Tag Archives: creative writing

Back again

Well, I all but abandoned this blog lately, but for good reason: I got a second job!  I’m now a TA in the Spanish Department, as well as in the Creative Writing Department, working 9 hours in the Spanish Conversation Center, helping undergraduates figure out how to twist their tongue around answers to basic questions, like, Where are you from?  And, is your roommate annoying?  Describe to me your least favorite chore from childhood.  We also make lots of small talk.  If I had a penny for every student I asked what his/her major was… Brings me back, y’all.  To awkward house and dorm parties with peers I didn’t know.

It’s very divertido and exhausting to speak Spanish 9 hours a week, but gratifying as I remember that I actually started out my professional career as a Spanish teacher, then an English teacher abroad in Andorra to Spanish-speaking students.  I feel I’m getting less rusty, and it’s always enjoyable when, in any language, someone younger than you looks at you wide-eyed and asks you to describe the magical time you had, after graduating, in the workforce in places as glamorous as Philly and Andorra (I usually have to point it out on a map), and when they, in despair and in English, ask how you EVER learned Spanish because it’s SO HARD OMG IMPERFECT (answer: I personally think every university should adopt the RC from U of Michigan’s campus model by having morning grammar lectures in Spanish, lunch table conversation centers, and afternoon literature discussion circles in Spanish–8 credits in total PASS/FAIL to take the pressure off getting “everything right”–which is impossible when learning a foreign language at first, since you are basically a toddler developmentally in the language).

The extra money in my bank account does not hurt at all as I try to save save save for effectively being unemployed come June/July and simultaneously living in Oxford, England, where I’ll be taking an independent research tutorial on lady sonnetiers and a course on American Fiction since 1945. I’ll also graduate with my Master’s in English Literature from Middblebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English.  It’s really hard to believe I’ll be graduating, since that means it was four years ago that I was in Andorra teaching and trying to figure out how to break in the English literature teaching market back home in the States and thus elected to spend my first summer doing Bread Loaf in Vermont with other English teachers of the U.S. looking to up their resume/content know how.

It was at my first summer at BL that I took a poetry workshop with newly minted Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith, who mentored me and gently suggested I consider applying for an MFA in poetry once I told her what I wanted to do (teach writing, have more time for my own writing, read great works of literature), and, well, the rest led me to where I am now.

On top of double TA’ing at UNCW, I’m still blogging regularly at Ploughshares writing their literary round down every other Tuesday.  Thanks to those who read and shared–I get a bonus if my views go up, so thank you. I’m also still teaching yoga at Pineapple Studios downtown and enjoying developing “regulars” each week.  I’ve been there officially a year, which is an amazing anniversary to me.  A while back I imagined my dream life, and it included author, yoga teacher, and outdoor enthusiast, so it’s pretty great that I’ve had the opportunities I’ve had lately to explore my passions and bring them to others.

Things with Daisycat are great.  She’s currently snuggled in my lap.  Sometimes (read: all the time) she wakes me up in the middle of the night, so I haven’t been sleeping all that well, but could you resist this face?

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I didn’t think so.

Additionally, in the service of making more money for the summer/Europe, I may also be subbing for a local academy here in Wilmington, to keep my teaching fresh.  If any people in the MFA program are wondering why you never see me perhaps this post will explain.  I’ve also been suffering from insane allergy attacks lately which on top the not sleeping well have made me feel somewhat of a zombie.  But a happy zombie who finally likes what she’s producing in her workshops.  And who falls asleep at 10:00PM on Saturdays.

My boyfriend continues to be a lovely stud who cooks AND cleans, even when he’s been at work longer than I have, and when I ask if I can help, he shoos me out of the kitchen and tells me to take a nap/have a glass of wine/take a bath, etc.  He’s a gem and a keeper and I’m so glad we had the various twists and turns that brought us together.  His humor keeps me laughing and his goodness keeps me growing.  His pretty sky blue eyes don’t hurt neither.

Anyway, that’s it for now: I will try to be better at putting something up here.  Perhaps not Saturdays anymore that I agreed to support Arsenal Football Club (read the above paragraph), but maybe I’ll start Wednesday posts, since I don’t have much but an evening class that day.

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The Lost Art of Discussion

I fear that we have lost the art of discussion, and most especially, that of rhetorical listening.

Oh we talk, and plenty. But most often I fear we as a culture are preaching to each other’s choir.  Those who feel a certain way about political topics read certain magazines.  Keep a certain realm of friends on social media.  Tune into certain news outlets.  While the rest, who feel oppositely, subscribe to different outlets.

And if things get heated, if we dare to cross our ideological lines, well, there’s that “unfollow” or “defriend” or mute button on our various devices.  Or there’s leaping out of a moving vehicle as your father rolls through a stop sign in the neighborhood of your adolescence on the eve of Thanksgiving. There’s savagely attacking one another’s intelligence and basic humanity.  There’s rioting.  There’s police brutality.

There’s the parade on tv, with balloons and floats and shivering and hot chocolate.  Or there are protesters bringing up the rear with the police firmly telling the news outlets not to cover this section of the parade route.  Or there’s a die-in at a mall on the busiest shopping day of the year supplanted by non-stop commercials for Black Friday deals.

There is not, however, any rhetorical listening.  Instead, you decide which views you are more comfortable seeking out and surround yourself with that noise and turn up your own volume if you encounter a competing channel.

Krista Ratcliffe, a scholar whose book Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness I’ve used for my project on silence as poetry, writes this of rhetorical listening: it is “a trope for interpretative invention and as a code of cross-cuItural conduct . . . [which] signifies a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture” (p. 1). In the book, to demonstrate what she means, she examines gender and race cultural logics to explore how we might invoke listening to create better cross-cultural relationships.

And I say this as someone who has not practiced rhetorical listening very well herself in the past.  Just because someone speaks about a political or racial topic in a way that I find abhorrent, that does not make them less of a person.  That does not mean I should attack them, verbally or otherwise, and call into question their very humanness.  That does not mean that I should immediately adopt their view and dismiss my own, either.  But rather, that I should attempt to listen.  To hold the space of active silence.  To turn it into art.  To showcase respect.  And then, when I have fully inhabited that stance of openness, to use and communicate what I have learned about my audience’s humanity to speak back in a way that does not denigrate their dignity and therefore allows that person to fully listen to me, rather than shut down and attack.

I know of many people on both sides of the political spectrum who think listening means trying to persuade the other of their inherent wrongness.  Which implies an aura of inherent rightness around their head in a halo that causes the person they are trying to convince so stridently to stop listening.  To resent. To defend.  More noise.

I am worried this holiday season about what is happening in Ferguson and what it symbolizes for this country in its fraught and troubled race relations.  But I am grateful for the discussions that are being started (and here are some tips for keeping things in the realm of open exchange) and it is my dearest wish that more of us in America would adopt this stance of openness across gender and racial identification lines to the other side.  To rhetorically listen to one another–and to especially, if you are in a position of power, to extend your listening to those who have historically been silenced and otherwise violently oppressed– before it’s too late and more senseless acts of violence and indignity occur.

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Is Poetry For Everyone? Is Sentimental Writing Stupid?

This article on whether or not poetry, creative writing, and MFAs are part of a capitalist, cultural, exclusive elite really stuck me this week.  I encourage anyone who considers themselves an artist to read and weigh in.  Is it true?  Has art in this country become so commodified that we ascribe cultural currency to those who would be artists in such a way that grants social legitimacy to them when we would not do the same for, say, an assembly line worker, who may in fact be making more money than a graduate teaching assistant?

The article gets really depressing for someone halfway through her MFA, but the ending had the kind of redemptive quality to it that I admire in terms of explaining to myself and others why poetry can be powerful.

If we want to bring those critics and those masses to our poems, if we want poetry to matter to those outside our classrooms and conference halls—and there may be some poets who don’t; bully for them—then those others, their lives and their language, have to matter to us first. The only way they will is if we disrupt the culture of privilege that insulates us. And we need to disrupt it, not for our egoistic desire for a larger audience, but for the sake of our art. The only job of the poet is to destabilize and expand language. This is how poetry changes the world—not by grand ambition or the lauding of critics. It takes the plodding, unending effort of many to alter line by line, phrase by phrase, word by word the way we describe ourselves and everything around us. This is how we change perception. This is how we change the mind. We can’t do it while isolated by our privilege. There are too few of us. Our language is too limited. We need more words. We need more than ourselves and each other. We need every brokeshoulder to the wheel.

I have been kind of annoyed lately regarding the stuffiness of workshop.  Sometimes it really does seem as though poetry is written for other poets, rather than for the masses.  There’s been a recent trend lately too for more esoteric, allusive poetry, which I find myself more and more impatient with the older I get.

I got slammed last week for being sentimental in my writing.  I wanted to argue, but of course, workshop is not a place to argue.  What’s wrong with a little smaultz from time to time, especially if the audience and writer is aware of it?  What’s wrong with “ordinary language” so long as it is precise and clear and conveys a feeling, puts a picture in one’s head?

Enough of the rat race already.  I want a poetry that’s for the masses.  I want to write poems for everyone.  Ones I can bring home to my family and have them understand (unlike the research projects I’ve shared with them in the past).

And that doesn’t make me any less educated or smart.  I resent the implication that it might.  Especially as a woman.

Again, I’m not sure why I think Taylor Swift fits into this–but she does.  This other article I read a while back perfectly summed up for me why people who go out of their way to criticize her art belong in the same camp as those who would say that poetry should be for a cultural elite only.

Swift countered critics by saying,”For a female to write about her feelings, and then be portrayed as some clingy, insane, desperate girlfriend in need of making you marry her and have kids with her, I think that’s taking something that potentially should be celebrated – a woman writing about her feelings in a confessional way – that’s taking it and turning it and twisting it into something that is frankly a little sexist.’

Snaps, girlfriend.

And to round it out, I’ll end with a quote from an essay put on Viriginia Quarterly, excerpted from a wonderful book, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, a writer I deeply admire.

“I think dismissing female pain as overly familiar or somehow out-of-date—twice-told, thrice-told, 1001-nights-told—masks deeper accusations: that suffering women are playing victim, going weak, or choosing self-indulgence over bravery. I think dismissing wounds offers a convenient excuse: no need to struggle with the listening or telling anymore. Plug it up. Like somehow our task is to inhabit the jaded aftermath of terminal self-awareness once the story of all pain has already been told.

The wounded woman gets called a stereotype, and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true. I think the possibility of fetishizing pain is no reason to stop representing it. Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it. “

The way she dares to be sentimental at the end strikes this writer, anyway, as a profound act of bravery in today’s academic, allusion lovin’, irony driven readership.

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Writer’s Week UNCW

This past week, UNCW hosted writer’s week, a special yearly event where writers from all over are invited to give craft talks, panels, and readings for the Wilmington community.  Professors of creative writing give their students time off from regular classes in order to encourage students to attend the events.  For me, it was a nice break from the usual slog of grading, teaching, and homework and helped remind me why I’m here–not to fulfill requirements, but to try out being a writer, see if it fits.

My favorite event was the poetry craft talk given by Patrick Phillips.  I had actually not come across Mr. Phillips work before that day, but I’m thrilled he was brought to my attention.  His forthcoming collection, Elegy for a Broken Machine, is one I’m excited to get my hands on–and I’m apparently not the only one, as I noticed Amazon smacked an editor’s pick award on it.

His talk was giddy, goofy, self-mocking, and joyfully, unabashedly smart.  He spoke of what makes a poem end–of closure, stating that he was partial to poems that, as Yeats said, “clicked shut.” He mentioned several poems that follow a rhythm or pattern, deviate, and then bring the poem home, using both meter and rhyme in order to signal to the reader that a finish is coming.  He likened certain metrical variations to the way a drummer cues the audience to the coming close of a song with a big flourish, that creates a sense of anticipation in the listener.

I always appreciate poets who can skillfully liken their craft to music.  Music somehow seems more approachable to people, young students, especially.  It can be a way in to an art form most often considered too elite (which I hate! Poems should be for everyone).

Additionally, after, when I went up to him to chat/thank him, Phillips encouraged me to keep a PhD in mind for a next step in my career.  Even though I’ll have three master’s by the time I’m 29, which, someone pointed out, is like the equivalent of a PhD, and even though I’m weary of the hoops of academia, I do still dream about being Dr. Shubert.  Always have, ever since I knew what a PhD was.  But I’m glad I’m getting my MFA, if only to rest on the other side of the creator/academic coin.  Phillips pointed out often PhDs get taken more seriously as teachers, and, well, my goal is to keep teaching at the college level.  He also affirmed my belief that an academic understanding of literature can be inspiring, though the flip side of that is to watch out for an overly analytical tone in one’s poetry, something I’m struggling with right now, to the point where maybe a PhD isn’t the best idea right now.  But I appreciated that he believed enough in my story to encourage me to go for it.

In other news, my students are starting to write their own poems this week, and I already had a panicked email from a student telling me she was lost and too scared her poems weren’t as a poem “should be.”  I directed her to Billy Collin’s “Introduction to Poetry” and Ruth Forman’s “Poetry Should Ride the Bus” and asked her what she thought those poets were saying about people who thought poetry “should” be a certain way.  I then gave her a bunch of prompts, told her poetry was possibility and encouraged her to have fun with experimenting and to stop being so hard on herself.  To find something she cared about to bring to life on the page, while still adhering to our core tenants of clear, precise, image-driven, non cliched language.

It makes me sad when students, especially college students, like her come to me in this state of panic, this state of “poetry cannot be for me, I must somehow inherently suck at it” in a way they do not do with non-fiction or fiction.  I’m not sure what kind of horrible experience they had with it in high school or middle school.  Right now, my middle schoolers take to it much more easily and without self-judgment or hesitation.  I try to call them poets early.  To urge them not to let any stodgy professorial type bar them from something that is as odd as civilization and should be as accessible as music. To that end, I almost find teaching middle school creative writing easier.  They have not quite yet learned to filter out their inner muse, to question it’s validity and worth.

I wish I still wrote like a middle schooler: much less self-conscious, more driven by the thrill of it.  I’ll try to keep that in mind when, next semester, as a poet, I tackle fiction, a genre I devour, but have not tried to write since high school!

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