Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Not Being There

I'm not sure how I didn't see this coming. Or maybe I did, and it was another good reason to leave. After all, the best thing about leaving sometimes, is missing the thing that you left. With all the madness of the flooding, the flurry of Facebook status updates regarding flood efforts, the Herald webcam I've been glued to for over a week now, the Grand Forks sandbag central being blocks from where I lived...with all that, I admit now that I miss Grand Forks. I miss North Dakota. Or at least, I miss the idea of Grand Forks and North Dakota. The idea of Grand Forks is really the people though. I miss the people. The willingness to survive. To do things that need done. The intense effort and the beer afterwards. The full-body press from Rae Ann. Well, maybe I don't really miss that.

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

The Voices and Who They are Talking to

I am teaching two classes that I really care about right now, intro to creative writing, and intro to lit. The two classes are at two different universities, so the student base is not identical, but both are private Christian schools, one Jesuit and one Presby. Most of the kids are upper-middle class, white, entitled, and ambitious (in capitalist terms). The lit class is for non-lit majors. And all was well. We spent eight weeks on short fiction and novels, during which time the students made complex analyses, struggled with Vonnegut (and didn't entirely like him, which should've been my first clue), but did okay overall. Spring break, come back, turn the page to poetry. I have twenty eight students in that class, some of them pretty smart. The first day of actual discussion, in a fifty minute class, there was probably a total of ten minutes of dead air. Twenty percent of class time was spent in silence, me looking at them for answers, them looking at me for answers. We weren't reading difficult stuff, and I wasn't asking much. At the end of the grossly unproductive class, I began to ask, "What is the problem here? Why are you so unresponsive?" For the most part, the answer was, "Because we don't care, we aren't the audience," and "It's too hard. Poems make us feel dumb." Okay.

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?"
Dead air.

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?"
Shuffle, shuffle.

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.