Too whupped, truth be told, to pivot from one vispo project (a draft is done) to another (undone draft awaits) this particular evening. But I got some juice to do something, and so this post. The template I gave my Editing & Publishing students, those who are on the Literary Publishing project. BTW the modular design seems mostly successful, though I see where I can improve it for next time.
The student-centred thought behind it is vital for me. Mostly I don’t want the authority given me by the system and the culture and the process. But I don’t get to just forswear it. If I throw my authority to the winds, that’s an authoritarian move, because only I know what I mean by it, and only I can determine its consequences. I have to own my authority and use it honestly.
And that carries me beyond what I meant to do in preamble for this post. Which too’s a matter of authority, inwardly, and how your thought stream defies it.
Use this template to compose a profile of a literary journal. (You’ll do three of them for your portfolio.) It’s fine if your profile proceeds as a numbered list, answering the questions in turn, but each answer should be in paragraph form. It’s also fine if your answers journey away from the inciting question, as long as the transit yields insights into the journal’s character. Each profile should be 1000–1500 words.
Describe its materialdesign – moves that make it the thing it is, and not another. Print journal: trim size, texture of the paper, fonts used; whether and how it uses images and what sorts of images; cover, cover image, binding; front and back matter. Online journal: its home page; the architecture and means of navigation; use of images and other digital media; what distinctive uses does it make of its online platform?
Describe its formal design – the moves that distinguish how it thinks from other journals in your line-up. What genres are in it, and how much or little does it obey genre boundaries? How does one piece follow another – by similarity, contrast, theme and variation, or maybe haphazardly, by, say, alphabetic order? Do you see trends, thematic or otherwise, among the stories, poems, creative nonfiction, or other genres?
Narrate the journal’s history, as best you can learn it – how and when it was founded, by whom, and why. This is the place to talk about purpose, vision, ethos, mission.
Research one person on the masthead – best is an editor who might be reading work you submit. Google them. Look for their work online or in the library. What have they published? What’s their work like? Are there interviews you can find? Viral tweets or FB posts? What can you learn from these sources about their taste or judgement? (Your sense of an editor’s taste shouldn’t change your work. But it might affect which pieces you send them.) Describe the guesses you can make about their literary tastes and biases, and maybe, if you’re lucky, about the sort of work they’re keen to see.
Describe the journal’s aesthetic – what it seems to look for in the work it publishes. Look at how it describes itself (online, its “about” page, and submissions guidelines, and maybe a GD vision statement) but more at the work it publishes – especially in the genre you’re submitting in. Maybe make a list of adjectives describing the sort of work it publishes, and then put them into sentences: “Journal X likes work that’s …”. Does their description of what they’re up to line up with your sense of what they do?
How well does your work fit the journal’s aesthetic? You might, as you explain, make a Venn diagram – your aesthetic, carefully described, in one circle, and the journal’s aesthetic, carefully described, in another. How do you describe the area where they overlap? All things considered, how optimistic do you feel about submitting to this journal?
Just finished a portfolio, 150 lean & sleek pages, and as many more of student evals, for a teaching award I’m up for, and grateful to be. Maybe I shd just upload the whole GD pedagogical novel, if that’s a genre yet, w/ its doubtful protagonist & his supportive cast of 1,000s, and bellow – HERE. YA.GO.
Instead, just the teaching statement. The only important sentence is the last one.
In my Editing & Publishing class, we were asking about clickbait, and attention as saleable commodity – a vantage that fries my Buddhist ass. Attention is what we live in and offer each other it should be freely, as love. Where’d we be without it? Rocks.
Well, trying to describe an approach that hands some responsibility for the course, its content and character, to my students. I won’t say “flipped classroom,” because bromide, and if I were given such directives, I’d probably do it wrong.
What I do, I have some chance to do right, cuz I stumbled on it, myself.
In my pedagogy, as in my aesthetics, I value the concrete over the general, so I’ll try to convey my teaching by way of example. I teach the advanced poetry workshop at Western as “Poetics of the Rhizome.” Taken from Deleuze and Guattari, the rhizome is a way of seeing that emphasizes multiplicity, connectedness, interbeing. Diversity, robustly. Or Indra’s Net, but contorted, because Western thought. Ranging among William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All, Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, Coral Bracho’s selected poems, and Will Alexander’s Towards the Primeval Lightning Field, to name a few of our texts, students face several challenges: (1) Poetry and poetics texts from an outsider Western tradition and from way outside the Anglo-American tradition. (2) An arranging idea, the rhizome, it’s hard to wrap your head around. (3) A student-centred pedagogy that has evolved, as my Socratic teaching style has matured, into a collaborative form of co-teaching. (4) Creative exercises simple on the surface but hard to accomplish: Write a poem that enacts spring. Write a poem that taps into myth consciousness. Write a poem that disputes with itself.
The first half of a class is given to student presentations, which are actually improvisations in co-teaching. Each pair presenting meets with me ahead of time to discuss angles of approach. I pay close attention to the design of their lesson plan – it should be fluid, I tell them, responsive to the moment in the room. I orient them to Socratic method, suggesting they should have, with each question they ask, an issue they want to bring to the fore, and a feeling for how to get there. But they should also know our responses might propose alternative ways there, or open a wholly new line of inquiry. “You’ll be thinking on your feet. When do you stay on track, when do you let a digression keep going? when do you reflect and extend a comment? when do you lean into a term or an idea and interrogate it? when do you leap to something seemingly unrelated, and how can you eventually tie it in?” And of course, I’m modelling Socratic method all quarter long myself. This meta-teaching keeps me on my own toes. In class, at any given moment, I need to decide whether to let be, or raise my hand as a discussant, or help out as one of the co-teachers, or step in as teacher of the co-teachers. The goal here is to democratize Socrates: to hand the role of teacher over to every interlocutor. Evidence of success? Start of the quarter, discussions are hesitant, needing lots of help from me. By the end, they’re running themselves, question, point, follow-up question, counterpoint, dialogue. Scruffy, unpredictable, co-teaching is a surrender of control and dispersal of authority – very much in the spirit of the rhizome.
The second half of each class is given to peer critique. In these sessions, I emphasize non-evaluative feedback, finding peer comments are more perceptive, and student authors more receptive to them, when observations take the place of praise and advice. The approach has a downside – the ego wants to be fed and may complain when it’s not – but most students come to prefer it before long. Teaching process, I emphasize the “writer’s antennae” – the tingle of excitement, sparkle, or charge, or the weight of irritation or dismay, you feel rereading your own work. I believe everyone has these subtle responses and is perfectly equipped to perceive them. But self-doubt, anxiety, or distraction can make it difficult to attend to them, trust them, work with them. A lot of teaching creative writing is showing how to wipe mud off a jewel.
For their final projects, students construct rhizomes of their own. I set some parameters and then work with each, one-on-one, on the forms their rhizomes will take. The parameters: The rhizome needs (1) to do self-reflection; (2) to include finished poetry of their own; to engage with at least (3) one of the poetry texts and (4) one of the poetics texts we’ve read; and (5) to have a non-textual dimension. I also encourage but don’t require them (6) to engage with Deleuze and Guattari’s essay. These parameters, while they appear formal and procedural, foster rhizome values of anarchy, interconnection, and polyphony. And while the resulting project can be close to a conventional portfolio, I urge them towards bolder ventures, and we take time to brainstorm possible rhizome forms: a hypertext, a conspiracy board, a spoken word set uploaded to YouTube, a keepsake box of typewritten scraps. The rhizome needs to build difference into its own body, by talking with or about one of the poets we’ve read, and one of the poetics texts we’ve read, and also by having a non-textual aspect, something pictorial or tactile or auditory about it. Diversity of culture, genre, medium, discourse. For by now we’ve come, with the help of Négritude, Sufism, the Haida Mythworld, Spanish Surrealism, Language Poetry, and John Cage’s screwy Black Mountain take on Sunyata, as well as cheerful scepticism about all these thought-boxes, to see the rhizome as an organism taking difference in without effacing its differentness.
My work in “Poetics of the Rhizome” expresses a pedagogy that’s been years in the making, one I’m ready to drop, any part or the whole damn thing, if it looks to be unhelpful. The last time I taught the course, a student came in to talk about her rhizome, because she’d changed her idea. She wanted now to do a rhizome “about” life and death, or maybe death and rebirth. Was that specific enough? I checked in with my sense of this student, her liking for arranging schemes – her book proposal in my Editing and Publishing course had been for an encyclopedia of all pagan faiths – and compared that to the sharp little momentary poems she’d started making, with no grand designs, just edgy perception and a brave unfinishedness. This assignment could be bad for her. I said, maybe you should just drop the whole rhizome thing. Make five to eight poems, like the ones you’ve been doing. And write something about them and a couple of the readings, you know, but no big deal. She said, I like the sound of that. I said, then you could look at the poems you’ve made, see what they have to tell you, maybe there’s an idea for a rhizome in them. But trust their intelligence; don’t push them around. She looked relieved. My teaching philosophy is, only connect.
The only meaningful thing I have to give, most of the time, is my attention. Which fixes nothing but is not nothing. I know cuz the gaps I find in me, the grievous gaping ones, most have been left by someone’s inattention; my own or another’s. Most of the rest are attentions I couldn’t say no to, and really, that’s inattention of a sort, too. And now we’ve made attention, which is the kindness that binds us – ensconcing a child’s eyes in its mother’s & settling them both in the body of unassailable & enduring love – now we’ve worked out how to make it fungible on the open market. That’s what to #Resist.
Postscript. Even as I was writing, Stephen Colbert was making the same point, in his own adorable way.
An interdisciplinary course bridging literature and the visual arts, “The Arts of Peace and War” would examine how experimental artists of the twentieth century responded to the destructive events of their time. The course would broach two paradoxes of modern avant-garde expression: (1) avant-garde artists have often employed violent or disruptive means in the service of holistic visions; (2) difficult works that might seem to be destined for a small, elite audience, and to confirm that audience in its privileges, have often been created with a radically democratic intent – a revolution of consciousness.
The course description:
The Arts of Peace and War
In this course, we’ll study the practice of creative destruction in the literary and visual arts of Europe and North America in the twentieth century. We’ll begin with a problem embedded in the term “avant-garde,” which implies a military metaphor, an advance force, a corps of troops ahead of the main army. Some early avant-garde poets and painters, the Italian Futurists for instance, did embrace war as a sort of ritual purgation. But many artists of the avant-garde have been apostles of relation and compassion, even if the methods they use in the name of peace – fragmentation, disjunction, erasure, wholesale abuse of reason – can look pretty violent. What do we make of that disconnect, between a holistic ethos and the violent (to language and form) practices artists express that ethos in? How do you beat up your materials (and in a sense your readers or viewers) without suggesting beating-up is okay to do? We’ll begin with poets and painters of pre-WWI Europe – the proto-Fascism of the Futurists, the pacifism of Dada – and end near our own cultural moment, with artists exploring creative destruction as a plural response to patriarchy and white supremacy.
I’ve twice taught the precursor to this course, Poetics of Peace and War, as ENG 311 Literature and Culture V: 20th and 21st Centuries, then a thirty-five-student class. (I have also taught visual and performing arts as academic subjects while an instructor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.) It was a popular and successful course; students without much sympathy for “that kind of art” described it as eye-opening. It may have in ways resembled an Honors seminar – all of my classes use structured Socratic discussion and range across discipline boundaries. However, it was an English course, with visual works in a supporting role, and the size of the class prevented the close study of individual works that writing-intensive courses allow.
The ideal environment for exploring this material would be a small, interdisciplinary, writing-intensive seminar. For one thing, these works pose interpretive problems on which no critical consensus has emerged, including questions about the nature of interpretation itself – ideal matters for Socratic discussion, and writing assignments that foreground the creative dimensions of interpretation, the theoretical aspects of artistic production. For another, these works illuminate each other. A fully interdisciplinary course would draw poems, paintings, sculptures, manifestos, wars, technologies, dinner parties, cultural ephemera, all into the circle of our attention. Students could explore a given work, in class discussion and in critical (and possibly creative) projects, with reference to its precursors, antagonists, chance companions, and disjecta. Finally, the students who take well to this rich, provocative material are inquisitive, self-directed, intellectually restless – traits that in my experience, Western’s Honors students have in abundance.
Tentative reading and viewing list
F.T. Marinetti, “The Futurist Manifesto” & selected poems
Wyndham Lewis et al, BLAST(The War Issue)
Tristan Tzara, “Dada Manifesto”
Hugo Ball, Karawane & other poems
Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons
Ezra Pound, Cathay
William Carlos Williams, Spring and All
George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous”
Lorine Niedecker, North Central
Robert Creeley, Pieces
John Cage, “On Nothing”
Denise Levertov, Evening Train
John Taggart, “Peace on Earth”
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee
Will Alexander, Towards the Primeval Lightning Field
Italian Futurist paintings (e.g. Marinetti, Carrà, Severini)
Marcel Duchamp, readymades & Nude Descending a Staircase
Cubist paintings (Picasso, Braque)
Hilma af Klint, paintings
Pablo Picasso, Guernica & other paintings
Henri Matisse, cut-outs
Georgia O’Keeffe, paintings
John Cage, 4’33”
John Coltrane, A Love Supreme
Louise Bourgeois, sculptures
Andy Warhol, prints & reproductions
Image en haut, a gently cropped version of Gino Severini’s Red Cross Train Passing a Village (1915).
From a job application. This one asked for a whole lot of materials up front. I feel like I’ve composed a series of densely linked (in) short stories, me the protagonist, pedagogy the plot. I’m glad for the time put in tho – not just because I’m keen about the job, also that it got me reflecting on how teaching, writing, making forms, feeling & thinking the world around, inweave for me.
Here it be. In demonstration of my notion that nothing’s really new, equals everything always is, it repurposes something I wrote before – as I’m doing here! – and comes round in a loopy circle to this blog.
Statement of creative writing and poetics commitments
I work in what Charles Altieri calls, after Louis Zukofsky, an “objectivist” mode, which seeks the meaning inherent in complex acts of perception, sole or juxtaposed, not through metaphors and symbols that refer to a transcendental realm outside the poem. Object refers here both to the object of perception, which is granted a value and a dignity equal to the perceiving subject’s, and to the object the text itself is. So the work cares for its materiality, even if it’s digital, and it abrades, by its very activity, the “constant barrier between the reader and his consciousness of immediate contact with the world” (Williams). And for me, objectivist work isn’t separable from meditation practice, so in the prose below you watch attention pay attention to attention (ugh). A further impulse on show is my wish to find, in the Western tradition, gists of immanent critique, counters to the hegemonic structures and values this very moment laying waste communities, peoples, the earth. As I wrote in another context, alluding to now widely accepted critiques of cultural borrowing, “it turns out the concrete abstraction Western artists have pilfered other cultures for in search of alternatives to our deranged Platonism has been with us all along in our own works.” My Zen practice, which I hope is not more such pilfering, may be where the note of dispossession at the end comes from. You give your loves away.
So here is the preface to a new nonfiction project, A Compost Commonplace. It’s a transform of my blog, The Art of Compost, into a book that exploits similarities between the blog as a form and other, older forms: serial poem, commonplace book, medieval illuminated page. This preface conveys my artistic commitments fairly well, and more concretely than I might otherwise. Concreteness is for me an ur-commitment.
I’m transposing it here to a chimeric form. Chimera as in hybrid – bricolage – a robe of patches.
The Chimaera of Lycia in Asia Minor was a lion in front, a
goat in the middle, a snake at the rear, said Homer, and breathed fire.
“This old plum tree is boundless. It forms spring; it forms
winter. It arouses wind and wild rain. It is the head of a patch-robed monk; it
is the eyeball of an ancient buddha. It becomes grass and trees; it becomes
pure fragrance. Its whirling, miraculous transformation has no limit.” Dōgen.
The lion here is the serial poem, as described by poets Jack Spicer, Robin Blaser. The book is going down in sequence, that of the blog before it, with little or no looking back – Orpheus but rampant, headlong.
The goat of it, eating everything, is the commonplace book, where one tends to a moving picture of one’s mind by gathering and arranging discoveries – quotations, letters, poems, recipes, tables of weights and measures, &c. It tends to miscellany, scrapbookhood; very like a blog.
And the serpent, its mind the onset of the idea of form, a
marriage of line and curve, so it moves forward by twisting side to side, is
the page composed. The history of
which I mean to ransack. Each page to be loosely set in homage to or hesitant
mimicry of a published surface, its visible arrangement, i.e., its deployment
So the page becomes Reason’s bound on Energy’s tumult
(Blake). The struggle between those 2 is one I feel at the bone. I make their
war formal here.
Mostly on European fields of action – medieval manuscript folios and early modern typeset pages; gloss columns, scuds and banks of notes. Like blog posts, with their frames & hyperlinks, such surfaces continuously draw the eye off its chosen plummet downward, that it may move laterally towards a periphery, or through a door behind which the unseen.
Nothing says you have to read it in order. Nothing says you have anything.
Thinking about authority, the fiction of it. I visited my father over Christmas and his authority is both gone (dementia) and intact (father). To raise the stakes, he’s an emotional tyrant, bossing, judging, huffing, storming. With his memory going and his reason close behind, his displays are imposing and ridiculous in equal measure. To me as his son they are. To one more or differently outside, maybe they’re just absurd.
Beside this, the fun of teaching, and getting beat at, five-card draw by hyper & precocious eight- & ten-year-year-olds. It’s a joy to be defeated by children. Their green outdoes me. Watching my father go replays my loss of him in childhood and predicts my own losses to come, aging body, faltering mind. Watching these kids, no relation to me, knowing their minds are taking in what I say and do at a lightning rate – amazing.
No one’s in charge. White supremacy, patriarchy, unitary self – the delusion is someone or thing’s in charge. Teacher & student isn’t any of these, but it’s an asymmetry, and best not to reify it. A girl can be a teacher and an old man can be a child.
While in California, I worked at redesigning a course I’m to teach this winter, ENG 459 Editing and Publishing. I’m creating modules, collaborative and solo projects, for the students to choose among, and leaving more than usual to be figured out by the students, or among us all.
I don’t talk a lot about “diversity.” It’s too cramped a construct for the revolution of perception asked of us, though we’re fixed on it right now because of accidents of American jurisprudence. But these projects are an effort to diversify viewpoint and redistribute authority. They may look less radical than other such efforts. But you become what you hate by inverting it. I’m trying here for a pedagogical madhyamaka, a middle way.
Module A: Collaborative projects
There are three collaborative projects in this course. You’ll each be assigned to one of them – your first choice, I hope, at worst your second. All three ask for a lot of independence and self-direction. I give you goals, parameters, and grading criteria, and ask you to work out, as a group, how to get from here (aspiration) to there (accomplishment). Why so hands-off? The more you figure out for yourselves, the more you learn.
And, these are works-in-progress. I’ve taught the course before, but not in this form, and I’ll be learning how this modular design works. Students maybe don’t like to hear their teachers are learning alongside them, but we are, or should be, and it’s good to acknowledge the fact at the outset, or I think so anyway. Be ready for me to make adjustments as we proceed. Maybe in response to feedback from you, and maybe, apologies, if later I see dodges I want to block I don’t see now.
Each group will hand in a portfolio that represents their preparatory work and final product. We’ll work out its contents together as the projects take shape.
This group will produce one issue of an online literary journal – soliciting, evaluating, editing, and publishing creative content in a form that’s on a par with professionally edited online literary journals.
I’ll give you examples of online literary journals, some produced entirely by creative writing students, and you’ll have in-class time to formulate an action plan. How do you get from here to there? What tasks need to be accomplished, in what order? How should responsibilities be assigned? What can you learn from the online examples about how they were created? Don’t be shy about looking for further examples.
Goal. One issue of an online literary journal, of professional quality in both content and presentation.
Parameters. Content may be partially or wholly by Western students, but no content from students in this class, and I encourage you to think beyond Western, and to solicit work from established writers. Content may be poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and/or multimedia, including visual work. Literary values count here – no light verse, no genre fiction, no self-help prose. The platform should be a website, not a blog.
Grading criteria. Literary quality of content. Expressive range of content. Creative vision as manifest in both content and form. Attention to zine as a web object – design and navigation. Mechanics – format consistency, editorial correctness.
This group will produce and distribute a series of chapbooks, soliciting, evaluating, and publishing creative work by a diverse range of authors.
I’ll give you a few examples, and suggest how you might find more. You’ll have in-class time to formulate an action plan. How do you get from here to there? What tasks need to be accomplished and in what order? How should responsibilities be assigned? What can you learn from the examples about how they were made? Are there ways you might do better than the examples on offer?
We’ll figure out the number of issues (three to five seems reasonable) and the print runs (I’m thinking 50-75 copies) as the logistics clarify. I think we’ll be able to coordinate the printing without cost to us. Remember that effective distribution is part of this project.
Goal. Production and distribution of a short series of chapbooks containing literary work by a diverse range of authors.
Parameters. Content may be partially or wholly by Western students, but no content from students in this class. Chapbooks are an ideal venue for emerging writers, so I encourage you to think as editors giving new writers a helping hand. Content may be poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, and/or cross-genre. Literary values count here – no light verse, no genre fiction, no self-help prose.
Grading criteria. Literary integrity and quality of each chapbook. Diversity across chapbook series. Creative vision of series as manifest in both content and form. Attention to chapbook as a physical object – design, materiality. Mechanics – format consistency, editorial correctness.
This group will curate (organize and promote) a reading series (at least three occasions) off campus involving both student and non-student writers.
I’ll fill you in on reading series in town, and student-run reading series I know of elsewhere. You’ll have in-class time to formulate an action plan. How do you get from here to there? What tasks need to be accomplished and in what order? How should responsibilities be assigned? What can you learn from the examples about how they were made? Are there ways you might do better than the examples on offer?
Goal. A well-attended off-campus reading series involving both student and non-student writers on at least three occasions.
Parameters. Readings must be at a venue or venues off campus. Some readers may be Western students but some must be unaffiliated with Western (not students or faculty). Readings should be promoted. Readers should be introduced by one or more MC’s.
Grading criteria. Appropriateness of venue. Effectiveness of promotion. Size and engagement of audience (best-effort basis). Quality of readers’ work and presentation (best-effort basis). Fluency of MCs’ framing.
That’s what I got. Joy to you at the turning of this year. May the new one bring succor to all those in need of it.
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’sDream 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.
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.
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
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,
which I hope suggests a face to more than pareidoliac me. From there it wasn’t far to this diplomatic transcript –
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.
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.
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 timethat 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.
This fall I’m teaching The Art of Compost, the course that hatched this blog, for the first time in three years. Thought I’d share with you the page that greets students when they go to the course’s online platform. Meant to open them to a composty way of thinking about word objects.
ENG 460: The Art of Compost
“Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!”
What does one do with all this crap?
In the beginning, there was compost.
The Bible is a compost pile.
The story of the Flood is floodwrack of a Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh.
The Song of Solomon, proclaiming the devotion of the Hebrews to their God in really quite erotic terms, is a compost of Canaanite love poetry.
The New Testament cannibalizes the Old to make Jesus make more sense.
Compost as trope, as topos, as practice. It’s a way of digging intertextuality and materiality without going all theory. It’s also ecopoetics as I myself feel it, not nature-as-leafy-green-stuff one swoons to in words, though that’s well and good, but interbeing discovered as your textual ground. Indra’s Net, felt on the breath, that it becomes the texture of our works, our days.
Our reading practice is fluid, but some of these may swim into our ken:
Later will try to get some more recent workings in.
Here, for now, the wormipede I just found on my kitchen floor, WTF.
Lastly, why so Euro? I need to dwell more on that, but it’s got to do with a hankering for diagnosis. Our thought, I mean the West’s, has been sick a good long time. One way to get a bead on what ails us might be to trace the shadows that remain of cultures who before their ruinous contact with us lacked our afflictions. “Ethnopoetics.” If we’re amiss, our others may offer a glance of salutary haleness. While I admire elders like Robert Bringhurst and Jerome Rothenberg, deep and sincere in an exogenous practice, it may have felt to some of its objects – it surely would to me were I to try on any such regard – like more of the same damn thievery.
Another way is endogenous – sift the debris all round us of our own works and ages.