Sunday, January 31, 2016

Leveling Up, Again

67º ~ Gray-clouded skies, a wind that gusts and cuts, a yard full of sweet gum balls knocked loose & waiting for the rake

Last August, I posted about my transition into a tenure-track teaching gig at a 4-year university after teaching at the community college-level for a decade. I made analogies to being called up to the Bigs (the Major League of baseball) and to leveling up in video games. Now, a few weeks into my second semester at the University of Central Arkansas and now teaching for its Arkansas Writer's MFA Program for the first time, I'm experiencing another moment of transition.

This leap is all about poetry, almost all the time. For the first time in my teaching career, all of my classes are in creative writing, which means for the first time in my teaching career, I am not teaching composition. I do miss the first-year students and working with them to find their voices, but I confess, my heart is definitely most invested in & most nourished by teaching creative writing.

Synapses are firing at all hours and my brain is about to leap out of my skull with energy for words, poetry, and engaging my students. Most startling, I'm reading poetry with a new sense of urgency, a renewed pleasure and delight. This is a direct result of having a community of people at my disposal (luckiest person on earth!), a community that shares my interests and concerns. This is not to dismiss my community of poetry on the internet, but there is something more concentrated about a group of people coming together face-to-face at scheduled intervals, having read the same material, to muck about with words in an attempt to create art. Along the way, we get to read fabulous poets and writers who engage us, enlighten us, frustrate us, delight us, and toss us into a state of questioning. We learn! We grow! We fill ourselves up to overflowing!

*I do mean "we," as I mentioned earlier that the classes are much more interesting when I get to pose my questions alongside my students' questions, and we all set about figuring things out together.

The downside, if there is one, is that I have two courses that are nearly "new preps" for me. While I have bits and pieces of useful teaching materials for both classes, they tend to be scattered, and I have to sit down prior to each class and spend hours getting organized. While it might not look like it to my students, I do try to think about the overall semester goals and how each class day might get us closer to those goals. I try to be as organized as possible about it; however, teaching is organic not programatic. As each class period unfolds, there must be room for the previously unknown question, the unanticipated tangent, the unplanned spontaneity of a discussion spinning off into new territory, and the first semester of teaching a class means there's going to be a bit more chaos than in a class I've taught time and time again (i.e. Intro to Creative Writing, where the issue can be re-invigorating a syllabus perhaps grown too stiff over the semesters).

All of this is to say that I am basking in the sun of the next level and hoping that I'm doing my students and my colleagues justice. I have dropped the ball a bit on writing, revising, and submitting, so that is going into my calendar for next week at a higher priority, and I'm hopeful that we've now established a bit of rhythm in the semester that will allow for a new "to-do" item.

Until then, "I have promises to keep" and poems to read before I sleep and poems to read before I sleep.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Stumbling on Treasure

63 ~ some serious January sun and warmth in advance of a sinking cold front headed our way for the long weekend

Beware: We are about to "go round by Laura's house" to get to the point of today's post.

Today, I ventured to the SoMa (the South Main St.) District in Little Rock to find South Main Creative, an arts, vintage, antiques shop where individuals rent space within a single building and form a collective selling space. I went to South Main Creative to see what clothing they had from Blue Swallow Clothing Company, having seen and fallen in love with a handmade duster jacket owned by a friend.

The Blue Swallow clothing is just inside the door at South Main Creative, but before I even saw it, I got distracted by a small selection of old books and pulled out New Educational Music Course: First Reader from Ginn and Company Publishers, 1906. It's full of music and lyrics and I knew I'd buy it to use for collages. Turning to the clothing, the selection was limited, as all items are handmade, and I didn't find exactly what I wanted, so I'll have to keep checking back as the stock gets updated regularly.

However, all was not lost. I wandered farther into the shop and stumbled on a booth with lots of books on design and art. I crouched down and a large cloth-bound, red book struck my eye as the word "Vesalius" called out. It was The Illustrations from the Works of Andreas Vesalius of Brussels, a reprint from 1950. Once upon a time, a few years back, I wrote a poem inspired by the drawings of Andreas Vesalius, "On the Fabric of the Human Body Book I: Chapter 19: On the Bones of the Thorax" and looked at the images of this ground-breaking anatomist online. The poem appeared online at The Dirty Napkin, which has since gone defunct. I'll post the poem after the images, as the poem has not appeared in a collection yet. But back to that large red book. I actually spoke out loud and said, "Vesalius! No way!" and grabbed it up. Next to it was An Atlas of Anatomy for Artists from 1957. In my collage, I'm addicted to anatomy illustrations, so that went into the pile as well.

And my dilemma is this: Will I be able to cut up the Vesalius? I'm betting I will, but I might have to photocopy the best of the pages and frame the originals.

Here, then, are my treasures and an old poem at the end.

On the Fabric of the Human Body
Book I: Chapter 19: On the Bones of the Thorax

Vesalius broke the spell, unyoked Eve from Adam
at the Cemetery of the Innocents, later dissected

the bodies of executed convicts, and excavated
the dark intercostals, spaces where muscles and arteries

mask all our bad blood.  The Fabrica emerged,
a new view of what sustains, braces, and attaches

the body.  The true, false, and floating ribs provide
an elastic, protective cage around our hearts, our lungs,

and certain nerves, delicate as the tentacles
of the sea nettle jellyfish.  In one drawing, the rib cage

splayed by an arched back could be played
like a musical instrument if someone had fingers

graceful enough for the tapping.  A rasping sound
escapes from mechanical ventilation, the respirator

forcing the expansion and contraction, the movement
of the chest that reassures the bedside watcher.  Vesalius

predicted it.  Ventilation depends on the ribs expanding
and contracting; surviving depends on keeping the cage intact. 

Shipwrecked at 50, Vesalius sweated out his final days
knowing all of this:  The heart inside the ribs is a magnet

for whatever swings a clotted fist, and a cracked rib provides
a pain that radiates with every breath, a pulsing flame

steady as the blazing sword outside of Eden.
We cannot choose not to breathe.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Teaching Persona Poetry: Our Big Questions & First Set of Prompts

66º ~ and all the sun

This semester, I'm teaching a topics class on the persona poem, and as I mentioned in a previous post I'm approaching the semester by offering my big-picture questions about persona poetry to the class and gathering theirs as well. In a minute, I'll share that list, as we've now completed three class periods and are moving into the deeper waters of working toward answers. I'll also share the first set of writing prompts I created based on today's reading, which centered on historical personae. But first, I thought I'd share a clip from the syllabus.

**HUGE Shout-out to the students in this class, who are rocking it so far!

Instructor’s Description:

An elective for Creative Writing majors and minors, as well as MFA graduate students, this course will explore the contemporary use of persona as a poetic device. Reading largely from A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, edited by Oliver de la Paz and Stacey Lynn Brown (Akron, 2012), students will delve into the many ways poets use persona today, whether tapping historical and literary allusions, playing with popular culture references, raising political awareness, or branching into the unknown with characters created out of whole cloth. Students will read to discover how masking one’s personal identity offers new opportunities of expression and the class will discuss the risks and responsibilities of the form. Along with readings from the anthology, each student will select a poet working in persona from the last two decades and make a presentation to the class on that poets’ work.

Key to the course, students will be expected to experiment in the form itself by writing their own persona poetry for workshop. Students will draft poems from prompts and free writes, working both inside and outside of class, with instructor mentoring and peer response. At the end of the semester, the class will form their own chapbook anthology of student persona poems.

*The most successful students in this course are enthusiastic, curious, and open-minded.

Our Big Questions

Why did the poet choose persona?

How much can we know about where the poet blends with the character?

Is there any danger in the poet straying from fact, presenting misinformation or otherwise slanting the poem?

What is the poet’s responsibility to TRUTH?

What is the range of distance between the poet and the persona? How do the decisions about distance made by the poet help or hinder EMPATHY?

What is the poet’s responsibility to the persona?

Does it always have to be in 1st person?

Can you really extricate the poet from the persona?

To what degree when using persona does the poet manipulate the audience?

What can a writer do to better put themselves in their character’s shoes?

The subject can be a person or a thing…can it be an abstraction?

What benefits are there for the audience by not viewing the persona as the poet?

What benefits are there for the poet by writing in persona?

Stay in your lane: To what level is writing about other cultures / experiences appropriate?

When writing a poem, the poet might ask “is it necessary?” where the “it” could be genre, form, persona, etc.

Does it matter if we know the poet is from a different ethnicity, gender, geographic region, etc. from the persona?

What is political about the poem? Is the political view of the persona accepted or rejected by society (or some segment of society)?

How much common knowledge (or not so common) does the audience have to know in order to “get” the poem?

How much does the audience have to research to “get” the poem?

How much does the poet owe to any known historical truth about a persona or an event?


Google phrases like “old photographs” “Arkansas historical society” “old family photos” and click on “Images.” If you have a specific time period in mind, you can also search “photographs 1920s Paris” or the like and find something more specific. Pick a person in one of the images and create a poem from their point of view. Incorporate research about the place and time if necessary.

Write a dream/nightmare of an historical persona that incorporates some artifact from that time period.

Take a well-known historical event and retell the account from the point of view of a minor character/participant. How would the telling change from this person’s point of view?

Read the writing (preferably diaries and letters) of an historical figure. Tell about a minor moment in that figure’s life and incorporate some of their own language.

Research an occupation that no longer exists and write about that job from the worker’s point of view.

Write from the point of view of one of your ancestors based on family stories you’ve heard.

Monday, January 11, 2016

On Entering the Arena

44º ~ brilliant slanting sun, some cloud cover moving in, the hours of light are lengthening, campus is crawling with all manner of folks

Tonight, dear readers, I will teach my first "live" graduate workshop in poetry. I write "live" to distinguish this from my teaching online for the University of Arkansas Monticello for several semesters. While that job offered me a great chance to get my feet wet with teaching at the graduate level, I confess, I'm thrilled to be now engaging with grad students face to face.

As I crossed campus earlier, taking a mid-afternoon break from my prepping for tonight's class, I turned all golden with nostalgia as I remembered my first workshop as a grad student. I was, then, wired with a combination of excitement and trepidation, and what I remember most is that very little of what I thought might happen in that room actually happened. Some of what happened was great; some of it horrendous, and in preparing for tonight's class, I've thought a lot about what worked best for me as a student and what I would have liked to have seen done differently. I've thought about different learning styles and different personality types and how the leader of the workshop might attempt to offer something to everyone. I've thought a lot about balancing the excitement and the trepidation that I seem to be feeling all over again.

True story: At some point near the library, I stopped mid-step as I realized that it was another century when I was a graduate student. Ok, just barely, as I entered grad school in the fall of 1999, but still.

Returning to 2016, here's a glimpse at the agenda for tonight.

The UCA Arkansas Writer's MFA Program is a small (18 students total at the moment, I think) 3-year program that is only in its 4th year. As such, most all of the grad students know each other on some level, and many of the 2nd- and 3rd- years have had overlapping classes. I'm the new kid, since I only started at UCA this past fall, and I didn't teach any grad classes last semester.

With this being said, we are going to do the typical introductions and exchange our set of writers who take the tops of our heads off. There's really no better way to get to know a writer than to talk about who they read (and idolize).

**The Syllabus:
Chaucer writes, "The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne."

Perhaps my biggest point here will be that the class is one of exploration and that I am more interested in the students' questions and poetry obsessions than in my own. We will read as well as write/workshop, and we are using Cate Marvin and Michael Dumanis' Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande) and Dean Young's The Art of Recklessness (Graywolf) to kickstart the semester. (Hat tip to Molly Spencer for recommending the anthology and who might, through her own reading/posting, have introduced me to the Graywolf series as well.)

My second biggest point here will be that I believe in careful attention to craft and that revision likely plays a big part in that. In other words, I'm going to push back against the rush to publish, even as we talk about current issues in the publishing world.

**What is Poetry?
This question might seem basic and simple, but it really isn't.

One thing I lacked as a grad student was a good picture of the history of Western poetry, so I'm going to start with a brief, very brief timeline from Aristotle to today. Most likely, this will be old hat to my students and they will probably yawn. So be it.

Then, I've designed a little worksheet (egads!) and will ask students to rank which poetic elements (e.g. sense, diction, sound, form, lines, &etc.) rise to the top for them as readers (i.e. which of these elements seem to make a poem STICK with them after reading a poem). From this, I hope we will have a freewheeling discussion about the craft elements that make up "poetry" today.

We are heavy with reading assignments at the beginning, and I'll give my spiel about "reading like a writer" (annotating to excavate craft lessons) and the value of sticking with readings that don't particularly set one's hair on fire.

We will also create a class anthology next time, so each student will be bringing 3 poems published by others that do set their hair on fire. Students will bring enough copies for the class and we'll go old school with a stapler to create our own supplemental textbook.

And, I'll send them off to write, write, write.


That's the plan. However, anyone who has taught even one class, be it in academic, at the local community center, or in church/temple/mosque, knows that plans have a funny way of morphing in the moment. I'll keep y'all posted.

Also to look forward to, I'm hoping to post after this week's Persona classes with an update on our class' big-picture questions on the topic.

And, I'll be starting to polish up poems to send out for submission this week, so there's another possible update to come, time allowing. (I've posted a lot in the past about sending out work, so feel free to use the search tool at the top to find out my process if interested. The technology may change, but the method stays mostly the same.)

Monday, January 4, 2016

A Semester in Preview

36º ~ winter settling in to the mid-south, still much remains green and the sun is vibrant, electric heater on my toes, dusk seeping in

As promised, following my last post, I'm here to give folks a glimpse of what's ahead this semester. By all accounts, Spring 2016 is shaping up to be a good degree calmer than Fall 2015 (knock wood).

To begin, I have no readings scheduled for the spring semester, and I'm okay with that. My only travel looks to be attending AWP in LA at the end of March - early April. While I will miss having the chance to read my work and meet new people at individual readings, AWP packs a big enough wallop to cover all of that.

My teaching schedule is stellar! I will be teaching one section each of Intro to Creative Writing (mixed-genre, 20 undergrads), Special Topics: Persona Poetry (combined lecture, discussion, workshop; mixed undergrads and graduate students), and Advanced Poetry Workshop (graduate students). I'll have one night class and one class each on MWF and TR. This magic is made possible due to a one-semester, one-course reduction for pre-tenure publication efforts. Submitting work really suffered in the chaos of Fall 2015, so I'm super excited to get back to focusing on getting my poems out there. I'm also looking forward to more concentrated writing time and hope to continue the buddy system with my colleague and friend, Jennie Case.

As I prepare for classes to begin on Thursday, I'm fine-tuning my approach to Intro and setting some new goals for how I'd like the class to unfold. After 10 years teaching at the first- and second-year level, I'm heading into the topics class and the workshop with equal parts excitement and uncertainty. Uncertainty is not necessarily a bad thing; it's simply been a long, long time since I've built a new-to-me, on-campus course from scratch. I'm thankful for my few semesters teaching in the online MFA program at the University of Arkansas Monticello, as I'm going back to those files to help me frame how I'll approach my new courses at UCA. As always, regarding assignments and readings, I fear that my eyeballs will be bigger than my stomach (or my students' stomachs), as my mom often said of me at family gatherings where I heaped far too much food on my plate.

I'm also headed into this semester thinking, again, of the instructors who taught me the most. Frankly, aside from one professor in graduate school, the ones I think of most often taught me in my undergraduate days at the College of St. Benedict / St. John's University. These standouts all had one thing in common: a sense of shared wonder & curiosity about the subject matter at hand, rather than a need to be "right." Yes, I want to be seen as knowledgable and as a resource for my students, but I'm not in academia to proclaim resolutions and chisel theory in stone. I'm in academia because I was born a life-long learner & maker and I don't see that quest diminishing anytime soon. I also know that the best classes I experienced as a student at any level provided a balance of structure and room for student-driven inquiry. Preparing for new classes allows me to rethink my pedagogy on many levels, and that's another reason to be thankful.

Outside of the classroom, I'm feeling optimistic as well. For the moment, my TMJ seems to be on the way to healing, and I'm off muscle relaxers entirely. It's been quite jarring to realize exactly how foggy I'd become. Also, not having to spend so many hours in doctors's offices is going to be a delight (again, knock wood).

I'll continue co-editing Heron Tree, reading for One and Trio House, all of which allows me front-row interaction with my fellow contemporary poets. My biggest goal is to make Monday my blogging day. Sure, I always hope to blog more than once per week, but I'll be thrilled if I can make weekly reports a pattern.

As ever, the entrance to a new semester fills me with much the same elation as New Year's Eve, which evokes Samuel Beckett from Worstward Ho: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."