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.

Occam’s Razor volume 8

Yesterday the journal I advise, Occam’s Razor, had the release party for its eighth volume. I was sad to be kept from attending by a wandering kidney stone. Here’s what I’d thought to say as the event got underway.

I’m delighted to welcome you to the release party for the eighth volume of Occam’s Razor, Western’s cross-disciplinary journal for undergraduate scholarship. Written by students, edited by students, also, you should know this, funded by students. Be sure to take one. You own it.

Eight years ago two undergrads were sad that all the work they put into a seminar paper or a research project went to getting an A and then – nowhere. Done, gone, forgotten. So they started this journal, to publish the work of their peers and those who came after, so they wouldn’t be sad in the same way.

At first it was held together with string and chewing gum. No office, no equipment, no budget except what they could beg each year. Year by year, things steadied out, and now, thanks to the good folks at the Student Publications Committee, we have a budget we can count on, and thanks to the kind hospitality of the Jeopardy staff, we have some office space we can use. And thanks to you, the students and faculty of Western, we’re getting more and better submissions every year.

I’ve only just got my hands on this year’s issue, but what I can tell you is, it has the highbrow ambition to take on Deleuze and Guattari, the bravado to look at law enforcement reform in the age of Trump. It ventures into the wilderness of ecocriticism and some bewildering press coverage of #metoo. It examines links between international adoption and trauma, and maps out styles of white racial socialization.

Some hard topics. It’s not an accident the cover is a rockface. Ezra Pound liked to say that beauty is difficult. This cover, and the contents too, argue that difficulty is beautiful.

I’ll let those who speak next introduce the authors to you. But please join me now in congratulating the Editor-in-Chief, Paola Merrill, and her Associate Editors, Cassie Bartlett, Chris Horton, and Grace Dunbar-Miller. And also please help me welcome Grace into the role of next year’s Editor-in-Chief.

Occam’s Razor 2016

Celebrated the launch of Occam’s Razor with its faithful dedicated brilliant editorial staff this evening. Wow they done good. So proud of them.

I’m faculty advisor, which in some situations might mean doing lots, but here’s mostly meant saying, “you, go be you; oh and keep a style sheet.”

Soon, a link to the online issue, in all its glory. For now, a TOC to titillate or intimidate you – maybe both – and brief remarks I made at a podium.

Check these Western moves out.

  • The Beneficence of Gayface
  • Domestic Violence Lethality Assessment Screening
  • The Historical Biogeography of Phototropic Consortium
  • Perspectivalism and Blaming
  • Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: Cause to Treatment
  • Deterministic Chaos: Applications in Cardiac Electrophysiology

And what I thought to say, or close to it.

Ockham’s Razor. Called a razor because it shaves away the excess, the unnecessary. Named for William of Ockham, a medieval Scholastic theologian whose shapeliness of mind may still be of help to us.

An early form of his razor goes like this. “Plurality must never be posited without necessity.” Got that?

Or – other things being equal, the simpler explanation is the better one.

Or – don’t add entities to your story of what happened you don’t have to.

For instance, when your iPhone stops working for no reason you know, you could blame leprechauns for it, but you don’t, because that would be extra.

In other words – cut through bullshit, your own or another’s, as best you can, in every way you can.

The world is complex enough; don’t add needless complications.

The more complications you cut through, the more the magnificent complexity of the life we share here together steps out.

And these guys get that. Their work shines forth their understanding of it. Look at this cover, at the edge of this cloudbank here. It’s complex. Puffs and crannies. And you know that if you zoomed up to it, it would be just as complex, six inches from your face. Wisps and droplets.

The only way that works – the only way complexity can resound like that – is when everything unnecessary has been let fall away. Look at this design. Clouds and empty space and a pebble moon. Complexity meets simplicity, and right at that edge, there’s life, and light.

Anyway, heeding Ockham’s principle, I’m going to be brief.

Does this journal matter? Is it more than just a needless complication?

I think it is. I think it does. Students at Western are doing some phenomenal work in their classes, their research, their independent projects. And all too often it gets handed in, graded, filed away, forgotten. No one in their class sees it – let alone other students in their department, other departments, other colleges.

I think of Occam’s Razor as the geekiest coffee shop on earth. It’s the place where the papers and projects that otherwise might not meet come together, share the same space, relax a little, caffeinate a little, share their intelligence with each other. Calculus chills with social science methodology. Cultural studies flirts with chaos theory.

Geeky coffee shop, or, the university, remembering why it came to be. There are no grades in these pages, no student learning outcomes, no bureaucracy of any sort. This is inquiry not institution. Curious, restless, meticulous.

I’m honoured and grateful to have been a small part of it.

Student work: Poems with no metaphors in ’em

The exercise: Compose a short poem with no metaphor or simile in it.

Not that there’s anything wrong with metaphor. Some of my best friends are metaphors. But we in the West are metaphor junkies, thank you Aristotle (“to be a master of metaphor is the greatest thing by far, a sign of genius”). So it’s good now and then to go dry. What can you do minus that junk? How do you make a poem work without yer fix?

Hello, syntax and line. Hello, metonymy. Hello, objectivist mode, basically, though I save that for elsewhile. And coinages, hello too! Language is full of forces we are totally out of control of and yet surf fluently in our wake and sleep with astonished ease. Tweak them just a bit and you draw them into awareness and that’s poetry. (See what went on there with wake, e.g.? Didn’t intend it, just saw it and commented latterly, and that’s prose.)

Enough preamble, on to some student work.

Here’s one by Steve Lemma – excuse me, that’s “Goldenrod Steve” – that’s quite careful, in a seemingly careless way, with the composition, the putting-in-places, of its syntax – fragments and all. It also has an admirably various line, not just its length, also how little or much torque it asserts upon the syntax of the thought passing through.  

ink running down the wrist.


Subtle fading

Darker than


your irreparable attitude.

Welcome to this side of the world,

You may n
ever make it back.

The under
belly is hungry
as much as me.

I think a couple of the moves here, re: the line, are stretches, but that’s less important to me, as teacher, than that he’s messing around, trying stuff out. (BTW, I’m counting the comparisons as not similes, since they compare extant objects in the poem’s field, to others the same.)

First aside. “Go dry.” Is that metaphor or metonym? How about “that junk”?

Another one, by Rob Jones – turns out no one wants to be anonymous, why was I doing that, don’t remember, probably had a good reason that’ll come back to bite me – short and sweet –


That ringing,
A sound
I will never hear again.

The frequencies

Heard less
And less frequently,
As my eardrums become less taut.

My proposal to Rob was, cut the last line. With that line the poem is nailed to its occasion. Without it, the occasion’s forgot, and the language can widen beyond whatever thought happened to incite it. (This is an curious case of what Richard Hugo called the “triggering subject” showing up in the last line. But one feels it was held in reserve all the poem long – I’m suggesting, hold it in reserve even longer, till the poem is fine without it.)

Second aside. Compose, not write, because as I did say later, they mighta done a visual poem, and solved their problem right there. I give maddeningly open exercises. But in them every word does matter: “embody spring” means embody spring; “myth consciousness” means myth consciousness. Why so uptight? In the poem, too, every word matters, otherwise no word does, in which case, stop.

Here’s another, by Alex Hastings, who has a very Creeleyan ear for speech under pressure – pressure of strong feeling dimly understood (TOTAL INSIGHT MOMENT: Creeley was an avatar of Shakespeare), and she’s been learning how to get, not just the dimness, also the understanding and the strength, onto the page, by way of line, syntax, the tortured dance of them.

crossed over
cheap carpet, we
blink at our
each tired
faces and pick

Change the slightest thing here and you wreck it. For instance, fix the syntax, “each other’s tired / faces” – wrecked. The contortion of the syntax there recalls me to how my powers of language flee me when I’m in a fight with someone I love and who says they love me but isn’t seeming like that. I mean, oh my students, you can create great storms of emotion in a poem without ever naming an emotion. Also, FYI, without many adjectives – “cheap,” “tired” are the only here.

Third aside. Since I went to Urban Dictionary (“elsewhile”) – the poetry of that. Our natural unconscious and dionysiac poetic fluency. And let’s aleatorize the fuck out of it. My pasketti is boiling so let’s be quick also. Random number generator to choose letter then entry. Let’s say thrice and see what comes.

 “Zombie company.”

1. A technically bankrupt company that is kept alive with large infusions of government money for the sake of “stability” in the U.S. financial system. 2. A large financial company with negative net worth that continues to operate, despite having no clear path to solvency. 3. The UnDead of Wall Street.


what stoner says when mad

stoner 1: rrrrrrrs, i need money to buy weed, but i smoke weed because i have money.

preppie boy 1: wait…..what?


Gratuitous Picture Of Yourself Every Fucking Day

I see a picture of someone who is asleep in class, “GPOYEFD”

So I was real worried, around word two, how I was going to get a poem out of this, but GPOYEFD saved the day. Does this not come together as an incisive remark upon the tedium a certain once awesome post-apocalyptic fantasia has come to?


Zombie? Company.
Gratuitous picture of yourself,
every fucking day.

I go back and forth on the comma. Imagine it spoken by a career extra.

Coupla more. This by Lauren Edison, who like Alex is working in a short line, not quite as enjambed, and not quite as spare of sense data, but headed in that dir.


I wake
to a preset tune
and white plaster walls.
Barren, save for shadows.
I blink. Rollover.
My screen says 7:00
January 18. Monday.

This wall, too, is barren.

Lauren’s syntaxes are intact, untorqued – she looks for what can be got through denotation and lineation within the rules of normative syntax, inhabited austerely. I am on her case about titles.

And one more, from Haley Kenville, which I suddenly now realize is her myth consciousness poem, that I was looking for in the exercise she submitted for that assignment, and was kinda hard on. (I’ll do a post on that ex., I hope.) Hear myth mind in that third bullet point?

In Order;

• Call ahead,
they’ll want to know you’ll be early
• Roll in late with hair
still wet from shower.
• Saturate trees with buds, so
they are prepped for your petal
firework finale
• Reign. Relax.
They have been waiting for your ascension

Not sure what she’s doing there with punc but that last line rocks my world. Because of the indefiniteness of the “you” – possible because the poem has let go of its inciting occasion – it points to me and to you, and anything green in anyone, even as it also calls to the Persephone-figure (as I read her) of the poem’s surface levels.

Last aside. Realizing once more how much of my teaching style comes from my Zen training. Don’t feed the ego – affirm the person. Cultivate intuition, spontaneity, not-knowing. Nourish faith in their inborn abilities, empathy, insight. And, be always poking, wherever they’re at rest, unsettle them.

And, to that last, I am always causing problems – as if my students didn’t have enough problems already? One asks me a question, and instead of answering him, I respond with a question. Then, as he’s working towards an answer, I interrupt him with another question. I must be maddening.

The intent’s generous – how can I in this moment help you further your inquiry – but I’m a limited human being. Right this moment anyway I’m feeling my limits. Often the generous is mixed up with stress or my own shit or simple fatigue or I’ve got a tummyache. I’m not often the Platonic ideal of Socrates the method seems to want.

Dude. Zen, Plato, you should ride a motorcycle, and then maybe write a book.

What am I here to say. I’m grasping towards a place where fucking it up somewhat is still okay. For them or for me. Hurting other people heedlessly is not okay – don’t do that in my classroom. You’ll hurt other people, I have, you will, but not heedlessly, please. Also, don’t be lazy – this is the Zen training coming in – treat this as the matter of life and death it is (OMG did I write that, do I believe it, I do). Other than that, be free.

And with that, my dream syllabus, any course

Don’t hurt anyone heedlessly.
Don’t be lazy.
Treat it as a matter of life and death.
Other than, in that, be free.

this post must come to an end. Oh and here’s Bodhidharma for ya.


Student work: Write spring

The exercise was to write a poem that enacts or embodies spring.

Not a poem “about” spring, that’s easy. A poem that is spring, be’s spring, bees spring, in its flesh, its bones. How do you write a poem that’s green, that’s growth, motion, variance, blowsiness, or whatever spring is to you – no, in you – such that it comes across, takes root in reader, flowers and seeds there?

Many fell into the trap of subject matter, and that’s okay, it’s a good where to start from. By the time we were done talking of Williams’s Spring and All they got, I think, what it is to meet spring, eyeball-to-eyeball, a gist of it anyway.

And for sure our talk of the supreme importance of the spectacle

an elderly man who
smiled and looked away

to the north past a house—
a woman in blue

who was laughing and
leaning forward to look up

into the man’s half
averted face

and a boy of eight who was
looking at the middle of

the man’s belly
at a watchchain—

passing namelessly landed for me, and that was them teaching me, I learned more about the line there as such, its supremacy (if that word might ever be rescued for re-use) and ephemerality.

More than one did get what it was to enact spring but only one gave me hers back to post. This is by Hannah Bender and it’s made of joy –


—doublemint cars dusty ceramic roses unpainted fingernails white underwear white undershirt white ankle socks nineteen fifty seven chevy bel air in pink and cream leather pearly cocaine pears and game hen hospital wall green punch bougainvillea bunny teacup airplanes red velveteen movie theater milk chocolate strawberry gift wrap hair throw up cake mice tv saint francis bambi’s mother anne frank donald duck orange juice baths buttons—

I asked her about it, she said something like, you don’t have to wait for spring for it to be spring. You just take any moment and look at it close enough – spring is coiled in there. I hope I have that right; I think she put it better.

Anyway she put it beautifully – she got the intention of the assignment better than I ever did when I came up with it. Those em-dashes, I imagine reaching into any moment of perception, physically prying it open, and those dashes are the beams I prop in to keep it from slamming closed on me while I walk among the moment’s occult contents.

Cornell - Celestial
Which are the poem. Also come to mind Cornell’s boxes, which, whatever in specific they contain, have as one of their utterances spread evenly over all they hold, I’m glad you are.

Look topside. My “featured image” removes the boxed from the box. Why’s that feel like an injury? But it does. When’s sampling a denaturing? It is, sometimes. Spring couldn’t spring had it no winter to push off from.

Almost forgot the title of Hannah’s but you see how it matters. The whole poem’s a synonym for its title yes?

Syrians to Canada

I’m proud of my country today. The first 163 of 25,000 expected Syrian refugees arrived last night – Lebanon to Toronto, by air.

Have I ever said that before, “I’m proud of my country today,” of either of those that half-claim me? Maybe not. But today, yes. From the NYT:

The arrival of the first flight was highly anticipated in Canada. To avoid a crush that might overwhelm the exhausted refugees, the government asked the public not to go the airport to see the flight arrive. Those who ignored the request were not able to get close to the refugees in any case: the military plane taxied to a terminal building deep in the airport grounds with no public access; it is normally used only for visiting foreign dignitaries.

The building has been converted into a special processing center, where arriving refugees will not only go through the usual customs, immigration and health screenings, but will also be given all of the other paperwork necessary for their new lives, including public health insurance cards. They will also be given winter clothing, and children will receive toys.

Visiting foreign dignitaries. Damn straight. And what do you give visiting foreign dignitaries? Toys. Someone’s getting it right for once somehow.

The whole article here (you may hit a paywall).

Honestly? I’m so heartachy, after Charleston, Roseburg, Paris, San Bernardino, hardly an exhaustive list, and too a racist convulsion here at Western I haven’t found the clarity yet to write about, and too all I learn from reading or listening about my students’ struggles with assault, trauma, depression, poverty, addiction, violence, and dysfunction – when I read “children will receive toys” it takes something not to start crying.

I look forward to whitened old age when I can weep quietly at the slightest provocation and no one will take it amiss. Oh, that’s just how Grandpa is, he weeps when you swat a fly …

Student blogs: Breadhead, The Unbook

Couple more student blogs for ya. They’re having some trouble, truth be told, not all but many are, sustaining their blogs as a steady discipline, without any deadlines from me. I was clear when I concocted this project, that’d be part of the challenge, the drive and momentum would need to come all from them. It’s a 400-level course. They’re to go out in the world soon. The work here is maturation and self-direction.

Now, I get it, I do. They’ve got accumulating loans, part- (or, incredibly, full-) time jobs, crazy heavy course loads, personal crises, roommates melting down. Too they’ve grown up in a multifactoral technological surround that makes concentration well nigh impossible. But, counterargument, to stay in distraction’s a choice, you can turn off the iPod, walk away from the roomie.

There ends my highminded plaint, of the “kids these days” variety.

Want also to say, the group’s gelled really nicely, even if I’m a bit pissy on the state of the blogs. Some of them have been having a hard time; I too have been having a hard time. It seems to have made us good to, appreciative of, each other. How nice is that.

So here are a couple of blogs I think have found their natures well.

One takes bread, the making and breaking and sharing of bread, as its metaphor for what happens in poetry, communion in words. It also has a lot of fun finding faces in toast.

Jacob has a lively quirky slantwise imagination – he may be a distant cousin of M. Dada – and his cutups and breakdowns are very worth checking out. If I have a hope for this blog, it’s that heel (sorry!) find something verbal to do with or near the toastposts … they’re fun and pleasing in themselves, but I feel like there’s some mischievous potential here, not yet tapped into.

If the one blog points back to anciency, our oldest communion, this other points into futurity, asking what the book might be, once fully undone by digitality. Donald’s proposal, and think he’s right, is that we haven’t thought the question very far through.

E-books are not the future. E-books are just the past put on touch screens, it’s still black on white, left to right, top to bottom. And that’s not bad. But I think we can do better….

Why must books be linear? Why do they have to be the same every time? Why does reading have to be a solitary endeavor?  At one point they stop being books and become something else. Something untapped, unrestricted and undone. Untapped, because there is more to books than books. Unrestricted, because they are given freedom from the restrictions of physicality. Undone, so they can be redone.

I give you, then, the concept of the UnBook. A book unleashed by technology.

Thinking on the question is going on, though. UbuWeb doesn’t have a dedicated section on digital texts but possibilities are scattered all through. And my own English Department’s Bellingham Review has an online issue in the works, due out fall 2016, on “The Kinetic Page.” So stay tuned all y’all.


Student blogs: Addendum

Thought I’d share too, since I think here out loud about pedagogy, the note I just sent my compost class.

I’m hoping, so you know, to do a few things by sharing your blogs publicly, and advising you of it. One is to let you know, the work you do matters, beyond our little campus. Another is, to say a few words, in the language I use as a writer outside the classroom, about how your work impinges on me. And a third is, to keep you in touch with each other’s work, so your blogs can be models for each other, inspiration, goad.

The theme here is: seamlessness. Which is compost, but less messy.

I’m struck by a couple of differences in how I teach poetry and how blogging.

One is, I would never proclaim one student’s poem over another. But here I have, implicitly, their blogs. I do mean to praise and publicize every student blog to the world before the class is done. Still, though, I’ve picked one, and another, to go first.

The fact is, some students have nailed it, right off, and I want the others to learn from them. And by saying, these guys have nailed it, I make that more possible. And by making my praise public – worldwide, technically, if very sparsely – I raise the stakes.

I have two motives in teaching, in some tension, and the tension’s laid bare here. One – do no harm. Two – push them as hard as I can get away with.

A poem is a tender creation. Has inmostness. A blog is probably less so. Has, more likely, a thick skin. So, no guarantee, but I’m less likely to do harm by offering or withholding praise. Am willing to risk stinging just a bit, even, if it will, like a nettle, nourish.

The other diff. This blog here. I don’t want my poetry students reading my poems! But I’m fine if my blog students read my blog. What up with that?

Maybe it’s that I know well how to teach the craft of poetry through other poets’ poems. Blogging, I want to teach best practices quick, by showing five or six good ones, and if mine’s in their fields of awareness that’s just fine. Then they can get down to the content, the good stuff.

Maybe it’s that bad examples of blog form are so much more available than bad examples of poetic form.

No. It’s that form and content aren’t intimate in a blog the way they are in a poem. They’re involved but not intimate. And so I’m teaching the form as a technique, an efficiency, and the content as an art. Get done with the one, so we can focus on the other.

It’s ok, blog world, you’re only 10 years or so old. Check in when you’re 10,000.

Newspaper Rock, Canyonlands, UT

Student blog: The clothes we wear

Another student blog for you, come into its own, right here, on the threshold where the inmost being we are, touches the public sphere we move about in. Clothes, hair, eyes, lips, limbs, and how we make up and dress down, pierce and dye, stain or tear, tattoo or don’t. For, as Evan rightly says, not to is every bit as much a choice, as to.

I say this as one uncomfortable caring at all about how I look. So much more important to me how one sees. And yet it do matter don’t it. We are moving at all moments through a web of codes.

Merleau-Ponty noted, I think it was he, I’m taking this from my memory of David Abram‘s Spell of the Sensuous, that the eye can’t see without also being seen – can’t do vision without entering the visual. To see is to be seen. More, to see is to be seen seeing. A phenomenology of flirting might begin here. (Maybe also one of voyeurism, which maybe feels dirty because it breaks out of that reciprocity.) That, anyway, is our social being, to see and to be seen and to be seen seeing.

Is why we do not all wear Mao suits. Or, if we do, we want to look this good.

mao suit

Evan’s got a fine and punchy style going, a good model of, one, how to do blog prose, and, two, how to marry personal and social awarenesses. Light touch, nothing didactic. I mean it feels seamless to me, how her awakeness to her own life, and her wondering how the world goes, meet. Check it out.