The 4 Cs

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Sometimes, when I am in reading-after-a-hard-day-at-work mode, I feel mentally unprepared to tackle difficult books. On such days it is better to settle on the sofa with a glass of chardonnay and a text that entertains as well as informs. I confess that Ruth Whippman’s America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks had me snorting my wine a few times; her wry British cynicism kept me giggling even when her observations strongly critique some serious aspects of the culture and nation to which I belong.

In her book, Whippman finds understandable fault with the commodification of happiness, but she also threatens an American sacred cow: the concept of individual happiness that arises from our foundation document concerning our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Implied in her critique of the American “happiness industry” (including positive psychology, attachment parenting, yoga, mindfulness, Facebook…) is that maybe our nativist stance of rugged individualism and the freedom to make money on anything we can capitalize upon, thus pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, does not result in “happiness.” (Maybe Jefferson meant something else by that term. We cannot really know.) One reviewer mentioned that it is just Whippman’s “outsider” status as a person not raised in the USA that makes her book so useful. Changing one’s usual perspective, as I constantly reiterate to my freshman students, can hardly fail to be a valuable exercise in critical thinking and broadening one’s outlook.

Here is an observation of Whippman’s with which I heartily agree: “If happiness is community, then a psychologically healthy society takes collective responsibility for the well-being of its most vulnerable members.” I agree, however, because Whippman’s conclusion happens to coincide with my culture, upbringing, or perspective. Like her, I am willing to accept contentment–with occasional bouts of joy–rather than run relentlessly after happiness; and like her I find most contentment among human beings, though I may want them to shut up and just hang out quietly in the same room with me for awhile! Furthermore, it increases my happiness when I know that in my community (or nation), other people are cared for, not just me. In my point of view, happiness–including personal happiness–arises when I know that all human beings have their needs met.

But I recognize that not everyone will agree with Whippman’s, or my, conclusion that community is happiness; indeed, there is a good argument to be made for Sartre’s “Hell is other people,” too.

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Recent discussions on diversity among fellow people employed in academia (what it appears to mean, what it might include) and reflections on mortality, consciousness, the notion of the self–and spirituality and religion–not to mention science writing on evolution, have pushed me into a deeply introspective mode. Yet I find I want to converse with other people about these ideas, not hole up in my own head; I seek, and have been happy to participate in, discourse with others.

In another word: community.

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Here’s a paragraph from Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell that I want to share with my students:

If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centered, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person. [italics Dennett’s]

Complexity, community, curiosity, contentment. The four Cs?

Oh, let’s add chardonnay. Make it five.  🙂

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Safety

I work, and sometimes teach, at a college campus–a small, quiet, safe university surrounded by cornfields and lightly-wooded slopes. The institution has a manual of protocols to ensure the safety of staff and students: lockdown procedures, early alerts, advising on harassment, threat, and signs of various types of needs along with preventive measures, communication protocol, background screening, and referrals. The administration has taken pains to assure the safety of students, faculty, and staff.

It seems that one of the most urgent desires of U.S. citizens is to be safe. We spend millions of hours and dollars on the quest to protect ourselves and our communities. We argue over whose responsibility that should be, though most of us recognize the responsibility–as in any social group–must be a shared one. After last week’s mass shooting tragedy, one Oregon college professor posted an open letter to her legislators (click here for story). Her situation parallels my own except that I have been at my college for many years and am aware of the protocols. But those procedures would be just as useless in my classroom as she envisions they would be in hers.

From a June 2015 New York Times article reporting on the Texas campus-carry legislation: “Opponents say the notion that armed students would make a campus safer is an illusion that will have a chilling effect on campus life. Professors said they worry about inviting a student into their offices to talk about a failing grade if they think that student is armed.” Most lawmakers have never been teachers. I think it unlikely they are aware of the stress and apprehension most of us feel in addition to our interest, concern, and compassion when dealing with a “difficult,” angry, or excessively anxious student. Yet we do not let our fears keep us from doing the jobs we love, disseminating what we have learned through study and experience to others and (usually) actively seeking their engagement in the discipline. That means taking intellectual risks. Occasionally, it means making oneself vulnerable to physical risks as well.

I am not suggesting there is something wrong-headed about wanting to feel secure; certainly that need is basic among human beings, keeping us in groups banded together for safety. But I do wonder whether the craving for safety distracts people from exploring and implementing other, perhaps more helpful, methods of operating as a society. To do so would require rejecting the norm, stepping away from the way we generally tend to do things (the way they’ve “always been done”) and endeavoring to create new approaches to our social maladies.

What might that look like, from the professor’s point of view? Or from the politician’s perspective, or a parental viewpoint? And are we, collectively, ready to take those risks?

photo by Patrick Target

photo, Patrick Target. Mary Mother of God statue above the campus.

Supportive critique

One discipline that keeps me practicing as a poet is ongoing, regular discussion of new work. It has been my great good fortune to be part of a critique group that has been meeting monthly for, I believe, over 20 years! Our participants have come and gone a bit; the group consists of four long-time stalwarts and up to three others. We try to keep to under seven members or the discussions get too lengthy for one evening.

When one has participated in a group like this for a long time, the occasional issue of expected responses comes up. At least, it does for me. When I choose a poem to workshop with my critique group, I might say to myself, “X prefers more narrative poems…Q will think this too wordy…Z will probably correct the dangling modifier…”

If I begin to expect certain stereotyped reactions, one could ask, why bother being part of a group with the same people in it all the time? Would it be more helpful to scout around for novel feedback?

Actually, no. While I am sometimes correct in my expectations of a group member’s initial feedback (and I am often wrong!), the discussions that evolve from that point onward prove tremendously useful. What I learn and can use as inspiration to revise tends to arise from other group members’ questions, challenges, and misreadings; unexpected revision ideas appear during brainstorming, and bouncing the ideas off of others helps me recognize that the poem must communicate or die.

These are good things which nourish the creative impulse.

When we do take on a new member, we fear that he or she may be a bit shocked by our frankness with one another: after 20 years, there’s not quite as much need to dance politely around a poem that isn’t doing its job. But those who settle in with us see that we practice non-defensive openness and that we always find genuine things to praise. Our group purpose is to assist one another in writing the best work we can. That means analysis and criticism, but it also means encouragement and generosity of spirit. It offers us exchange of accomplishments, prompts, book suggestions, setbacks, joys, and sorrows (there have been more than a few).

It may be a small community, but it is a community. And my fellow participants are as supportive as any community I have been part of these past two decades. They take our writing commitment seriously, recognizing that critique is just another step in the process and that dissenting ideas can get us toward brilliance. Once in awhile.

Generous community of writers

Lately, my days have been busy with gardening and household chores and efforts to promote my book Water-Rites. I find I can jot ideas into my notebooks but that more sustained creative writing efforts are not possible at this time. That’s okay. Writing, for me, often comes cyclically, with the slow periods acting as collecting points and reflective opportunities that may result in poetry later on. Also, when I am not writing much, I have time to read.

On this blog, I have a page devoted to ART which featured links to work by painters, sculptors, and other artists of my acquaintance. Today, I’m posting links to websites of and books by friends. One thing about the solitary life of writers is that we still require community of some kind: readership, first and foremost; but also reviewers, friendly but useful critique, emotional and career support, and misery-loves-company ranting and hilarity. This community develops many ways–face-to-face, mentorship, virtual collegiality, networking, even postal mail–and sustains the generous community of writers over years and miles.

The event that precipitated my desire to post these links was reconnection with poet Alfred Encarnacion, whose first chapbook, At Winter’s End, David Dunn and I published in the early 1980s when we were running LiMbo bar&grill books. You can find Alfred’s 2012 collection The Outskirts of Karma here.

One poet who has quietly been disseminating poetry for 25 years from his tiny press in Kanona, NY is Michael Czarnecki of FootHills Publishing. From his website, you can order books by many of the people in my writing community: Michael himself, and also Craig Czury, Heather Thomas, Karen Bashkirew, Paul Martin (whose beautiful 2009 full-length collection is available here), Steve Myers, Kelley Jean White, Elizabeth Bodein and many others…including two of my own chapbooks.

Finishing Line Press, which sells through Amazon as well as its own site, has published many of my colleagues in the poetry community and particularly supports female writers; I urge you to purchase books by Celia Lisset Alvarez, Kelley Jean White, Nancy Scott, Elizabeth Bodein. Finishing Line also sells my book The Minor Fauna.

Through Dave Bonta, I met the folks behind Phoenicia Publishing and, through Dave and through the Women’s Poetry Listserv, met Ren Powell. Dave’s book and Ren’s book are available through Phoenicia, and so are print issues of Dave’s online blog literary journal, qarrtsiluni. Also through Dave, my literary community grew through meeting Luisa Igloria, whose books you should definitely check out. Another connection with the inimitable Dave Bonta? That would be Ron Mohring of Seven Kitchens Press, which will be publishing Dave’s next collection and which advocates for the work of Pennsylvania-based poets such as the late Lou McKee and another of my colleagues-in-writing, Harry Humes. August Evening with Trumpet is a particularly lovely book, and Harry is a master. Other Pennsylvania poets to whose tribe I am happy to belong include my much-lauded friend Barbara Crooker, the unpredictable and enthusiastic Barbara DeCesare, Patricia Goodrich (sculptor and poet), and that magnificent woman of letters, Elaine Terranova.

Attending an MFA program at Goddard College granted me an immediate community for which I continue to be grateful many years later. Books by my fellow students and by my mentors include but are not limited to the following (really, there are too many to recall!):

Alan Smerdjian, Jessamyn Johnston-Smyth, Elena Georgiou, Christian Peet, Bea Gates, Ian Haight, Barbara DeCesare, Jan Clausen, Janice Goveas, Bill Moser, Jen McConnell, and forgive me for running short on time or forgetting others…and from my long-ago days at The New School, the amazing Maurice Eidelsberg, whose poems in Shit, Sex, Love, Palsy will have you viewing life from a perspective you may never have imagined.

Through the Women’s Poetry Listserv I mentioned earlier and through conferences and festivals, the generous community of writers has led me to Diane Lockward, Pat Valdata, Elizabeth Raby, Rosemary Starace, Julie Kane, Elaine Heveron, Lori May, Juilene Osborne-McKnight and Steven Allen May of Plan B Press; Ned Balbo, Jane Satterfield, April Lindner among many others. Wendy Ellsworth has written a book on beading and spirituality; my cousin Scott entered the world of book writing with a children’s book you can find here. And my brother, a true Renaissance man, has published a novel and is working away at a non-fiction Rip Van Winkle-type story of archeology, empiricism, Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel Morton.

So  you see, the life of a writer need not be–and seldom is–solitary. Writers love to read, and they therefore support one another inadvertently. My community also includes Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov, Elizabeth Bishop, Robinson Jeffers, Dante, and Dostoevsky. To name a few.