New Patio! Old Password!

Loyal Readers, if any of you are still out there, I have just remembered the correct password for the Patio! (Perhaps the subconscious coughed it up because we have a new patio in real life.)

I have been battling the last bit of grad school, combined with a full load at a new part-time job, as well as the equivalent of teaching a fifth class at a second part-time job. In short, the Ph.D. has reached the point of diminishing returns. I’d like to be done by next year.

Meanwhile, I’ve been hanging out on Twitter, writing the equivalent of what we at Old CNN used to call Times Square Headlines. (I wrote ‘em; they rolled in Times Square. Now it’s all giant full-color Jumbotron screens.)  I’m 4/5 of the way through my Latin American Studies graduate certificate, at present immersed in Precolumbian art of the Andes and Mesoamerica. Most recently, we held a big garage sale, got rid of a ton of crap, and are fairly well satisfied with our lives at the moment.

What all this has to do with poetry is the ability (at last) to create the conditions in which I can work most effectively. No more nomadic quests for quiet study space. No more insane workloads. No more crawling over unpacked boxes of books in my office. No more imprisonment in other people’s bad energy! I feel as if I’ve been freed from prison. I love my new teaching gig and I really love my students. We have the most interesting conversations, individually and collectively. (It also helps to have a supportive boss. Supportive bosses, I should say.) I don’t drag around with this funk of negativity and harassment on my shoulders all the time anymore. I’ve gotten most of my life back and can see the rest coming.

I’m also working on a documentary (see kempwrites.wordpress.com for sporadic updates), which is very important to me, and am back in touch with several old CNNers, largely through Atlanta Cutters.

And I’m gearing up for the dissertation, which thankfully involves travel to some out-of-the-way places.

I reiterate with confidence that much of what passes for poetry in the United States today is self-promoting, circle-jerking, po-biz crap. I’m sure you have your own opinions on this subject. Rather than rehash that tired discussion, I propose to show some examples of what I think are excellent poems, and to explain in minute detail why I think so. If this exercise helps you, enlightens you, entertains you, annoys you, please–post a well-thought-out comment. Warning: No douchebaggery or stylistic school/poetry clique flambe’ will be tolerated. Engage!

Kindle, iPad, tablet: not the same, with good reason

I just ran across an article claiming that iPads are superior to Kindles because iPads are more than just e-readers.

I love my Mac, but I love my Kindle, too. I love them for different reasons. I love that I can play with Calibre, Stanza, iMovie, and all Teh Internetz on my Mac. I love that I’m seriously unable to get distracted by web-surfing and e-mailing on my Kindle, and that I don’t need Calibre or Stanza to create readable personal files (thank you, .doc files, e-mail, and free.kindle.com).

I use my Kindle for reading, annotating what I read, and occasionally hitting the wi-fi to download the daily paper, classics from Project Gutenberg, some feverishly-typed-up study notes, or copies of my favorite magazines. For people who read tons of text, have five too few bookcases, and need to avoid distractions, the paperback-book-sized Kindle is far superior to the iPad. One could send an e-mail in a crisis, assuming wi-fi or 3G capability was up, yet the Kindle’s deliberately too-small keyboard is an effective deterrent for those of us on a social-media diet.

I think of tablets as slightly too-small PDF-reading and e-mail-checking machines with limited typing capabilities–and I mean that as a compliment. Tablets are almost there, as far as research tools, but I’d like to see a true 8.5 x 11 screen size and the ability to highlight and annotate PDFs before I commit to an iPad (or to whomever meets the requirements first). I would love to take a tablet into the stacks with me to take notes (or scan/photograph images) and to fill it with tons of academic database articles and newspapers. (Hey, I’m a writer. I’m a grad student. I have been a reporter and likely will be one again.) However, the tablet/iPad would have to have native PDF annotating and highlighting capabilities to win my eye. And with the AARP about to stalk me, the eyes get priority.

I broke up with my iPod Touch because the mice-type was making me blind and I didn’t enjoy the “alternative” of reading novels half a paragraph at a time. On the Kindle, I can resize text for whatever my need is at a given moment. Resizing PDFs on the small Kindle is a non-starter. (Imagine covering half of a page vertically and then trying to read it.) I thought the big Kindle’s sumptuous 9.7-inch screen would solve both text size and readable-PDF-page problems, but the DX was too awkward and heavy for casual reading or one-handed key-poking, especially for someone with bird-bone wrists and tiny hands. I swapped my big Kindle for a small one and have been watching the iPad/tablet developers duke it out ever since.

I got a great deal on an Acer Iconia A500 for my partner, who was disappointed at not having won an iPad in a drawing at work. Of course the A500 isn’t an iPad, but because she has an Android phone and the A500 runs on Android, it seemed like a good fit. It also seems more practical, in that it has “gigs and gags” the iPad doesn’t, like a mini-SD card reader. She’s warming up to it, in her usual technophobic way. The A500 can talk to her Mac, which treats it as a USB device, and she has many free software options (no online purchasing needed). It talks to her e-mail and she can tap the address on a work order and pull up a Google map. She can take endless cat-worship videos with “The Eye”–”Oh! It has The Eye in the front AND in the back!” And, if you have The Eye, you can use Es-Skippy, just like on the regular computer. A technophobe who develops a secret passion for Google Sky on her phone should have no trouble adapting to the A500.

Why do manufacturers always load stupid games onto your new toy without asking? Why not let us choose the games we want? We’re not all 12-year-old boys trying to sublimate our testosterone rushes via combat sims. I like the occasional game of Asteroids or Pac-Man, and I admit to letting the iPod whip my butt at level-one chess a few times, but I really don’t play games on my e-toys. (Okay, I have played Scrabble online. My idea of portable-device diversion is WriteRoom. Or a fresh download from Project Gutenberg.)

I’d much rather have the option to choose, say, five or six basic productivity programs: a mind-mapper, a PDF annotator, a fully-functional suite like Pages or Office, a web browser, and maybe a Leitner-box flashcard set and a decent gradebook). Call it the iStudy package.

Another marketing tip: Don’t fake-load the program in demo mode, only for users to find out that they have to pay $14.99 to get a fully-functional version (ahem, DataViz…). If the Documents to Go icon shows up, I don’t expect to unwrap a hollow box–and I definitely don’t expect my partner to have to pay for what seems to be a gift. The first thing she asked to see was the word processing program. She didn’t want me to pay for Docs to Go. I thought we could download OpenOffice, but the open-source gods haven’t cobbled the Android tablet version together yet.

Quite a few iPad-armed colleagues would appreciate an essay-grading app. If we could edit the rubric criteria, this would be a must-have. However, if we can’t open and view the essay alongside the app, and iPad can only run one app at a time (really?), we’d still need to pick up paper submissions from students.

How would this make grading any easier for instructors and less confusing for students? It wouldn’t:

“I don’t understand why you didn’t mark up my paper! If you e-mail me comments, why can’t I e-mail you my paper? Why should I have to pay to print out my paper?…”

Really, Apple and other developers have overlooked this research/academic/writerly market niche for too long. Let us decide whether to download Angry Birds or Chess or whatever, but first give us the tools we actually might use with an iPad or other tablet. Include a few good market-targeted programs instead of junk apps priced into the deal yet destined for the recycle bin. That, and a slightly bigger screen, would convince me to part with a few hundred bucks, possibly for the October-surprise version of iPad.

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Writing Time and the Ph.D. Poet

Recently, I’ve gotten a couple of e-mails from poet friends inquiring as to my digital and 3-D whereabouts. I’ve been teaching a compressed-semester writing course. That means I’ve had exactly zero time for anything else. Unfortunately, “anything” includes my own studies and writing.

All those poets who warn that the Ph.D. kills poetry are correct, in the sense that the Ph.D. demands so much time and headspace for so many things that are not conducive to producing new work. Envision the unholy marriage of repeating your MFA workshop without the fun of making the reading circuit, while simultaneously adjuncting, writing two major proposals a year, and being hazed regularly for five to seven years, and you’ll get some idea of what a creative writing Ph.D. is like.

Is it all bad? No, not unless you allow yourself to get sucked into the vortex that is teaching in the 21st-century university. I finally got to take Spenser and Old English, courses which never were available to me in programs past. I got to pick up a few goodies on the side: ed psych, screenwriting, technical writing, Spanish, historic preservation, a scholarship for a research trip to Cuba.

Every semester, I learn something more about myself, about the students I work with, about building and delivering a solid course, about some great book or study I might not have sought out on my own. I learn what’s worth putting precious time into. I also learn how to say no–to time-wasters, to manipulations, to worthy causes, to counterproductivity, to saboteurs, to bad energy. I learn to say yes–to my research, to my writing in all genres, to my life beyond the university.

Meanwhile, I regroup for the next exam, the next conference panel, the next course syllabus, and Whatever’s Next.

Whatever’s Next is serious business for doctoral students in the liberal arts these days. All options are open.

In my twenties, with no degree and lots of raw talent, I wrote for a living. In my forties, with 2.85 degrees, one small-press book, and lots of experience and education, I grade papers for a living. Projects on hold include two nonfiction books, the dissertation and book to follow, and my freelance writing business.

I would much rather be writing any one of those books. Or producing a documentary. Or filing stories from any number of datelines. I have reached the stage of Ph.D.-dom at which many grad students throw up their hands and say, “I’m going back to work!”

Each day, I remind myself that I’m almost there. Others counsel that the decision to quit the Ph.D. is highly personal, that quitting is not a sign of failure to follow through, that quitting is the best course of action for all those laboring in non-Ivy programs, that the economy and student loan repayments don’t mix, that far too many Ph.Ds compete for far too few tenure-track openings, and any number of suggestions specious or sensible.

My solution: What do I have to do today? Of course, I don’t have to do any of it. So I rephrase: Am I committed to doing this today? Like an alcoholic chasing the sober life, I deal only with today.

Do I write a poem every day? I do not. Do I commit to working on a poem every day? I do.

It’s that simple.

Any project, any problem, I tell my students, is doable if you figure out how long you have to finish it, count backwards, and divide the work into small, doable parts.

This basic time-management principle is a revelation to many of them, especially the younger ones who get caught up in their own anxiety and mistake high stress for hard work. To protect my own sanity, I have had to learn–the hard way–to meet their Velcro with Teflon. (I’m still learning.) All graduate students who teach must learn the fine art of setting and maintaining boundaries between themselves and their students. For poets doing the Ph.D., protecting that space can be extremely challenging. Lately, I think a lot about what I did to finish my B.A. while working full-time at CNN. I read photocopies at lunch and index cards in the ladies’ room. I listened to French tapes in my Walkman between CNN Center and Georgia State. And I refused to deliver updates on the Gulf War when I walked into poetry workshop.

The grades are in. My parents wants me to move my things out of the basement they’re having remodeled. My dog flings himself down in the middle of the living room and bicycles his back legs, begging for belly rubs. My partner is exhausted and needs me to pick up my end of all things neglected. I had planned all year that I would use this time to drive out of town and work on the dissertation–in the field, away from people and in the marsh, on the coast, under the surface.

Will I say yes? Will I say no?

Bear with me.

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The Home Stretch: A.lmost B.eenthere D.onethat

I haven’t blogged anything (here) in over a month. I’m still alive. Deep cover, cramming for fiction comps, writing teaching and tutoring portfolios, teaching intro poetry workshop with almost 20 students, almost all of whom have never written much or any poetry, picking up my own honor-society slack, worrying about the semesterly parental medical crisis, letting in the handyman, and flushing time down the rathole called commuting-by-car. At least I get the BBC and other news outlets while I drive. I am overweight, under pressure, sleepy, cranky, and falling apart. And missing deadlines for things like conferences and journals, even though I wrote them down in my calendar.

But if I can just hang in there a few more weeks and get all these academic obligations nailed down, I will reward myself with all the gardening and exercise I can stand. If I pass my comps, I’ll be ABD and in dissertation-land.

Then the real fun begins.

I have been working on this idea the whole time I’ve been working on the Ph.D., and it’s grown and morphed in weird ways, as dissertations do. Over the next few months, I’ll be making a series of road trips to various locations around the country: wildlife areas, historic sites, archives, and quirky curiosities. I’m nailing down two or three likely grant/fellowship sources, and I’ve  got a line on a fairly unusual internship for a poet. I’ve been accepted to study abroad this spring, and hope to hear good news about additional (necessary) funding next week. I’m also working on a couple of fellowship applications for the scholarly aspects of the project: culling archives, plunging into libraries. None of this is the same thing as writing the poems themselves, but for a project of this scope, I’m at the point where I need to do more serious research to generate the individual pieces and the arc of the collection as a whole. It touches on science, history, geography. It’s most assuredly an adventure.

* * *

Did I mention that I’m writing a creative dissertation? Yes. Poets do indeed do scholarly work. Poets in the university are like women in the workforce: we have to do everything ten times as well to be considered one-tenth as… acceptable. We do creative work and literary criticism and academic papers and pedagogy and theory and and and. (Well, to varying degrees. But it never ceases to astound me when I hear people in other specialties claiming that they “don’t understand how creative writers think” or “don’t pretend t0 know what creative writers do.” Hey, it’s not that difficult to figure out. We write. Don’t you write? We also read. You do read, don’t you? We do not have three arms and two heads.

Some favorite creative-writer-in-the-academy tropes:

Of course, all this internecine silliness is part of older internecine battles, most of whose actors are long departed and whose once-groundbreaking theories have been reduced to anonymous conventional “wisdom.” Part of it is human nature. Humans get crazy when they’re trapped inside of institutions. Some become zombies, cogs in the machine, without realizing it. Others fight like hell, but never kick over the traces. Some of the wisest I’ve observed fly below radar. They have hobbies. They do not hang around campus unless absolutely necessary.

As I surf the professional journals and the unprofessional gossip, I can’t help but find the zeitgeist sticking to me. No matter the institution, no matter the discipline, proffies and grad students seem to be on the verge of a collective nervous breakdown. Perhaps if we all were required to take part in an actual group writing exercise once a month–actually led by actual creative writers–rather than meetings on the policy on the policy, we might all be a little saner. Imagine putting off all that other writing to do your own writing.

* * *

In a post-Katrina, crude-and-Corexit-soaked world, signs and wonders: the comp folks are taking a new creative approach to portfolio-writing this semester. A sizable yoga contingent is taking over the department.

I’ve given up about 90% of my Tasmanian devil persona. I try to be patient with people who don’t realize I’ve been there, done that. I try to pass along what I’ve learned to the new crop of Tasmanian devils.

To preserve my severely-taxed physical, mental, and creative energy, I run from black holes of endless suck. If nominated as Mayor of Crazy Town, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.

I am into doing my own thing, which seems to me the point of being an independent (read: graduate) student.

It is the precondition and the raison d’etre of any artist, writer, thinker.

I do not tie my writer-ness to being in or out of the academy. I do not fret about having to wait tables instead of winning post-docs. I will write no matter where I am or what I do for a living. The current liminality feels oddly comfortable. I make no plans beyond next year.

My colleagues are all around me, all over the world, across space and time, inscribed in history, scratched in the dust of the future.

See you on the road. I promise I’ll write.

AWP 2011: Oye Como Va

This year’s AWP convention in Washington was one of the best I’ve ever been to. It was also one of the strangest. The far more serious matter of Egypt overshadowed everything–for me, anyhow–as did my other writing life outside of po-biz. The precise chronology of events is a bit fuzzy. I should fact-check like a good reporter; for now, here’s a poet’s pastiche:

DAY 0 (Tuesday): Drove from Atlanta, skirting the gargantuan storm system that kept many folks from flying into DC. Was almost the only person on road. Weather was foggy and misty in Georgia, not too bad in North Carolina, and extremely dense rain from Richmond up. Had the rain been snow, it would have been a blizzard. Listened to Tahrir Square events unfold on BBC World Service, CNN, and MSNBC via satellite radio, pondering geopolitics while driving through the storm.

After trolling from place to place until the wee hours, finally found room at the inn: a no-tell motel in “La Republica Popular de Takoma Park,” as the bumper sticker says. Slept on the unused of the two beds, still fully clothed. Contemplated adding both hammock and folding cot to survival stash in trunk.

DAY 1 (Wednesday): Thank you, IHOP. Thank you, strategically-located banks. Thank you, schedule, for not placing me in the bank when it was robbed four days earlier. Arrive at historic Omni Shoreham with its nifty diving rebreather history. Exceptional staff. Beautiful room. Clean room. Light switch cover that rests directly on wall surface. No DNA samples from previous occupants. A desk where I could line up 50 or so Katrina-poetry-related books, plug in my laptop, and refine my annotations. I watched TV as street fighting broke out between police and protestors, feeling the same dread I felt the first night of the (first) Gulf War, wondering whether I would see or hear people I knew get blown up during their liveshot. Finally removed to the hotel bar for a double and a call to my favorite newsheimer. Scary night, even now.

DAY 2 (THURSDAY): Friends arrive. Panels ensue. I hit the bookfair after the long hike across the street, down the block, down the stairs, up the elevator, through the hall, across the lobby, down the escalator, into the bookfair, and then back, and back, and back to small-press-hinterlands to see Louie, Palmer, and Pat at Pecan Grove‘s table. Hooray for Pat and her new book, Inherent Vice, which she kindly signed! Reverse-hustled through aforementioned maze to see “Trading Stories with the Enemy: Navigating the Cuban/American Literary Landscape” panel back at the Omni. On the sign outside the meeting room, someone has posted a note, along the lines of: “The Cuba panel has been cancelled. None of the presenters were able to fly out of the Midwest.” Shortages here, too? Is this how it’s gonna go? Oyame. It’s not often that I get to talk Cuban literature outside of my own house.

Meandered into overpriced hotel buffet and bumped into Nicole and Peter Cooley. Had old-home week with them and met Thomas Beller, to whom I apologize publicly for all the New Orleans-centric references.

Escaped from AWP to meet up with old pal at CNN’s Washington bureau. Got the nickel tour to see how the new setup works. Saw old friends and colleagues, more than one of whom asked,”So, when are you coming back? We need you!”

This gives me much to think about.

I’m thinking.

Went to Busboys and Poets with said pal to meet an old college pal of his. Had dinner, wine, great conversation. Then we get down to business, that being our 23-year relationship as dance partners. Regrouped at the funkalicious Madam Organ’s, where a badass Latin band did bossa nova interpretations of Nirvana, hipped James Taylor up to speed, and threw down some smokin’ Colombian dance music and Grateful Dead. Oye como va. Unfortunately, I was dead on arrival, feeling my age and his, and barely moved my exhausted gringa feet while he did all the work. Who are these tiny twenty-somethings with the 360-degree swivel hips? I want to dance like that when I’m 90.

We discussed the goat-decor’s pendulous appendages. I allowed as how they might function as mistletoe for guys betting on which girl they could catch.

Inexplicably, DC seems to put orange slices in all of its beer.

Beg for mercy because my feet hurt so damn bad.

Drag into the Omni lobby, exhausted but thrilled at seeing the old crew again. Who should I find in the hotel bar but my new crew–West Chester and FORMALISTA friends Marilyn and Kathrine? Drink, talk shop, show photos on various digital devices. Eventually drag up to bed, order room service (which arrives in even wee-er hours), fall asleep over $20 egg and revolution of people who would make far better use of both the egg and the $20. Self-indulgent poets and writers, spending all that money on hotel rooms and airfare. I can’t enjoy this.

* * *

DAY 3 (FRIDAY): Oversleep yet again, this time through Mezzo Cammin timeline panel. Hit the NEA how-to-apply-for-a-grant panel, only to discover that poets should read the website. Left with other poets who also have read the website, but were looking for finer nuances. Back to the bookfair. Hugs and catching up every few feet. And lunch with Marilyn, Kathrine, and Moira. And drinks with Mona Lisa and Sister Anne, talking about Catholicism and community and her upcoming trip to the Father/Mother Land Ghana, and especially about Mona Lisa’s finally disentangling the byzantine New Orleans permitting offices to pour the slab on the house in which she and five generations of her family had lived until Katrina took it. Every AWP since Katrina, we discuss the glacial progress that is rebuilding her piece of New Orleans. Six AWPs later, still no house.

* * *

I wasn’t organized enough to get new business cards before AWP. I zipped over to the copy center, whomped up something pre-fab, and had a very short run of cards made at the whopping price of about 26 cents each. I gulped and put it on the plastic. The place was slammed. The woman behind the counter dickered with the carpet installer about coming back after closing. He didn’t want to. She talked him into it. I figured I’d copy the bib in the morning.

Height of the night: the Floricanto reading, which blew the roof off the historic True Reformer Building. Highlights: Martin Espada’s poem about the marriage problem, Marilyn Nelson braving croakiness to read and run, the curandera/politician who read as if she were officiating at High Mass, Sonia Sanchez’s shaman-self channelling/chanting/exorcizing, and the room itself, which looked and felt like a church. Each reader was outlined by a white aura. Lighting? Energy? Spirit beings? Poets report. You decide.

* * *

Back in my room, still drained from faux-dancing effort, I tweaked an extensive bibliography of post-K poetry and poetics. I saved it to Gdocs. I saved it to my hard drive. I saved it to a jump drive. Multiple redundancies. The plan: print some copies and e-mail it to anyone who gets left out. Oye como va.

So then I start writing a few thoughts about poetry in and out of post-Katrina New Orleans. No big deal. I peeked in the mirror occasionally to see Egypt while I was writing what I thought was a quick and dirty set-up for the bibliography. And I kept writing. And writing. Nicole had asked me point-blank last year, “Why don’t you write about it?” And I stammered and said I hadn’t been there in the same way and that nobody really cared about my vantage point and all those things writers in denial say when they avoid writing. And then it was 4:37 in the morning, and I had this crazed, slightly disjointed essay about who has the right to say what. And it was a first draft, not anything I would read at the panel, but the makings of a really good essay for sometime in the near future.

Then I insisted on sanity and sleep, but just let me check my e-mail once first, and et cetera. So I open the ASLE mailbox, which apparently I hadn’t done since November. And there was an e-mail from Sheryl St. Germain about precisely this notion of outsiders speaking for locals, only from the point of view of nature writing. And from November. And, she was giving a talk about it at this same AWP, which hadn’t registered with me because I was only looking at poetry panels. So I opened her essay and it was a hell of a lot like mine, although clearly not a first draft. So I told her about this weird coincidence. Two writers plus one wavelength equals a certain kind of poetic zeitgeist.

We will explore further.

* * *

DAY 4 (SATURDAY): I have given up completely on all panels other than the one I’m moderating. The tubercular cough that’s haunted me all week inexplicably disappears in the oppressive mist that today coats everything. I eat lunch with Pat and Marilyn and Kathrine at the Lebanese place everyone’s been raving about. I hustle over to the copy center. It’s closed. The carpet guy is there. I ask you: who the hell decides to close the hotel bar and the copy center in the middle of the afternoon during a writers’ conference? Oh, it’s the hotel. Not my hotel, mind you. That other flagshippy one, where the ladies’ room looks like the Superdome’s by the third quarter. The hotel for which AWP probably paid a fortune because it had a copy center and a bar in close proximity.

Oye como va.

* * *

I don’t want to waste people’s time. Especially in the final session slot.

It goes like this:

Kalamu doesn’t make it. Peter has what he’s going to read. Julie has a DVD of clips from the Still Standing reading: Lee Grue and Paul Chasse. I bring the necessary dongles and cables to make the computer talk to the projector, but neither the audio nor the volume control appear. I am on my knees before a roomful of people, listening to Peter’s talk and making sacrifices to the computer idol. St. Fragile and St. Expedite intercede for us, in the form of the hotel a/v guy bearing an audio jack. Now we can all oye como va. I handed out cards to anyone who wanted me to e-mail a copy of the bibliography. And I felt compelled to read that strange essay.

We made it work.

And then we opened up the mic to the audience, as opposed to taking questions, and the room was energized.

They made it work even better.

Keep open to the poetry of the moment.

* * *

I rushed off with Peter and Nicole to the oil-spill reading, which overlapped the Katrina panel. This means I stood up my other friends and our vague plans. Oye como va. Anne Waldman did a Buddhist version of Sonia Sanchez’ exorcism, violently yoking rant and chant and manatee and humanity together. Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “If one woman were to tell the truth about her life, the world would split open.” I would like to see a Sanchez-Waldman reading. Just the two of them. That would split the earth in two.

Dinner at a little Ethiopian place. Again, I missed someone at home who knows more than a little bit about Ethiopia firsthand. The rest of the world was very much part of the little corner we call AWP this year, more so than ever.

Far more than choice of restaurants makes the matter pressing.

* * *

Day 5 (SUNDAY): The long leisurely drive back, but not before photographing plastic debris along the Potomac and visiting Mr. Lincoln. At the corner, another former colleague jogged past. I flagged her down, and we hugged and jabbered on the streetcorner. “Do what your heart tells you,” she says, and she is in a position to know what that means.

Many stops, a hike uphill in the snow, past deer tracks, hawks huddling in highway trees. Truckstops. Atop the mountain, after dark, Egypt by satellite and Cuba by radio skip.

Oye.

You’re a writer. Do you choose to spend the rest of your days caught up in adminstrivia and makework? Do you write your way around the world? How does your writing serve the world? How does it serve your fullest possible remaining time on the planet? How much time will you exchange for money? For writing? For having written?

Can you hear how it goes for you?

The Old College Try(ing)

The fiction reading list expands to fill the time allotted, then overflows: literary Great Stuff oozing through the cracks of the intellectual shack I’ve cobbled together. Great Stuff expands, fossilizes, resists whittling down. Okay. I’ll say it. I’d be an idiot not to postpone comps until fall. I’ve got ten weeks before the exam and my particular reading list is a string of electrons pinging between servers. Even an English major with dyscalculia can do that math.

Here’s what studying great literature at a public university involves nowadays. See how well this squares with the ideal Oxbridge tutorial, that Ivy League privilege-anxiety foremost in current anti-intellectual discourse, that “Dead Poets Society” cave scene before youth, freedom, and discovery expanded into a synthetic blob of backstabbing, suicide, and kangaroo committees.

First, I’m lucky because I’m fully funded through Year Six. This is the middle of Year Five. Twelve years was, until recently, not unheard of for doctorates in the humanities, although that’s the outer limit of one’s scholarly welcome. Now, we are being prodded to finish in half that time or less, as opposed to the seven-year norm. For grad students in the humanities, being fully funded entails teaching. In the current academic climate (everywhere, not just at my alma mater), that means we are responsible for planning, running, and grading multiple introductory sections. We also have to attend this meeting, that meeting, the other meeting, in a kind of dry run for tenure-track Valhalla. One thing you’ll get at my institution is professionalization in excelsis. I admit that’s a good thing. All that extracurricular training gives us a sliver of an advantage in the academic job market, which itself is pretty thin.

Teaching assistants’ take-home pay may be about 1/3 that of a convenience store manager, but tuition is on the house. To make ends meet, I gamble on the future: I take out student loans to cover the rest of my (well, actually, our) very modest living expenses and to pay for conference travel once, possibly twice, a year. The People’s Universities no longer pay for their graduate students to present at regional or national conferences, which is where grad students go for the elusive academic job interview. That’s because The People’s Universities everywhere function at the pleasure of elected state officials, many of whom think “the gubmint” (reminder: that’s you and me, folks, not them) shouldn’t pay for anything (but sweetheart-deal private contractors). What little money comes the grad students’ way trickles down through layers of administrators and warrens of managers, many of whom (but not all) manage the university as a private corporation, not as a public trust. When the annual budget cut or the mid-year budget cut strikes, as it always does, our non-degree-program workload increases. Academic trench warfare means holding the line for graduate funding while finding more ways to justify graduate students’ presence at The People’s Universities everywhere.

It’s been this way for over a decade. It reminds me far too much of the oil bust that interrupted my undergraduate studies in (hello) the early ’80s. I know what it means to work three crappy jobs and go to school full-time, or to work one real job all night and then go to school 2/3 time on the quarter system. I hardly lack motivation. I just want to finish my reading and get on with whatever’s next. High on the list: paying off my student loans and trying to mitigate all those years of lost income/retirement savings. I’m not 25. I’m not single. I have grown folks’ bills. I will never sell my soul, but I will sell my time to the highest bidder.

One hungers for the idealized graduate life of yesteryear. Did it ever exist? Whither the corduroy-elbowed denizens of library carrels? Whither library carrels, for that matter? I’m not sitting around smoking a pipe and debating the merits of Hemingway’s vs. Faulkner’s prose in the campus pub with my three closest pals. (Whither the campus pub?) I don’t smoke a pipe–I don’t smoke anything–but I remember, by proxy, how grad school was in the 1970s and 1980s. My mother was one of those housewives who went “back to school” and is now happily doctored, published, and tenured. I watched her study; I studied alongside her; sometimes I even helped her study by reading manuscripts aloud while she transcribed them. My father, who never finished college but has read more than anyone I know, was a muckraking journalist. My family, it seems, was not the norm. They let me play with typewriters. I watched the Vietnam War three times a day. They did not censor my reading. By the time I was ten, I had read Wordsworth’s poetry, The Tempest, and The Godfather (wedding party and horsehead and all), all of my own free will, and my mother had vouched for me with the librarian because I’d read just about every book in the kids’ section. I was also writing poems and stories from first grade on, producing and peddling my own magazines in elementary school, and binding books by junior high.

I never had a chance. I was doomed to be a writer, a reader, a thinker.

Where I do this is immaterial; that I do it is vital.

I say this using my fancy college words. But I also know about smoke-filled rooms and lying politicians and putting my bus money in my shoe and acting crazy on the street when a shifty-looking guy is about to mug me. I sought my first craft training in newsrooms, not workshops. Like my dad, I can and do read on my own time because reading is its own reward–just you and the (in)glorious mind on the page. Seems to me, though, that a university oughta be the best place to read a lot in a short time.

So here I am, mixed diction an’ all, dawl.

My street sense tells me The People’s Universities are getting mugged, conned, jumped, jacked, and hustled by the folks with the purse-strings. And they never, ever will say, “Okay, I’ve got enough money now. Here’s your temporary fee increase back. And let’s expand the arts programs. Those guys in the Sports Palace have enough. It’s time for Our Fair State to develop world-class writers.”

This is why I have taken a 1.5 graduate courseload while teaching a .5 FTE load (plus professionalization, teaching portfolios, tutoring portfolios, editing publications, serving on committees, presenting at conferences, publishing, and all that professory jazz). For folks keeping score at home, that’s the equivalent of two full-time jobs, not one. When I started, I looked at how many years of funding I was guaranteed. Then I counted backwards from there and took the required core as quickly as possible. I had planned to take a year to study for each comp exam and a year for the dissertation (only because I’ve written a master’s thesis and a book already, have had the concept in mind since before I applied, and have been picking at the research and planning in odd moments). Sure, I “lost” a year or so with “unnecessary” forays which are, in fact, completely necessary supplements of or complements to my research interests. I flog my “advanced” Spanish whenever I can. I took a doctoral-level ed psych. I took a master’s-level screenwriting class. I took Old English, because I believe no self-respecting English Ph.D. should escape at least the rudiments of Old English. I took various lit courses which I never got around to during the previous two degrees, nearly all of which count as requirements. Other than that, I’ve gone straight through with no break. I teach every summer. I do the “voluntary” work required, in light of budget cuts, to maintain my preexisting level of funding.

And Lord have mercy, I have to reread every freaking novel and craft treatise I’ve read in grad school and a handful more that I’ve heard of but never read, much less studied.

This is not going to happen between now and ten weeks from now.

Part of me says, “Oh, hell, you’ve read most of this stuff more than once or twice, even if it was in 1992. Or at least once in the past five years. Maybe you can go get a trot like everyone else (surely not everyone relies on trots–do they? Grad students?!. . .).”

My real self says, “No way. This is not a capsule plot recitation. You gotta deal with some bad mofos struttin’ around with all their kaleidoscopic plots hanging out. You have points of comparison to consider. Swann’s Way. Moby-Dick. Your boy García Márquez. And you’ve never gotten around to Midnight’s Children. Or Housekeeping. And you want to read Tres Tristes Tigres in translation. And the incremental perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a complexified equilibrium. And you need to make fresh notes on all of it. Girl, you might have enough time between now and October. Maybe.”

So after several e-mail exchanges with my fiction advisor, I think I’ll need to apply a little TV news horse-sense to the situation: Restack the show. Dedicate this semester to reading and note-taking, and to generating the working draft of the diss, which is the working draft of what I prematurely describe to all as “my real book”–meaning my over-48-page-minimum-for-full-poetry-collection-status-in-the-world book–and take the fiction exam this fall. It makes more sense. I have all kinds of strike-force research trips planned this spring and summer, and there’s no law against working on the diss before finishing both exams. Plus, I’m itchy-antsy to stay in poetry mode while I teach poetry this semester.

Because no one (well, almost no one) is going to say, “Here, O Poet-scholar–take $30K and a year off to travel and work on your beautiful dissertation-real-book-manuscript,” I squeeze in tiny side trips on the way to and from other places. I become a poet-field reporter in full crash mode. I use my reporter brain and my poet brain, my emergency brain and my scholar brain.  (I also keep a backup light-up brain in my office, but that’s for real emergencies.)

Now I just have to keep all the Great Stuff from oozing out between now and October. And keep my dollar in my shoe.

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Frostbytes: A peek at the prof’s online version of Day One

From my teacher-blog: a peek at the first official unofficial day of workshop, in which we leverage the tech to talk poetry, snow or no.

 

Slow Thaw: A Fragment

Snow’s liminal whisper

between ice and slush,

unhushed, weeps

into stuttering gutters,

crushed. Machines sweep.

 

 

Sizing up the new crew

You can’t really know what a class is like until you spend some time with it. Having looked over everyone’s transcripts and Google-snooped a bit, I see this poetry class should be a live bunch. Lots of interesting characters, of various ages and experience, with a clutch of English majors, a knot of education majors, a fistful of slammers. A good mix.

I asked them each to send me an introduction via e-mail, and to send a poem or two if they had any. Some excerpts from my welcome:

Maybe you’ve never written poetry before and you’re just curious about trying it. That’s OK, too. As long as you put forth the effort, you should see some improvement in your work. Be assured that I will require both regular attendance and demonstrable effort. Writing, like music, dance, acting, or athletic training, requires hard work and commitment. Poetry is the most demanding of the written genres, and no one can learn all there is to know about poetry in one semester. What we’ll do is see what we do know; then, each of us will find our own way, haltingly. I and the poets you will come to know this semester will guide you. Sometimes you will guide the rest of us. Onward to Parnassus!

(yammering on about what to expect and my bona fides)

Like all writers worth their ink, I’ve held numerous crappy dead-end or temporary jobs in every area of every kind of restaurant you can imagine, as well as in a boatyard, cleaning houses and offices, editing a couple of fly-by-night mags, peddling pralines, teaching swimming, lifeguarding, and (of course) teaching English as a “freeway flyer” or part-time/adjunct instructor.

About my poetry: I write both formal and free verse and have little patience for those who bash one camp or the other. Poetry is more important than po-biz. Reading other people’s writing is just as important as having them read yours. That’s pretty much what you need to know about me as a poet.

(yammering on about being on time and being prepared)

Finally, remember the late great writer Audre Lorde‘s dictum: “Poetry is not a luxury.” Each of us is part of a society which does not value poetry and which mocks the life of the mind. You, however, are one of the rare individuals who steps back and says, “My words matter.” I’m looking forward to hearing and reading your words this semester.

I really am. The last time I taught creative writing as such was about six years ago. Of course I try to work it into freshman comp as much as possible without committing malpractice. But that’s not the same thing as sitting around the seminar table, introducing people to workshop, and urging them through the finer points of a single line.

I think of Fred Chappell‘s essay, “First Night Come Round Again,” collected in A Way of Happening. In it, he pegs the nascent writer types who wash up in workshop, with the compassion of one who has been one or more of those poseurs. I remember the HIV+ Writers’ Workshop, circa 1994, which found a home in the basement of a Unitarian church and which let anyone come and go, writing about anything in any genre, free of charge, and which worked. And I remember many other workshops I’ve taught over the years, including the one which I thought was a dismal failure because some students would show up halfway through class and none of them seemed to take the work seriously, meaning as seriously as I did.

A few years later, in the afterglow of a stunning theater performance, the star of the show called me by name. I didn’t recognize this person at first. She was one of the students I’d mentally filed under not serious. And she wanted to thank me because, she said, it was in that Intro to Poetry class that she gave herself permission to be creative. Silly, freshly-minted MFA that I was, I’d expected at least one poet out of the bunch. I never envisioned that an actor might emerge.

That is the point of the exercise. Poets get so hung up on “professionalization” that we forget our job is not to turn out an army of poets. It is to bring poetry to those we meet, then to stand back and watch poetry do its work.

I can’t remember the last time I looked forward to going to work on a Monday.

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Speedreading

Spring semester is a weird pastiche of off-tempo breaks and too-early exams. As I put together the syllabus for Intro to Poetry Writing, I’m also juggling a dozen poetry calendars, assistantship calendars, various project deadlines, and the fiction Ph.D. exam. My Kindle has become an indispensable tool for keeping up with the stacks and stacks of work I need to read and digest. Much of what I need is available for free through Project Gutenberg, and nearly all of the modern and contemporary work can be had for a nominal price. Although the Kindle is not open access like the Sony e-reader, it’s what I’ve got, and my aging eyes like its non-backlit e-paper.

I’ve built a webpage for GSU’s reading list e-text downloads and hope that I can upload it to the GEA website if someone ever updates it. However, I’ll be putting it up on my personal website for the greater good. This week, I’ve been too sick with the flu to do much more than drool in front of endless cop shows and whine while slugging carrot juice and tea. Next week, though, I hope to have my new, improved website back up and the robinkemp.net domain reoriented thataway. You’ll be able to find all manner of literary goodies there.

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ll be reading and making frantic notes on between now and April 2, with a few smoky links for you to savor:

REQUIRED NOVELS
Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
Ellison, Invisible Man
Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Madame Bovary
García Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Morrison, Beloved
Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Woolf, To the Lighthouse

ELECTIVE NOVELS
Achebe, Things Fall Apart
Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Barth, The Sot-Weed Factor
Barthelme, The Dead Father
Bellow, Herzog or Seize the Day
Bradley, The Chaneysville Incident
Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Cather, My Ántonia
Chopin, The Awakening
Coetzee, Disgrace
Dickens, Great Expectations
Didion, Play It As It Lays or A Book of Common Prayer
Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Eliot, Middlemarch
Faulkner, Absalom! Absalom! or As I Lay Dying
Ford, The Good Soldier
Forster, A Passage to India or Howard’s End
Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
García Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera
Gordimer, The Late Bourgeois World
Grass, The Tin Drum
Greene, Our Man in Havana
Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Hawkes, The Lime Twig
Heller, Catch-22
Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
James, The Ambassadors
Johnson, Middle Passage
Joyce, Ulysses
Kennedy, Ironweed
Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Lewis, Babbitt
Lowry, Under the Volcano
McCormac, Suttree
McCullers, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
Mann, The Magic Mountain or Death in Venice
Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow
Melville, Moby-Dick
Nabokov, Pale Fire or Lolita
Naipaul, A Bend in the River
O’Connor, Wise Blood
Percy, Second Coming or The Last Gentleman
Proulx, The Shipping News
Proust, Swann’s Way
Rhys, The Wide Sargasso Sea
Richardson, Pamela
Robinson, Housekeeping
Shelley, Frankenstein
Sterne, Tristram Shandy
Thackeray, Vanity Fair
Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Turgenev, Fathers and Sons
Updike, Rabbit, Run
Walker, The Color Purple
Warren, All the King’s Men
Waugh, Vile Bodies
West, The Day of the Locust or Miss Lonelyhearts
Wharton, The Age of Innocence
Wright, Native Son

SHORT FICTION
Poe, Hawthorne, Chekov, Jewett, Chopin, Hemingway, O’Connor, Cheever, García Marquez, Baldwin, Carver, D. Barthelme, Paley, Munro

(plus 2 of the following or your own suggestions)

Lorrie Moore, James Alan McPherson, Oates, Wideman, Alice Walker, David Foster Wallace, Singer, Mason, Gautreaux, Bass, Barrett, Lahiri, Trevor, Butler, Beattie, Coover, Mansfield, Ozick, Taylor, Jin, F. Barthelme, Maugham, Welty, J. Salter, Yates, Tobias Wolff

(Plus)

Dubliners; Winesburg, Ohio; The Things They Carried; Love Medicine; Airships; Invisible Cities; The Coast of Chicago; Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 6th ed., long version.

REQUIRED CRITICISM AND THEORY
Aristotle, Poetics
Baxter, Burning Down the House
Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence
Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction
Brooks & Warren, Appendix to 2nd ed. of Understanding Fiction
Dillard, Living by Fiction
Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction
Forster, Aspects of the Novel
Gardner, The Art of Fiction
Howe, Introduction to Literary Modernism (“The Idea of the Modern”)
James, “The Art of Fiction”
O’Connor, Mystery and Manners
Scholes, Fabulation and Metafiction
Schorer, “Technique as Discovery”
Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970
Welty, The Eye of the Story

RECOMMENDED CRITICISM AND THEORY
Auerbach, “Odysseus Scar” in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature
Baxter & Turchi, Bringing the Devil to His Knees
Bellamy, The New Fiction
Frye, Anatomy of Criticism
Gardner, On Moral Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist
Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life
McCauley, Technique in Fiction
Olson, Silences
Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to Literary Genre

For my autodidactic followers, and I know who you are, consider this your assignment for the duration. Reading and/or re-reading the above should occupy your time and energy over the next few years, enriching your mind and dissolving any calcified preconceptions you might have accumulated. And that is quite a better use of time than Sheepbook.

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