Category Archives: Introductory

The Book I Read: The Trouble With Men, Indeed

Photo on 3-7-19 at 4.30 PM #2

In this fourth month of 2019 I am making good on two of my new year’s resolutions, one, to write more, and two, to read more. I begin this endeavor by writing a poem every day for a month, while simultaneously writing more about what I’m reading more. Let’s start with this. For me, there have become three kinds of reading:

  1. reading the stuff I’m teaching (over and over again, because I have never felt able to teach a book that I am not reading along with my students, no matter how well I know the work),
  2. reading for pleasure (a thing I’m rarely able to do because I’m spending so much time rereading in preparation for teaching, and, as good as I think I am at it, I am a slow reader), and
  3. fake reading (skimming articles on the web, posts on facebook, sneaky advertisements I happen to be interested in–all things that require little if any deep attention.

My new year’s resolution, more specifically, is to do more pleasure reading, less fake reading, but I’ll have to hold steady on the reading of literature I’m teaching, again, because I have to–not because anybody cares, but because I would not be able to teach it well otherwise. Maybe some people care about that, but no one’s checking in with me, if you know what I mean. It’s not likely that any kid or adult would EVER ask me, Mr. Jarmer, have you done the reading for today? No matter: I have done the reading.

It is my intention to start reviewing the books I read here (responding to, really: I don’t know anything about writing reviews). And I have landed on this title for a new series: “The Book I Read,” after the Talking Heads song. If you have never heard it, you’ve got homework before you read another word. ’77 was a good year.

At any rate, the first book I have read this year that I was not reading in preparation for teaching is The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power by David Shields.

I’ve read The Trouble with Men I think three times now. Like in his recent books, most notably Reality Hunger and Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump, David Shields has continued to carve out what seems to be a totally new genre of literary essay: the mosaic, the collage—a work that, while it features at its center the writer’s thesis and his anecdotes and evidences delivered in short micro-bursts of lively prose paragraphs, is surrounded by a swirl of other voices, quotes from the famous and un-famous, dead and alive alike, shedding light and perspective and support for and arguments against everything that the author says. It’s exhilarating. It’s like being at the best party ever, where the conversation is consistently scintillating, and no one is too drunk to drive.  While Reality Hunger challenged the primacy of fiction as a literary form, and Nobody Hates Trump More Than Trump theorized about our president’s self-loathing, this book here is about sex. Well, it’s about much more than sex—as the subtitle suggests–it’s also about, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power, all words, though, still, considerably bound up with sex.

Framed as a weird kind of love letter to his wife, Shields explores all of these subtopics through the lens of his marriage and his sexual history and his sadomasochistic leanings. There’s danger here—which provides the dramatic tension—on a couple fronts. First, Shields indicates that his partner was less than enthusiastic about the book. “It’s so perfect that you don’t want me to write this book (because you don’t want to read it); therefore, I have to write it. So, too, if you were fine with me writing it, I’d have no desire to write it.” And two, it strikes me as dangerous because this is the stuff that everyone lives through, thinks about, and deals with, but that no one ever or rarely ever talks about. The book is an embodiment against the taboo of sexual discourse, and I find it challenging, brilliant, sometimes offensive, puzzling, brave, inspiring, and, obviously, worthy of rereading.

It is a book that defies summary, in part, because of its discursiveness. While each part of the book has its own title and seems to be organized around a theme, each paragraph will sometimes move in surprising directions, from, say, a childhood memory of his sister or his parents, to a quote from Susie Bright about pornography, to some commentary about a famous sportscaster, actor, athlete, to a direct address back to the “audience” of the work, his wife. In this way, the pieces of the mosaic are speaking to each other and even though to me sometimes the connections seem oblique, I am along for the ride the entire time. Reading Shields’ work is sometimes like channel surfing or having a dozen tabs open at once, and yet there’s method in’t. It just requires some attention–which is strange and paradoxical: we’re forced to move quickly from idea to idea, as many as eight to ten times on a single page, while simultaneously being asked to pay close attention.

I’m trying now, in conclusion, to say something sum-upish. How about a question or two or several that might approach the center of what I think this work is about: How well do our spouses or our romantic partners know us? How well do we know them? What secrets are we keeping? How vulnerable can we allow ourselves to be? What are the risks? While we long for intimacy, why do we have such difficulty achieving it? Why is it so difficult to talk about sex in this culture? What’s up with the uniquely American struggle between purity and perversity? Why so much shame and guilt? And perhaps, finally, what are the inter-relationships between sex, love, marriage, porn, and power? Can you have any of these without the others? What happens when sex is loveless, or when love is sexless, or when the question of power is absent from porn, or when porn is absent from love, marriage, sex? It’s becoming nonsensical. I guess the point is that none of these questions have easy answers, so perhaps the form Shields has chosen, the collage, the mosaic, is necessary, a multitude of voices between the same covers, in order to even begin to unlock these mysteries. Shields knows the topic is too grand to cover all by himself, so he invited a bunch of friends to help him out. I happen to be one of them, for which I am both grateful and mortified.

 

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#320: What Was the Question? That Is the Question

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I’ve got no business on the moon.
Looking for me once, somebody said, a famous poet,
find me here, find me there, something about
dirt and grass. I can get behind that.
Who was it who said time waits for no man?
Or time heals the wounds? Or, time is on my side,
yes, it is? What a bunch of dummies.
Time is the stream I go a fishing in–that guy.

I just read a poem written by a friend
about the death of Henry David Thoreau.
I liked it a lot. It was good. Funny. Not
the dying part. Dying is rarely funny.
And from memory I can “quote” a quote from
the poem, some guy saying that he loved
Henry, but didn’t like him very much.
I don’t know very many people
I could say that about.

You will not see me underneath
the hood of my car, or using a skill saw.
You’d be lucky to see me hammer a nail.
I have become preoccupied with other
things I think I may never do, some of which
about which I do not care. Others, yes.
I’ve got a sex bucket list, for instance,
that I may take to the grave.

To be or not to be was not the question.
What was the question? That is the question.

 

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Dance Like No One Is Watching

I’m a musician, a drummer primarily, but when I was younger I was a lead singer fronting the band, and when I sang, I would bust a bunch of moves. Outside of this, I never danced publicly, thought it was dorky, beneath me somehow, until, at 33 years old, I had my first residency at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. In a ten day residency, the first one with not a single soul that I knew, there were two dances, one half way through, and another on the last evening. In the excitement, intensity, stress and awkwardness of starting this graduate program, somehow, I began to dance. I danced with abandon. I danced myself silly. I danced as if my life depended on it. Everyone did. And to this day, at the residencies while I was still in the program some 20 years ago, and during every alumni conference I’ve ever been to since, these are almost the only venues, the only places where I have allowed myself to dance.

I think this is significant. I am about to go to the last dinner, the last reading, and the last (in this case the only) dance of the conference. In this place, I lose inhibitions. I lose all pretension. I lose any concern that I may have in other venues about looking silly. This place, these people, this creative work, honors us, allows us to truly BE, welcomes and invites the dancer within. Not everyone will boogey tonight, but I bet, even in their abstinence, the inner dancer of each will be having the greatest party ever. Because, you know, as the t-shirt says, it is a required part of the process:

Write. Revise. DANCE. Repeat.

It is written.

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#293: In Which Mysterious and Magical Things Occur

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The napowrimo website today provides a link to Percy Shelley’s “A Defense of Poetry,” where he says most famously that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
His belief is that poetry is magic and that poets are kind of like wizards. I’ll buy that. I mean, I don’t consider myself a wizard by any stretch, but I know the magic literature can work on the soul. I have read poems, and essays, and novels that have turned my mind and heart and my life absolutely upside down. So the assignment today, in Shelley’s honor, is to write a poem in which mysterious and magical things occur. I decide to talk about Percy’s wife Mary, and how her masterpiece worked on me, mysteriously, magically. To this day, Frankenstein is one of my all-time favorite novels.

In Which Mysterious and Magical Things Occur

I read the novel Frankenstein for the first time,
in 2001. I was recovering, as we all were,
from 9/11, but I was recovering further and more
deeply from my own personal crisis, unhappily corresponding
with this international tragedy. I was already shattered.
Mary Shelley’s novel shattered me further,
but in the most mysterious and magical ways.
I saw myself in there unlike I had ever seen
myself in a work of fiction. Both monster and
creator, every page resonated
with my own inner hell, my tumultuous storm
of anger and guilt and ineptitude.
So I did the thing. I wrote a book.
It would take me nearly a decade,
fiction writing as inner work, before
I emerged as something whole and new.
And I did emerge. And I thank Mary Shelley
for that, for allowing Rilke’s dictum to ring
true inside my soul, that maybe the dragons
in our life are really only princesses, and
that everything that frightens us is, in its deepest
essence, something helpless that wants our love.
My monster. My coming home. My battle against an
inside beast. I was, unlike Victor Frankenstein,
ultimately victorious, but that victory was
and always will be bittersweet. So much
gained. So much lost. And I realize that this
is a terrible poem, but nevertheless a moment
that needs to move through me, a record of a
moment of trauma made bearable and explicable
through literature, a dragon that becomes
a princess, something helpless the needs
my help. And I do what I can. I do what I can.

Still.

 

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Gearing Up for NaPoWriMo 2018

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In six days I will embark once again (for the fifth year in a row!) on the endeavor to write a poem a day each day for the entire month of April. Won’t you join me? I will post every single one of these things, the good, the bad, and the ugly, right here up in this blog site.

What might you expect? For starters, a poem a day for 30 days. In four years I have never once failed to produce one. On one or two occasions, I may have missed a single day and then produced two on the following day, but that was rare. But you never know what life will throw you in the middle of a forced creativity event. To date, life’s been good to me so far–for writing poetry in April.

What might these poems be about? The subject matter will likely vary widely, but I have noticed, in years past, that my subject matter often comes from whatever the cruel month of April brings, and typically includes the stuff I am most consumed with during these 30 days. Last year I wrote poems about the Whole 30 diet because I was on it. The year before last, performing as Lord Capulet in a community theater production of Romeo and Juliet, I found myself writing poems about acting, about Shakespeare, about the characters in the play. And in previous years, the subject matter came from my classroom and was often bubbling around what I was teaching and what was happening with my charges. I’ve got a few Gatsby poems. Some poems about the ancient Chinese masters. At least one poem about Toni Morrison’s Beloved. This April, my students are reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Death of a Salesman, and Frankenstein. So it would be highly irregular if those works did not show up somewhere in the poems, and, given those titles, it would be odd if the poems were not likewise on the morbid side. Don’t worry. I’m really not a morbid writer by nature. Not really. What’s morbid in my work might be backed with a healthy dose of humor. Unless I’m being serious about something, which often happens. Given the year we’ve had, socially, politically, culturally, I could see some seriousness seeping through.

But sometimes I am desperate for material, and thus desperate, I will depend on the daily prompts from www.napowrimo.net. A fantastic website, by the way. I go there every day to see the prompt, even if I don’t use it. And if not for subject matter ideas, I’ll go there to learn about new types of poems. The website often prompts us to use a formal structure of some kind–which, for me, is super cool–because I am not a formalist. I find it challenging and good for me sometimes to follow the confines of a formal structure, so you’ll see those crop up from time to time.

Will these poems be any good? That remains to be seen. I don’t find myself to be a very good judge of my own poems, but I can tell you that, as a result of my first four years of participating in National Poetry Writing Month, I have found enough material to compile a book-length manuscript with which I am pretty darn pleased. Maybe I’m doing something right. I hope to revise and finish that manuscript this summer and perhaps a book will come of it.

To close here, I’d like to ask of you, dear reader, a favor. I would invite you to feel at liberty to send requests. Sure, send me a request. You want a poem about bumble bees? Send me a request. You want a sonnet about blueberry muffins? Send me a request. You want a political poem about our Orange guy? I’ll give it a try. No guarantees, but I think it might ad a little fun to the proceedings if readers could participate in some way. What do you think? Let me know. Send requests through the comments and we’ll give it a whirl. That’s the best we can do. Otherwise, see you on April Fool’s Day!  Seriously.

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Educational Fantasy #1: The Gradeless Classroom

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This spring I have the good fortune of having a competent and enthusiastic teacher intern who is taking responsibility for a number of my classes. It has afforded me some time: some time to do especially good work for the students that remain solely my responsibility, some time to write a poem or two or thirty, some time to get my student growth goals done nearly a month before they are officially due, and some time to THINK, reflect, cogitate. This morning, for example, I thought to myself, as I remembered how many blog entries I have written about the things that are not right about public education, why don’t I, instead, write a series of entries describing fantasies I have regarding education in its best pie in the sky kind of light. In other words, why don’t I do a thought experiment: if things were perfect in the land of public education, how would things look, according to me, that is, and some of my friends? I don’t promise that this series will be especially academic or super serious or practical, but I hope at the very least it will be honest.

It is likely that much of what I propose will seem impossible to some. That’s okay. That would not surprise me. We are all creatures of habit and habits in the realm of educational practice and policy, as we have seen, die hard. But what would have become of us if people did not dream the impossible? See? Some of that shit actually got done. So here we go with Educational Fantasy #1.

I’ve written about this before at length, but it’s worth repeating in the super short formGrades suck. Despite the fact that I have graded students my entire career and continue to do so and even sometimes argue with myself and others about the validity of such antics, I still believe in my heart and soul that grades suck. So my first wish for an educational utopia is the gradeless classroom.

Again, don’t take my word for it. Read about it. Look it up. The research will tell you (at least some of it), (at least the research that I prefer), that grades create anxiety, that grades do not accurately measure, and that grades do not motivate.

What should motivate? Learning. Okay, how do you motivate kids to learn for learning’s sake and not for a grade? Well, if you eliminate grades, what’s left? Learning. Or no school. Most of us would prefer the former to the latter for our young people. Young people may have a different opinion.

I have had several experiences in my life as a student in a gradeless classroom, and you have probably had some as well, and maybe your kids have had some, even now. Let me tell you about a few of these.

Elementary School.  That’s right, at least in my experience as a little tike, I do not remember bringing home letter grades. My son, in his first 6 years of public schooling, has never brought home a letter grade. Don’t get me wrong, elementary school kids are measured, but they are not graded. Instead, teachers report progress toward certain standards or expectations for which kids are something like “in progress,” “meeting,” or “exceeding.” Did we learn stuff in grade school? I think we did. Were we, for the most part, motivated and relatively happy with school? I remember that we were. My son, except for a moment now and again where he complains about a “mean” adult or some level of grade school ennui, is, generally speaking, a pretty happy camper. And he’s learning gobs.

As far as I can tell, grades are introduced to young people in Middle School and continue onward forever and ever. Something wicked this way comes, but I don’t want to talk about that now. Pie in the sky, remember?

My second experience in a gradeless classroom was as an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College. I took Modern English Literature from the late, great Vern Rutsala. The course was offered pass/no pass, an unusual move for a professor to take during that time, I think. I worked hard. I learned a lot. I read and discussed great books. I passed! It made no difference to me whatsoever that I did not receive a grade. It had no bearing on my perceptions of the value of the class or the rigor of the work, and it had no effect on the level of energy I exerted or invested in studying.

Most profoundly, perhaps, I was accepted, I enrolled, and I completed a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College, the most significant educational experience of my life-time thus far, without ever reporting or receiving a single grade.

And continuing through adulthood and professional life, I have taken countless courses and workshops and attended conferences taught or presented by all sorts of people and institutions, none of which attempted to give me a letter.

In a perfect world, middle school and high school and college students would not be graded in their classes. They would pass or not pass based on evidence of their learning, learning that is individually appropriate and growth oriented. Did the student learn? Did the little cherub grow? Can he move to the next phase or level of difficulty?

And if he didn’t or can’t? Educational Fantasy #2: Real and Effective Interventions and Alternatives for Students Who Do Not Function Well in School.

 

 

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T@B Diaries #1: Champoeg St. Park

  • in which Michael Jarmer begins a new blog series;
  • in which Michael Jarmer provides a brief history of his life as a camper;
  • in which his somewhat checkered RV history is revealed;
  • in which an experience camping solo at Champoeg State Park is described;
  • in which funny and archaic subtitles are used to arouse reader interest in the following blog post.

Here’s an idea, I said to myself: I’ll write a series of travel logs as I journey out into the world with my new travel trailer, a T@B, made by the folks at Little Guy, recently purchased and out just this last week on its maiden voyage to Champoeg State Park (pronounced Champooey) in the lovely Willamette Valley right here in Oregon.

Here’s a picture of my new baby right before it left the showroom.

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This could be interesting, or not. Time will tell. It’s worth a try. First, a bit of background.

I grew up camping with my parents and extended family mostly all around the state of Oregon with a few excursions into Washington and California. My folks were trailer campers and as I recall, all through my childhood and into my early adult years, it was my family’s tradition to make several camping trips a year beginning late spring and into September. These trips as a family and with friends stand out as being some of the most cherished experiences of my young life. I loved the adventure of it, the way it exposed me to the natural world beyond suburbia, the various abundances of camp experience: riding in my uncle’s boat, fishing, crabbing, hiking, biking, beaching, site-seeing, the community of the camp-fire, and the coziness of the trailer or the tent, or, as I became a teenager and always had a friend along, the back cabin of my Dad’s truck. Camping was huge.  And as a newlywed, in my early twenties, camping was almost killed for me forever after I took my wife and my dog on a tent-camping trip beset with nightmare: bad weather, sick spouse, spastic dog, tiny tent, our first serious marital dispute–resulting in a silent and angry two and half hour car ride home at 3 o’clock in the morning.  This was the key factor, but other things as well kept me from camping: mostly, a commitment to finishing college, finding a job, finding some kind of economic security, and then the demands of working and keeping up with the needs of a house, our first foray into homeownership–not to mention the still serious effort to play music as much as we possibly could, searching for that illusive and perhaps illusory big break all through the end of the eighties and the nineties. We were too busy to even think about camping.

Fast forward to 2001. It took 15 years to convince my wife to camp with me again–and the inspiration came with our first RV, a Coleman tent trailer.  It kept us busy and happily camping for four or five years, but with the arrival of our son in 2005 and a new, very serious commitment and demand on our attention, some early and unhappy camping trips with an infant, and the need to make some money to make up the short-fall of the extra income lost to full-time parenting, we sold that little trailer to a Canadian and watched it ride off into the sunset. It turned out to be the first of two very similar experiences over the next five years. I was unhappy selling the trailer, but in my heart of hearts I had a very selfish reason for wanting it to go away: I had my eyes and my heart set on bigger and better fish–an Airstream 16 foot Bambi International. It would take three more years of embarrassingly obsessive plots and maneuvers before that little dream would come true.  And it did.  And we had two and a half years of joy in an Airstream before, again, a shift in the financial winds on several simultaneous fronts forced our hand: the Airstream had to go! I really mourned that loss. I went on and on about it for years. And perhaps, when I was finally ready to do the whole RV dance once again, I would have happily gone back to the Airstream if I could find one that I could afford, but we sold the tow vehicle that pulled the 16 footer and ended up about a year later with a mini-van with a significantly lower tow capacity. All of this is just to say that if we were to purchase a new trailer, it would have to be light weight; it would have to be tiny.

Here my son and I are after the “red carpet” walk-through before towing home the T@B, a truly light weight trailer, clocking in at about 1900 pounds:

That's really a red carpet.

That’s really a red carpet.

So, within a week of bringing the trailer home, and anticipating two weeks off for the holiday vacation, I booked myself a two night stay at a local and nearby favorite camping destination, Champoeg State Park.  I chose on this first expedition to go it alone.  The weather would not likely be good; my son, without lots of outdoor activity, would be bored; and my dear wife had working responsibilities at home.  And I may as well come clean about this now: as excited as I am about camping with my little family, I will likely, as I did with the  Airstream and the Coleman before, use the trailer as a writing retreat on wheels and will often be alone.

I used this little excursion to get to know my trailer, most of all. I did do a little writing and some reading of things I have written with an eye to finishing a draft of a novella and starting the revision process. I listened to a lot of music (not, however, in continuation of the A-Z listening blog project). I got a visit from my brother for a few hours (Champoeg State Park is close to where we both live). And in between downpours, sometimes torrential downpours, I walked. I took pictures in the day of soggy fields and raging muddy streams on the verge of flooding. I took pictures of myself and my hat. And I looked at the moon peaking through clouds. It was a lovely and successful first trip. I leave you with some photographic evidence of this first trip and hope to write another installment in a month’s time.

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