Summer teaching once more

Decided last week to dumpster my course design for Intro to CrW. It’s gotten old and tired. Was real fresh and alive when I started it (as an overhaul like this one it happens) cuz I made it day by day in relation to what I sensed from my students, who they were, what gave them life. And then, over the next few years, I institutionalized it, why, cuz I belong to an institution, and it presses on me, walls, ceiling, floor, in the form of hours demands infighting and discouragement. Well fuck that shit. I can’t ask my students to keep it fresh if I don’t. So I’m pitching the design and going back to the unknowing my own work comes from.

It’s scarier and it burns more brain glucose, which I want to hoard for my own creative work, but I think a mistake we make in the profession is to feel we’re in a zero sum game. In fact if I’m feeling on a live edge teaching, that enlivens my creative activity, too. As I said to a friend at a little fest held this weekend to mark the vertical publication of the first part of SCRO, the visual poetry courses I’ve taught have fed and informed my own work in visual poetry – have made, in a sense, my current work possible.

So here’s the bit of my syllabus where I explain there’s no plan for the class.

(Overheard at Menace as I write: “Are you really worried about rhizomes?”)


Course Outline

There is none. I’ve taught this course many times and it’s grown hidebound. So I’m doing the same thing with my course design as I tell a student to do with a story or poem or essay when they’re bored with it: throw out your structure, your idea of where it should go, and discover from the materials at hand what it’s supposed to be. It’s scary fun and way more real, as a way to write, a way to teach.

We’re going to wing it, figuring out, class by class, what we’ll do during our time together, and what your assignments are for the next class. I’ll be making the decisions at first, but I expect that, as we come together as a crew, you’ll collaborate in the calls we make. Rest assured, we won’t be structureless; we’ll just discover as we go the structure natural to our being-together. And, by the end of our six weeks, you’ll have met and grappled with most or all of these creative writing constructs:

General

showing and telling
concrete significant details
triggering and generated subjects (Hugo)
diction and etymology
“the writer’s antennae”
using found material
revision and editing

Poetry

sounds
the poetic line
poetry and Poetry
imagery
simile and metaphor
metonymy
making sense less

Fiction

dialogue
characterization
point of view
story structure (inverted checkmark)
text and subtext (Hemingway’s “iceberg”)

Creative Nonfiction

scene and exposition
truth and truthiness
questions of ethics
nonfiction forms

That’s for the worrypants. May send ’em, first day, to Cage’s guidelines:

cagerulesteachersstudents

It’s all just organic form in pedagogy, not so scary.

Writing Exercise: Erasure, Interference, Noise, Distraction

Last exercise for my advanced creative non-fiction workshop. We’ve been reading Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary – riddled with redaction marks a government that couldn’t find him guilty of a damn thing, yet could not for 14 years see him to be innocent, saw fit to strike his voice through w/.

An ex on the eloquence of silence; on wrenching eloquence out of silencing.


First, to remind you of the assignment for your fourth and final essay, it’s

a text that incorporates erasure, interference, noise, or distraction. You can put a text of your own (it must be written for this course) under erasure like this or like this: ████. You can take another’s text and put it under erasure to elicit new meanings from it. You can do an audio essay and overlay a second track that makes your voice difficult or impossible to hear at key junctures. You can compose a hypertext that instead of offering a linear reading becomes a garden of forking paths. The possibilities are myriad. Crucial though is that your essay draw erasure, distortion, noise, or distraction into its formal body. In this way it becomes a study of how we make meaning at all.

For this exercise, make a first experiment towards that essay. No more than one page – if it’s on paper at all. I can’t imagine all the possibilities for you here. I can only say, I’m looking for language, written or spoken, that gets interfered with somehow, visually or aurally, in a way that sheds light on how we go about making meaning. (The redaction marks in Slahi’s book, included the way they are, do that, yes? How does Slahi insist on what he means, his humanity, when he’s shut up – imprisoned, silenced? He cracks jokes. He answers absurdity with absurdity. He writes, and gets his writing out there, replete with the redaction bars that speak his silencing.)

Learn too from examples posted – Johnson, Phillips, Bervin, Foer, Strickland, Wave Books. Ask yourself too, what’s missing from these examples that I wish were here? What could you add to this assemblage of interferences?

You could go entirely paperly, erase and/or illuminate a text, your own or another’s. If you erase someone else’s text, be sure to credit the source, and sure your work upon it’s transformative. You need not confine yourself to negation; consider illumination, á là Phillips; hands-on cutting or tearing, á là Foer; other ways of turning gap and omission into a sort of presence.

You need not pin yourself to paper either. I’m open to audio essays, hypertext essays, multimedia enterprises. Interference, noise, distraction can take the form – as we said today – of static, crowd noise, a robotic voice intoning “redacted,” many many things. (The MTA’s “mind the gap” comes to mind.) Our roundtables next week will be a chance to think through options.

I’d like to take these in Thursday, but if you are working off the page, and would like till next Tuesday to make that happen, I can give you till then.


I’m curious what they’ll come up with. It’s been a curious class, invented one week, enacted the next. Improvisatory. Creating a world one step ahead of what you see. I don’t mean I am, we are.

Messages across seas

Delighted to share with you a translation just now out in the wonderful journal Asymptote. I love this journal, its global intention attention & compass. Check out this map of their scope and multiplicity.

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 7.07.20 PM
Click for a live version

My little poem is a pre-modern throwback in an issue otherwise on translation’s front edge. (Okay, there’s some Tzara, too, but he’s still.) Grateful they thought to find room for it. Thematically it does I guess fit an issue called “People from the In-between.” It’s got people at a loss, unbridgeable textual gaps, and runes – runes how to make meaning from which is all dispute.

Well see what you think it’s here. With floating footnotes, and the Old English, and me reading said Old English badly, should you wish to go there.

Whole issue’s rad. Especially worth your time and heart, the special feature on “literature from banned countries,” i.e. those seven or six singled out by the present US administration’s unconscionable incoherent & never mind that they’re unconstitutional travel bans. I’m having a little trouble finding the special section as a cluster, but here’s the headline piece, then you can just wander over borders, as surely mostly we should be.

Wander or sojourn or flee as our luck has it. I avoid the word “privilege” as calcified but I am luck-filled. Many on the map above are not. Many pressed against borders are getting fucked by the stick of the world. May you come to places of rest. You should have, & it’s in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Trumpwad, so you’re a signatory, you should have a place to live that’s safe for you to love & work & love more & live & die meaningful lives and deaths.

Didn’t expect to go there. (As I say always to my students, boringly to them, let the track of your writing startle you.) Got to get to work on something blah & bureaucratic, plan for the annual fundraising drive for the Zen centre I somehow ended up on the board of, & what why me. But reading this article in The New Yorker has shocked the living shit out of me.

These women and girls and men are moving up Africa along the old slave-trading routes. And what they endure on the journey and when they arrive, if they do arrive, seems to this far away safely sheltered reader impotently empathizing no less than what the slaves did in olden days when they were fuelling the economic growth of the Americas.

Got more on this. For instance bringing it to my nonfiction workshop’s notice, and putting it beside Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and his effort to broaden a indictment of systemic American racism into a critique of global inequality, including climate change. That’s for another post. God and damn it’s all connected. Where to snip the thread? Thank you friend. May I call you friend? If you’ve read this far.

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

Can’t tell you how moved I am by this book. Opens my head and heart and spirit and helps me to love the great bawling mess of meat and lust and loss and peace all at once I am. I hope it speaks to my students also. Assigned it because they are, as a body, far more engaged with and alert to questions of gender, identity, fluidity, than I, and I wanted a book that would meet and maybe challenge us all there.

We’ll see how it goes next week. I’m guessing it will. Here are the assignments I put together for my creative nonfiction students this morning.

Journal no. 1

On page 5 Nelson makes the first reference to her book’s title. “Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use.” So we have an image of a voyaging entity that changes in all its parts and yet persists under a single name. And Nelson has named her book, not for the boat, but for those who voyage on it. What is she saying (proposing, hazarding, trying out) about love here? Is the image of the Argo, the Argonaut, applicable to anything else in or about the book?

Journal no. 2

The content of The Argonauts affirms fluidity over binaries and rigid categories – continuities. Gender is fluid. Eros itself is fluid, bonding lover to lover, parent to child, human to animal. Meanwhile the form of the book is full of discontinuities. Every time we move from one collage element to another, we leap across a gap. (Often even within a collage element, there are gaps to be leapt.) What do you make of this difference between the book’s content and its form? How might it serve Nelson’s purposes?

Writing no. 1

Begin a collage essay by writing two discrete (they need not be discreet) collage elements. Each can be about whatever you like, but they should be substantively different from each other, in content, technique, tone, theme, and/or diction. The differences between them should be alive – you, we, should feel a pulse of curiosity or excitement or WTF as we move from the one to the other. If you don’t feel that excitement, start over, because you’re not going to want to keep working with this material.  ¶ Other pointers. Remember the distinction between scene and exposition. When you’re doing scene, use your arsenal of fiction-writing techniques; rely on concrete significant details; embody your meanings in acts and events. When you’re doing exposition, avoid banal generalities, make your thinking interesting, fresh, alive, your own. Feel free to tear a page from Nelson and incorporate found materials – Deleuze, Irigaray, Plato, Lady Gaga.

Comedy, Tragedy, Romance

A handout for my Shakespeare students, late in the game, after we’ve teased a lot of it out in conversation. Trying to draw it together into a sort of whole, without making our thought boxes too rigid.


I. Comedy

Toward a Theory of Comedy

In our discussions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, we speculated that for something (a line, a conversation, a play as a whole) to be funny, three things need to be true:

  1. There needs to be incongruity – two meanings of a word that clash (a pun), or two conflicting desires in a character, or a situation in which we know something a character doesn’t (dramatic irony). An incongruity can be as small as a word or as big as the whole play.
  1. We need to feel that things will turn out okay. We can tell no one is going to die, and no one we like will end up worse than they started. A play can give us this feeling by invoking certain genre conventions of comedy. For instance, presented with lovers thwarted by a controlling father, we know we’re in a plot typical of romantic comedy. And when the lovers marry at the end, ideally as part of a multiple wedding (wild erotic possibilities set loose in the play, some of them quite transgressive, are here put back in their cages, or on their leashes) that plot structure is completed, and the genre confirmed.
  1. Our sense of fair play needs to be satisfied – characters will get about what they deserve. Again, genre conventions reassure us here, even when things are going badly for the good guys, and well for the bad.

Interestingly, tragedy differs from comedy mostly on the second point. Tragedy is full of incongruities, and the downfall of the tragic hero feels harsh to us, but not unjust (fair play). But we have a sense of large hidden forces arrayed against the hero and driving the action inexorably forward. This won’t end well and we know it from the first line or two. So the incongruities are mostly not funny, and the justness of the hero’s fate prompts sadness and seriousness, not exuberant good cheer.

Genre Conventions of Shakespearean Romantic Comedy

The major conventions of Shakespearean Romantic Comedy (adapted from Debora Schwartz’s page for ENG 339 at California Polytechnic State):

  1. The main action is about love.
  1. The would-be lovers must overcome obstacles and misunderstandings before being united in harmonious union. The ending frequently involves a parade of couples to the altar and a festive mood or actual celebration (expressed in dance, song, feast, etc.).
  1. Often it contains elements of the improbable, the fantastic, the supernatural, or the miraculous, e.g., unbelievable coincidences, improbable scenes of recognition/lack of recognition, willful disregard of the social order (nobles marrying commoners, beggars changed to lords), enchanted or idealized settings, supernatural beings (witches, fairies, gods and goddesses). The happy ending may be brought about through supernatural or divine intervention or may merely involve improbable turns of events.
  1. There is frequently a philosophical aspect involving weightier issues and themes: personal identity; the importance of love in human existence; the power of language to help or hinder communication; the transforming power of poetry and art; the disjunction between appearance and reality; the power of dreams and illusions.

II. Tragedy

Suspension of Disbelief

Right in front of you, a general named Othello is throttling his wife, Desdemona. Why don’t you call 911? Because you know it’s not real. But if you know it’s not real, why do you feel anything? Check your heart rate, your breathing, your muscle tension – you do feel something.

Drama depends on a suspension of disbelief. We believe and don’t believe that what’s happening is real. We know it’s real and we know it’s not real. We suspend our disbelief but our disbelief is still there. All dramatic forms depend on this paradox to work, but the paradox comes especially clear with tragedy, because the stakes are so high, and because in a theatre, there’s no screen to distance you from the action – only an invisible fourth wall some characters (e.g., Puck, Feste, Hamlet, Iago) may break.

Aristotle on Tragedy

Aristotle asked, why do we like to see things on stage, for instance King Oedipus turned to a beggar with his eyes gouged out, we wouldn’t want to see for real? In his Poetics he suggests two theories –

  1. Pedagogic. It gives us pleasure to learn, especially when we can learn about misfortune without suffering misfortune. Watching Othello, we can say, “ah, that’s what happens when you give in to jealousy,” or “so, that’s how it goes when you don’t listen to your suspicions about an underling,” or, “okay, that’s what eventually happens to someone from a marginalized group, no matter how well he fulfills the dominant culture’s demands of him.” By this theory, we know more about what it is to be alive, without having had to suffer (much) for the lesson.
  1. Cathartic. Catharsis means purgation. Tragedy arouses pity and fear in us through the action of the play and then discharges it through the resolution. What we see makes us sadder and wiser, but we also feel a kind of quiet and release. The Greek word katharsis had both a medical sense – purging, i.e., vomiting up something toxic – and a sacral sense, purification, i.e., being cleansed of impurities. Did Aristotle mean we’re purged of pity and fear the way a patient is purged of a poison, or we’re purified of pity and fear the way a religious observant is cleansed of obstructive emotions?

Aristotle said some conditions apply to tragedy, if learning or catharsis is to happen. We’ll leave aside most of them. The two we’ll make use of: the hero of the tragedy needs to be larger than life (“better than ordinary men”) but have a tragic flaw. He needs to be larger than life so we identify with and idealize him. (Catharsis only happens if we see ourselves in him.) He needs to have a tragic flaw so we can feel his downfall is just. (We can only learn from what we see if what we see is rational and understandable.) (It’s always, BTW, for Aristotle, a him, Antigone notwithstanding.)

I’m not saying Othello is an Aristotelian tragedy. I’m asking whether it is one. Is Othello a tragic hero? Is he larger than life? Is he brought down by a tragic flaw? (If you say societal forces outside him – “institutional racism” – are ultimately to blame, then no. If you say that that racism, internalized, is to blame, then – oh, an interesting edge we’re on, there.) Does the play raise pity and fear and then purge them? How are you left feeling at the end of a production of it? Does how you feel depend on the character of the production?


III. Some Notes on Romance

Our final play, The Tempest, is now called a romance, but that term wasn’t in use when the play was written and first performed. It was first published as a comedy. The rest of this section is adapted from Schwartz.

The modern term “romance” refers to a hybrid of comic and tragic elements. Because they combine both tragic and comic elements, John Fletcher called them “tragi-comedies.” According to Fletcher, a tragi-comedy “wants [lacks] deaths, which is enough to make it no tragedy, yet brings some near it [death], which is enough to make it no comedy.” Like comedy, romance includes a love-intrigue and culminates in a happy ending. Like tragedy, romance has a serious plot-line (betrayals, tyrants, usurpers of thrones) and treats serious themes; it is darker in tone (more serious) than comedy. While tragedy emphasizes evil, and comedy minimizes it, romance acknowledges evil – the reality of human suffering. 

Romance and Tragedy

Tragedy involves irreversible choices made in a world where time leads inexorably to the tragic conclusion. In romance, time seems to be “reversible”; there are second chances and fresh starts. As a result, categories such as cause and effect, beginning and end, are displaced by a sense of simultaneity and harmony.

Tragedy is governed by a sense of fate (Macbeth, Hamlet) or fortune (King Lear). In romance, the sense of destiny comes instead from Divine Providence. Tragedy depicts alienation and destruction, romance, reconciliation and restoration. In tragedy, characters are destroyed as a result of their own actions and choices; in romance, characters respond to situations and events rather than provoking them. Tragedy tends to be concerned with revenge, romance with forgiveness. Plot structure in romance moves beyond that of tragedy: an event with tragic potential leads not to tragedy but to a providential experience.

While tragedy deals with events leading up to individual deaths, romance emphasizes the cycle of life and death. While tragedy explores characters in depth (emphasis on individual psychology), romance focuses on archetypes, the collective and symbolic patterns of human experience.

Romance and Comedy

The “happy ending” of a romance bears a superficial resemblance to that of a comedy. But while the tone of comedy is genial and exuberant, romance has a muted tone of happiness – joy mixed with sorrow. Like comedies, romances tend to end with weddings, but the focus is less on the personal happiness of bride and groom (the culmination of an individual passion) than on healing rifts within the larger human community. Thus, whereas comedy focuses on youth, romance often has middle-aged and older protagonists in pivotal roles.

Compared to characters in a Shakespearean comedy (or tragedy), romance characters may seem shallow or one-dimensional. But they are not meant to be psychologically credible; their experiences have symbolic significance extending beyond the limits of their own lives and beyond rational comprehension. In romance, the emphasis shifts from individual human nature to Nature.

Other Features of Romance

Romance is unrealistic. Supernatural elements abound, and characters often seem “larger than life” (e.g., Prospero) or one-dimensional (e.g., Miranda and Ferdinand). Plots are not particularly logical. The action, serious in theme, subject matter and tone, seems to be leading to a tragic catastrophe until an unexpected trick brings the conflict to harmonious resolution. The “happy ending” may seem unmotivated or contrived. Realism is not the point. Romance requires us to suspend disbelief in the “unrealistic” nature of the plot and experience it on its own terms.

Everything you wanted to know about meter in Shakespeare but were afeard to ask

Given to my Intro to Shakespeare students and now y’all. (Sorry, leaving out the bit where I show how to listen for stresses, and mark them, or show them rather they already know how to listen for stresses, just don’t know they do.)


And here we go. The baseline foot of iambic meter is the iamb:   x  / 

The most common variation in an iambic meter is the trochee:   /  x

Other common substitutions in an iambic meter are

the anapest   x  x  /
the spondee   /  /

Occasionally you’ll see the pyrrhic   x  x   and it’s usually paired with the spondee like so   x  x  /  /   and that’s sometimes also called a double iamb.

Only other foot possible, in English, is the dactyl   /  x  x   and you won’t see it in an iambic line. If you do you’ve grouped the stresses wrong. Erase your foot divisions and start over, remembering to maximize the number of iambs.

Similarly, if you come up with this   x  /  x   or this   /  x  /   as a foot, you’ve gone astray somewhere, unless you’re scanning Greek or Latin verse for quantity, which you ain’t. Back up and start over.

Sometimes at the end of a line you’ll have an extra unstressed syllable, and want to join it to the final iamb to make a foot like this   x  /  x   don’t. Leave it there. It’s not lonely, it’s a syllable, not a kitten. If you see a kitten, rescue it.


Moves to watch for, and effects they’re thought to have. An initial trochee

        /     x
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

creates emphasis by leaning into the words to come. A mid- or end-line anapest can lend speed, momentum, naturalness –

                                  x           x       / 
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

A spondee creates emphasis a bit differently than the trochee,

    /       /
No more – and by a sleep to say we end

pounding its fist on the words right at hand. The pyrrhic-spondee pairing (double iamb)

   x      x     /         /
with a bare bodkin? who would fardels bare?

is an interesting move, softening, yielding, then hitting hard. Take a look at this moment in Hamlet’s monologue; can you discern what the variation does, here? How would you perform it?

Last thing, we sometimes see trochaic meters in these plays – songs and spells, mostly. Trochee world is Bizarro world – English is biased to the iambic, so when you go trochaic, you go to the strange. In a trochaic meter, iambs are the most common substitution, and feel like an unexpected or unaccustomed softening. No anapests here but dactyls have become possible. Spon­dees and pyrrhics rock on, as before.


To review (and add a little). Feet that make the basis for meters in the plays:

iamb   x  /
trochee   /  x

Feet that can be variations in those meters:

anapest   x  x  /
dactyl   /  x  x
spondee   /  /
pyrrhic   x  x

How to describe the length of a line

one foot          monometer                             four feet          tetrameter
two feet           dimeter                                    five feet           pentameter
three feet         trimeter                                   six feet             hexameter

To give a full description of the meter of a line, identify the baseline meter (dominant foot and number of feet) and any substitutions. E.g., “iambic pentameter with a spondee in the fourth foot” or “trochaic tetrameter with a dactyl in the third foot.”

The marks, the terms, are a pain, I know, but they’re a means to an end. A violinist doesn’t learn to read sheet music so she can read sheet music. She learns it so she can play a Bach concerto.

Lastly, note we’re marking meter here, not rhythm, which is a subtler business altogether. There’s a way to mark it but we’re not going there. Fortunately, as speakers of English, you live in its rhythms as fishes in water, so just trust your sense of the character as a living human being, speaking to others the same. The meter is in there, lending order quietly, almost invisibly. When reading these lines, don’t be a robot, be a person.

States of America, Plural

Course description. In late cuz I be worked hard and in grief and perplexed.


Creative Writing Seminar: Creative Non-Fiction: “States of America, Plural”

Works of creative nonfiction are inherently plural. Multiple storylines, many angles of approach. At times we resist this plurality, want to make an essay singular, unified, find a single speaker, one tone, give it nice neat arc, a clear theme. The premise of this class is, what a shame it’d be if we could. We’ll be interested here in nonfiction that embraces plurality and builds it into its formal body. Multiple viewpoints. Braided storylines. Image and text juxtaposed uncomfortably. Unwanted erasure defiantly embraced. Oh, and meanwhile, back at the ranch, America too is inherently plural, as recent social and political upheavals have brought to light. America’s got the same questions going on – are we one by being narrowly one, or one by being broadly many? E pluribus unum, yo? So while we’ll focus, as we should, on students’ own creative explorations, they’ll be informed by texts that argue, in plural ways, that plurality is our power. Namely, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me; Claudia Rankine, Citizen; Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts; Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantánamo Diary. Evaluation will be based on a writing journal, regular creative exercises, co-teaching of part of one of the assigned texts, a final portfolio of mindfully and heartfully revised work, and active energetic participation in all aspects of our work together.


What would it be to manifest diversity without recourse to the word diversity? Am I just a Trumpy grump here? I don’t think so. Quick analogy, I only believe patriots who wave or wear no flag. NO – the patriot I most believed ever was the one waving the US flag upside down. Oh, he loved his country truly, and I honked my horn. I wave diversity likewise. It’s become a cloying sameness.