The Alchemy of Teaching Writing

It’s been a whirlwind semester, so far. In addition to reading and editing fiction submissions for Border Crossing with two wonderful internsI’ve been teaching two courses for the first time: a course on Responding to Writing for future teachers, and an intermediate creative writing course for majors and minors that is specifically designed to help students take risks in their writing, to encourage them to experiment in order to help them discover their voices.

Teaching the combination of these two courses for the first time together has brought some interesting insights. Much of the theory we’ve been reading for the writing response course discusses the importance of encouraging students to make their own decisions about their writing. Not only with regard to topic selection, but also with regard to choosing the best form to express their ideas, and even deciding what that best form is. English education scholars like Katie Van Sluys and Katie Wood Ray encourage teachers not to enforce their own aesthetics on students, but rather to ask students what they think makes good writing so that the students work on building their own aesthetics. In essence, good writing instruction is the ultimate panacea for the age-old complaint of the creative writing graduate: “What will I do when there are no more workshops?”

Ideally, we tell students, they should make friends with the other students in their program, so they can share their writing journeys and work. But post-graduation, the working writer most often makes decisions alone, in front of a glowing computer screen. And if what Walter Benjamin said about genre is true, that–

All great works of literature invent a genre or dissolve one.

Isn’t the core work of the creative writing teacher to foster a culture of experimentation, in which students are encouraged to take risks, so that they can work on developing and discovering their own voices?

The intermediate creative writing course I’m teaching this semester incorporates a collaborative–and rather experimental–performance project. I approached Lloyd Eddy, my colleague, the art professor at Lake State, before the beginning of the semester, looking for an opportunity for my students to collaborate with art students, and he invited me to come talk to him and Joshua Legg, our new dance professor, about a collaboration they were already planning. The three of us had an exciting discussion about the possibilities of a collaboration among students in all three disciplines, and I was really excited about the opportunity to collaborate with my colleagues. For years, I had made most of my decisions alone at my computer, and I’d never collaborated outside of my discipline.

At the beginning of the semester, we divided students into interdisciplinary groups, in which they had to decide not only the subjects for their collaborations, but what forms those collaborations would take. We formed a faculty group and met for weekly discussions, like our students, to deliberate about our own piece. This past weekend was the first dry run of the emerging collaborations, and I’m excited by the varied forms the groups have chosen. I got chills and tears in my eyes, more than once, as I watched the performances. There’s a dance in which a narrative poem torn into strips will be part of the costume of the dancer, draped over her dress and tied in ribbons throughout her hair; the final gesture of the dance is mirrored in a sculpture that will be projected onto the stage. Another dancer is using a spoken-word poem as her sound score; the artists in that group will exhibit a triptych of mixed media paintings. Joshua and Lloyd and I are making a film that explores the creative process through the visual imagery, gestures, and language of alchemy. It’s been so much fun to discover the similarities between all three art forms, to explore the creative process not only with words but also with art and dance. I’d forgotten how invigorating it can be to experiment together in the classroom and with my colleagues–who are brilliant and inspiring–and I can’t wait for rehearsals to start!

flyer by LSSU art student Rachael Hendges
flyer by LSSU art student Rachael Hendges

New Review: The Children’s War and Other Poems by Shaindel Beers

Tonight, I finished reading Shaindel Beers’ second full-length poetry collection, The Children’s War and Other Poems (Salt Publishing, 2013). It’s a book in two parts about a difficult subject — the effects of war and violence on children and society at large — but it’s also a book about the healing power of poetry and art.

The first part of the book contains poems based on the artwork of child survivors of war.  In one, “After a drawing by Mercedes Comellas Ricart,” Beers writes from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old survivor of the Spanish Civil War, imagining the reasons behind the artistic choices her speaker made in this piece:

The plane drops a single black tear of a bomb
that tears a hole in the mountains. The station
bell is mute next to the air raid sirens, and we run.
… [The train] is a ghost train, light gray
and see-through because we never got on. I didn’t finish
the tracks because I never learned where they would go.

Another poem, “Little Amira Honors Her Cat, Pepa,” is based on a drawing of a “family of fourteen hiding in a basement” with the speaker’s cat Pepa, who Little Amira claims  “himself was love.” This is why when she draws him, Beers has the girl explain, “his face is an orange heart. He is smiling / with his mouth and his eyes and his whiskers.” Yes, a grenade “blew open the shelter.” Yes, after the explosion, “the world/ became only Lejla and me…” But Amira “draw[s] Pepa over and over” to honor him, and looks to the future with hope, however heartbreaking that hope is: “When I grow up, I will own a pet store./ I will have ten cats named Pepa./ I will do a better job because/ I will be bigger.” Though Beers stares unflinchingly into the inhumanity and violence of war, over and over, she finds humanity and beauty in the artwork it inspires.

The second part of the collection plumbs the same psychic depths in the world at large, beginning with “Me Llamo,” a poem dedicated to Esteban Guerra, a little boy who believes he carries the guilt of the world’s wars because his name means war itself:

At Confession, he recited figures from every
war he could find in the encyclopedias his abuela kept
in the front room. Padre, I killed 500,000 in Spain
In the 1930s. And 750,000 in the American Civil War alone.

From Esteban, Beers moves to victims of domestic violence in the Midwest, a nameless sister who takes the blame for her brother’s death, a girl near Boston who is waiting for a kidney transplant. Scattered throughout these poems about contemporary American people are mythic poems exploring the violent depths of our collective consciousness: there is a poem from the point of view of a raped naiad, a narrative from Daphne of her transformation into a tree. There are poems inspired by art here, too, for example “After Doctor’s Orders,” a poem inspired by a fused glass sculpture by Tom Dimond, which takes as its subject a man-become-bird who “has felt the southern pull on him in fall,/the northern tug in spring…”

By the end of the collection, when Beers describes her son, Liam, staring up from “the orange hammock of his stroller” at the “bright blue field” of the sky, throwing his fists up, his small hands “opening and closing,” we understand exactly what she means when she says he is “trying to grab // the vastness.” Her poems do something similar: they reach into the dark with small hands to capture the vastness of the human spirit.

Mutations of Otherness at Woman Made Gallery

Sunday, I had the pleasure of reading with five other woman poets at the Woman Made Gallery in Chicago–I’m so grateful to Nina Corwin and the Gallery for organizing this reading in this amazing space. It was a wonderful experience to listen to and read with these other inspiring poets!

Pre-reading invocation with Nina Corwin (photo courtesy of Richard Rastall)
Pre-reading invocation with Nina Corwin (photo courtesy of Richard Rastall)
Reading from Wolf Skin (photo courtesy of Richard Rastall)
Reading from Wolf Skin (photo courtesy of Richard Rastall)
Poets Erika Sanchez, Janeen Rastall, Vandana Khanna, me, Yunuen Rodriguez, and Renny Golden (photo courtesy of Sandy Marchetti)

I had never been to the Woman Made Gallery before this weekend, but I will definitely make an effort to go back. I was blown away by the permanent collection, as well as the current exhibits, which will remain on display through June 26, 2014.

Upstairs right now is a solo show entitled “potbelly pin-ups: out of many one” by Shoshanna Weinberger (BFA Chicago Institute of Art, ’95; MFA, Yale ’03). A resident of New Jersey and native Jamaican, Weinberger displays here a series of pop surrealist images that interrogate pop culture definitions of beauty by juxtaposing icons traditionally associated with feminine beauty–such as lipstick, high heels, bras, and thongs–with grotesque mutations of the female form. Below is one of my favorite images from the series:

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Smoker (2014) by Shoshanna Weinberger

Downstairs in the space where the reading was held is an amazing group show on “Mutations of Otherness,” for which Weinberger served as juror. From Michelle Acuff’s tangle-horned stag that greets you as soon as you walk downstairs:

Surrogate by Michelle Acuff
Surrogate by Michelle Acuff (polystyrene, steel, porcelain, caution tape, lawn ornaments, cones)

to Cheryl Hochberg’s monstrous bird-goat-woman hybrid:

"Bertha's Monster" by Cheryl Hochberg
Bertha’s Monster by Cheryl Hochberg (pastel, painted fabric on paper)

to Lauren Levato Coyne’s wunderkammer or cabinet-of-curiosities images of female bodies (one of which pictures a fox peeking out of a woman’s belly):

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Self Portrait as Thief in the Night by Lauren Levato Coyne (graphite and colored pencil on Bristol)

each of these pieces provokes the viewer to reflect on her notions of beauty, femininity, the monstrous, fable, and myth. You don’t want to miss either of these shows if you’ll be in or around Chicago through the 26th!