Inclusion Unknown: Revisiting Great Expectations

I have been rereading Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, as it’s one of my favorites — and one of my few digressions from contemporary nonfiction or poetry. I first encountered this book in an AP Literature course and fell in love with its humbler characters. I love and hate Pip, of course, as I expect most readers do, and I never had any use for Estella or Miss Havisham. But I adore Jo Gargery and John Wemick with each rereading.

When I was first reading GE, I focused mainly on plot and style — trying to keep all the twists and turns of Victorian fiction in my head while I cherished Dickens’ prose. But with this rereading, I was astonished to discover something I had missed.

Dickens can write everyday inclusion.

If I think of disability in Victorian fiction, I am burdened by characters like Tiny Tim from A Christmas Carol. Tim, the poor crippled boy whose very survival depends on Scrooge’s reformation, has become the poster-child for disability as inspiration — the idea that disabled characters only serve to teach moral lessons to nondisabled characters. You’ll never see Tim get angry, throw his crutch at someone, or wax despondent about his poor health because his job is to be cheerful. I did not know Dickens could do better with disability.

But GE presents at least two portraits of disabled people cared for at home and incorporated into the daily lives of their families. First, Mrs. Joe, Pip’s older sister and the abusive wife of dear Joe the blacksmith, is injured while Pip and Joe are from home one evening. After her injury, she is unable to dress or feed herself and requires a slate and chalk to communicate basic phrases. But Mrs. Joe receives care at home when Biddy, a local girl, comes to live at the forge; Biddy dresses her, feeds her, and sees to her needs. Neither is Mrs. Joe neglected by her husband, who often takes over her care in Biddy’s absence. These characters do not express resentment, distaste, or irritation with their need to care for Mrs. Joe. They lament her injury but continue to give her the best care they can.

Even though Pip soon leaves the forge, he shows us another portrait of inclusion when he visits the home of John Wemmick. Wemmick works for Pip’s guardian, the formidable and austere Mr. Jaggers, and famously has his “London sentiments” and his “Walworth sentiments” — sharply defining the difference between his gritty work life in London and his innovative domestic comforts in Walworth. At home in Walworth, Wemmick has designed his own castle, complete with flag, drawbridge, and garden. He lives with and cares for his elderly father, who he affectionally calls the “Aged Parent,” “Aged P.,” or “The Aged.”

The Aged P. is hard of hearing, and Wemmick has devised several at-home adaptations to make his father more comfortable. The Aged knows when Wemmick has arrived home because a little door in the wall opens to reveal his name. This contraption, a Wemmick invention, also includes the names of other frequent visitors to The Castle, and as Wemmick himself says, “It is both pleasant and useful to The Aged.”

Pleasant and useful — the two essentials of inclusive design. When Pip first meets The Aged, Wemmick says, “Nod away at him, Mr. Pip; that’s what he likes.” And as the visit continues, Pip is encouraged to “give him a nod” and he obliges. The Aged P. is also delighted by the daily firing of The Castle’s canon, which Wemmick has knocked up for his enjoyment. And Dickens reveals that Wemmick’s lady friend, Miss Skiffins, has a high regard for The Aged.

Like Mrs. Joe, The Aged’s disability does not exclude him from tender family care — even at the center of the household. Wemmick consistently thinks of ways to adapt The Castle for the comfort of Aged P. and does not seem to begrudge these changes to his daily life. Indeed, Pip shows us that Wemmick’s Walworth residence is a refuge from the hard life of London, the life that turns his mouth into a rigid “post office.”

Before Mrs. Joe’s injury, the forge was not a happy home for Pip, but after her injury, the forge’s inhabitants find the right balance. It develops into a peaceful and restful place, even as Pip grows dissatisfied with himself and his social status. Pip resists happiness at the forge and will spend the rest of the book seeking a happy home like The Castle — a place of acceptance and invention.


Bibliography as Invitation

Each semester I share with students a list of the books and articles that I have used to develop the methods and concepts for my courses. Some may see this as pretentious — me handing them a long list and saying “Look how much I’ve read!” I don’t have a problem with that: scholars and teachers are supposed to read a lot. If waving this list of sources makes me pretentious in the eyes of students, it also reinforces my credibility as their instructor.

But as fun as it is to be pretentious, I prefer to frame this list as an invitation. I invite students to examine the lively process of building a course, of growing and developing their ideas as scholars,. The bibliography is an exhibit of lifelong learning. And maybe, just maybe, a student who enjoys the class will return to this list and look for something else to read.

Here, I extend my gratitude to one of my multilingual students who begged me for a reading list: in the middle of our course, she asked what else I would recommend so she could enhance her reading and understanding of English. So if one student wants this list, I will believe in the possibility that many more do also. Perhaps they are too shy to ask. Perhaps they do not yet know how much they would enjoy these books.

This is my list! If you see a title you’ve read and enjoyed, please leave a comment below. If there’s something you think I should add, make suggestions! A bibliography is not a static document: it’s a festival of conversation!

Syllabus Bibliography

Clips from JaxbyJax 2018!


Yesterday I read poetry at JaxbyJax 2018, and it was an absolute blast! Chris Gabbard and I read in the Whiteway Realty conference room, a cozy space that offered many lighting options for me. I read best under dim lights, and every time I plan to read in public, I worry about whether the venue will work out. I was so happy with our environment this time; I really felt in my element!

For my three reading times, I chose different poems. The only repeats came when my 5:30 audience called for an encore (I promised if they called for an encore, I’d read them some of my favorites). All three of my readings were blessed by a kind, attentive, and encouraging audience! And who is a writer without her audience?

We went Facebook live during each reading, and I’ve shared the videos below! Enjoy!

A clip from the 3:30 reading:

The second half of my 3:30 reading, featuring a set of poems for my great-grandmother, Citti:

A clip from the 4:30 reading:

A clip from the 5:30 reading (with encore and excellent audience questions) 

I’d like to offer my sincere and heartfelt thanks to Brad and Darlyn Kuhn for organizing and promoting this year’s festival! Congratulations to the many other local writers who performed yesterday! Jacksonville is a lively, literary place, and each iteration of JaxbyJax enlarges and enriches our writerly community!

Celebrating National Poetry Month 2018!

Dear readers, it’s that time again! Time to spend 30 days of April showers celebrating poetry — reading it, writing it, thinking about writing it! I’m excited to report some fantastic festivities at both campuses where I teach! Follow the hyperlinks to find the Facebook events for each item.

Downtown Campus Spoken Word Open Mic, Tues Apr 10, 10AM-12PM

Join FSCJ poets Donna Cobis, Kelsi Hasden, and me for a spoken word event celebrating National Poetry Month. Students, faculty, and staff are encouraged to come ready to share their favorite poems or original verse, but no shade will be thrown if you attend simply to cheer on your classmates or colleagues. This event will take place in C-101 at Downtown Campus and is my collaborative creation with FSCJ’s Library and Learning Commons and Downtown Campus Student Engagement.

Poetry Month Workshop Series

I’ll be teaching a series of three workshops at the UNF Writing Center this month! These are open to UNF students, staff, and faculty, and they are not sequential: you can come to one, two, or all three!

Write Your Poem,  Wed, Apr 4, 2-3PM

Have you ever wondered where a great poem begins? Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced poet, we’ll discover the roots of captivating poems! This workshop is the first in the Writing Center’s 2018 National Poetry Month Series. Grab your favorite pen and your vivid imagination, and we’ll start writing together. Students, faculty, and staff are welcome. 

Critique Your Poem, Wed, Apr 11, 2-3PM

More than rhyme schemes or syllable counts, a poet needs to know what makes a poem tick. What takes a handful of smudgy lines to a full-fledged draft? What takes a poem from good to great? We’ll explore techniques for critiquing poetry in the second installment of the Writing Center Poetry Month Series. Students, faculty, and staff welcome. 

Perform Your Poem, Wed, Apr 18, 2-3PM

Let’s lift poetry off the page! Bring your works in progress or your favorite poems! We’ll explore the techniques that performance poets use to electrify their audience in this third installment of the Writing Center Poetry Month Series. Students, faculty, and staff welcome.  

Student Poet Showcase, April 9, 12-1PM

Students, it’s your turn in the spotlight! Join the UNF Writing Center, English Graduate Organization (EGO), and UNF faculty poets for an informal poetry reading to celebrate National Poetry Month! We are all about showing our appreciation for poets, past and present! Bring your own work or your favorite poem to share — or just come to listen and get a free dose of poetry. Students, staff, and faculty are welcome! 

Poetry Feedback Fridays, April 6 & 13 at 2-3PM

Join our visiting poet for an informal small-group conversation about poetry, careers in the arts, and the writing life. Bring your poems for individual critique, or bring your curiosity. Beginners and experienced writers are welcome — no prep needed! Students, faculty, and staff are welcome!

Do you have an exciting project or event for National Poetry Month? I’d love to hear about it! I’ve got more poetic features to share, so stay tuned to the blog! 

37 Books in 2017

My reading goal for 2017 was 35 books. Below you’ll find several of my favorite themes – ecology, music, spirituality, and grammar. But there are also several books about Jane Austen as July marked the 200th anniversary of her death.

I’m feeling rather hip as many of these books actually came out in 2017, so I read them hot off the presses! Here’s what I read this year. As always, I’ve left mini commentaries beneath the selections I particularly enjoyed.

  1. To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by John O’Donohue
  2. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery
    I have such fondness for Anne Shirley, and I loved this latest installment of her adventures.
  3. The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel
    This might just be my favorite book of the year! That is all.
  4. Arda Inhabited: Environmental Relationships in The Lord of the Rings by Susan Jeffers
    Outstanding book! Scholarly work but accessible and fascinating examination of Tolkien.
  5. The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron
    I came across this book because Susan Cain referenced Dr. Aron’s research in her incredible book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. Aron’s work on sensitivity is groundbreaking and validating!
  6. The Art of X-Ray Reading by Roy Peter Clark
    Though this isn’t my favorite Clark volume, all his books are fabulous. He is a down-to-earth writer and offers lucid strategies for improving reading and writing.
  7. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel
  8. Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon and Mars by Nathalia Holt
  9. Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by Karen Swallow Prior
    A compelling and beautifully written biography with rich historical context.
  10. The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places by Bernie Krause
    Fascinating and lovely!
  11. Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady’s Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese Oneill
  12. Scales to Scalpels: Doctors Who Practice the Healing Arts of Music and Medicine by Lisa Wong
  13. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy
    How could I not read everything by Macy, who is a brilliant eco-philosopher and translator of Rilke? Her On Being interview was absolutely beautiful.
  14. Snobs by Julian Fellowes
    The creator of Downton Abbey is a great novelist! This one was wonderful as an audiobook.
  15. Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything by Margaret Wertheim
    While I enjoyed this book, I preferred Wertheim’s On Being interview.
  16. A Little Book of Language by David Crystal
  17. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
  18. Ain’t She Sweet? by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
    You MUST listen to this as an audiobook. Normally I can’t stand romance novels, but this one is hilarious and so well done! It’s right up there with Laurie Colwin’s Happy All The Time, which I reread often.
  19. The Colony by Jillian Weise
    Snarky, creepy, and curious. This is a short and weird novel that asks good questions.
  20. An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage
  21. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
    Beautiful prose, thoughtful writing, wonderful stories.
  22. Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
    Ever since I saw Haupt’s TEDx Talk, I wanted to read all of her books. I’m currently reading Crow Planet because Mozart’s Starling was so wonderful!
  23. Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly
    The best Austen book I’ve read all year! I’ve got more to read, but this one is absolutely fantastic! Kelly examines the subtle political and cultural critiques in Austen’s novels. Austen wasn’t as detached as everyone claims.
  24. Suites for the Modern Dancer by Jill Khoury
    Read my full-length review here.
  25. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson
  26. Longbourn by Jo Baker
    This is the “below stairs” story that unfolds alongside Pride and Prejudice. It’s compelling and respectable.
  27. Grace (Eventually: Thoughts on Faith) by Anne Lamott
  28. Why Poetry by Matthew Zapruder
  29. The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn
    Listen to the audiobook of this one. It’s a gripping, meticulously researched novel about Austen’s life. Very well done!
  30. Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley
    This is an excellent book on Austen! If you are on the fence, watch this hour-long preview.
  31. Victoria, the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird
    Long but worth it! Lots of great stories about Victoria.
  32. Juliet’s Answer: One Man’s Search for Love and the Elusive Cure for Heartbreak by Glenn Dixon
    Save your time and just enjoy the  Shakespeare Unlimited episode about this one. The book was pleasant but not as thrilling as I’d hoped.
  33. Talk Like TED: The 9 Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds by Carmine Gallo
    This book is actually more useful than the official TED book on public speaking by Chris Anderson.
  34. Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling
    Fun but not as good as her first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
  35. Making Sense: The Glamorous Story of English Grammar by David Crystal
    As always, David Crystal is a delight! I loved his attention to grammar pedagogy and child development in this book.
  36. Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David
  37. The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne
    I had not heard of this book until it came up as the FSCJ Author Series book for 2017-2018. I enjoyed Hanagarne’s wit and bookishness, and I’m looking forward to author events coming up.

What have you been reading this year? What’s your goal for next year? Comment below and share your literary explorations!

I Ask My Poetry

The young writer struggles with self-definition. So many incredible reputations hover above us, casting sparks in all directions. Every established literary presence is crisp and luminous, an identity in complete control of its own labels.

So I ask my poetry for this control, and it withers. I find I possess nothing worthy of a poem. What could be poetic about my unestablished self? About my identity testing its limits?

I ask my poetry to be perfect, to appeal to everyone, to help others feel what I feel when I read Rilke. Rilke advises his young poet: “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator, there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”

I ask my poems to be round and lively, filled with knowledge that transcends my individual experience. And as I reach for this transcendence, this selflessness, I realize just which parts of my self I am sacrificing.

I am concerned that others will read my work and see only disability: a dismal vision that makes them turn away rather than turn toward me. I am concerned that their fear of blindness—so widespread in common culture—will tell them, “Close the book, and it will never happen to you.” I worry that any “blindness poems” that don’t offer some nugget of nonvisual bliss will tap into the well of pity carried by people who don’t really know me.

“That must be what it’s like to be her. Poor thing.”

So I ask my poetry to silence the part of myself that helps me interact with the world. I ask my poetry to censor disability so that it will appeal to more nondisabled readers. I cut off part of myself—and then I’m surprised when my poetry wants spirit and individuality.

I didn’t realize how thoroughly I’ve been silencing myself. My prose is flowing smoothly, but I’ve only written 5 poems this year. Last year, I wrote 67. In 2013, I wrote 97. The prose is steadily coming, but the poems are being choked off. I’m telling myself the usual things: I’m not in the mood to write poetry, not all those poems last year were good, numbers don’t mean much when it comes to Art.

But inspiration only works if you value the craft that asks for it.

A year ago, I wrote an essay that helped me define myself as a poet. The essay happened in the midst of April—I was celebrating Poetry Month by trying to write some kind of poem every day. I was playing with forms: pantoums, villanelles, sonnets, sestinas. The exercises and the essay worked on paper. So I published the essay,  framed the thoughts, and forgot to engage with them.

About a month ago, I applied for a slot in a series of local readings that will occur in November. I offered myself as a poet whose poetry would discuss “writing as embodiment and sensory experience”—a neat way of saying “blind poetry” without using the word. I didn’t see the fancy words for what they were: a cloak. Just in case the panel of judges would freak out over seeing “blind” on the page.

I wanted to read my poems instead of my prose because they are generally shorter and won’t provide as much of a visual challenge. I’ve never felt overly confident about my ability to read aloud.

My poems don’t mark me as a blind poet in as much as my essays mark me as a blind writer. My poems focus on minute experiences, rarely stopping to explain that they were written by a blind woman. But my essays are longer explorations of important aspects of my life: music, teaching, disability, dogs. In my essays, I don’t avoid the blind label: they flourish because of my perspective.

So why do I hold poetry to a different standard, a standard of erasure? I can puzzle out a few reasons. I’ve met few blind poets on the page, though of course they exist. I even have several works by blind poets sitting on my poetry shelf.

But poetry hinges on a paradox. We expect it to bloom with human experience—particular, poignant, real. And at the same time, we imagine that such a high and beautiful art must come from the minds (not bodies) of high and beautiful people. Prose seems to us the writing of everyday life—even if this is an unfair judgement. Prose can certainly be beautiful, graceful, evocative. But prose is the place where you discuss how to clasp the belly-strap of your guide dog’s harness; poetry is the place where you describe the wild warmth of meeting his large brown eyes—perhaps the first pair of eyes you’ve ever been able to meet.

It is an unfair binary that segregates these two genres, and practicing this binary has helped me to make war on my writing self. I didn’t see it until I read it in a piece by Steve Kuusisto, a blind poet: “Its possible to have a disability and live your life pretending you don’t have one. Plenty of people have done so. But getting away with this charade in literary terms means the imagination has been suborned—bribed—you’ve tricked yourself into thinking there’s a pot of gold that will be yours but only if there isn’t a hint of physical difference in your work.”

I am an advocate, an activist, a scholar, a teacher. I contemplate all day, and often into the night. I never imagined I could be so thoroughly tricked by the same myths that silence other disabled poets. I’ve been helping to sequester my own experience, and effectively telling others that it is nothing of value—all to avoid being misunderstood, pitied, alienated.

Kuusisto echoes Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, saying:  I’m a poet who not only admits the defective body into literature—I think the imagination is starving for what that damned body knows.” But the difference is, he’s talking about me. I didn’t know Rilke was talking about my experience, too. And I couldn’t ask.

I could’ve questioned poetry itself, but I didn’t have the courage or the imagination. If I didn’t ask for admission, I couldn’t be turned away.

I’m going to stop asking my poetry not to come.

I’m asking all poetry: Are you talking to me?

Divining the Catalyst: A Response to the Writing of Oliver Sacks

I have always been a front-row student. Drawn to the first row of desks or tables by temperament and visual disability, I preferred to be as close to the teacher—and presumably the action—as possible. I never questioned this self-placement: to me, the front row was a reverential space, sanctified by scholarship and enthusiasm.

Plus, the first row of desks was always easiest for me to find. Before I started traveling with a guide dog, I’d use my white cane to locate an empty seat. I hated threading through crowded aisles scattered with students’ bags. I could see the outline of the first row of desks—usually unoccupied—and claim my place without tangling my cane in the straps of someone’s lumpy Jansport backpack.

On the third day of my Honors Chemistry class, I was a curious sophomore, sitting in the first seat of the second line of desks nearest the door. Slightly offset from the teacher’s large desk on its elevated platform, my seat offered a clear view of the class’s main attraction: the magic tricks performed by our teacher. For the first two days, she had confined herself to modest tricks—minor explosions and colored flames. She had even made water disappear with the use of three Solo cups and the powder from inside a disposable diaper. So she met our cries for more tricks with a quiet smile and a phrase that complicated my front-row-philia: “All right, I will bring out the shatter shield.”

Two years later, the same teacher tried to begin our AP Chemistry class with more conventional housekeeping—going through the syllabus and explaining her policies. But we protested; most of us remembered the earlier displays of magic and were excited to see the more advanced versions. As she explained how each trick worked, she continually posed the question, “Is magic chemistry, or is chemistry magic?”

There were many things I loved about those chemistry classes—from the newspaper-y smell of our carbon lab notebooks to the balancing of redox reactions and the intense calculations of dimensional analysis. Perhaps because I was so enthusiastic about the academic side of the course, I found the laboratory experience to be painful and frustrating. I say this because I never experienced parallel frustrations in my biology courses.

Though my instructor showed me the equipment with painstaking care, many of our experiments were inaccessible to me. I learned to distinguish round-bottomed flasks from erlenmeyer flasks and flat-bottomed flasks. I learned to identify the parts of a Bunsen burner, the pipettes, and the clamps. But I could not read the measurement lines on the flasks to report a precise meniscus. I could not identify the colors of the various flames during the flame test lab. And I had to rely on my partner’s goodwill during the tie-dye lab as I squirted purple and red coloring onto my scrunched and bundled T-shirt. (Incidentally, the tie-dye shirt came out rather well.)

So I took notes while my lab partner carried out the kinesthetic tasks. And perhaps because my experience of chemistry was chiefly literary, I was primed to value the first chemistry memoir I read.

For extra credit, my teacher invited us to report on Oliver Sacks’s book Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. The book detailed Sacks’s intense love of chemistry, his fascination with the periodic table, his forays into the lab, and his family’s relationship with science. But Uncle Tungsten also offered something new to my 16-year-old self (in love with Jane Austen and James Joyce). It offered a glimpse into what nonfiction beyond the textbook could be—an organic wandering through memory in which discoveries are unbound by time. I realized that revelation was nonlinear, that truth didn’t always march so neatly across the page.

Unlike our conventional and unappealing course texts—and the labs that accompanied them—Sacks’s memoir made room for the student I was. I could understand and revel in his experience without feeling like an inadequate scientist. In the lab, I squinted at measurement lines on graduated cylinders, always conscious that such visual data was beyond my grasp. But in the pages of the memoir—where phenomena were rendered accessible through text—I could calculate, realize, conclude. I could bring all I had learned into one powerful, imaginative space.

Though I’ve read several of Sacks’s articles and books, I resonate most with his writings on chemistry and music. I adored Sacks’s Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, for its discussion of art and science, mystery and measurement.

These two books, more than Sacks’s other work, helped me come to terms with what felt like insurmountable exclusion from the scientific world. As a high school student, I was just beginning to understand disability rights: I didn’t know what I was allowed to ask for and what I was expected to put up with. Now I know several blind people pursuing careers in the sciences. Lab equipment can be adapted, colors identified. But when I was taking these courses, that terrain seemed so daunting. And in the same way that I coped with the difficulty of sightreading piano music, I did what I knew would work: I turned to writing.

In July, Dr. Sacks published a piece in The New York Times called “My Periodic Table”; in this piece, he explored the elements that made his life worthwhile—literal chemical elements and different human experiences, like a night filled with stars. Sacks wrote:

A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s           words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.

I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”

“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.

I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.

When I imagine my own night filled with stars, I realize that most of the lights have been literary—voices outside of time that I return to again and again. It is easier to be in love with the voices that are already gone—Austen, Joyce, Woolf, and most recently, Seamus Heaney. It is more heartbreaking to feel a voice moving out of our finite, knowable space, because it seems that all their brilliance will cross over, become unfathomable. There is something so necessary and vital in the pieces of life we can touch and smell, like the rough carbon pages of lab notebooks.

Of Dogs and Dragons

In May of this year, I followed a friend’s recommendation and began reading His Majesty’s Dragon, a novel by Naomi Novik. The book is the first in Novik’s Temeraire series, a historical fantasy narrative that chronicles the adventures of Capt. Will Laurence and his combat dragon, Temeraire. Reviews often describe this series as “the Napoleonic War…with dragons.” Laurence and Temeraire fight for England, and each book places them in a different cultural setting, complicating their sense of patriotic duty. There are eight books so far, and the final Temeraire novel is expected at the end of this year.

After discovering the Audible version of His Majesty’s Dragon, I wanted to experience the whole series in audio rather than print. Fortunately, the series maintains the same narrator throughout: the incredible Simon Vance. Vance is already a staple in my audiobook library—having narrated my favorite versions of Great Expectations and The Picture of Dorian Gray. His low, supple voice never cracks or stumbles. His native British accent complements the mostly British cast and setting of the Temeraire series. His narration is smooth and expressive, and his gift for dialects produces believable character voices.

In these novels, dragons are highly intelligent creatures, able to speak the native language of their captains. Temeraire, a rare kind of dragon, masters several languages throughout the series—most notably French and Chinese—and often tutors Laurence and the other members of his crew. Despite their intelligence and the love of their captains, dragons are underestimated or disrespected beyond the ranks of the aerial corps, and Laurence and his fellow aviators must constantly challenge the public’s opinion.

The most remarkable feature of the Temeraire series—what keeps me awake late into the night, laughing and crying—is the relationship between Temeraire and his captain, Laurence. At first, Laurence is unwilling to leave his Navy career for a position among England’s questionable aviators, but love for his newly hatched dragon begins to change the shape of his whole life. As they embark on a more-than-working relationship, Laurence uses Temeraire’s happiness to measure his own.

Like most readers, I am drawn to this relationship because of its intensity. Laurence learns to love his dragon above anyone else in his life, and Temeraire protects and adores Laurence as a true friend. To the “civilized” civilian world, Laurence’s affection for Temeraire seems indulgent or delusional—like a lady’s fondness for a favorite lapdog. But Laurence has recognized Temeraire as one of the few people in his life who truly understands him. This relationship is beautiful, dynamic, and sincere.

I experience a daily parallel to the Laurence-Temeraire bond in my relationship with my guide dog, York. York is not a talking dragon—he’s a quiet Labrador—but some similarities are obvious from the start. Like Temeraire, York is a shiny black, and his appearance receives frequent notice. Like Temeraire, he works in harness, a leather contraption that connects us and enables him to perform his job. And like Temeraire and Laurence, our relationship has far exceeded its original motivation.

In the series, British dragons are only assigned to aviators so that they can be trained in combat. To a poorly informed public, a captain’s relationship with his dragon is a working relationship only: the dragon is a beast of burden, not a conscientious, unique creature with a mind of its own. People beyond Laurence’s circle of friends often assume that he can leave Temeraire behind without hesitation; they doubt that Laurence could prefer the company of a nonhuman companion to their own.

With the same ignorant benevolence, strangers often assume that I will be content to leave York behind—especially in situations where they see him as an added obstacle. I’ve often struggled for tactful answers to the questions, “Wouldn’t it be easier to leave your dog and take someone’s arm?” or “Don’t you think it would be better to leave York at home?” The reply that rises to my lips is always a call for empathy: I want people to recognize that what they see as drawbacks—keeping York calm, helping him stay focused, taking care of him—comprise my half of the bargain. As Laurence cherishes the company of Temeraire, I enjoy York’s presence for more-than-practical reasons. Yes, he keeps me safe and helps me travel independently, but he is also a source of daily joy.

As Laurence and Temeraire discover one another’s passions, strengths, and weaknesses, their affection deepens. Laurence often sees Temeraire’s friendship as a remarkable privilege that he doesn’t quite deserve: Temeraire is a superior scholar and he seems to possess an endless supply of fantastical abilities. Only Temeraire’s unwavering affection can help Laurence recognize his own value. But Laurence’s never ceases to regard Temeraire as extraordinary—and their relationship as an extraordinary gift.

Laurence’s feelings of thankfulness and wonder most closely resemble my own. My companion is not magical in the way of fantasy novels; he does not command natural forces or speak my human language. But his skills are far from ordinary—and any glimpse of the extraordinary in our lives is a glimpse of magic, of miracles, of power beyond ourselves.

York can stop for a flight of steps or an unexpected car, the sudden motion of his harness sending a message for my hand alone. He can guide me through a crowd of people, shopping carts, wet-floor placards, line ropes. He solves complicated problems, altering our route to accommodate new obstacles. And he shows me, through his attention to his job, that I am worth keeping safe.

Stories rarely revel in the literal. We love metaphor because it takes us beyond our bread-and-butter world. If York and I cannot fly, I’m glad that Laurence and Temeraire can, because their relationship reflects the delights of living in a more-than-human world.

“Affluentia Poesis”: Meeting Poetry in the Universe of Possibility

“To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity, that alone is living the artist’s life, in understanding as in creating.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

The title of this blog comes from one of my former students, a science-minded young man who asked Google Translate for the Latin equivalent of an English phrase: flow of poetry. I know the translation is incorrect, and exchanging several emails with colleagues (whose knowledge of Latin surpasses mine) has not helped me to find the accurate rendering of this idea. The Internet at least tells me that “affluentia” is closer to affluence—an overflow. Nevertheless I build my philosophy of teaching poetry around Affluentia Poesis, poetry as living, incalculable current.

Affluentia Poesis was born on a writing assignment, inspired by Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing course. As a class, we read Goldsmith’s “It’s not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing’” an excerpt that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In describing his methods and motives, Goldsmith (2011) questioned the value of literary originality and praised the general repurposing and imitative practices found in other arts. He relayed the testimonials of students whose most creative work came from a period of strict constraint, a course in which Goldsmith punished their attempts at originality.

After our discussion of Goldsmith’s article, I offered my students an opportunity for uncreative writing. I gave them a handout titled “Plagiarizing Poetry” which included these eleven poems:

I chose these poems for their variety. Some offered classic poetics like St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet and Bishop and Thomas’s villanelles, while others—like Williams and Lopate—scarcely used punctuation or capitalization, resembling a prose paragraph scattered over a sheet of paper. Rich and Owen both offered social critique, one in short, provocative form and the other with rigorous, hypnotic sound repetitions. Heaney and Housman used earthy language to describe domestic conflict, one poet talking to himself and another offering dialogue between a friend and a ghost. Each poem was manageable in some aspect and daunting in another: complex messages offered in short, simple lines or familiar meaning wrapped in elaborate language.

My instructions were straightforward; I asked every student to create two poems using only words or lines from the eleven. Like Goldsmith’s students, mine were piecing together poems rather than writing them in a more traditional way. They could wander through the poems as gardeners or naturalists, picking out the words or phrases that struck their fancy and situating them on a new page.

To make beautiful bouquets, gardeners do not have to invent flowers. To make meaning, my students did not have to invent language; they had to arrange it, place it, shuffle it around. Soon, their playful and determined efforts resulted in a surprising number of interesting poems whose components—wrenched from their original context—hummed together to reveal new depths of meaning.

As my students read their work aloud, some sheepish and others gleeful, I witnessed the collaborative power of creating. Tradition elevates the solitary genius, who labors beneath the light of inspiration, but our creations are more often the work of many voices, both present and faded, some half-remembered and others daily cherished. None of us compose in a vacuum.

Though most students strictly adhered to the exercise, some could not help but flaunt their originality in titles. The student who weekly professed his loyalty to science and medicine took from “Ars Poetica” a need for Latin: he titled his first poem “Affluentia Poesis.” When I asked him what this phrase meant, he proudly replied, “Flow of poetry.”He was the only student to offer a Latin title for his poem—a touch of creativity that I could never have anticipated.

By harvesting their poems, rather than inventing them, my students realized the pleasure of serendipity—of seeing meaning spring up as words come together on a page. This is the moment when the poem you think you’re writing changes shape, and you’re awash in moments you haven’t remembered in years. The tingle of a sharp perfume, the metallic slam of locker doors, the raucous laugh you heard around the corner—these are memories you could not have forced to the surface. This is your poetry talking back to you, telling you what it wants to become.

Teaching poetry is too often a one-sided conversation. The poem, positioned beneath the glass display case of the printed page, is never allowed to rise up and take part. Teachers cling to the value of moving line-by-line, so that students can understand what the poem “means.”—as if understanding a poem’s meaning is as easy as swallowing a multivitamin. But of course, in these arenas, the meaning of a poem is finite, digestible, and controlled by the instructor.

Students complain about interacting with poetry for a simple reason: they don’t want to be “wrong” about it. Difficult or confusing language wouldn’t be so annoying to them if they felt no pressure to parade their nuanced understanding—smartypants fashion—before the judge who delivers validation in the form of grades. But no one expects a first-time cook to master a complicated French dish right away. No one expects the young musician to play flawlessly with sophisticated interpretation. In these novice stages, we applaud and encourage the heart needed for someone to step forward and expose their inexperience.

Poems may contain finite elements—a certain quantity of syllables and sounds—but their meaning and reception can’t be predicted. When we as teachers remove the capacity for error—and its cohorts of diffidence and exclusion—we take the surest step of bringing students to a love of the arts. Students who can play with poetry will lose their fear, their hesitation to touch and be touched by language.

Craft and Fantasy: A Response to Sherwood Smith

In the midst of chaotic or new experiences, I am always soothed by the familiar. So as this semester began, I decided to return to the work of one of my favorite fantasy writers, Sherwood Smith. I first encountered Smith’s novels Crown Duel and Court Duel in high school, both books bound together in a trade paperback edition. I borrowed the book from a friend – and bought my own copy before I was halfway through the story.

When searching Audible for old favorites, I came across the same two novels sold as a single audiobook. Scanning down the list of Smith’s works, I saw a book that was released just last year. Titled A Stranger to Command, this audiobook was described as the prequel to Crown Duel. I added it to my cart without hesitation.

Knowing I would need a refresher on Smith’s layered cultures and characters, I listened to Crown Duel first. From the initial minutes of the audiobook, I was transported back to my first reading of the novel. I remembered how I used to read then – lying on my bed, moving my glass dome magnifier across the book’s cramped font. The magnifier was heavy, the borrowed paperback thick, smelling faintly of someone else’s house. When I read with a magnifier, my experience of a good book was decidedly tactile; I had to be close to the book, my nose a centimeter above the cold glass dome that made the words legible to me.

As the audiobook caught me up, I rearranged my schedule, so that I could complete mindless necessary tasks and give my thinking brain to the familiar story. The book’s narrator halted here and there – a fault of the performance, not the prose – but the story charmed me. Though I remembered the general events of the plot. Smith’s writing still surprised and delighted me. During intense moments, I set aside the papers I was filing and wrapped my fingers around the arms of my desk chair, pressing hard into the spongy rubber. The book satisfied my craving for the familiar and justified my earlier admiration.

Crown Duel tells the story of a country countess who leads a revolution against a tyrannical king. Narrated from Countess Meliara’s point of view, the story is shaped by her surmises and misjudgments – allowing the reader to sigh with relief when Meliara is correct and cringe with despair when her ignorance leads to disaster. Mel’s delivery is honest and earthy; she critiques the world around her, leaving the reader to derive more compassionate conclusions.

The second novel, Court Duel, describes Meliara’s forays into Court life as she unravels the intense attitudes of the previous book to make sense of her new situation. In this novel, Meliara must examine her relationships with the other dynamic characters. While Crown Duel had the countess determined to go it alone, its sequel allows her to recognize – with considerable reluctance – how much she needs other people and how this need lends itself equally to joy and disappointment.

Throughout these two books, Mel’s chief irritant is Vidanric Renselaeus, the Marquis of Shevraeth. Despised by our forthright narrator for his reputation as a flirt and a dandy, Vidanric occupies several roles in his interactions with Meliara – from a “court decoration” to a military commander. Court Duel places Vidanric in yet another position, which I won’t describe here (I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers!).

Though Smith has created a vivid and captivating fantasy world, it is her characters that compel me to reread her books. Listening to Crown Duel (Books I/II), I fell in love with Vidanric for his wit, capability, and good sense – to say nothing of his long blond hair and expressive gray eyes. But as a writer, I fell in love with Meliara – more precisely, with how Smith allows her to develop. Without changing Mel’s values or personality, Smith creates a character who learns to think for herself and reflect on her actions, a character who makes the same mistakes because her mistakes are habits. In short, Mel doesn’t fit the obnoxious protagonist of many fantasy stories – the heroine who is too perfect to be real. She is wonderfully flawed, and as she learns to manage her bad habits, she doesn’t cease to be human.

The audio version of CD is roughly 18 hours, but the story finished around 14:30:00. I listened on to find that Smith had included several inserts found in the most recent reprinting of the book: a series of thoughtful and engaging vignettes from Vidanric’s point of view. Here, I recognize an elegance of craft; these inserts add shades of meaning to the overall project of CD but they wouldn’t work within the novel itself. Because they bring in knowledge that might tamper with the healthy suspense of the plot, they function best outside the novel, which is a miraculous craft secret! Smith has managed to create supplemental materials that fit around the story without changing the story itself. It’s as if we’re in a CD archive, and we have special permission to examine a box of hidden records. This archival quality may be  what makes her world seem so real. I am taking notes.

After the intense first-person narration in CD, I did not know what to expect from A Stranger to Command, which tells the story of young Vidanric’s military training outside his own country. Because Vidanric rarely shows strong emotions in CD, I wondered what kind of narrator he would make. To my delight, Smith employed a third-person narrative voice, taking us inside the heads of several prominent characters in the book. This time, the story was read by a male narrator, who employed a British accent to mark Vidanric as a foreigner in the military academy of Marloven Hess. The British accent, beautifully performed, renders Vidanric’s thoughts and dialogue with graceful intensity. Somehow the accent suits the wide range of emotions that the young Vidanric experiences: attraction, defiance, disgust, resignation, joy.

This audiobook is around 14 hours, roughly the same length as CD without the added material. Because I couldn’t judge how much story remained by the feel of pages in my hand, I frequently checked the time elapsed. Six hours into the story, I misread the remaining time; I was relieved to realize that I actually had 8 hours left! At 13:00:00, I felt incredibly sad, even close to tears. I recognized the coming end, and I wasn’t ready to leave this world – especially with its characters in such dire places. Then I remembered that a good writer never leaves you to languish in a story: she gets you in and helps you out. She makes sure that when you turn that last page, you crave more, but your heart isn’t broken. So I read on, and when I finished the book, I felt satisfied.

I have a formidable trouble finding light reading. Most of the books waiting on my desk are nonfiction – about linguistics, teaching, psychology, animal behavior – or poetry. When I choose a novel, it’s usually an old favorite or a classic I haven’t read. I like the fantasy of Terry Pratchett, Gail Carson Levine, Tamora Pierce, J.K. Rowling. (Tolkien I place in his own category.) I love these authors because their work is entertaining and satisfying, but it doesn’t make me ask craft questions.

A Stranger to Command is the first page-turner I’ve read in a long time, one of the best contemporary novels I’ve ever read. Each character is so compelling, so rounded and developed, each side-story woven into the main plot with grace and subtlety. Especially with this book, Smith makes me ask how and why questions about craft – timing, description, emotion, balance.

I finished the book with a sense of conflict not about its contents but about my next step. I didn’t know whether to open the slumbering documents that house my own fantasy-writing projects, reread the book itself, or dive into nonfiction as a kind of literary purge. I have decided to listen to the book again, this time with my mind on craft and content together.

Lasting Impressions

When I was nine years old, I longed to use the words amiable, countenance, and clergyman – though they never appeared in my spelling or phonics workbooks. I knew what it meant if a manor was entailed away, and I guessed that £2,000 in the 19th century was a sizable fortune. I understood that the oldest daughter in a household was addressed by her family name while her younger sisters would be addressed by their first names. I recognized that married women always wore a head covering: a wide-billed bonnet or a lacy cap. Sometimes the caps had ribbons or draping fabric that gave the lady’s gestures a swaying elegance.

I absorbed these extra-curricular customs by watching the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries with my great-aunt, who explained the finer details of Regency culture around the familiar onscreen dialogue. I had first encountered Pride and Prejudice through a children’s TV show, “Wishbone,” in which a remarkably literary Jack Russell terrier guided viewers through abridged versions of the classics. Wishbone narrated in 25 minutes what Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehie dramatized in 5 hours – and I was enthralled with every second.

I loved the characters, especially stoic Mr. Bennet, melodramatic Mrs. Bennet, witty Lizzy Bennet, ebullient Mr. Bingley, and unctuous Mr. Collins. I appreciated how each character seemed like a real person, someone I could meet (or choose to avoid). And I loved how long it took for the couples to finally coalesce. Both Jane and Lizzy met their beaux in the first installment, but the couples weren’t solidified until the final installment; the in-between time covered family dramas and personal revelations.

Along with the characters and their vocabulary, I developed a penchant for the sounds of the series. I contrasted the tinny notes of the 19th century pianoforte with the full-bodied timbre of my grandmother’s honey-colored upright. I admired the delightful crunch of gravel beneath sturdy Georgian shoes. For weeks after I first saw the series, I shuffled my feet across any paved surface – hoping to replicate the textured noise of gravel underfoot. And I liked the deep clink of heavy silverware in use, the hearty swish of cloth napkins and table linen, the hollow snap of closing doors.

While I watched the characters adjust bonnet-ribbons or trade places on the dance floor, the author herself hovered in the background. I vaguely understood that this lively and colorful world had been created by Jane Austen. I knew that Austen had never married, that she wrote in the early 19th century, but to me, she was only a name.  When I was ten, I decided to read Pride and Prejudice and meet Ms. Austen on the page. From the book’s first paragraph, I recognized lines skillfully repurposed in the onscreen version, and I felt confident navigating Austen’s prose.

Austen continued to be extra-curricular: I didn’t encounter her work in a schoolroom until eleventh grade – and even then, the excerpt we read was part of a mock final exam, not a serious literary immersion. My teacher chose the passage where Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth, and I instantly recognized his pompous, unromantic language. In the same year, I took a similar test to measure my reading level, and the passage indicating  a twelfth-grade reading level also came from P&P: it was the scene where Lizzy Bennet first visits Pemberley.

In the same eleventh-grade English class, I discovered Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and her ardent discussion of early women writers motivated me to reexamine Austen’s work. When I reread P&P, I found that none of my early enthusiasm had waned: I still felt an unruly admiration for Jane Austen’s prose. I knew I wanted to spend my life working with great women writers, in person or in print.

Early on, I only knew Austen through P&P, but I eventually moved through her other novels – Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. So far, Persuasion, the story of the contemplative Anne Elliot, is my favorite Austen work, with Mansfield Park at a close second. Persuasion is an ecstasy of balance and precision while Mansfield Park is an untidy journey of self-discovery. Emma, in print and onscreen, is my least favorite Austen creation, but even here, she displays superb character-building.

After exploring most of her work, my curiosity about Austen’s life has led me to some “on Austen” reading. I enjoyed John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen (2013), which explains how age, money, names, and even British seaside resorts work as cultural code – often misinterpreted or totally ignored by 21st-century readers. Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen (also 2013) recounts the details of Austen’s life through treasured objects – an Indian shawl, a small notebook, a portrait – and describes how early family biographers strove to color Ms. Austen with appropriate Victorian modesty.

In Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (2010), Claire Harman devotes an entire chapter to debunking the modesty myths. According to family biographers, Jane Austen didn’t struggle with her writing or worry about making money. She didn’t value her work enough to be mortified by failure  or overjoyed with success. She wasn’t worldly, never traveled far, didn’t look beyond her home sphere. She was satisfied with the crumbs of a literary life.

I don’t need Claire Harman to point out the falsehood here, but I’m glad she does anyway. To create such crystalline, proportionate prose, Austen had to care about her work; she had to consider it a worthy venture, or she would’ve spent her time elsewhere. Luckily, Harman has found passages in Austen’s letters that contradict the Victorian “model authoress” – passages that show the author’s spirited devotion to her craft.

Though Austen’s birthday was December 16, I am continuing my festivities: revisiting my favorite Austen texts and Austen-inspired media. I need to honor the woman who encourages me to write and pulls me toward kindred spirits – the woman whose work has been part of my orbit for 18 years.

Sweet Response

May is turning out to be a literary month for me. I’ve created an account on Goodreads to keep numerical track of how many books I’m currently reading. So far, Goodreads says I’m reading 13. As I’ve listed several collections of poetry in this category – collections I read a few poems at a time – my sense of accomplishment hasn’t plummeted too dramatically. Also according to Goodreads, the number of books I want to read exceeds the number of books I’ve read. Seeing a larger pile of books in my future than the pile in my past seems like a sign that I am living a full and promising life.

Books from the past never really stay in the past. I remember many vivid books from earlier years. When I was in elementary school, I favored American Girl and Sweet Valley Twins books. Around fourth grade, an elderly aunt introduced me to Jane Austen. Then came the memorable and gloomy books of adolescent summer reading lists: A Bridge to Terabithia, Shiloh, Jacob Have I Loved, The Outsiders.

Perhaps to combat the melancholia of the assigned middle school texts, I discovered a love for fantasy and witty retellings of fairy tales. I adored Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted (which is superior to the movie in every way) and Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, the sassy diary of a thirteenth-century teenager. I graduated to Harry Potter, and while I was waiting for the next magical installment, I traveled slowly and carefully through The Lord of the Rings. In high school, I was in love with two men: Tolkien and Thoreau. I am still in love with them now.

This month, I’ve just finished two books, and I found them delightful. The first was Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, read on Audible by the author. The second was Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I listened to the audiobook, not read by the author, and followed along in the print text – I underlined meaningful and relevant passages on nearly every page. This audio-visual approach is my favorite way to read a text, but I don’t always have time for it. I made time for LaMott, and she was worth it!

So now I’m at the bookstore with Katie, looking for something new. Yes, Goodreads says I’m currently reading in the double digits, but the numbers really don’t matter. I’ve finished two books; I need to start at least one more. This is what bibliophilia really means: constant dedication to the reading life.

Katie and I begin with a brief stroll around the classics table, where stacks of gorgeous hardcover books teeter and nestle against each other. The rows of overhead lights glint off their gold-edged pages. I have several of these beautiful books on a special shelf at home. But I never curl up with them, annotate them. They’re trophy books.

Next we travel to our favorite section, Poetry.  Here, we willingly take all the abuse this section has to offer: three tall rows of shelves with the same slightly battered editions. With each visit, the No Fear Shakespeare volumes edge a little closer to our favorite poets, or the copies of Dante and Homer proliferate, crowding the more obscure (and doubtlessly more wonderful) authors.

I shudder as my fingers brush against thin volumes of Mary Oliver and T.S. Elliot; somehow The Wasteland and Other Poems is always hanging out beside A Poetry Handbook. But most of the books on these shelves make me happy, even when I already own them. Katie and I both sigh over the various books by Rainer Maria Rilke – “We have all these,” she says. We greet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Rumi, and the French poets with the same quiet enthusiasm: it’s encouraging to see old friends.

On a shelf with an unnecessary number of books by Billy Collins, I find a new arrival: Selected Poems of Robert Creeley. Though I haven’t read much Creeley, I met him in college through a jazz-major-turned-English-major friend. The same friend introduced me to this poem, by Ron Padgett –

Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.
Nothing in that drawer.

Katie and I pour over the Creeley, admiring the straightforward free verse, the clear font, the new smell, the bendiness of the pages. She flips it over:

“Thirty dollars.”

Depressed, we trudge away from the poetry section, ask a few questions at the service desk, and begin perusing the magazines. A writer friend has advised me to pick up a few poetry magazines so that I can see what kind of poetry they publish. Katie hands me a copy of The New Yorker and another of Poets & Writers Magazine. The Poets & Writers logo is large, difficult to miss. An elderly man walking past asks, “Oh, are you writers? Are either of you ladies writing books?”

I answer as Katie hands me two more magazines: “I write poetry and creative nonfiction.”

“Oh Lord!” he exclaims. He continues to walk away.

Feeling snubbed, I stare at Katie, who smiles encouragingly. I know she would stop to talk with a poet.

We end our shopping with coffee. I slide my writing magazines across the counter and ask the barrista if she has any seasonal flavors. She rattles off a list of options – espresso-flavored whipped cream, crumbled cookies, mocha-something – all available in icy blended drinks. Nothing sounds good to me. When poetry is slighted, hot coffee alone will soothe the sting.

So I invent a drink – a French vanilla latte with a hint of caramel. It’s warm and foamy, no whipped cream. I will call it the Rejected Poet.

Immortal Welcome

In my freshman composition courses, the students read a variety of scholarly articles, poems, short stories, style guides, and essays. During our discussion of the writer-reader relationship, I like to work in a chapter from Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. I choose the chapter “Communion: Nobody to Nobody,” in which Atwood attempts to answer three questions: 1) For whom does the writer write? 2) What is the book’s function or duty? and 3) Where is the writer when the reader is reading?

This chapter opens with a series of epigraphs about the nature of reading, writing, and stories. Introducing her guiding questions early on, Atwood takes the reader on a narrative meander throughout the text, stopping to smell the roses of several detailed examples before finishing with a personal anecdote about her first writer-reader relationship.

Atwood first suggests that writer and reader are both “nobodies,” each created by the other’s perceptions and expectations. The writer dreams of an ideal reader, the reader searches for clues about the elusive writer, and both communicate through the written text. With literary exploration and personal experience, Atwood arrives at the idea that writer and reader are, in fact, specific people with unique perceptions and motivations.

Though most students find the theory of Atwood’s chapter to be accessible, they are put off by its structure. Used to the solo lecturing voice of a thesis-driven essay, they become derailed by Atwood’s flowering examples and hefty epigraphs. They do not expect to find so many voices in one document, and they feel like strangers meeting strangers in the textual space.

I recognize the feature that alienates my students from Atwood’s writing as the one I treasure. The piece is an energetic, gloriously detailed conversation, the kind of talk I’d have with colleagues at a gathering for graduate students or the celebration of a poet’s birthday. Atwood’s piece accomplishes what all wholehearted English majors strive for; it creates a conversation space for the living and the dead. Her text is an endless party — the English major’s life-work in microcosm.

As an English major, I’ve never earned a reputation for wildness. I like to spend hours  with kindred spirits in musty used bookstores, fighting over the editions with the best old book smell. I wile away entire afternoons listening to grammar books with my assistive devices, annotating as I follow along in the print version. I write poems and share them with friends; we schedule revision dates where we read each other’s work and revise it line-by-line. I get excited about authors’ birthdays, especially Jane Austen’s in December. And now that I’m not taking classes, I beg my student-friends to tell me about the books they’re reading, the papers they’re writing. I want to hear fellow English majors describe their process of discovery – the in-class epiphany that stalls the note-taking pen, the sudden insight that interrupts the at-home reading, the excitement that accompanies a familiar pattern in a new context. I want to relive the moments of delight when I witnessed resonance on the page – when I discovered a contemporary theme in an ancient text.

In an essay from his book, Why Teach?: In Defence of a Real Education, Mark Edmundson describes the ideal English major as a person “unfinished,” constantly seeking transformation and “reincarnation” through the texts she reads. I see the work of the English major – if we even need to call it “work” – as an unfinished conversation, the determination to reanimate old or forgotten voices alongside the remembered ones. The desire to throw a good party across time and language.

Neither art nor the artist can make someone immortal; immortality belongs to the reader, the one who decides to welcome another’s work. By continuing to read, the English major bestows immortality on voices that have long since lost the need for breath. The attentive reader invites others to speak, to share her mind and body. While she lends her mind to another writer’s words, she recognizes who she is. No writer can ever overtake her because she is part of the conversation; her perspective expands, accommodates.

I’ve seen the same guests at my party for years – Austen, Tolkien, Woolf, Thoreau – but, like a good hostess, I try to expand my social circle. Recent partygoers include Vita Sackville-West, Amy Hempel, Laurie Colwin, E. M. Forster, and Jeanette Winterson—and they will definitely be invited again. Others, like Joseph Conrad or Daniel Defoe, will not.

Each of these authors has enriched me as a poet, an observer, a communicator. Still delighted and surprised by the timeless empathy of certain writers, I apply snatches of this ongoing conversation to my music or teaching. As writer and reader, I welcome the animating connection, the splendid life of texts.

Fear and Form

As a blind woman, I do not court silence. The absence of sound in the presence of other people often makes me apprehensive. With no audible messages, I’m left to wonder what others are thinking and doing. This anxiety intensifies when I stand before my students. Are my students texting? passing notes? sleeping? While they produce no sound, I cannot judge their mood or level of attention to my class.

But as a blind teacher, I must set aside my discomfort and learn to trust in silence, in its power to make students access their own thoughts and voices.  When I pose a question, I force myself to wait, to endure the swell of soundlessness that fills the room. I must be willing to exchange one kind of knowledge—the audible signals of my students’ activities—for the quiet in which ideas percolate. If I wait long enough, a student will speak.

Today’s lesson will put my resolutions to the test. My students are exploring the concept of metaphor through poetry, the genre that renders them mute and uncomfortable. I have given them a packet of eight poems:

My students rarely react positively to poetry. Intimidated, irritated, or apathetic, they resist all kinds of poems—from William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow” to Adrienne Rich’s “What Kind of Times Are These.” So I expect silence today; I pass out the poems, knowing that I’ll hear more groans than anything else.

Despite their resistance, I insist on teaching poetry because poetry uses language beautifully on a budget. The poems I choose are brief, employing metaphors in memorable ways. The nine lines of Plath’s poem each contain at least one metaphor, and Heaney’s “A Drink of Water” weaves metaphorical and narrative language so closely that students have difficulty pulling the strands apart.

In my morning class, I ask for student volunteers to read the poems aloud. We begin with Atwood’s four-line poem, in which she uses each new line to subvert the meaning of the previous one. After a student reads the work aloud, I ask, “So what is this poem about?” The predicted silence occurs, throwing the pen-clicking and paper-shuffling into high relief. I wait. I let the silence grow; I imagine that it fils every corner of the room, snaking around the desks and climbing up the walls. Eventually, a student responds—and the attitude of her comment overshadows its content. She offers half-sentences, stumbles over her words, backs up.

As we move through the poems, I notice the same reticence in other student responses. When we read “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” a student says, “I guess it’s about a guy talking to his father…or something…because his father is dying?” The student is right—and it seems like an obvious interpretation to me—but he doesn’t feel right. Something about the text alienates him, and I suspect it’s because we call this text a poem.

When we label these  texts as “poems,” students handle them with certain assumptions. Poems should be difficult. Poems should advance ambiguous meanings—meanings that directly oppose a student’s intuition. Convinced that some phantom authority knows “what the poem is really about,” students learn to distrust their gut reactions to poetry. And where there is no trust, there can be no love. Why should I be surprised that they don’t want to get to know these texts? They’ve been told that Poetry stands aloof: she won’t give you her number, she won’t ask you to dance, you’ll always look foolish when you approach her.

Even if my students aren’t preoccupied with being wrong about the poems, I consider that they may be overwhelmed by the task of interpretation. So I change the plan of action for my afternoon class. I divide the project of engaging with the poem into four key tasks: 1) reading the poem aloud, 2) identifying the prominent metaphors, 3) identifying the genre conventions (what makes this poem a poem), and 4) explaining “what the poem is about. A group of 4-7 students will handle each task, and students can place themselves in the group that best suits their skills. The first three groups fill quickly, but few students want to be in the fourth, where they are most likely to display their lack of interpretive skill.

We approach the poems in the same order, beginning with Atwood. After an eager volunteer  from Group 1 reads the poem aloud, I notice an immediate upsurge in student conversation. Group members are conferring, reacting, forgetting to be self-conscious in the presence of an instructor and an unknowable genre. We discuss Atwood’s four lines in a disorderly fashion, students from each group chiming in before I can call on them. A voice from Group 2, who should be identifying metaphors, goes for the poem’s meaning: “So, this isn’t a love poem! It’s like a hate poem! She’s irritated with this other person, right?” Other voices sound their agreement without waiting for me to verify the student’s interpretation.

After the reading of Plath’s “Metaphors,” where the speaker describes herself as “a riddle in nine syllables…an elephant, a ponderous house,”the room falls silent. Plath’s layered metaphors can be overwhelming, cryptic. But it’s not long before a student from the read-aloud group bursts through the quiet: “She’s writing about being pregnant!” While her peers react with loud disbelief, I ask, “How do you know that?” and the student takes the class through every line of the poem, pointing to Plath’s fruit and body imagery, use of “nines” (it’s a nine-line poem, and each line has nine syllables), and creation metaphors.

Though the group exercise does not transform all quiet students into fearless interpreters, I feel that it changes the mood of the classroom. Students are eager to complete their group’s task, to do right by their group members, and this solidarity distracts them from the habitual intimidation that poetry inspires. I hear more excitement in their observations. They are proud of locating obscure metaphors, of understanding that poems use stanzas, repetition, and unconventional word order. As they delight in fanciful interpretations, I enjoy listening to them play with poetry.

“Singing Over the Bones”: The Miracle of Art and Intention

If a friendship starts with a conversation about books, the two friends are hardly surprised when literature itself becomes a third, equal presence in the relationship. This is how things began for Katie and me. Katie became my first “college friend” when an orientation team leader asked her to look after me. Both Katie and I considered this an awkward arrangement; I felt like her baggage, and Katie felt like my babysitter. Without openly acknowledging the awkwardness, I took her elbow, and we tried to make small talk. In minutes, the all-important question arose: Do you like to read?

I cannot now recall which of us asked this question, but it sparked an enthusiastic discussion. After only a few sentences, we were excitedly trading literary recommendations, kindled by the realization of our mutual love of Jane Austen. Over the next seven years of our friendship, we’ve since encouraged each other to read hundreds of texts—from classical Chinese philosophy to modern poetry. We’ve reveled in wide-ranging discoveries—the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the folktales of medieval Iceland, and the latest books that blend neuroscience and the philosophies of yoga. When Katie gives me a book, I know it will challenge my mind and speak to my soul.

For my most recent birthday, she presented me with a copy of Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s 1975 work, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. It’s a thick volume – over 500 pages – that offers anthropological, psychological, and spiritual commentary on the female psyche and the power of storytelling. In its first pages, Estés introduces the story of La Loba, the Wolf Woman, a mysterious crone who wanders the world and collects the bones of dead creatures, especially wolves. When she has assembled an entire skeleton, La Loba begins to “sing over the bones,” and her singing transforms the skeleton into a living creature. With each line of melody, the Wolf Woman imbues the dead bones with life, adding blood, muscles, skin, and fur, until the creature begins to breathe and move. With purposeful singing, La Loba can resurrect any creature from this throwaway material “in danger of being lost to the world” – its bones (23).

It is the connection between singing, life, and intention that draws me to read on. After presenting the story of La Loba, Estés insists that we must all look for our own “bones,” the integral structures of our spirituality, the framework of our souls. She writes, “[The story] promises that, if we will sing the song, we can call up the psychic remains of the wild soul and sing her into a vital shape again” (24). For Estés, and for those who respect the story of La Loba, our life’s work is to uncover and nurture our deepest selves. We must find the bones and sing over them, crooning them to life.

I find this tribal story compelling because it reiterates, or perhaps predates, what I have learned through my experiences: singing changes the world of the singer. The cultures who believe in some version of La Loba are not the only ones to acknowledge the power of singing. Throughout my Catholic upbringing, the adults around me encouraged my love for singing, citing the mantra, “Singing is praying twice.” Whenever I performed sacred music – or choral music in general – my experiences confirmed the truth of this adage. I felt, as I have said in previous blogs, incredibly connected with my fellow singers and with the divine.

I remember when I first heard someone talk about the connection between art and life in specific terms. My tenth grade world history teacher showed slides of tribal artifacts from Africa and said, “These people didn’t believe in ‘life for art.’ They believed in ‘art for life.’” She meant that every tool for daily living, every piece of practical houseware, was covered with art: vivid colors, carvings, runes. The members of this tribe used art to infuse everyday life with meaning and beauty. No article went without embellishment.

Believing in “art for life” gives each person infinite possibilities for enriching their everyday experiences. In his Letters to a Young Poet, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke conveys his enthusiasm for this ideal; he argues that if you can’t find artistic inspiration, you’re not looking hard enough. Rilke teaches that the real artist can draw inspiration from the most ordinary experiences. The dedicated artist uses art to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary in the service of life—to make our existence more sincere, more real. To help us understand the unbearable and celebrate the miraculous.

But art is not always a miracle cure. In her exploration of animal and human emotions, behavioral analyst Patricia McDonald relates a story about Ella Fitzgerald, in which Ella’s singing brought to life some unexpected emotions. Apparently, after spending a year singing the lyric, “I’m so tired,” Ella began to experience chronic fatigue, but she didn’t unearth the connection between lyric and feeling until she discussed the situation with her doctor. Her repeated lyrics became a kind of incantation—though I’m sure her physician didn’t use that word—telling her how to live.

Lyrics contain a transformative power. Often at the end of rehearsal, my chorus members heed the call to “Circle up!” We join hands, making a human chain, and sing one of our many Sweet Adeline classics. To prepare for international competition in Hawaii, we currently favor “Aloha ‘Oe,” a beautiful Hawaiian parting song. But when I hear about Ella’s “I’m so tired,” I can’t help but think of one of our other favorites, “Harmonize the World.”

The skeptic in me wants to interrogate this song: Does it really work? Can lyrics really harmonize the world? But I silence the skeptic by remembering my bones. Singing is praying twice, and words have power. Then I feel that I am really doing something by singing over the bones of harmony, calling up from the dust of old chords a vision of a peaceful, civil world—a world of constant, contagious music.

Each time I prepare to sing, I ask myself a series of questions. What will I make with my music? What bones have I collected? What will I sing to life? I marvel at the miracles wrought by art and intention—the incredible changes in mood and circumstance that singing can achieve. I find power not only in the words I sing but also in the action of singing, in the sensation of being surrounded by kindred spirits, in the sheer, primal resonance of many voices making harmony. Even the mechanisms of singing are miraculous for me. I am delighted and absorbed in this spiritual task of finding my bones and my voice—of experiencing what I can build with my voice and my beliefs.