Empowerment through Language...

Monday, April 25, 2011

Living through Shifts & Thank Goodness Mercury Retrograde Is Over!

I have been off the road for 3 weeks. During that time I have not only started teaching a new adult literature class at the Downtown Writer's Center in the PRO Certification thread, but I have been reconnecting with my own writing in conscious ways that I have not had time for in a long while.

The combination of prepping for the weekly discussions of the poets I have selected for my course and the ability to commit some time to poems is delightful. I am loving the intentional and detailed read of four unique collections of poetry. I am also quite consumed by two new poems of my own as I  allow them to evolve with tender prodding and constant review.

I am in love with revision work. That is the craft of writing to me. The first draft has everything to do with the poet's soul. The revision has to do with knowledge, intention, and ardent listening to the poem's request more than what the poet needs (or thinks is needed) from the poem. Each read, each word deleted or changed reveals more and more of the potential. It should not be hurried along. It should be understood. The poem actually knows what it wants. In our need to be done, to publish, to fulfill self-imposed quotas of work completed can sometimes overshadow the maturation process of a particular piece. Be prolific, yes, if it is the correct choice for the individual writer. Pushing a poem out the door before its own maturity is not necessarily wise.

What is the rush? 

The poem is what matters. Not its destination. Not the accolades. The poem and every word, every nuance, every caesura are what matters. As NC poet and educator Allan Wolf proclaimed in the early days of the Slam, "The points are not the point...The point is poetry." The implications of this statement stretch through all aspects of the poet's journey.

At some point, not too long after I returned to my identity as poet and discovered the Slam, I was struggling with my long-ingrained habit of writing poems that were strings (often long) of short lines, mostly four or five words, if that, trailing down the page. I suddenly became aware of all the space available on the page. The sculpture, the profile of the poem attracted my attention. This was when I started to employ visual punctuation rather than graphic, using negative space to create the pauses in thought and breath that are symbolized in the comma, period, semicolon, etc. I described it as being freed from the prison of the left margin.

As I became involved in Slamming, I had a profound opportunity to change, mostly driven by the need to fill 3 minutes. It takes a heck of a short poem to capture the judges. Once I found my way to what has become sort of a signature piece by being urged by my teammates to combine two related poems that ran a minute each, give or take a few seconds. The challenges of capturing all the shifts in performance were enough of an opportunity but then to determine how to use the page as an indicator was not actually solved until I was working with Kate Cahill, who designed my first book, Coaxing Nectar from Longing. Kate showed me ways of using the space on the page to visually chart the tonal changes. It was remarkable and the success on the page is due to her astute vision. I am ever grateful.

In the past couple of years, I have been involved in writing prose as I coauthored Our Difficult Sunlight with Quraysh Ali Lansana. This was a new venture in putting forth my thoughts in an articulation that would help those in the classroom connect with this art form. Added to the shift of consciousness as well as style/genre was the collaborative process we had embarked upon for this book.

I am driven by deadlines and I can produce under pressure. We produced a lot of words. In fact, we turned in one hundred pages more than the production budget would sustain or indulge. Most of the ranks were axed. This collaborative process was expanded as we took the completed first draft to our publisher and entered the peer review process. I realized that I had moved from a solitary endeavor, to a partnership, then to a team effort, each member bringing a set of expectations, understandings, requirements, and aesthetic imprints. At times these elements were opposed to each other. There was negotiation over every word in that book, one of the many reasons I am tremendously proud of Our Difficult Sunlight.

I have been self-conscious of the fact that my higher education is incomplete. Without the completion of even my BA, there have been walls I have never been able to surmount. Now I realize that I have done the same amount of work, just in a different arena. I have three degrees to validate that work, my three books. Coaxing Nectar from Longing was my BA. Eleven years later, I accomplished what I view as my Master's thesis, The Doom Weaver. Now, after more than 10 years of practical research, much reading, interviewing, and flying by the seat of my travel pants, I have completed a project that has been comparable to a Ph.D. with the dissertation to support the learning. With ODS, we underwent an extremely comprehensive peer review process before we agreed that the book was ready, with copious edits required after combing through the many comments and perspectives, the interpretations of not only what we had written but what we had articulated, or attempted to articulate. No vowel was left unturned.

And now the book is out. I feel what I can only  respond to as a mild post-partum depression but I can easily distract myself with various projects and deadlines, as well as all of the book promotion that we need to do.

In the past few weeks, I have been writing poems. They have been patient while they have been steeping in the back caves of my brain. The poems are surprisingly long. This is in part a natural direction based on the narrative that they are expressing and the form they have chosen, that of the letter. I have proven to myself a certain level of competency I have in prose and expository writing with the completion of ODS, as well as maintaining this blog, although I have a lot of freedom here, a great deal of autonomy. With the blog I can also address a more immediate output and thought process so I do not worry each word in the same way I do with my other writing.

There is another thing I have come to realize: through the immersion in prose, I now find that I have broken out of the prison of the 40-line poem. Sometimes a premise, the source of inspiration needs more than a single page. The same attention must be paid to each word as it earns its way into the whole, no matter the length.

I feel that I am maturing to meet my own expectation, if not exceed it. Transiting from teaching children and teens to working with adults is a considerable change in focus. I am loving digging in deeply to investigate pure craft-driven expressions. I will learn as much as my students but that is why I do what I do. I live my poet's life with a dread of complacency. I feel it is a sin for any artist to be complacent in their own work. But what is more important, I do live the adage "Teach what you want to learn."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Every House Would Benefit from a Fish Tank...

A few weeks ago, I pulled into my driveway on a Friday, the earliest touch of spring in the Northeast, and I knew that I was not going to have to gear up for a school visit for months. Now it was time to take care of all the other stuff.

Re-entry is a delicate process. A friend who saw me asked if it was like transitioning fish from one tank to another. I thought for a moment and exclaimed, "Yes, it is exactly like that." The way I have to gauge my movement from my home, as I reconnect there, and then out into the community.

My first fish experience was with a guppy bowl when I was in 3rd grade. I won it in a ping pong toss game at the St. Therese Catholic Church and School bazarre. I left my little orange box of guppy food with the teeny weeny hole on the shelf next to the prized fish, a pair. I was quite proud of my accomplishment as well as my first pet.

My sister and brother were 3 and 2 years old, an inquisitive couple of active toddlers. They saw me feed my pets at some point in those first few days. Then I came home from school one afternoon to find my guppy bowl a goopy mud with the two beleagued fish somewhere in the mix. The little box was completely empty. I was distraut.

I admired the tanks of friends in college who were into fish. One friend had a pet store where she maintained a salt tank that was mesmerizing.

In the early 90s, I adopting a couple of goldfish at the urging of my friend's son who was approximately 10 and there were too many pets in the family. After awhile, one of the two did not survive but the other lived nearly 9 more years. This was the fish who taught me that they are much more aware than I had considered. It would see me from its bowl on the refrigerator down the hall as I opened my bedroom door. The fish would dance from one side of his bowl to another, recognizing me and that it was breakfast time.

I have maintained a series of Bettas in that same bowl ever since the demise of the goldfish. I rescue them from those small plastic dishes at the big chain pet stores. I can't stand the thought of how many wind up in the dumpster. I bring one home and keep it on a small shelf in my kitchen, not far from my stove. Sort of like a kitchen angel. I have recently been told they have a lifespan on average of 2 years. Then I bury them at the foot of the clematis in my yard that honors my brother Alex and the cycle renews itself. This time I have a blue veiltail. He is quite handsome.

I set up my first fish tank about 5 years ago, a starter tank, just 7 gallons, lots of rocks balanced and little caves, some greens. I have an affinity for Tetras. I felt like a kid as I introduced the fish slowly over a month, watching their habits, counting them daily to see if they all survived. This habitat is in the dining area of my kitchen and the first thing I see when I enter from the back door.

This winter I inherited a tank that belonged to a dear friend's husband who passed away on the solstice. I had admired this tank when I visited their home and being offered the 30-gallon tank was a thrill. Moving it in January was a challenge but somehow I succeeded, losing only one of the original population and one of my additions. I have doubled the census and everyone is getting along well, particularly when I introduced three vacuum cleaners about a month ago. I love algae eaters.

When I bring new fish home and place their transfer bag into the tank to start the acclimation process, I consider being taken from one environment to another with no choice. The implications are vast.

Then I add some of the tank water into the bag to allow the fish to adjust even more. Within an hour, the new fish slip into the shoals and find their region, their hiding places, determine the hierarchy.

It takes me time to shift from thinking of the needs of the different schools, classes, teachers. This time of year I also switch back to teaching adults. I find a different rhythm. This year I also have a new book to promote. And I am writing. The deadlines I am facing are like the bigger or more active fish in the aquarium, pressing me to move through the water quickly. Sometimes, I just need one of the little caves, a frond of the plastic plants to snuggle into and maintain a low profile.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Dictionary: An Endangered Species

In my work, I often rely upon the ways I was taught, the elements of my basic education that have never left me, nor failed me. Examples of fundamentals I count on are the short and long symbols for vowel sounds. The graphic symbols for pronunciation that we find in the dictionary have helped me for approximately 50 years of reading and encountering the unknown in language.

But different school districts each have their own way or method for instruction, even reading. Each textbook publisher develops its own method, which, in turn, is marketed to schools as the newest and best. Each generation learns how to read differently, which makes for some confusion for me once in awhile.

So what about when I am in front of a group of students and I rely upon what is natural to me and it is not natural to them? That was my dilemma a few weeks ago...the short and long. I assumed that when I stated those two terms that I was understood; however, in that particular school, the long line over the vowel and the little smile indicating short sound were not taught in the reading program that the district had purchased. None of those graphics for pronunciation were being taught, to the chagrin of some of the teachers. 

I was confused. I found a way to explain what I wanted them to know for my lesson at the time. Yet, I had a larger question from the moment. How are students going to be able to relate to proper usage of a dictionary? This is not an uncommon occurrence, a student unable to find a word in the dictionary, not knowing how to use the key words at the top of the page and why they are there, etc. But wait, to not know the symbology of sound that helps a reader become more literate? How can that be rationalized? It is as absurd to me as the decision to not teach basic handwriting.

I will admit that I rely on and with daily regularity. But I have an unabridged dictionary on an antique lectern in my dining room that I refer to frequently. I have four or five other dictionaries and an equal number of thesauri, my favorite was a gift from my Uncle Leon and it is well worn. Thankfully, it is also hardback.

My question is, how do we offer the skills that lead to independence in reading as lifelong learners? It seems that the newest trend or program with the best marketing will win. Is there parity in this for young learners throughout the nation? Does this continue to perpetuate the literacy divide? Will the dictionary become obsolete? The Oxford English Dictionary is no longer going to be published in hardback form. It will only be available on line. There are little speakers to click on in order to listen to the word on many online dictionaries. This is helpful but does not preclude the possibility of a power outage or any other limitation to computer access. What if I were to have a dictionary crisis?! What if I need to know that word NOW! I know I am ok...but what about when the 3rd graders who are not learning this skill when they are older? What will they do?

I will always be a fan of basic phonics. Phonics have never left me wanting. Neither has my dictionary.