Summer Bones

Typically when people go to a flea market, especially one of the biggest flea markets in the city, they pick up vintage dresses or comic books or a jar full of glass marbles all colors of the rainbow.

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What did I buy? A cow skull. To be honest, I was between cow and coyote, but ultimately, the cow seemed more impressive.

I have a thing for bones. I don’t know where it comes from, but I’m a bit of a scavenger of the natural world anyway. I have several, what my husband calls, curiosity jars that are full of seed pods and birds nests and stones of all shapes and sizes.

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I feel like I spend a lot of time “collecting,” whether it be physical items or just cataloging images, ideas, thoughts in my head. This is often how a poem starts for me, from one of “my collections” I pull something out and start to draft. I don’t really feel like there is any consistency to these collections while I’m cataloging items, but when go back and look at the drafts I’ve generated I realize that there are definitely common themes or images. Sometimes an item in my collection will sit in my brain or journal for a really, really long time before I do anything with it, but eventually it makes it way out onto the page.

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The last few months I’ve only drafted, sometimes badly, and not revised much. I wrote poems in April for National Poetry Month. I wrote poems in May and March and February. All drafts are rough, but they exist and now it’s time to figure out if they’re ever going to move beyond being an item in a collection. It turns out this past fall/spring semester I was thinking a lot about children, which isn’t surprising given as I have a two year old of my own. These drafts contain items from many other collections as well: lines from Elizabeth Bishop poems, red sweaters, blueberries, salt water, olive trees, sparrow, lines from Sappho, and on and on and on. I don’t know where a lot of these drafts are going or truthfully, if they’re going anywhere, but I suppose failed drafts are just another collection, right?

National Poetry Month 2017

It’s April 1st. The tulips that I planted last fall are starting to bloom despite being ravaged by squirrels. The flowering trees are out in a full force and we’re in the final month of the spring semester. It’s also the first day of National Poetry Month and I’m writing a poem a day. Again.

This year I’m writing with prompts supplied by the wonderful and excellent Two Sylvia’s Press and I’m going to try to keep updates flowing through my blog.

This morning I woke up to this prompt: “Write a persona poem from the point of view of a historical figure that has time traveled to this year and is shocked by what he/she sees.”

The idea for this one came pretty quickly as I’ve been thinking about a poem that already kind of fits these criteria. I doubt subsequent poems will come as easy.

The content of poem number one involves a college classroom, grass, geese, a magnolia tree, fluorescent lights and a man with one excellent beard.

Missing in Medea: Looking for Glauce

So my sister and I are writing together this summer. We’ve written on and off prompt and shared some drafts and it’s been pretty great. Sometime last week, she sent a text reading:

You are a private investigator. You’ve been following a c heating husband for a month. Write a report to your client-an emotionally unstable wife-telling her what you did and what you learned. 

I would like to take this opportunity to say that when I skip off a prompt, I skip hard, which is what happened here, but I ended up drafting a poem anyway, so win!

I started thinking about cheating spouses and then I started thinking about famous couples in literature and my mind landed on Medea. This isn’t as random as it may sound. I teach a section of World Lit every other semester, so this past spring I was deep in this very play for a few weeks. I like Medea for a lot of reasons, but what it really comes down to is that I find the portrayal of women to be both fascinating and terrifying.

It would be fair at this point to make the assumption that maybe I drafted a poem about Medea, but that’s not what ended up happening, because as it turns out, there’s another woman I find even more interesting.

Glauce, Princess of Corinth, who is to marry Jason, turned out to be the subject of my poem. This woman, who dies at the hand Medea, for doing nothing other than what she is told, has no lines in the entire play. As a result, she is not listed in the list of characters nor is she really acknowledged in way other than from the words that come out of other character’s mouths. Incidentally, most of the characters who speak of her specifically, are male.

Whenever I teach this play, there’s always heated discussion about Medea as victim or perpetrator and my students always have interesting things to say about her, but no one ever speaks of the princess. It’s as if she is nothing more than a plot device

This is all to say, I started thinking about how Glauce may have felt upon seeing Jason and Medea and their boys arrive in Corinth. What would she know of Jason? Of Medea? Would she be afraid? Would she trust her father? Would she resent him? Would she admire Medea? Would Medea disgust her? Would Jason?

As a final note, after reading the play again, I surfed around online and was able to find several, beautiful, haunting depictions of Medea in classic art, but none, not a one of Glauce. Voiceless and faceless, this young woman who died wearing a dress made of gold.

 

 

Writing in a Roofless Church

This is how my husband explained my trip to New Harmony, IN to his sister: “Yeah, she’s going to this place in the southern part of the state where there was this religious cult…”

Rest assured, friends, I’m back and I did not join a cult. I did spend a week in the small town of New Harmony sleeping in a bunk bed, wandering around in the rain and writing. I did a lot of writing. This opportunity to stage my own mini-retreat came in the guise of chaperoning a group of twenty some honors students for their “domestic travel study,” a requirement for their degree.

New Harmony is a fascinating place, and while I’m not going to get into the history here in this post, because it is long and convoluted and really odd, you should totally spend some time there if you ever get the chance. The way I explained it to my parents was, the Harmonists started off in Pennsylvania waiting for Jesus. He didn’t show up, so they moved to Indiana. He didn’t show up there either, so they went back to Pennsylvania, at which point they all died out because they believed in celibacy. The result is this beautiful, bucolic, kinda creepy little town in southern Indiana that was restored starting in the 1970s. Obviously there’s more to it, but you get the idea.

On Wednesday morning I took my students to a series of spots around town and we read some poetry: “Sleeping in the Forest,” by Mary Oliver, “Water Picture,” by May Swenson & “Bringing Things Back from the Woods” by David Shumate (to name a few). One of the places we visited was called the Roofless Church, and when I scouted locations for possible poetry drafting, this place seemed perfect.

The church is essentially a large, open area courtyard and it is roofless because the benefactor, Jane Blaffer Owen and the architect, Phillip Johnson, decided that “only one roof—the sky—can encompass all worshipping humanity.” The space is primarily dominated by a dome that “was built in the form of an inverted rosebud, tying it to the New Harmony Community of Equals, whose symbol was the rose.”

The students and I talked craft for about fifteen minutes and then I sent them off on their own for about twenty minutes to see what they could come up with on their own. It’s important to stress we were just free writing, so I encouraged them to write about whatever they wanted as long as it had something to do with our surroundings. We repeated this process at two other locations and then shared some of what we wrote.

I was so taken by the roofless church that I went back the following morning and wrote for two hours. By the end of my time, I had the sketch of a poem and by the time we left New Harmony on Friday afternoon, I had a full draft. This may not seem like a big deal to some, but I’m a notoriously slow writer, so the speed at which this poem came to me made me happy. I worked on the piece a bit more this afternoon and I’m really liking it so far.

The moral of the story? Apparently traveling to once strange, utopian communities can be be good for the creative mind. Of course, it could be the simpler idea that a change in scene and some time to think is usually a good thing.

 

 

 

 

 

Trigger Warnings in the Creative Writing Classroom

This past week several articles have circulated the internet regarding “trigger warnings.” The most prevalent is Jennifer Medina’s piece, Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm, which appeared in the New York Times. Not soon after that article ran, a response came in David L. Ulin’s post A Warning about Trigger Warning, which appeared on the LA Times website.

This issue interests me because I am an educator but also because I have a lot of students who have suffered a variety of traumatic incidents and they often write about those incidents in my class. When we begin to delve into the genre of creative nonfiction, typically the floodgates open and I receive essays and memoirs that concern but are not limited to sexual abuse, domestic violence, post traumatic stress syndrome, drug abuse and homelessness. More often than not, my class is the first time they have disclosed any of these traumas in any kind of detail, and while it usually appears first in the written word, it will usually become (if the student chooses to) more of a public event when the piece of writing moves into the workshop space.

The reason I find this to be an interesting piece of the argument is that most of the blog posts and articles that I’ve read have put trigger warnings in the context of literature texts that would appear on a syllabus. The most common examples I’ve seen are The Great Gatsby (issues of violence; alcoholism; misogyny) and The Merchant of Venice (anti-semitism). However, no one is talking about this issue as it pertains to writing courses (or at least I have yet to see anyone talk about it) and I think it brings up some interesting questions.

For example, should my veteran student from Afghanistan be asked to put a trigger warning on his personal essay about sniper shooting? Should my female student be asked to include a warning at the beginning of a poem she wrote about a sexual assault? Should my other student be asked to include a warning at the beginning of a short story that graphically details a character struggling with addiction? Also, should I ask these students to put trigger warnings on their work so I will be prepared to read this material?

It is true that my syllabus for my creative writing courses contains some reading that could be “triggers.” The first story that pops to mind is Incarnations of Burned Children by David Foster Wallace, but there are others. I don’t put warnings on my syllabus. I never have. I don’t ask students to put warnings on their work. I always begin the semester by emphasizing to students that there will be work that they will read that they will not like (for whatever reason) but a just because they have a negative response to it, doesn’t mean that they can’t learn or take something valuable away from that piece of writing.

I would also say that if a student is brave enough to share a deeply traumatizing event with a class through a piece of writing, they should be encouraged and applauded for their courage. At the same time, we as members of the classroom community, have the duty to read and respond thoughtfully about the work they have put out into the public space.

I agree with Meredith Raimondo, associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Oberlin College, who was quoted in Medina’s article as saying ““I quite object to the argument of ‘Kids today need to toughen up,’ ”  This is insensitive and more to the point, it doesn’t solve the problem. There are students entering our educational institutions that have experienced extreme trauma, and we have to figure out how to best serve them in the classroom. However, I wonder if placing warning labels over literature and possibly other student writing is giving them enough intellectual credit.

My students are often troubled by Wallace’s portrayal of the family in Incarnations of Burned Children, but while they acknowledge that the story is disturbing, they also understand why it is important not only because of its content but also because of its structure and style. They also begin to learn that being disturbed and uncomfortable can lead to greater learning and avoiding these pieces of writing because they have been “warned” may do more harm than good. I would even go further to say that many times when a student finds a piece of work that breaks into their own personal trauma, they often find an ally. Not an obstacle. They find a poem or an essay or a short story that speaks to their struggle, and in that way they begin to find their own voice and in that voice, sometimes they begin to heal.