My story "To Sleep So Close To Fire" now up at MOJAVE HEART REVIEW!
Sunday, November 3, 2019
Friday, October 25, 2019
The cover for my new chapbook Café Schilling! Now out from Tower Point Press. Email me to order a copy last name first name at the gmail.
Featuring poems that appeared in:
Featuring poems that appeared in:
Monday, October 21, 2019
Thursday, October 10, 2019
My new chapbook, Café Schilling, is now out! Email me to order your copy!
yohejohn at the gmail!
15 pages. Poems about, and from, traveling in Europe.
Features poems which appeared in ColdNoon, Topology, and The Iconoclast!
yohejohn at the gmail!
15 pages. Poems about, and from, traveling in Europe.
Features poems which appeared in ColdNoon, Topology, and The Iconoclast!
Sunday, October 6, 2019
This review-essay appeared in 2015 at Word Riot, which is now gone, alas.
I would be surprised if anyone reading this remembers The Day of the Triffids, or has even read it—it was out of print in American for many years. The copy I found in the late 70s was an old paperback already, in my parents' eclectic collection—probably my mother's, though maybe actually my father's, from back when he still read books and hadn't yet succumbed to the great god Television. The Day of the Triffids was the first 'adult' novel I ever read, which, I think, was what attracted me to it—certainly wasn't the Hardy Boys or Old Yeller, though, like a lot of science fiction, neither was it inaccessibly difficult for a ten or twelve-year-old—not one of my mom's eastern religion books, or The Brothers Karamazov. Maybe it's because you always remember your first, but in the deluge of sci-fi and fantasy books I read in the years after, I never quite forgot Day of the Triffids, and after reading a crop of recent dystopian novels, all now mostly classed at YA, like The Hunger Games, World War Z, Divergent, Feed, and others (there are a lot of dystopian YA novels nowadays), and having discussions about formative books with my friend Jen, I had to go back and see if 1) Day of the Triffids still held up, and 2) I could learn anything more about myself, and my younger self, from what I was reading back then.
The story begins with the main character and narrator, Bill, waking up in a deserted hospital, after being unconscious for a while, and learning that while he was out, most everyone in the world has gone blind, and that not only that, what everybody took for non-sentient genetically modified plants have pulled up their roots and begun to hunt. I know, I know, in these days of zombies and vampires, the idea of killer plants doesn't sound so killer, but if one is willing to suspend their disbelief about zombies, a killer plant dystopia is at least as plausible. I couldn't have told you then why Triffids imprinted itself on me—the immediate thrill was imagining what I would do if I were one of the lone survivors of the destruction of human civilization—which is still true with the current crop, but as anyone who has thought about science fiction (meaning, I guess, trying to justify it to myself) will tell you, those dystopian worlds are stand-ins (not quite metaphors) (maybe fables) for our own world. In fact, those worlds do not seem so different to us readers than our own world. I read Triffids maybe at age eleven or twelve, not entering a new world but no, feeling that the world had changed. With puberty, I felt like I was waking after being unconscious for a long time, into a mostly deserted world run by things I'd thought of as weird and harmless (adults, and humans in general) but who were in fact scary and dangerous. Also, the people like me, the left-over puberty survivors, were mostly blind and helpless and, if I wanted to survive, I very quickly needed to find others like me, who could see. Also, once I realized that I liked what was called 'science-fiction,' I had a place to go, that I belonged somewhere: in the science-fiction section of the bookstore. Once I started carrying science-fiction books around at school, I began to find the other survivors—kids, mostly boys (though girls, I sensed, weren't killer plants)(or mostly not—cue Newt from Aliens: “Mostly....”) who were reading similar books, and these texts gave us a 'secret language' that the triffids couldn't understand.
The Day of the Triffids was written by David Wyndham, real name John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (!), a British science fiction writer who's other works I've never heard of. He was apparently quite well-known in the 50s and 60s, and though he died in 1969, some of his posthumous writing has been published as recently as 2009. Still popular and read in England, his books went out of print here in the States, until recently, when Triffids and his other most popular novel, The Chrysalids, were re-issued, by The Modern Library, both under the label of a “20th Century Rediscovery.”
What I didn't remember, and maybe just didn't consider back then, was how much the novel is less about the weird evil flesh-eating triffids, than about humans, and Wyndham's thoughts on how exactly humans in a post-disaster world would re-form and survive. Most dystopian books present one form, one way, that the author thinks humans will govern themselves, or, usually, be governed. Wyndham presents many, using the structure of the book, with Bill traveling around England to various groups of survivors, as a way to present different philosophies about the best way to survive: Some as anarachic/communal groups, some as smaller family-sized units, and some (the really bad guys) going back to a form of medieval feudalism, with sighted people ruling estates of blind serfs (who will be fed on ground up triffid gruel). What I like about the novel is that Wyndam's characters have some actual intelligent conversations about the pluses and minuses of each form of government, though, interestingly, the increasing number of triffids force Bill and his fellow survivors to opt for larger groups, with larger areas of protected land.
What the few sighted people do, or don't do, with the now blind rest of the population becomes the big question. Do they take the truly compassionate route, and try and help everyone? Seemingly impossible, and endangering everyone, especially, as if blindness and carnivore plants weren't bad enough, with some kind of sickness, which may or may not be typhoid, or the result of biological weapons, ravaging London and other larger cities. Or, cut their losses and regroup in smaller groups with other sighted people, knowing that the blind people left behind will suffer and die? Not easy decisions, and no decision any character makes in the novel is without some dialogue with another character about its feasibility and morality. Even the 'best' guys (there are no real good guys) that Bill and crew join up with are not without some disturbing new rules, and in any case, in any variation of post-disaster re-organization, the general lot of women seems to always end up as baby-makers, which is the one conversation Wyndham avoids, by having even the main female character, Josella, an independent and intelligent woman before the disaster, and a writer of a novel that seems to be the equivalent of Shades of Grey (ultimate male science-fiction nerd fantasy: to be trapped in a scary new world with a hot female porn writer), happy and willing, and even looking forward to, having babies.
Re-reading Triffids now, I'm just struck at how seminal it was: its influence shows in all kinds of books and movies now, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, to Stephen King's The Stand, to José Saramago's Blindness. One of my favorite zombie movies, 28 Days Later (screenplay by Alex Garland, another brit, who wrote The Beach) begins with the same premise of (and I take as an homage to) Triffids: a man waking up in a hospital after an overnight disaster, to find himself one of the few survivors). In fact, I think the whole zombie genre premise (ie zombies spread over the world, small groups of humans survive) comes from Wyndham's novel: just substitute killer plants for zombies. Or apes, say, in Planet of the Apes. Apes and especially zombies seem to make for a better metaphor (for example, racism/slavery, capitalism, AIDS, the invasion of Iraq) though who knows, with the now almost common, though still scary, genetically modified foods, care of the Monsanto cabal, maybe the triffids' time is close at hand! Maybe not even as metaphor!
And what did I learn about my younger self? Well, obviously, the world was full of metaphorically helpless blind people, and metaphorically evil triffids, and I was on my own, surviving the disaster called 'growing up.' And some of my fellow survivors might not be the nicest people either. Nor did compassion for the blind seem to be enough. In fact, it might have been too much: That, to have compassion and try to relieve the suffering of all the metaphorically blind people in the world would make me triffid food. No, best to withdraw, with a few like-minded souls, if I could find them (and especially with a woman who writes porn) and live on an island, where we could survive, and (maybe) figure out how to rid the world of triffids, and repopulate it with our metaphorically non-blind children.
Nothing has changed. I still feel this way.
Saturday, October 5, 2019
This review originally appeared in 2015 at Word Riot, which is now gone, alas.
The Palace of Illusions
by Kim Addonizio
Soft Skull Press 2014
Kim Addonizio's writing goes for the guts—punches of raw common american language, about raw common human relationships, that are also, at times, funny and sexy, with touches of all her street-level poet heroes, like Charles Bukowski, Frank O'Hara, Anne Waldman and (early Satan Says-era) Sharon Olds. I have up to this point mostly thought of Addonizio as a poet, though she has written some novels, and her first collection of short stories, in the box called pleasure, is as unapologetically in-your-face as, say, Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, and I love it. It gives her room to work even more in the lower-class blue collar divey world that other underground writers like Bukowski and Hubert Selby Jr. make, if not beautiful, then interesting and sympathetic, and Addonizio, like them, may be showing her (unconscious or not) street Buddhism by showing how beauty can be found anywhere, that the lotus grows in mud.
But now I've shifted how I think of her, as not just a poet, but a writer in general, like Bukowski, because because of her new collection of stories, The Palace of Illusions, out through Soft Skull Press. Some of the stories, like “The Other Woman” and “Blown,” are similar to those in in the box called pleasure—short, fast, and powerful, from the POVs of trashy young women involved with trashy men (some not-so young) the results of which we readers know are doomed, and that they're bad choices. Actually, even the protagonists seem to know that they're making bad choices, and yet seem powerless to choose otherwise, which is how you might determine whether you'll like Addonizio or not: Is that how Real Life feels to you? Kinda out of control, at least temporarily pleasurable, and full of suffering?
Importantly though: even as bad choices are made, none of the young women protagonists refuses to accept responsibility for their actions, which they could in some cases very easily do, like in “Intuition,” when an older married man is breaking up with fifteen-year-old Faith, she briefly thinks about what would happen if she just went public with their affair, and how she could destroy him:
“I sit there, turned away from him on the swing, holding the knife I my lap. I cold turn, before he gets up, and stab him in the heart, and then he really would be dead. I could get away with it. I could say, He touched me between my legs. He forced me. He took me to the Tip Top Motel, and he said he would hurt me if I ever told. Everyone knows what men to to girls; people would believe is was self-defense. No one would know the truth.” (183-4)
But, she doesn't, which is why I like her—or, well, at least sympathize with her—and other Addonizio characters. It's not so much about ethics—Faith, obviously, doesn't like the man anymore, and has lost respect—but 'owning' your actions, realizing the inevitability of effect, from a cause that she, less than he, put in action. Which might horrify some readers, or make them go tsk tsk, but whatever Addonizio's characters are, they're not victims, or they don't think of themselves that way, and her stories are not about being politically correct.
“Intuition” is my favorite story in the collection. It's got the gutsy darkness of earlier Addonizio stories, but it's longer, and more in depth. If earlier stories (and, again, some in this collection) are more similar to her poems—capturing a short moment in time—this story has time to build, and has great passages like this:
“The thing is, you keep hoping. With each boy, you think maybe it will happen: he'll look at you a certain way, he'll get you, and your search will be over. I've been searching since I was thirteen, with one boy after another.” (163).
Hard to remember maybe (though funny too) that that's a fifteen-year-old-girl speaking, and yet Addonizio's talent (and this goes for her poetry too) is that she can write something in plain american speech that sounds easy to articulate/write/say, but isn't, and yet captures how anyone, fifteen to fifty, really feels, even when they're fucked-up messes: they still capture very human situations and feelings.
Other stories in The Palace of Illusions are more along this tone and strategy. Some would say they're more mature, but that would imply Addonizio's shorter pieces aren't as good. They're just different. Still, she is experimenting with a more formal, controlled, style. What these stories remind me of is City of Boys, a collection of short stories by Beth Nugent, which I thought was one of the best books of the 90s, though Nugent dropped away after that, and it's out of print, so I'm not sure many readers will get that comparison. But Nugent was coming from Hemingway's darker short works, and Marguerite Duras, and Joyce Carol Oats, as is Addonizio.
She's also experimenting with different ages, both younger—with the poor girl from “Beautiful Lady Of The Snow,” who you just want to hug and take far away from her mother and life—and the nameless woman in “In The Time of the Byzantine Empire,” the middle-aged academic that proves making bad choices is not just the domain of young people. And there's an older character, Ruth, in “Cancer Poems,”dying of cancer and taking a community college poetry class in order to maybe write a book she can leave behind for her granddaughter.
Addonizio is also, in a few stories, experimenting with fairy tales, and one vampire. These interest me less, though I acknowledge that other readers might find them preferable to the punch-in-the-guts stories. And even whe Addonizio writes about seven dwarves, say, her narrator still talks/sounds 'street smart'. The vampire is a teenager in college. Or, she's half-vampire, her dad is full vampire. The details are less important than the effect, of an insecure young woman with low self esteem, who can still, with (dark) comedic effect talk about stalking people to drink their blood.
Addonizio apparently being Addonizio, none of the characters in The Palace of Illusions (with the exception of Ruth, the cancer non-survivor) is what we'd call likeable. Relatable, yes: we've all done things in our lives that we regret or are not proud of (ie, we're fuck-ups just like everyone else)(or we feel that way)(or I do—if you don't maybe this collection isn't for you and you can just renew your subscription to The New Yorker). So, sympathy, yes. Pity, definitely. Interesting, for sure. And these types of characters can be harder to stay involved with beyond a short story. The one Addonizio novel I've read, My Dreams Out In The Street, I found difficult, not because of the style but because of the two main characters, and the awful choices they make in their lower-class lives. They're interesting, yes, but following them for two hundred pages and continuing to feel any kind of sympathy is a hard ask, though it apparently has a cult following.
Addonizio also written two fairly popular and well-received 'how-to' books on the craft of poetry, Ordinary Genius, and A Poet's Companion, co-authored with poet Dorianne Laux (another street-ish poet, though more interested in the erotic than the rough) both of which include short essay-chapters on writing as a process and way of life, as well as exercise-prompts that could be used on one's own, or in poetry workshops. What I would love is to read some critical essays from her, in maybe the style of Tony Hoagland, just to see how she thinks about other poets and poetry, though the truth is I'd just love to read anything by her.
Actually what I'd really love to do is jam with her sometime, since she also plays blues harp (harmonica) in a band and at open mics, and this seems perfectly fitting—she's not pop (too shocking and rough-edged for the prudish mainstream) and she's not jazz (though she has an improvisatory fun feels at times, her subject matter is too dark) and neither is she heady classical (no 'too many notes' texts here—stark versus ornamental). No, her writing is from the bars, from the blues that come from real human working class relationships—the sadness and sexiness and fucked-up-ed-ness of things never quite working out, as all relationships never really ever quite work out, even when they do (and they don't).
After reading the last installment Best American Short Stories, I feared that I was losing interest in short fiction, period. But Addonizio restores my faith and interest. Good edgy fiction is out there, with publishers like Soft Skull Press, we just may have to search a little harder. That said, I don't know why The Palace of Illusions wasn't picked up by a bigger publisher. For all that I love Addonizio's underground feel, that's me being like those music listeners who like their underground bands to stay underground, when really it feels like she's about to explode.
Thursday, October 3, 2019
Coming soon! My new poetry chapbook, Café Schilling: Poems from Europe.
Experiment: email or DM me with an address, I will send you a copy, and you pay what you think it's worth. yohejohn at gmail.com
Experiment: email or DM me with an address, I will send you a copy, and you pay what you think it's worth. yohejohn at gmail.com
Sunday, September 29, 2019
As Fiction Editor for Deep Wild: Writing from the Backcountry, I am proud to say we will soon be open for submission for essays, poetry and short fiction for issue #2!
To order/subscribe to Issue #1, here.
To order/subscribe to Issue #1, here.
Wednesday, September 18, 2019
Originally appeared at COLDNOON: International Journal of Travel Writing and Travelling Cultures, March 2017. It is now defunct, alas. Enjoy!
[update: it's back up! Here's the original link]
[update: it's back up! Here's the original link]
When you open yourself up to the Universe, the Universe provides! With a free summer ahead of me, I have decided to return to Spain after many years, Barcelona in particular, which I've always wanted to explore. No plan, no activities, just to stay awhile and see what the city has to offer. Sunny May, and although Barcelona has a super convenient metro, and an amazing bike path system, I am content to walk, especially down in the old section of town, where what would be back alleys in the US are a main streets, a whole maze of them, filled with people and small shops: Food, music, clothes. All the signs in Catalàn, a Romance language similar to Spanish, and French, so that I can understand most of them, but have no idea to how to pronounce the words. In fact, and I didn't know this before I came, Catalonia (or Catalunya as the natives call it) used to be its own country for a while, like Texas, and, also like Texas, they're fiercely proud of themselves their language and culture. I envy their bilingualness, like having a secret language only cool people know.
It's my second day here, rambling along La Rambla, main avenue in the touristy centro section, when I see a green poster outside of the Palau Virreina advertising the 2011 Barcelona Poetry Festival. A week of daily free readings and performances at the Palau and other nearby locations. And it started yesterday! I check the schedule of events, and, though I'm fine with just seeing what the poets in Spain are up to, some American poets are reading, including Jerome Rothenberg and...Gary Snyder!
The next night I return to the Palau Virreina, early, and though I didn't think a poetry reading would attract much people, I'm wrong. The place fills up, all chairs taken, people standing in back and even weaseling down the aisles. The building is old old, stone walls probably older than the United States, but it's been converted into an arts center, currently displaying some contemporary photography. Two huge wooden doors open into a high arched hall in the layout of a cross, though the 'top' of it is closed/walled off and the stage arranged right at the center, so chairs in the wings are viewing that performance sideways. I suppose this isn't even a 'hall', since parts of it are open to the sky. A courtyard I guess.
The opening act for Jerome Rothenberg is a South African “poet/musician” named Kgafela Oa Magogodi. During his reading/performance he sits with a guitar in his lap, tapping out the rhythm with his right foot on a tambourine, and occasionally picking up small percussion instruments like a drum stick or rattle, singing in English and what I take to be a tribal language from South Africa, but between 'songs' (which at times are him just talking over a simple vamp) reciting poems in the style of what some would call 'spoken word', meaning fast and passionate and occasionally rhyming and on the political side, criticizing both his government and the United States. I'm all for that, though he seems to be preaching to the choir, which is, in my humble opinion, the problem with that type of poetry: it's passionate, but not subtle, nor surprising, nor does it tell me anything new, or make me think differently about politics, or anything.
I have to say that I'm not that familiar with Rothenberg, never read his stuff except maybe in anthologies. Magogodi introduces him as “The Shaman” and he has that air, though all poets have that air, a little. He looks like an old Jewish Torah scholar, except with short white hair and beard, his head and neck curving over in the beginning of a question mark, from a life bent over books, and which is probably what I'll end up looking like. He's dressed all in black: black slacks, black t-shirt, black shoes, with a Native American-looking necklace of wood and turquoise. An assortment of props are already on the podium: a feather, a baton, and what looks like a long plastic tube.
He addresses us in english, and I wonder how much the audience understands, and even how much of the audience is spanish/catalan versus maybe american, and starts by saying he's going to sing a traditional native Seneca song, in the original language, then in English, then “for the first time ever, en Catalàn!”
That gets a huge roar, though when he actually starts singing, the song just consists of the line, “The animals are coming” repeated a few times while he shakes a rattle and waves a feather. Still, I think the Senecas would have been proud that one of their songs has been sung across the ocean in a language just a little bit less in danger of disappearing than theirs.
Impressing the crowd even more, Rothenberg reads one of his poems in English, then a Spanish translation of it. Unfortunately he can't keep that up, and after that reads just in English, and though interesting to me perhaps, he's losing some folks, they're getting restless, especially when us English-speakers (and there seem to be more than I would have thought) chuckle, or go 'huh' after an interesting line. Since Rothenberg does such a good job of reading his one poem in Spanish, I'd think he could have, or even should have, talked between poems en español, at least un poquito, to keep the crowd with him, since they loved how he started out. But, he also reads a 'tone poem' (as in, just made up of sounds) by a German dadaist, Hugo Ball, while whirling that plastic tube over his head the whole time, making a high pitched whine. Which seems to have the same effect on everyone, as in, Um, what the fuck was that?
He ends with a Navaho song, about how horses came to their land, which is interesting since the Spanish were the ones who actually introduced them, but I like the idea of the 'losers' re-writing history with poetry and song, taking the oppressors out of the story completely. I'm not sure people get it though. Maybe I'm thinking too much. It's happened before.
The description in the program says that Magogodi and Rothenberg will “show a way to listen to poetry that incorporates ritual and combat in every verse and every gesture” (my translation)(from Catalàn!) which only goes to show that the Spanish like their descriptions to be melodramatic, because there is no ritual or combat, nor have the two performers ever met before the show. What they do have in common is an interest in mixing/melding languages and cultures together.
The huge wooden doors of the 'palace' have been kept open for the poetry reading, which I think is meant as an invitation to any passers-by (and there are many) though throughout there has been a constant Rambla rumble of people out on a Friday night, and at one point a large group gathers in the back of the hall and have to be shushed, though they don't really. I'm not sure if they're people who have just wandered in, or who are waiting for the Sufis, because in fact they are the headliners tonight: three people performing Sufi poetry and music. A beautiful red-haired woman dressed all in white reads the poetry, translated into Catalàn, while the two men, one of whom also sings beautifully, accompany her, and/or play musical interludes between poems, with both stringed instruments (guitar, violin, and some kind of traditional lute or oud) and sometimes on handheld tambourine-looking drums. Since the poetry is in Catalàn, I tune it out sometimes and just enjoy the music, but other times I can understand some of the words. It's all about love. All you need is amor.
Halfway across the world and all I do with my free time is what I'd do back home: Hang out in a bookstore. The best one, LA Central, a block off La Rambla, has a huge collection. I seek out the poetry section, curious about which American poets are the most popular, and (this may make some people angry, but I love it)(meaning both that I love that it makes people angry, and love that it's true) it's Charles Bukowski, hands down. There are eight of his books of poetry, in translation, compared to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, each with one book. John Ashbury nowhere to be found.
I'm renting a room from a woman while staying here. Much cheaper than staying in a hostel, and much quieter. I'm going 'old school' traveler style, enjoying having no phone, no car, no computer, no iPod. Still, with not even a radio in my room, I do miss music, so that every little snippet I hear seems like a gift, like when I stop into a smoothie place down on Calle Ferrán for a slice of pizza, as a halfway cheap lunch (because Barcelona is expensive) and the Rolling Stones' “Beast of Burden,” is playing. One of my favorites, haven't heard it in a while. Tired from walking all day, gazing at all the beautiful Spanish women, the perfect words for what I'm feeling:
I've walked for miles, my feet are hurting
All I want is for you to make love to me
Poetry vs. Music. Two points on a continuum? Heidegger says all artists help in the creation of the world, but he reserves top place for the poets, because they create with language, but here on La Rambla, Saturday afternoon, a percussion troupe appears. Modern day punk rock Catalàn Kodo drummers, blocking traffic, yelling and pounding and dancing and lifting their drums in the air. A hundred people surrounding them, dancing with them down the street.
On Saturday night, when I arrive back at the hall of the Palau de Virreina. A group of people, volunteers, dressed in funny-looking, what I take to be traditional Catalunyan, red hats, wait at the front of the courtyard. One woman, guapa, approaches me and says hola. I try not to act nervous as she asks me if I'd like to hear a poem. Me encantaría, I say. I would love to.
She spreads out a set of ten (or so) cards, face down, and asks me to pick one. On the other side is the name of a poem, and who it is by, which, alas, I don't really catch, but at least it's in Spanish and not Catalàn—I may have a chance of understanding it.
She smiles, seemingly pleased by my choice, and recites it by memory. I understand most of it, I think—it seems to be in a simple accessible style, a poem about a woman's face. I try to be brave and look the beautiful woman in the eye, and she stares right back, and when she's done I want to tell her that she has a face like that, but what if I've misunderstood? What if the woman's face in the poem is old and wrinkly? Instead, I play it safe, as I always seem to do with women, and say simply, Gracias. That's all I can say to beautiful women who recite poetry to me. Gracias.
The problem with having events in the courtyard of the Palau de Veillreina becomes evident: Rain. I arrived early, just to get out of it, but with the open courtyard, half the seats are wet. Hardly above a drizzle, not unpleasant to walk through, but not to sit in. I grab a metal folding chair down front, under a second-floor walkway, in the second row. The first row is just a little out in the open, so the seats are half wet. All the video recording cables, and half the stage, are out in the rain. Steam rising from the stage lights. I start to worry about be electrocuted.
A trio of older people sit down next to me, and the woman right next to me smiles and nods. The hall is filling up, or at least the dry parts, with a small section of us under the crosswalk, then twenty feet of empty wet chairs, then a larger group standing in back. The whole time we're sitting there, through a glass wall to the left there is a room, a classroom maybe, with chairs and a couple desks up front. I finally ask one of the guys in charge why we can't all move in there. He claims we wouldn't all fit, though I'm not so sure. More likely, moving all the recording equipment, sound and video, would be impossible, so the recording/video of the poetry has become more important than the poetry itself.
My new neighbor spreads out her umbrella and puts it over the chair in front of us, because by now the rain has gotten stronger and raindrops are splattering off the seats and back onto us. I thank her and mention that things don't seem planned out very well. She nods and says that it's a matter of organization, and that if a corporation had organized this, everything would run smoothly. Anarchist that I am, I have to agree with her. “Sabes,” she says, “Los poetas son idealistas, pero no muy organizados.” Indeed.
Lining the back of the stage are four super-comfy-looking chairs about the size of love seats. All black, of course. And dry. The poets arrive, and man are they young. Two young men, two young women. I guess I'd expected people like Jerome Rothenberg, wise men, or wise people, but nope, these look like college kids. I tell this to my neighbor and she laughs. “We don't have many poets here in Catalunya!”
The four youths ascend and stand in a row at the front, in the drizzle. Like, for a while. Silent. I think this is a statement of some sort. My neighbor chuckles. Then, through some unspoken signal, three of them retreat to their chairs, of which I'm seriously jealous right now.
Two of them, María Cabrera and Jaume C. Pons, are from Catalunya. The other two, Pablo Fidalgo and María Salgado, from Madrid. So, half the poems will be in español, and half in catalàn. The guy from Madrid, and the seeming organizer, Fidalgo, reads first. He's cultivating his inner Pablo Neruda, both in body weight and poem content, where 'amor' appears every other line.
I understand most of the Spanish poems, though I actually prefer the Catalàn poets, they have better stage presence, speak more intensely. The young catalàn woman is serious, and intense, and I want to marry her and her sexy rolling r's. Pons, the catalàn guy is the best, even the other poets seems to acknowledge this. He's the only one who uses humor, which I like, as well as a couple 'shout outs' to both Keats and Jim Morrison. He even sings a verse from The Doors' “The End.”
All lusting after beautiful women who write poetry aside, I feel like I'm in a good tribe that night. A room full of people who like poetry, and surprisingly a lot of younger folks. I'm not sure what would happen in the States, though there are plenty of artsy-looking older folks, including a few other men with long hair, so I don't feel too much like a freak.
I wonder what writing in Catalàn is like. That is, everyone here seems to be basically fluent in both Catalàn and Spanish, therefore these poets seem to be choosing the language they want to write in. I wonder if they would say that? That it's a choice for them? Because Spanish is a world language, they could write in it and have people from Santiago to Los Angeles understand them. But to choose to write in a language spoken by maybe a million people? Two million? And yet, I would do that too, write in my own language versus the language of the oppressor. Except I have no choice, the language of the oppressor is the only one I know.
On Sunday I do get to see a couple of older Spanish wise men poets: Luis García Montero and Joan Margarit. I arrive at the Ateneu Barcelonès, where the reading is being held, a little late. In contrast to the Palau Virreina, this building is new, fancy, a little sterile feeling even. I walk in and a security guard points me through some doors, where I can already hear the sound of poetry being recited. I check my watch. Really? It's not that late. Who ever heard of a poetry reading starting on time?!
I enter the room, a small theatre with rows of seats, and with a large movie/tv screen, on which the two poets are seated on a stage somewhere. Not here though. Shit. I almost decide fuck it, that I didn't come to see a video of poets reading, but on the other hand I have nothing else planned, so I awkwardly crawl over some people's laps to a lone chair off to one side. I'm lucky to get that, the salon fills up with people coming in after me who have to stand in back.
At first I think the poets are reading somewhere else, Madrid maybe, and we are watching a simulcast of some sorts, but then on hearing them talk between poems I realize they're actually in the building, in a larger theatre, and that we're in an overflow room. Wow. How's that for a poetry crowd? Still, grrr, I want to be in the main hall.
The two poets have a weird dynamic. The younger one, Garcia, reads one poem seated in his chair. The second, older, poet, Margarit, stands up and walks to the front of the stage and reads while gesticulating like an Italian. Montero's poems have humor, and joy, like Charles Bukowski or Frank O'Hara, while Margarit's poems are harder for me to understand. I can't tell if it's because he's speaking in Catalàn, or if he just has a super-thick accent, or both, but they are, or seem, serious, though he also seems to impress the audience a bit more. Towards the end, Margarit tells Garcia that he happily sees him as the heir to his throne. Which sounds horribly arrogant. I know, right? Who would have thought a poet could be arrogant? But maybe Margarit has earned it.
And now for something completely different. Lee Ranaldo, guitarist for the band Sonic Youth, is giving a performance back at the Palau Virreina. I'm not sure what to expect, but since it involves the guitarist from Sonic Youth, I'm expecting noise. In fact, his performance, or show, is called “Noise Recitation: Against Refusing.”
This time there's a huge screen at the back of the courtyard, with a large square stage. A wire has been suspended down in the middle, with a small noose about head height. Two Fender amps flank the stage, one in each back corner tilted slightly up, with a small podium stage-right, where I sit a couple rows back. I show up early and still barely get a chair. Huge turnout, with a slightly different crowd. All the alternative music crowd, generally younger, and with more tattoos, has turned out, expecting perhaps more music than poetry, or a concert instead of a poetry reading. They're certainly rowdier, especially the women, who all seem wonderfully foul-mouthed, making me think of these lines:
In the streets the women come and go
laughing and yelling, “Coño!”
About ten minutes before the show, Ranaldo comes up on stage. No one in the audience seems to know if it's really him, or maybe just a roadie, since he's now like, an older guy. Maybe a little older than me, meaning late forties, with grey hair, though cut in kind of an old Beatles British invasion style. He hangs a Fender Jazzmaster electric guitar from the wire noose, wrapping it around the head and through some of the tuning pegs. With a wireless unit duct-taped to the body, he turns up the volume knob, leaving the guitar just hanging there, moving in the wind a little, and since it's on, and the amps are on, the strings vibrate slightly, creating a low moan and a really high-pitched, though faint, feedback sound.
The lights lower, and a weird collage movie projects on the screen: shots of some very skinny young people crawling around coastal rocks, très 70s. I'm not sure if they are the Sonic Youth folks from way back or not.
Ranaldo comes up on stage. Again, nobody knows it's him until he grabs the mic and begins to talk, so there hasn't been any applause. Or maybe everyone else knows what to expect? And I'm the dummy? It's happened before. Anyways, he gives a brief explanation of what he's about to do, in English. He'll be reciting some of his poetry (later I learn that it's from a new book of his, Against Refusing), but that “half of it won't make sense.” He doesn't even know what the words mean, so we shouldn't worry if there's no translation.
He grabs a drumstick, walks over to the guitar, and starts banging on it. He has some effects pedals on the floor by the podium that I can't see, but which must include distortion, and some kind of repeater, and some other weird stuff, because the hall fills with sound. Low notes and some high notes. Feedback. Clicks of the wood stick on the wood body. He even hits the strings, getting huge vibrating thick chords.
Holding the mic in one hand, he recites his first poem, something about traveling by car through California and the desert. I'm not sure the words would stand on their own. Seems like he could just be reading from a dictionary with just as much effect. But what an effect! The movie continues, with more bizarre scenes strung together, of mostly naked people wearing masks and spitting rubber spiders out of their mouths. Ranaldo takes a violin bow and strokes the guitar strings, sometimes one, sometimes all six, stepping on his various effects pedals. In fact, I'd argue he's 'playing' his pedals as much as his guitar.
Even more bizarrely, Ranaldo pushes the guitar away, sending it swinging in huge circles around the stage. The noose/wire stretches, it's black and mostly invisible with the stage lights and movie playing, creating the effect of the guitar as an animate being, floating around in space singing/screaming/moaning. A ghost.
Ranaldo recites more poetry, going from more narrative-ish stories to listing off weird sound-words, reminding me of the Dada poem Rothenberg read the other night. At one point Ranaldo even takes the guitar off it's noose and carries it to one of the amplifiers, creating a weird feedback loop that, combined with the repeat effect, sounds like, and is as loud as, a helicopter hovering overhead.
I'm actually surprised Ranaldo has a guitar strap, not sure why, but he does, which he puts on the guitar. Slinging it over his shoulder, he fingers some chords and single notes. Not a lot, never many notes at once. Instead, he just seems interested in 'layering' notes and sounds over each other, in different rhythms (or indifferent rhythms).
He hangs the guitar back up and sends it swinging around in more huge loops. I, and the guy next to me, keep expecting, maybe in some way hoping, it will hit the podium, but it never does. Would make a cool noise though if it did. I love though that at one point the guitar tags Ranaldo on the back, but I seem to be the only one who laughs out loud. At another point, he pulls it to the back of the stage, then sends it swooping out over the heads of the people in the first few rows, again like a live creature.
I started the show (? Or, what do I call this?) thinking it was either the most pretentious thing I was ever going to see, or the coolest, and by now I'm thinking it's the coolest. His weirder poetry seems to fit the mood more, and he uses repetition effectively, especially at one point when he chants the last line of a poem over and over, “Open all the boxes! Open all the boxes!” While bringing the noise to it's loudest peak of the night.
I expect Ranaldo to just leave the guitar screaming and walk off the stage as his ending, but as the movie ends, he gets the guitar under control and plays it some more with a violin bow, calming things down, leaving it hanging with just a low hum. He walks over to the microphone, smiling, and quietly says, “Thanks.”
Huge applause. The house lights comes on, and though I can't necessarily hear or understand the exact worlds people around me are saying to each other, the expressions on their faces say what I'm feeling: Holy shit. That was the craziest fucking shit I've ever seen or heard.
Gary Snyder has been one of my favorite poets for years, though I had despaired of ever getting to hear him read, since I've moved back to Michigan and, well, he's getting old now and I figured he'd want to retire quietly to his house up in the Northern California mountains. But, apparently, he has come all the way to Spain for this reading, which takes place in a small auditorium in the Caja Madrid (a big Spanish bank) building on the Plaça de Catalunya, a large plaza and park, with a huge fountain and trees and benches and metro stop, and where the Rambla starts, heading south to the port. And the spot where, a week later, protesters will set up camp, as part of a nationwide manifestations against government austerity measures, due to the crumbling economy, caused, in part, in my opinion, to government deregulation of banking practices, including those of Caja Madrid.
The arts wing of the building, the Espai Cultural, houses some contemporary photography exhibits on the ground and basement floors. In fact, since I arrive super early, I wander downstairs to look and stumble on Snyder getting interviewed in front of a camera crew. I can't help it: I smile when I see him. One of my heroes, in person. Someone whose writing changed my life, really. I try not to gawk though, not wanting to seem like a dork-stalker-groupie.
The auditorium is on the second floor. I slip in early, while the techies are still checking the mics. The room is set up weird, in a large 'V', with the stage at the base, so that the two 'wings' of seats are separated and not visible to each other, though both can see the stage. I'm glad I got a good seat right up front, because ten minutes before the reading is supposed to start, a flood of people come pouring in, scrambling for seats like jackals.
The first hour of the 'reading' is actually a showing of the short documentary The Practice of the Wild in which the writer Jim Harrison, a friend of Snyder's, interviews him in different settings, including while walking in the woods, interspersed with Snyder reading some of his poems. I've actually seen this before and, though I'm a fan of Harrison, he's not the most photogenic person (Snyder later describes him as looking “like Genghis Khan”) and talks in kind of a mumble-growl. In fact, since many people in the audience don't seem to know who he is, or maybe they do, they kind of end up laughing at him. I'm also left feeling that Harrison doesn't 'dig' as deep as he can with his questions. But I think the audience is won over by Snyder, the wise man of the woods, talking about Buddhism, and writing, and his past.
After the movie, the host and interpreter for the night, Nacho Fernández (love that name!), a writer and translator from Madrid, gets up and introduces Snyder, though I get the impression that he needs no introduction to anyone there, Spanish or otherwise. In contrast to Jerome Rothenberg (they must be around the same age) Snyder is straight-backed, thin, and wiry, dressed in blue jeans and boots and a shirt right out of an L.L. Bean catalogue, looking twenty years younger than he actually is, and like he's about to go for a hike in the mountains. When he first walks up on stage, he seems tired after his trip of three or so days, but as soon as he starts reading, he gets more energy.
He and Fernández sit at a long table. Snyder reads from a small collection of poems, mostly earlier work, that Fernández has assembled and translated, and which has been handed out for free to all the attendees, with the English and Spanish versions on facing pages. Since I know Snyder knows Chinese and Japanese and probably Sanskrit and some Native American, and has lived in California most of his life, I half expect him to read some of his poems in Spanish, but he doesn't. Fernández translates everything Snyder says in between poems, which is a lot, since Snyder likes to basically tell a story for every poem, and I see some of the Spanish people next to me kind of following along with the Spanish versions of the poems. I like following along too, to see how the poems 'work' in Spanish. And they seem to work well. Though Bukowski would have a heart attack for me saying this, he and Snyder both have a plain, simple language, no big words or complex phrases. Snyder tends to let the things he's describing stand for themselves, just listing objects, letting us readers visualize them. Not a lot of adjectives or adverbs like I tend to see in Spanish poetry. I wonder if Spanish readers tend to think of poets like Snyder and Bukowski as too stripped down, too minimalist. But no, here's Snyder in a packed auditorium. Though, based on the crowd reaction to some of the funny lines in the movie, and in certain of the poems, I start to think that maybe 2/3s are American, which makes the size of the crowd even more surprising. Of the Americans actually in Barcelona right now, how many would actually come to a poetry reading?
I'm familiar with all the poems, and like I said, I've seen (and heard) videos of him reading, but hearing the poems in person has a certain magic. Plus seeing his expression, his wrinkly smile, or even the moments when some sadness appears, like in poems about his sister, and Lew Welch.
Interesting note: He reads one of my favorites, “As for Poets,” but with a revision. Instead of all the described poets being male, he's changed at least the Water Poet to a female, so that the stanza now goes:
Stayed down six years.
She was covered with seaweed.
The life of her poem
left millions of tiny
Criss-crossing through the mud.
I'm not sure about anybody else in the room, but his words bring back memories of California and the southwest United States, making me miss the woods and desert. What am I doing in this big city? But where else but in a big city could I see a performance like Ranaldo's? Or even attend a poetry reading by Gary Snyder?
There's a funny poem by Bukowski describing doing a reading with Snyder, where the Snyder groupies (hey, I'm one, I can say this) keep asking for an encore, one more poem, and it happens tonight too. “Otra! Otra! One more!” And I'm like, yeah, ok, let's hear one more. So first he reads a letter a twelve year old girl wrote to him after going with her mom to see him read in California, a rhyming poem thanking him. To thank her, he wrote a rhyming letter back. Cute. Clever. Very unlike what I associate with Snyder and his poetry, ie humor, but it's a nice light way to end the evening.
After the reading, I consider going up to the stage to just shake Snyder's hand and tell him thank you, but the jackals are already descending, and Snyder looks tired again, though still smiling. I just mentally bow and head out the door.
One lone man sitting in a café, scribbling in a notebook. A young woman waiting on the corner across from the café. Evening. She's waiting for poetry. Or for a boyfriend to pick her up on his motorcycle. Or, no, for another young woman. They wait together for poetry. They type poetry into their phones. The man would write poetry on their bodies. They would whisper poetry to him, one in each ear. And then rain. And then two more young women, all of them now huddling under an umbrella reciting poetry to each other, and he looks away and they are gone.
Tuesday, September 17, 2019
With COLDNOON now defunct, I'm moving my published work there, here. This appeared February 2018. Enjoy!
[update: it's back up! Here is the link]
[update: it's back up! Here is the link]
Cool southern breeze off the ocean bringing grey clouds
meaning time to heal our burnt skin
and put on jackets and go drink green tea
in Café Schilling reading La Vanguardia and El País
about the protests against government austerity measures
which are really the government's way of paying
for the mistakes it made with the taxpayers' dinero
or not even mistakes really—the deregulation
it handed the rich and the corporations and the banks
and yet no one seems to care but this handful
of people camping out in the Plaça de Catalunya
while everyone else prefers to watch Barcelona
beat Manchester United on the tele
and celebrate the victory at a Shakira concert
since she's dating one of the players now
and still hasn't committed to marrying me
but even I am bored with protestors and manifesting
because it just doesn't seem to matter
the government doesn't care and the bankers certainly don't
and I fear our lack of fear and anger
but still want to enjoy my life
and what was the word you used to describe your confession
that day months ago when it also rained and we ducked
into Café Schilling and the camarera was sexy
with her tattoos and black tights and attitude
and we had decided that we liked Joan Miró more than Picasso
even though in reality it was not either/or but and/both
and both of us were tired from staying up the night before
listening to jazz and walking home through the medieval streets
because the metro had shut down for the evening
which was fine and everything was quiet
and I was quiet too thinking of that song in 5/4
with the latin bass line and the Sex Shoppe in Madrid
where the girl with the knife scar straight up her chest
danced an extra ten minutes for us because
you told her to go back to college and get the philology degree
and even though you encouraged me to jerk off
I wanted to save it for you for later
and now it's much later in our travels
and I can say I love you en español
and you can tease and deny en catalàn
and I wish we didn't have to go back
to our old lives where we're comfortably normal
and does the Universe take care of us I asked
because that's what a woman tells Javier Bardem in the movie Biutiful
and you said yes but I'm not sure
maybe the Universe only takes care of middle-class rich people
and doesn't give a fuck about the poor
especially but not limited to those in Africa who
just want to survive in the postcolonial system
unless the Universe is in fact doing the best it can
given the circumstances
and that things could be even worse
which seems hard to believe sometimes
but when I think about quitting my job and moving to Barcelona I think ok
at least I wouldn't be selling cheap chinese-made purses on the street
trying to support my family
and in fact I could even envision a spanish woman maybe liking me
and me even talking to her somehow
and us touching our naked bodies to each other
though I'm not sure I'm not sure
maybe the Universe is a little busy right now with more important things
maybe I would just end up in a cheap noisy apartment by myself
with my money running out
and I'd have to return to the states
even more poor than now but dude—you said—
[image: Javier Bardem from Biutiful]
Wednesday, September 11, 2019
Originally appeared at COLDNOON in February 2018. That site is now defunct, alas.
[Update: it's back up! Here is the original link]
[Update: it's back up! Here is the original link]
let's go to Café Schilling and read a newspaper
like our parents used to do
where you can get a café con leche and I'll get a green tea
and we'll listen to the bloopy music
watching the tourists
and becoming annoyed by loud arrogant spanish men
but we'll both want to make out with the camarera
with her tattoos and converse high-tops and black tights and attitude
and we'll discuss whether the people camping out in la Plaça de Catalunya
are effectively protesting government austerity measures
and the IMF
and Spain's membership in the European Union
which itself seems set up to benefit France and Germany
though at the same time offering an economic challenge
to the Evil Empire of our own United States
or we could discuss whether the narcotraficantes basically
own Guatamala and Mexico like it appears
and what would happen if Americans stopped doing cocaine
or if Egypt will indeed become a democracy
or will the new boss be the same as the old boss
with the help of the American government or not
and basically we can discuss how guilty we feel
for being from America
and how helpless we feel
about affecting any change in US foreign policy
because with the deregulation of banks and corporate donations
more and more of our politicians do what Big Money says
but fuck it
finish your croissant
let's go to la playa
Tuesday, September 3, 2019
Wednesday, August 28, 2019
Tuesday, August 27, 2019
My project for the MA in Written Communication: The Teaching of Writing at Eastern Michigan University.
Every semester, in my first-day introduction letters from my composition students, many of them tell me how they “hate” English, some even say that they learned to hate English in high school, by being made to write standard, formal five-paragraph papers. Yet in these same letters, some of these students go on to say that they still write poetry, short stories, comics, and lyrics (to name a few genres), but they consider this ‘creative’ writing completely separate from English. After I started teaching composition at Jackson Community College, I also had the opportunity to teach a creative writing class, in which many of my best composition students enrolled. I suspected that they were some of my best composition students because they had already been interested in creative writing, and had a confidence in themselves as writers, and even as thinkers, that some of their composition classmates didn’t have. Not that they didn’t work hard in the composition classes, but they had had at least a ‘head start,’ building skills which they could apply in any other genre, including editing (or correcting surface convention errors), genre and model recognition, and revision.
My experience writing both in creative genres and in the academic world seem to confirm this idea. That is, my own explorations in creative writing have given me the survival skills for writing in an academic setting because those skills transfer: The strategies and knowledge students develop in one genre of writing can be applied to any other genre, regardless of context or situation. Not necessarily at the same level, but this knowledge gives them that ‘head start’ in the unfamiliar genre. For example, someone who is familiar with writing in the genre of poetry will be able to ‘adapt’ to the genre of a biology lab report more easily than someone with little writing experience at all. Note that this works both ways: A person skilled in writing biology lab reports has a certain knowledge of writing that would give her a ‘head start’ in writing poetry. In either case, she will be using strategies such as revision, model recognition, editing, experimentation, invention, and metacognition.
In a sense, this idea is summed up in the phrase, “all writing is creative writing,” which gets passed down from comp teacher to comp teacher as some kind of mantra. I have explored this idea by having my composition students write in creative genres in order to improve their skills in writing considered more ‘academic,’ with some success, but I also wanted to determine why this ‘transfer’ wasn’t absolute, and what other factors there are in learning how to write in a(ny) genre.
Using creative writing in the composition classroom seems to have other advantages too, like building classroom community, and building students’ confidences in themselves (and each other) as writers and thinkers, which in turn empowers them in college and out the real world. Last but not least, giving them the opportunity to experiment in creative genres may help alter their attitudes towards writing in general, and may give them a love for writing for the rest of their lives. Or, at least not make them hate it. In exploring these ideas and questions, my (potentially subversive) goal is to argue for making creative writing genres an integral part of composition class assignments.
When I started teaching at Jackson Community College, I became aware of not just a mental split between creative writing and academic writing among my students, but also a split among the faculty: Only about three of us, including me and another adjunct, had any interest in even teaching creative writing, and when us two adjuncts moved on, the two creative writing classes were cut down to one: not for lack of student interest, just no one else wanted to teach it. At Eastern Michigan University, where I was a full-time GA earning a degree in Written Communication: The Teaching of Writing, this ‘split’ is even more obvious: Although technically part of the English department, creative writing classes come under their own letter designation, and are even listed on a separate section of the catalogue. Teachers in the two disciplines, though sharing the same halls, rarely even talk to each other, and the only graduate students who see both worlds are a few graduate creative writing majors who teach intro composition courses (and not the other way around!).
This Split (which I’m starting to think of with a capital ‘S’) between creative writing and academic writing has always existed, starting at least back with Plato, especially in the Dialogues Phaedrus, Gorgias and The Republic. Plato took as a given that there was a difference between rhetoric and poetry (in which in he includes storytelling and drama (Republic Books II and III)), and while he never discusses whether there’s a different process between rhetoric and poetry, he obviously considers them different ways of thinking. Rhetoric, the form of communication used by philosophers, is used for something, to argue, in a logical manner, for how a person should act, or “pointing to what is just” (Gorgias 138). In other words, to prove something. In Phaedrus, Plato ranks the philosophers/rhetoricians as those people who have been closest to God, and therefore closer to truth, followed by kings as second closest, with the poets way down at seventh, just two places up from tyrants. A little later he claims that poetry doesn’t do anything more than “educate” people, by chronicling something that has happened in history (150), meaning, I guess, that The Iliad is nothing more than a history lesson!
But even Plato admits, implicitly, that this is not true, because he spends half The Republic going after the poets. What he doesn’t like about poetry is that it can portray gods and heroes as less than ideal—for example, afraid, or acting unjustly. That is, human. In short, poetry doesn’t necessarily act logically; it doesn’t argue for acting justly; it just represents gods and heroes doing ambiguously human things. Very dangerous, especially for his guardian-philosophers, for whom bravery and acting justly seem to involve ignorance more than logical thinking.
The Split Today
In modern times, even though most people would now view at least the reading of creative texts as valuable, the Split between creative and academic writing still exists, and is still based on the idea that certain types of writing are ‘useful’ and other, creative types, not so. The most famous example of this in composition studies is the (in)famous exchange between David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow that appeared in College Communication and Communication in 1995. Though they both agree that the preparation they hope to give their students is a way to empowerment, a way to learn how to survive in the academic world, their debate is over the best way. Should students “be suspicious of writing” (Bartholomae “Responses” 85) or learn to “trust language” (Elbow 78)? Elbow claims that students need to write from personal experience first, in order to feel like they, and not the teacher, are the expert on the subject. Any kind of formal writing, in the form of arguments, or research papers, holds the problem that the teacher may automatically know more than the student, thus the student feels like he or she is trying to write to some ‘standard’ determined by the teacher.
Bartholomae argues that learning to write to a standard is just the reality of college life. In his debate with Elbow, and even more so in his essay “Inventing the University,” Bartholomae argues that unless students get some exposure, or practice, at the types of writing they’ll be expected to do in later classes, they’ll be at a loss in how to begin when they get there, and end up excluded from the “specialized discourse,” or discourses, of the university (60-61). To him, power is the key, and the university is the representation of power. When and/or if students learn the way people, we instructors, talk and write, they begin to have access to, and control of, that power. Without being able to navigate in the academic world, students are outsiders, powerless:
Our goal is to make a writer aware of the forces at play in the
production of knowledge...[and]...there is no better way to
investigate the transmission of power, traditions and authority
than by asking student to do what academics do: work with
the past, with key texts...working with other’s terms...struggling
with the problems of quotation, citation and paraphrase....
[to] argue. (Writing 66)
And while I do think the ability to critique a text, any text, is useful, perhaps even a survival skill, and empowering, I don’t think students, or anyone, can get to that point without first feeling confident as a writer, and I lean toward agreeing with Elbow in his “Response” to Bartholomae that critical-type academic writing “isn’t feasible or desirable in one semester first year introduction to writing courses” (87).
This is the problem: Time. For most schools, there’s only one semester in on composition class to do anything. If Elbow had more time, I think he’d be willing to agree with Bartholomae about working towards giving his students more experience with academic type writing. But, there seems to be room to wiggle between the Elbow/Bartholomae poles, even in one semester, and have students have some fun and gain some confidence in themselves as writers, then on the last paper of the semester, move them a little further down the continuum with an introduction to critical writing and/or working with an outside text. Any more ‘academic’ writing than that, Elbow argues, though probably an intense writing experience, and a good preparation for future academic assignments, sounds discouraging, for my students and me, and I just can’t have my students associating writing (and thinking and using language) with the word “discouraging.” I firmly stay in agreement with Elbow when he says that his
goal is that students should keep writing by choice after the course is over—because...the process itself of engaging in writing, of trying to find words for one’s thinking and experience and trying them on others—will ultimately lead to the kind of questing...that [he and Bartholomae] both seek...by a path where the student is steering.” (92)
Is this ideal thinking? Yes of course. But it resonates with me because I’m pretty sure that that’s how I learned to write in the Star Wars Cantina of Bartholomae’s Academic Discourse.
Long Ago: K-12
It took me a long time to disassociate academic writing from the “school writing” I grew up on, which was nothing ever more than regurgitation of facts. I don’t think my school system was the best nor the worst, but any writing assignment I ever had, a so-called “report” was no more than what was expected on a history test: just a listing back, supposedly in my own words, of information. Nothing more than summary. I don’t blame my teachers, they had five classes of 30+ students, and were probably just grateful that I could construct a sentence and have a paragraph every now and then. It’s at this point where I do think my own creative writing (done, of course, outside of school) helped me ‘get by,’ because I was very content to ‘get by’ with a B with minimal effort than be one of those nerds who worked hard to get an A (my nerdiness and cravings for A’s came much later in grad school). At the very least, the idea of putting words on a page was not new, or foreign. I had some confidence in just writing.
The Discourse Strikes Back: College
I realize now that, back in 1990, the instructors I had at Jackson Community College, and the department itself, were under the influence of Elbow. In neither of the composition classes that I took there did I do any research or citation. In fact, because I wanted to be a writer, I decided to take one writing class every semester, and, when I ran out of composition and creative writing classes, enrolled in an independent study class called Research Writing. There I got my first experience with research, and citation, both of which I explored more or less on my own. The instructor never ‘taught’ me how to do either of these things, because, after I showed that I was willing and able to learn by myself, he didn’t have to. I only worked on one paper the whole semester, on cockroaches, for a grand total of seven pages, which was huge for me back then. I have always remembered that he left the decision of what to write about up to me, which made the ‘assignment’ actually interesting: I’d lived in a roach-infested apartment building out in Los Angeles for a year, and just wanted to know more about the damn things, especially after seeing one of the guys across the hall put one in a microwave for two minutes and it survived!
I don’t have the paper anymore, but I know it was still in the regurgitation style: just copying interesting things I’d found out about cockroaches (like that there are flying cockroaches in Florida! I remember that!) But, I learned how to cite: I just found a book that used citations, I don’t even remember what it was, and copied how that writer had done it. I didn’t know at the time, but I was actually learning Chicago Style. I didn’t even know then that there were different types of citation, I just assumed that since this way of citing was in a book, that must be how everyone did it.
At Michigan State University, as an academic writer, I was almost a complete failure. I look at my transcripts from that time and it’s glaringly obvious there was a problem: I was an English major, yet in all my literature classes I was getting 2.5’s. I was reading the books, coming to every class, listening (passively) to the professors lecture me on what the books meant, but writing anything meaningful, to me or my professors, seemed impossible. I didn’t know what “writing anything meaningful” meant. Only my creative writing classes, in which I was receiving 4.0’s, saved my GPA (plus, curiously, Spanish and physical education). I now remember how disillusioned I was with college, wanting to keep learning, but feeling I would never fit in as a grad student because I knew I’d have to do more of that writing that I didn’t like, and wasn’t good at, which sounds exactly like what some of my students say to me, and which I see might actually be related in the opposite way: I wasn’t good at it, so I didn’t like it.
I just didn’t get what was required. I was doing what I’d been taught to do, regurgitate info, when I could remember it. Not that I liked doing that, but my other, natural, response to reading a text, emulating it, trying to write something similar, didn’t count at all in that world (Notable exception: This TA teaching a British Lit class who actually accepted a poem I wrote in response to Keat’s poem “To Autumn” in lieu of an essay, and gave me a 4.0 on it. A thousand blessings on you Tony, wherever you are now).
Return of the Poet: Grad School #1: The New School for Social Research
After my horrible experience with lit classes in college, I knew there was no way I wanted to go on to a Master’s in English and be what I now call a “lit critter.” I had no idea about composition studies at the time, all my comp teachers had been lit majors, which is probably significant, but I still had a desire to study writing, so I eventually decided to try a MFA. The New School for Social Research (now New School University) accepted me in their Poetry Writing Program and off I went to New York. And, despite the reputation MFAs have with some folks as just money makers, which I even sort of agree with now, at the time it was the right thing for me: I was writing and reading, and although we discussed what we were reading, I was with people, including the instructors, who also felt that natural way to respond to a creative text was to write a creative text of one’s own.
Did I have problems there? Yes. Language Poetry was in vogue, so the young Language poet wanna-bes wasted a lot of time telling the rest of us we shouldn’t write personal poetry. I digress, but I had my revenge when our Master’s projects came around and everyone had to write a critical essay in addition to a portfolio of creative work. The Language poets didn’t have such an easy time, I think (now) because they had no experience in narrative, or even revision, or even making a coherent sentence. Not that what I wrote felt easy, and it took time and effort, but it was ‘do-able’ and I had confidence in myself. My critical essay compared Gary Snyder and James Dickey, who, I realized were both considered “nature poets” but who had very different views of nature. And to my surprise, I did a pretty decent job of it while actually learning more about both writers. By that time I’d been reading more non-fiction critical writings about writers and writing, both in school and out, and I felt more comfortable using the discourse language, and emulating how others discussed texts. And, my experience back at JCC with the research paper on cockroaches had at least prepared me for citation: It was not a new concept to me by then, even if I probably wasn’t proficient.
Each of us students worked with one of the faculty. My advisor was David Trinidad, a funny intelligent guy who had really helped me fit in, and I remember talking to him on the phone the first time after I’d sent him my first rough draft: There was actual relief in his voice when he told me I was doing a good job, letting slip that other folks he was working with, college graduates like myself, were doing things like calling poets by their first names in their papers, and had no clue how to cite.
Grad School #2: St. John’s College
Even after my Snyder/Dickey paper for the New School, I now know that I still did not understand academic writing until I entered the Eastern Classics MA Program at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The actual revelation actually came from the admissions counselor when I called him for advice on what to do for the sample essay required with the application. The main idea of the essay was to write about a favorite book, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do, except that I knew it should be nothing like I used to write back in college. He broke down the three basic ways a person can write about a text: Regurgitate, Compare, or Ask a Question.
The first, regurgitate, is what I had done, and all that was required of me, all the way up into college. Even my “research paper” on cockroaches at JCC was just a listing of info I’d found on them. My essays at MSU were just summarizing of the text (literary or critical), or what the professor said in class. The second, comparing one text to another, is what I’d figured out how to do at the New School, though it was really just a step up from regurgitation because still none of my own thinking was required: I just came up with a list of common ideas and summarized what each poets had to say on them.
What the counselor at St. John’s told me to try was find something in a text I really didn’t “get” and make it into a question. Then, go back into the text and try to answer it. This may seem obvious to some folks, but it was a revelation to me: To actually admit to myself and others that there might be something I didn’t understand about a text, when my whole academic career (such as it was) I felt I was expected to understand a text completely, or at least act like I did when I wrote a paper on it. The result of trying to answer the question, whether I can or not, is that I come away with a deeper understanding of the text. I also loved the St. John’s approach (sometimes called the Great Books approach) of engaging in just (and only) a text, by myself, without consulting the so-called experts. This forced me to defend myself, and quote and cite a text well.
I don’t know why it took me so long to learn how to have a question about a text, except that in my literature classes I learned that I shouldn’t do that. I had always felt that everyone was just expected to know what a text was about, and that there was only one thing that a text was about: what the professor thought. Do I think now that’s how the really good lit critters think and work? No, but nobody taught me that that was part of the academic process, perhaps because for a professor to admit that they had questions about a text would be some kind of weakness, to their students, but maybe also to their colleagues and employers. If the university is based on ‘publish or perish,’ then to survive professors may have to be ‘experts,’ meaning seeming like they know everything. And this attitude gets passed on to their students.
Teaching Academic Writing? Me?
Another big plateau in learning academic writing was teaching it. When I returned back to JCC, this time as a supposed authority figure, I was given English 131 classes, which every student, in every department, had to take. The Bedford/St. Martin’s book we were using had chapters basically laid out so that I could’ve had my students writing different forms of personal essays the whole semester, and I was strongly tempted to do that. Personal writing seemed more creative, more human, and something I felt I might be able to help my students with. I also felt that they would like those types of writing better, i.e. it would be fun writing instead of “work.” Then my friend Dave, who had been teaching there a couple years already, pointed out that many of my students would not go on to English 132, the class needed for those transferring to a four year college, in which the main emphasis was research and citation. English 131 didn’t have that requirement, yet many of my students were going into JCC’s nursing program, in which they would have to know how to cite and research sources. I realized I couldn’t in good conscience send my students off having only written personal narratives. So, I decided, anticipating Bartholomae, that I had to have at least one paper in my classes which needed to be a research paper, so that my student would be (a little) prepared for potential assignments in future classes. Note that I didn’t think any kind of writing would prepare them: To be prepared for citation, one needs to actually cite. Or that seemed true at the time.
Personally, I wasn’t happy with that because the thought of reading dry sterile research paper horrified me (still does), and I wasn’t sure I would be able to ‘help’ my students write them, because I knew I was no expert and, unlike my MSU professors, I didn’t feel right to pretending. I was saved again by Dave who showed me Ken Macrorie’s I-Search paper, which I loved (and still do) because it ‘scaffolded’ off of the personal essays my students had already done, gave them experience in working with sources and researching and citing, and still gave them the opportunity to be human. One humorous note: Although I didn’t want to pretend to be an expert, I surely didn’t want to come off as an idiot either, so I had to give myself a crash course in research and citation, since it had been years since I’d used a citation system, and that had been Chicago Style. I also finally learned about databases and how they worked. Embarrassing to say, but in a sense I was returning to my St. John’s roots, where the instructor comes to a subject not as an expert, but as someone with questions too.
By my second year I was given the opportunity to teach English132, which I knew would be a challenge, since the corresponding chapters from the Bedford/St. Martin’s book were writing assignments like literary analysis, arguments and “proposing a solution” to something. I kept the I-Search assignment, for the same reason I used it in English 131, to still give me a personal connection, a human element to my students. The Argument Paper seemed practical to me, applicable to both academic assignment and also to real life: for some reason I had visions of my students standing at one of the bars in Jackson, The Hunt Club, arguing about politics, or at least tv shows, and doing so formally and logically while their less fortunate friends resorted to yelling and name-calling.
And, since these were students transferring to a four-year school, I figured they would get some kind of literature class, so I wanted to prepare them better than I had been. Maybe too I dreamed of helping my students become more critical readers of any text and they would all give up watching television. And I failed miserably: the literary analysis was the hardest essay we did, for both them and me. I was trying to teach them something it had taken me until my thirties to learn. Were they better prepared? Maybe. Did we have fun? No. Did they walk away with a new found love of reading or writing? Hell no.
I learned more from the argument paper than my students. I’d never had to formally argue anything, so again I was frantically reading everything about arguments before class. But, those papers went better. Once my students got that an argument is made up of claims, everything clicked. Not a very creative way to write, but 132 wasn’t about creativity I realized. They had total choice on the topics they were writing about, but the structures of the writing genres felt stifling. Again, at the end of class, were they more ‘prepared’ for possible future writing assignments? Yes. Did they have fun? Well....
Which was my reaction to the class as whole, even though my students were great. They seemed to accept better than I did that the class wasn’t supposed to be fun, but though some teachers at JCC prefer to teach 132 exclusively, I knew I couldn’t, at least not how it was set up. Even though I wanted (and still want) to prepare my students for future writing assignments, if that meant reducing writing to impersonal arguments then I kind of felt like I was preparing my students to hate writing, and preparing myself to hate student writing. Nor did I like the set up of JCC classes and the Bedford/St. Martin’s book, which implied that literary analysis and arguments are somehow at a higher level than personal essays. Meaning, I guess, that they are both more difficult and more important. That’s just not true.
Grad School #3: Eastern Michigan University
My most recent academic plateau (and at this point I know it’s plateaus all the way up) was going to grad school, yet again, this time at Eastern. The big difference between St. John’s and Eastern is that at St. John’s I learned to come to a text with questions, while at Eastern I learned, and was expected, to come to texts with opinions. The two ideas are interrelated, of course, and probably most people would learn that faster than I have. I was even trying to get my students to have an opinion about a text at JCC (which is very very difficult, because, like me, that had learned that what is expected of them is regurgitation) but the point is, I felt prepared going in. Finally, only after years of academic writing, did I feel prepared for academic writing. And, feeling prepared has made it fun, or at least highly interesting. I find I worry less about format or audience, and can concentrate on thinking. I’d rather be writing poetry, but yes, I find myself turning into an academic nerd. Note to self: Writing is fun when you feel prepared.
Like I said, if it took me this long to feel comfortable in academic writing, is there any way I think I can teach my students in one semester how to survive in Bartholomae’s Academic Discourse? Well, no. But, like with my JCC nursing students, if I could give them a couple of clues to help them on their way, that might be more than I got and might provide them with a beginning. In valuing that, I feel like I’m starting to argue for the teaching of academic writing over everything. And, if learning the Academic Discourse were only about the writing and thinking that goes on at the university, if it were only something that existed in a vacuum, then I’d be less inclined really give it importance. But it doesn’t, and I don’t think Bartholomae emphasizes that enough, that the skills we learn in the Academic Discourse are directly applicable to the ‘Public Discourse’ outside of the university. Engaging with texts is something people do every day. The most obvious example of this, which goes back to Plato, is in politics, and with politicians, and how important it is to be able to engage with politicians on what they say and do (which are not always the same thing), rather than sitting back and passively watching. Being able to ask questions, disagree, argue with/for, have opinions, are survival skills for life. Without those skills, our students will end up feeling helpless about life just like they may have been in the university.
But my question still remains: are some basic principles, like revising, editing, appropriate use of mechanics, setting aside a regular writing time, using models, and getting peer response, transferable between creative writing genres and academic genres? Because if they are, I and my students will have a lot more fun. So, in order to help myself understand the transfer of skills, and perhaps strategies also, between creative writing and academic writing, I went back and analyzed my own, creative, writing process.
My Own, Creative, Writing Process
I looked at three different genres of creative writing that I’ve done, a poem, a short story, and a novel, first comparing those processes with each other, then examining my writing process with an academic paper I wrote, to see if I was actually doing the same ‘things,’ and if not, why not. What I found, which may or may not be a revelation to anybody, is that my writing process is basically the same for all the creative genres I work in. All of my writing begins with reading, and is a reaction to, or reply to, or an emulation of, something, or some things, I’ve read. For example, I use models. I might read one of Allen Ginsberg’s long-lined poems, and then want to try something similar, like the long line format, or a similar subject. Not that either would be an exact copy of any of his poems, since I also have many other literary heroes and their influence goes into my writing also: Our styles are always a mix of everything we read. I do find though, that is there is usually a ‘trigger’ that makes me want to write something at that time. The poet, and teacher, Richard Hugo, most famously, describes this phenomenon in his book The Triggering Town, where that one thing, that one trigger, be it a town, or a poem, or a conversation with someone, “excites the imagination” (Introduction). I also like poet Denise Levertov’s description of the elements (and I feel there are always many) that lead up to this trigger. She’s talking about writing poetry, but she could be talking about any type of writing:
first there must be an experience, a sequence or constellation of perceptions of sufficient interest, felt by the poet intensely enough to demand of him their equivalence in words: he is brought to speech. (629)
Another common, and key, part of my processes is time, i.e. making it. When I set aside writing time every day, I’m much more likely to be open to triggers, to feel ‘inspired’ to write something. I also write ‘on the fly’ sometimes, especially poetry, since it’s short, usually, but knowing I have a space every day where I’ll do nothing but write keeps my mind open to thinking about writing too, and keeps me more ready to go. Time also is important in the revision/editing process. Since my creative writing is for myself primarily, and I don’t have a deadline, I can have the luxury to go back, again and again, to revise and edit various pieces. Revision I think of as any kind of changing of the text, from moving, to cutting, to changing words. Editing is surface convention stuff, like correction spelling and punctuation (though even sometimes the change of a comma can be an important revision). In any case, both functions generally happen together, recursively, though at some point editing is that last thing, one last spell check.
Peer response is also a key part of my writing process, though unfortunately not always available. Being out of school and not having many, or any, writer friends can be tough. In addition to just ‘having another set of eyes’ on my writing, a perhaps even more valuable part of peer review is just acceptance. As a writer I always doubt whether what I’ve written is even worth anything, is even any good at all, so just having someone read something and talk about it as if there’s something there to talk about can be a relief, even if they’re also pointing out parts that might need work. I would think that after years of writing now that I might have a little more confidence in whether my writing is worthy, and I do sometimes, with some of my texts, but I also sometimes just tell myself that what I’ve written is ‘good enough,’ when it’s not. I also have to stress that I don’t just include anybody as a peer, because, curiously, I’ve had a couple writer friends who haven’t been as useful as I’d like. Also curiously: One of my best ‘responders’ is a non-writer, non-English major.
Audience consideration tends to not be important to me with my creative writing. I do start out with a sense of some kind of audience, just in what I read and like. For example, I know if I like Beth Nugent’s short stories, my stories are probably going to be in the same ‘audience type’ (if they’re good enough). That is, “if you like that, you might like this.” Most writers do that though. Not consciously, not like, “I like Nugent’s style, therefore I’m going to attempt to write exactly the way she writes.” No, it’s that I already like that stripped-down “iceberg” style (i.e. what we see/read is only the tip of the iceberg, with a whole lot going on under the surface) in general, because she was influenced by Hemingway and Marguerite Duras, also iceberg writers.
Audience consideration only comes in after I feel a text is ‘done’ and ready to be considered for publication. Then, ideally, I try and find a market into which it fits. I do my share of sending out stories and poems to random literary journals too, but I’ll always try the publications in which I think I ‘fit.’ For example, if I have a story about man in his twenties or thirties involved with a woman in some romantic way, I would probably consider sending the story to Esquire or Playboy (if they still even publish short stories, but that’s another problem), since the people who buy those publications might be thirty-something men interested in women. Similarly, I know the New York Quarterly tends to print poems in the Charles Bukowski ‘dirty realism’ style, and since Bukowski is a huge influence on me, my poems have a better chance of getting in there than in, say, The Paris Review. Point is, I don’t ever modify my writing to fit an audience, I find the audience for my writing.
This is one of the big differences in academic writing, at least as I’ve learned it up to this point: I have always felt that audience awareness is constantly part of my process in academic writing, meaning that it ‘feels’ like it has a lot more of what I call constraints: The language is different, more formal, less me, and the organization and appearance of my ‘paper’ are going to have to be a certain way. Yes, there is wiggle room, but for example, I know I’ll have to end an academic paper with a conclusion-y sounding paragraph, whereas with a short story I have no idea how it will end, except that it probably won’t sound conclusive. The opposite: it will be ambiguous. Do I wish that I felt I had more freedom to experiment in my academic writing? Of course, and now that I’m a more mature writer, I do. My point is that I can afford to feel that way in graduate school, and now as an instructor, but back as an undergraduate? Never. Even though I did have some confidence on how to approach certain types of writing, the general expectation for any kind of academic writing back then, for me and for friends and colleagues, was to write within a given format, decided on by our professors, and/or by ‘convention’ (I like to picture a Council of Twelve English Professors dressed in dark robes in some secret chamber somewhere when I hear this word). The most evil example of this being the five-paragraph essay, still in use in high school, according to my students. Not much room for experimentation there. How fun it that? And how much learning is going on?
The other big difference between my academic and creative writing, and again this might not be a big revelation to most people, is working with texts. With creative writing, other texts are there in the background when I write, as the inspiration, and the things I’m emulating. In the ‘big picture’ way of looking at it, I see creative writing as a dialogue, or what jazz musicians call “riffing”: taking someone’s idea and using it as the basis to create something of one’s one. Brief example: Victor Hugo’s Les Miseràbles inspired Tolstoy’s War & Peace which inspired Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls. With academic writing, all the background reading is still there, for inspiration and emulation, but there is also a text the writer is thinking about, responding do, arguing with. The key difference seems to be the writer is engaging with a text, or texts, in the present tense, working with an outside source, with ideas coming from the outside world, instead of the inside.
So, aside from citation and responding to a text, the process and principles—using models, making time, revising, editing, getting peer response, and audience consideration—seem the same between creative writing and academic writing. Therefore, they would seem to be transferable. And there are folks out there who agree. What I’m finding is that these people are writing instructors who also write in both creative and academic genres, and are working in the worlds of both composition and creative writing. The biggest name in this hybrid field was of course Wendy Bishop. Almost all of her writings, and all the ones I talk about in this essay, are based on the idea that there is no Split between creative and academic writing. Originally, I heard the mantra I mentioned earlier, “All writing is creative writing,” attributed to her, though I haven’t been able to confirm it, but if she didn’t say it, she should have. For example, in her essay, “Crossing The Lines: On Creative Composition and Composing Creative Writing,” she takes the “commonalities” between the creative writing process and the academic process as a given and feels that the reason certain composition instructors favor academic writing is because that’s the only writing they’ve ever done (184-190). Whereas, people like Bishop, and me, who have done both, tend to naturally see the similarities, and the value of each. And, in another essay written ten years later, she goes even farther, by coming out in favor of using creative writing genres in the composition classroom, saying that they allow for just as much growth, in fact, maybe more, as more traditional essays (Contracts 109). When I read Bishop, I start to lean more and more toward the complete banishment of academic writing from my classrooms!
Defining what these commonalities are is the first step to showing they transfer between genres of writing. Bishop doesn’t, but only because there are already other people in the same crossover community doing so, like Evie Yoder Miller, who in her essay, “Reinventing Writing Classrooms: The Combination of Creating and Composing,” also takes as a given the idea that creative writing and composition classes share “common goals and strategies” such as the “development of ideas and appropriate use of mechanics” and that they share the idea of “writing as a process” (39). She also agrees that students consider creative writing “fun” and composition “drudgery” (41), and, more interestingly, that they think writing creatively is something that they have to build up to, after they’ve done their time ‘learning’ basic “skills” (42). But Yoder Miller, like me, feels that fun writing, creative writing, is an important way to learn those basic skills, and that it should be incorporated at all levels.
Hans Ostram co-edited two books on writing with Bishop. In his essay “Undergraduate Creative Writing: The Unexamined Subject,” he argues that creative writing is one of the most important types of writing students can experience in college, and, like Bishop and Yoder Miller, that creative writing and composition classes have much in common, and much to learn from each other, and that the two fields should be doing what some of my students might call ‘conversating’ with each other more. He even demonstrates how, with creative writing classes being so popular with students of so many different majors, that they are at the center of Writing Across the Curriculum. It’s Ostram who goes into depth on the commonalities, and how those commonalities imply transfer between genres of writing:
much of what [students] learn may be transferred to other
writing situations at the university or in a career. For they
learn about the expectations of an audience; they learn how
absolutely crucial revision is; they learn the subtle matters
of structure, pacing, and organization; and, by confronting
the clichés and stereotypes that flourish in first drafts of
poems and stores, they learn to become more independent
thinkers and writers. They learn that they are responsible
for the values and assumptions their poems and stories
project, and so, even though they do not write argumentative
non-fiction, they learn a great deal about persuasive writing.
Because of these transferable elements...we should regard
these courses as...improving students’ writing in general. (57-8)
He’s talking about creative writing classes, but if I substitute the phrase “stories and poems” for “essays,” he could be describing any instructor’s ideal composition class. His list of everything he feels students learn is exactly what I want/expect/hope my composition students to learn. The only difference seems to be the creative writing students seem to be having a lot more fun.
The problem is that I can find many people who agree with me, but we still can’t prove this transfer between creative writing to academic writing exists. It isn’t quantifiable, and will never work the same way for all people in all cases. It’s always going to ‘depend’ on the ‘context.’ The person who came closest to doing anything like this is Lucille Parkinson McCarthy, in her essay/study “A Stranger in Strange Lands: A College Student Writing Across the Curriculum” which originally appeared in the journal Research in the Teaching of English way back in 1987, but which was also selected for the anthology Landmark Essays on Writing Across the Curriculum edited by Charles Bazerman and David R. Russell. In it, Parkinson McCarthy follows one student from his first year composition class to two later courses, comparing his writing process in assignments for all three. She does as thorough a job as anyone could in collecting data, interviewing, and making careful observations, to the point of pointing out, to the surprise of the student, that he is in fact using the same strategies and skills in all of his writing assignments, even though he doesn’t think so.
Unfortunately, all this student’s assignments are of the academic type, i.e. critical response to texts, even (and maybe especially) in his composition class. The scope, time put in, and thoroughness of the data collection are beyond me, but I would’ve loved if he had taken a creative writing course also, in order to see if he would have used the same approach in those types of genres as well. My guess is that yes, he would have. But of course, the weakness of using one student as an example is that his situation, his context, might not apply to others, and that some other student in his composition class might have given Parkinson McCarthy a completely different response. Still, after reading her study, I think most people, and I would put Bartholomae in here, would agree that what happens to this boy, Dave Garrison, is typical, and that skills and strategies learned in academic genres in academic genres are applicable, and used, in other academic genres.
Which sounds like an argument for giving some exposure in academic writing to students in first year composition classes. And yet, I’m left wondering about this student Dave, who says at the beginning of the study, “he did not really like to write and that he was not very good” (130). Notice how those two ideas always seem to go together. If he had had more exposure to creative genres, in which had had the freedom to experiment with writing, especially with writing he had chosen to experiment in himself, but also even the more traditional Elbow-esque personal essay, might he have changed his thinking? As in, “I like to write, and I’m ok at it,” the opposite of the above ‘equation.’ This confidence would be useful in his later (academic) writing assignments. It seems like this would have been the case, and the result would be the same: either way he would be more confident and successful (read: empowered) in future assignments, but in the latter case he would walk away with a ‘liking’ (or at the very least a tolerance) of writing, which would be much more “useful” in the long run, meaning in all the writing and thinking he would do beyond college.
I still have doubts about whether that confidence will be adequate, will prepare my students for future classes, and/or the real world. Georges T. Kanezis, in his essay “Reclaiming ‘Creativity’ For Composition,” shares my doubts, wondering if, by emphasizing creative writing, and the personal exploration and fulfillment for our students that we all hope comes from it,
whether I will ultimately see...children in my classroom,
quite adept at narration and description, but relatively
crippled and hostile when it comes to writing of a different
and, probably to them, uncreative sort. (31)
My initial, subversive, wishful-thinking reaction to ‘boring’ composition essays was (and still sometimes is) to replace them, get rid of them, and have my students reading and writing in creative writing genres all the time. But Karnezis reminds me that this “privileging of the ‘creative’” is actually what caused FYW essays to be seen as a kind of “industrial art” in the first place (32), perpetuating the Split. His response is to share with his students, and have them write, examples of writing that blurs the lines: creative non-fiction that informs and analyzes but which still seems creative (39), which I would like to explore more in my classes, but his point sounds true: I have to make sure I’m not ultimately reinforcing the split between creative writing and academic writing.
And it’s not that I think academic writing isn’t necessary, but in my own academic writing I felt like something sinister was happening by having to ‘play the game’ and learn other people’s rules and lexicons. I didn’t want to lose who I was: I didn’t want to change into something I wasn’t sure I wanted to be. Entering the Academic Discourse (cue sinister music) felt like the ultimate ‘conformation’ at a time when I was building my identity around trying to be unique. Meaning, learning academic writing felt like having to conform to rules in order to be accepted into a group, a group that I wasn’t sure I want to belong to in the first place. So, I also agree with William Lyne, though surely he’s not the first one to say so, who in his essay “White Purposes”, says that learning academic writing is a form of “cultural assimilation” (73).
Bartholomae’s response, and, strangely, mine, is that our students can’t afford not to assimilate: Doing so is the key to the power of access. Bartholomae is right: If they don’t, they will be, excluded from the Academic Discourse, therefore from the public discourse when they get out of college. If they get out of college. The Academic Discourse doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It feeds into the public discourse, or discourses, in real world (paying) jobs including, but not limited to politics, law, the media, and even medicine. The principles students learn in academic writing, such as the ability to do research, to think critically and logically, and respond to texts, and audience consideration, are used every day by the people influencing what happens in the world. And if our students can’t communicate in that world, they can’t participate in that world. They can’t even enter it. They will remain outsiders. This is hard for me to write because I have always been proud of my outsider status, and many of my students are, and I want to nurture that too, but I only feel comfortable in my outsider status knowing I can slip in like a spy sometimes and function in the real world, if I have to.
I want so badly to say that creative writing assignments would be enough, and I think people can go through life just writing and thinking creatively, but the reality is they may be put in situations in which writing and thinking creatively won’t be enough. It pains me to say this. And, even though there is some of Ostram’s “transfer,” some ‘bleed over,’ in the two types of writing, and creative writing does give students a head start on handling formal writing, they’re still outside, still excluded from the academic discourse, and therefore from certain form of power.
Is there an alternative? I like Wendy Bishop’s response, building on an idea from Peter Elbow, which is to get out of the dichotomy trap and not think of entering the Academic Discourse as an either/or situation, but rather “both/and” (Bartholomae and Elbow 90, Bishop and Ostram, “Understanding” 17). That is, surely assimilating into the Academic Discourse, playing the game, must be possible, while also keeping oneself true to one’s cultural background. To borrow a term from the lexicon of Black English Vernacular studies, our students (and we!) need to learn how to “code-switch” between different discourses. Learning how to do so, they will feel empowered in both (or all?).
Creative writing and academic writing do have differences, so there will always be the trap of wanting to know which is best, so that we can concentrate on, or even teach, that one ‘best’ way, when the answer is (always): it depends. Meaning, ‘best’ depends on context. The person/people, the text, the culture, the time, the location. Creative Writing and academic writing are both ‘best.’ In addition, “empowerment” is a vague term that people seem to think of as a singular goal that, once achieved, remains constant for the rest of a student’s life. There is some truth in that: students build a certain ‘base’ confidence, more so than someone who has never written anything. But empowerment is really an on-going process, and can come and go depending (there’s that word again) on the situation/context (and those words again too!). It comes from (at least) both types of writing, creative and academic. Again, the problem is thinking of this problem as either/or. The question is not which type of writing best empowers students. It shouldn’t even be a question: they both do. Which means, our students need to do both.
So should we then make both creative and academic assignments mandatory? I have. As I said earlier, when I started teaching, my first assignments of the semester were always personal narratives, and lately I’ve experimented with poetry and experimental writing, like “crots” of 400 word essays, which I discovered from the website 400words.com. My students seem to enjoy these assignments, and I’m open to any kind of experimentation they want to do, so even those that don’t feel comfortable writing about themselves can write 400 words of anything. But I have become more intrigued with the idea of students having even more freedom to choose what they want to write. Given the choice, I’m fairly sure most, if not all, students, would experiment and explore both (or all) types of writing, and experimentation seems to be where people learn the most.
Of course, Wendy Bishop weighs in on this question too. In “Preaching What We Practice as Professional in Writing,” the first chapter in the book she (along with Hans Ostram) edited, Genre and Writing, Bishop argues that while compositionist study is becoming more open to different styles of writing, composition teachers are still assigning the same old “student papers” (4-5). She quotes another writing instructor, Bradwell-Bowles, who says that many teachers are (still) not giving students “permission to experiment” (13). In the same quote, Bradwell-Bowles goes on to say that while some students still need, and want, to write in “familiar forms,” other students, given the choice, will experiment, and she agrees with the idea that students “learn ways of critically analyzing theoretical conventions at the same time that they are being introduced to traditional academic discourse communities” (13). Bishop qualifies this by saying that including a traditional essay is important in order to contrast the “traditional and experimental in dialogue...[to]...learn about convention making and breaking” (13). But about a decade later, she seems to drop the idea. Instead, she too emphasizes, in her essay “Contracts, Radical Revision, Portfolios, and the Risks of Writing,” on giving control of what kind of text to write, and how to write it, to the students. Given freedom to choose whatever genre of writing they want, students begin to see “that writing can be pleasurable” (115). Every writer/instructor I discuss in this paper emphasizes that writing being pleasurable, or fun, is the best, and in my opinion the only, way students will learn. I might have doubts if, given the freedom, a student chose purely academic writing or purely creative writing, yet what that student is interested in, at this time, in this class, might be vital to their development, and I’d feel very weird assuming that I knew any better than they what they needed.
So why don’t more teachers and departments encourage creative writing as an option in composition classrooms? In addition to the creative/academic split in English departments already mentioned, there’s again the fact that composition teachers might not have much experience in writing in genres other than the academic writing they did in college. Which should not be underrated, but many of them might not feel comfortable evaluating anything they would classify as on the creative side. The trick is to change the way we evaluate: Kate Ronald, in her essay included as the first chapter in Starkey’s Teaching Writing Creatively, seems to have already walked a path similar to mine. She describes her shift in thinking about composition classrooms. Originally she excluded any genre beside traditional essays, but then decided, like Bishop, to give students the choice to decide both what they want to write and how they want to write it. What she discovered was “that genre doesn’t matter so much” (4) because the focus of her teaching became the students’ writing processes. When she realized that many of her students chose creative writing genres to write in, she wasn’t sure how to respond to texts, like fiction and poetry, outside of her comfort zone. As she proceeds to describe some sample students, their chosen genres, and how she responded to each, she realizes that she’s responding in the same way that she might have responded to essays, with questions and enthusiasm.
There doesn’t seem to be any firm conclusion I can come to on this subject, and I’ll probably wrestle for the rest of my career with how much, and what kind, of certain genres of writing to offer in my composition classrooms, but what seems even more important than which genres students should write in is that they have a choice about it, since being invested in both the topic and the genre seems to provide the best learning environment. Of course, I have one more ‘and yet’ moment: There does still seem to be value in nudging our students towards certain kinds of what is considered academic writing/thinking, to give them some experience with, to better prepare them for, any writing challenge, in school or after. If they’re more prepared, hopefully they’ll have, if not fun, then at least a better chance to learn from these future experiences.
What I am interested in, then, are hybrid type assignments, in which all of the above is possible. Ken Macrorie’s I-Search paper is a good start, but an even less formal way I’ve found to combine student choice in topic/genre while still preparing them for research and citation (and to combine both creative and academic writing) is the Multi-Genre Research Paper, also called the Multi-Genre Researched Writing Project, that I learned about, and started incorporating in my classes, at Eastern Michigan University: Students choose the topic, and the different genres (the one time I actually give my students a page minimum in order to ensure they’re probably try more than one genre), while still exploring, in class, how to do research, and cite the information they use. Building on the ‘code-switching’ idea mentioned earlier, students start with a personal connection/interest, which provides them with a way to explore, or ‘switch’ into, and between, different genres of writing that are relevant to them.
The genres of writing can, and do, range from the more ‘creative,’ like poems and stories, to the more ‘practical,’ like resumes or magazine articles, though, for example, a student researching the blues and writing a fictional resume for a blues musician is writing (and thinking!) creatively, while still giving herself practical experience in writing a genre that she’ll be needing soon. So far I’ve had great success with this assignment. My students get experience in using library resources for research, citation (including in-text citation and constructing a Works Cited page for their sources), as well as experience in the writing principles I’ve listed previously. Best of all, they have fun learning (or are learning because they’re having fun? or are having fun because they’re learning?) and I have fun, and learn from, reading their projects. I also feel more comfortable evaluating their writing, not on any set research paper ‘standard,’ but from the time and effort they put in.
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