creative writing

My continuing troubled relationship with poetry

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“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.

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In defense of a notebook

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This is my writer’s notebook. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

I was trawling eduTwitter recently and came upon someone’s tweet where they were talking about writer’s notebooks and how introducing students to “digital notebooks” might “breathe life” into the old process.  I have to admit that I was a little confused when I read it because I didn’t realize that the idea of a writer’s notebook needed life breathed into it.  Then again, I have been keeping spiral-bound writer’s notebooks for more than 20 years, so maybe my habits as a writer are not a good guide.  After all, I haven’t had enough legitimately published to actually be considered a writer, and a very powerful and experienced Connected Educator Thought Leader did once write, “The unspoken truth about teaching writing in schools is that few people doing so are published writers themselves,” so I am pretty irrelevant.

But let’s just assume for a moment that the ideas I have about writing are actually worth considering.  I mean, they aren’t–I checked my blog stats recently and seven people read my last post, so I am the furthest thing from a Thought Leader–but indulge me for a moment, if you will.  I see what the person I paraphrased in my opening sentences was saying:  this generation of students feels more comfortable with a screen instead of a piece of paper, so digital notebooks are the way to go.  I don’t see how digitizing a writer’s notebook will be a solution to any perceived problem in students’ writing; if anything, that is a very #edtech solution or strategy, like giving Malibu Stacy a new hat.

The issue with writer’s notebooks in English class is not the method by which they are kept; it’s the logistics involved in keeping them at all.  I started keeping a writer’s notebook in my creative writing class as a high school senior and what that helped me realize was the value of habitual writing.  Yes, the notebooks were checked for journal grades at the end of the quarter, but I wound up writing way beyond that because Mrs. Taber had more or less instilled within me that this was a place for a free flow of ideas that wasn’t being questioned, judged, or assessed.  Full disclosure, though: I was an honors student and you didn’t need to convince or bribe me in order to get me to do my work.

Which, by the way, is where the first problem lies.  When we seek to make habitual writers out of our students through notebooks, we have to acknowledge where we start and that may be with the following:

  • students who don’t even own a notebook or bring it to class
  • students who bring their notebooks to class but do absolutely nothing when it comes time to write
  • students who immediately ask, “Do we have to hand this in?” and don’t do anything when you say, “No.”
  • students who will do the assignment but will half-ass it because it’s not for an immediate grade.
  • students who take that time to socialize, text, play games, or go to the bathroom.

 

This, of course, sounds like I am blaming students for all of my faults and that I am hurting children by my very presence, but I list those to illustrate why teachers seem dismissive when it comes to student writing or how they may end up defaulting to a canned assignment instead of a more creative, free-writing environment.  It’s born of frustration, and often of frustration that is amplified because it’s multiplied 100 times.

And let’s be honest, notebook checks can be very time consuming and may or may not be helpful.  If I assign points and grades to “what’s in the notebook,” I am continuing the ritual of Pavlovian grading.  If I don’t grade on quality, I am giving students the impression that this is busy work and not worth their time.

But how does one get better at writing if they’re not … writing?  And how do I, as a 10th grade English teacher, approach undoing what might be years of bad habits and expectations when it comes to writing, like length requirements, sentences per paragraph, and all of the other nitpicks that teacher drove into their heads in the name of “good writing” and “proper English”?  And is a digital notebook really the solution to this?

I happen to work in a building where technology is a crap shoot.  It may not always be available and when it is there may not be enough to go around or something might go belly-up to prevent its proper use.  Add to that user/student issues–they can’t remember their account passwords or never learned how to actually work a particular application because everyone assumed they were digital natives or something.  And while we’re working to improve this, there are still people in my own district who are not aware of the problems.  No joke–I had a conversation with a teacher from another school who was genuinely surprised that we weren’t a 1:1 school.  So a digital notebook that you’d use every day?  Not really.

As I said up top, I don’t see how keeping a notebook digitally “breathes life” into anything.  In fact, I think it would kill it.  The average blog post takes me a ridiculous amount of time to write when I am writing online because I am constantly distr–

I’m sorry, there was a Twitter notification.  Where was I five minutes ago?

I encourage paper notebooks because of the silence and the solitude.  It may be hard for a teenager to slow themselves down and focus on one task that doesn’t have a lot of noise for a few minutes, but that can prove beneficial, and the permanence of the ink on the page as a draft allows for more ownership than something typed.  The notebook is where everything is rough, where things nobody was meant to see dwell, and where the seeds for better, more complete works are planted.  It’s a device that doesn’t need anything for it to work and if we’re going to push this idea of comfort and choice and freedom, we shouldn’t push technology that can actually in an ironic way be constraining because it’s tied to a particular application or infrastructure that may not always be there.  I know this isn’t an innovative thought and therefore it’s invalid, but in the last twenty years, I have flipped through old notebooks more than I have accessed old files on a hard drive.  In some cases, I’ve laughed at how badly I was writing when I was 18 or 19; in other cases, I’ve revisited poetry or essays that I drafted and forgot about a decade ago.

There was never a need to “breathe life” into a writer’s notebook with something new and shiny in the way a pill will solve a problem that a change in diet would actually solve.  Yes, we should embrace the way technology and how our students interact with the world has changed as a result.  But that doesn’t mean pandering, and it certainly doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

But hey, I’m not a published writer myself, so what do I know?

The Object of Poetry

PHOTOGRAPH
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.