Monday, August 29, 2005

Very Sharp Pencil. Too Much Eraser?

Just finished Sam Swope's I Am A Pencil, chronicling his time as a teaching artist with grammar school kids in New York City. It's a good read (you can find the first chapter here), and a valuable one if you are as interested in teaching artistry as I am. The book discusses many of the exercises that he does with one particular group of students, including a year-long one in his last year with them. It also highlighted for me some interesting issues about the concept of artist as teacher.

First, in the preface, he points out that he's corrected most of the children's poems and stories for grammar and spelling. And throughout the book, he provides evidence of his own examples of correcting them live in conversation. I have two small issues with this. Is it the role of the teaching artist to make such corrections? I regard the TA's primary task as infusing kids with energy and appreciation for the arts, and correction is at best neutral, and at worst counter to this. But this particular group of students were largely immigrants or first-gen Americans born to immigrant parents; should you reinforce "proper English" with these kids whenever the chance appears?

Because he spent three full school years with the same class, he got to know them well, and he discusses their personal issues in some detail, and his involvement with their lives and their young academic careers. I guess I was surprised at how much fifth graders were willing to discuss with Swope in his role, and how much he seemed to be able to influence them, and they him. One thing he alludes to but I don't think did very well was suspending his own feelings in trying to reach the kids. I think you need to be neutral-to-encouraging with a side of safety whenever you are dealing with children and you are not in a position of authority over them. By definition, the teaching artist is not the authority in a classroom; that's the teacher's job.

I Am A Pencil is definitely worth reading for a sense of the potential of and problems in the teaching artist's experience. You will learn a few new tips for teaching, but you'll learn much more about what writing and relationships can mean to children.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Best Bio Ever

This is from The Onion, where Wil Wheaton writes the Games of our Lives column for The Onion A.V. Club.

When Wil Wheaton (contributor) was in 9th grade, his English teacher, Mrs. Lee, told him that he'd never amount to anything because he was "a stupid actor" and "the worst writer [she'd] ever known." Wil would like to thank Mrs. Lee for her inspiration, and invite her to kiss his ass.

Though she was a little more gentle with me than that, Wheaton's experience reminds me of my 11th grade English teacher, who tried for six months to fit my writings into a 5-paragraph essay format, with the net result only of her disliking me and me disliking the grades she gave me. When we got to poetry, we began to undersand each other. After I handed this cinquain in, we got along fine.

fluent artist
adding to English class
a moment's sojourn from boredom*
to beauty

* - of course, I changed this word to "grammar" before turning it in. Weakens the piece, but you have to know your editor's preferences, after all.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Beat the Block

Writer's block is nonsense. Writer's distraction, writer's apathy, OK. And in my case, it's the old writer's-need-to-play-StarCraft compounded by writer's laziness. But there are ways to shock yourself out of the unproductive times. One such is Leevi Lehto's Google Poem Generator. After playing with it for a while (and creating something Mr. Lehto generously posted to his Google Poem Anthology) I find seed lines running through my head again. The trick is to collect enough seeds to do something useful with.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Commish Speaks on Beer League Poetry

Jilly linked yesterday to an interesting article comparing poets without poetic training to weekend athletes. High school teacher Rob Keast writes:

I am proposing that we lower our expectations of amateur poetry, along with all amateur art. At the next wedding, when the toast turns into verse, just relax. Grade amateur poets on a lower scale, as we do adult amateur athletes and amateur gardeners. Forgive the once-a-month poets their lack of degrees, their ignorance of who Charles Simic and Adrienne Rich are, and even their banal observations. Amateur poetry should be as free from expectation and awkwardness as the beer leagues are.

Finally, I see a reference to define my position on the subject. Mr. Keast is right and wrong. Yes, there should be an equivalent low-pressure venue for amateur poets as for amateur softball players. But - and this is the the critical point for me - just as you wouldn't send onto the softball field someone wearing a hockey mask and bowling shoes, you* cannot send to the microphone someone who does not own a poetic softball bat - who does not own and use some of the tools of poetry.

I don't expect the open-mic readers in my series to be able to quote Frost or talk about ways to teach poetry to 6th grade English classes or know which journals are prestigious, which are well-respected and which proliferate crap. I don't expect them even to know if their own work is any good - even accomplished poets often struggle with that. But I do expect them to know what makes their poems different from prose, and their prose different from poetry.

For much of my audience, this means rhymed stanzas. That's fine. Even if I don't care for it, I respect that they attempted to craft something into a poem.

The foul line, the rules of courtesy, the scoring system... even beer league bowlers know there are rules.

*A note on "you": here, I'm talking about poets and reading series hosts with an educational component to their job descriptions. If you take seriously the act of spreading the art of poetry - no matter what way you practice your own poetry - then it's "you" I'm talking to here.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Funnies Business

Warning: Subject about to be taken way too seriously for far too long.

My local newspaper is having a week-long debate about the funny pages. The editors are considering changes to funny page content, and are soliciting input. It's a good idea:

The usual technique is for the newspaper to cancel the strip most disliked by the editors. Readers get up in arms, complain bitterly, and the comic is either restored or not.

We'd like to avoid that seemingly inevitable two-step. It doesn't work for us, and more importantly, it doesn't work for you. It's nothing but an exercise in aggravation for nearly everyone.

That's where you come in. Over the next few weeks, we'd like your help in guiding us in our upcoming evaluation. We'd like you to tell us who in your house reads the comics, and what you expect from those pages.

- from the Newark Star-Ledger, August 7 2005

Reader comments have been all over the map and fairly predictable, ranging from "keep the funny pages funny - put politics elsewhere!" to "I appreciate a thought-provoking comic aimed at my generation." I've been up and down that continuum myself, finally arriving at a comfortable place thanks to comments from my wife and Penn Jillette.

Critical point #1: After listening to me spew how "even though I've loved Peanuts for 35 years but shouldn't we let the strip go with Sparky's memory", my wife asked me a simple question: Who are the funnies for? Simple question. I'll come back to the answer.

Critical point #2: Studio 360 interviewed Penn on The Aristocrats movie. It's a brilliant idea and I can't wait to see it, but that's another issue. He made a simple point about the language: The movie's tagline is "No sex. No violence. Unfathomable obscenity." If you're surprised by the cussin', you either walked into the wrong theater, or you're looking for a fight. You're not being set up - you knew what you were getting into.

Back to #1: My daughter has fallen in love with the comics. We sometimes sit down and read them together, and she winds up asking me - repeatedly - "what's funny about this one?" Well, nothing. Often it's "nothing I can explain", sometimes it's just plain "nothing." But the things she does find funny, like the strips of Peanuts I read when I was her age (often literally the same ones) do reach her. Now here's my problem:

The juxtaposition of Peanuts and Garfield and Family Circus, and Rose is Rose with, for example, Wally Winkerbean's excursion into Afghanistan, creates a problem for me. I read Funky Winkerbean, but I'm not ready to introduce my children to the good and bad about Wally's minesweeping expedition. So I have to actively exclude (cover up) some material to have access to what I want, rather then simply opting into the content I choose.

I think that's the problem with people's gut reactions about the funny pages. The "think of the children" argument is ignorant and narrow. There's a place for Stephan Pastis's often brilliant and sometimes psychotically vulgar Pearls Before Swine. I just think that that place is not directly below Baby Blues.

Is it reasonable to ask the Comics Editor to consider consistency of target audience within a single presentation? For example, put Ziggy, Heathcliff, (yes, and Peanuts reruns, since so few artists are writing for that audience anymore) and such on one page, and strips with more adult content and targets somewhere else - not above them, not below them, and not on the facing page. In discussing The Aristocrats, Penn argued that vulgarity that surprises you, that prevents you from being prepared for it, can reasonably be considered unfair - that as a customer of an art product (TV, movie, etc.), you should not be assaulted with what you do not choose to see, and what you do not choose to permit your children to see. That's the argument for permitting more operating freedom on cable channels, isn't it? Doonesbury is already on the op-ed pages of many newspapers because of its content, no?. But by the same token, the market should provide what the customer wants - if that's grown-up content, political primers, and the occasional impaling of a criminally stupid crocodile, so be it.

I think Penn's got an excellent point. I wonder if the same argument applies to the comics. And I wonder what editors of other forms think.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Summer Date Saver #2

The new season of the Spoken Word Series has been posted. As my top two criteria in selecting readers for the series are individual excellence and variety across the group. I'm quite pleased with how the schedule worked out. We only have seven Sunday afternoon events scheduled this season, so mark your calendars now!

September 11, 2005 Linda Lerner & Amy Holman
October 2, 2005 Kathleen Shea
November 6, 2005 Gina & John Larkin
December 4, 2005 Ed Foster
February 5, 2006 Stuart Greenhouse & Sharon Lynn Griffiths
March 5, 2006 Charlotte Mandel
April 2, 2006 Delaware Valley Poets

Supplementing the Sunday readings we will have a writing workshop in January, and the second annual Visible Word, partnering the visual with the verbal, in May; more on those events as the details emerge.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

A Box to Hide an Idea

There's a terrific essay by the great Ursula K. LeGuin on the CBC Books site. I cannot represent her meaning here (and if you are in touch with her opinions on the Earthsea miniseries, you know I shouldn't try!), but I'll try to capture the critical point:

Stories are not packages designed for the delivery messages. You don't start with a message, then build a story around it.

This is a fundamental truth in writing, and not a new one. But its presence on the Children's Book Council site reminds me, as I consider year 3 in the evolution of my hobby/passion to teach poetry to children, that I must avoid teaching them to learn what a poem really means, because it can really mean different things to different people. I get so disappointed when people tell me "that was a great poem; I really understood it". That, my reader friends, is not a tier-1 compliment. Of course, I want you to find great value and connection with the work. And I want it to touch you in a way that is meaningful and particular to you (what I've called "The Hmm."). But if what I was after primarily were your understanding, I certainly wouldn't write you a poem. I'd present you a rational case, with straightforward logic and a clear conclusion. The opposite of a poem.

LeGuin says: "The complex meanings of a serious story or novel can be understood only by participation in the language of the story itself. To translate them into a message or reduce them to a sermon distorts, betrays, and destroys them."

You can substitute any art form for "story". Now how to teach this? More to come.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Summer Date Saver #1

It does get quiet in Poetryland this time of year, no? Well, here is something to look forward to:

Saturday, October 1, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m
Blair Academy, Blairstown, New Jersey

Events include readings, panel discussions, workshops, and open mics. All events are free and open to the public. Questions? Please contact BJ Ward, Artistic Director:

I've attended the last two of these events, and they're just marvelous. I'd gladly pay my way in, and yet we get it for free! Workshops in the morning, readings in the afternoon, opens around dinner time, and a 2-hour reading after dinner.

And don't worry, the nice folks at the Blairstown First Aid Station will help you find your way home.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Suspecting the Muse

I like to think I respect everyone's writing process. You may be excercise-driven, you may be wordplay-driven, you may court inspiration or wrestle with it whenever it visits. All of this is cool; I'm primarily a wordplaying inspiration-courter, if this matters.

But when your process results in 5-6 things a day that you call "poems", I have an issue. I just don't think this is possible. Call me a snob (which may be true), call me an academic (which I obviously am not), I just don't think it's possible to produce poems in bulk.

If every stone were a gem, gems would cease to hold wonder.