Tag Archives: Craft Theory

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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New semester, new adventures

Today is the first day of spring semester. I don’t actually have class today, but will head on down to take care of paperwork and such. On the rundown: a 8000-level ed psych class called Understanding and Facilitating Adult Learning. I’ve already read the first few chapters of those textbooks, and it’s really, REALLY interesting. Our subject matter, apparently, will touch on the Dark Side of the University, among other things. One textbook is thick with passive-voice business-management rhetoric (at one point, reducing the entire history of formal education to one sentence…I’m still reeling); the other is an emperor-has-no-clothes critical analysis of various “theories” upon which many false assumptions are based, and takes the view that there are three theoretical approaches to adult ed: humanist, behaviorist, and postmodernist.   The devil is, as always, in the details. How do you define “adult education?” The simplistic answer would be “Any way I want to.” The serious answer is that there are various types of adult education, largely based on (as I read it) environment and purpose. (“Whose purpose?” you ask. What a smart question!) The big book seems to consider it a fait accompli that adult education (with the exception, it claims, of “higher” ed, which has a “mission” — I swear, I’m not making this up) exists to create worker bees for business and industry. Period. It does contain half a dozen suggestions for creating successful learning environments for adults, heavy on the collaborative approach. I’m not sure that this approach is effective in more than small doses for college freshman comp classes, however. When I let my kids pick from a short menu, they do well; when I throw an assignment open to their choosing, controlled chaos ensues. For example, allowing them at semester’s end to choose between media formats is far more successful than is throwing open the topic for an essay early in the semester. The little book insists that far too many programs, policies, and decisions about curriculum and instruction are based on fallacious reasoning. However, the author does not harangue RYS-style; he details the arguments and evidence, then watches the weak ones crumble and die.I can’t wait to see how this class goes. Then, there’s workshop, which is the main event. I have not been writing a lot lately, and am about to sneak out of here to get some of the new stuff down on paper. I’m going to experiment with a few things this semester. I’m also going to submit something somewhere each week this semester. It doesn’t matter where. I need to publish at least twice as much as I have been. Finally, there’s form and theory of fiction. The reading list kicks butt, and she gave it to us early, whic his always a plus. I’m supposed to have finished reading Swann’s Way by tomorrow–it is some of the very best writing I’ve ever read and, from what I gather and from what La R. says, Lydia Davis‘ translation is extraordinarily good. If you’re interested in class, significant social glances, and why some people mistakenly think that they are others’ social betters, or if you’re interested in how writers play with time, you will love this novel.* * *According to the checklist, I need two fiction classes and one poetry class and that’ll be it for coursework. However, I may succumb to the temptation to take History of the English Language (and other such linguistic goodies which I have not yet gotten around to taking) during dissertation time. I’m not taking any classes at all during comps. None. And I have an extra pedagogy class that I’m required to take this summer. La R. and I are also going to take an intensive CELTA certification course this summer. We’re going worldwide, baby. I’m determined to place a chapbook with a small/literary press this semester. It’s long overdue, and I have enough material. That will take off the pressure of not having a book, while not gutting my supply of new material pre-dissertation.  OK, time to get out of here. Santa showered me with e-toys, not the least of which is a new car stereo, which plays both CDs and my iPod. Being able to study in my car is mission-critical. Now I can do it. 

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Where Intellect Trumps Grading

Here’s a short list of places that eliminate the whole grade issue in favor of actual intellectual development:

Reed College (?)

New College of Florida

Evergreen State

Bennington (?)

Warren Wilson College (?)

Downside: A narrative transcript can be slanted (accidentally or deliberately) in much the way a job evaluation can be. Perhaps an ideal would include some combination?

Some of these schools can/do include letter grades alongside narrative transcripts.

Maybe if the state universities started adding narrative transcripts for each course. . .

“X is quite charming, but prefers to text-message while others take notes during class. Knowledgeable end user of Facebook/MySpace; however, has no marketable web design skills. With demonstration over time of good work habits, could become a productive member of the academic community; at this time, does not yet demonstrate the level of responsibility required of entry-level office intern. Needs to get serious about the intellectual enterprise.”


Wait a minute.

Suppose a written evaluation of the student as student, carefully worded, along with a prescribed course of action, were handed out at midterm?

We already write evaluations on each paper. Why not an overall narrative evaluation of each aspect of the grade, at midterm?

That’s a lot of work.

That might require an “attitude rubric.” Attitude, after all, does affect one’s grade. Perhaps it should be graded.


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Functional shift: Shakespeare’s grammar is good for you

The following is excerpted from Dr. Amen’s Brain in the News letter. (His area of expertise, oddly controversial in some quarters, is brain imaging.) I remember reading about Shakespeare and the functional shift somewhere else recently, but Dr. Amen has included pictures from the U of Liverpool. This is the kind of stuff that makes me want to drag out “The Neural Lyre” again. It makes me want to cross the pond and harass Nigel Fabb about literary linguistics. Fear not the science! Wouldn’t this be fun to cross-check with various manifestations of cognitive processing disabilities?

Reading Shakespeare has a Dramatic Effect on the Human Brain

Research at the University of Liverpool has found that Shakespearean language excites positive brain activity, adding further drama to the bard’s plays and poetry. Shakespeare uses a linguistic technique known as functional shift that involves, for example using a noun to serve as a verb. Researchers found that this technique allows the brain to understand what a word means before it understands the function of the word within a sentence. This process causes a sudden peak in brain activity and forces the brain to work backwards in order to fully understand what Shakespeare is trying to say.

Professor Philip Davis, from the University’s School of English, said: “The brain reacts to reading a phrase such as ‘he godded me’ from the tragedy of Coriolanus, in a similar way to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. If it is easy to see which pieces slot together you become bored of the game, but if the pieces don’t appear to fit, when we know they should, the brain becomes excited. By throwing odd words into seemingly normal sentences, Shakespeare surprises the brain and catches it off guard in a manner that produces a sudden burst of activity – a sense of drama created out of the simplest of things.”

The effect of functional shift on the brain.
Credit: University of Liverpool

Experts believe that this heightened brain activity may be one of the reasons why Shakespeare’s plays have such a dramatic impact on their readers. Professor Neil Roberts, from the University’s Magnetic Resonance and Image Analysis Research Centre, (MARIARC), explains: “The effect on the brain is a bit like a magic trick; we know what the trick means but not how it happened. Instead of being confused by this in a negative sense, the brain is positively excited. The brain signature is relatively uneventful when we understand the meaning of a word but when the word changes the grammar of the whole sentence, brain readings suddenly peak. The brain is then forced to retrace its thinking process in order to understand what it is supposed to make of this unusual word.”

Professor Roberts and Professor Davis together with Dr Guillaune Thierry, from the University of Wales, Bangor, monitored 20 participants using an electroencephalogram (EEG) as they read selected lines from Shakespeare’s plays. In this initial test electrodes were placed on the subject’s scalp to measure brain responses.

Professor Roberts said: “EEG gives graph-like measurements and when the brain reads a sentence that does not make semantic sense it registers what we call a N400 effect – a negative wave modulation. When the brain reads a grammatically incorrect sentence it registers a P600 effect – an effect which continues to last after the word that triggered it was first read.”

Researchers also found that when participants read the word producing the functional shift there was no N400 effect indicating that the meaning was accepted but a P600 effect was observed which indicates a positive re-evaluation of the word. The team is now using magnetoencephalography (MEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMI) to test which areas of the brain are most affected and the kind of impact it could have in maintaining healthy brain activity.

Professor Davis added: “This interdisciplinary work is good for brain science because it offers permanent scripts of the human mind working moment-to-moment. It is good for literature as it illustrates primary human thinking. Through the two disciplines, we may discover new insights into the very motions of the mind.” Source: University of Liverpool

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Mmmmm…. JUICY AWP panels!

Sounds like the natives are restless… good!

S187. A Department of Our Own. (Brian Clements, David Harvey, Eric Nelson, Abbey Zink, Philip Gerard) The divergent goals of writing programs and English departments are leading to the establishment of many independent writing departments. Representatives of several independent writing departments discuss the advantages and disadvantages of pulling out of the English Dept.; the obstacles to independence; strategies for making the case to administrators; the benefits to students; whether comp goes with Writing or with English; etc.

S121. The Price of the Ticket: Writers of Color & Writing Programs. (David Mura, Tim Seibles, Patricia Smith, Gina Franco, Natalie Diaz, Marilyn Chin) Many writers of color have found writing programs to be alienating and inadequate to their needs as writers. Often we encounter a refusal to recognize our cultural and literary traditions and the communities that have formed us. To explore how programs might become more open to writers of color, this panel will address such issues as aesthetics and the canon, multicultural pedagogy, and personnel and institutional changes (for example, organizations like Cave Canem, VONA, Kundiman, Macando).

S108. Recognizing Common Ground: Creative Writers as Composition Teachers. (Lad Tobin, Michael Steinberg, Robert Root, Sarah Dickerson) MFA TAs and graduates are frequently asked to teach both creative writing workshops and composition courses. To help creative writers become more successful and versatile as teachers and as job candidates, our panel of writer/teachers will point out some assumptions and approaches that are common to both disciplines. They will also offer a range of multi-genre prompts, exercises, and examples that can be applied to both creative nonfiction and composition courses.

F136. Working With Diversity: The Ten Genre Writing Program of the University of British Columbia. (Bryan Wade, Meryn Cadell, Andrew Binks, Alison Acheson) Since the Industrial Revolution people have specialized, often with narrow focus. Has this created a disconnect within ourselves as humans? It is critical to the sustainability of human life and human resources that we work collaboratively and live with the abundance of diversity. What are the rewards of this? What are the challenges? The panel of faculty and students will discuss these, while illuminating the day-to-day realities of a ten-genre program.

F153. Sleeping with the “Enemy”: Garnering Support and Gaining Resources for Creative Writing Programs in a Corporate Era of Higher Education. (Kate Daniels, Judith Baumel, Mark Jarman, Lisa Russ-Spaar) What has been called the “corporate corruption” of U.S. higher education is cause for real concern among faculty, students, and administrators of creative writing programs. Even in the best of times, creative writing programs struggle for their fair share of institutional resources. This panel brings together writers from a variety of different types of colleges and universities to discuss the issue. Panelists have served as administrators of creative writing at the program, department, and decanal level. They will address some of the most urgent concerns, and suggest ways to communicate about arts missions in this new, bottom line-oriented environment in order to procure institutional resources for “soft,” non-revenue-producing curricular areas like creative writing.

Full sked online at http://www.awpwriter.org/conference/2008schedWed.php

Other exciting panels/readings/discussions involve Alicia Ostriker, Judith Johnson, translation, bilingual creative writing communities, and  a study of the interplay of syntax and poetic line, thank you Jesus.

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Put a bow on it; rent some tanks

The Semester from Hell is over. After this spring, I’ll need three more classes and then I spend a year taking comps.

Meanwhile, I must set for myself this task:

Soon after completing written doctoral examinations, a doctoral student must submit to his or her dissertation committee a written dissertation prospectus that should include the following:

1. A description of the subject, including a statement of the way the proposed approach to the subject differs from, contributes to, or modifies the existing scholarship on the subject;

2. A description of the proposed method of treatment and an account of the research necessary to complete it; and

3. A preliminary bibliography, including a discussion of the availability of materials.

The question is how I am to do this for a creative dissertation. For my MFA, I wrote a lengthy introductory essay explaining my aesthetic choices. I suppose I need to do the same thing on a more detailed level, but look at #1. Am I to write a sweeping claim along the lines of the following?

“My poetry will revolutionize the English language itself.”

“With this collection, I hope to put an end to aesthetic Balkanization, positing myself as leader of a united poetic front.”

A more down-to-earth approach seems called for in #2:

“I will write whatever the hell I want, whenever the hell I want. This approach is best accomplished on the beaches of various Caribbean nations, researching a wide range of imagery on various coral reefs while using an underwater slate to make notes. I propose a $50,000 research grant to cover six months of investigation. To minimize expenses, I will use my own equipment; however, given post-9/11 security concerns, I will need to rent a knife, weights, and tanks.”

As for #3, I plan to take an interdisciplinary approach:

Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving Into the Wreck’ contains minor factual errors about the speaker’s gear; tendentious theorists may make the case that these invalidate the resulting larger metaphors. I argue that these ‘errors’ may or may not be poetic license, but in any case do not embolize the larger poem. Research at the Historical Diving Society should turn up fruitful leads. In addition, reading every diving poem written in or translated into English will help contextualize the Deep Hidden Meaning of metaphors and similes based on inner space. Oh, yeah, and ‘The Kraken’ by Tennyson, if you like that sort of thing.

If only I could celebrate the end of the semester with a few good dives. I’ll have to be content with having taken myself out for an overpriced dinner last night.

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“You Can’t Afford It!”

I am no money genius. However, Suze Orman, author though she may be, is no creative writer. I love Suze, but she gave some rotten advice tonight. A caller who was perfectly capable of paying for her entire MFA out of her own pocket (AND who would have tons of savings and retirement left over) laid herself bare on the “Can I Afford It?” segment.

First, Suze got that pained look on her face–you know, the one that non-creative people get just before they ask, “What are you going to do with THAT?!” To her great credit, those words never came up. However, Suze did ask the caller whether she already made a living as a writer. This, of course, is not a prerequisite to graduate creative writing study. Demonstrated talent is.

The caller has her own publishing company–and from the figures, she’s doing quite well.

Suze whined, “Can’t you just get together with some of your writer friends and do that for free?” Would that it were so, indeed. We’d all be much wealthier!

At any rate, she asked the caller to “show (her) the money,” which the caller promptly did. Suze then denied the caller for these reasons: the caller is in her early 40s and would be spending 1/3 of her savings on the venture. (This ignores the fact that the caller also had considerable retirement money separate from her regular savings.)

Jeez! Suze, here are the reasons why you should have approved this caller wholeheartedly:

1. Unlike nearly all other creative writing graduate students, she will not have to grovel for token scholarships and/or assistantships that cut into her actual work.

2. She has experience as an editor, which is strongly related to writing and demonstrates an understanding of the critical process.

3. She is old enough to know what she wants.

4. She owns her own business, has many good years of earning left, and has significant savings.

5. She won’t have to take out rapacious student loans.

Here are the financial questions that you should have asked her:

1. What does a $40K program have to offer that a $20K program doesn’t? Is it the kind of program that charges big money for big names, promises low student-teacher ratios and personal attention, but whose instructors can barely fit you in around all the other conferences-of-the-month, teaching gigs, editing positions, visiting instructorships, reading circuits, etc. they do the rest of the year? (Hint: Stay away from that program!!!)

2. Have you compared programs by talking with current and past MFA students?

3. Do you plan to run your company full-time while enrolled full-time?

4. Is this a low-residency program or one to which you can commute easily? Is that good or bad for your particular needs?

5. Are you absolutely certain that you have found a good “fit”and will be able to manage any unforseen crises (if personality clashes might, for example, require you to transfer)?

6. With whom do you want to study, and why that person/those people in particular?

7. Are you planning to stay in publishing? In what capacity (run your own company, move to a literary house, close it down and just write, publish on the side, get into academe)?

8. How well/often are current/recent graduates publishing? How many are teaching full-time? Part-time? Where? How many are tending bar? How many have gone back to previous professional jobs? Who among these have published at least one full-length book with a decent literary or commercial house?

I have a great deal of respect for Suze as a personal finance adviser. However, she should not assume that, as the author of commercial non-fiction, she is qualified to advise creative writers on the very expensive and difficult choice to study their art and craft in depth. To denigrate a professional editor’s choice to expand her repertoire by suggesting that she get together with a few pals at the coffee shop for an exercise in the blind leading the blind is like suggesting to a prospective MBA student that she get together with a couple of friends and open said coffee shop as a means to understanding macroeconomic theory.

Then there’s the model of the restaurant in Iowa City completely staffed by creative writing students.

As somebody who definitely cannot afford it, and who lost a great deal of financial wealth pursuing a low-residency MFA at a private college, I have to say that I am poor and in hefty educational debt, but not sorry. I transferred to a public university, earned an MFA, taught part-time for a while, and now am pursuing a creative Ph.D. at another public university. Yes, I could have earned $500,000 or more in the eleven years since I left my wonderful journalism job–not counting retirement savings–and yes, it does make me a little nauseated to think about it. However, I can look at myself in the mirror; my writing has improved by light years; and I have developed a body of work, widened my professional contacts, and made many good friends since then.

A creative graduate degree does imply the right to teach; it is not, however, a job license or a guarantee that its holder will win the Pulitzer, Nobel, or state poetry contest. It is an exercise in craft refinement and development that results in a publishable body of work, good work habits, and much deep and wide reading.

I refer the curious to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs for information about why an MFA (or creative Ph.D.) can be vital to any serious writer’s artistic development. It seems that writers pursuing advanced study are forever held up to the “practicality” test in ways that other artists (musicians, visual artists, etc.) are not.

Suze’s motto is “People first, then money, then things.” I agree. If you are serious about your writing, then your development as a writer comes first. It is integral to your happiness, your well-being, and your time spent on the planet. Next, you are in the fortunate position to have the money to pursue said artistic development. You are very lucky. Finally, if the “thing” at the bottom of this hierarchy is the sheepskin–that is, if you are doing this for the right reasons and not merely to say, “I have an MFA (or whatever degree it is),” then you have followed her advice.

Caller! Go forth and sniff out the various programs! Go part-time and keep running your publishing business! Find a suitable low-res and keep working! Talk to others who have been in your position! Your financials are a hell of a lot better than mine, girlfriend! You have been APPROVED!

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Not bad–a solid A on the final revision! Chock-full-o’ chunky goodness!

(Now I just have to bust out all the grammar terminology/diagrams thoroughly. The prof came up with some real gems to puzzle through before the final…!)

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One big ol’ working chunk o’ chunks



Kay Ryan is a stealthy wit. It took me a few years to be able to read her work because the extreme shortness of the lines had the curious effect of overwhelming me: too much effort, it felt, demanded by too little work, which might in turn not repay the effort of reading. (This was, of course, a silly and shallow way to judge any book’s worth.) Hearing her read on several occasions finally drove me to buy her books and to catch up on her work. In a way, I’m glad I waited, as hers is a poetry not merely of light humor but of mature self-assurance: poetry written for poetry’s sake, not written to satisfy poetic fashion, careerist scrambling, nor narcissistic navel-gazing.



What attracts me to Ryan’s poetry are its compression, its meatiness, its intelligence, its humor. Hers is a poetry that forces the reader to consider each word in an age that values the prolix polemic (or open-mic “rant”). Elsewhere, Ryan has written that the poet’s job is to remediate clichés. Take a look at “Felix Crow” (5):
Crow school
is basic and
short as a rule–
just the rudiments
of quid pro crow
for most students (ll. 1-6).

This gives you an idea of the sort of humor we’re dealing with here. Yet she’s not merely after the laugh. She wants you to look at the mundane in new ways, to take a moment and turn over the shiny bits for the fun of it, the way a crow might:
Then each lives out
his unenlightened
span, adding his
bit of blight
to the collected
history of pushing out
the sweeter species;
briefly swaggering the
swagger of his
aggravating ancestors
down my street.
And every time
I like him
when we meet (ll. 7-20).

You might say that Ryan anthropomorphizes the crow’s behavior to create a metaphor for human nature. Or, if you are prone to address the various creatures that you cross paths with, you might say, “Hey! She looks at crows like that, too!” While the vocabulary is likely accessible to any smart second-grader, the ideas it expresses—human arrogance, vita brevis, and the ability to laugh appreciatively at such weaknesses rather than to get sanctimonious about them—are not simplistic ones.



Ryan’s fascination with the extravagant glory of rhyme is illustrated on the facing page in “Shark’s Teeth.” Notice how the rhymes are prominent to the ear, yet buried within the very short lines themselves; this is characteristic of her style: how Ryan gives herself wiggle room:
Shark’s Teeth
Everything contains some
silence. Noise gets
its zest from the
small shark’s-tooth-
shaped fragments
of rest angled
in it. An hour
of city holds maybe
a minute of these
remnants of a time
when silence reigned,
compact and dangerous
as a shark. Sometimes
a bit of a tail
or fin can still
be sensed in parks (6).

Consider the rhyme types in this poem—remembering that rhymes are based on identical vowel sounds between two words. Ryan packs the poem’s four sentences with in strict rhyme (gets-zest-rest, sharks-parks), assonance (bit-fin, reigned-dangerous), alliteration (some-silence, shark’s-shaped, in-it), consonance (shaped-rest, tail-still), and other sonic devices within a very small space. This sonic density within a very small space is typical of her work. yet she Ryan avoids the dreaded “sing-song” effect by not forcing the linebreaks to coincide with rhyming pairs. The poem is made up of four sentences. This is what workshop instructors call “hiding the scaffolding,” or masking the overtly formal aspects of craft within a conversational-sounding voice.


Ryan has taught remedial writing for better than 30 years now, which means that ; perhaps not coincidentally, she knows grammar intimately. It also means that She also understands the power of simplicity. The first sentence (or line-and-a-half) is, indeed, a simple sentence:


(transition?) What’s even more interesting in some ways is the facility with which she generalizes from the particular. Shedoes have Ryan has a sharp eye for detail, and she has an equally sharp wit. However, it is rare to find a poet whose work exhibits such density of language, such well-drawn imagery, such apt metaphor, careful attention to both rhythmic and sonic devices, and such successful rhetorical casebuilding for one’s own observations all in one poet at once. This Such mastery is the difference between merely putting high sentiment into pretty words and linebreaks and writing poetry of consequence.



Ryan is able to handle abstractions that would ensnare other poets would snarl —take a look at “Added Significance” (16). Words like horrible, significance (twice!), and burdensome, not to mention events and added used as an adjective, would elsewhere be condemned to die quickly in slashing in a bloodbath of red ink condemnation elsewhere. Shall we comb the poem for clichés? In the wake of, horrible events, added significance, it can’t do any good, and the construction as if…weren’t…enough all each (much less taken as a group) ought to make your flesh crawl in a poem this tiny. And yet.



How does she get away with it? If you look at Consider the poem’s sentence structure. you’ll see that The first two sentences are a parade of items sentence errors–redundancy, fragment, ambiguous pronoun reference, flaccid modifiers–that, in isolation, we would unequivocally call examples of horrifically bad writing. Here they are as prose lines:
In the wake of horrible events each act or word is fortified with added
significance, unabsorbable as nutrients added to the outside of food: it
can’t do any good. As if significance weren’t burdensome enough (16).

The third sentence fragment, with its implied (missing) be verb, is serves the poem as both shift and closure: “Now the wave-slapped beach rocks [are] not just made to talk but made to teach.” (explain why) It’s not that one single excellent sentence can redeem two grammatically and stylistically bad ones; it’s how Ryan deliberately and knowledgeably plays with dissipated clichés that makes turns those flawed sentences into viable ideas, much less and dense poetry.


Relineated to emphasize endrhyme, the poem might have looked something like this:
In the wake of horrible events a
each act or word b
is fortified with added significance, a
unabsorbable as nutrients a
added to the outside of food: b
it can’t do any good. b
As if significance a
weren’t burdensome enough. c
Now the wave-slapped beach d
rocks not just made to talk but made to teach. d
Notice that the pacing of Ryan’s short, primarily dimeter lines is completely destroyed in by this example. The rhyming pair rocks-talk is subsumed to the stronger end-rhyme of beach-teach. Notice that the pacing of Ryan’s short, primarily dimeter lines is completely destroyed in this example. Conventional wisdom dictates that shorter lines create speed and urgency within a poem. In Ryan’s work, they tend to have the opposite effect: they slow down the reader down with, their lub-dub heartbeat, only punctuated occasionally by a third beat for variety’s sake. The This pacing effect is works in poetry the way that somewhat like the lingering cinematic “beauty shot” or slow pan across the field of vision works in cinematography. Ryan’s linebreaks and pacing invite the reader to slow down, to see what she sees, to think about what she is saying. In this, the poems invite meditative reading in the strictest sense of the word.



(transition?) In this linguistic milieu, Ryan wears her learning lightly. She is college-educated, but not a product of any workshop; she also came to Po-Biz late in life. This blessed isolation appears to have saved her from the McPoem that so many of us workshop veterans are trying to wipe from our soles. She Ryan makes the observations and asks the questions that really matter outside the world of literary-theorist name-dropping or the perpetually-twitchy Postmodernist snarkfest. Language is not something that she twists in your face like a grapefruit in the puss; instead, it’s a means to understanding a really interesting particular rock or bird that she wants you to stop and contemplate for a while, and an invitation to make associations with and draw larger inferences from the object of her focus. Consider “Caps” (29) or “Post-Construction” (51) or “Nothing Getting Past” (53). (details?) She frames her questions without self-consciousness. Some of these are of the gee-whiz variety, but—gee whiz!–they aren’t the same kinds of uncritically worshipful nature observations that, say, Mary Oliver gives us. They are more like Emily Dickinson’s. I say this not because Ryan is a female American poet (and thus inescapably chained to the Belle of Amherst), but because her observations of the particular are linked to the larger epistemological realm (the fly, the snake) in a philosophical, not mystical, way. Oliver’s language too often resembles a battery losing its charge: sometimes illuminating, yes, but not blindingly so; Ryan’s language and metaphor and argument conduct forked lightning, where Oliver’s language too often resembles a battery losing its charge: sometimes illuminating, yes, but not blindingly so:


Imagine a sea
of ultramarine
suspending a
million jellyfish
as soft as moons.
Imagine the
interlocking uninsistent
tunes of drifting things.
This is the deep machine
that powers the lamps
of dreams and accounts
for their bluish tint.
How can something
so grand and serene
vanish again and again
without a hint? (67)

(transition?) Writing in World Literature Review, Fred Dings complains that Ryan relies on the “pedantic” aphorism as closure device:

Ryan’s poems are also often pedantic, which is not a fault, especially when they teach something worthy and delightful, as they often do. Nevertheless, too many, for my taste, seem to depend on some final observation or trope to save what is otherwise a pretty mundane poem, as in the poem “Chinese Foot Chart”. . . . This tendency to hinge a poem’s success on some final aphoristic click is common in Ryan’s work, and while it is often exhilarating the first time through, the poems seldom invite me back (73).

I find Ryan’s work to be didactic, but never pedantic in the pejorative sense of that word. In terms of closure, Ryan’s tight gems may have more in common with Shakespeare’s sonnet (or even Pope’s rhymed couplet), which hardly seems an indictable offense; the closures seem neither overly neat nor contrived. (explain why)



Ryan claims a deep personal distaste for creative writing as an academic specialty, although she has taught the occasional summer workshop at the West Chester Formal and Narrative Poetry Conference. In her essay commissioned for Poetry, “I Go to AWP,” she writes:

Wanting to be connected, wanting to be great in some great tradition, these are sweet ideas. But how can I reconcile them with my own preference for isolation from the other toilers? I explain it to myself this way: I don’t want to be connected to poetry in an easy, fellowshipping way, but I do want to be connected in a way that will earn me the respect of the dead (xx).(check cite!)

One of the great advantages of eschewing “po-biz” gatherings and aesthetic fads is that it leaves the poet time and psychic space to converse with the masters. Poetry that exists on the page, whether it is specifically written “for” the page or transcribed from the shadowy realm of oral transmission, has the great advantage of transcending future time and place, of being serving as its own example (of what?), and of providing its own lessons. Ryan sets a high bar for her own work by hoping to “earn [herself] the respect of the dead.” When one places one’s own work in the context of the great masters’, an act at once both stunningly arrogant and phenomenally humble, one does not need to waste time building MySpace pages, self-publishing CDs, and clawing one’s way onto various literary boards. In an age when poets spend more time marketing themselves than writing and revising poems, Ryan’s example is worth following.


Works Cited
Dings, Fred. “The Niagara River.” World Literature Today. 80:6 (Nov/Dec 2006): 73.
Ryan, Kay. The Niagara River. New York: Grove P, 2005.
__________. “I Go to AWP.” In Poetry, 186:4 (July 2005): ___ . http://www.poetrymagazine.org/magazine/0705/comment_171211_print.html . Accessed 3 November 2007.

((add the CD, maybe?))


Big bag o’ chunky cites

Works Cited
Dings, Fred. “The Niagara River.” World Literature Today. 80:6 (Nov/Dec 2006): 73.
Ryan, Kay. The Niagara River. New York: Grove P, 2005.
__________. “I Go to AWP.” In Poetry, 186:4 (July 2005): ___ . http://www.poetrymagazine.org/magazine/0705/comment_171211_print.html . Accessed 3 November 2007.

((add the CD, maybe?))

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