Empowerment through Language...

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Every Line of Poetry Is Discovery

Over the past year or so in my teaching work, I have found myself most wanting to impart the joy of discovery that writing can be to my students. Writing is an astounding identity, also ripe with reasons to doubt oneself, grow increasingly frustrated, or simply ache for the time to rest within oneself long enough to hear what needs to be captured. Sometimes I feel I am really just catching butterflies.

This afternoon, I finished reading James Longenbach's The Art of the Poetic Line. Longenbach's book is one of the notable Graywolf series of books on craft, genre, and prosody. At a later point in this treatise, he proferred a thought that echoed what I have been attempting to communicate to my students of all ages:

Whatever shape it takes, this kind of movement is what makes a poem feel like an act of discovery rather than an act of recitation - an event that happens on the page rather than a recounting of an event that happened prior to the page. Lineation is a powerful tool for creating such movement, but not because a poet chooses simply to write pentameter lines or syntactically complete lines or no lines at all. What matters within any particular formal decorum is variation: the making of pattern along with the simultaneous disruption of pattern...This kind of movement - the establishment of a formal decorum in which even the smallest variation from it feels thrilling - is what makes the act of reading a poem feel like the act of writing a poem. It is what makes a poem an experience we need to have more than once, an act of discovery that is contingent not simply upon what we learn but on the temporal process of discovering how it feels to learn again what we've always known.
                               [pg. 112-113, The Art of the Poetic Line, Graywolf, 2008]

I repeatedly remind my students to ask themselves, "What is the rush?" There is a lot at stake: the difference between an adequate poem and something that is magical or striking. We must strive for the latter. There are those who are similar to production potters; the goal is to crank out as much as possible. I admire the truly prolific poet but if the goal is to get the poem done in order to take on the next and the next and the next, is the poet truly sitting within the work to discover its fullest capacity?

It is not uncommon, as an editor of a literary journal, to see potential that the poet has missed, that may be accomplished with simple edits as well as looking at different possibilities for line ends, enjambment, tighter language, even reordering stanzas and lines. There is a rush to be done and get the poem out the door. Many poems are close to hitting the mark but this ain't horseshoes.

James Tate once spoke to a group of writers at the Asheville Poetry Festival; I believe it was 1995. Among the indelible comments he made that day was his belief that a poem should take a grand journey that, when over, we ask, "How did I get here?" but in looking back at the poem, the route is completely obvious.

We cannot intend or plan much of what comprises a great poem. Last night with a new class of adult writers, I discussed how I consider our creative work in this way: this is a journey; the bus is being driven by the piece. I am riding shotgun holding the map. The readers will be seated in back, going along for the ride, trusting the poem and me well enough to believe that we will arrive at a destination proving it was worth their time. The poem is the driving force of everything. And everything is important, every choice is critical, right down to the smallest shift in punctuation. No one proved that as clearly as Lucille Clifton in her magnificent, stark poem, dialysis. When originally published, as it appears in Blessing the Boats, the last line, Blessed be even this? is a chilling question. When I heard Ms. Clifton read this poem upon release of the collection, she read it as published and then she read it as she had grown to understand its meaning: Blessed be even this. More than once I have said Ms. Clifton is the kind of woman I want to be when I grow up.

Today, a friend wished me the opportunity for joy. I would love to resume joy as a way of being, the way Ms. Clifton taught by example. In a small step of accommodating that wish, I chose to slow down from everything else to immerse in my own poetry for the evening. I sat on my deck with my work, my computer, my iced tea, the cardinals' shrill chirps punctuating the forgiving hour. I worked until I could no longer read my new edits on poems from 2011 and the crickets were tuning up. I pushed stanzas around like wheelbarrows. I chopped lines like wood to see the rings. I found places to trim and advantageous enjambments. I threw other language from the poems entirely.  I also submitted five poems for consideration, beating a deadline in the process. I was poet first and all the other identities had to wait.

The mosquitoes were hiding around my ankles to escape the bats. It was time to come in.    

Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Art of Lifelong Learning

I have been working steadily as an educator now 11 years, some of it very frustrating, most of it joyous. I will teach in any setting, will work with any age group, and the size of the group matters not a whit to me. If I can share the information I have cultivated and the passion I feel for writing, language, reading, and learning, I will do it. Often I even am paid for my instruction and that is becoming more and more a precedent, which is a good thing since this is my career.

In school settings, particularly in the one district that I served for 6 years, I was frequently scheduled to work with what I refer to as reluctant learners. Other times, I was placed in "special ed" classes in which students mostly had emotional issues and/or learning disabilities, I assume with the hope (or even expectation) that I would not only address skills needed to bring scores up on the standardized assessment tests but also perhaps excite the students. Now, those who work in education understand the delicate balance of special ed: there is often additional funding to provide the support, even if just a small budgetary asset, so that is a potential plus; the other side of the seesaw is that those students labeled with special needs will test lower and bring the overall rating of the school down (and, thus the teachers who may face evaluation and public scrutiny in the process). This will affect funding, faculty assignments, sometimes even the fate of the entire school. These are very high stakes.

I am not sure what happened with my work in that district overall. There was never any formal assessment of my work, which leads me to believe that there was a certain disconnect with the value of what I was developing to meet the needs of improved literacy as well as English Language Arts proficiency. I had hoped that there would be a tracking of the students, some of whom I met in elementary school, taught again in middle, and then in the high school. I was hoping to not only further develop my pedagogy but prove that it had merit. We never did the pre- and post-tests. There was no step to that higher level of documentation and observation. On the one hand, I had tremendous freedom in my work, often tailoring my lesson planning to specific classroom needs and requests from the teachers themselves so that was the upside. The downside is I have no data to indicate my effectiveness. I can only hope. 

In that district, I worked annually in five schools: two elementary, two middle, and the one high school. Add to this schedule the other districts where I gained contracts, plus my adult education, and a single class at the college level, and I determined that I was teaching an average of 2000 individuals a year. Most of those students were before me for an average of 3 - 5 contact sessions.

I have been observing that the philosophy of lifelong learning is fading over the horizon. Even with adults, the idea of being a learning machine is not prevalent. We are a goal-oriented society much more than we invest in the value of process. In the college level course as well as the adult writing workshops I facilitate frequently, I have discovered an attitude that I refer to as consumer-based education; in other words, "I am paying for this so you have to teach me what I want and the way I want you to teach it." I find this frustrating.

The idea that an experienced educator, or even expert in one's field, would determine how they best can convey the knowledge to the student who does not yet have it is not valued, particularly once one has presented a check or a credit card number to pay the course fee. Often, the student wants to decide how much they can be asked to read, to produce, and how the course should be structured. Just as often, the paying student does not even fully understand the nature of the course he or she has signed up for after reading the 30-word blurb in a brochure but still wants the course to meet some preconceived idea of what they will be experiencing. Additionally, some (albeit a very small minority) can be quite vocal about their perceived needs and expectations, even confrontational.

The word I use more and more often about the process of writing is discovery. I want students to discover what the poem wants to be, to discover the wonder of a great line, or the sound of the vowels, or the subconscious metaphor in their work. I want them to be curious rather than exacting. I want them to be patient in letting the work unfold, knowing that there is no deadline in creating a good piece of writing. Deadlines only apply to homework and publishing.

Racking up a pile of adequate poems is far less important that lolling about with a new work and striving for the best word, the most advantageous line end, a new stanza configuration, all with the goal of creating something magical, or even important. What does it matter if a writer spends an hour rearranging a new piece to see what will be implied in the process? After all, isn't that part of the joy of being a writer, playing with language to discover all its potential and impact?

If I ask a class of adults at the beginning of each session, "How was your week as a writer?" I am suggesting that they take the time from all their other obligations, duties, and distractions to honor that part of their selves, their identities. It is no frivolous query. Yet, sometimes those adult students balk at the question, shy from it, and then complain about it on my evaluations. They are looking to get a particular set of teachings or experience, mostly "What do you think about my poem?" rather than "What can I learn about being a poet?"

I am never complacent about my work. I demand a great deal from myself. I read other poets and read about poetry regularly, I talk with other writers, I experiment, and I push myself to grow, to never believe I know all there is to know about the art. I have determined that I know a fair amount and that I have a certain level of skill that I am now becoming comfortable in, even confident. I know I have a viewpoint that is worthy of sharing. I have also discovered that a classroom full of seemingly cranky 5th graders will often be more open to discovery than any number of adults. This is so in adult writing workshops and in teacher in-services. It is sad that we only want what we think we need. We want praise and a list of "how to's" rather than being willing to let the instructor be the driver and to sit back and enjoy the ride, while discovering that there is a new landscape beyond our own knowledge and expectation.  In the interest of discovery, I rarely forecast what I will be teaching. I am resistant to syllabi, and equally resistant to rubrics.

I teach what I want to learn. I learn more every day so I can teach it better. I love my work but I do wish that every student enters a class because they are more interested in process than product. The product will come. This much I know. Now to convince the customer.