Agency

It’s a bad idea to get into gardening if one happens to be someone who requires complete control of things. Nature’s behavior, it turns out, manages seldom to be controllable by human beings. One reason I enjoy gardening is the chance to keep trying a new approach, a new variety, a new method; if I cannot control the environment, I may at least find an adaptation that works for awhile.

This year, it’s a short-season, baseball-sized melon I’m experimenting with, and potatoes grown in a bag, and hard beans in addition to haricorts vert, and a different set of heirloom tomatoes. The method I developed some years ago to deal with insect-borne and moisture-spread viruses on zucchini no longer works for me, alas. Next year I will try something else–because I do love grilled zucchini.

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Bounty

There’s a difference between control and agency, and I’ve been pondering this since the illness and recent death of a long-time friend and fellow writer. Agency, as it has come to be used in psycho-social circles, means having the freedom and the ability to make decisions. It’s not quite the same as controlling–it hasn’t the same aims behind it. Also, agency implies responsibility. Controlling people are more apt to place blame, whereas a person with agency makes choices and accepts the responsibility of those choices.

That’s the sort of person Bill was: gentle, quirky, humorous, exceptionally smart, persistent, and devoted to the people he loved and the causes for which he advocated. He decided what mattered to him, chose the sort of life he wanted to live, and took responsibility for those decisions even when other people might have wanted him to do otherwise. He made, and kept alive, connections and relationships. He worked on being a better self and a better citizen of the world.

When it became clear that two weeks of hospital treatment had made no difference in his illness, he chose to go home under hospice care. I wrote to a fellow member of our writers group that I was a little bit in shock but also unsurprised at his decision. She said that yes, Bill has always believed in agency.

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Agency is one of those terms, like mindfulness and intentionality, that can be overused by pop psychology and self-help best-sellers until it is nothing but a cliché.  The etymology tells us much, however:

agency (n.)

1650s, “active operation;” 1670s, “a mode of exerting power or producing effect,” from Medieval Latin agentia, abstract noun from Latin agentem (nominative agens) “effective, powerful,” present participle of agere “to set in motion, drive forward; to do, perform,” figuratively “incite to action; keep in movement” (from PIE root *ag- “to drive, draw out or forth, move”).  [Thanks to Etymology Online]

 

That would be my friend and critic Bill, drawing forth and setting in motion; effective, powerful, someone who could do and incite to action, and make wise and purposeful choices in his life.

Influences, personal & poetic

Someone recently asked me what my poetic influences were. I admitted to some confusion about the meaning of “influences” in this question. “Do you mean which poets wrote work that influenced my writing style, or do you mean what sorts of people or experiences or art had an influence on the things I write about?” I wondered. Or maybe which poets’ lives influenced me somehow? There are so many ways to interpret that question.

I did assume the person meant the noun form of influence:

influence n. [ C/U ] us /ˈɪnˌflu·əns/

Cambridge Dictionary of English

the power to have an effect on people or things, or someone or something having such power. The kid next door is a bad/good influence on Kevin. She used her influence to get her son a summer job.

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that the word was originally an astrological term (13th-14th c) that described how stellar positioning acted upon human destinies. It designated a “flow” from the stars, but also “a flow of water, a flowing in,” from Latin influere “to flow into, stream in, pour in,” from in- “into, in, on, upon” (from PIE root *en “in”) + fluere “to flow.” What star streamed its power to me or exerted its effect upon my writing?

When I read a wonderful poem, I do feel the piece has exerted its power, that language, words, imagery have the strength to sway my emotional field. After reading an entire collection by a good writer, I sense a resonance–intuitive, unsettling. Sometimes, the work evokes in me a desire to do what that writer has done. That’s one type of influence. The list of such writers would be lengthy indeed.

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Other influences, though–amazing works of art, thrilling architecture, deeply moving music or dance–I could not exempt those as streaming into my consciousness, awakening me to something new. Or human beings, especially those I love best.

And places. Environment matters to my poetry. In the city, I wrote city poems. In the country, I write country poems. After I’ve traveled somewhere new to me, I conjure the place in my mind and it exerts its own kind of power on me.

Influences, in my writing life, are generally bound to experiences; I’m not a very imaginative writer. “A change in the weather is sufficient for us to create the world and ourselves anew,” wrote Proust. I am not contradicting myself in this paragraph. But I think I will have more to say on this topic soon, once I mull it over a little longer.

Curation

Recently, I spent awhile browsing the Walter Kerr collection of books in the library of the college that employs me. Kerr and his wife Jean were writers in New York in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s; he was best known as a theater critic and she as a playwright and essayist. His family donated his books to the school, and it occurred to me during my perusal that this section of the stacks seems more personal than the collection as a whole. Here are Kerr’s quirky book choices, his favored influences, his academic interests with a place among the trendier tomes on movies and Broadway.

A personal library acts as a unit, books that are kept together rather than disbursed upon the death (or before-death donation) of the book collector. It therefore parallels–and predates, of course–the social media concept of the curated self:

Through the ongoing process of organizing content and media elements which create personal profiles for specific audiences, social media users inadvertently curate versions of themselves. Social media turns users into curators as they create distinct incarnations that are separate, yet become the objectified digital presentation of one’s physical self. [definition from socialcurators at weebly]

“Curating” seems to be a trending concept these days, so I naturally checked the etymology:

derives from cure: c. 1300, “care, heed,” from Latin cura “care, concern, trouble,” with many figurative extensions, such as “study; administration; a mistress,” and also “means of healing, remedy,” from Old Latin coira, a noun of unknown origin. Meaning “medical care” is late 14c. (https://www.etymonline.com)

Among those “many figurative extensions” is the curator in the sense of library science or museum administration. Now we can add social media users to the extension metaphors.

Perhaps curating oneself is more natural than I initially thought. My library probably offers a means of knowing who I am, or at any rate what I choose to value given what I have learned in my past; what we leave behind–as in Mr. Kerr’s library collection–becomes who we may be to others.

If they study, if they speculate, if they care.

While I was at the library, I borrowed a few books (of course). I will write about Arthur Frank’s classic book The Wounded Storyteller soon, I hope, in conjunction with some poems I’ve been working on. I also borrowed poetry collections by Matthea Harvey, Rachel Hadas, and Larry Levis.

Am I curating my life?

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Poetry as a value

If individual consciousness exists among human beings, and I believe it does, it is however the collective consciousness that has the longest-ranging impact. We are social mammals. We crave some object or objective with which we can connect and form relationships around in order to create community. Humans cannot survive without communities.

Those communities can be centered around almost anything as long as the focus keeps social members busy with the process of group-forming, skill-sharing, skill-teaching, communication and, ultimately, the development of a shared history. Hence family, tribe, language, or religion–among many other social magnets–keep us cohesive. Until we bicker and subdivide. Society works in ways analogous to the brain and body: through complex systems and nearly-random relationships and long, twisty networks.

I’ve been thinking about the things we “worship”–things we value and therefore believe are inherent among good human beings–and how such perspectives affect the consciousness of entire civilizations. Simon A. May, in Love: A History, suggests that in the early 21st century, “Western” societies have been elevating the idea of love to that socializing focus. An interesting premise, and I suppose there are worse rallying concepts than love, though May points out ways in which even love can be transformed into an ideology rather than an emotion.ann e. michael

In a large society are many sub-societies, each with its own locus of organizing a human collective; these may often overlap or coexist with the vast variety of human interests. Reflecting on this, I consider myself as part of the society of educators, and of book-readers and book-learners, and of art lovers; and also a member of those people who feel that poetry assists in the lifelong endeavor to engage meaningfully and attentively to life.

Here is a list of people like me who subscribe to the necessity of poetry and who write about it on their blogs. Donna Vorreyer has compiled a listing of poetry-related blogs to follow. I will be following some of them, too.

https://djvorreyer.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/it-feels-just-like-starting-over/

Story as vagabond: Intizar Hussain

Kahani to awara hoti hai. Story is a vagabond…My nani…used to tell me a story in which a girl says to her father, “I love you as much as salt.” My nani didn’t know about King Lear…She belonged to a tradition of storytelling in which space was unbounded and time was fluid; the hero could travel across forests instantly, and ignore borders separating Heaven, Earth, and Hell. Fairy princesses and monkeys spoke classical languages, and trees and birds told stories. This made for a more generous world, and, of course, a more imaginatively vibrant one; and it made the question “What does it mean to be human on this Earth?” a genuinely inclusive one–because the answers had to account for our relations with everything around us. It is because I am an inheritor of this way of thinking and being in which boundaries are always porous, always shifting, that I can accept that there is a grave of a Muslim disciple of Krishna in Brindiban…

~Intizar Hussain, Pakistani (but, earlier in  his life, Indian–from Dibai) fiction writer, from an interview with Alok Bhalla in Manoa journal. [The surname can be spelled either Hussain or Husain in English.]

33414458Bhalla–one of several translators of Husain’s work into English–comments during this interview: “The poet-storyteller is both blessed and cursed; he is exiled from Heaven and the courts, but he understands how integrally he is ‘of this Earth’–that is, secular. This seems to be the tradition in which you have been trying to locate yourself. Isn’t that why both the religious fanatics and the ideologically motivated find it difficult to accept you?”

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Earth–we are embodied of earth, part of earth, indivisible from our earthliness, and we exist in relation to the things of this earth.

It might be wise to stay mindful of our necessary integration with all things earthly and embodied, to recognize how intricately we are connected. Bhalla, whom I met at this year’s AWP, mentioned that Husain was fundamentally opposed to identity politics; in  his generous inclusiveness, he believed that to define oneself under a single identity forces boundary-relationships with others, that tribalism has led to nationalism and thence to genocide in far too many instances of human history.

Naturally that means he had a fraught relationship with Pakistan itself, and–to quite some extent–with Islam [he upheld the notion of Mussalmani]. He was revered enough and diplomatic enough to keep those boundaries porous and those relationships open.

Few of us will ever be as wise.

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This lovely issue of Manoa features cover artwork and illustrations by Imram Qureshi, whose work I walked upon at the Met in NYC, roof garden installation, 2013.

 

Relationships, resistance, AWP

This year’s Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference vibrated with emotional content, resistance, persistence, and truths through facts and lived experiences–a host of perspectives and a sense of excitement enhanced by the host city: Washington, D.C., where the recent transition to a new government administration has been controversial, particularly among citizens who value social justice, education, the environment, and the arts. Some citizens feel that they are themselves outsiders, outliers, critical observers of the social norm, square pegs, immigrants, misfits, name your descriptor here:_______.

Maybe no surprise, but many of those who are not-quite-the-social-norm also happen to be writers.Adversaries 1

About 15,000 writers, teachers of writing, publishers of writing, promoters of writing, and lovers of writing showed up in D.C.; and I’m guessing a very large percentage of us feel we have, in one way or another, a little trouble “fitting in” with society and social expectations. We happen to write, also. What gives good writing its jazz is that there are zillions of fascinating, off-beat, marvelously creative perspectives a human being can write on just about anything.

One sense that came through to me as I listened to authors and teachers is that writing is almost automatically resistance. Resistance usually connotes against, as against a “negative” behavior, objective, rule, law, or person, for example. We can resist silence, though, and silence on its own is not negative; it is only something to resist in relation to an event or law that might be better spoken about. We write in relation to, and often that looks like against. But it isn’t that black and white (of course). Even when the ink is near-black and the page is near-white and the resistance feels like “writer’s block”–resisting the very act of revealing, speaking, communication.

Relation makes resistance and writing happen. Relationships make community and communication develop. Relationships connect the virtual world, and relationships link the long-dead writer to the living reader in a quiet room or on a crowded train.

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This past week, thousands of (largely introverted) writers convened in a convention center in the nation’s Capitol; several square blocks hummed with interconnections that spanned far beyond those city streets, those bland conventional multi-storied buildings…into the social world and social media, into the range of the arts, the hearts of fellow human beings. The crowds could be overwhelming, but the energy was palpable and exciting (even to this introvert, who did need to retreat from the throngs now and then–thank goodness for “quiet lounges” and hotel rooms).

Did I mention the slightly off-the-cuff passion and stirring intensity of Azar Nafisi‘s speech, and the resonant coincidence of how relevant it was to have a naturalized American citizen, born and educated in Iran, as a keynote speaker? [The decision to have her speak was made over a year in advance of the conference.] Did I mention the honest and often amusing conversation between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chimamanda Adichie, who is a dynamic one-person cultural ambassador, much as Nafisi is? What about poet Terrance Hayes‘ brilliant alliterative rhythmic sonnets that were sometimes-brutal take-downs of a president whose motives and values he mightily questions? Did I mention Rita Dove‘s transcendent reading? My discovery of a hugely famous Pakistani writer, Intizar Husain? Marvelous writing on The Body Electric, in three excellent essays–why, yes, I could say more, but I’m tired now and “still processing,” and post-conference life resumes…

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Given some long-running, almost chronic adversity the beloveds and I are facing, before I close I want to give a thumbs-up to Emily McDowell. Emily McDowell’s line of Empathy Cards are really worth looking at when you have no words.

Sometimes, there isn’t a card for that.

What is American?

I have been setting up new training for the students I hire as writing tutors. My tutors are terrific students who understand coaching, modeling academic writing behaviors, and conventional essay structure better, often, than correct use of commas. Anyone can eventually figure out commas, though–that’s not the best use of a student’s time in a tutoring session. Writing tutoring works best when the tutor and student engage in understanding the assignment and the reading and then, mutually, figure out the most appropriate means of expressing the student’s stance and response. Only the final draft needs a bit of window-dressing for academic correctness, though that certainly is important…more important to some instructors than it is to others, and more important to some students than it is to others!

What I’ve lately come to recognize is that my tutors need a little more guidance in how to assist non-native-English-speakers. The need is not merely pedagogical–such as how to coach someone in the correct use of articles or of adjective-noun word order or verb agreement. The need is also cultural: my tutors should possess an awareness of cultural and ethnic variations in background that make content-reading, prompt-interpretation, and the structure of essay-writing far more complex than they may realize.

The college at which I work is small, religious-based, suburban, regional, and only recently multi-ethnic. My tutors tend to be from fairly privileged high schools and are, after all, quite young (undergraduate sophomores, juniors, and seniors, the oldest among them is only 22). I’m continually impressed by their willingness to expand their horizons–many of them have taken semesters or mission trips abroad, for example. Several of them have asked me for advice on how to conduct tutoring sessions with “ESL” students. Hence, some training is in order.

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I encounter this new generation of students in my office, as well; and recently, one of them asked me what she could do to “become American more quickly.” She has been in the US for two years, and she does not know what to read or what to watch to guide her more rapidly into American culture other than self-help books, popular TV, and internet sites, which she finds unfathomable and uninteresting: Everyone speaks too quickly. She misses all the allusions. The material seems shallow and risqué.

Reasonable conclusions on her part. She is bright and observant.

My feeling is that cultural appropriation is American culture, and vice versa, but that notion is a bit theoretical for the writing center. One has to start somewhere, so what path can I show her? She is so eager, yearning written all over her face and her posture–and so full of questions that in her naivete she believes I can answer.

My tutors and I need to recognize ourselves as cultural informants§, and to proceed to assist students to write as clearly in US/American-English as possible while respecting the diverse knowledge and cultural differences we are liable to encounter more frequently as our institution becomes more open and diverse–a welcome diversity that will change and enhance the college mission.

My tutee’s earnest question has primed my thinking–what is “American”? Every time we converse with a student, we are inadvertently cultural ambassadors; we represent the culture that we unwittingly just are. So now, as we help at the sentence level, we ought also to think about who it is we are and what we can do to help newcomers to acclimate.

How? I believe the students we tutor will offer the best and brightest assistance in that direction.

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§ See Staben & Nordhaus, “Looking at the Whole Text”