Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Reader Response

I am, among other things, advisor to Ka Wai Ola, the Punahou literary magazine. We have six editors and a staff of about 20 readers, and we publish two issues a year, for each of which we receive anywhere from 100 to 300 submissions: writing, artwork, and photography. We print 2000 copies of each issue, and each issue has about 80 pages. It’s a pretty labor-intensive process.

Because Ka Wai Ola prints only about one in five of the submissions it receives, it comes in for the usual kinds of criticism from those students whose work is not chosen. There is, perhaps inevitably, a perception out there (it’s been around for longer than the eight years I have been advisor) that the choices the editors make are either arbitrary at the one extreme or prejudiced at the other.

We’ve worked pretty hard to create a process that is fair. We’ve refined and codified it so that it at least aspires to objectivity. Each submission is printed out, without the name of the author, given an ID number, and stapled to a sheet of heavy paper with spaces for five readers to indicate whether they think the piece should appear in the magazine or not, and why. After each piece has been read by five different students (who must sign off on their comments), the entries are sorted into three piles: a small pile of pieces with unanimous support, a somewhat larger pile of pieces with no support at all, and a rather large pile, perhaps 75% of the total, which are getting a mixed reaction. A lot of the reading takes place in the reference room of the library, where the folder of submissions is kept on file. Ten or twelve or our meetings are given over to discussion of the maybes. I shrink the entries on a Xerox machine to the point where they are just barely readable and then paste up sheets with as many entries as possible on each sheet. We run off copies so everyone at the meeting can see what is being read. And then we read each one out loud, talk about its plusses and minuses, and then vote on whether to accept the piece. Once the pieces are chosen, we lay the magazine out using inDesign, proofread it about six times, and then send it off to the printer.

The discussions are the most interesting and problematical part of the process. It is unusual for all of our staffers to be able to attend any particular meeting, so the mix of students varies. Sometimes we have people who are new to the process. There’s a mixture of older and younger students, and often no real common sense of what makes a piece of writing good. Some students very quietly make amazingly perceptive and helpful comments; others loudly make completely evaluative statements that flatly contradict the evidence of their senses. I have heard students praise a list of abstractions for its descriptiveness, and criticize minute description for its vagueness. I have heard students praise the structure of pieces which had none, and criticize highly organized pieces for their lack of logic. I have, on one memorable occasion, listened as a student complained about a poem because it had the word “ladder” in it.

I go into every meeting promising myself that I am going to stay out of the conversation and let the students work things out on their own. In previous years I have broken my promise more often than I kept it; if students were willfully misreading a piece or being manifestly unfair in their judgement of it, I felt I could not in good conscience sit there and let them deep-six the piece. And I would like to believe that in my capacity as advisor I may be able to help our student readers learn something about reading well, and perhaps try to move them along in that process, rather than confirm them in their sometimes bizarre notions of What Makes Writing Good. (There’s been a longtime conversation in the department at large about WMWG. At one end of this conversation is the principled position is that if a student thinks what he has written is good, it is good. At the other end of this conversation is the principled position that there objective indicators of goodness in writing, that we know what they are, and that we need to help students interiorize and aspire to those standards. But unpacking that conversation is a blog for another day.)

This year, so far, after three meetings, I’m doing a little better, mostly because we have a large quotient of seniors on the staff and they’re doing a pretty good job of helping to shape the discussions. But I’ve been tempted. And so that’s one dilemma I’ve been thinking about: how long do we as teachers let students flail around and go down false trails and get themselves into awkward places before we step in and say, “Hold on.” In the classroom it’s one thing. As the teacher I reserve the right to step in and do some instruction when it’s called for. With the literary magazine, it’s a little dicier. I don’t see the literary magazine as my magazine, and I don’t want the students to see it as my magazine. But left to themselves, they will often make bad decisions based on bad or careless thinking, and those decisions will result in unfairness to the students who have submitted their work. There have been any number of occasions when I have taken a piece the students have already rejected and done something as simple as reading it aloud myself (the student readers are often flat-out terrible oral readers, which means that the piece is not going to be judged on its merits, but on the basis of a garbled reading which does not put the piece in its best light). At other times I have simply overruled the editorial board, a move which (again, predictably) some editors seem to understand and accept, and others go into a seething fury over. But I figure, this magazine is going out with my name on it, and there are some kinds of things that I’m not going to endorse.

Traditionally, Ka Wai Ola readers tend to respond positively to a certain kind of writing: a short piece, readily understandable on first reading, with some sort of hook or joke or clever bit at the end. They tend to be impatient with longer, more complex, or more highly textured pieces, as well as with pieces that resist their readerly inclination to resolution. If they don’t get it right away, they tend to assume that the piece is not good.

Yesterday, there was a particularly interesting test case. It’s a poem that some of the students really liked, and some of the students really disliked. After the discussion was over, the vote came out exactly even: 4 yeas, 4 nays, with several abstentions.

Devo Andare Adesso

My lips are red as Chinese lacquer
(they say Chinese lacquer is an aphrodisiac)
Scream, don’t sing, sweet-smelling sour
Poisonous, my candy apple

My voice is licorice aftertaste
The Cheshire Cat ate licorice as he watched the Aurora Borealis
His smile lingering like an aftertaste that never went away
Well, one day it went away

If you want some brownies
Let me know, and we’ll get hyphy—
Something about the powdered sugar messes with your dopamine
The life and times of a lipstick librarian
(probably a lesbian)

I will brave the coast of Cote d’Ivoire
And glamorous African men will love me as you love Yoko
But that will never do
Because you can’t love anyone fully in the 21st century
Everybody knows that

Devo andare adesso,
(I must go now)
Fluorescent lights gossip and whisper,
Winking at mirrored walls and mirrored floors,
And in the reflection there are lips
Red as Chinese lacquer.

This really is an interesting case. It’s a poem which is highly organized but almost willfully obscure. At times it seems to be suggesting a sort of plot line, at other times it seems to be undercutting that expectation. Is the hopscotch logic playful, or mere self-indulgent? Do the syntactic leaps (“Scream, don’t sing, sweet-smelling sour poisonous, my candy apple”) create an interesting field of energies for the mind to play in, or are they just pointless and confusing? Is the offhandedness (“something about the powdered sugar messes”) evidence of calculation or carelessness? There’s certainly a sense that the author had a strong sense of what s/he was doing—especially for a high school student—but what does it do for us, for you?

So I’ll put the matter in your hands, gentle reader. Is this a poem that interests or satisfies you? Would you vote yes, or no? Why or why not? Comments accepted below.


C. Watson said...

I'm voting yes. All the questions you've posed, I think, could go either way. But the poem strikes me as a kind of landscape of the 21st century that's stylistically appealing and pretty accurate. There's the sexualization in the first two lines: "lips are red as Chinese aphrodisiac." Then it hints at what I think your post describes, some kind of confusion about what is good, what is quality: "scream, don't sing." And I like the allusions to the comic, comical, and cosmic:"candy apple," "Cheshire Cat," and "Aurora Borealis." In our world, it's hard to delineate. In the third stanza, the narrator seems to try to escape this landscape, only to become a stereotype, the lipstick lesbian. And by the last stanza, there seems to be an escape, but maybe not the one the narrator wanted. The human is absent, only left with the lacquer, the flourescent, and the reflections.

Axis Infinite said...

I'm voting yes, even if it were not well written, well put together and interesting (which it is), the fact the word "hyphy" gets used at all within a strucutred scenario gets the "my generation" vote.

timothy said...

I've only read it twice, but each time it said something more to me -- or I got something more out of it. Each stanza, with the exception (arguably) of one has to do with the mouth -- what it does, how it looks, what it says: the poem kind of provides a geography of the oral part of our bodies, and begins and ends with lips. Which seems appropriately adolescent to me: older people might say, "we are what we eat" but teenagers might say, "we are what we put on our lips." And I love the mischief of the poem. It seems to describe a rascal, and it acts rascally toward the reader...teasing, just as lips do. But the teasing seems intentional. The problem with the task of Ka Wai Ola editors is that they have to read with an idea of voting yea or nay instead of just saying what the poem did to them. I don't have to do that, so I'm not voting. But I'll say I liked the way the poem involved me in its lippy mischief.

efoster said...

absolutely, yes.
as Marianne Moore says of poetry in "Poetry", "We do not appreciate what we do not understand" and then delineates brain sense ("real toads") from soul sense ("imaginary gardens") and tells us to go ahead and embrace what we may not totally either underststand or appreciate. This poem has both soul sense and brain sense (which c. watson delineates and demonstrates). In fact I like the poem in all of its images and confusions, confessions and imaginings. And since I, too, always wonder where in heaven or hell Maoli is, and worry that someone will catch me thinking I Know -- or pretending I even have a Clue -- or rejecting a Maoli-moment -- whatever small glimmerings or imaginings drop near me I feel blessed by. [Of course librarians everyplace besides on Maoli will wonder if they are being called lesbians -- so what? With any luck some of us will accept lesbian lipstick librarians for what we are: real toads in imaginary gardens.] Yum.

L. Cowell said...

Intriguing poem, indeed. I had to Wikipedia "hyphy"!--not in my Gen-X lexicon. The writer has consciously made an effort to be literary, given the wonderful sound of Stanza 1, l. 3-4, and the personification in l. 3-4, last stanza.

If a poem, however, is "a constellation of ideas",this piece, in its current incarnation, feels like a work in progress--some bright stars, but I'm not sure the stanzas add up to a coherent, unified whole. Reading it aloud, I thought the rhythm and sound felt inconsistent--Stanza 2 has diction choices that are repetitious and leaden. Wondered: who's the intended audience? Who's the poet attempting to communicate with, and what was his/her desired effect on readers? Is this poem supposed to speak to a broad audience?

shyrl said...

i like the poem; it reminds me of Lorca...

Andrea said...

I'm voting yes, and even though there's a possibility that I might be biased, I'm going to try not to be. I completely agree with c.watson's comment, and also the the fact that the writer of this piece obviously put a lot of thought and work into it in that it is highly organized and creative. The piece not only maintains my attention for its entirety but also gives the reader a fresh outlook on modern day life, especially through the eyes of a teenager - which then makes it relateable and enticing to Ka Wai Ola's main audience, the Academy students. (This maybe can answer l. cowell's question of who the target audience is--for me it seems to be teenagers, and since I am one myself I feel that if the audience is just that, the piece communicates quite efficiently.) I didn't feel as much confusion and emptiness as some people had commented on during discussion. In fact, the repetition of the mentioning of lips and having the title in the last stanza allowed for the piece to have more closure.

Bruce Schauble said...

Hmmm. I think it's interesting that all of the comments so far are either enthusiastically in favor or supportive in a qualified way. I've had discussions in other contexts with readers whose judgment I respect, who have expressed reservations of various kinds.

For example, one said "The reason students – especially very bright students – tend to deliberately obscure their meanings in poetry writing is because of some of the poems they have been assigned to read and, more significantly, because of the way they have been taught to appreciate those poems - subconsciously reifying obscurity and cleverness as primary virtues."

Perhaps because most (well, all) of those responding so far are educators or editors, we are reluctant to say anything—especially in this kind of public forum—that might be construed as a discouraging word, especially since there's an outside chance that it might get back to the writer and perhaps hurt his/her feelings and/or discourage the writer, which is the last thing that any of us would want to do, since even in the worst-case scenario, this is clearly a writer worth encouraging.

But I'm wondering if there is anyone out there willing to take a shot at articulating, for the sake of instruction for all of us and constructive criticism for the author in question, the case against this kind of writing.

Traci Young said...

I'm feeling a bit intimidated to admit that I don't understand this poem. After reading the varied responses, I am filled with doubt: Maybe I'm just not hip enough or erudite enough to get it. In fact, the poem itself leaves me feeling like I am on the wrong side of a locked door.

For the sake of continuing the discusiion, I'll risk exposing myself as a possible rube and attempt to articulate some issues I have with the poem.

The poem clearly displays wit and a love of language, and it has an admirably sassy and savvy voice. I like that about it. If I were to hazard a guess at the insight/soul/theme of the poem, I'd say it has something to do with a jaded attitude toward love/partying/hooking up ... but I am not sure. I am guessing based on some of my personal associations with the images in the poem, and based on the ideas expressed in some of the comments on this blog as well. If that is, indeed, what the poem is attempting to express, I think it might accomplish that more powerfully -- more clearly -- by cleaning up some of the obfuscations that only serve to alienate me as a reader.

3rd stanza: We have some brownies and an invitation to go hyphy, which seems to be about letting loose and getting crazy, but then -- seemingly out of nowhere -- in pops a lipstick librarian (lesbian). I can GUESS at what the speaker means here, but I'm ultimately unsure, and then I spend all of my energy wondering what it means instead of feeling impacted by the words.

Additionally, because the writer seems to be relying on the reader to make personal associations with the images (brownies, powdered sugar, lipstick librarian, lesbian) and connect the dots on his/her own, the writer runs the risk of the reader making associations that the writer did not intend. This could radically change the meaning of the poem. For example, what do you imagine when you imagine a librarian? I have plenty of friends who are librarians and they all look different. Is the writer referring to the stereotype of the sexy librarian (remove glasses, release hair from bun & yeehaw!) or the stereotype of the schoolmarm librarian (dowdy cardigan, glasses on chain, continually shushing people) or something else altogether? As it's currently written, depending on the reader's life experience and imagination, the last two lines of stanza 3 could mean different things to different readers. The proximity of the words "lipstick" and "lesbian" (a nod to the phrase "lipstick lesbian") DO kind of point the reader in a direction in terms of how to imagine this librarian (providing the reader is familiar with the phrase), but then how does it all add up?

4th stanza is similarly problematic in that I am wondering what the Ivory Coast has to do with Yoko (Ono, I presume) and some sort of comment on the lack of connection in modern romance. I am also wondering "Why the Cote d'Ivoire?" (is there a purpose behind using the French name and why focus on this particular place of all places) (I am also distracted by the repetition of "coast" in that line, albeit in two different languages). So there are some potentially interesting ideas, but they seem ineffectively thrown together. I wonder what would happen if the writer selected one of these images/ideas and focused on fleshing it out...

On a more personal note, I have noticed that my expectations as a reader have been shifting in recent years. The books (and poems) I love tend to be written without a lot of fanfare -- just clear, honest, visceral writing. I am not as thrilled by (or as tolerant of) gratuitous cleverness as I used to be. This isn't to say that this student's poem is gratuitously clever, but it might help explain my personal reaction.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the poet is trying to write in a that certian Dionysus type style that SO many people do. This type of writing is def. steriotypical and though it makes you think (about why you don't understand it)I don't think this poem has a clear conclusion, or journey. It absolutely has beautiful ideas, and the words are put together nicely, but it misses the point, any point. The poet has great potential, no doubt, but they lack a direction in this poem. It sounds pretty when I read it, but in the end, it leaves me feeling empty and confused, waiting for the proverbial punch line.