Keeping the minutes on violence, with Lucille Clifton

Wow. I found this post by Lesley Wheeler worth re-blogging. It hurts my heart that she found so many of her students had experienced this kind of fear and violence in their schools. But it makes me pleased to be a writer if I can be in the company of people like Lesley and her students, facing what is horrible and difficult and discussing and writing about it. And reading, too–reading poems that face the “dark” in human beings can be as liberating and enlightening as reading poems that offer “hope” or balance. The heart does need rest now and then; thoughtful reflection offers more rest than many folks realize. Thank you, Lesley, for being a teacher.

LESLEY WHEELER

For a workshop on Tuesday, Election Day, one of my undergraduates submitted a poem based on the day he hid in a closet during a middle school shooting. A different student said there had been a shooting in her school, too; another described an active shooter just last week in the high school her sister attended; a fourth said a friend had died in the Parkland massacre. Stunned, I responded with something like, “Are you telling me that four out of the fifteen of you have had a near miss with a school shooting?” Then two more raised their hands. Six.

Gun violence in the US is insanely, horrifyingly prevalent; every new mass shooting refreshes the horror and also increases the number of Americans directly affected. A good friend’s father’s retirement center was recently in lockdown because of an active shooter. And when I described the workshop discussion to a…

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Composition

Forgive me, readers–whoever you are–this weekend I am composing poems instead of a blog post, revising the work (see this post) and creating new stuff from dribs, drabs, sketches, notes, and the windy day outside with its sky full of variable, intermittent, strangely-colored clouds.

 

 

Neglecting the work

It seemed to me to have been a long time since I devoted serious focus to my creative work–I mean in terms of organizing, keeping track, revising, submitting to journals, compiling a draft manuscript of newer work…the so-called business of poetry. I resolved therefore to spend a weekend at the task. Alas. The weekend revealed to me the extent of my benign neglect: ten years of not-really-being-on-the-ball.

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I do not consider myself a particularly prolific poet, but I found myself faced with well over a ream of poetry pages, many poems only in their second or third draft and far from “finished.” Maybe an average of 70 poems a year for ten years. Do the math: this is not a weekend’s work. [le sigh]

Where to begin? There is no beginning. After an hour or so of trying to prioritize the various components of the job, I gave up and just started at whatever had become the top of the pile. Analysis: which drafts had any glimmer of possibility? Some erstwhile poems could easily be culled into the “dead poems file” I keep under the cabinet with the dust bunnies. Others required considerable revision.

Fascinating process, despite aspects of tedium. I encountered poems I forgot I’d composed. I looked at the dates I began and revised them, tried to discern where my thoughts and feelings were at the time. Somehow, going through poems in no way resembles looking at old photographs–it’s not that sort of memory jog. Indeed, the poems are not involved with the memory part of my brain but with the creative part.

And that is exactly what I have been neglecting: the creative, imaginative, intuitively analytical side of myself.

In the process, I found a chapbook manuscript to submit–I had completely neglected it–and several worthwhile poems. I have no idea yet how much further I can get into the pages of past poems, and whether I might fashion another manuscript from the lot. But I’ve decided the work should not be neglected.

And I have a lot of catching up to do!

 

 

Vocation, avocation

Somewhere recently–was it the Sunday New York Times?–I read an opinion essay about how recent surveys of US citizens indicate that we have fewer hobbies than we have had in years past. The columnist wondered whether that lack is due to a zeal to be the best at whatever we engage in–the best jogger we can be, the most avid cyclist, the best collector, knitter, paper-crafter, woodworker, violinist, what-have-you. She suggested we’ve somehow lost the joys of being hobbyists: amateurs who do or create something because it is fun or relaxing, or because trying to learn a new skill makes us feel good. A true hobby is something we don’t have to be perfect at, because that is not the point.

As my students wrestle with the tasks of college and their concerns about their futures, the concept of vocation arises often. What to do with a life? Earn enough money to live reasonably comfortably, even if the job is not a passion? What if it’s not even satisfying? Should people choose a bearable career and find enjoyment in avocations? Or persist at what they love even if society doesn’t always reward the path they’ve chosen? Or–the options are legion.

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I believe in vocation as passion, and I also practice hobbies. My career is in higher education, and I enjoy and learn from my job. My vocation is writing, particularly writing poetry; my passion lies in that direction more than any other, but poetry has not been a career path in my case.

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My hobbies have evolved over the years. For decades, gardening has kept me happily occupied out of doors–but I have no need to become a Master Gardener, and my gardens are often minor failures in one respect or another. The garden, however, soothes me, distracts me from anxieties, helps me to become a better observer, teaches me much. When learning about plants, I got interested in botany and wild flower identification, so I am a more informed hiker and nature-saunterer than I used to be.

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garden photo: pepper, sassafras leaf © 2018 by Ann E. Michael

 

Photography’s also a hobby I pursue, an interest of mine since my late teen years (back before digital). The view through the frame has always intrigued me, as well as the opportunities that different lens lengths offer the photographer as to framing and focus. I especially enjoy macro lenses. It’s fun to zoom in closely on insects, flowers, and small areas of everyday objects. Photography encourages different types of observation.

The earliest interest I can recall having is art: painting and drawing in particular. From the time I was tiny, even before I entered kindergarten, I loved to draw and paint and to look at art in books and museums. During my teen years, I studied art at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia and headed to college thinking I would minor in the fine arts. My talent did not match my aspirations, and a thorough self-analysis at around age 20 led me to recognize I could be creative more successfully in other ways…by that time, I was writing more seriously than I was painting.

But now? I have taken up painting in acrylics. Mostly sketches of clouds. There’s no pressure on me to do well; I can paint many mediocre pictures of clouds and feel relaxed in the process, meditative, observant, a casual learner.

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mediocre acrylic sketch of clouds, by Ann E. Michael

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As I wrap up this post, I realize that my career and my hobbies have encouraged observation from multiple and new perspectives. And my vocation? Poetry practically relies upon the writer’s ability to switch into creative and imagined points of view, as well as to have the opportunity for closely-observed objects and experiences.

Vocation, avocation, passion, career. I count myself lucky.

…Some rain must fall

Longfellow wrote that “Into each life some rain must fall” (“The Rainy Day“). The poem is an extended metaphor; here in my valley, the rain has been actual, physical, moist, sopping, wringing, drizzly, humid, soaking, and all the rest.

The metaphorical hasn’t been absent, either.

So this week, my post consists of other writers’ posts. Explore, please. All of these links offer much to enlighten the reader.

https://www.daletrumbore.com/unthinkable

https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2018/09/03/now-hold-on-there-or-slowing-the-revision-process/

On first looking into Shenandoah’s submissions

https://www.vianegativa.us/2018/09/barberous/

http://www.writerintheworld.com/2018/09/03/cathedrals-and-yurts-a-reprint/

Grammar

 

Steven Pinker‘s early book, The Language Instinct (1994)–controversial among linguists, psychologists, social anthropologists and probably semiotics philosophers–is nonetheless relatively easy for the interested non-scholarly layperson to read. Pinker has since become well-known for his best-selling books, TED talks, and willingness to engage in lively debates on controversial topics such as violence in society and his claims for the embodied brain, scientifically-supported atheism, and rational culture. [Totally off topic, but I’m a great fan of his current wife’s novels and philosophy books–Rebecca Goldstein–what an amazing mind she has! Not that Steve Pinker is a slouch in that department, either…an intellectual power couple indeed. But I digress.]

The Language Instinct got me thinking more broadly about grammar, especially as the semester is about to begin and I’m once again wrestling with how to teach conventional writing skills to under-prepared, newly-minted college freshmen. I harbor no intentions of talking to them about linguistic theories. But I do want them to understand that they can already express themselves perfectly well verbally, with the help of body language (even students who are still learning English; even students who have told me that they have learning disabilities). The tool they need to succeed at the college level is the skill of writing that employs enough agreed-upon conventions–prescriptive grammar–to convey clear ideas to the standard reader.

Lots of assumed definitions there: who is the ‘standard’ reader? How many and which ‘conventions’ are enough, and who is it that agrees upon them? I have to let the students know that the answer is: “It depends.” They are seldom very pleased to hear it, but human beings are nothing if not adaptable.

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After defending slang, split infinitives, the ‘verbing’ of nouns, and other shibboleths, Pinker–in a chapter denigrating language mavens (hence his Jeremiah example toward the end of this excerpt)–writes:

The aspect of language most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also…a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one’s natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and–probably most important–intensive exposure to good examples…a banal but universally acknowledged key to good writing is to revise extensively…Anyone who does not appreciate this necessity is going to be a bad writer. Imagine a Jeremiah exclaiming, “Our language today is threatened by an insidious enemy: the youth are not revising their drafts enough times!”

Indeed, I agree with him here. Taking the time to read good writing frequently, and taking the time to revise carefully when writing pretty much anything (even a Twitter post) would go a long way toward improving anyone’s writing.

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Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine

We do need concise, standardized, well-revised written texts, especially when we are relaying new information, instructing others how to do something, or convincing our professors that we comprehend the fundamental theories of the coursework. That’s not “grammar,” the magical tool that my students think they somehow missed learning in grades K-12, it’s craft, attention, and revision–with a few prescriptive rules, enough to level the ground on which the we lay our communicative foundations.  The rest is work.

 

 

Process

William Stafford:

A writer is a person who enters into sustained relations with the language for experiment and experience not available in any other way…A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.

Writing is a process that elicits consciousness in the individual writer, often as the writing unfolds. Flannery O’Connor: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Joan Didion: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”

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Perhaps oddly–perhaps not–Stafford’s definition that what a writer is comes down to what a writer does bears a certain resemblance to Gerald Edelman‘s “neural Darwinism” theory (ca. 1989 in Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, a more reader-friendly version of models developed in his neural topology trilogy*). Edelman basically says consciousness isn’t a “thing in itself” so much as it is a process that the embodied brain does. The brain’s processing capabilities are individual and endlessly myriad and they operate, claims Edelman, through the re-entry of information in intricately complicated links and physiological systems.  Thus, through evolution’s incremental layering of human beings’ brains, what we call higher-order consciousness makes its appearance.

And then on to gesture, semantics, lexicon, syntax, language, culture, &c.

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Gerald Edelman:

What is daunting about consciousness is that it does not seem to be a matter of behavior. It just is–winking on with the light, multiple and simultaneous in its modes and objects, ineluctably ours. It is a process and one that is hard to score. We know what it is for ourselves but can only judge its existence in others by inference.

…Once a self is developed through social and linguistic interactions on a base of primary consciousness, a world develops that requires naming and intending. This world reflects inner events that are recalled, and imagined events, as well as outside events that are perceptually experienced. Tragedy becomes possible–the loss of the self by death or mental disorder, the remembrance of unassuageable pain. By the same token, a high drama of creation and endless imagination emerges…The wish to go beyond these limits [of embodiment] creates contradiction, fantasy, and a mystique that makes the study of the mind especially challenging; for after a certain point, in its individual creations at least, the mind lies beyond scientific reach…the reason for the limit is straightforward: The forms of embodiment that lead to consciousness are unique in each individual, unique to his or her body and individual history. [italics mine]

To me, this passage–in a book about neural mapping and brain physiology–feels “poetic.” But what do I mean when I say the concept of embodied consciousness, and consciousness as a series of intricate, synthesized processes, coincides with being a writer? Or in my case specifically, a poet?

It has something to do with taking in the world–through the senses, which is all my body’s really got–and synthesizing all those years of experiences, memories, books I’ve read, poems and plays I’ve loved, people I’ve known, relationships with the environment and with human beings and with other creatures, the whole of my personal cosmos. Referents and reentrants. Relationships actual and imagined. “The remembrance of unassuageable pain.” The process of loafing through the world.

Writing, where much of my so-called consciousness dwells. Not in the outcome, the resulting poems or essays, but in the doing.

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More about writing-related processes and politics here: Poet Bloggers


* Neural Darwinism: The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection; Topobiology: An Introduction to Molecular Embryology; The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness.