences.  Our college’s mission includes the phrase “transforms lives.”  There are many ways to transform lives, but creative writers play a special role in preparing freshman students for that transformation.


Part I – On Revision:

The creative writer in me has always been uncomfortable assessing freshman writing. Mostly this is because of the artificial circumstances of the classroom. The old canard about Kafka’s stories being bashed in a creative writing workshop reveals legitimate anxieties. How will the strange, the inspired, and the truly weird and innovative writer fare in a college classroom? As it turns out, she fares fairly well. I’m confident that most of us, MFA and PhD alike, recognize those who are truly talented and do our best to encourage their individual, however idiosyncratic, development into mature writers. For these already formed, though immature writers, the process of writing is the process of coming to the understanding that indeed, I am a swan and not an ugly duckling. Here revision is about re-seeing what has always been there, and if we are lucky, we get to act as the mirror into which the would-be writer gazes and says, “Yes, I can do that.”

I remember when this happened for me. If you’re in this audience I bet you remember when this happened for you. I’ve always thought that Wordsworth’s line about the child being father to the man had more to do with poetic birth than actual birth, and therefore, it is the infant poet, who must father the adult full-fledged poet. To understand what I’m saying requires a closer look at what revision is and isn’t. If revision means, as the SUNY General Education requirements suggest, “improving texts,” than obviously, there will be no transformation, no second birth, no moment of recognition, when the would-be poet says, “Yes, I can do that.” Instead, a beginning writer edits an essay and aims, when she does, to make it better. There is no real risk in this. There is no experimentation. In fact, this way of looking at revision encourages a conservative approach to writing. When Pound said we should make it new, I doubt very much he had in mind the text only. Creative writers understand that good writing requires us to be willing anyway, not only to change the product, but we must also be willing the change the producer. Robert Bly, in his Little Book on the Shadow cites from another source, saying that there are certain books we should not read unless we are willing to change our lives. I would add that there are certain texts we should not begin to write or revise unless we are also willing to change our lives.

The real risk for a student, when she engages the writing process like this, is not that she won’t be able to improve her essay, then, but that she might come face to face with some fact of her life—and here life is a metonym—which must be faced and, when faced, accepted or changed. I’m put in mind now of that 12-step prayer that requires serenity, but I’m also put in mind of Keats’ definition of negative capability, where the writer doesn’t irritably reach after fact and reason. My mentor pointed out to me a long time ago now that the important word in that definition is irritably. As a writer, there is always reaching to do, but a good writer finds the serenity to take the necessary risks writing requires without freaking out. When freshman students—who shouldn’t be held to Keats’ standard—feel the anxiety that accompanies this kind of revision, their risks must be encouraged and rewarded. Creative writers will tell you that they have learned more from their failures than from their successes. Maybe this is because, for most of us, even the most successful of us, there have been far more of the former than the latter. A freshman writer who begins to see that the stakes of each writing assignment isn’t the grade she receives, but who instead develops the willingness to challenge former notions and misunderstandings is in a far better position to contemplate what Thoreau called the higher laws and what we have come to think of as the point of higher education beyond any talk of employment or job training. After all, aren’t these practices and habits of mind what potential employers really find attractive?

Every semester I find as many of these transformations happening or beginning to happen in my freshman composition class as I find happening in my creative writing workshops and sophomore lit classes. And because there is so much more potential for gain early in a college career, it’s probably true that the transformations I witness in freshman composition are that much more profound. The reason I got into teaching isn’t all that noble or heart warming. What else is a poet to do? But the reason I stayed and still stay has everything to do with this idea of revision. I’m equally happy when a student comes to me mid-semester and says he likes my class but he’s purchased a wood splitting business from his uncle and needs to focus on that. What poet could deny the experience, if it is genuine, that leads to that transformation? Ideally, it would be wonderful if the experience of first-year writing classes, what we’re calling “bread-and-butter” classes, led to all students being able to meet the challenges of higher education. But it’s been my experience that the things most worth having are those that cost us the most in labor and time and are, therefore, relatively rare.


Part II – On Creative Thinking:

Students often complain that they aren’t creative, but very few conclude that they can’t think or be critical. Only when they are required to write essays, which plainly propound—to steal Stevens’ phrase—a valid, interesting and nuanced argument do they begin to doubt the soundness of their judgment. This experience, of course, is a necessary one, where the student writer comes face to face with her own ignorance. The revision I sketch out above is impossible without this essential crisis. Until a student empties herself of the errors of the past, there is no room for a new way of thinking to enter and take hold. Creative writers, who can be as arrogant and blustery as any academic, temper pride with the understanding that good writing is good writing, and all the excuses one can imagine can’t persuade an audience to love what is ill-formed and poorly conceived. For the creative writer, the workshop (ideally, anyway) teaches us to rethink and, often, reimagine our original plans and devices. The risks we take don’t always pay off, but they cause that habit of mind, which the AAC&U’s definition calls creative thinking.

Besides, the beginning writer’s claim that she isn’t creative is more defense mechanism than fair appraisal and stems from her misunderstanding of what creation is. For her, creation is always creation ex nihilo. Only God creates something from nothing. Not me, she thinks. The creative writer who enters a creative writing workshop convinced that she must avoid the infection of influence to remain original soon learns that this formula leads instead to the exact opposite of what she intends. Original writing comes not from avoiding the world of ten thousand things, as the Chinese poets call it, but by combining and recombining the things of this world and our experience of them in new and startling ways. Coleridge says that poetry is “the seeing of similars in seeming dissimilars,” but when I explain this idea to my students I try to be less high-minded. Critical thinking takes apart. Creative thinking puts together. When a student’s conclusions feel estranged from the rest of her arguments, the usual problem is the failure of her imagination to make the necessary and sometimes apparent connections between her experiences and her utterances. With practice and encouragement, the student writer comes to understand that the soundness of judgment she seeks and which is necessary to good writing comes not just from analysis but also from a wholeness of mind useful beyond the writing of essays.

The advantage the creative writer has in aiding this change is simple. She occupies the world of the academic and the world of the professional writer, who still means to speak to a larger audience. Her approach then is practical and not theoretical. When students talk to me about the rules of writing, the answer is always the same: if it works, it works. They mean to engage me in a conversation about style and, ultimately, about grammar, but I’d rather engage them with the real problem of thinking. Even for us, thinking is difficult work, and largely the fruits of that labor only make, as Frost’s poem suggest, “all the difference.” The difference is only that I have concluded these things myself and haven’t been handed these conclusions without the work of testing and retesting them. Because I teach at a community college, this idea can at first seem very foreign and threatening. Students want to believe, for instance, that Frost’s poem is titled “The Road Less Traveled” instead of “The Road Not Taken.” The first is a poem they can swallow whole and leave undigested. The second requires much chewing.

The real risk our students must be introduced to, then, isn’t that they might change as the result of writing and revising, but that the difference can’t necessarily be measured in material successes. Most of us have dedicated our lives to a vocation, a calling, with the understanding that hard work and discipline aren’t enough. This is probably true in other professions, but it is certainly true of ours and, most importantly, it is true of life—and here life isn’t a metonym. I don’t think I could continue teaching bread-and-butter courses or otherwise, if I didn’t know that my job as teacher was exactly my job as writer, and that is, to bring my students closer to reality. One of the Institutional Learning Outcomes I fought for the hardest (beyond ethical reasoning and action) was aesthetic reasoning. The word aesthetic is the antonym of the word anesthetic. When Odysseus concludes life is pain, this is an aesthetic statement and comes from the putting together of experience and utterance. I don’t think that these conclusions are always painful ones, but if there is to be any potential for genuine happiness, for joy, then the potential for danger must be admitted. I take seriously the point McGurl makes in his book on the program era that the role of the creative writer in academia has always been to fuck shit up. Gardener’s point in “On Moral Fiction,” that the writer’s work is always moral in that particular way of beating back chaos forgets the ossification, which leads to another kind of death-in-life, which is equally immoral to witness and ignore.

I want to end with one last thought, which may seem an unnecessary digression, but I’ll risk it. However much the creative writer enjoys the teaching of bread-and-butter courses, the privilege of the creative writer in academia is a perilous and uncertain one. I recall reading in one of the lives of John Berryman that during his tenure at the University of Minnesota, where he taught for the humanities department (not the English department, but the humanities department), his colleagues began a movement to disassemble the humanities department and, consequently, threaten Berryman’s livelihood. By all accounts, Berryman was a dynamic and inspirational teacher. This was true whether he was teaching a creative writing workshop at Iowa, or his humanities courses on “Western Thought” at UM. Possessed with the craze for accreditation, the short sightedness of his colleagues at the university promised to throw out the baby and keep the bathwater. The same threat now faces many of the MFAs who mean to teach at 2- and 4-year colleges and universities. Though the MFA is a terminal degree, most colleges aren’t equipped to make the distinction between scholarly and creative work, and therefore can’t distinguish between an MA and an MFA. This matters for promotion, but there is more at stake than whether instructor ex becomes assistant or associate professor ex. The real danger is that the creative writer has to do double the work. She must be both scholar and artist, when no such responsibility falls on the shoulders of PhDs. It is essential that, when hired to full-time tenured positions, the creative writer advocates for her brothers and sisters, and I would submit the best way to do this is by becoming involved in contract negotiations.

*This essay was written for and presented at the 2014 AWP Conference in Seattle, WA.  The panel was called Best-Kept Secret: The Joys of Teaching Composition at Two-Year Colleges.  I was joined on the panel by Lauren Smith (event organizer), Jennifer Militello, Lynn Kilpatrick, and Ryan Stone.

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Poem Appearing on TSR’s Site

Here’s a poem recently published in TSR and appearing now on their site.  Thanks to Lou Ann Walker, Julie Sheehan, and the other editors for their continued support.

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Another New Song

Here’s another new song.

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