Tag Archives: William Stafford

#347: A Prose Poem Meditation on the Penultimate Day of National Poetry Month by the American English Teacher in His Potentially Penultimate Professional Year, Ending in a Rhyming Couplet

Andrea Ngyuen

The natives are restless, the 9th graders are rowdy, won’t stop talking, interrupt almost every teacher phrase with chatter, and because my intern has the class, I am completely unruffled. It’s the penultimate day of National Poetry Month and this is my penultimate poem in prose in the April of my potentially penultimate school year as a classroom English teacher.

Over the last three days, I wrote three poems, each about travel, each ending with the same sentence. You are here. I’m reminded of that saying, wherever you go, there you are. Or the Player’s line in the Stoppard play, something like, every exit is an entrance somewhere else. Coming and going, with perfect equanimity, you are always, and I am always, right here.

After next school year, in this moment, I am almost certain that I will not be here. But uncertainty is a constant companion. I said, it feels like jumping off a cliff. Or standing on a cliff, and maybe I’m looking down at a precipitous drop or looking out on some astounding vista. It really depends on the moment. I prefer vistas to drop-offs. In this moment, I choose vistas.

I notice what this poem is doing. Without my being conscious of it, paragraphs are landing in this draft in nearly identical chunks of five lines, four that move all the way to the end of the margin, and one, the last line–two, three, and then four words long. Now, I am conscious of a pattern, and I am planning to end this stanza in prose with a short line of five carefully chosen words.

It all depends on the margins. Type this poem up in a Word document, or publish it on your blog, and things will shift. Our margins shift like this. The only margin that doesn’t shift is the first one–our births are non-negotiable; on this day, December 4, 1964, you were born. Our careers begin somewhere in the squishy regions of early adulthood, and, if we are lucky, very lucky, they end 30-some years later.

My brother worked over 40 years at a job he didn’t really like. His retirement at 62 or thereabouts was an escape. He said good riddance and walked away. And he walked away so late because there were no other options. Again, I have been stupidly lucky. Luckier, and not so lucky, as my father, who retired, like I hope to, at 55. He had full health care from the moment he left work.

But I have loved my job, and I don’t know that my father loved his. He never spoke about it. I could hardly even tell you now what it was that he did for a living. It was a government job and he worked downtown and once he took a computer class and brought home a bunch of punch cards. My son knows what I do simply by virtue of his being a student in a public school classroom. What your teacher does–that’s your Dad.

God, look at all of these books, file cabinets full of 30-years worth of handouts, lesson plans, readings, exams; check out all of this student generated art that I’ve never tossed, that quilt for The Color Purple, the portraits of the family from Geek Love, portraits of Virginia Woolf, the beautiful and huge broadside of William Stafford’s “Your Life”-the treasured haul of an English teacher’s career.

If I take all of this home my wife will murder me.
Health care will no longer be an issue, ironically.  

Abbey Nims

I don’t know who made this. A team of students. Circa 1995ish? 

 

Abbey Hayes

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#289: A Poem Composed On the Fly Using Voice-to-Text a Few Miles Above the Old Church in Wilsonville Before a Gig

I am no Wordsworth,
but I’m on the way to a gig
playing drums with Brian
and I was thinking about that poem,
you know the one,
the one he writes about how
lovely everything is around
Tintern Abbey while he’s walking
and thinking about his sister.
It’s a beautiful poem.
One of my favorites.
I’m driving to the gig down
Interstate 205, but when
I take the Stafford Road exit,
even though I’m driving,
I have some inkling of how
he must’ve felt about the land
and the trees and the sky
and his sister. This won’t be
nearly as long as Wordsworth’s poem
and not nearly as good,
but I’m running out of time
to write my fourth poem of the month
and I’m using voice-to-text in order
to write the damn thing
totally on the fly and the title came to me
seemingly out of nowhere
as I was thinking about playing
the rock music in an old church
in Wilsonville, driving down
a road I’d like to think was named
after another famous William.
Our own. I think it’s a good title.
And this is the best I could do
for a poem in the moment–
which is really all we can
ask of ourselves, ever.

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#223: A Course in Silence

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My sophomores and I are studying the poetry of William Stafford and, as is inevitable in a study of poetry, at least from my perspective,  we are also writing poems. An exercise slightly more open-ended than the corruption assignment, is to simply take inspiration from our man Stafford, either by attempting, as he did for 50 some years, to write a little bit every day, or by borrowing subject matter or certain moves and approaches. For example, after reading “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” we might write our own ritual poem: “A Ritual to ________.” Or, from “Why I Am Happy,” we start with that title or fill in something more individually appropriate: Why I Am Sad, Angry, Hungry, Frustrated, Confused, or in Love. And, finding myself in a grading lull, I take full advantage of the opportunities I’m giving to my students to do some writing of my own. Here’s a thing inspired by Stafford’s “A Course in Creative Writing.” As I put up the prompt, “A Course in ________,” I couldn’t help but think about the kind of course I think children and young people, and adults, too, for that matter, need most.

A Course in Silence

How about a class
in which students
learn to be quiet,
in which they learn
how to sit and do
nothing, how to
breathe, how to be
without noise,
without screens,
without entertainment,
without distraction
of any kind?
The final exam:
sit here.
You can close
your eyes but
you don’t have to.
Be aware of the
spinning wheels
of your own mind
and try to slow
them down,
or not. It’s enough
to be aware of them
spinning.
Breathe in.
Breathe out.
Extra credit option:
do that again,
only better.

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#222: Why I Am Happy

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Poet and teacher of mine from a long way back, Peter Sears, taught me about a thing called poetry by corruption, whereby you, the writer, take a poem that you like and just simply and with impunity steal things from it, or, steal it wholesale except for some words or phrases you’ve blanked out from the original and then replaced with your own stuff. It’s only legal because it’s a good exercise to teach us about the choices poets make and it’s a way to pay homage and attention to a poem we love. The only rule: don’t try this at home unless you’re willing to give credit to the original poem. The following is a corruption of one of my favorites by William Stafford.

Why I Am Happy

(from William Stafford)

Now has come, an easy time, I am done
grading sophomore essays, and there is
a lake somewhere so blue and so far
no more student work can find me.
A wind comes, saying, you’re not there yet.

In a few more days will come student
notebooks and portfolios and senior
final exams into my attention. For now,
a lull, unusual, like the one
I hear every summer, when I, too,
laugh and cry for every turn of the world.

Grading goes on and on
but that lake goes on and on even farther;

and I know where it is.

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The Audio Book Experience: Musings on Being Read To and Reading Out Loud

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I have never been much of an audiobook kind of guy. I like reading. I’ve always felt a kind of snobbery about the audiobook, as if somehow the actual reading of text on a page and making all of the voices and inflections and imagery happen in one’s head is a more rigorous endeavor, that listening is kind of like cheating. This may or may not be true–and it comes from a guy who loves to read out loud for a listening audience, be they students or readers of my fiction or fellow writers. Maybe it’s the actor in me–but I think reading out loud to an audience or being read to can be a kind of transformative experience.  More on this later.

I recently tried audible.com, and some time ago I finished listening to my first ever unabridged audio book: Robin E. Black​’s  Life Drawing. I loved the experience. The writing, clearly exquisite and wise, but the performance by Cassandra Campbell was pretty phenomenal. And I’m amazed, but not surprised, how the audiobook experience can be so totally shaped by the performance of the reader.  After that first successful round I tried a sample of another book I have been interested for a long time in reading, but the voice of the reader bothered me to such a degree that I could not go through with it.

I tried again with a book I have on my shelf, started reading some years ago now and for some reason gave up on, Marilynne Robinson’s Home. I love Marilynne Robinson.  Her novel Housekeeping is still for me one of the greatest American novels of the last half of the 20th century.  So I didn’t give up on Home because of a lack of interest, but rather for the reason I give up on a lot of reading projects these days: I get distracted and I move on to another thing.  It’s not a characteristic for which I am especially proud.  So I downloaded Home from audible.com.  It took me awhile, but I finally, on Father’s Day in fact, listened to the novel’s conclusion–but with this exception: for the last 50 pages or so of the novel, I pulled the book down off of the shelf and I read along with the audio.

I do not own a copy of Robin Black’s novel. I listened to that entire audiobook and, as I’ve said, it was a great experience, but I would find my brain, every now and again, drifting away from the narrative, trying to go somewhere else, and frustrated, I would sometimes have to listen again to entire sections–in the same way, I suppose, we have to reread a paragraph from an actual book when our minds wander away. Not a reflection at all on the quality of the writing or the performance of the reader–it’s all pretty much our fault, the fault of a recalcitrant brain.  But I found, when I picked up Robinson’s novel and read along while I was listening, something really wonderful happened with my level of engagement, my comprehension, and my emotional investment.  I was all over it.

I think I understand the appeal for most folks about audio books.  If you like to read but have to drive a lot and it kills your leisure time for reading, audio books are good.  If you like to work out, are a runner or a gym frequenter, audio books are a good way to exercise the mind WHILE you do the whole body thing.  If you can’t read, or don’t read well, and like the idea of experiencing this thing called a book, audio books may be of some help.  But I think I, as a recent convert to the audio book experience, appreciate the audio book in a different way–and who knows, maybe there are others in the same boat. As I said above, I love to read out loud, to an audience, sure, but often, if I can manage it, alone in the house or lounging in the yard, to myself. Yes, I love to read out loud to myself.  And here’s the key reason I find the audiobook, in particular the audiobook in companionship and in tandem with the actual analog book, to be so rewarding.

The brain wants to go places.  Specifically, the brain wants to go other places while reading. The brain has to have total buy-in and focus for its host human to be able to read well.  Some people are gifted as readers, or rather, they’ve worked really hard in the practice of reading, and this kind of concentration is second nature to them. Most of us, I bet, are not in this boat.  Sometimes as a reader, I’m on fire.  But most of the time, I have difficulty attending for long periods at a stretch, UNLESS, I am reading out loud.  Or, as I’ve discovered recently, I am reading with my eyes while listening to an effective reading performance recorded for my pleasure and edification by some professional voice actor.

Here’s what happens, and it’s what I would argue happens when I read out loud to students most of the time. The eyes are seeing the words and the brain is doing that whole incredible decoding thing, and on top of the decoding, the brain does that whole comprehension thing where squiggly markings become abstract sounds which become words which become concepts and images which strung together with other concepts and images become meaningful sentences that tell a story, prove a point, or a million other things. On top of that already sophisticated brain activity, the ears are hearing the sounds and the words and the sentences and the brain is decoding that as well and ultimately it’s as if the reader is reading twice, two times simultaneously.  Two times the comprehension.  Two times the enjoyment.  It’s like a chorus of understanding and appreciation. So that’s part of it.  I read better when I am seeing, speaking, and listening, or at least two of these three in tandem.

But there’s another aspect to reading out loud or being read out loud to that is not about comprehension but about community, connection, and intimacy.  I think there is something so integral and profound and ancient about the act of oral storytelling, first of all in public or in a public way, e.g., the public reading in classrooms, bookstores, libraries, and theaters, or the public availability and consumption of the audio book, but secondly, and more profoundly, perhaps, the reading out loud in private and in partnership.  I love to read out loud to my son. Before my son was born and we had more time, my wife and I used to take turns reading out loud to each other, a ritual I sorely miss. I don’t even know if I have the words to express what this particular practice has meant to me.  Would it be illegal to close by quoting a William Stafford poem in its entirety?  I’m going to do it, and we’ll see what happens.  It’s that good.  It’s that important.  Good night.  Find somebody who will read out loud with you.

ritual

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#73: Unstuck In Time (Don’t Know Much About History)

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The student reading a William Stafford
poem mistakes the 1930’s for
The Civil War in America—when, you know,
there were electric elevators.
The first impulse, if only
inside of a thought bubble, is to make fun,
but the second, more reflective response
is a deep sadness. The kid is unstuck in time
and unstuck in culture,
has no idea when the Civil War took place,
probably believes the elevator man in Stafford’s poem
was a slave, and countless other pieces
missing altogether, the result of more
days of school missed than attended,
and the ones attended, for her, ill suited,
and who knows what else in her life
and the lives of her family prevented
her from learning the most basic
fundamentals of American history.
I don’t hold it against her.
Instead, I am angry about the circumstances
that lead to this kind of ignorance,
feel that she has been cheated in some
significant and grievous way
against which I am totally ill prepared
and unsupported to do meaningful battle in her defense.

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