Teaching and Poetry

September 28, 2010

Today I told a friend of mine that I really think in order to write effectively, often, and well, I needed to do one of two things:

A: Get out of teaching

B: Stop giving a shit about teaching

He told me that’s not true; that I’m not drawing from the same battery, that I’m just fatigued at the end of the day. I don’t think I agree with that, honestly. To me, teaching English (or writing, comp, rhetoric, lit, whatever you feel like calling it) absolutely draws on the same energy as writing poetry if you’re doing it well. I suppose if you’re teaching in exactly the right situation, that energy becomes a feedback loop of a kind; the teaching actually helps feed the poetry. In my case, though, that clearly isn’t happening, as I’ve written very little of consequence in the past two years and four months, since finishing my MFA. Could it just be fatigue? I suppose it could; I definitely get more active in the summer.

But what I mean is I feel that my teaching, the only way I know how to do it, involves giving not only a great deal of time but a great deal of my creative energy. My teaching is very performative; I am in front of the class, on my feet any time that they aren’t directly working on a test, quiz, or prompt. I am clawing and scratching and tearing and pulling (figuratively speaking) to get them to think. I am talking and joking and projecting not only my voice, but a character that isn’t me so much as it is some guy who will say almost anything to provoke a thoughtful response. I sometimes deliberately make them angry; I say outrageous things to keep them paying attention (I think most of them realize that these are jokes but I am sometimes not sure). I rarely if ever use notes; I let the text we’re working with dictate the discussion we have and sometimes it goes places I am not prepared for, but I’ll go with it. I’ll have notes in the text, sure, but I don’t stand in front of the class and deliver a lecture more than a handful of times in a semester. I don’t think any of this is out of the ordinary for some English teachers, though I definitely had some in the past who just stood up there and spouted the things they wanted us to repeat later.

Hell, come to think of it, I even have props; a yardstick or stick I use to pound my podium or the odd empty desk if I need to grab attention. I throw things (mostly candy, but I always throw new books to the students – carefully. It helps them bond with the new text, I think, when they have to catch it). I even have a ‘costume,’ of a sort; I wear a sportcoat every day no matter how hot it gets in the building; it started as a way to help cover the fact that I was surely sweating through my shirt (my school has no AC and is a brick oven the first two weeks and the last two weeks of any year). Now I can’t teach without it; doing so is unthinkable, because it’s become a noted part of the ‘character’ I ‘play’, and there’s a certain intimidation factor in those first two weeks, as kids are complaining nonstop about the heat and a little awed at the one person in the building wearing a sport coat and a tie.

But the point of this is not to pat myself on the back or explain my teaching style (there are plenty of things I could do better, believe me). The point is, I’m not sure I can keep doing that and write anything worth reading. I get home and my brain is done, my creative centers are fried, my psychic energy is drained. I’ve got nothing left. I can work out; in fact, I crave doing that because I need a physical release. But I want to do anything except write, and of course, there are always papers to grade, as I’m teaching two lit courses and four comp courses at the high school, one college comp course, and I tutor on the weekends online for the same college. This could be part of the problem.

This isn’t just meant to be whiny; plenty of teachers come home and write. Plenty of people with other jobs come home and write good, readable books. I’m genuinely concerned that I can’t keep teaching this way, and hope to have enough of myself left at the end of a day  to write anything worthwhile.

What do you think? Same energy? Same battery? Am I just a whiny punk who needs to shut up and put up (or alternately, give up?) Some way to balance these two? Should I take up pig farming or get a job on a loading dock somewhere?


Dearth of posts

August 5, 2010

This blog is too quiet. I understand that.

The problem is that nothing I do lately seems to improve the blank page. Maybe this week I’ll post some older poems.

I’m also working on a post about love poetry. Is it even possible anymore? (How’s THAT for cynical and stupid questions?) What does it have to do, what can’t it do, etc. Also I’ve actually consciously been trying to write some (wait for it) erotic poetry. I’ve decided I don’t think that is actually possible, but it sure is fucking hilarious, let me tell you.

Pigafetta is My Wife by Joe Hall.

July 7, 2010

Love, like 16th Century European exploration, is an act of daring courage and discovery; simultaneously it is essentially destined to destroy both the actor and object, the explorer and the explored.

At least this is, I think, the thesis, or a thesis, or a possible thesis for Joe Hall’s Pigafetta is My Wife. Thesis is, of course, a terrible word to use in regards to a book of poems, but that does seem to be an inescapable, underlying theme; love is ineluctably both exploration and destruction. What exactly is destroyed? The self, certainly, the object of love/exploration, probably.

This book moves (effortlessly, it should be noted) between Magellan’s circumnavigation, as narrated by Antonio Pigafetta (real dude, it should also be noted, in case anyone reading isn’t aware) and a series of discussions with a lover who is at times present, at times distant.

Enough book-jacket type talk; is it any good? Yes, of course it is. If it wasn’t I wouldn’t have bothered to finish reading it, much less read it four times, much less be writing about it on this here blog. What exactly is good about it? Well if love-as-destruction juxtaposed with Magellan’s voyage isn’t enough for you on the face of it let me explore what in particular is good about this book.

First of all, call me old fashioned if you will, but one of the first things I want in poetry is for it to be beautiful; this book is.

“…If prayers
are swift, deranged birds

I am letting them loose from the decks of my body
Look for them. Two years

& more promised, seven months
apart, what gifts are there
to give? A ring

to describe your finger or another book
in which to write what is your pleasure or
Dear Joe Hello? the tools to bind a book

& how much flesh is the book?
& how much bread is the book”

Beautiful. And there is plenty more; that’s just one of many passages that impressed me with breathless enjambment and pause, with startling imagery (prayers/are swift, deranged birds), with the nonstop play with and re-invention of the length and shape of the line, and in fact, of the page itself. There are plenty of other passages I’d like to quote, that I want you, who is readings this, to see and be struck by, but I can’t because WordPress just isn’t going to give me the right space. The right space is in the book and in lines that are sometimes almost impossibly long; Hall sometimes strings a line along absolutely as far as it can or should go, and then just a syllable or two farther.

So we have beauty, and we have invention. We also have something that the book blurb from poet Dan Beachy-Quick called the “making necessary of history,” a phrase that only sounds curious until you read the book, when it simply becomes true. Why, I can hear you asking, would someone juxtapose their relationship with the experiences of Antonio Pigafetta? Well I don’t pretend to have the only answer but I suspect it lies in more than just the fact that Pigafetta was one of the 18 (out of 250) to successfully circumnavigate, but also in that he was a devoted and accurate chronicler but perhaps most importantly (I’m guessing here) that he was a linguist who was able to successfully translate one of the Philippine languages; he began the ultimately impossible work of bridging the cultural gap of language. He helped lay invaluable groundwork for future exploration and colonization – which, as we know leads pretty inevitably to damage, destruction, and identities forever changed for both colonizer and colonized – much, you see, like love.

The work is new and beautiful, the language is smart, the lines inventive and dazzling, the history is, as the blurb says, necessary, and there are things at stake in this book. That’s the final ingredient that ought to have you going to Black Ocean’s Site and buying the book. The epistles to the lover matter to the speaker, and they come to matter to us, because they are speaking to important questions about how we relate to the other (if you must, the Other) whether she is a lover several states away or a member of an island culture incomprehensible to a 16th Century European scholar. No matter the nature of the journey we return, if we return, perhaps wounded, perhaps enlightened, probably both, but inevitably changed. Pigafetta Is My Wife is worth spending time with not only for its beauty and invention, but because it wants you to think.

Full disclosure: This probably cannot in any way be construed as a purely objective review. I know the author, in fact I was in a number of grad school classes with him and saw some of these poems in earlier draft form. They were good then, they’re better now, and you should buy the book anyway.

30 Minute Writing Challenge

June 28, 2010

My friend and generally intimidating genius over here threw me a challenge tonight; we both write for thirty minutes then critique.

Then the weak punk got too drunk to stay awake long enough to read what I’d written, and to be perfectly honest, I was three minutes late, tops.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote.

Fear and Danger and Loathing and Other Unpleasantness

The danger is in the approach
of the day that evades revision

The light is bad – no
the light is going
and that is not the same.
If the light is bad
it is the wine
that suffers, and
the hand that pours.
Without the light
to show its color
what is the wine
but water
or rotten juice
or the hand but
invisible actor
lost, forgotten
in the cloistering dark

On Love Poetry

I never wrote a poem worth a damn
for a girl. Stuck behind old joys
I would wearily crank
the engine of cliche and phrase.
Oh, I got what I was after,
a fumbling in the doorway
of a bar on a warm May night
But I have never written to or for
or any other preposition
without feeling a little sick,
like winning a rigged game.

In my memory your skin is unfreckled
and veined in its translucence.
But every day was war, an excuse
to force me to prove devotion
or servitude. But no matter
how beautiful your breasts
or how sweet your mouth,
a war of the smallest things,
a dish, a stray word, a phone call,
is not worth fighting. In a dream,
the last I dreamed of you,
I snapped and broke your jaw
with a jab, jab, hook,
that I felt to my toes,
better than any punches
I’ve thrown awake.
Despite all my conditioning
I glowed in triumph and woke
to clenched fists
and my frightened wife.

Note: Please understand I in no way advocate violence against women. I think most people reading this would know that but it seems worth a gloss.
Anyway, is there anything salvageable here?

Small Work

June 15, 2010

I want a log roof, fire
on clean swept stone
A hole above
for the smoke and
small work for the hands
with bone or horn,
antler or leather
and warm honeyed wine.

Note: Just dribbling it out there to see what happens.

Borges Quote (This blog isn’t dead)

May 11, 2010

“There is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition.” – Jorge Luis Borges.
I’ve just finished up teaching Borges for the year, and so much of what he is able to do…to write in a way that calls attention to words and to literature itself, to write in a way that is about the fact that he is writing, that anyone has written or will write or can write or should write…is what I want to be able to do. Of course, I am no Borges and I am not claiming to be.

Even so I think “useless and out of the way erudition” is a descriptor some of my best poems can answer to, or at least I want them to. I’ve also been thinking of this in terms of my utter inability to write a poem that is for or against anything. I admire what poets who engage the political are able to do…hell, I did Irish Studies and my MA thesis was on “Five Belfast Poets,” and you don’t get more political than a poet born in Belfast. This, of course, is somewhat unrelated to Borges, or departing from him, because much of his initial work was rooted in exploration of all things Argentinian, including politics.

Part of me wants to align with Joyce now as well and say that what I would do as an artist (want to do; I haven’t done anything yet) is utterly unconnected to politics. Politics can fuck off; art is above it. Part of me wonders  if that isn’t some kind of cowardice and says “I believe in things; if I am going to write I shouldn’t avoid those things.” And another part of me says that whatever those beliefs are (they are vague and ill-defined anyway) need not ever enter the poetry, that holding them outside of it keeps the poetry better or more pure, or myself more sane.

So at any rate; I think I will try to go with “useless and out of the way erudition.” And try to write some poems about it; this blog is not, despite appearances, dead. I have a number of poems in process and blog posts half finished; thoughts on Joe Hall’s excellent book “Pigafetta is My Wife,” for one, and thoughts on reading Hayden Carruth for the first time, thoughts on teaching poetry and such. The end of the semester/year has been an absolute  bitch of a thing, and will continue to be for another couple of weeks. Expect more regular activity in this space once it winds down and I’m not spending all available free  time grading papers.

Poem Doctor

March 24, 2010

A friend of mine sent me a poem a while ago. He told me that a friend had asked him to write a love poem, and didn’t think the result was very good, but wanted me to look at it. I did. Here’s what he sent:

There is a science of cold
that struggles to some unattainable limit
where the world breaks down
and things blend together
moving in and out of existence
flirting with solidity and substance.
Like the speed of light
Beyond reach of mortals hands
Like any sense of your love for me
Always just beyond reach
Always a fraction of a degree away.
Nothing should be able to be so frigid,
Its a law and the world would shatter
If it were broken.
Yet my heart is unruly
and even now has grown so cold
that it defies science
and rests in that dead space
of absolute zero where no thing
can ever be.

What did I think? Well first I thought it was a little talky. I felt there were some conscious poeticisms and some archaisms that weren’t doing it any good, such as “flirting with solidity and substance” and “Yet my heart is unruly.” I thought the line breaks were unpredictable, and while that’s fine, I didn’t really feel like there was a lot of attention paid to them. I think there has not yet been a poem that can use these three lines

Like the speed of light
Beyond reach of mortals hands
Like any sense of your love for me

So why am I posting this except, perhaps, to demonstrate that I’m a real jerk of a friend, and you shouldn’t send me your poems?

The fact that I thought there were really some standout lines that were worthy of saving. Keep in mind that said friend didn’t ASK me to do this (I’ll let you guess whether he even gave me permission to post the thing). So what did I think should be saved?

There is a science of cold
struggling to unattainable limits
Nothing should be so frigid but
it is a law and would shatter
if it were broken

Is this a finished poem? Is it still a love poem (I’m actually brewing up a ‘what is a love poem and should we bother with them’ post for the future, but it’s in very early stages)? Is it still a poem? I think, no, no, maybe. What do you think? Has my editing saved, destroyed, mutilated, or been utterly worthless?

The Randomized Exquisite Corpse

March 19, 2010

I know in at least one class in graduate school, we played a randomized version of “The Exquisite Corpse,” the famous collective poetry and/or image-making game invented by the Surrealists. I decided to recreate it this week, as I am currently teaching a creative writing unit to 12th graders (perhaps surprisingly, they are taking to it well).

The Rules

I divided them up into groups of 5, and assigned the line pattern of “Adjective Noun Verb Adjective Noun,” with articles or prepositions to be filled in only on a basis of strict necessity. Each member of the group was assigned one of the words by the rolling of a ten-sided die; 1-2 was first adjective, 3-4 first noun, and so forth. Each was to compile a list of 4 of each of the words. Then, we started making lines, once again using dice as a randomizer. The student who had rolled ‘first adjective’ rolled a 4-sided die; a roll of 1, take the first word from your list, 2, the second word, so on. This would result in 3 lines produced randomly, and a 4th line made up of the leftovers. The 4-sided dice were passed around the group until a line was made, then articles, or occasionally prepositions, were inserted. I tried to add that there should be no proper nouns, but a few slipped into the final product (I have chosen not to list any of those results that used proper nouns).

The Results

Posted with the permission of all students involved


The sleep-deprived portmanteau slurred a large apple.

The legless millstone smoked a colorful textbook.

The flexible miter box hallucinated a bushy watch.

The starstruck falchion sundered a powerful collar.


Pink sunlight whispers to a rubbery heart

Stuffy archways panic thick ships

Gorgeous blackbirds tenderized slippery dogs

In watery dungeons exists curvaceous fire


A sharp thicket subjugates the subtle rudder

While the hellish follicle defecates in the flamboyant staircase

The smoky peaks imbue the smooth river

And vivacious aglets smoke, unimpressed, a filament


The intimidating vodka coagulated many sorry bananas

As a fortuitous manicure trusted the dessicated hangar

The enigmatic swingset stabbed the virginal mother

And an isolated incubus deep-fried a torn apple

I particularly like the last lines of numbers 3 and 4, especially an incubus deep-frying an apple, because it carries with it a whiff of Prelapsarian Demonology (the latter of which is something that sneaks into my own poems here and there).

The Purpose

Why did I make my students do this? To many of my students, “poetry” means “feelings.” I try to teach them that yes, poetry may convey emotion but if we’re writing it, it’s probably a better idea to start with words. This game makes them work with nothing but words, and it helps move us along in thinking about poetry as word-play.

A gesture

March 13, 2010

I’m a poet, but I don’t write enough poems. I don’t spend enough time with it. I could say I don’t have enough time…I work three jobs, I have a home life and a social one.

But that would be faint excuse. I once told my friends that if I couldn’t succeed as a poet, it didn’t matter what else I did with my life; I’d be a failure. Smarter friends would say that it would probably be wise to define ‘success’ in terms of something I control, but, at least if we follow Dr. Johnson’s old maxim*, I sure as hell didn’t want to become a poet because I was smart.

Is this blog, this little contribution to the background hum of the internet, going to make me succeed? Certainly not. But it will, I hope, force me to confront more honestly the work I ought to be doing more of.

Your feedback is welcome and appreciated, even if it’s to tell me to give up, move on, find something practical to do with my life. I’ll ignore it, but it’s welcome. You, by the way, means anyone. Old classmates, former students, colleagues, friends, or internet strangers.

One important rule; you’ll never offend me by telling me a poem sucks. There may be others, but I deal with rules all day so I’ll stop at that.

*”No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” – Samuel Johnson