Seeing each other

Photo cred to my honey, Sean.

May 1. Finally.

After a tough semester, wherein I started out with 122 students in four composition I and II classes, I am finally done grading. I am done with submitting grades. I am done with students…at least until May 6, when my next term starts. It is a small break, but a good one, and it will allow me to send out some submissions I’d neglected in April.

I had hoped to do more writing last month but had to put my goals aside to focus on my students. One of the things I DID accomplish for myself last month was submitting a poem and a picture of my eyes to a project put together by Yoko Ono.

The exhibition is part of a project called “Growing Freedom, the art of John and Yoko.” It features music, written word, images, and I think even more interactive events like yoga and talks. It’s been featured in Iceland and Germany so far, and went up in Montreal on April 25. According to Yoko’s call for submissions, it will continue to make its way around the world.


THE INSTALLATION ARISING WILL CONTINUE TO GROW
AND WILL BE EXHIBITED IN MANY COUNTRIES.

I VERY MUCH HOPE FOR YOUR PARTICIPATION.

– Yoko Ono


Focused on giving women a chance to share “a testament of harm done to you for being a woman,” it sounds like such an interesting way to draw audience participation and raise awareness about a current topic in a new way.

My understanding is that anyone who submits material will have their writing and photo added to the installation. Today I received an email confirming they’d received my work and thanking me for “participating” in the exhibition. I think that means I’m in, but I replied and asked if they could confirm that my submission had been added and maybe even take a picture for me.

If you’d like to submit to the exhibition, you’ll find instructions in the link I shared to the exhibition.

If I hear back, I’ll post an update with the picture. If not, I’ll post an update about the project. Or, if you’d like to learn more, check it out!

The decline of critical thinking

If I say “composition,” what do you think of?

If you’re an artist or photographer, perhaps you think of the way a piece comes together– its composition. That’s a pretty nice association to have with that word. But for many people, I think the word brings up the dreaded high school or college composition class. In my line of work, as a college writing instructor, that’s what I’m talking about, nine times out of ten.

And believe me, that word is just about as cringe-worthy for me as it is for many of my students.

If course, the class is not a struggle for me in the way it is for them; I’ve already figured out what a thesis statement is and I can * mostly * write in an organized manner. What is a challenge for me, however, is grading the papers that my students labor to churn out.

Because I teach online and have truncated semesters (8 weeks for one school, 10 for the other), I have grading deadlines, respectively, of one week and three days. It’s tough to turn around student papers in such a short amount of time and give them adequate feedback, but it is where I spend most of my hours. Pointing out their errors and explaining why they are errors is the only way for them to learn how to do something correctly. That’s kind of a “duh,” statement, I know. But one of the greatest values of a comp class is the way it models and molds critical thought, and I don’t think a lot of people see it that way.

Not only am I teaching my students how to discover, outline, write and support an argument through research, I’m teaching them the importance of thinking critically about the world around them. And especially with persuasive writing, they’re learning the importance of using facts and data to back up a claim, not just stating an opinion and calling it good.

Again, more “duh” statements, I know. But I was just reading a paper about the benefits of getting a technical degree over a four-year liberal arts degree, and I got sidetracked. On the one hand, I completely agree with my student: not all people should pursue a liberal arts degree and the debt that comes with it. (Diving into that issue is a whole ‘nother post.) But on the other hand, this student, who works in a trade industry currently, had written a whole paper full of opinion statements. There weren’t any facts, there was no data to back up claims, and the general assumptions peppering the document could easily be shot down by someone in the know.

And there’s the problem. I’m seeing so many students come into class totally ignorant of how to back up a claim with fact. Yes, yes, they are students and I can’t expect them to know everything, or else what good would I be? I agree. But I’m seeing this more and more in those who’ve grown up on social media, or, in the case of this student, those who don’t come from a background that encourages education. I don’t want this to be a political post, but as I see our government champion more cuts to education while also issuing statements that are not backed in fact, at a time when soundbites reign supreme, I worry about the collective intellect and our society’s ability to spot, source and understand the truth.

We already know high school doesn’t prepare kids for adult life. Now, it seems like they’re not even prepared to navigate the mistruths of our world because they don’t know how to think critically about it.

I went back to my student’s paper halfway through writing this post, and I felt a renewed sense of importance regarding the work. I still don’t like grading virtual stacks of papers, but I’m not one for marching in the streets, either. It seems like grading papers and stressing the importance of critical thinking to my students could become, for me, a form of activism. It’s sort of a nice thought; I’d like to hang on to it when the grading load is heavy and the deadlines are tight.

The nonet

I’ve been buried by rough drafts of persuasive essays this week, so I’m behind in the poetry writing challenge I’ve been writing about. I’m working to get caught up because I really like the idea of ending the month with 30 new poems.

Bam! That is some serious productivity for me!

One of the recent posts I missed featured the nonet, and the word of inspiration was “cousins.” The form itself gave me a fun idea to play around with, but cousins…meh.

Instead, I wrote about a spontaneous trip with a hostel-mate to Buenaventura, Colombia.

Buenaventura

I took a leap and rode off with him
to the coast, where fish still had eyes
on our dinner plates. It was
brash and risky, but I
felt so free, like I
was diving in
without fear
and no
net

It was fun to incorporate the form name into the poem while playing around with coastal/water-related themes, but perhaps it’s just too cute?

Does it matter?

Not a part of Chicago’s subway system, but fitting. Credit to Fancycrave.com on Pexels.com

When I lived in Chicago and would tell people at a party that I was writing a memoir, there would always be one person who’d ask, “What makes you think your life is so special that anyone would want to read about it?” It was almost always a guy, and although this person wasn’t trying to be a dick, it was clear that he really believed that a random person’s story probably wasn’t that special.

I’d tell my inquisitor that I had survived a stroke just a few years before; learning to walk again, do math, drive, FUNCTION, had been a challenge. I wanted to offer hope to anyone who had gone through some similar setback, I’d say. A “Whoa,” or a “Hmm, I’d probably read about that,” would often follow.

Creative writers, especially memoirists, can be labeled as navel-gazers for writing about themselves. Any one of us who writes about life’s experiences could be seen that way, I suppose, if we impart our own spin or understanding on the experiences we’re writing about.

But I’d argue that even if it is not as polished as it could be (like this blog!), writing about the human condition and one’s experience can shed light on something in a new way for a new reader.

Today is day 6 of the poetry challenge I’m participating in, and I’m thinking about all this because of the poem I wrote for our prompt. Descort was the form, and “downtown” was the word of inspiration.

Here’s my crack at it:

Downtown

My favorite schizophrenic
rode the Red line
with me Mondays and Wednesdays.
 The people around us,
the many voices,
added
 to the cacophony of the city.
Oh, how I loved that Chicago grit,
that
you could be
alone in togetherness with so many.


After writing this, I started thinking about “my favorite schizophrenic.” This man would often be on the train when I’d get on in the morning, and he’d ride downtown with me. Somehow, we frequently rode in the same car, and fascinated, I’d watch him have conversations with himself.

Today, I feel so naive whenever I think of him.

Until my time in Chicago, I didn’t understand the depths of mental illness and its correlation to the homeless population.

My only experiences with the homeless were in Bogota, where my mom would always yank me away from staring or trying to give a homeless person a few pesos. Even though she would become a mental health counselor, she never offered any lessons on why the person conducting an invisible orchestra might be homeless.

So as I think about the man, a character in real life, and a person in a poem now (I also wrote about him in grad school), I hope that anyone stumbling across this post takes a minute to learn more about mental health, homelessness and their connections.

These resources are a good place to start
National Alliance on Mental Illness
National Coalition for the Homeless
National Healthcare for the Homeless Council
Mental Illness Policy Org

Posting a few websites is not much, I know. And drawing on my memories to write a poem to fit this “purpose” of completing a challenge could probably be looked on as appropriation by some. But I believe that art can make a difference for others while also allowing the artist to gain something new.



Skeltonic verse

This fun image reminds me of something one might see in Cartagena, Colombia, around the new year. It was also a fun play on the form type I write about below. Credit to Bianca on Pexels.com

In today’s poetry challenge, participants had a couple of things to work with as inspiration. Joe, our “leader,” always gives us a word of inspiration and a poetic form to attempt. We can use one, or both, or neither. I LOVE challenging myself to write to a form, even if I often bastardize it.

Today’s form, however, was a rhyming one. I am not a rhyme-y writer.

So the idea of working with the Skeltonic verse was a little uninspiring. But I liked the idea of working with our word: “countryside.”  Because I’m further challenging myself to write a poem that could work in either of the collections I’m crafting, that word offered a lot of possibility.

I could write about Colombia and all of the landmines buried in the countryside, and/or all of the bodies also buried there.  Or I could focus on something else related to the Colombian countryside. Or I could write about living in rural Minnesota and how I’ve returned to a rural lifestyle despite hating farm life as an adolescent.

Rhyming about land mines didn’t really make sense, and I’m not feeling any wifely or motherly angst today (phew). So I decided to just write about Colombia in general and see what happened.

It rhymes, but I don’t think it works in the way it is “supposed to.” At least I squeezed out a few lines!

Colombia

It’s a foreign, far countryside
with scars that run deep and wide.
It’s a legend that never ends,
a home to Spanish villains
intent on their Dorado
and the gold runs they thought of
as theirs for their heirs
and their kingdoms to come.
But it’s more than a legend,
With its misconceptions.
Land of varied degrees,
It snows in the Andes
and blisters your skin
just to tease.

National Poetry Month

abstract black and white blur book

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

April is National Poetry Month, and the Academy of American Poets has a lot of tools available on their site to help you celebrate. One of those tools offers “30 ways to celebrate” poetry throughout the month.  Check it out!

There are some good options in the list;  numbers 3, 7, 8, 12, 15, 19 and 29 are my faves. Which ones interest you?

My own methods of celebrating include leading a poetry workshop later this month, attending a poetry night and open mic, and participating in a “write a poem a day” challenge with 100+ other poets. We’re on day 2, and so far I’ve cranked out two poems.

As I wrote in my previous post, I’m not a fan of “prompts” to help me write, but so far, the two prompts put forth in the group have spoken to me.  I’d share them here, but I actually think they could become something publishable, so I’ll refrain, at least for now.

I hope National Poetry Month treats you well and turns you on to some new words, forms and poets!

After the flood

Rattle, an online and print publication dedicated to promoting poetry, sponsors (among other amazing things) a weekly poetry challenge. In this challenge, writers must respond to events of the previous week and submit them by Friday.  I’m not much of a “prompt” writing person, mostly because I don’t like to try to make something work around an idea that isn’t mine. No, that’s not ego; its just that I have a hard time feeling inspired by someone else’s idea. So it’s more of an inspiration thing.

Recently, however, I decided to give the poets respond challenge a try.

I grew up in Nebraska, and in the past few weeks, the whole state has been dealing with flooding.  This poem, “After the flood,” is a response to that.

After the Flood

Yesterday, we watched the Niobrara River,
hungry for years, open wide
and swallow our world.
She took the corncrib, the house,
and everything we’ve worked for
all these long, hard years.
Great-grandpa Joseph dug the well by hand
and kerosene lantern in the 1880s.
He dug deep to hit the Ogallala Aquifer,
said he wanted to give his descendants
the gift of easy access to water.
With my headlamp on, this morning
 I watched my daughter’s newborn 4-H calf
struggle against unending bounty,
take its last, wet breath, and float by.
She’ll understand that her 4-H season is over —
she’s lost a calf before. But I don’t know how
to explain the move to town, how to tell her
that our life on the farm is over.

 

I heard back from Rattle yesterday; I didn’t “win” the challenge. But that’s OK. With hundreds or maybe thousands of submissions, I knew it was a long shot. And it was just fun to try and respond to a prompt that allowed me to be inspired by whatever spoke to me.  If you’d like to read the poem that “won” (rightfully so, it’s great!),  you can read it here.

 

 

The push to publish

Taking a look at old poems.

I don’t work for an institution that requires me to publish work as part of my role there, but as a student of such places, I believe it is important to actively work toward publication. Publication offers a sense of accomplishment and pride in one’s work, and it also shows others that one knows a thing or two about writing. As a writer in general, I feel like I do enough publishing with my freelance work to feel “validated” as a professional writer. However, getting my creative work out to a wider audience has value in other ways. For one, it gives my students a chance to see the kind of work I do. It also might inspire random readers.

But finding time to write and then shop my creative work around is difficult. And it can be frustrating to receive three rejections in a row. But last year I was at a writing conference, and one of the presenters told participants that she aims to get 100 rejections a year. Out of that number, she said, surely there will be a few acceptance letters!

I appreciated her insight, but I didn’t do anything with that push until the end of the year. I just didn’t have time. Really, what I mean is I didn’t have the energy. But over Christmas break, I sent work out to five places. I’ve heard back from two with rejections. I’ve reached out to one with a friendly, “hey, have you looked at my work, it’s been four months), and I’ve had two pieces placed in an anthology (more on that later!).

These small successes have pushed me to keep up with publishing efforts this year, and I’ve been working on new pieces, tweaking old pieces and writing cover letters. It’s only Monday as I write this, and I’ve already submitted work to a journal and have cover letters ready to go for two others.

Sometimes inspiration strikes, and the writer jams out 1000 words. Most of the time though, writing is a deliberate, slow act. I find that as long as I think of the publishing process in the same way, as a slow, deliberate act, it somehow feels less daunting.

Here’s to 100 rejections in 2019!

Revising, returning

Before I started teaching, back in 2010, my friend Joey told me he thought the experience would be good for me. Not just as part of my new career path, but for my work as a writer.

  You’ll learn new things and work on craft, he said. Teaching will help you develop your own work, too.

I knew he was probably right, but I couldn’t imagine that my students themselves would have a lot to teach me about the writing process. I remembered what it was like to be a student and whip out a paper at the last minute. My own process had changed,  a bit — I didn’t procrastinate as much then as I had in my  days as a student — but it was nowhere near as refined as I knew it needed to be. And let’s be honest. My process is still crap.  I put off my writing, tackling all manner of other things before turning to my desk or notebook or laptop; I still hate revising and editing; I don’t like to slow down enough to really give even my rough drafts the development they need. I guess all that leads to why I love blogging — it is all a brain dump, no editing needed, for me.  And yet… even in that thought it’s clear my process is crap. I don’t write here, regularly anymore. I write here almost never. And now that I’m not working in a corporate communications job, let’s face it. My writing is pretty much reduced to the notes I leave on student papers.

There’s merit to those notes, of course.  It’s been nearly seven years since Joey pointed out that teaching would enlighten me, and he was, of course, correct.  And when I write out suggestions, praise, admonishment for plagiarism, I’m still learning new things.  And as I near that seven-year mark, I am pretty stoked that the teaching work I took up back then has turned into a lifestyle and career.

And so. I am back at the keyboard. Earlier this week I had the pleasure of meeting the author who inspired my work as a grad student and represents the nexus of writing and a  simple life and a literary life: Scott Russell Sanders.

scott

I could say there is something amazing about meeting your literary heroes, and it would be an accurate statement. When I met Tom Wolfe in 2004 I cheesed out HARD, especially when he asked questions about my writing, my work (I was an intern at NBC news in Washington, D.C.) and my writing goals. But I met the writer Barbara Hurd in 2011, and she let me down when she told me anyone’s idea is fair game for a writer.  If I had a good one while in workshop with her, she’d capitalize on it.

So as I waited to talk face-to-face with Sanders after his craft lecture and his reading, I wasn’t sure that I’d have any great literary epiphany. I had been wanting one, sure. But I didn’t expect one.

And in the end, I didn’t have one.  I gave him some tomatoes from the farm and we talked about heirloom plants. I told him his work had inspired my during grad school, and we talked about the MFA program at Chatham University.  I had wanted to ask him about his writing process, how he works with his ideas, how an essay comes to him.

But I didn’t.  Because it doesn’t matter.

As I drove home, I was grateful to have met him. He didn’t say anything that inspired me to work on my writing again, but as I listened to his and other instructors’ thoughts on the writing process, and as I thought about why we write, I knew that I just had to do it. I just had to make time for writing in my life. And no matter how my students write or what they teach me or how they keep me *too busy to write* I need to just make it happen.  No one’s process matters but my own.

Banapple bread

I have the best of intentions with bananas, buying them as I cruise the fruits/veggies section at the grocery store,  thinking I’ll have a healthy, portable snack for work in the week to come. But I hardly ever get the whole bunch  taken care of (I buy like, 3 at a time) before they go all Mr. Burns on me. So I freeze the things, they pile up in the freezer like dead slugs, and I eventually decide to make banana bread or some other variation of banana food stuff.  Well, this week I had 2 apples going all soft and wrinkly too, so I decided to dice up the apples and dump ’em in with the naners.

Behold,  banapple bread. It tastes pretty much like regular banana bread, but there’s an added  moisture, and an added sweetness. I used my food processor to  dice up the apples real fine, but next time think I’d like to have a bit more mass to them.

I used my favorite banana bread recipe, from the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, then just added my apples into the  wet mix that goes into the dry.  Since I made muffins instead of  a loaf, I only  baked the batter for about 35 minutes.

Banapple bread

2 C flour
1 1/2 t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
1/4 t cinnamon
1/8 t nutmeg
2 eggs
3 ripe bananas
1 C sugar
1/2 C cooking oil

First, mix all your dry ingredients except for the sugar.  The above recipe is the BH&G one, but I always add some ground ginger to my mix, about a 1/4 or 1/8 t.  In another bowl, mix the wet ingredients and the sugar.  Since my bananas came from the freezer, they had thawed and  were very wet. If you use this method, make sure to drain some of the liquid from the bananas before mixing all the other ingredients in. In addition to the above, you’ll also add your diced apples– I had 2 on hand, so that’s what I used, but I think the other elements of the batter would be ok if you had another apple or two.

Once you’ve mixed the wet ingredients with the sugar, dump that into the dry ingredients’ bowl, and stir. Batter will by lumpy, but you don’t want any flour clumps, either.  After you’ve given it  a few good mixes, spoon your batter into muffin tins or a bread loaf. Bake about a half hour (give or take, depending on muffin size, altitude, etc.), and voila! Banapple bread. Slather with butter and consume heaven.