Friday, February 29, 2008

Today, a perfect orange sunrise sparkling on the crust of old snow on the roof.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The I in the Poem is Me.

Self-Portrait at Thirty-Eight

I wear the names my parents gave me
and one I picked up on the way and refuse
to give up the same way a child drags
a grey blanket. This awkwardness,
mouthful of marbles, cluster of consonants
at the vowel party, connects and reminds.
My name means fair, a word I used
to pair with beauty, but now I see
that it’s the ear of justice, the held
out hand. I listen.
I can’t tell the same joke twice:
A man walks into a bar
with a duck under his arm.
A man walks into a bar
with a pig under his arm.
A man walks into a duck.
A man walks.
Memory’s fence keeps scenes
of milkweed thistle out, blocks
others into perfect landscapes.
The characters who played
main roles in my early life
walk on and offstage in their costumes –
grey sweatshirts, flowered housecoats
disappeared, all given away to charities
to forget the bodies we all held, hugged, hurt.
I’ve been planning my dementia
since I was eighteen –
on a road between two homes,
always driving, I’d imagine
my elderly obsessions with maps
and ribbons, all one long road –
It was cute then.
At thirty eight, I am fearful
of my own body –
living inside of it,
and leaving it, of drinking
from styrofoam cups
and living over an abandoned mineshaft.
It is this world that I cannot hold
close enough that I also cannot hold
far enough away. I just want to watch
each snowflake dance in a slow motion
spiral, listen to the flame flicker
on this candle without wondering
when it will burn out.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Words Snugged Against Words

It's not every lifetime you receive a book that is a valentine, a thousand thousand flowers brimming with blossom and fisted with bud, a hand held out to hold yours, an eyewink twinkle sparkle.

I just finished reading echolalia, by Dan Waber. It's not that I haven't read it before. I've read many of the poems as they were in process, and I remember helping Dan to order the poems in the manuscript. This is a ridiculous detail, but I remember what I was wearing on the day we worked on the assembly of the collection. My college sweatshirt. It was cold that day. We taped the poems to the wall of the hallway, ate something (probably rice) out of blue bowls, and sat crouched in the hall doing our editorial work. We made connections, refused a few poems entry into the groupings, took them all off the wall, and the manuscript was sent off to the publisher. I forgot about most of the poems until yesterday, at the dentist's office, when I began reading them again. Did I really help put them into this order?

It's humbling to know that I am so loved, that my words are the words Dan chose to snug his words against. He often says that I am his favorite poet, and I have such a hard time believing it, the same way a woman never believes it when a man says that her body is beautiful. Our inner critics are strict.

The poems are written as echoes of my words. He's taken text messages, poems, fragments of poems, hastily scrawled notes, and used them all to weave his poems. The collection is a mix of pain and beauty, of love and loss, and some of the lines are so prescient now that they made me cry:

from Your Name:

Your father's name is Glenn.
You'll imagine there's nothing he's scared of.
You'll be as wrong as a rocket off course.

The first poem in the book starts with a sketch of the self:

I have never been what you might call your
bland imaginator.

If you know Dan, truer words were never written. From there, the poems paint days spent in the car toward and away, sizzle in pans of garlic and onion, rest in lush summer breezes, and watch a whole lot of my rump. Am I embarrassed? No. I am reminded that love is all, that love is triumphant, that it is impossible to write a decent review of a book written by the love of your life without it sounding cliche. echolalia snugs words against words, makes a rich stew of the spicy and the bland. What else is there to love but to dissolve completely, to be remembered, to say "Yes, yes, yes."

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Friday, February 22, 2008

Sometimes it Snows

Sometimes you work for seven months on an event - contacting an agent, securing sponsors, writing up press releases, answering questions, making a fruit plate for the green room (the grapes are good!)...and then it snows and all the schools close and you have to call everyone and cancel.

But, we'll bring Taylor back, later in the year, when the weather is sure to be fine.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Brad's Rules for Class

Be considerate.
Effectively prepare for class.
Organize your thoughts - keep good notes.
Walk to the lav *between* classes.
Use constructive criticism to grow as a lifelong learner.
Leave your ego at the door.
Find constructive ways to criticize the work of others.

Raise your hand if you have input or questions.
Understand these rules.
Listen to the information we share.
Ensure success by doing all of your work all of the time.
Speak your mind freely while respecting the rights of others.

It's an acrostic. If you read down the left hand side you'll see that it spells out "Beowulf Rules." I had the opportunity to watch him write this on the board and explain each line to a class of new 10th graders. With "understand these rules" he emphasized the word "understand," and let them know that simply copying the rules down didn't not mean that they would understand them.

Brad loved literature. He saw old English literature as a doorway to teaching life lessons in the modern day, not as an obstacle to be overcome. When explaining that Beowulf would have language the kids "might not get" at first, he said "This is how our language evolved." One boy blurted out "Why can't we just study our own language? American?" Ok, so there were some obstacles. I remember him smiling and gently saying that English IS our language. The kids knew that he loved Beowulf enough to wear a mask and act parts out. They looked forward to learning it.

Brad taught me a lot, and we made a great team. We spent 80 minute block periods trying to untangle the meaning of life with his senior classes, writing the starts of poems, writing short plays. We didn't agree on everything, which we discovered in our long philosophical conversations with students, but we sure understood and respected each other. He was a friend who left me with a meaningful letter, a set of rules to live by, and memories of a fast and too shortlived time together.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Lifelong Learning

Most of my living is made with teaching poetry in the schools as part of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts' Arts-in-Education program. I've been working as a poet in schools for the past nine years. Over the course of those years, the level of documented planning required for residencies has gone from almost none to finely-honed, intense collaborations between visiting poet and host teacher. I think there's probably a happy middle ground somewhere, but I have to say that the extensive planning I've been doing for advanced residencies has helped me to focus, and it is (at times) inspiring. I usually start out with a summary of plans for what I'll be doing with students at a meeting with the host teacher. It may look something like this:

3rd & 9th period Creative Writing
6th period English

Creative Writing Classes – Focus on Playwriting & Short Fiction
Weeks 1-2

• The importance of journaling
• Reading and exploration of current short play forms
• Understanding dialogue
• Understanding subtext
• Understanding plot
• Plot outlines
• Monologues
• Clustering the ideas of “disability” –journaling
• Imagery – writing plays on the theme of “Disability”
• Literary elements in short fiction
• Reading and exploration of contemporary short fiction
• Writing of short fiction

• Short plays will be submitted to as part of their short play contest.

Weeks 3-4

• Literary elements in poetry
• Self-Portraits
• I Believe poems
• All of Us: Character Poems
• Altered pages and sonnets
• Odes
• Anti-Love Poems
• Cross-Modal Poems: Writing in the Key of Red
• Ekphrastic Delights: Poetry from Art
• The House That Sang: Poems from Community

• Short writings will be chosen for inclusion in book project with visiting book artist.

English Class – Focus on Reflective Memoir and Poetry
Weeks 1-4

• The importance of journaling
• Memoir
• Personal essay vs. transactive writing
• Discovering one’s beliefs
• Writing the essay that confirms a belief
• Micro-memoir writing
• Self-Portraits
• I Believe poems
• I Am America poems (Whitman, Hoagland)
• All of Us: Character Poems
• Altered pages and sonnets
• Fragments of Translation: Sappho
• Anti-Love Poems
• Cross-Modal Poems: Writing in the Key of Red
• Ekphrastic Delights: Poetry from Art
• The House That Sang: Poems from Community
• Literary elements in short fiction
• Reading and exploration of contemporary short fiction
• Writing of short fiction

• Short writings will be chosen for inclusion in book project with visiting book artist.

• I Believe essays will be submitted to National Public Radio for consideration.

That seems pretty detailed, right? Nope. Not enough. Current trends in teaching suggest that students need a "statement of learning" and of course there is always assessment. So pre-planning makes way for something that includes a "Big Idea" statement of what the goal of the lesson will be, a Statement of Learning that is a summary for students as to what will be covered that day, a list of the PA Arts and Humanities standards that are covered, a list of the PA Language Arts standards that are covered, an explanation of the process and procedures of the lesson, and a brief listing of what roles the poet and teacher will take in presenting this lesson to the class. Team-teaching is the key here, which is great since it only reinforces that the poetry being shared matters.

More often than not, I have more material to work with than I have the time to cover it all. Forty-five minute class periods sprint. It's better to have too much planned than too little though, and I know the lessons are working when I am learning something too. When I put together ideas for workshops and residencies, I set this goal for myself: Discover and be an enthusiastic explorer of language. All of the details fall into place from there. With luck. It's a lot like writing a poem in that way - you can have all the elements in place, but without the spirit, it's just not a poem. So, I approach teaching in the same way I approach writing a poem - with awe over what works and wonder over how to put together the pieces of the ideas that shatter.