Tag Archives: postaday2011

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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