All through April and into the summer months, I noticed something new in my publishing options on my WordPress blog: hey! you can turn this blog entry into a podcast! It was an intriguing idea for me, for one, because I enjoy reading out loud, think I have a pretty good knack for it, and for another, it provided a tantalizing strategy for attracting a wider audience, and maybe even (as a cursory exploration of the Anchor website teased), a way to make some money. So after I wrote my last entry in The Book I Read series, I thought I’d give it try. I know my way around all kinds of audio recording situations. How hard could it be?
Well, the short answer to that question is that it took me most all day working on my first podcast and at the end of it I had nothing to show for my labors. I suppose, it could have been user error. But I was having unforeseen technical difficulties creating audio in the Anchor website that made it impossible to finish the task.
First of all, I discovered the hard way that using the Safari browser allowed the podcaster only five minutes to record. I discovered this later in the fine print somewhere, but before I did, I had made three or four passes at a recording when the thing just cut me off. Furthermore, the audio wasn’t saved, so I couldn’t have gone back to edit even if I wanted to. So the first learning: Safari allows only five minutes of audio at a time, while Chrome, apparently, allows 30. Chrome did not recognize me, my password was a strong suggestion from the Mac that did not travel from browser to browser, so recovering my login info would have slowed me down even further. I decided then to record my first podcast in five minute chunks that I could later string together. That didn’t work either. Again, for some reason, even keeping my performance under five minutes, the audio would not save and it appeared that I was doing everything correctly. Sometimes, a test pass that wasn’t even a serious take would save, but then when I tried it for real, it wouldn’t. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to why sometimes it would save and other times it wouldn’t. Again, how hard could it be? Push the damn button and go.
Loading up music for an intro bumper and closing credits also proved to be ridiculously ineffective; the software would let you upload a music file, but would only allow you to cut that file into smaller chunks. There seemed to be no way to fade audio or manipulate its volume or to do one of those professional kinds of things where a voice is recorded over the top of a musical interlude. Again, I confess there may be features of the Anchor software that I was unable to unlock simply because I was unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the thing, but I also had a sinking suspicion that the software on this website is just very much limited to make things exceedingly simple for even dummies like myself.
My only success yesterday was to allow the Anchor software to read one of my blog entries out loud using some kind of Siri-like computer voice. This is an actual choice you can make. I have no idea how many bloggers out there are allowing Siri to speak their podcasts, but I just had to try it. It was exceedingly entertaining. She did a really nice job! But, you know, it wasn’t me, and it didn’t have, you know, that je ne sais quoi quality that makes me, you know, ME. But she didn’t make a single error! And hearing her read my writing so fluently made me feel pretty good about my skills! Am I posting that? No sir, I will not. But I could see, for fun, employing her at some point as a guest in some future episode, if I can ever figure this thing out! For amusement’s sake, check this out:
So here’s where I am (in the event that a Michael Jarmer podcast might be at all interesting to you). I’m going into my music studio gear to record a podcast with some gussied-up features (a musical intro, the ability to voice over the top of that music, the best audio quality at my disposal, maybe even a special effect here and there), and then I will attempt to upload the audio into the podcast Anchor website. It might be that in the next couple of days, I will be able to debut my first ever podcast presentation. Wish me luck. And if there’s anyone out there with Anchor experience, it would be really great to hear from you. Cheers!
(Books discussed in this blog: Wolf in White Van, John Darneille; Her Read, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, and Paddock, Mary Lou Buschi)
In April of 2019 I thought I would begin a series of book review blog entries titled after one of my favorite early Talking Heads songs, “The Book I Read.” So I did that. The trouble is: that first entry was the only entry! You know what they say: the best laid plans something something blah blah blah. Today, two years later and some change, I still think it’s a good idea. I am a person that is perpetually in a state of dissatisfaction about how much I read; every year of my life since leaving a formal education program where I am pretty much forced into the endeavor, I vow to read more, and specifically, to read more for pleasure. “The Book I Read” series seemed to be a tidy way to hold myself accountable, both for the reading and for the other thing I’d like to be doing more often–writing. And, too, I think the review, while I know nothing about how to do one properly, keeps me engaged in an activity I have always found, as an English teacher, to be a pedagogically sound practice: Okay, you’ve read a thing. Write about that experience! And as a student, I always found that my writing about my reading helped me to internalize the experience and to remember more of what I read. Perhaps this practice is why I have a much better book memory than a film memory. All I can tell you about a film I saw two years ago, or even two months ago, is whether or not I liked it. Don’t ask me to tell you what it was about–except to say something like, you know, it took place in outer space, or in the future, or it was about a boy and a dog and some vampires.
Because I am a musician that writes, or a writer who makes music, I have a soft spot, or an affinity, with others like me. Some famous rock musicians are very good writers. My first experience reading a rock star who could really write was Bob Geldof’s autobiography of the late 80’s. I’ve read David Byrne’s stuff. Mark Oliver Everett, The Eels guy. I’ve got Ben Folds on the shelf waiting. With Wolf in White Van, I have my first experience reading a rock musician fiction writer. John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, a band I have been smitten with over the last two or three years, is the author of this gem, and this was my first summer reading project.
Here’s a quick gloss of the premise: a young man, terribly disfigured by an accidental gun shot to the face, makes his way in the world as a role-play game designer, the protocols of which are extremely lo-fi. For a subscription fee, his customers play his RPG through written correspondence–that’s right, letters. He sends them a scenario, they send him a kind of narrative account of the choices they make, and in return, he sends them options for their next “move.” There are a few key dramatic arcs in this novel–or, a few key questions that provide readers with the impetus to keep on trucking. One: how did he fuck up his face? Two: is he responsible for the deaths of two of his players–killed no less in the process of “literally” acting out the scenarios in Sean’s RPG? How does one so disfigured navigate the world? Why doesn’t he seek plastic reconstructive surgery? What’s up with his parents? Is a relationship between Sean and his childhood friend Kimmy possible post-accident?
I liked reading this novel. Darnielle can really craft a sentence, and the novel is evocative, poetic, sometimes funny, and philosophically engaging, cerebral. It can also be frustrating. The first big question, how’d he fuck up his face, is ultimately answered, but we are made to wait until the very end to find out–and the answer is not altogether clear or satisfying. The other seemingly big question about the deaths of his customers is answered rather economically before we’re really half way through the novel–it turns out for the reader to be a kind of dashed expectation–at least it felt that way for me, as I expected it to be a key plot feature. Perhaps neither of these questions are the important ones, and it seems that Wolf in White Van may not be a novel driven by plot–but rather, by voice, by character; and the thing that moves us through as we bip back and forth in time with our narrator should really be the psychology of this guy, unraveling and understanding his nihilism despite his privileges and gifts. Certainly, the key might be in the unpacking of this potential metaphor of the Role-Play Game. People spend a whole heck of a lot of time pretending to be in a world that doesn’t exist, in the same way that people who are not gamers at all spend a considerable amount of their time on the planet skirting reality.
This next thing, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth’s Her Read, is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is manifestly unique. The book, about 260 pages long, is a single poem–a poem in a form we call an erasure. We have an erasure, essentially, when a poet has taken an existing non-poetry text and created something new and unique through the process of blocking out significant chunks of the original. I have come to know it as a common teaching technique in writing classes where the goal is to have students thinking about language and the various choices poets make–while simultaneously easing the anxiety around the blank page–everything is there for you already; you just have to find it. It’s like sculpting–you remove stuff in order to discover the shape or the image or the meaning inside. Super fun. I’ve only encountered erasure poems by serious poets on a few occasions, most notably, Tracy K. Smith’s erasure poem from the Declaration of Independence, a poem that totally transforms and reframes our understanding of American history.
But Steinorth’s poem is not simply an erasure–it is, as the cover announces, a “graphic poem.” It is a full color printing replete with drawings, photos, diagrams, and replications of the original source–a book originally published in 1931 called The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read–so that the reader can visually see Steinorth’s white out erasures, her doodling, her coloring, her stitching, her cutting and pasting, her manipulation of classic paintings–and the ghost of the original text, sometimes attempting to peak its way out from under the white-out, sometimes appearing vividly around the new poem, crossed out against Steinorth’s circled choices or otherwise as a kind of backdrop or wall paper out of which the new text or an art image leaps out. Without saying anything about the poem’s subject matter or themes, I must begin by just saying what a blast this piece is to read. It is tremendous fun. It gives new meaning to what folks sometimes say about any literary work–that the reader must learn HOW to read it. On almost every page, we are faced with a new kind of puzzle, sometimes a straightforward and easy adjustment, other times diabolically difficult. And, decidedly, it is just a beautiful thing, an art object as well as a literary artifact.
But what’s this poem about? And is it a good poem? I am a poetry lover, not a poetry scholar. I don’t think of myself as much of a critic–only that I know when I’m reading a poem if I’m enjoying myself or not, if I’ve understood the poem or not, or if I’m able to appreciate the various moves the poet is making. I’ve already confessed that I enjoyed myself thoroughly reading Her Read. But it is what I would call a difficult poem–in that it’s meaning is allusive–or rather, that my understanding while I read was tentative, slippery. I take full responsibility for that. I can say, though, that Eleanor Wilner’s introduction is astounding and astoundingly helpful, and the author’s preface, “Her Apologia,” is also edifying. Perhaps most helpful is the revelation that the source text, The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read, makes mention of exactly zero women artists–and in a subsequent edition from the fifties, only ONE. So–my biggest take away from this beautiful book is that the poem is a kind of reclamation of the history of art by and for women writers and painters and art enthusiasts. This is after all, her read, her reading, Steinorth’s illumination of what was missing in Herbert Read’s original text–and yet, present all the same! I just blew my own mind right there. I doubt this is accidental: the whole time I was reading I kept thinking of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I bet Steinorth would consider that pretty good company.
Finally, I arrive at Mary Lou Buschi’s Paddock, a volume of poetry so sparse and spacious, even at 64 pages, that it begs to be read more than once. So I did that. Outside of preparing for a writer’s workshop on a manuscript, I don’t think I’ve ever read a complete volume of poetry cover to cover more than once within the space of a couple of days. I felt it necessary perhaps to revel in its weirdness. That’s true. Or maybe I thought I’d understand it much better the second time around. That checks out, but still, I must confess, my understanding feels limited, superficial. Poetry like this makes one especially thankful for blurbs on the back covers, which, in the poetry world, are often little mini-essays in and of themselves. In the effort towards stepping away from Paddock with anything like an “understanding,” Patrick Donnelly’s blurb on the back cover was immeasurably helpful. He doesn’t have the answers either–but his speculating about what could be was a tremendous lifeline. Like Her Read, I found this volume to be a difficult but enormously rewarding reading experience. My own poetry, and (surprise surprise) the poetry I like best, is narrative in nature–where a story is being told or an experience is being described that is rooted in a comprehensible world–even if that world is exceedingly weird. I also enjoy lyric poetry that describes an emotional response or teases out a philosophical territory–and yet still is grounded somehow in a familiar world. The most rewarding reading experiences where neither of the above approaches, narrative or lyric, seem to be relevant or important, is in my deep reading over the years of Samuel Beckett. His disembodied voices, his gallows humor, his vaudevillian approach to the deepest existentialist questions, has been some of the most satisfying reading of my life. Paddock reminds me of Beckett more than anything else, and in particular, his play Waiting for Godot.
In Paddock we have three primary voices, girl 1 and girl 2, and a chorus. The chorus does what choruses do: sets the scene, provides commentary, maybe helps interpret the proceedings, lends a kind of mythic aura to the whole. The girls are our main characters–but in actual text real estate, their lines and their conversations are clipped, truncated, brief, and, like the conversations between Vladimir and Estragon from Godot, strangely surreal, comical, absurd. And like their Beckett counterpoints, they are on a mission it seems, not one of waiting, but one of looking, searching–and of trying at one and the same time to leave and to arrive. What are they looking for? Who are they leaving or hoping to join? Mother. And this, thankfully, is given us right out of the gate by the chorus: “Once, as there are many,/time stretches infinitely,/2 girls set forth,/to find a mother,/who is she,/who is I,/who is Dear.” Now the mysteries of this collection, similarly to the mysteries of Godot, are questions the reader may have that the text of the drama does not answer explicitly. Where are these two girls? In what state? Are they dead? Are they about to be born? Clearly, (I just said “clearly”) they are in some kind of liminal space. How are the girls related, or are they? What trauma has their “mother” experienced and by whose hands? Do they have the same mother or different ones? Is “mother” literal or metaphorical, symbolic? These are huge unanswerable questions–but again, like in Godot, the pleasure and the meaning is in NOT getting the answers you seek, but instead, more questions. In the end. . . No, I’m not going to give away the ending!
Paddock is not just a collection of poems–it is a singular and difficult drama. The more I think about it, the more likely I am to give it a third reading. It is beautiful and weird, nightmarish and strange, puzzling and profound.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap on my second attempt in two years at a blog about books I am reading in the series I have called “The Book I Read.”
It’s hot. Is it hot? It’s hot in here. It’s hot out there. It’s so hot. Squirrels are dying. Baby hummingbirds are abandoned. The crows are clearly pissed. For three days in a row Portland saw temperatures in triple digits—three record breaking days in a row. The fourth day promised to be a chilly 97 degrees. Finally, some relief! In fact, somewhat miraculously, it did cool down over that third evening, over two hours about 15 degrees. 8:30 on Monday evening, from 103 or so to 88 in the shade. That was insane. We had no central air, but instead, there are window units in the bedrooms that couldn’t keep up, a basement that is cool until one gets used to it and realizes that, relatively, it’s not really all that cool, and we have the great privilege of owning a tiny RV with kick ass AC—so we were living in that thing with the dogs for the duration of the heatwave.
This school year has been a bit of a hellscape sandwich. On top of everything was the Covid 19 pandemic, but September began with massive wildfires that shut everything down and made breathing dangerous, February brought us a freak ice storm and the loss of power for six to ten days, and summer break begins with a record setting heatwave. One of the mildest climes in the continental United States finds itself with Baghdad temperatures.
Now, almost midway through July, things have cooled down. But we haven’t seen any rain in a while, and our “cool” days have all been in the mid 80’s, a couple of 90-degree reprises. This, we can live with. But I understand our neighbors to the south are not fairing as well. Death Valley, California, while normally a hot place, reached temperatures a few days ago of 130 degrees. All year, with the weather and the pandemic, we have, it seems, been covered by clouds of impending doom.
And yet—there is good news. In Oregon, having reached the 60%fully vaccinated threshold, we are, it seems, completely back in business, have reopened “the economy,” have dropped altogether the mask mandate. It’s been a bit of a shock to be out in public. Can I trust these people? What is that whole bit under the eyes, there? Noses? Mouths? I think I remember those! Should I keep my distance? Within a day, it seems, the public has gone from fully masked to no masks. I still have these panics when I’m driving some place—oh my god—did I forget my mask? Should I go back? I still find myself carrying one around with me, just in case. It amazes me how we have become so accustomed to mask-wearing, a thing that was SO strange in the beginning, now, we feel kind of naked without them—or still super anxious that people around us are not wearing theirs, even though we’re not wearing one either. Let us keep our fingers crossed, however, that this is a trend that continues, that we are really, if not completely, almost out of the woods.
And rock and roll is back in town. Live music is a thing again. Last weekend I played my first two drumming gigs in public in fourteen or fifteen months. It was glorious. Seeing friends again, hugging people, shaking hands (tentatively, still), and having face-to-face close proximity conversations: we need this. I need it. In fact, I’m realizing how much I need it, surprisingly so. I think I had kind of convinced myself that the introvert in me had become accustomed to my relative isolation and had learned to like it. And now? Not so much. It feels good to BE with people again. Is this the last of the Plague Journals? Somehow, I doubt it—but I think I might be close to wrapping up this series once and for all. I’m totally okay with that.
Here are some details about a typical Saturday over the last month or so: I’ll have a leisurely morning, drink coffee, eat a light breakfast, walk the dogs, make plans for the yard, eat a heavier lunch, drop off cans at the bottle drop, buy records at the curbside of Music Millennium, dog bones at the pet store, beer at the liquor store, liquor at the beer store (yes, I started drinking again), briquettes for the Egg at the pool store, listen to my boy gush about his drum lesson while he shows me some new rudimental licks on the practice pad, listen to several records start to finish all in a row while drinking beer: Japanese Breakfast, Crowded House, Cheap Trick, Steven Wilson. Maybe later: Gary Numan or Kansas. Maybe later: digging into to The Mare of Easttown or The Outsider or Bo Burnham’s Inside.
Both vaccinations? Check–for both my wife and I, as of the end of March. The resident teenager acquires his second vaccination at the beginning of June. Check. And finally, the arrival of the end of the weirdest school year in the history of school years. Double check.
Over the last quarter of the school year, after three quarters of teaching online only, I was able to be with a little less than half of the students enrolled in my classes–in person, in the flesh. While the rest of my students chose to stay at home, we happy few were together in a room, masked, over the course of fourteen 90 minute periods between April and June. The microphone set up we were supposed to have in our rooms–so that hard of hearing students could hear us better and so that our voices would last the period–never materialized. And it was strange, uncomfortable, to deliver instruction through a mask. Projecting, as teachers must do, was difficult with one’s mouth and nose covered, had the effect, as they say, of taking away the breath–like–you know–it became sometimes literally hard to breathe. I never passed out, but I did find myself dizzy on several occasions. Thank goodness: holding forth for 90 minutes was never an expectation. In fact, we did considerably less teaching, less teacher talk, than we have ever done or had to do. Our role was primarily supportive–supplemental: here’s the thing we did yesterday in the google meet presented in a slightly different way, or in a way that is conducive to conversation, and here’s a supplemental thing that might make these concepts more vivid, and here’s some materials to make something creative, and here’s a chunk of time to get done what you otherwise would have had to carve out your own time for. You’re welcome. I think this last bit, that gift of time, is the thing that students and teachers found most valuable about hybrid learning. I had very few students signed up for in-person classes who sat and did nothing for 7 weeks. I could count them on a single hand.
As a result of teaching online for an entire year under a protocol that did not require students to enable their microphones or their video feeds, and an in-person experience with only half of them in that last quarter, I feel this year that I know my students less well than any group of students I have ever taught. Paradoxically, though, there is a kind of warm regard, a deep appreciation, an enormous well of gratitude, even a love for these kids I am seeing for the last time today, that I have not necessarily experienced before. First, there was this feeling all the way through of solidarity, the sense that we were in something together, something new, something challenging, something that would demand the better angels. I found students this year to be more appreciative, more kind, more thoughtful, more patient, and less behaviorally challenging than any group of students I’ve ever had. For the most part, students rose to the occasion. As weird as it was, as awkward, as limiting, and as isolating–we managed still to form something like a functional and positive learning community. Today, saying goodbye to my students for the year, some of whom I have never seen in person, I got me some serious feels. It almost brought me tears when one student, in our last google meet synchronous session of the school year, opened up her microphone to publicly thank me and share her appreciation for the work I had done. Amazing. So, there you go. An historic school year ending on the highest possible note.
In other news:
Yesterday I got my haircut. It was maybe the fourth time over the last year that I’ve seen this particular stylist (a new person for me)–but until this last time, I had never seen the bottom half of her face. It’s amazing how much the bottom half of a face contributes to the experience of the whole. You really do not know what someone looks like until you have seen their whole face. That seems kind of like a ridiculous thing to say–but there it is. It had never really occurred to me before, and thus, when I saw her whole face, both of us having been fully vaxxed, it was a revelation.
Live music returns! It looks like, beginning July, this will be a summer for drumming. I’ve got gigs booked. It’s time to start shedding. Across the country, Stephen Colbert returned to the Ed Sullivan Theater in front of a fully vaccinated live audience to do The Late Show. Things are opening up all over. Oregon is on it’s way to having 70% of adults with at least one shot–and then, our governor says, we will open up completely. We’re just above 50% now, above the national average, but still–no cigar. Nevertheless, it’s becoming clear that after 14 months of quarantine, a return to normalcy is within view! That, perhaps, will become the theme of the end of 2021 and into 2022–a return to normalcy. It’s fun to see folks celebrating the new White House behavior as absolutely mundane and boring–you know, the kind of behavior you would expect from politicians just kind of doing their jobs. There’s still all of this residual ugliness, though, in our political landscape. Exhibit A: the government passes a law to make Juneteenth a national holiday while simultaneously politicians all over the country try to make the teaching of Critical Race Theory against the law. WTF. There’s still plenty of WTF to go around. Soon, perhaps, as we recover from this crazy last year and people find themselves in less desperate situations, things might start to even out, cool down, liberalize–if you will. 2022 could be a pivotal year. Another one? I know. I’m hopeful it will be for the good.
It’s always astounding to me, when I set myself the task of writing a poem a day for a month, and then each day becomes marked by a poem, how quickly the month seems to pass. Thirty poems seems like a lot of poems. Thirty days seems like a lot of days. It’s not. You’d think we’d be used to this, that whole time-passing thing. It’s been more than a year since our lock-down began. I went 105 days without alcohol. I was counting those days, not because I couldn’t wait for the abstinence to be over, but because I wanted to see how many days I could go. 105 days went by pretty quickly. A full year of distance learning, of teaching remotely from my home computer, from April 2020 to April 2021–that happened. That, however, did not go by quickly. This, perhaps, has felt like the longest school year in my long career. Maybe it’s that you have to be counting, and in small increments, to experience time as accelerated. My two most favorite unfinished reading projects are both about time. I was not able to finish Proustor Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I don’t know what this means. Perhaps I’m grasping at straws. I liked today’s final suggestion from the Napowrimo website, but it feels slight somehow, not suitable as a concluding poem–as if, for some reason, I feel like the last poem of the month should be somehow a kind of pinnacle, some kind of stirring, epic, grand, final gesture. That’s a set-up for failure. William Stafford’s advice about writing has stuck with me more, I think, than any other piece of advice I have ever heard or read from another writer. When you are stuck, when the going gets tough, “lower your standards.”
Thanks for joining me on this journey. I so much appreciate those of you who have visited a bunch of times, sharing some comments here or there and “liking” the work. It’s sustaining. It’s very gratifying. I wish I could be as generous to you all as you have been to me. Time to visit the work of my Napowrimo brothers and sisters is always limited in my situation during this most critical time of the school year, the home stretch, as it were, and especially in this year of our plague, 2021. Cheers. Congratulations. May we meet again in better circumstances. Here are the directions to my house.
Poem on April 30
Just follow the signs. You can’t miss it. It’s just right around the corner. Well, right around several corners, the penultimate corner of which will, after one more corner, bring you practically to my doorstep. It’s almost nothing but left turns with a right turn just in time so that you’re not traveling in circles. Yeah, if you think of it like that, a series of near circles, or squares really, with a right turn after every two lefts–that’s the idea. Look for the tree, the one all by itself on the curbside, standing, as if on guard, against what appears to be a whole forest of giant oaks, which leaved today, by the way. I swear, I’ve been watching, like I do every year: one day, bare trees, the next, leaves. So look for the green in the canopy. The dogs will bark but they don’t bite. We have a roundabout driveway that moves round about the house. We hope you will feel welcome here, but our doorbell is out of commission so you’ll have to use the knocker.
The best thing I could do for myself this morning: spin Scary Monsters in the empty classroom before the students arrived, timing “Ashes to Ashes” and “Fashion” just for the moment as the first group of kids came through the doors of A-9. That was a good way to begin. What has felt like a week of Thursdays comes to a close tomorrow at the end of our first full week of what we’re calling the “hybrid” model— google meets in the morning, in-person afternoon classes. My 9th graders are quiet, subdued, maybe somewhat shell-shocked, having been alone for so long, not having to talk, not having to be seen, now suddenly, totally exposed. These are not the 9th graders I’m used to. It’s early, I know, and maybe by the end of the school year they’ll be back to their old selves, and instead of my wishing that they’d talk, I’ll be wishing they’d stop. I hope so. Otherwise, I feel we’d still be learning at a distance, less remote, to be sure, but still that gulf, that silence, those long awkward pauses, which may or may not be pregnant: Ground control to Major Tom– sometimes it’s impossible to tell if anyone is out there.
Including today, there are three more days left of National Poetry Writing Month. I’ve made it this far and I haven’t missed a day. In previous years, while I always made it to 30, sometimes I would have to cheat a little and publish two poems in a single day. I cheated not a single time this month. The month is not over yet, I know, but I think my chances of finishing without a cheat are strong. The force is with me, the poetry force, that is. Other things, they seem to be against me, but not poetry. Today’s prompt, you ask? It’s a good one; although, as I write this little preamble, I have not yet written the poem and do not know that it will be successful. There’s something about that. You can’t always write well to a prompt just because you like it. The perfect exemplar of this assignment is found, I think, in the song that inspired the meme above: “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads. I’ve used this graphic to illustrate a poem before–but that thing was a totally different animal. The optional prompt for today–write a poem inspired by or consisting of questions, answers optional. Here goes.
Poem on April 28
You may ask yourself,
Yep, I’m already done with that. I got one line but no questions and no poem. Let’s try again.
Poem on April 28
You may ask yourself,
I see the problem. If I take the first line from the song, it immediately invokes nothing else but those lyrics. I have to begin differently.
Poem on April 28
You may ask me,
No! Now all I can think about is that most brilliant and favorite of William Stafford poems: “Some time when the river is ice, ask me/ mistakes I have made.”
Fourth time is the charm.
Poem on April 28
I often ask myself questions. I am a master self-interrogator. Often, it’s something like this: What were you thinking? But more often, my questions tend toward the what if. What would happen, let’s say. Another old favorite is the weighing of options and consequences: If that, then this? Or this, then that? I ask questions of others, as well, at least in my mind, and sometimes speaking out loud and alone, as in a car, or a boat, or in a crowd: Are you absolutely kidding me? In what universe does that make sense? Yesterday, I spoke directly to a screen on which Tucker Carlson was yammering a stream of mouth vomit about how putting a mask on a child was abuse. Are you an absolute idiot? Rhetorical. And in my fury over his imbecilic ilk and the machine that allows it to spew its garbage into receptive ears, I attempt once again to turn inward: Why so angry? Will deep breathing help? What kinds of choices or words make the difference? And then again, back out: Can I borrow fifty bucks? I don’t need the money but I thought it would be interesting to hear your answer. It’s always interesting to hear the answers to our questions. Rarely, say the wise, is it useful.
Today seems like a milestone day. 400 poems, for instance. It’s taken 8 years, but that doesn’t seem too shabby of a record. That’s 50 poems a year. And here’s a smaller number, but a milestone, nevertheless: I have made it through the first two days–or one time through the entire schedule–of hybrid teaching. I’m still standing. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Today was a smoother experience, in part because I taught two online classes and one class in-person, whereas yesterday it was the opposite, a decidedly more difficult schedule. Other factors, too, made for a better day, not the least of which was that I felt pretty sure that I knew what I was doing. While we’ve been talking about teaching nightmares, that one is the worst: the feeling that you don’t know what you’re doing. I wonder if I could find a description and a name for that feeling in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which is where we are to find inspiration today for a poem. Nope, not at least in the amount of time I was willing to spend there. It’s a great resource, a great website, but it’s difficult to know where to begin. I think I’ll just grab a bunch. Let’s make a list poem.
Poem for April 27
Here’s a list of all my obscure sorrows. Looking up at the stars in a clear sky I can’t help but feel degrassé, and every time I look at my parked travel trailer: a serious case of the wends. I get all meledro whenever I read Dickinson, and lately, watching the news, I’m a full-on anthrodyniac. I spread my arms and flap and get no results: mahpiohanzia. Good days, perfect moments, ecstatic ones are sometimes packed in kairosclerosis, while several heartworms peck at me from twenty or thirty years ago. Some extended periods of chrysalism, a tilt shift every once in a while when making accounts of the accomplishments, and then jouska all the time, making my case. The fata organa at strangers across the room, agnosthesia, again.
Remember that nightmare I had about distance learning? Poem #398 for easy reference. Well, that nightmare, or some version of it, was a lived experience for me on my first day back to school for hybrid learning. So here’s a poem on that occasion, unfortunately this time, not a dream but a reality. The kids are alright, by the way.
Poem on April 26
Mistakes were made. For one, on the eve of our return to the school house for the first in-person educational experience in more than 365 days, I fell on my face, cracked my nose open good and proper, scraped and chaffed myself all up one side of my hip, and cut the inside of my wrist. It was stupid–I was wrestling with a stuck dresser drawer, my feet somehow came out from underneath, I lost balance, and the dresser and its drawer got the best of me. Finally able to stop the bleeding and calm myself down enough to relax and sleep, I end up with a solid five hours of rest. Bandaged and masked, I travel this morning to the school house to “teach ’em up,” as we say, one synchronous class online, a prep, and then two in-person hybrid groups of students who have not yet had a full on-line class. And yes, too many tabs were open: the meet, multiple versions of the slides, the role sheet, my email inbox, who knows what else; I had a meet going on for kids who were watching from home and I struggled not to neglect them, and in the process, I neglected them. The lesson, mostly goofy fun stuff some colleagues created and which I agonized over, required lots of teacher speech, and with a banged up nose, some hip pain, and a mask, I was losing my voice and my breath fast. My head spun with all the logistical issues of the day: Can I touch these post-it notes or not? Can I call our tech guy to get extra laptops? Are those two sitting too close together? How do I project this video again? Why does it feel like I’ve been on my feet for four hours? Do I have time to sanitize these desks for the next group to come in? No, I don’t. Can I get to the restroom? No, I can’t. Why was I asked to show a video to students about how the schedule works during the last class at the end of their first full schedule? The school day and the work day are over at the same time. Can I be ready to go home as soon as the students leave my room? No, I can’t. First of all, that’s mentally an impossible task; secondly, it’s physically impossible until the busses exit along with the ensuing traffic jam behind them. Yes, mistakes were made, and not all of them were mine. But I’ve never felt so unprepared and tentative about a first school day, rarely have I ever been as nervous, and never, at the end of it, have I felt so beaten. A colleague of mine texted me that for a moment today she had herself thinking it was Friday. That captures it. It kind of felt like a whole week went by in a day, like this last year has felt like two, like the last four years have felt like eight. I think I’d like for time to start flying again.
Here’s an occasional poem, of sorts: on the occasion of having a teaching nightmare on the eve of returning to the school building for hybrid learning, April, 2021. I actually composed the following before I knew today’s suggested prompt, and I do think I would like to compose a poem more directly or seriously for the occasion. Teaching nightmares are not uncommon among my brothers and sisters in the profession, while this, all of this, this whole year, and in particular this last quarter of the year, is a singular moment, historic, truly “unprecedented.” I’m getting kind of tired of things being so unprecedented. So, anyway, all of this is just to say, not that I have eaten the plums in the icebox, but that I might have another poem in me on the occasion of returning to the school house tomorrow to meet with actual students once again.
Poem on April 25
Last night I have what can only be described as a Comprehensive Distance Learning Nightmare:
I begin 4th Quarter by teaching a lesson so far out of sequence that none of my students have a clue about what’s happening. It takes me half the lesson to realize that something’s wrong: with their mics muted and their video feeds disabled, no one says anything, not even in the chat, where I keep looking for feedback. I imagine that each of them thinks they’re the problem, so, out of decorum or embarrassment, they allow me to flounder. And I flounder astonishingly. I’ve got so many tabs open I can’t find the meet. Suddenly I’m looking at still another incorrect slideshow. Audio kicks in from some video on another buried tab. I can’t turn it off. I start to lose my temper, slamming my fist on the desktop, cursing in the most vile possible way into a live mic in front of thirty horrified students, when my son, as a five year old, comes into the room and dumps his peanut butter and jelly toast face down on the seat cushion of the newly reupholstered wingback chair.