I Am Big. It's the Pictures That Got Small

for those wonderful people out there in the dark

25 June 2006

300 Million, and More Poets in SW Florida

Aside from trying to scare white America that a Hispanic baby or immigrant will push the U.S. population to 300 million later this fall, CNN's report more or less takes the news only as a milestone. What is striking is the focus is on immigration, not on overpopulation. When the official tally went pass 200 million during the Johnson administration, which I remember, were all the stories of overpopulation, most famously by Paul Ehrlich. Of course, I realize how long-out-of-fashion these "doomsayers" are, but CNN doesn't even bring up the issue that the growth in the U.S.--with all its material consumer consumption--does indeed have severe environmental consequences.

In my neck of the woods, in horrendously developing, wetland erasing, mcmansion building Southwest Florida, the growth is a mix of, yes, Hispanic immigration, but primarily of midwesterners and East-Coast Floridians. And yes, I am all too aware of my own presence here that just adds and adds to the slow degradation.

Culturally, though, the infusion of East Coasters is a good thing for SW Florida. We get remarkable artists, most famously Robert Rauschenburg and Jonathon Green, but more recently, the urban expressionist Marcus Jansen, who lives in Lehigh Acres, the most nondescript bedroom community you could imagine. So it is a little less sleepy of a place.

Speaking of which, yesterday I helped my very good friends, Jesse and Lyn Millner, move into their new home. In previous entries, I have written a good deal about Jesse's poetry, and Lyn is an amazing writer, too. It was fun, hot work, with all our friends together, too. But Jesse and Lyn have left Hollywood, Florida, between Miami and Fort Lauderdale, and we will be welcoming Jill Drumm a little later this summer, who is also leaving North Miami for Fort Myers. With Jill and Jesse, we will gain two very wonderful poets to SW Florida, to add to those among some terrific poets, including Jay Hopler (though he's moving to Tampa), my regulars of Kimberly Campanello, Marilyn Koren, Barbara Finkelstein (who's about to leave for another corner of the U.S.), Joe Pacheco, Pat Washington, Lorraine Vail, and Bill Highsmith, and youngish poets Rachel Kazor, Claire Liparulo, Gary Levenson. Of these, I believe only Claire and Rachel are "natives."

22 June 2006

Poetry Thursday: Words We Love, Hate

This week's Poetry Thursday assignment was to write a poem with words we love or hate or both.

Just to goof on this idea, I decided to stitch something of a found poem with segments of President Bush's news conference in Vienna.

Burning Bush

. . . from President Bush's remarks Wednesday, June 21, 2006 in Vienna at a news conference with Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel and European Union President Jose Manual Barroso

We did have a very engaged and fruitful conversation. As we should.
We talked about democracy and new democracies.
We talked about Lebanon.
We talked about Israel and Palestine.
We talked about the Balkans.
We talked about development and prosperity.
Listen, we're trading partners.
And we talked about some of the impediments to capital flows.

Obviously, the Doha round of the WTO was a tough subject.

But the good news is that we were very frank in our discussions.
I mean, the Europeans have problems with the U.S. position.
We have problems with the European position.
We both have problems with the G-20 position.

We got to diversify away from oil.
The E.U. needs to get diversified, as well.

I'd like to end Guantanamo.
I'd like it to be over with.

And step one of achieving a diplomatic success is to share a goal.
And so the second phase of a diplomatic strategy is to have a common front.
And so we've been working with our partners, particularly in that part of the world, to say to the North Koreans that,
“This is not the way you conduct business in the world.
This is not the way that peaceful nations conduct their affairs.”

I was pleased to see that the Chinese spoke out to the North Korean government
and suggested they not fire whatever it is on their missile.

You know, people say what they want to say.

* * * * *

And for a different set of words, let me share a paragraph from Virginia Woolf's 1925 essay, "On Being Ill":

There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional), a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. About sympathy for example—we can do without it. That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you—is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be so accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable. But in health the genial pretense must be kept up and the effort renewed—to communicate, to civilise, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work together by day and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases. Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows is one chair, we raise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to become soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time in years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky.

Dear reader, I'll leave it to you to guess which I prefer.

19 June 2006

Civitella Ranieri

Just learned I have been nominated for a residency at the Civitella Ranieri Center, located in Umbria. Later this summer, I'll be submitting a formal application, and then notification will occur in December for a 2007 or 2008 residency.

My friend Bruce rents a farmhouse in Umbria for his own retreat, as he is now working in Dubai, the DisneyWorld of the Middle East. So it would be very cool to go there (meaning Italy and not the United Arab Emirates), and after, stay with Bruce, and perhaps travel to Northern Spain to visit another friend, Ingrid. Anyway, seeing how the fellows include writers Bei Dao, Jamaica Kinkaid, Nick Drake, Ron Padgett, Pat Mora, Tomasz Salamun, and Anne Waldman, it's simply very cool and humbling to be nominated.

18 June 2006

What Is Wrong with Just Being a Student?

This week, I begin teaching a summer seminar on Virginia Woolf, which has got me to think about my own relationship with my students. I am so happy with that perfect term of "student," and I am happiest in my own work when I think of myself first and foremost as a student, when it comes to my own reading and writing and art especially.

Yes, all too frequently, I am dismayed at what is happening with higher education. No, I don't mean the rather tired criticisms against multiculturalism, political correctness, and leftist indoctrination--the oh-so-80s kind of criticisms waged by Camille Paglia, Allan Bloom, William Bennett, David Horowitz, and Lynne Cheney. What has taken over, really, despite all this attention to culture wars, is the business model, first with TQM, then with "best practices" and accountability and assessment measurements. Indeed, the corporate model has won, with universities downsized, facilities open for branding and product placement, cost-effective adjunct and instructor outsourcing on the rise, and students shouldering the costs for cheaper and cheaper goods.

At my university, I work daily with these new "accountability" practices, and not all of them are heinous. To construct a rigorous strategic plan for an English program does make some sense, and can actually enable faculty to teach more critically, productively, and collaboratively. But so much of the process results in endless paperwork for faculty, keeping us rather busy and occupied, producing binder upon binder of annual reports, just to document our practice toward continual improvement. At its worst, it's a Kafkian joke.

To test my theory, go to your favorite dean's office, and see how much of the shelf space is devoted to binders and how much to books.

Okay, that bureaucratic nonsense I can deal with.

What makes me cringe, though, is the language (and here I hear Orwell weeping). The prevalent current term for "student" is "student/client," which has been in usage for at least ten years. For examples, here are links from a 1997 document from the Bozeman, Montana school system, from the current mission statement of the Gutavus Aldolphus College Writing Center, from the Eastern Kentucky University "Student Client Support" web site, from a 1998 management restructuring report for the University of West Florida. And on your own, you can google the terms "student client" and "university" and retrieve pages from the University of Michigan, University of Illinois, James Mason University, University of Virginia, etc.

The word client is only slightly less crass or passive than the term "consumer," which had its share of usage in the mid-80s and 90s. Client most obviously derives from a linguistic mix of social science and business school lingo, to describe a relationship in which a university is a service provider. Faculty are delivery systems of that service. Students are the clients, who not only receive the information or training, but are expected to use it for their own benefit.

Of course, prostitutes have their clients, as well. University presidents and provosts don't seem to draw out that very apt use of the metaphor.

But what is so awful about the term "student"? It doesn't inherently imply a passive, receptive state--after all, to study is an active, transitive verb. To study is to read, to write, to research, to experiment, to test, to theorize, to argue, to revise, to create, to listen, to discuss, to perform, to play. Besides, a client suggests a person who has a certain defect that requires repair (an individual who seeks counseling for a disorder, for instance) or who has a continued contractual obligation for only so long as he or she is paying for it (an individual who hires a lawyer or marketing firm, for instance). To be a client reduces the role of the student.

To be a student, and only a student, places the primary responsibility of learning on that individual, and that's why we in the business of selling education tend to prefer the soft metaphor "client." It demands less of that person. It's easy to sell. It's a closed-end, time-limited contract. It transforms education into a definable transaction. God forbid that we expect an amorphous, tranformative, unpredictable, and life-long commitment on the part of the student, or that we expect the student to study for no obvious and contractually-defined end (something which cannot be measured, assessed, annually reported, continually improved, best practiced, etc.). Imagine, studying for kicks.

Rather, many university administrators and Education Leadership Ph.D.s prefer the contractual relationship between service provider and client, which is so neat and tidy, dispensable. And perhaps, to be honest, that is a more accurate description of what is occurring in American higher education. The student is dead; long live the client.

Just not in Dr. Brock's class.

07 June 2006

Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf!

Once again I am dipping my toe in Virginia Woolf's The Waves, as I am preparing to teach a summer seminar on Woolf. My dear and most intelligent friend, Kimberly Campanello, and I just had a conversation, full of Woolf-love and giddiness, mutually admiring the harrowing and beautiful genius of her sentences. I really can't think of a better writer, even though I know her faults, especially the too narrow world view (though I would argue the opposite).

So last night, I run across this sentence, from the last section of The Waves, a filtering and absorption of Bernard's perspective, his own private gathering, after a long and exquisite cataloguing of everything:
Our friends, how seldom visted, how little known--it is true; and yet when I meet an unknown person, and try to break off, here at this table, what I call 'my life,' it is not one life that I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am--Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs.

And yes, that is how I feel, and the cross-cutting of this sentence alone amplifies my simultaneous sense of connection and separation, which I think is why I write poetry after all, a cast with and against dissolution.

All of this makes me weepy, mournful and happy, a radiant melancholy as when I listen to Maria Callas singing "Mon Couer s'Ouvre a ta Voix," from Saint-Saen's Samson et Dalila, or when I regard Marc Chagall's Red Lovers--oh, I see the French connections here, too, especially knowing that Woolf's maternal lineage goes to France, as well.

Of course, there will be an occasion during this class where I let it go unhinged, likely saying something about Woolf saving our lives with her sentences, so that one of my very best students will come to me, confiding to me that most of the students "really don't get Dr. Brock," a little too worried about me and how I am doing, when in fact I haven't been happier, to have been apprehended for a moment, and then let go.

06 June 2006

Michael Hettich's Top Ten Book

Congratulations to my friend, Michael Hettich, for having his wonderful collection of poetry, Flock & Shadow, listed as a 2006 Top Ten Book of Poetry by Book Sense.

Besides being way too handsome, Michael has taught at Miami Dade College close to 20 years, and he's become a real fixture in the Miami writing scene. What's terrific for me is that I blurbed Michael's book:
These generous poems proffer lessons on how we are to remain receptive to the world and how we yet may be transformed by it. Over the arc of Hettich's poetry, we come to the truest pleasure in poetry: we see, which is to attend, which is to praise.
I did have a sentence about "not since Wallace Stevens has a poet taught me so much about how to see the world," but that didn't make it on the jacket.

Anyway, for a taste of his work, read his poem "Forgiveness" at Verse Daily.

05 June 2006


This Friday, Gerri and I will go Miami-ing for a week, to celebrate her birthday, and to enjoy ourselves around some old haunts. Miami is but 130 miles from Fort Myers, but it's the same cultural distance between central Ohio and New York City. We just have to go there to recover our bearings.

Of course, top on the list is to visit the best book store in Florida, Books and Books. We'll likely go to the Coral Gables store, which has survived and thrived despite the fact that a Borders mega-store was built a block away about four years ago. Mitch Kaplan, the owner, is one of my heroes.

We'll also go out to listen to Ira Sullivan, a friend from Gerri's old days. In fact, the dress poem below goes back to times when Gerri would go with her friend Iris to dance all night to Ira's music. Little wonder why I'm so looking forward to our little vacation.

No doubt, we'll go to Fairchild Tropical Gardens, The Aviary, The Barnacle, Matheson Hammock, Scotty's, The Colony Theater, etc. Mostly, we'll people watch, enjoy some evenings with old friends, and just enjoy the Miami light.