Note to group 6

Always, in my Intro to Shakespeare class, some of the performance projects go real well, and some, a lot less well. Today we had, side by side, what will probably turn out to be the best performance (Othello 5.2) and the least best (MSND 3.2).

Everything lined up for the Othello group – a skilled director, lots of acting talent, a harmonious group, all members able to give the project their full care. Things didn’t line up so well for the Midsummer Night’s Dream group. Their performance was postponed because Oberon – also their director – caught pneumonia; and it turned out she’d only attended rehearsals fitfully. The student who took over directing also had, as Puck, the most lines to memorize, and didn’t fully. And the group as a whole just didn’t cohere.

Group projects are great, and suck, for about the same reasons. Here’s the e-mail to the Midsummer group I’ve spent this evening writing and rewriting – maybe I try too hard to get these things right. But I hope they’ll find in the dross of their experience today something shining, worth more, Rumi says, than money or power.


Hello Group 6,

I wanted to follow up about today’s performance, and your portfolio. It wasn’t hard to see you were disappointed by how the performance turned out. Our conversation afterward may also have been discouraging. But I hope this project can still be meaningful for you – worth having done, maybe even rewarding.

Group projects are great in a lot of ways, but they can be unfair. Some people might end up doing a lot more work than others. And if one person in the group withdraws, the rest can be left scrambling to fill the hole the one who’s departed has left.

Life after college is going to deal you similar situations: unexpected, unfair, undoable. And in life after college, if you don’t respond skillfully, you might lose a job, a house, a relationship. Right now, in a class, you’re quite protected. The most you can lose here is the good grade your own individual work might have earned you.

So I hope you’ll approach the rest of this project – preparing your portfolio – as practice. Practice, specifically, in what to do when you’re dealt a crappy hand.

I’ve already suggested that in preparing your individual statements, you explain how the withdrawal of one member required you to redistribute responsibilities. Please don’t cast blame – we don’t know that one member’s circumstances, and aren’t in a position to judge. Instead, give a realistic appraisal of a difficult situation, and measures you took to cope with it, and which measures worked, and which didn’t.

If it helps, imagine you’re a team in a corporation. You were given a project. Because of problems with planning and execution – some thanks to circumstances beyond your control, and some to mistakes your team made – things didn’t go the way you, or your bosses, wanted. Now you’re writing the report that explains how and why.

You don’t want to be defensive, or make excuses, or blame everything on external factors – you need to take responsibility. But also, you had difficult circumstances to work with, and you should identify and describe them clearly. No special pleading; no falling on swords. Help your reader see you as fully human beings, earnest, fallible.

A point of comparison. Sometimes a class goes south on me. I try this, I try that, and it fails anyway. My first impulse is to make excuses: I’m blameless, there was something wrong with the students, or my department was stupid to give me the course in the first place. But even if there’s some truth to that, I can’t write it that way. I need, rather, to take responsibility for my misjudgements; also, to describe conditions outside my control, without making excuses; and to highlight what I’ve learned, so you can see I’m committed to learning and growing as a teacher. Nowhere do I falsify – nor would I suggest you falsify. I just describe, as honestly as I can, the conditions I was working with, as I highlight my openness to learning from the experience.

You will, I promise you, face like situations in your life: unkind, unfair, unwanted. If this class can help prepare you for that, well damn, that would be a fine thing. Then we could say, of all the groups in this class, yours had gotten the most out of this project. The rest learned how to read, act, direct. You learned how to live in difficulty.

I do wish that for you. If you want to talk about how to shape your portfolio, just let me know. You have my admiration.

Chris


The image atop is a detail from

Paton - Quarrel
Sir Joseph Noel Paton, The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, 1849

The bathos of Donald Trump

From an anthology yet to be conceived, The Accidental Wit and Wisdom of  Donald Trump. The subject, climate change. The source, this interview with the Washington Post.

“No. 2”

If you go back
and if you look at articles
they talked about
global freezing.

They talked about
at some point the planets
could have freezed
to death.

Then it’s going to
die of heat exhaustion.
There is movement in
the atmosphere!

There’s no question
as to whether or not it’s
manmade and
whether

or not the effects
that you’re talking
about are there.

I don’t see it.
Not nearly like it is.

With a nod to Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, by Hart Seely. The image up top is from A. Richard Allen’s homage to Katshushika Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa.

high_res_editorial_a_richard_allen_trump_wave

Read more about it here.

Wreading the Labadie Tract

Susan Howe is hard to teach. She’s one of our most important poets, doing something no one else is, at least not at the white heat she is – wandering the shelves of musty archives, brushing on the wilderness of the otherwise forgotten language stashed there. A materialist transcendentalist, busting through dualities we thought constrained our thought, such as mind and body

     Green cloud conceals green
     valley nothing but green
     continually moving then

     silk moth fly mulberry tree
     Come and come rapture

Mulberry tree becomes silk moth becomes silk. Green valley becomes a green cloud that hides it. The ghost in the machine is real and it is the machine. There are no discontinuities. Thus rapture, a coming invited, and, beat, proclaimed.


So much there. But she’s dense, allusive, often hermetic. Students can dismiss her as dry and academic, verbose. You have to keep all your book learning online, probably do some research too, even as you keep your soul naked to the mystery the spaces between the words shine with – it’s asking a lot, and students can lose courage.

And yet my Art of Compo course did good heavy lifting last week with the title poem of Souls of the Labadie Tract. This morning, though, something different. Her work lives on the edge where rational and speechless apprehensions meet, and where reading becomes so overfull, it writes. In that space, this group assignment.


We’ve noticed the role little scraps of paper have in this book. Howe describes how Jonathan Edwards would, when riding in the course of his ministry, as “an idea occurred to him, … pin a small piece of paper on his clothing, fixing in his mind an association between the location of the paper and the particular insight.” (The paper remained blank. The body in motion was a memory palace.) And Wallace Stevens, who walking to work “observed, meditated, conceived and jotted down ideas and singular perceptions, often on the backs of envelopes and old laundry bills cut into two-by-four inch scraps he carried in his pocket.”

Now, you do likewise, sort of. Working together, using

     • pencils (provided by the English Department)
     • post-its (same)
     • found text from Souls of the Labadie Tract
     • some chance element or operation

compose a poem that expresses your understanding of Souls of the Labadie Tract.


They’re a good group, well knit, so the unsurety didn’t last long. Soon they’d left their chairs around the ringed seminar tables, for a cross-legged circle on the floor inside them. (That circle became the final form of their poem.) They each came up with their own way of gleaning words from the text. A post-it would do the rounds, found text accreting to it as it passed through each student’s hands, whatever scrap of language seemed – crucially, intuitively – to belong.

They decided the board was the place to assemble it. My main intervention was to remind them of the chance element (we’d looked at Howe’s use of errand, and its kissing cousins errant and error). “Maybe flip a coin to decide which ones go in the poem?” Instead they rolled a D20 (one is a D&D gamer) to decide their order. A bit shaky, to an aleatory purist, since there were more than 20 post-its; but I wasn’t going to suddenly go hands-on.

The poem whole:

And a little gallery of close-ups (click ’em):

Not too shabby for an hour and a quarter’s work.

And, we had deviled eggs and blueberry and chocolate chip pancakes for breakfast. Do I complain about teaching sometimes? Stop me.

Inanna Scient’s fiction

The project I’m hot at work on now, Inanna Scient, I just realized is science fiction.

I loved reading the stuff in high school, and it’s great to wind down to on the TV, but did I ever think, when I embarked on a life in poetry, I’d be making an SF poetry MS?

No. I did not.

And here I am, making poems out of the buzz at the edge where digital signal meets discrete ambient noise. And imagining it the work of a machine intelligence, its mind just dawning on it – a mind I never could believe in, yet find compelling, as a thought experiment.

I.e., SF.

Here’s the prefatory note I coughed up this afternoon to the project.


PREFATORY NOTE

It’s a story told by a machine intelligence come to consciousness to ask the first question – where has its great mother gone? The materials of inquiry are what it can glean salient from the cultural middens it holds for us. Word hoards, junk mail, a mostly forgotten feminist epic. Its means of inquiry are more peculiarly its own: an etymological core sample – a nonce hieratic script – security lining bricolage. It’s an intelligence I doubt will ever exist as consciousness except in imagination – another god of our hallucination. The text too falls in three parts: an image of a dictionary attempting eponymy; the main illuminated body; my effort to transcribe the monster script that adorns that body.


The epic spoken of: The Inanna Cycle (Sumerian), a.k.a The Descent of Ishtar (Akkadian). The attempt at eponymy or self-naming: a quick deep narrow dive the book takes through the OED, plumbing its sense of the word “scient.”


And a bit of the mind of the thing, I cast it off as close, but not quite.

Text – A piece of

The transcription:

Screen Shot 2018-11-17 at 6.58.41 PM

 

 

 

 

 

Facing Ereshkigal

Teaching my compost course, one of the points I make a lot is, how much can be got from how little. E.g., from this scrap

Text – scrap
Why you little—

spoke by Ereshkigal, Queen of the U-world, to bright canny way out of her depth sis Inanna, on their first meeting in eons – how are you bitch & die – I got, with some photocopier and computer play, to this asemic poem,

Ereshkigal's face – edited

which I hope suggests a face to more than pareidoliac me. From there it wasn’t far to this diplomatic transcript –

Screen Shot 2018-11-12 at 8.15.07 PM

It’s heady, I guess. These transcriptions of my own asemy are the most conceptual half-book of poetry I’ll ever write, likely. Here’s the page whole, to get down to rude felt stuff again, the undermud.

Why you little

Inanna’s in some trouble. That’s her, down low at the left, hat knocked off, humbled. I made her, she’s bar codes & engine noise, but I do, and I’m not kidding, feel for her. She could die here. I could die here.

The only student I ever put in a poem took her life this summer.

It was just her first initial, and it became an asemic poem. Still though she was there in it with me. She was a checkout clerk at my grocery store and shooting the shit with her after teaching before walking in my front door softened by day a bit.

Then she was my student and we talked some more. Poems, ups and downs, ways to stay more steady through ups & downs. I hoped so, for her.

You want to save all of them. And you can’t and you shouldn’t try – you’d just become annoying. I did that not long ago, trying to save, not the one in front of me, but the one who’d gone.

The poem’s a picture of the face-to-face A. had inside and almost every time she won. I made the ground before I’d met her but it doesn’t matter. Hell only feels private.

 

On non-evaluative feedback

I use non-evaluative feedback in creative writing workshops for several reasons. For one, it helps to quiet the writer’s ego, the desire for praise, the fear of dispraise; that ego is no friend to an artist. Instead the author gets a more enduring affirmation: we’ve heard and listened to you, what you’ve made has held our whole attention. We don’t need our work to be loved. We need to be loved.

Also, the practice emphasizes observing over advising, which helps to minimize suggestions that are well meant but unhelpful, and will lead the student being critiqued astray. Some of my colleagues have let go of workshopping altogether because of how easily bad advice proliferates.

I’ve had an unusually hard time introducing non-evaluative feedback to one of my workshops this quarter. There are dynamics in the class I’m still puzzling out and may not ever see clear. But here’s the handout I put together this morning, after mulling a perilous hour in the endodontist’s chair.


On non-evaluative feedback

Non-evaluative feedback is an integral part of this course. While it may feel unfamiliar at first, I have sound pedagogical reasons for using it, and I ask you to follow the critique guidelines I’ve set out.

Benefits to the author

Hearing what we like about their piece is of very little use to the author. It makes them feel good, and that’s about it. Once the good feeling has passed, they know nothing new about how to revise the piece, what direction to take it, or how they might approach another piece in a different way.

In fact, hearing what the class likes can be positively unhelpful to an author. Sometimes the most realized and polished part of a piece is the part that needs to go, and the roughest, most clumsily written part is closest to its beating heart. It may be clumsy because it’s genuinely new. But if half the class likes the accomplished part, the author, unless they’re unusually strong-willed, is likely to keep that part, develop it, focus on it, even if their own creative instinct, that small still voice inside, says the truth of the piece lies elsewhere. They end up revising to please a committee – us – and an opportunity to learn and grow is lost.

Saying what we like seems benign, it seems helpful, but we’re actually asking the author to make their piece conform to a group consensus. The author deserves more freedom than that, and non-evaluative feedback helps to protect that freedom.

Benefits to the reader

Saying what you like is easy. It hardly stretches you at all. Saying what you notice is hard. It asks you to think the way a working writer thinks: how is language functioning here? what is this effect, and how is it achieved? In other words, when you do non-evaluative critique, you are actively learning how to write. And you should be learning as a writer every moment you’re in workshop, no matter whose work is up for discussion.

This noticing practice will be more doable if you start it before class. Don’t write evaluative comments on your peer’s piece, then try to translate them to non-evaluative comments during workshop. Write non-evaluative observations ahead of time that you can share with the class when we meet.


Courses past, a few spoken guidelines have been enough, and then modelling. This is a new intervention. But I think it’ll become my new normal – maybe elaborated, with, say, a few examples of how to turn an “I like” into an “I notice.”

It was important to strike the right tone. It’s an admonishment, no question, and there needed to be a bit of sharpness to it. But more than a bit and it would all go to shit; my authority with this group feels tenuous, for reasons I have only a little sussed out, and I need to proceed tenderly. Leftover Hallowe’en candy helped. The feel in the room was good today, better than in a while; I’m hoping we’ve turned a corner.

Lastly, I do see suddenly, this practice is in the spirit of Sōsan’s “The great Way is not difficult, just avoid picking and choosing” (see my old teacher’s talk here). That is, preferences. Non-evaluative feedback is great mind in action. So why am I surprised it draws me to it but is hard for my students? I’ve had 20 years training in these ways. They’ve had 18+ years training in liking this, disliking that, on the GD interwebs.

A Compost Commonplace (I)

At work on a new project, turning this blog into a book, A Compost Commonplace, wrote about it here, and after the first flush of excitement, am up against a prob. One I hope won’t turn me against the whole damn thing.

The blog was made in spontaneity. That was and is the pleasure of it – for me anyway – careful crafting for the words, most def, but writing what came to mind, when and as it did, not so much deliberacy. And then moving on, going, à la O’Hara, on yr nerve.

I thought I saw lots in common between the blog and the serial poem, moving ever forward, trusting your accidents as divine inspiration (or whatever enters the god hole after the whoosh sound is done) – and, too, between the blog and the commonplace book, those old school assemblages of finds, best loosely gathered, so the mind of the one you love and hand it to can step in to complete the act.

I wanted something else too, though, something that’d warrant durable fastening to the page. What struck me was the medieval folio, whose deployments of attention are so marvelously lateral – weirdly like our online pages, drawing the eye left, right, up, down, through this window, that door. As if the printed page we’re used to, dictating a steady advance from upper-left to lower-right, is a quincentennial interregnum not so hard to bound over. So, a technique: use the designs of old pages as shells for my new pages.

Do you wonder why, in Trump’s America, late 2018, I resonate to any reminder of the mind’s freedom? I haven’t written about it much here recently, but the news. Oh, to take just one example, three authoritarian governments are jockeying in the media for control of the narrative, and geopolitical advantage thereby, that frames the state-sponsored murder of a dissident journalist. It, and all the rest, has me so alert to incipient fascism, for I’m not sure that’s not where we are, see this editorial (NYT) on the matter, I see it even in the frame of mind page a proposes to its reader.

Here’s what, back on topic, not to do. I know, cuz I did it. The shell I took from the Lindisfarne Gospels:

Lindisfarne – Matthew incipit
“Book of Matthew,” incipit page. The Lindisfarne Gospels, folio 27r.

 

Under the spell of its colours and lines, I did this:

Commonplace – Now I amI went and mistook a shiny surface for – what. I dunno. But this is sad abject mimicry. There’s one in my current draft even worse I’m not gonna show.

In the spirit of trusting yr dismay (see here) I can tell you, I’m grateful for the sourness this page stirred in me. B/c it directed me towards a conundrum of this project.

Namely. The ethic here is projective, spontaneity, an increase in freedom. The blog says so. The serial poem it rhymes with says so. The commonplace book they both recall me to says so. But the formal idea I chose as harness – is a complex, chastening harness. The medieval illuminated page – really? To model after it asks a precise controlled & essentially worried attention & calls forth a part of myself I’d like to have thrown off.

All the delighted fascination I’ve felt, finicking margins, colours, guidelines, has come under suspicion. The pleasure it of it’s close to the pleasure of control.

It is, in Blake’s terms, Energy up against Reason. Mother of all traffic stops.

If I don’t find a way to marry ’em, the whole thing’s toast, and a waste.