Why don’t you write?

I was an avid letter-writer once, a great correspondent, a reliable pen pal. In return, I received long, descriptive letters from far-flung friends and relished every trip to my mailbox to discover what had arrived that day. A letter from a friend? A poem rejection? A poem acceptance? A postcard from a family member off traveling? Critique and feedback from a poetry-colleague on a series of poems? Junk mail, bills…

These days, my mailbox mostly disgorges junk mail and bills. The few friends who write lengthy correspondence usually do so by email (which I do, truly do, appreciate). My keen interest in other people’s thinking, and my opportunity to acquire perspective into their lives, must now be satisfied by other means. That’s why I follow blogs and other “long-form social media.” (I thought I had coined that term, but apparently it has been in the lexicon awhile.)

Is a letter just a blog written for an audience of one? Is a blog a diary written for an imagined public, or is it a letter to the world? What purpose do private journals serve for those of us who keep them? And what’s behind the urge to keep old correspondence? The discovery of a cache of letters features in many novels and in a host of memoirs and histories, so there’s some kind of human-interest frisson resonating there. Perhaps the simple fact that such writings were intended to be private–that audience of one–piques curiosity.

For me the hardest aspect of letting go of past correspondence is that so many of the people to whom I wrote letters have died. In my attic, there are boxes of letters from these departed friends…suggesting a different meaning for the phrase “dead letter.” In a similar vein, there certainly exist blogs by now-dead writers that remain in the cloud, hanging stuck in the interwebs. Are these memorial pages, or are they digital ghosts, and to whom do they belong?

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The intersections and overlaps between these related forms of written expression intrigue me. And the nosiness interests me, too. Isn’t that one reason we like to read literature–to get an intimate peek at how other people behave, respond, solve problems, form relationships, think about society and values? To imagine to ourselves what bad behavior feels like and what its consequences can be? Or to find insights as to what generosity and love can accomplish; to gain a sense of empathy, even compassion. Plays, memoirs, novels, and poems operate like that. I’m not sure blogs and diaries work quite the same way with their readerships, but they may do.

Maybe what keeps me following any kind of writing is just the fact that I love to read.

~

Why don’t you write me?
I’m out in the jungle, I’m hungry to hear you
Send me a card
I am waiting so hard to be near you
Why don’t you write?
Something is wrong
And I know I got to be there
Maybe I’m lost
But I can’t make the cost of the airfare
Tell me why (Why, why)
Tell me why (Why, why)
Why don’t you write me?
A letter would brighten my loneliest evening
Mail it today
If it’s only to say that you’re leaving me…

Paul Simon

Conferencing, distance

Rather at the last minute, I found out that West Chester University’s Poetry Center was hosting a virtual conference during National Poetry Month. Previous WCU poetry conferences have been in person, and often in June; I used to attend when I had the time and money, since I can drive to West Chester in about an hour. For years, my full-time job has interfered. This time, the fee was low and the panelists and readers were people whose work I enjoy. While I could not attend all of the sessions or enroll in a 3-day workshop, I could at least “zoom in” to many of the events.

I’m glad I did. But before I write about this year’s conference, a brief history of my experience at past WCU Poetry conferences.

Initially, the conference poets focused on formal poetry: writing in forms, meters, and employing rhyme at a time when the major forces in U.S. poetry leaned more toward free verse. Dana Gioia was one of the co-founders, and the conference brought in such writers as Anthony Hecht, David Mason, Rachel Hadas, Marilyn Nelson, Richard Wilbur, Molly Peacock, and Timothy Steele…to name just a few (I haven’t forgotten the others, I just cannot list them all!). If you’re not familiar with them, Google their names and locate some of their poems; their work is considered “formal.” By some. The term itself is rather fraught. I’ll skip that argument for now.

It took considerable bravery on my part to participate in the conference the first time I attended, because I was writing mostly free verse, was not an academic, and was more or less acclimated to being a not-very-ambitious stay-at-home mother. I’d started my MFA program, however, and told my advisor that I wanted to learn the things I’d missed concerning historical patterns of poetry. I loved and grew up with rhymed and metered poems but had no idea how to create them. Hence: the WCU conference, which happened to be near enough that I could get away and back for four days and not have to do too much re-scheduling to accommodate my kids, pets, garden, and spouse.

Frankly, I was intimidated. The poets were all so…accomplished. Most were college professors, many were critics, lots of them had written books–lots of books–and even many of the people attending had won prizes and had significant publications. They were keenly and frighteningly “smart” folks, well-read and well-traveled. But after awhile, I felt more at ease. Sam Gwynn, Molly Peacock, and David Mason were hilarious. Rachel Hadas demonstrated intense and generous listening, and was so kind. And I learned so much (and bought so many books…) that I attended at least four more WCU conferences. Then I got too busy.

The Poetry Center and the conference have changed directorship a few times. For awhile, the late (and wonderful) Kim Bridgford, who later established the Poetry by the Sea Conference, was at the helm; currently, the Center’s guided by Cherise Pollard, who came up with the theme that drove this year’s panels and workshops: The Healing Power of Empathy. Healing and empathy are qualities we need when times are hard and seas are rough. It’s important to remember that healing requires change. It’s a change-state verb. Sometimes those changes feel uncomfortable, painful–and empathy can help, as long as we employ it in an active way (empathy as a change-state).

I managed to draft a sonnet in 15 minutes, thanks to Molly Peacock, and heard some new-to-me voices in poetry, and listened to poets who are deeply engaged in the work and art of poetry discuss their processes, enthuse over their influences, and say what drives their curiosity. I found kindred writers who are, like me, endeavoring to put voice to people with dementia and express the grief we experience as our Best Beloveds lose personality, language, ego-consciousness.

Lesley Wheeler shared the writing prompts her panel put together on her blog, here; she and her four co-panelists (see blog) reflected on feeling across distance, another apropos topic in the current times. It seems we can and do find methods to be human together, even when we are apart. I think of all the letters I wrote when I was in college, and afterward, as I moved around the eastern USA, changed addresses, and tried to keep my friends and family informed as to who I was and what my interests were. In my attic, there are boxes of correspondence written in the days before email. Many of them are now letters from ghosts. Words I will never hear again from living mouths, but a way we kept “in touch” despite, and over, distance. And still do.

Expanding universe

I just finished reading Lisa Randall’s book about the Large Hadron Collider, which I read because…well, I knew it would be over my head as far as the applicable physics experiments go; but I was curious about what exactly the Higgs boson particle is and how it fits into the Standard Model of physics. And now I know. Sort of.

It is difficult not to feel a bit awed by the strides made in science as a result of rapid technological advances. On the sociological and personal level, I am not a big fan of rapid tech updates; they lead to planned or unplanned obsolescence and hence to constant capital expenditures and to waste (trash waste and time waste). The technology leads to experimental possibilities we would not have had otherwise, however.

At the close of the book, where the author wraps up the way engineering tech has dovetailed with abstract and speculative physics theories to show evidence for the Big Bang and the existence of quarks (among other things), there’s an illustration of the “ballooniverse,” an analogy physicists use to explain the expanding universe. I felt a rush of memory flooding me:

Freshman year in a seminar college. The class was Astronomical Physics and Cosmology. For context, Hubble had discovered red shift galaxies in 1929; cosmic microwave background was detected in 1964; Wilson and Penzias won the Nobel Prize–three years after my freshman year–for their work, which led to confirmation of an expanding universe. The term “black holes” was relatively new, coined during the mid-60s; and a theoretical explanation of them had not yet been determined. Oh, and because desk calculators were large and prohibitively expensive, my fellow students and I were using slide rules for calculations of stellar magnitudes.

Did I mention I had never taken a maths course beyond Algebra 2?

But our professor was enthusiastic and encouraging and loved using metaphors to help our teenaged brains decipher challenging concepts. I have forgotten most of his analogies, but the ballooniverse stayed with me. Everything in the universe is moving away from everything else. Our future is distance.

Physics classes in high school still use this 3-d visual analogy

So it seems at present. Each of us moving away from one another. Defoe’s narrator says the best method of avoiding plague was to run from it.

But oh, my Beloveds, how I wish to be close to you.

Opinion, argument

We have reached the part of my course in which I show my students what a fallacy is, how many forms of fallacies there are, and how a fallacy works–or, supposedly, doesn’t work–in an academic essay. This being an election year, and social media presenting so many examples of ideological opinions and shortcuts in thinking, there’s been no end of sources to demonstrate fallacies. Too many, in fact. My students have been so overwhelmed this year that I sheared my usual list-o-fallacies to four of the most common among freshman students. In doing so, I thought of my dad.

My father was well-instructed in formal argument at Wabash College in the early 1950s. His belief that people could disagree intellectually while maintaining friendly relationships probably stemmed from his experience there. His faith that people in groups could resolve conflict through careful listening and commitment to compromises came later. But what I want to mention here is how seldom it was that I heard my dad making an ad hominem attack, or any of the more frequent rational argument fallacies, until he was in his 60s or 70s and “the filter came off” a bit, post-retirement.

One time stands out in my memory. I was in my early teens and was telling my dad that I recalled being 6 years old and attending, with my parents and sister, an event at Dr. P’s house–a slide show of Dr. P’s trips to the Holy Lands. (Yes, in the 60s, that sort of event was a thing.) “Was he rich?” I asked, “Because I remember thinking his house was so big and so fancy compared to any other house I had been in.” And to my surprise, Dad gave a kind of derisive snort and said Dr. P was a “pretentious snob.” (A snob was one thing he couldn’t abide.)

Now, my dad had opinions, and expressed them bluntly; but he tended to frame his opposition to someone’s behavior or ideas, not to his (or her) person. He’d happily tell us that a friend was “just being a horse’s ass” (not that he is one), or say that someone was “talking through his butt” or that a politician’s proposals were “nothing but a load of horse manure”– “Oh, that fella, he talks like he gets his ideas from the back of a cereal box.” Or, “I don’t take him seriously when he yammers like a hypocrite.” Dad would say such things, but always qualified them with how a person spoke or acted–a subtle difference that I actually did pick up on. That’s why his ad hominem brush-off of the Dr. came as a surprise to me, I suppose. As my father neared 90, he got a bit more curmudgeonly, yet he genuinely believed that [most] people are inherently good.

I like to remember that about him.

~

Dark-eyed junco .. now appearing at our birdfeeders.

Festival, virtual

Coronavirus safety protocols continue to affect my teaching at the college and life in general–also, the life of the shared and diverse arts community, near and far. But arts folk are creative folks, by nature problem solvers and think-outside-the-boxers. This weekend, I have been attending the biennial Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival via technological interface (my laptop); it has so far been as mixed and as enlightening an experience as teaching has been for me this semester.

It has been years since I have been at the Dodge in person. Teaching and tutoring are busy for me in October, and I have been free to travel to the festival only once since its move to Newark in 2010. Times have changed, and I have changed. I’m taking notice of what I like and do not particularly like about the virtual platform of the 2020 festival. Bear in mind that I am only marginally tech-savvy and not a person who’s wedded to the screen (television or computer or phone).

First impression, from the “opening ceremony” and an initial panel, is that I like the closeups of the poets–something I seldom had the chance to see when in the crowded auditoriums or tents of past Dodge festivals. As an older attendee, I have to admit I appreciate hearing the readers more clearly. It’s also nice not to have to wait for stumbling about on stage as presenters navigate the stairs, step over wires, chat with emcees, or shuffle through papers and books marked with post-it notes.

There’s a downside, too, of course. I cannot see the holistic figures of the poets, their attire and body language, their posture on the stage. I do not feel the attentive excitement of fellow audience members, hear appreciative murmurs, applause, or the rare but spicy snide remarks. The readings seem somewhat static and prepared (which they have been). The festival thus loses some of its remarkable spontaneity. I suppose I’m referring here to a lost physical community–but all of us should be accustomed to that feeling by now.

On the second night of the event, Pádraig Ó Tuama moderated a panel discussion on the theme “Imagine a New Way” with Martín Espada, Vievee Francis, and Carolyn Forché. The poems were intensely engaging, the readings remarkable; and the discussion among the poets and moderator managed to feel lively and immediate. Oh, notes to take, things I must read, ideas that go ‘pop’ in my head…

The takeaway after day two is that my sense of skepticism about online performance and conference events has begun to wane a bit. True, there is less chance of bumping into colleagues and making connections with fellow poets while grabbing a snack, and the bookstore browsing is not nearly as lovely an experience when the bookstore is online. True, there is much I miss about the hubbub and the buzz of past festival experiences.

Yet it turns out I rather like watching and listening to poets while sitting home in my pajamas and drinking decent, not-overpriced wine in the company of no one but my cat. In fact, at present, the scenario rather suits my mood. And I will be ‘tuning in’ tomorrow.

Crickets

Colloquial speech fascinates me, particularly as its particularity evolves and morphs over time and through culture. Phrases, allusions, slang, cultural references…no wonder that one of my favorite screwball comedies of all time is the Barbara Stanwyck/Gary Cooper film Ball of Fire. (Check it out!)

Recently, my sister complained that she sends out brief, concise emails to coworkers and people who report to her–emails that require acknowledgement or response; “and what do I get?” she shrugged in exasperation, “Crickets!” I know the feeling. Try sending emails to dozens of first-year college students…see how well the average 18-year-old answers them.

Online at YourDictionary.com, I found the most concise definition of crickets:

(US slang, humorous or derisive) Absolute silence; no communication. Derived from the cinematic metaphor of chirping crickets at night, signaling (otherwise) complete quiet. May be used alone or in metaphorically descriptive phrases.

I love that this definition suggests the term derives from movies! I love that it’s a metaphor! And, of course, I love that crickets make sounds–so in actuality the analogy stems not from absolute silence but from the absence of, I suppose, a human-language response.

This time of year at my meadow, the crickets still thrive and make noise even as the cooler nights begin to slow their calls. I hear the order Oecanthinae (tree crickets) from on high in the tree canopy and the order Gryllus (field crickets)–slightly lower in pitch–creak-cricking amid the goldenrod and sedge.

Then I stop and consider all the thrumming, crashing, screaming, irritating, beeping, blasting, babbling noise humans make in the world. Even when we feel joyful, words and enough noise to make the head spin. A great din?

I think I choose crickets, for now.

Top ten, discourse, power

Last week’s New York Times Book Review listed, as always, the ten best-selling books. It’s rather heartening to note that this past week, in the non-fiction category, nine of the ten top selling books deal with systemic racism, historic racism, personal experiences as a person of color, and anti-racism in the United States. Granted, the NYT Bestsellers list projects the interests of only a small percentage of citizens and reflects the interests of a well-educated readership. These readers, however, tend to be people who have money and influence, who make hiring decisions and corporate policy protocols, and who are responsible for educating Americans. They may not think of themselves as people with power, for many of the Times readers are under 40 and middle-class.* But they seem to be showing an interest in learning more about privilege, power, and racism.

I have never considered myself a person who had any power; and yet I now recognize that just as I have privilege I never earned, I have power I never earned–and that I have indeed been using that power (as I have unwittingly benefited from privilege) and can do more with it. For educators possess power.

So do poets.

The past three months, as spring has bloomed into summer, poems of protest and poems that inform society have likewise bloomed. Poets of color, marginalized poets, poets who are disabled or queer or immigrant or for other reasons yearning to be heard are all over social media–which is not unusual in itself (the voices, the poems, have been online for decades)–but the difference lately comes through retweets and viral videos and shared posts at a higher rate than previously. These poems, and the prose and interviews that often accompany them, create discourse. Badly needed discussions. Confrontations that cannot be shoved away as easily as they were. I’ve been reading and observing, hoping a change is gonna come.

True, maybe change will not come. At any rate, it’s unlikely to come readily or rapidly; we have been at this pass many times before in the USA. One person at a time may make incremental changes, though, as my father did in the 1960s: a tiny addition to the marches, one person speaking to a small and largely indifferent congregation. One person at a time can be me, as I instruct my students in how to discuss and how to write about controversial subjects using genuine evidence while being respectful of other perspectives. Demonstrate to them how to notice that there are other perspectives. Teach them that they can read and listen in order to teach themselves.

That is power, and it is power to change. Incrementally, a drop in the ocean, a butterfly effect…why not? We have a dream.

monarch.ann e michael

~~

* I’ve gleaned demographic information from NYT’s published statistics and those from several media-advertisement websites.

Just speak

Much has been going on in the blogger’s back-of-the-blog life, compounded with news of the nation. And frankly, I have been mulling for well over a week on how to say what I want to say; or how to say anything, for that matter. There are times in the life of a writer when said writer recognizes the limitations of words.

Also: words can be dangerous–inflammatory, distracting, powerful, persuasive, false, painful, hurtful. People get defensive at words they feel are “aimed” at them. Aimed, a weaponized word. I have had people (okay, white people) tell me they are tired of hearing about their privilege, because they and their families worked hard for their place in the world and because many, many white people are underprivileged and suffering, just as people of color are suffering.

While this is true, it is also fails to address the argument. Defensiveness is a diversion tactic used when people are too uncomfortable to address hard discussions. A student at my university recently exhorted us–“us” being mostly the uncomfortable white people who teach or take classes here–to speak up. “Even if you’re afraid you’ll say something the wrong way,” she said, “if you let me know you are uncertain but that you really want to have a discussion, speak up anyway. Because then at least I know that you’re reaching out to me, and I’ll dial it back a bit.”

It’s easy to understand why people would want to avoid the topics of privilege and of systemic racism. We are taught to be polite; one of the social contracts I was urged to respect was to keep conversation friendly, to avoid religion, politics, and other hot topics in order to get along with my neighbors and coworkers–to maintain friendships with people whose perspectives are different from my own. This approach does work, to a degree. Politeness, though, is not the same as compassionate interest and doesn’t always encourage listening and reflecting.

So it stops the conversation just when the conversation might be getting interesting. Or difficult. I have seen this play out in the course I teach time and again. Some students try to mediate as soon as a disagreement starts. Some tune out; some get embarrassed; some shut it down. Some talk to me after class, individually. Only a few times are my freshmen confident and mature enough to speak up assertively but in a way that admits of, and permits, other points of view.

That behavior is what I try to teach and to encourage. We need to admit of other perspectives rather than keep comparing this with that or bring up side arguments or shut people down with ad hominem attacks. That means ideologically “liberal” people also have to listen and to allow opposition, by the way. I teach in a fairly conservative university; and as a rather unconventional thinker in that environment, it can be a challenge for me to let students express views with which I disagree. But that’s the point: to listen and try to understand, and then to show where the argument goes awry–if it does–and acknowledge the validity of the stance, as there often is some.

I am not defensive about my privilege because I can admit to it. I acknowledge that things I have little control over–the society into which I was born, the family that raised me, the historical structures of the social contract norms, the assumption that I would be educated–have randomly assigned me to accepted norms of privilege. In simplest terms, I’m lucky, randomly fortunate.

Which had little to do with how hard my ancestors worked. They scraped and toiled and suffered, they may have been run out of Europe for their beliefs, or out of poverty or risk of prison, they may have arrived with nothing and been poorly treated by the elite in the early USA. All true. They worked their butts off for generations and never became wealthy or politically powerful.

They were permitted to attend school, however. They were permitted to own land. They were permitted to vote.

These foundational opportunities for equity were denied–often by the laws of this democratic nation–to black slaves, who were brought here completely unwillingly and indeed by main force under even worse conditions than any poverty-stricken European on a ship headed to this continent. These opportunities were denied to the Chinese who labored on our railroads. They were denied to the original residents of this continent, whose own nations and norms were largely and purposely erased by the European immigrants. The historical barriers became legitimized into social norms.

Do I have privilege? Yes. Do I value my privilege? Yes. Do I think I’ve earned my privilege? Absolutely not.

I am for equity. I have no idea how we can possibly achieve it in the United States, and I cannot say I have a lot of hope. My dad was working for civil rights back in 1965;  55 years later, there are more female than male students at my college, and more students of color or of diverse national, linguistic, and religious backgrounds…so some things have changed, though mostly due to “leg up” approaches rather than “barriers down” actions. It is a start.

Equity means that no mother residing in this nation would have to worry about the safety of her young adult son while he is driving to work, walking down the street, taking a jog or a bike ride, or going to a pool or a beach. That’s been one of my privileges. Of all the concerns I may have had as my son grew up (he’s past 30 now), I never needed to think about the danger of “walking while black.”

Because he isn’t black.

And that’s not equitable.

~

Untitled-writer

Isolated

Isolation: it’s not the same as solitude.

I miss my students. I get to meet with a few of them each day through an online platform, but it is not the same as seeing them in the hallways, seated across from me in my office, at the cafeteria, in the library, and wandering around campus. I miss their youth, their various fashion statements, their conversation, their energy.

I know, as well, that they long for one another. The seniors are deeply disappointed that they are missing senior events–dances, dinners, parties, commencement exercises–once-in-a-lifetime college experiences. They are losing out on internships and international travel, club activities and sports events. The freshmen are anxious and confused–online classes? Living at home again? This is not what they thought they were signing up for! Students who major in the performing arts feel devastated that their chance to shine on stage in theater or dance will not happen this semester. It hurts.

Friends who are at high risk are “self-isolating” and hyper-alert, and I worry for them. My best-beloveds are all on various forms of lockdown, but we have worked out communication methods so we can stay in touch. Well– “in touch.” Because touching is discouraged, but communicating matters so much right now. Examples:

My tai chi instructor sends out messages of encouragement, ideas for practice at home, reliable COVID-19 information, and reminders to stay grounded and balanced.

The distance-education IT/software platform department at my college has a staff working overtime and under considerable pressure to assist instructors in the rapid move to online instruction. They send out cheerful and informative emails, encouragement, jokes–and are hosting a 3 pm Friday ‘cocktail hour’ meeting we can log into so we can complain, ask questions, joke around, and visit virtually.

The staff at my parents’ assisted living campus has two employees working (extremely patiently!) with residents who need assistance communicating with loved ones who can no longer visit them. The residents have hearing loss, vision loss, neuropathy in their fingers, arthritis, and often, some cognitive losses. Staff members sit with residents and work out methods of staying in touch. Elderly people are already isolated; they truly need connections with others, need to know that their lives are valued.

A friend whose church group sponsors a free meal for all every Tuesday night in Philadelphia continues to serve the at-risk community by packing up the dinners for takeout instead of serving at communal tables.

We are fortunate. I am trying not to forget how fortunate such inconvenience is. For many other human beings, the inconvenience is compounded by danger.

In Wuhan, China, authorities report that there have been no new cases of the illness in the past week. There’s hope. When we touch again, let us rejoice more mindfully, recognizing how powerful touch can be.

hands-of-god-and-adam-by-michelangelo-michelangelo-buonarroti

Michelangelo Buonorotti, Sistine Chapel

~

UPDATE, here’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece by Andrew Sullivan–well worth reading. (click link)

Ways of reading

Conversing about books with a colleague recently, I began to reflect on how readers of literature read. The topic had come up earlier in the day when several students came in for tutoring on literary-analysis papers. In addition, a student in the Education program was devising a curriculum for third-graders; the lesson focus was about “different ways of reading.” I have always loved to read, and I never spent much time considering how I go about it. It just seemed natural to me…and then I encountered academia’s approach to reading and had to reconsider the way I devoured fiction.

My coworker consumes novels the way a literature professor does. He savors passages, re-reads earlier chapters in a novel to find connections with later parts of the book, and looks up references and allusions to be sure he understands the deep context of a literary text. He asks himself questions about what he’s reading. The questions keep him reading and engaged with the words on the page.

That method is how I read poetry. But it is not how I read novels or non-fiction books; those I read at a clip, almost inhaling them, seldom stopping. I read them for pleasure, for fun–I even absorb sad novels and memoirs this way, in a mad whirl of reading enjoyment, caught up in the events and characters and setting of the book in my hands. This is not to say I never look up words, places, references, but generally I do so after I have finished the book. I guess I examine such things in retrospect.

brad-hammonds-flikr-books

brad-hammonds-flikr-books.jpeg

The downside of reading fiction using my own “natural” method is that I tend to come away from a book with a strong sense of whether it was wonderfully-written or moving or amazing, but I cannot explain why it has that effect–how the author managed to get me to  believe in the characters or the world she created with her words alone. When I am reading for fun or information, however, there isn’t any need for analytical levels of cognition. If I forget a detail, I can go back and look for it later. Or forget about it. No great loss.

There are other methods of reading–certainly more than two ways to “get into” a book! The conversation about reading strategies (what feels natural to a literature-consumer, how readers savor a good book, questioning not just the text but also the self reading the words) piques my interest. I suspect some connection with consciousness and cognition, aspects of human-ness I have mulled about in previous posts.

Well, enough for now. I am signing off–to read a good book!