My continuing troubled relationship with poetry


“A Sober Poetry Reading at Brickbat 09” by Jeremy Tenenbaum. Used under CC license.

April is National Poetry Month.  The only significance to this post is that I remembered that last night and found myself falling down one of my favorite YouTube rabbit holes–spoken word poetry.  Otherwise, that’s about it.

Okay, not entirely.  After finally shutting my computer down, I picked up my notebook and began scribbling some verse, which is something I don’t do very often.  I consciously stopped writing poems in college when I realized that I was really aping my professor’s style so I’d get an A and even then, the poetry wasn’t particularly great.  But I will admit that every once in a while, I jam one out in the notebook because it’s a way for me to write something personal that isn’t about pop culture or isn’t about teaching.  It’s also nothing that will see the light of day unless you bug me enough (although funny enough, I threw one into an “anonymous poetry” assignment last December, so my 10 advanced class read one of my poems aloud without knowing it).  And I will admit that watching poetry being read or recited makes me want to get behind a mic and do it, although then I realize that despite my current job I have a low threshold for embarrassment.

Anyway, the other reason that I had been finding it hard to write poetry (and honestly some more personal types of essays while we’re at it) is that when I look at the poetry I have written over the now many years, I see that many of my topics were well-suited to someone who is in their formative years and not on the brink of middle age.  Granted, I probably have the maturity of a 15-year-old at times (and some of the people in my life have seen me demonstrate this in spades), but writing poetry about having crushes on girls when you’re 39 is kind of weird.  However, I don’t know how ready I am to go down the road of saying that the woods are lovely, dark, and deep and all that.

At a glance, poetry really seems to fit those who are young or those who are old because they either have the fire and passion that comes with inexperience or they have the flicker of a long-used candle.  And I never actually thought that there would be a point where I felt that I had lost my voice.  I mean, despite all of the business and stress in my life, I still find time to write and some of those blog entries and podcast episodes get personal, but even then it’s personal reflection within the context of nostalgia.  So I’m not actually getting personal so much as sharing personal memories.

I’ve tried to remedy some of this by finding inspiration in reading a variety of poetry.  I enjoy the passion and the idealism found in a Brave New Voices or Button Poetry video, but I also enjoy the simplicity and wit found in a poem by Billy Collins or Ted Kooser.  Still, I don’t know if anyone one will find it inspiring or even interesting if I wrote about a life of suburban domestication.  Do these lines inspire you?:

I make sure to wash my hands
after pouring bleach
into the washing machine.
This is my favorite T-shirt
and I don’t want to ruin it.

Yeah, not exactly.

All this, however, begs the question with which I am going to close this post.  Does poetry … does writing have to come from a source that appears “interesting”?  Can the mudane, the everyday be inspiring?  Have thousands of “writer types” in undergrad and MFA progams who flock to readings with the pretense of “being deep” ruined the act of writing for those who don’t fit their mold?

Maybe I’ll write about that.

The Object of Poetry

Michael Stipe & Natalie Merchant / Night Garden Music ©1993
I found this photograph
underneath broken picture glass
tender face of black & white
beautiful, a haunting sight
looked into an angel’s smile
captivated all the while
from her hair and clothes she wore
I’d have placed her in between the wars

Was she willing when she sat
and posed a pretty photograph
to save her flowering and fair
for days to come
for days to share
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
forever more

I found this photograph
in stacks between the old joist walls
in a place where time is lost
lost behind where all things fall
broken books and calendars,

Letters script in careful hand,
the music to a standard tune by
some forgotten big brass band

From the thresh hold what’s to see
of our brave new century
television’s just a dream
of radio and silver screen
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
forever more

Was her childhood filled with rhyme
or stolen books of passion crimes?
was she innocent or blind to the
cruelty of her time?
was she fearful in her day?
was she hopeful? did she pray?
were there skeletons inside
family secrets sworn to hide?
did she feel the heat that stirs
the fall from grace of wayward girls?
was she tempted to pretend
in love and laughter until the end?
Over spring break, I was talking about R.E.M. with a friend of mine for a future episode of his podcast, and over the course of our conversation, this song that the band recorded with Natalie Merchant in 1993 (which is around the time the band was riding the success of Automatic for the People and Merchant was nearing the end of her tenure as the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs) was mentioned and while we didn’t spend too much time analyzing it, we both agreed that the song is excellent

After the conversation, I wound up listening to “Photograph” again, and while there are a lot of times when R.E.M.’s lyrics border on the indecipherable, the lyrics here are actually more clear even if they are pretty complex. My first thought, upon first hearing it, was to compare it to the Jackson Browne song “Fountain of Sorrow,” but giving it another listen, I realized that the beauty in this particular song is that neither Merchant nor Michael Stipe know who the person in the photograph is.

It all reminds me of the early 2000s when I would waste time at work by looking at things posted to Found Magazine, which was devoted to trying to tell the story of objects that users had found. Many times, they related the circumstances that led to finding and keeping the object; other times, they were more about trying to tell that object’s story, in the same way that the lyrics are doing here.

The English teacher side of me loves this song, as does the writer side, because it lends itself to such a great multifaceted writing exercise. Of course, there’s the idea that I could take the time to tell the story of the photograph and answer the questions that they’re asking, similar to how I have often used Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse” as a springboard for a writing assignment. There’s also the possibility of describing the photograph based on the questions–as in, what about that photograph would lead someone to ask those questions?

And then there’s the objects that we own or don’t own that have stories behind them. Granted, you don’t need to study this song in order to create that assignment, but this would serve as a great model for any student looking to write the story of an object. If it’s something a student already owns, there is description and there is reflection; if it’s something the student doesn’t own (i.e., I gave them a photograph of people they didn’t know without any context), there is indulgence of curiosity and creativity, and also perhaps some self-reflection of the way that we judge people based on what we see.

I think poetry as a genre works really well, especially in this case, because it forces a person to stretch themselves. I could provide a prompt with a journal response, but that’s too simple and might result in some sort of bland description. This song, “Photograph,” and other poetry about the objects in our lives, goes deeper than that, asking questions that may not have answers and providing answers because it’s in our nature to want to do that.

The Writer, the teacher, the student, and the trunk

One of the most important things ever said about teaching English from one of the most important Connected Educators out there is this:

“It’s no great secret that most English teachers aren’t published writers.”

It’s a sentiment that’s important.  In fact, it’s so important that I think it should be its own graphic, complete with a background and different fonts.

Background image by Nic McPhee.  Used under cc license.

Background image by Nic McPhee. Used under cc license.

There.  That’s better.

I am sure that there is some truth to this–after all, there are probably more high school English teachers in the United States these days than there are published writers (I guess … it’s no great secret that I’m not doing research on statistics here), but does the truthiness of the quote in that graphic provide any insight other than the speaker wants to look down upon those who are “just teachers?”

I honestly don’t think so.  Although if you hold this truth to be self-evident and ask why most English teachers aren’t published writers, you’ll find a number of English teachers who, while they don’t have Random House beating down their doors, may have something written somewhere.  I have a handful of articles and a self-published novel of questionable quality (which doesn’t really count, right?) and I also have three trunk novels.  I know a couple of colleagues–past and present–who have similar writings and when the topic has come up, the biggest reason for not having more “out there” as you would put it is simply that, well, aside from commitments to family, grading 100-120 papers on a regular basis can get in the way of writing.  But I also know colleagues who don’t feel the need to go out and write novels and who are simply great at teaching English (but I think that would make them “inauthentic” or something).

Now, the question I want to raise is considering that there are English teachers out there who have writings the world will never see, is it okay to reveal this to students?  Furthermore, is it okay for us to tell students about how a significant amount of writing actually never sees the light of day?

Our current culture of education, especially the cult of the Connected Educator, would answer that with a resounding “NO!” because there is an obsession, it seems, with publishing because of publishing’s “authenticity.”  Furthermore, to tell a burgeoning writer that he or she may write quite a bit that never gets published and read isn’t exactly encouraging.  If you have written something, put it out there.  Put it out there, put it out there, put it out there, put it out there.  No matter the quality.  Because if you don’t, then you’re obviously not doing things right.

But I come from a place where if something is to be published, it has be ready to be published and if you want to really write you have to understand that it’s often work and it often takes more time than you think it does.  It takes a lot of self-awareness, self-critique, and the ability to take both criticism and rejection from others.  It’s kind of like trying to get a date.

Anyway, I’m not exactly going to dole out advice that says tell little kids that their writing needs work and that they can’t show off what they did because it isn’t “publish-worthy,” but as they reach middle and high school, I can’t see how simply putting out product that’s “done” and then offering up praise because of the simple completion of a task is acceptable.  Being told “you’re great” as a teenager never prepared me for the point where I was around better writers, nor did it prepare me for the tough criticism I received of my own writing.  While I had excellent grades coming out of high school, I didn’t have the best self-esteem and learning that my writing wasn’t as great as I thought it was caused me to be extremely self-conscious about it, which is something I occasionally struggle with to this day.

That’s not to say that I am the product of a terrible education; in fact, I’ve always been incredibly grateful for the education I received.  But in being a teacher myself, I want to create an environment where that doesn’t feed the beast of entitlement.  I certainly point out what is good, or even great, about my students’ writing; however, I also tear it apart the same way I bloody page after page of my own writing.  Not every student will respond positively to this, although not every student will go on to aspire to be a writer.  In that case, I work with them on how to become solid enough in their writing so they won’t cringe every time they’re asked to do a writing assignment.  Writing, after all, is work.  But it’s work worth doing.

As for me, I have no idea if my trunk novels will ever see the light of day.  There’s too much of me Mary Sue-ing myself into them and one was so impossible to revise that I abandoned it halfway through the second draft.  It doesn’t suck entirely, but bits and pieces of it that I love are not enough to make a whole novel.  What I do with it now, though, is tell my students about it and use it as an example of how with writing, you take the good and you take the bad (take ’em both and there you have …) and those perceived failures are important lessons in developing your craft.

Then again, what do I know, right?

What Joan Rivers taught me about creativity and grit

The Hollywood Squares, circa 1986-1987.  Joan Rivers at center.  Not pictured: JM J. Bullock.

The Hollywood Squares, circa 1986-1987. Joan Rivers at center. Not pictured: JM J. Bullock.

I knew who Joan Rivers was when I was very young and she was the center square on the mid-1980s version of Hollywood Squares, the one hosted by Jon Davidson’s hair (and Davidson himself).  I think I found her funny because I was growing up on Long Island and she sounded like half of the old ladies I would see when I went out in public or went to visit my extended family (read: loud with a thick New York accent).  I honestly don’t remember if she actually was funny but I do know that she was one of only a few comedians I knew by name (Phyllis Diller, and anyone who had shown up on Win, Lose, or Draw were the others).

In junior high and high school, I’d become a much bigger fan of comedy because of specials like Robin Williams’ A Night at the Met, Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer, and shows like Comic Strip Live and Seinfeld. She next showed up on my radar when she began red carpet commentary for E! and I began seeing my wife, who is a huge fan of fashion, but it wasn’t until we sat down and watched the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work that I really felt like I got to know her.

If you’re not familiar with the documentary, it is both a biography of the comedienne and a look at what was going on with her life and career at the time, which was in an interim period between a prior gig on E! and the launch of her weekly show, Fashion Police.  Rivers put together a one-woman show that debuted in London but did not fare well at all, she continued to play spots in Vegas as well as in other comedy clubs, and had a falling out with a manager who was unreliable.  It gave her a vulnerability and humanity that you wouldn’t often see in her act.

More importantly, it showed just how hard she worked.  Rivers had some major setbacks in her career–she pissed off Johnny Carson, for instance–and yet she continued to come back.  Was it the result of luck?  Perhaps things did bounce her way from time to time, but what I got out of the film was that it was because of her … well, her grit.

At some point in the last year or so, “grit” became a buzzword and then became derided because … oh I don’t know, it’s not the thing that Innovative Educators™ subscribe to or something.  But whenever I have read a biography of someone who is known for his or her creativity or seen a documentary about same, I always notice how much grit and determination they have.  Rivers worked.  And worked.  And never stopped working.  She was incredibly talented and incredibly creative, but she clearly understood that creative success takes more than talent; it takes serious work.

I hear too many Educators treat creativity with kid gloves, acting as if the slightest criticism will destroy any spark of creativity a student has.  Sure, there is age-appropriate criticism and me telling my seven-year-old son that his artwork has no concept of anatomy or no form would be incredibly ridiculous on my part.  But I don’t teach second grade; furthermore, I set high expectations and one of those expectations is that “oh, it’s good enough” is not a true statement.  You think it’s “good enough?”  Then you obviously didn’t do enough.

The best teachers I had were the ones that challenged me and didn’t take less than my best, even in areas that weren’t my specialty, from my first grade teacher who encouraged me to read and build my vocabulary to my calculus teacher who rode all of us as hard as he could to my father who never turned down an opportunity to prep and re-prep me for the AP Biology exam.  And yet, they’d all be lumped into “those teachers” because, oh, I don’t know, they weren’t Connected Edcuators™ or Innovative Educators™, didn’t use enough #edtech, used old methods, or don’t have a book to sell about the 40 best methods to use something.  But they were the first to show me the importance of both effort and follow-through.  Not only that, they all taught me that you didn’t quit when you were in trouble; you kept going.

It didn’t matter if I thought her act or her comments on Fashion Police were funny; when I saw Joan Rivers, that’s what I thought of.  Here was someone who knew from rejection, who knew from setback, who knew that hard work and grit combined with talent and a love for your work is how you succeed.  And who also seemed to be very grateful for that success.  I’m certainly going to miss seeing her every Friday night, but I’m grateful for what I learned.