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

for those wonderful people out there in the dark

31 August 2006

Poetry Thursday: Carrying Chase Twichell

This week I carried with me "To the Reader: Polaroids" by Chase Twichell. I've never met Chase, though she will be reading at my university near the end of September, and she's someone I've followed through the years. Her poems are so finely constructed, with every line being confident, surely measured (not necessarily meaning metrical).

About having this particular poem during this particular week--a week of the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, of the dissipation of Tropical Storm Ernesto, of school cancellations, of my own obsessing recently over MFA programs and my own students' futures, and of the usual this and that--her words were more than a little reassuring for me, a prayerful buffering. I was also thinking of our Sprigs, who's going through a rough patch and needs a little quiet and time, as well as a number of my own non-on-line friends who also have certain resiliency and lightness, however slightly sad-toned, and their own persistency and carrying-on. To carry this poem made me think of their burdens, wishing them some ease along the way, especially the poem's closing lines:
May neither of us forsake the other.
The cloud persists in the darkness,
but the darkness does not persist.

28 August 2006

Prose Postscript

I really don't intend to be an apologist for MFA programs, but since the late 70s I've heard over and over the same basic critiques that are either extremely general or that misplace too much emphasis on the centrality of MFA programs in American arts and letters. From Donald Hall's disgust over the McPoem (which I think he's written more than his fair share) to Hayden Carruth's bemoaning of the Iowa "Wrackship" (and Carruth is one of my heroes), to current venemous treatments found in the New York Times and the Foetry web site, these criticisms miss the mark, locating the demise of literature and literacy to these programs.

I want to be very clear here. I think you can be a great writer and never trod a step in any higher education institution. You don't need an A.A., B.A., B.S., B.F.A., M.A., M.A.T., M.Ed., M.F.A., M.B.A., M.S., Ph.D., D.A., D.B.A., Ed.D., M.D., J.D., D.D.S., D.V.M., or any kind of sheepskin to be a great poet. And I would not argue that there is an exact correlation between attending an M.F.A. program and becoming a better (or worse) writer. The argument for the M.F.A. is really individual, about whether or not you want to take 4 to 6 workshops, perhaps 4 literature classes, perhaps take 2 courses in a language, hang out and work with (and maybe against) a dozen to thirty people, read all kinds of literature, attend readings, maybe teach a composition class or two, maybe teach a creative writing class, maybe work as a writing tutor in the writing center, maybe work as an editor at the literary magazine, and then leave with a degree that does not guarantee you any kind of career advancement, that has no real pragmatic ends, after two to three years, then it can be a great, refreshing experience.

For some people, I know that the M.F.A. experience was an unmitigated disaster (could say this is true for any post-graduate degree, of course). They attended a program where it was a hostile, cut-throat environment, where one learned the skills of basic political survival: backstabbing and sucking up. Of course, you can also work in a bank or a co-op organic foods store with the very same dynamics. I also know that the M.F.A. program can be a location of creative group-think, where you have a bunch of like-minded poststructuralist, post-Language, neo-New-York-School, avant-dadaists all gathered together and praising their numbingly conformist works. But I think that happens, has happened anyway (The Fugitives come to mind, so do the Martian Poets, etc.), with or without an academic institution.

To be a great poet, yes, you must read (and I recommend reading far more broadly and deeply and imaginatively than what Prose prescribes), but I also know many poets are social critters, wanting to group, share their work, argue, and disband. An M.F.A. program is one institutionalized and artificial means for that kind of gathering, and that is a good thing. But, of course, there are other gathering places, such as Poetry Thursday, that are every bit as valuable and celebratory and right, and maybe as pointless.

27 August 2006

Francine Prose's New Book

In the New York Times, I came across this review of Francine Prose's latest book about reading and writing. While she offers something of a throwback to the 1940s and 50s Adler's Great Books idea, I do agree with her that good writers are good readers, and that it takes some practice, patience, and pleasure to read with a "writer's eye."

Prose, however, launches into the tiresome and very dated attack against MFA programs, basically arguing that they abandon this discipline. Perhaps some individual programs do. And perhaps it makes for satiric material (Prose caught that wave, too, but that's a cliched topic, really, one that is a stale insider's joke that wasn't that funny to begin with). But few writing programs make the argument that they "teach" how to write. Their usual promise is that they offer an opportunity to be in an artificial and isolated writing community for two or three years. For many, that's a tremendous opportunity. But the idea that MFA programs are ruining literature, creating mediocrity, is giving them way too much credit and importance, is creating a bug-a-boo that has little boo and almost no bug.

Essentially Prose contends that great writing can be learned from reading great literature. This premise was supported, interestingly, by my own MFA and subsequent Ph.D. education in the mid-80s, that hey-day of post-structuralist literary theory. I took seminars on D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and W. B. Yeats. From feminist critic Susan Gubar (who later was my Ph.D. director), I took a class on WW II literature, reading (quite favorably) novels by Mailer and Heller. No, we didn't always read these materials from a writer's perspective, though I was encouraged to do so--Gubar, for one, took me on because I was a poet (like her collaborator Sandra Gilbert) and that I was not deeply beholden to theory.

And one of my creative writing workshops was a class on classical imitations, in which we spent the entire semester reading Ovid and writing our own Metamorphoses. I also had to read in Spanish and French. So I'm kind of wondering exactly what kind of program and reality Prose is writing against, and that's when I suspect it's a kind of convenient fiction she has created.

I allow that I truly grew as a writer after attaining my MFA degree, but it did give me a necessary exposure beyond my own little world in the hinterlands of Idaho. But the best experience for me in the MFA program at Indiana University was that I had to read a great deal, often in the slow ways Prose describes. In my own creative writing classes, I generally do not include writing texts (though I do often use John Dufresnes' The Lie That Tells a Truth, because I need all the help I can get in teaching narrative writing), but just books of poetry and short stories--not anthologies, by the way.

Finally, I recommend MFA programs only to students who seem genuinely interested first and foremost in being engaged in some kind of formal writing community. I never tell them that that's where they'll learn to be a writer. Like nearly every good writing teacher I know, the lesson I do impart is that in order to be a good writer that the very best thing one can do is to read, read, read. You can do that both within and without an MFA program, before or after, inside or outside.

25 August 2006

Being a Good Boy Scout

Today, spent about three hours at the Calusa Nature Center in Fort Myers, cleaning the exterior of the raptor cages. They have about a dozen in all: great horned owl, screech owl, red-shouldered hawk, red-tailed hawk, bald eagle, caracara, turkey vulture, and black vulture. All these animals were severely injured and are unable to return to the wild.

Anyway, cleared off the debris, giving them more sun--though they were plenty spooked and stressed by my presence. So I'm feeling awfully virtuous, especially after rehydrating.

Oh, another great place in the area is CROW, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife, on Sanibel Island. Their wonderful veterinarian, P.J. Deitschel, is just an amazing person--she and the clinic have been featured on Animal Planet. They take in any injured nondomestic critter, and they have a very impressive success rate in returning them to the wild. At least there are a couple of organizations getting it right in Southwest Florida.

20 August 2006

Sabbath/Sabbatical/New Year

Wildflower at the Cabin, Lowman

As I regard it, my professional life started for me in kindergarten (by the way, that's one of my favorite germanic words: children's garden): reading, school, and nap time. In Idaho then there was no public kindergarten, and so I went to Mrs. Bevington's house, about three blocks from my home--five-year-old me, I would walk there, something unthinkable, or nearly unthinkable these days. And so, this week, another start to the school year.

Last week were all the pre-school year meetings, with the college-wide meeting introducing faculty and some song and dance routines by the provost and dean (my dean, by the way, she rocks). Then the departmental meetings: so much about assessment practices and strategic reviews, filling out various state-mandated data forms that some poor soul, some auditor, must review--what a wretched job that must be. Yes, demonstrations on how to teach large classes, with promise of development money for the summer to design your own large class. Easy to become cynical with it all.

So begins the new year for me. The teaching part of my job, which includes a reduced load for administrative duties, is a joy, and this time of the year is fun, seeing the return of favorite students, seeing the fresh and alert new faces of first-year students (that look lasts about six weeks). It's also a time of professional appraisal, discussing with colleagues how much "work" we got done over the summer. Also talk of summer trips abroad, of children and grandchildren, of home renovations.

And so it's Sunday, too, with NPR on, and another day of me not observing the Sabbath, or observing it with our usual Sunday morning routines: drinking coffee, watching Gerri do her morning stretches, tending the birds, listening to Tony Bennett, reading the on-line NYTimes, figuring which nature outing we do today (comical how we conform so rigidly to David Brooks' sociological divisions in his funny On Paradise Drive). But I carry with me all the stuff of my very good Presbyterian upbringing, too.

I'm so down with the idea of Sabbath, of a day of rest and doing nothing--after all, that's the only way we get Walt Whitman or Cole Porter (telling that I pick two gay artists here, but queerness is about trangression, isn't it?). Anyway, there's no praising God if there isn't rest from the business and busyness of commercial life, of trading and huckstering, of buying and selling. I'm so accustomed with my life of Sabbaths, of taking time (I get about four months in all a year, not counting my weekends), this amazing and selfish luxury, and it's all about god-stuff between the recreation and personal upkeep. And so often, I think of the Jesus and God of my childhood, which probably explains the quirky religiosity that is in so much of my poetry.

For the record, I'm deeply an agnostic--what I like to tell people is that I believe everyone else is absolutely right in their spiritual beliefs, and I'll be happy to live with the repercussions. I'm destined for their hells, annihilations, purgatories, other worlds, regressive reincarnations, and nothingness, which is as it should be: I didn't buy the ticket to their heaven, and so I should be excluded, no matter my good deeds and honesty and kindnesses in this world. Fundamentalists of all stripes bore me, but I do generally like individuals who are genuinely devout and love-full in their religion, even if I can't share it with them, and even when I see it pains them slightly when I turn down their gentle-spirited overtures, whether it's the Buddhist or the Mormon. Besides, the religions I tend to prefer are definitely old school varieties, that just are not available any longer. Please don't construe that statement as an overture to Pagans to invite me along; 21st-century manifestations of those old-timey religions and rites are a little sad to me.

Anyway, the practice of religion is what impresses me, the quiet discipline of it (again, I'm really not talking about the fundamentalists and their fanatical fetishizing of religious practices--there's a disorder to that, not a clarification) that really is close to what we talk about with the artist's life. That part I do get, and I admire it when I see it in others: a healthy balance.

Carson, Not Thrilled on the Deer Trail, Stanley

Which leads me to my own relation to my son, Carson. To respect his privacy, I won't go into his spirituality, other than to say that he is an open-hearted and open-minded Christian. I don't think he worries about my own fall from grace, at least not in our talks, but sees that I have my own path. I also think I must be something of curiosity to him, which is a compliment enough, which might be my real purpose, as a father, teacher, and poet: a sign of God's humor, perhaps, for me to be the spiritual equivalent of the platypus.

11 August 2006

Up and Running

Took me two days of flying (thunderstorms in Charlotte plus the delays with the heightened security), but finally got back home to sunny Fort Myers. But all is well, now on the flat, swampy edge of the Everglades. A little different from my time in the Sawtooths with my son Carson, who took this nice picture of me as we were taking a rest from our kayaking.

Anyway, I'm back, and I'll be posting with a little more regularity.