Thursday, October 22, 2009
I had a two hour chat with a former student today. He was in my Core (for non-Whitworthians, Core is the "western civ" class required of all WU students which serves to codify/regularize the worldviews of the student population to a reformed Christian point of view. I "teach" in the program. Perhaps the subject of a post later on) discussion group, was generally agnostic, and kind of flunked out the semester I had him. But I continued to meet with him through that year, and then today saw him for the first time since last spring. Sprinkled in with the other good news in his life in the first fifteen minutes of catching up was this: "Oh, and I believe in God now."
He's a smart guy, very intuitive and perceptive, and while I have worked very hard (**I'm-about-to-offend-some-of-you Alert**) to overcome my (obviously absurd) idea that Christians were uniformly lazy thinkers, and generally not as smart as me (I don't think that any more, fo rizzle), my initial reaction was, "Oh great, we lost another one to the void." Thankfully, the conversation moved into how this happened, and he started asking me questions about my faith (when I say "faith" I don't mean "Christianity." I mean faith in something bigger than me, something less definite or absolute) and doubt. I said I don't think there can be faith without doubt. Blind faith should have another term, but for me doubt is the essence of faith. For many years, I've had (and I described this to him) this image in my head when I think about religion, or about faith, of a dark wall, which is sometimes a little translucent, and on the other side of that wall is light and sound. The purest light and sound, and I cannot see what the light reveals, nor hear the sounds distinctly enough to identify. But I know they are good. Good. They could be absolutes.
He said, smiling, "That's God. Behind your wall. That's God."
I'm not sure I believe that. But maybe.
My student said he prayed regularly, but he always felt like he wasn't talking to anyone. He was in Starbuck's one day, and prayed, and looked up and saw a sign in front of him that said, "I hear you." And he took it for a sign. I think there is something about being open to things which allows those things to transpire, and perhaps he was at a place in his life that allowed him to be open. I've always hoped that a sign would be obvious, something I couldn't possibly mistake or write off to coincidence. But I'm wrong about a lot of things.
The conversation progressed. I believe in Love, and I believe in Beauty as the embodiment of love. We talked about the naming of things. I raised my question about exclusivism. This wasn't, I should point out, a conversation in which either of us was trying to convince the other. We were just asking each other questions. He said, "This is what church should be like." (He has similar hangups to my own regarding the institution of "church.") I've often heard, and he repeated this: God is love. So I asked, "Then why do we need to call it God? Why can't we call it Love, and still be 'saved'?" Why does there have to be a club that only certain people get into? Why does someone have to be right? There's an arrogance there that I don't like. It also assumes that we humans have figured "it" out, which given the general assumptions about the omni-everything of God (or whatever) seems a bit presumptuous, to the point of being ridiculous.
He asked, "What about Christ? Did he die for us?" I think that Christ existed. I think he was a great man and teacher, an example of virtue and compassion. I also believe that he was a man, mortal and capable of "sin." And that he did "sin." He was human, and humans err. But I don't believe his death provides me with salvation, at least not the way Christianity describes it. I came to this line of reasoning, with my student's input: Christ was an example, a way. The same way Mohammed was, or Siddhartha (thanks Herman Hesse, for getting all that jumbled in my head), and that the culture they were in glommed onto them and ascribed religious properties to them, codified/distorted their teachings for their own human ends (which in the beginning of the various "ministries" was probably altruistic), and after centuries of getting it wrong (and sometimes right, maybe), we ended up with the religious system we have today.
But if I take "Church" out of it, and focus on some things, I can see a way to get there. My student asked me about the Big Bang, saying he believed in evolution, but that the Big Bang seemed a bit ridiculous. I've always thought that the Big Bang and physics were actually the best proof of a supreme creator. If energy can be neither created nor destroyed, then eternity exists. If everything comes from something, than the energy that created the Big Bang already existed. So where did it come from? God (or whatever) provides a convincing, but also convenient answer. (I am aware of the problem that we have much more to learn about the makeup of the universe, and that physics is a developing science, and that answers today can be proven wrong tomorrow, but it gives me somewhere rational to go for an answer, or a way to an answer.) The next step in that logic though is where did God come from? Well, if God is energy, then it always existed and always will. Eventually, I think this leads to the traditional soul/body problem. Okay.
On the way back to campus (we met off campus, which was nice, he said that if we'd had the same conversation on campus it would've seemed like trying too hard to have a "Whitworth conversation") I thought of this (realizing that it obviously wasn't the first time it had been thought, but it was for me): Humans weren't created in God (or whatever)'s image. But maybe our souls were, and are a manifestation of that original, primordial and eternal energy. I'm still trying to think through this, and will now be a well-conditioned academic and read lots of books about it. But if that is true, then the body, humanity, is what is fallible and mortal. It is material which houses our "divine spark," if you will (knowing how old/archaic that phraseology is). At this point, decisions about intentionality might need to be made. Is this original energy conscious? I don't know how to answer that yet. If the body is what makes us human, is the body what makes us...I don't want to say evil, but that idea certainly has a long tradition. This is one of the central questions/issues of Gnosticism. I know Deism also explores this idea to some extent (though perhaps moreso the intentionality question. Research, research).
But why does it need a system? Is the Christian heaven just a return to the original source of energy? How can anyone assume they have the answers to all of these questions, and that they are the right answers?
After I'd had my (to me) possible-epiphany about the nature of the soul, I parked, got out of my truck, and headed towards my office. I heard music. Bagpipes (among my three favorite instruments) somewhere in the distance. Of course I thought of my student and his sign at Starbuck's (what a weird place for a "conversion" experience, or maybe not), and the idea of being open to things. I went inside, wondering about it. The bagpipes weren't playing any tune I could recognize, just kind of the general bagpipe melody (Scotland Forever? Go Highlanders!). I wondered about it for a few minutes (had to pee), then decided I wanted to see if I could find the source of the music (craving as always, obviousness and confirmation). As I was walking toward the sound, it became "Amazing Grace." And it was gorgeous. Now, this wouldn't necessarily be unusual for Whitworth, where most music is somehow tied to religion. I could rationalize it away. Pretty easily. About a block later I could see the piper off in the distance, near one of the dorms, with their back to me. The tune changed. It was still lovely, and I walked back to my office. But it was just about my favorite kind of music. And I've never heard bagpipes being played on campus in 14 months here. I don't know what it means, but at the very least, I am open to it.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
So back to all kinds of work, it's time for that.
Friday, May 8, 2009
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Here's the thing: Absence creates presence. The absence of the things I loved about the northwest, mountains, forests, trails, rugged landscape, fast rivers, overwhelmed me. Those were what created my imagination. For me, mountains are aspiration, mountains take us into the sky, they provide scope and perspective. They are a crossable boundary, a struggle. The absence of those things was terrifying. But North Dakota trains you to cope, if nothing else. It is good to redefine things, to retrain your imagination. And my last two years there, maybe just the last year, I allowed myself to do that. I became, I think, present in North Dakota, and paid attention. Beauty is something else there, not absent, just different. And it has a lot to do with the people. They, you, are the mountains there, the aspiration, the boundaries, the context. When the Red rises up once more, you build walls. When you need two more feet, or else, you build two more feet. Just enough to survive it, just enough to cope. And having come to understand that, it was painful not to be there, worrying, filling sand bags, laughing at nothing, laughing because it's about the best alternative to despair, that and the work. I wanted to do the work, throw my weight against the river, to protect what really shouldn't even be there in the first place.
I'm there with you, suffering and working and nervous. Though the best I can do is wish I was.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
We'd read, among other things, a graphic novel set in post-Revolution Iran. Read two stories dealing with the Vietnam war. They knew nothing about those things, beyond Iran is evil, and we won Vietnam. We started with Yeats' "Second Coming" (okay, not that accessible, but certainly not Wallace Stevens), and then looked at Hayden, Li-Young Lee, and Bukowski. All three poems about the speakers' relationship with their fathers. A broad variety of images, tone, diction.
"We don't get it," they said.
"You enjoyed books about Iran, stories about Vietnam, about which you know nothing."
"You all have fathers?"
"What don't you get?"
Okay. In case of emergency, the next day of class, this past Monday, I had printed out copies of "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout" of the "would not take the garbage out" fame. I was even ready to say to the class, "This seems more your speed."
But I thought I'd try lecturing first, which I rarely do, preferring a discussion-based model for class. But I talked about World War I, the flu epidemic, and how it wiped out much of a generation in Europe, how Modernism was responding to all of this instability, and how that led to the destabilization of form, meter and rhyme. Heads were nodding, notes were taken. Vaguely encouraged, and knowing that I would never get them back if I passed out the Silverstein in anger, I dove into Wilfred Owens' "Dulce et Decorum Est," a poem that I've liked before, but not considered too important. A half hour later though, I had them and myself convinced that this was the quintessential bridge between 19th and 20th century sensibilities. It had rhyme, but no meter. The imagery was sharp, the diction Wordsworthian. The use of pronouns is compelling, and a choice made in revision (to drop the dedication to a specific person), which expanded the poem's scope to include the reader. Summing up a soldier's experience of war first-hand, I said, "Now what does this remind you of?"
"The Things They Carried."
"Still think poetry doesn't apply to you?"
To anyone who has struggled with being a poet, none of this is surprising. While this might be the sort of story a teacher would read and nod at, clucking their tongue, it got me to thinking about a question form both classes. My creative writing class, when talking about revision, and responding to my comment to have some voices in their heads telling them how to revise, asked, "What are the voices in your head?"
Later that week, when introducing poetry to my lit class, I told them how excited I was about poetry, being that I was a poet myself. This ellicted the question, "Why?" I didn't answer that question.
I did answer the other question, a day or two later, when I had thought about it. The voices in my head, when writing or revising:
~My mom, who loves me, but doesn't get poetry. I want her to get poetry, and her motherly love allows me to be an asshole sometimes, knowing I will be forgiven.
~My father, who loves me but isn't easily impressed by words. Its love I have to earn, and hopefully the right combination of words will impress him.
~A woman I am trying to seduce, usually Lani, because that's the only time it ever worked.
~A friend who likes the way I write, but wants it always to be doing a little more, in a number of different ways, pushing at boundaries, and never thinks I have it exactly right.
~Another friend, who doesn't seem to like the way I write, and is often concerned with compressing language down to essentials. This keeps my urge to wordiness in check sometimes. And gives me someone else to try and impress.
Whitman said great poetry will always find an audience. I don't want this to be yet another discussion about the diminishing poetry audience. But. I'm writing for five people, and I can't put into words for non-lit majors why I write poetry. I just do. So I'm considering a sixth voice for the revision gallery. One of my lit students, who is smart as hell, doesn't really like me, and just isn't interested by poetry. Yet. I want him to be. And I'm not sure what it will take at this point, what he will add to the discussion in my head about how to phrase something, about what images to include, of how to use pronouns. Maybe this is the first time I've honestly admitted to myself that maybe the audience isn't the problem, the poets are.
When we read "The Red Wheelbarrow," my smart student said, "This is why we hate poetry." Most poets will have one of two responses to this: "Fuck 'em." Or, "Hm." So. Hm.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
The first two are obviously very closely related, but certainly require different skills.
These overlap on an almost daily basis. As I was walking around AWP, I found myself split between my Publisher and Poet selves. I was pimping Sage Hill books, but wondering why nobody was doing the same for me. So I would approach tables sometimes as publisher, sometimes as writer. It was weird. When I got back, I was telling my dad about the trip, and he asked "Would you rather be writing books or publishing them." For him it was a pragmatic question. To me, he was asking would you rather be Ed Ochester or Richard Hugo. It's a tough question. Almost nobody knows the work of Ed, or other publisher-poets (Sam Hamill, Matthew Zapruder, etc.) but they do know Pittsburgh Press, Copper Canyon, and Wave Books. I suppose they are mutually exclusive. But I feel as compelled to be a publisher as I do to write, and what it comes down to is that I couldn't stop doing either one if I had to.
Fantasy Sports Nut
I'm not sure why, but since I was young, I've always had to do things the long way. I'd love to come home and pop some dinner in the microwave, slap in on the table, and just eat. Or throw a bunch of ingredients in a pot or slow-cooker, let it go unsupervised for a few hours, and come back to serve up the tasteless glop. But I want my food to taste good. I can't let other people publish books if I think I can do it better. In junior high, I had an algebra class with Mrs. Wong. When we were learning proofs and theorems, I could almost always find another way to do the problems, and I would come up with new proofs that always worked, and were often short cuts, once I figured out the trick. It was extra work to figure out, but I didn't care. And I annoyed the shit out of her with my constant, "But I found a better way to do it..."s. I had detention most of that semester.
Creative Writing Teacher
These seem interchangable, but they aren't. Being a faculty member is it's own headache and kind of work. A class I recently proposed may get shot down because of department politics, so I have to spend a week smoothing ruffled feathers in the art and communication departments, assuring them that my class on book-making and copyediting is purely literary, and will not steal students from their departments.
And teaching lit and creative writing courses are certainly different functions as well. In that same class with Mrs. Wong, I eventually pushed her too far, and after pestering her in front of the whole class, she said, "If you can teach this better, get up here and do it." So I did, just to show off and be the smart kid. That's still how I feel when teaching a lit class. But not in creative writing. I just love those kids, and want them to do well. I want the lit kids to know how smart I am.
Without even trying, my whole week is usually completely full by Monday morning. Meetings, classes, readings, games to attend, ballet classes for Emma, shopping, groceries, grading, reading, prepping...
It doesn't end. We're always in motion, always on our way to the next thing. Entropic. As I go through my day, I am constantly switching foci, switching language and persona, adapting to whatever button I have to push, whatever function I have to or get to perform. It's tiring. But that's the life we create. And I don't know how to do it any differently, and probably wouldn't if I could.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
This is for my follower(s) (there is the hope that one day, there will be more. While I'm at it, I'd like to note a problem with the terminology. If I'm going to have "followers," why not just call them "minions"? I mean, if we are going to make the first pedagogical-semantic choice, why not the second? If I have followers, does that make me a demagogue? If this were a composition blog, would that make me a pedagogue? Can't "followers" just be "readers"? Does it have to be cute or clever?) in the hope that I can get some help. In a recent interview published in American Poetry Review, Jack Gilbert made the most precise indictment of the MFA workshop system I've yet seen. His problem, or his main problem, is that the workshop generally focuses on making the poem more publishable than when it was submitted. To make the poem, essentially, more marketable. This involves concessions to fashion, and fails, as Gilbert points out, to address larger issues of whether the poem is actually good. We rarely say to a young poet, "What you are doing is wrong. The idea of it is wrong." I can't conceive of the number of times I've wanted to say to a workshop companion, in fiction or poetry, that I didn't think they way they chose to write was worth pursuing. And it has to do, as Gilbert points out later in the interview, with a general lack of emotion, either embedded in the poem, or ellicited from the reader. "If it's not emotional," he says, "what does it offer?" What can it offer? I am about to merge into traffic with another blog, so I'll just let you read that one. Anyway, I don't have the gravitas, couch credentials, or really anything else that Jack Gilbert has, but as Wilco says (at least with my poetry), "I'm trying to break your heart."
All of this as a long way of saying, if you have an issue with the bedrock of what I'm doing, of my approach to writing poetry, tell me that too. Unless you're a L=A=N...I can't even bring myself to do it. Unless you consider yourself a language poet (for God's sake, what other kind of poet is there, you pompous a-holes? Aren't we all using language? Didn't Stein and cummings already cover this ground?).
Breathing the Suffer
There is no river to see,
no burial mound, no shroud
on the yellow earth.
When you reach the mountain pass,
you see only a thin trail.
You change your name
to I don't know, and lose
every argument you've ever had.
This is the top of the world
and once, there were glaciers—
now, just stone.
The wander, the want—
this hollow life,
a shallow lake far below.
You have two choices—
follow the trail—after miles
there is a valley—food,
shelter, the long suffer
of your forever and ever—
follow the trail, or don't.
Crouched cold. The sun won’t rise
for another hour. I imagine the shot—
smooth squeeze of trigger—
punctured heart or lung—
then the quartering—hard-won elk
steak, braised elk back-strap,
elk jerky and stew all winter.
But light does what it must.
The bare ridge I imagined
as I scaled down the mountain
in the dark is crowded
by the morning ghosts of tamaracks.
No shooting alleys, no elk
sky-lined on the ridge. No ridge.
Isn’t this love? still heart
ready to leap, but denied
once more by what
it always knew to be true.
There is an issue between the stanzas in the second poem that I am having a hard time resolving. I'm pretty sure something needs to go there, or something more needs to happen in the final stanza. But I can't figure out what. So, dear follower(s), what do I do?
Friday, January 23, 2009
So they moved the Huetter Mansion across the street, and from my window on the second floor of the office house, I can see the work progress. The mansion is on jacks, and the foundation is being poured under it, things are being secured inside, and soon, the mansion will be inhabited again.
But here's what I like: there's a steamroller parked behind my house. I imagine it was used to steamroll things, make things flatter, and more uniform. That's what it does. But it also sits behind my office house, a reminder perhaps only to me, of temporality. What we make will be remade, will be torn down, forgotten likely, and something else, better and newer will replace it. But if we make a thing well, someone might go far out of their way to keep it. I think of reclaimed writers, literature that survives, well-made poems and stories too beautiful to forget or tear down. I think of the way Michiko is preserved in the work of her husband, Jack Gilbert. Of the lathe-shops B.H. Fairchild grew up in, made living and memorable in his poems. Sometimes I want to drive the steamroller, and sometimes I want to be the thing that the steamroller doesn't get to make flatter and more uniform, the thing that can't, for whatever reason, be made to go away.