Monthly Archives: May 2013

#38: Last Night I Dreamt I Was Awake and Unable to Sleep

dreaming

I’m not especially skilled at dream interpretation, probably because I don’t invest the time.  However, here’s a poem about one of the most annoying types of dreams in my personal repertoire.  True story.

Last Night I Dreamt I Was Awake and Unable to Sleep

Last night I dreamt
I was awake and unable
to sleep.
In the dream, I got up
and decided to watch a movie
and I landed on a new
film by the performance artist
Laurie Anderson
in which all the dialogue
(which was really a monologue)
was delivered in reverse
chronological order.
I love Laurie Anderson
but I was too fatigued
for this particular experiment
and decided to go back
to bed where I was already
sleeping to try to get some sleep.
In many ways, dreaming
about not being able to sleep is the worst
kind of dream, a disequilibrium
of purpose, the sensation
of not doing a thing you’re
actually doing, like teaching
sometimes, or living, loving,
all manner of things attempted
and fallen short,
like dreaming you’re awake and trying
to sleep,
not quite like sleeping,
not quite like waking.
And in the morning,
when you realize that the whole
time when you thought you were awake
you were actually asleep,
you feel better, but not sufficiently:
happy, but disappointed, cheated, and tired.

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#37: On Failure

I-am-a-failure

I wrote these short little pieces from various failure perspectives.  There’s such an intriguing and wide variety of ways to fail.  Maybe we gain a little bit of insight by reaching into these mindsets–even for a moment–provided we’re not cynical or simply poking fun.  There’s nothing funny about it.  Each represents an underlying problem that needs solving–if there was ever the will and/or the means for a solution.

On Failure

I
I can’t read
and I can barely
write a sentence.
but I’ve been passed
along from grade to grade
and here I am
in high school failing
every single class.

II
This is just stupid
and I can’t be bothered.
Yeah, my skills may be low
but perhaps not nearly as low
as my interest in everything
except gaming.
Not to mention my family
life is shit and I hate my parents
and I stay up every night until 3 a.m.
playing world of warcraft.

III
I like good grades
but I don’t care much for learning.
Just tell me what I have to do
and I’ll do it, expending
the very least amount of energy
it takes to get the A.
Potential schmential.
If it doesn’t show up
on a transcript somewhere,
I’m not interested.

IV
I don’t know what these tests
are measuring but it must not be
what my teachers are teaching.
How can I do so poorly
on a standardized test
and pass my classes, and
why does my friend do so
well on these stupid tests
and fail his? Somebody has
it all wrong; that’s all I know.

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#36: On Teaching Vietnam

vietnam

On Teaching Vietnam

We have read Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War
and now we’re watching a film called Regret To Inform,
a documentary inspired by Barbara Sonneborn’s
personal quest, twenty years after the fact,
to come to terms with her husband’s death in Vietnam,
to go there to that country, to try to understand
where, how, and why her husband died.
The film becomes a kind of oral history that studies
the perspectives of war widows on both sides,
American and Vietnamese.
Most of my students
sit in stunned silence for 75 minutes
as the stories of these women are unveiled,
coupled with images from the war of villages burning,
bombs dropping, planes spraying defoliant,
children abandoned, injured or dead,
women weeping among the rubble,
prisoners beaten, mothers cradling their
babies and hiding in the underbrush
as the helicopters hover above them,
all of this accompanied by a haunting
piano score interwoven with
traditional Vietnamese instruments and singing,
mournful, every note full of anguish and deep suffering.
In the end, Barbara Sonneborn is having tea
with a Vietnamese woman who fought
with the Viet Cong in the area where
her husband was killed twenty years ago.
It is possible, Barbara’s voice
is telling us, that this woman might have
led the attack that killed her husband.
And yet, they have tea, light incense,
and the Vietnamese woman expresses her
hope that their meeting will be shared
in Barbara’s home country,
that the film will play a part toward
healing the wounds of war in Vietnam.
We’re on the road, Barbara says.
When the closing credits roll,
the class remains silent for a long time,
listening to the music, reflecting, I hope,
on the darkness of war in the dark
safety of their suburban classroom.
And when the lights come on,
a student says to me, as a result
of our study of the Vietnam conflict
and this film, that now–she hates war.
And I say, in all seriousness,
but coming close to the only kind
of joy that can come out of this difficult work:
“Mission accomplished.”

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#35: Sax and Violins

sax_and_violins_by_magical7-d5qdte4

The title stolen from the Talking Heads tune; the subject stolen from real life. Censorship, or the urge to censor, is still alive and well.

Sax and Violins

The parent of the high school junior
objects to all the sax and violins
in the literature studied in English classes.
She objects, in the case of the sax,
not to scenes overtly pornographic
or steamy, because there aren’t any,
but instead, to the ones
that depict (no, not even depict),
that identify saxuality.
Here’s a character with an organ, for example,
or here’s a character with two,
and that’s just not right.
Or, here is a character who expresses
interest in the activity of sax
or an attraction that is, essentially, saxual.
Or, here’s a person who is saxually abusive,
and there’s no glamorization or
glorification or promotion of that hideousness,
but rather quite the opposite,
where the reader is supposed to be
appalled and disgusted.
Somehow, the fact that this particular
parent is appalled and disgusted
fails to register with said parent
as the thing that is supposed to happen,
and instead, registers as an attempt
to titillate or excite by the writers
and the English teachers who are
peddling their wares.

And this same parent objects
to the violins in a novel about
The Vietnam War, doesn’t want
her son or anybody else’s sons
or daughters, especially the daughters,
to be disturbed by images, images which
all of them are almost old enough
to experience in real life
in the next American war.
We just can’t have our young people
aware that people do sax
or that violins are everywhere
and that sometimes we find
sax and violins in the same place
at the same time.
Reality is just too terrible
and we must shelter even
our 17 year olds from the horror,
and while we’re at it,
we will do our level best
to shelter everyone else’s
17 olds into the bargain
from the sax,
from the violins.

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#34: How Discussion of The Great Gatsby Gets Totally Derailed by a Big Spider

wolf spider

How Discussion of The Great Gatsby Gets Totally Derailed by a Big Spider

It’s happened before:
bug gets into the room
and distracts the students,

rightfully so, because
it’s like, you know,
a bug.

Today it’s a spider,
a really big one,
as the teacher tries to tease

out this delicious bit
in the novel when Gatsby
requests a secret audience

with Jordan Baker.
What do they talk about?
Why is Jordan so dumbstruck afterwards?

And then the spider shows up
and it’s a big one and it makes
(I’m sorry to say)

the 17 year old girl scream,
get up from her chair,
and scurry across the room

while the boys in the class
figure out what to do
and the teacher tries

and fails
to regain control and focus.
One boy looks for a thing

to put the spider in
to presumably save its life
or maybe to preserve it

for further study
while another boy
does the stereotypical

guy thing and moves in
for the kill
while the teacher alone

pleads mercy for the bug.
Teacher is ignored
and spider is summarily

squashed. The teacher
is angry, appropriately
ridicules the killer

and makes him clean
the gore from the tile floor.
A few more minutes

and the teacher might
have made an object lesson
of the death of that spider

and perhaps asked
students to think about how
in the Gatsby novel

the strong abuse the weak
and deepest desire, sometimes
just to live a life,

is often snuffed or snubbed.
But the bell rings
and class is dismissed,

a strong finish spoiled
by the fleeting distraction
of a really big spider.

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#33: After Teacher Appreciation Week

teacher_apple+desk_gift

After Teacher Appreciation Week

On Monday, several dozens of cookies
were placed in the staff lounge, a gift
from our secretaries and support staff.
On Friday morning, the administrators
served us hot coffee and fruit and pastries.
We were still trying to polish off the cookies
in the staff lounge, some of which are still there
a week and a day later.
And on Friday a little piece of paper
was hung outside my classroom door
with my name on it,
signed by maybe four or five
anonymous well-wishers,
proclaiming me
as bizarre, nutty, weird, goofy,
but in a good way, of course.
All week long, in not a single one
of my six classes, did a single student
out of almost 200, verbally or in writing
or in any other discernible way
appreciate me.

Don’t get me wrong.
I don’t mean to complain.
On the one hand, in the same way
perhaps a firefighter feels uncomfortable
when people praise him for putting out a fire,
I feel strange thinking about the fact that my profession
has an appreciation day at all.
I’m just doing my job, as they say.
And while nary a student of mine overtly
expressed appreciation for what I do,
I like to imagine that within their little student
hearts that many of them are, indeed, thankful
that their English teacher is goofy in a good way.
But on the other hand,
as class sizes increase astronomically,
responsibilities never decrease commensurately,
right wing media vilifies and undermines,
and corporate interests vie for privatization,
testing, testing, testing,  and accountability–
always for schools and teachers and never
for students and their parents,
yeah, I could use a little bit more appreciation,
thank you very much.

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Why I Am Totally Bugged By This Video

http://www.upworthy.com/student-freaks-out-in-front-of-his-class-and-says-what-were-all-thinking-about-our-education-system-3

The video making the rounds Thursday on facebook was of a young man who stands up in the middle of his classroom and goes on a little tirade against his teacher, accusing her, essentially, of malpractice, of making no effort to teach, of handing the kids packet after packet, worksheet after worksheet.  He implores her to actually teach, to give up the busy-work in favor of something that will really reach her students, something that will “touch their frickin’ hearts”–I think those are his words.  Meanwhile, his teacher is heard (and seen very briefly sitting behind her desk) repeatedly asking him to leave the room and telling him that he is wasting her time.  When he has had his say, finally, he does leave. There seems to be very little reaction, in support or no, from his classmates.  One girl sitting by the door where he makes his final exit appears not to even acknowledge what is happening. The video ends before any reaction from the class as a whole can be recorded.  Some words are spoken right before the video ends that are difficult to make out.

I have several issues with this video–not with the video itself, but with the way it is being used on the internet in social network forums to say “something about the state of our educational system.”  This video actually says very little about the state of our system.  What does it actually speak about?  Well, for starters, because the video gives us absolutely no context for the rant, it mostly tells us about how this particular kid feels about this particular classroom.  That’s mostly it.  And maybe it tells us how this particular teacher handles such a disruption: not very well, poorly, in fact.  To draw blanket conclusions about schools in our nation based on this one and a half minute worth of angry student rant is blatant misrepresentation and tom-foolery. It’s not a serious criticism of what it (or the person sharing it on the web) purports to be criticizing.

First of all, the video cannot validate the kid’s criticism of his teacher.  It provides no evidence that she is guilty of that which he accuses her. Now, if what this kid says is true, that this is a classroom in which students are handed packet after packet for mostly seat work independent of any real instruction, coaching, or interaction, then his rant and his sense of outrage is totally understandable and his behavior justified and admirable.  But again, this is an indictment then of the teacher in this classroom and of the administration that hired her and then allowed her to keep teaching. It’s an indictment of absolutely nothing else.

The publisher of the video, a website that I find often to be inspiring and thoughtful, http://www.upworthy.com, posts this puzzling commentary from contributer Adam Mordecai after the video clip:  “This was not an indictment of his teacher; to me, this was an indictment of the entire teach-to-the-test standardization that has been forced on our teachers and has broken our country’s education system.” Well, amen to that anti-standardization sentiment–but I don’t know, in my personal experience as a high school English teacher for the last 24 years, a single teacher who has bastardized his or her teaching wisdom to this extent because he or she has been forced to “teach-to-the-test.” Additionally, this short video gives us NO indication that these poor classroom practices have anything whatsoever to do with standardized tests and curriculum.  And the dangerous implication is that the standardized movement has somehow reduced all of our classrooms to this kind of practice.  It’s fundamentally untrue.

The standardized testing movement has not forced teachers to engage in poor classroom practices. It has simply stolen class time away from both teachers and students.  Kids and their teachers are giving up  the benefits of maybe two weeks of instruction or classroom experience in a testing year in their English classes alone.  And when students don’t pass the reading test, for example, they’re asked to take it again, and again, and again, which pulls them out of the classroom for another week of class time for each retest when they could be in a classroom learning about and practicing the skills the reading test is purportedly measuring!

Good teachers, despite the pressures to raise test scores on standardized tests, will continue to do their best work to engage and challenge students.  Bad teachers, as they have and always will do if given the freedom to do so, will provide students with packets and worksheets and seat work.  Don’t allow video clips like this one to make you believe, first of all, that the kid, no matter how articulate he is (not extremely in this case), is always in the right, but secondly, and more importantly, that this is in any way indicative of the whole.

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#32: Gatsby? What Gatsby?

gatsby

Gatsby? What Gatsby?

is what Daisy says
when she hears Jordan Baker
mention the name to Nick,
and it’s what teenagers
used to say before they
knew Leonardo DiCaprio
was starring in the new
Baz Luhrmann film.
Suddenly, now, they
want to read this novel
because they recognize
the name and because Leonardo
is starring in the new
Baz Luhrmann film.
And as I read the opening pages
to my students today,
we wondered together
how those words might
be rendered in 3-D:
Here’s some advice my father
gave me–in 3-D.
Here’s me, the victim of
a few veteran bores–in 3-D.
Reserving judgements is a matter
of infinite hope–in 3-D.
The fundamental decencies
are parceled out unequally at birth
–in 3-D.  And that’s just
the very first page.
We all agreed how exciting
it will be to see the foul dust
floating in the wake of Gatsby’s dreams
come alive on the screen in 3-D.
And somehow, I’m thinking
that a much better movie of
The Great Gatsby would
be to capture on film what
that one guy did on the stage
in 7 hours:  he read or recited
the whole damn novel out loud.
There we might have a film
of an American classic.

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#31: The American English Teacher Critiques His Own Poetry

Either he’s a Stat Blip Junky or he just can’t give up the poetry, one or the other.  In the following blog entry, the American English Teacher decides to keep writing poetry even though National Poetry Writing Month is over.

The American English Teacher Critiques His Own Poetry

I’m no T.S. Eliot, he says,
pouring over 30 little things
he’d like to call poems,
but doubts somehow that
they’ve earned that distinction.
His sentences sit there on the page
just moving right along being sentences,
rarely do they leap or do fancy spins.
And while he prides himself
on being relatively free of
the constraints of rhyme,
he suspects that music might be altogether
missing–
odd, he thinks, for a musician.
I lack authority, he says, for poetry,
remembering a critic who once said
there were no figures in his poems.
What’s a figure, he wonders,
and concludes that his ignorance
of the figure must be the key ingredient
wanting in his work, preventing
his lines from forming stanzas,
and forcing them into odd
and apparently arbitrary breaks.
No matter.
He continues to write poems
despite the end of April,
despite the obvious dangers
of saying the right thing
in the wrong way
sans rhyme,
sans music,
sans figures,
replete with arbitrary line breaks and

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Forced Creativity Experiences (Only the Bad and the Ugly)

In my last blog entry, I waxed lovingly about the benefits and the necessary prerequisites to submitting oneself to a Forced Creativity Experience such as the National Novel or Poetry Writing Months in November and April, respectively, and my experience in a songwriting circle that does a similar thing in the musical realm.  I subtitled that entry “the good, the bad, and the ugly” because I thought I could cover them all–but in 1000 words I could only say the positive things.  And that’s just fine–because mostly my experience with these activities has been utterly positive.  But are there pitfalls?  Might there be problems in paradise? How could there be anything negative about the experience of participating in a public or social networking activity that encourages one to be productive and creative, to be doing something that one longs to do?

Well, I experienced a few aspects, that if not downright pitfalls, were at least setbacks significant enough to give me pause.  These are feelings I had along the way that, while perhaps not absolutely “bad” or “ugly,” were essentially negative–and whether these feelings emerged from some inner self-doubt, some personal insecurity, or whether they are truly problems inherent in the experience, it’s difficult for me to say, and I’m sure the verdict has much to do with individual idiosyncrasies than anything else.  Nevertheless, let’s start.

This certainly would be a non-issue if I were participating in NaPoWriMo in total private, writing in my little composition notebook, a poem for each day that may never be seen by anyone.  But I chose to participate officially, which meant that I registered as a participant, created or used an existing website, blogsite, or social network forum to publicly share the results of my labor–not because anyone’s keeping score–but so as to join a community of persons sharing the same writing goals, people who may visit, like, and follow my progress.   So, the public nature of the thing creates some strangeness.

First off, when you are forcing yourself to create under the gun, so to speak, essentially you are publishing for the world your rough draft material–and as any writer knows, rough drafts can be shitty. And because of the forced nature of your output, perhaps, while you may produce a whole heck of a lot more writing than you normally would over the same period of time, your shittiest work might be shittier than usual, as some pieces are squeezed out of you like blood from a stone in order to come in under deadline. Again, not that anyone is keeping score, or that somehow you’ll be penalized, demoted, lose face or any of that if you don’t get a poem done each day–it’s just that some people (yours truly) take the parameters of a poem a day pretty seriously–in the same way that, despite the chagrin of my wife and songwriting partner, I take the six songs in a single day of our songwriting circle very seriously. The results can sometimes be disastrous, and that disaster is published for all comers.  I can think of some benefits of this, too, one being that if you can put your best at the moment out there(which might be your worst), you’ve moved beyond some serious writer insecurities, and that’s got to be a good practice–but I’m supposed to be talking about the bad and the ugly.

Here’s a thing:  I’ve read some pretty stellar poetry from some of my fellow NaPoWriMo participants, but I’ve noticed that none of the published poets I know and consider serious about their art, at least to my knowledge, were partaking of the festivities.  Maybe I’m wrong about that, but if I’m not, what’s that about?  Maybe the pros just don’t need the kickstart.  They’re already cooking on all burners.  Somehow I doubt that. Maybe there is something they find unsavory about publishing work which has not been satisfactorily “finished” or vetted by the usual arbiters of quality.

So, there’s the “I’m-publishing-my-shitty-rough-draft” problem, but there’s another difficulty I thought about, again only as the result of a decision to participate publicly. I experienced a kind of Stat Blip Addiction. It was not enough to get the poem written and published on my blog site; I found myself, more often than I am usually wont to do, checking my stats with a kind of annoying and obsessive regularity.  And I was egged on by more “likes” and new followers than I’ve ever received, even though I’ve had other entries (not poems) that were more widely read.  I became a little embarrassed with myself for being so needy and excited about the approval of my “readership.”

And then, perhaps what’s worse, I found myself at times looking into who some of these people were–which I think is what bloggers are supposed to do anyway–and trying to gauge, through comparison perhaps, why it was that these people, mostly strangers, liked my stuff.  Here’s the most disconcerting part:  when I found people who were following me apparently despite some serious and significant aesthetic or philosophical differences, I found myself second guessing my material or subject matter or creative choices–so as to write poetry that would not “turn off” any of my readers.  This strikes me as a potentially dangerous problem.  I think, for the most part, I avoided the pitfall, that I didn’t find myself writing to please these readers–but perhaps I subconsciously avoided certain material or stylistic choices, maybe I avoided taking some risks that could have made more lively or challenging art.  I guess I mean to say that I recognize that the nature of publishing immediately may have certain bizarre and unfortunate consequences on one’s creative mind.

Hey, despite these concerns of mine, none of which undermined the experience for me, I’m glad I did it and I will likely do it again–maybe with or without the official structure of Novel Writing Month or National Poetry Month.  Maybe poem #31 will show up here some day soon, or maybe, not in November when I am in the throws of a new school year, but perhaps in July, a draft of a novel might be written–although I doubt that I’ll do that publicly.  Meanwhile, my wife and I will keep writing six songs on a single day of every month and “publish” those songs to our circle of musician friends. Despite my hesitations after the fact, Forced Creativity Experiences will ensue–and there will continue to be much rejoicing.

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