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.


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.


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

Here we are

I frequently tell my composition students to break the task of academic essay writing into steps that work for them–very Aristotelian of me. Many educated persons were “taught to think” using this method, basically by bundling concepts together into categories. I tell my students that each person may develop a different approach. Sometimes traditional categories don’t work for a particular kind of thoughtful mind.

My own, for example. I have had to study to get to the “rational,” and it intrigues me (science mind! philosophy mind!). But the mythic and the discombobulated and the circuitous: my default consciousness heads into those places when left to wander without a focused task.

A student in my class asked me why I decided to teach college. The funny thing is that it did not feel as though it were a decision on my part. It was a series of steps that seemed unrelated at the time.

One perspective–I graduated with a Philosophy and English bachelor’s degree at the moment of the worst economic period since the Great Depression (the late 1970s). I was a good speller. I got a job proofreading. From there, a series of jobs, and periods without jobs, and marriage and children and a graduate degree and wanting to do a little part time work and teaching poetry workshops in schools…


Another perspective–I became entranced with poetry as a young adult. I read and read, and I also wrote; joined a writing critique group when David Dunn shyly invited me to the informal weekly sessions in Brooklyn. Brooklyn was not fashionable then. I had a job that paid my rent, barely. I wrote constantly, and David encouraged me to read aloud. Ariel Dawson encouraged me to submit my work to magazines. Ploddingly, and without much confidence, I followed my friends’ advice. I learned to speak in public, to groups of people who might not always be open to what I had to say. Later, I raised two children. How like teaching these things are…

I was invited to teach. I tried it. There are tasks at which I am more competent, but I get by. Some of my students thank me.

I still prefer tutoring and coaching, working one-to-one with a student, side by side in the task of urging thoughts into clarity in the form of written text. Here I am. The semester has started. Wrench those random ideas into curriculum, work on word order and concise expression. Be with the student where he or she is. Start there. Be confident. The next step will evolve.

A series of seemingly unrelated events, careers, moves, ideas, loves–those are our human foundations.

And here we are.


Writing the new year

To renew myself as a writer of poetry, I need–every now and then–some way of re-engaging with the work of writing itself. Revision, for example, often means hard effort slogging through material I wrote long ago; but the process renews my dedication to the salvageable poems and sharpens my analytical and evaluative skills.

Sometimes there’s no saving a poem, but the concept behind it might be worth exploring in an essay.

Sometimes there’s no saving a poem, but the words needed to be expressed at that time.

Revision requires taking a stance of compassionate distance from the work itself so that I can feel both judgment and kindness toward my own poems. The bonus here is that, often, the work of revision gets me writing new work.

Beside my desk at this moment is a stack of poems I spent the past few days thinking about and revising. The work creates its own energy; the buzz of words and imagery emanates…

I feel ready to write the new year.


objects, stories


About that death/writing thing

Driving the road that clings to the south side of our hill I notice the round bright moon over newly-gleaned cornfields and find myself thinking about the last essay in Margaret Atwood‘s book Negotiating with the Dead. I finished reading the book some days back, but the title essay worries at me somehow; I can’t let it go. Maybe it is because I perceive connections between her ideas on the ontology of story-making and Boyd’s evolutionary premise for narrative, or between conscious mind and story-making arising from the cthonic, the deeps, the under-earth “hells” to which our myth-makers and shamans, goddesses, musicians, poets and heroes journeyed in order to bring back–if nothing else–the story of the trek and the resulting wisdom. Maybe it is because “negotiating” with the dead raises the problem of consciousness in peculiar and challenging ways as well as the problem of communicating with people of the past and of the future. Or maybe because of that bogeyman that awaits us all: Death.

When I was quite a young child, age seven or perhaps earlier, I was seized with an insomnia-inducing fear of death that kept me in agonies as soon as darkness fell. I wonder if that had anything to do with my later need to “be a writer.”

Atwood suggests that all writers truck with the dead. We read the work of our ancestors-in-the-craft; they are often our first teachers. That important aspect of craft so many of us struggle to attain–the ever-illusive quality of “voice”–is what we notice in many of our beloved writers. Voice, perfect example of metonymy. It stands in for the departed body, the dispersed consciousness.

Here is Atwood holding forth at a dinner party of fellow writers:

Gilgamesh was the first writer…He wants the secret of life and death, he goes through hell, he comes back, but he hasn’t got immortality, all he’s got is two stories–the one about his trip, and the other, extra one about the flood. So the only thing he really brings back with him is a couple of stories…and then he writes the whole thing down on a stone.

She adds that going “into the narrative process–is a dark road. The poets know this too.” So inspiration is not so much a clearing in the clouds but a kind of rappelling into a cave. At any rate, darkness, even with a full moon to light the road, seems as likely as a bolt of lightning to produce emotionally-resonant work. Maybe more so, because it’s harder work and more ambiguous (Lord knows, writing is both of those!). Darkness requires more interpretation. The audience has to listen, not simply see; the darker path gets traversed by both writer and reader.

The Flood

The Flood

Atwood also makes note of the threshold concept, that edge or invisible boundary line between the realms, any pair of realms. Life/death, yin/yang, heaven/earth, day/night. The one who seeks knowledge or magic or treasure (or lost love, viz Orpheus) at some point crosses the threshold, and then nothing is certain. He or she may not be able to return, for example. Edges are the interesting places, where all manner of things mesh and overlap–good spots for inspiration even if one opts not to take the stairway to the underworld; but they also pose danger. We humans, with our need for communities, invent parallel communities for our dead, not just physical cemeteries but supernatural abodes, and create all manner of “rules and procedures…for ensuring that the dead stay in their place and the living in theirs, and that communication between the two spheres will take place only when we want it to,” says Atwood.

I wonder if that is one reason I felt so unsettled by the idea of death when I was seven. I did not personally know anyone who had died (yet), but I knew the stories; certainly, I’d been taught about Jesus, though I was told he had defeated death. So why the early-onset angst? Did I fear that edge between the realms, being too inexperienced either to navigate it or to allow communication on my own terms? And maybe the fear is precisely what has led me to my ongoing inquiries into philosophy, consciousness, art, and mind.

Or was I precociously aware that I would have to venture into the darkness, into the coffin-holes and the caves and the seas’ depths, if I wanted to come back with a story to tell?



Interpretation & finesse

A few months back, I heard from an editor who rejected a poem I had submitted. He said that the editors really liked the work, but that the journal generally did not publish “poems about poetry.” The critique was especially surprising to me because I didn’t realize that my poem was about poetry; the editors’ interpretation of my text was different from my own!

It is interesting to re-read one’s own work from the viewpoint of a reader who is not oneself. Actually, that’s an impossible task, but I tried. My interpretation of my poem is that it is a somewhat speculative, perhaps philosophical piece concerning the re-envisioning of the commonplace. Nonetheless, it is not an abstract poem on the surface. My poetry inclines toward physical imagery, often nature-based (no surprise to readers of this blog…). When I distanced myself a bit and tried to imagine what another reader might make of the poem, I could see that there would be a way to interpret the piece metaphorically as a reflection on the writing process.

That’s not what I thought I was writing, but the interpretation works just fine. Who knows, maybe I was kind of writing about writing, and it took a thoughtful critique by some editors to figure that out!


Which brings me to the whole topic of interpretation. I am not teaching poetry class this semester, but that does not mean I am not trying to impart to my students an understanding of what it means to interpret a text. The aim of any composition & rhetoric course is to assist students in learning how to express their original thoughts about a topic–any topic–and to ground those thoughts in evidence: in other words, to validate the student’s interpretation.

That process involves analysis, argument, inference, sometimes research, and composition whether the text the student responds to is literary, persuasive, commercial, visual, auditory, performatory, or digital. Critical thinking requires inference and metacognition. These tasks are harder than they seem; most students do not develop those abilities overnight and need a bit of coaching.

Then there are students who are capable of thinking analytical thoughts but are at a loss for how to express them on paper (or on word-processing software). That ability also requires a bit of coaching.

It can be difficult to ascertain whether a student I am tutoring needs help with the thinking or help with the expressing. Too often, early in my career as a writing tutor, I have inferred incorrectly about a student’s difficulties with the written word. Coaching takes finesse. Finesse takes awhile to develop.

Come to think of it, interpretation requires finesse as well. When a critic bludgeons a poem to pieces, the interpretation gets lost in the analysis (and critics can even bludgeon poems that they love).

I am glad that the above-mentioned editor read my poem with considerable care and finesse. He may have decided not to publish it, and he may have interpreted it differently that I would have myself, but he took the time to interpret. It is encouraging to know that my work has been read with such care.





Without committing to any resolution to do so, I spent some time recently with my own poetry: the unfinished drafts, the partially-revised pieces, the fragments and the poems I had put aside for the time being. “For the time being” was, in some cases, over a decade.

This putting-aside led me to wonder what process–other than forgetfulness–leads me to abandon a poem for such a long time. I am aware that artists in other media experience this sort of pause in the working of making; sometimes, the years on a project are full of revision and detailing (Rodin’s doors “The Gates of Hell,” for example) but often, the composition just lies about for a perhaps-indefinite number of years. I believe the poet Donald Hall refers to this as a poem’s necessary gestation.

In a 2008 interview (by Wendy Andrews), Galway Kinnell said, “When I can take a poem of mine that I think is finished and put it aside for a month and pick it up and read it and find it interesting, and if I encounter no place where I think it should be changed, and if at the end it surprises me, even though I wrote it, I think it might be done.”

That’s what I have been endeavoring to accomplish for the past two weeks or so: a reading of my own drafts to discover whether any of the poems are capable of surprising me, or if any of them might be revised into achieving that state. It is a lengthy project and a quiet one that requires considerable internal analysis and an objective stance. And maybe that is one benefit to letting the work sit around for so long…by the time I peruse the draft again, I have forgotten the initial inspiration, so the poem has to operate on its own merits as a composition rather than through any residual inclination or emotional attachment I may have once had for it.

If my own work manages nevertheless to impress me in some way, I tend to harbor the hope that it may be salvageable. If not, I can keep revising, or put the drafts into my “dead poems” file and consider it incapable of resuscitation.

The parallels to pregnancy and gestation may be inevitable–parents harbor hopes that their children will be good people who are successful in the world, just as poets want their poems to be “good” –but that sort of gestation analogy only goes so far. We cannot revise or rework our human offspring, and an objective analysis of their strengths and weaknesses is unlikely to lead to betterment of either party. But a work of the imagination can be re-envisioned, reconsidered, and made new.

That’s the work of the next many weeks. I am curious indeed as to where the work, after its long gestation, will lead me.



When people need to make decisions about tools or skills or behaviors, they tend to “default” to one of several modes: do what society and/or their peers are doing, do what’s most familiar, or do what’s most convenient. Sometimes the decision modes all point to the same conclusion.

Then there are those of us who are a bit unconventional, or even contrarian.

When I decide not to follow the crowd, I make certain I have a logical reason for bucking the cascade. Herewith, the reason I do not possess a “smart phone.”


First, an aside on what initiated this post–the reactions I get from colleagues, students, and friends when they see my cell phone. Said reactions range from astonishment to hilarity to well-meaning advice.

Yes, it is a “clamshell” model. Yes, it has a phone-style dial pad.

No, it is not connected to the internet. It has a camera, but why bother? The jpg files are minuscule, and there is no scrolling function.

This outmoded tool seems inconvenient. Why do I not update my phone?


I am a creative writer, even though my everyday life is not particularly structured to enable full concentration on my “art.” Because I already have so many responsibilities to my family, my job, my home, and my community, my responsibility to writing poetry feels squeezed. The way I see it, a mobile device that I carry with me constantly and that I can use to tap into the internet, my email, my Facebook page, or my blog is just one more means of keeping those responsibilities and distractions with me at all times.

Writers such as Gary Shteyngart notwithstanding, that is not generally a method of existing that feels conducive to the writing process (though perhaps the writing process will change as society changes?).

No distractions. (photo credit, click on image)


To think, to imagine, to reflect and mull and ruminate, I need time to unplug, disconnect, and disengage from my duties to others. Walking out-of-doors with no beeping or ringing or buzzing in my pocket lets me take in the immediate environment. The birds and the wind offer noises more random and are less insistent reminders of whatever-it-is-that-wants-to-be-urgent.

Indeed, I find it useful to inconvenience myself in this way. When I am not at a web-ready device, I have to turn to a book if I want to find the answer to a question. A dictionary, an encyclopedia, a reference text not only can answer my initial inquiry but may invite me to explore the topic more deeply. I may “get distracted” by another, unexpected entry in the book, read a chapter I hadn’t planned to read, or learn a new word or the etymology of a word that leads to…

…further imaginative exploration and thought (poems!).

Thus, inconveniencing myself is a worthy pursuit.

To be sure, the fact that I turn off my cell device or leave it at home may occasionally inconvenience others–people who expect me to pick up the phone and answer a call or text, on their time. Oh, my beloveds! I do value you and I respect your time; but your time and my time do not always need to coincide. [Truly, the decision on which ice cream to purchase can wait, or be accomplished without my input.]

Why tempt myself into further distraction? My clamshell model’s only good for one or two purposes, so it is easy to forget about it, to turn it off. One less nag. A chance to listen to something else. The last cricket of autumn. The rustle of a buck in the undergrowth. Hens murmuring in the chicken run.


Eventually, I may have no choice but to upgrade; but I hope that by that time, my habit of turning off the social networking tool will be firmly in place and my desire to inconvenience myself will trump the advantages of immediate availability a smart phone can offer. This kind of reasoning works for me.