Sunday, August 31, 2014

64 x 31 (August and Everything After)

Crescent moon approaching midnight
August quiet disappearing change
in the air arc
of the arrow bending
not down so much
as toward another target
not yet quite visible
but looming just beyond
the trees imagine time
standing in the shadows
a breath held long
enough to enter into
the dead calm darkness
outside, that now begins
its own slow respiration
under the silvered skies.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

64 x 30 (Faithful Place)

Early this week I read Janet Maslin's review of a new book by Tana French, in which Maslin suggests that Faithful Place is "still the most dazzling introduction to this author's talents." Got hold of a copy through the library. I'm about halfway through and am duly impressed. Interesting, complex characters tossed into a pressure cooker and shaken vigorously, generating a lot of drama.

Friday, August 29, 2014

64 x 29 (Priced Out of the Picture)

Visited a store downtown today, saw a competent little framed collage hanging on the wall. I asked the price. Saleswoman took it down and checked: $395. At $200, I would have thought about it. At $125, I would have bought it. Most of the artwork I see is overpriced by 100 to 200 percent, IMHO. Lower prices would put more art into more hands.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

64 x 28 (Guest Author: Theodore Roethke)

Child on Top of a Greenhouse

The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of grass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!

- Theodore Roethke

Process Reflection: Thought I'd look for a poem and maybe write about that for old times' sake, this being the first day of school. It wound up being an apt coincidence that this particular poem, with title and credit, adds up to exactly sixty-four words, so I decided to let Roethke be my guest writer today. Child on Top of a Greenhouse is one of the very first poems that I ever "taught" in any strategically systematic way. I was introduced to it by Barbara Helfgott Hyett, a Massachusetts poet-in-the-schools who was giving a workshop for elementary school teachers. She read it to us, then had us make observations about what we saw. Among the (many possible) observations, the fact that it is one sentence—a series of present-tense noun phrases, actually; lots of (almost exclusively) sensory details; the two carefully placed similes; the work that the title gets done; and perhaps most importantly, the fact that it is a memory poem conveying one particular (and emotionally charged) moment from the narrator's childhood (and, in this case, one in which he has done something he was not supposed to do). It's also noteworthy that the narrator does not detail what happens before or after the moment in question: there's one moment in the poem. 

Once we had read the poem, she asked each of us to think of an emotionally charged moment from childhood. She then read us a series of questions she had put together (see an elaborated list below). While she asked the questions we were just jotting down words and phrases that came to mind that were associated with the memory. Once we finished that, we went back and circled words and phrases that seemed were sensory-based, interesting in terms of their sounds and shapes, and true to the memory. Our assignment was to use the words we had circled, add any connective tissue, and write a one-sentence, seven-line poem entitled "Child _____________________."  It's close to a fail-safe assignment. I've used it with second-graders. I've used it with high school kids. I've used it with adults. 

That one exercise became a core tool in my toolbox as I went about the business of learning how to better engage students in the reading and writing of poems, and in reading and writing more generally. The lesson was a classic example of the read-as-a-writer, write-as-a reader cycle that eventually became the heart of my teaching methodology. I started out with six or eight of these sorts of exercises, and a folder of maybe twenty "teachable" poems. I wound up with a folder for each letter of the alphabet with hundreds of poems in each folder. 

This poem has always been fun to work with, both for me and for the students. Here's one student response that illustrates the kind of emotionally charged memory that it often elicits.

Child Tired of Losing

We raced to the playground. She won. She always won.
In front of us, the jungle gym.
The top was so high off the ground.
"Last to the top's a rotten egg!" yelled Jenny.
She started to climb. I started to climb.
She was ahead. She was going to win again.
So I pushed.

- - - - - - -
Steps in working through memory exercise:

1) Read model poem aloud.
2) Student reads model poem aloud.
3) What has the poet done
4) What line(s) do you like best? What images do you like?
5) Any questions about parts you do not understand?
6) Reread poem aloud.
7) Teacher may wish to share own memory at this point: "This poem reminds me of the time that I"
8) Ask student is to identify a particular memory and imagine being at the scene again. As you ask the following questions aloud, leading them through the memory, have students jot down notes on paper.. Not every question will have an answer. If a question does not seem to fit the memory, students should just wait for the next one.

Where are you? (If you were to find yourself there, how would you know where you were?)
What time of year is it? (How do you know?)  What time of day is it? (How do you know?)
What is the weather like?
Where is the light coming from?
Who is with you?  What are you wearing?
What can you see? Name some things you could you point to. Name some things you could touch.
What do the things you see remind you of?
What can you hear? What does each sound remind you of?
What can you smell? What does the smell remind you of?
How do you feel? Physical sensations? Emotions?
What is the most significant object in this memory? Describe.
Are any words spoken? Can you remember any of the exact words?
What actions or events take place? List them in order.
What color do you associate with this memory?  What animal? What plant?
How do you feel about this memory now? Sad? Embarrassed? Angry?
What is the most important thing about this memory?
Is there anything else that I haven’t asked about this memory that needs to be said?

9) Ask students to look at their lists and underline or circle any words or groups of words would be useful to them if they were to try to shape this memory into a poem. Then have them number the chosen items in the order in which they might come up.

10) Students draft the poem by writing out the selected words in the selected order, and adding anything that seems to be needed in the way of connecting tissue.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cosmo's Factory

One of my dad's hobbies was woodworking, and when I was a kid I had my own bench and tools as well, as I did later in the various houses we lived in in Massachusetts. In Hawaii we had a condo, so no room for woodwork. When I first moved to California one of my hopes was to eventually put together a little workshop in the garage. I had brought some tools with me, and had to buy some others for various reasons as we were setting up house. I found a guy down the street selling a table saw on Craigslist, bought that, and got it assembled. I recycled a damaged table top into a workbench. I put some more pegboard on the walls. I bought some clever plastic braces and some 2x4s and used them to put together some rudimentary but extremely strong shelving. I moved my easel down to the garage, and got some scrap wood at Fairfax Lumber, which has an area in the back that sells all kinds of gently and not-so-gently used building materials and furniture and random interesting stuff for short money. I had noticed that underneath the big saw they used for ripping wood for customers there were a lot of little end pieces, most no more than four or five inches long, and so last week I went back and asked the guy if I could toss some of them into a bin, and he said okay.

So over this last week I've been conducting my own private kindergarten class, with myself as chief instructor and sole student, just basically gluing things together out of scrap wood. I have long admired Louise Nevelson, particularly her amazingly ambitious and polished assemblages, and some of what I have been doing has been by way of preparing myself eventually to play a bit in her sandbox. I'm also interested in translating some of what I like about regular 2-D collage into 3-D collage. Now, as small experimental 3-D pieces (of the kind shown in the admittedly cheesy snapshot below) are starting to populate the shelves, the garage is beginning to feel more like a studio, and I'm starting to spend more time out there. Just in time: Winter is Coming.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

64 x 27 (Nightmare #3)

Dark window flame stretch back down grit
And stricken flagrant craven pander
Fallen posters ripped asunder master master
Grimy razor bite and bow and scrape forgo
Forgone enough for now and ever grasp
The ax and gaggle drowning black steam
Rising wheel and screech the crows
Are diving broken sheared rock headlong pierce
howling gnash the withered flesh the blade
comes down it's done.

Monday, August 25, 2014

64 x 26 (Any Old Kind of Day)

I was writing about today's ordinary pleasures, but kept hearing Harry Chapin's voice, singing it better:

It was just an any old kind of day
The kind that comes and slips away
The kind that makes up easy my life's time
The night brought any old kind of dark
I heard the ticking of my heart
Then why am I thinking something's left behind?

Process Reflection: Pretty much as advertised. It was that kind of day. I spent the end of the day yesterday and part of the morning today reading Ann Patchett's terrific memoir/essay Getaway Car. In the essay she has of interesting, practical things to say about the discipline of writing. Here's one example, from toward the end of the essay:

I was complaining that I’d been traveling too much, giving too many talks, and that I wasn’t getting any writing done. Edgar, who is a double bass player, was singing a similar tune. He’d been on the road constantly and he was nowhere near finishing all the compositions he had due. But then he told me a trick: He had put a sign-in sheet at the door of his studio, and when he went in to compose, he wrote down the time, and when he stopped composing he wrote down that time, too. He told me he had found that the more hours he spent composing, the more compositions he finished.

 Time applied equaled work completed. I was gobsmacked, and if you think I’m kidding, I’m not. It’s possible to let the thinking-about process become so complicated that the obvious answer gets lost. I made a vow on the spot that for the month of January, I would dedicate a minimum of one hour a day to my chosen profession. One hour a day for thirty-one days wasn’t asking so much, and I usually did more. The result was a stretch of some of the best writing I’d done in a long time, and so I stuck with the plan past the month of January and into the rest of the year. 
The thing about that kind of advice is that it has two kinds of impact. On the one hand, it's practical and potentially encouraging. On the other hand, it's strict and potentially guilt-inducing. I've read interviews with, and talked directly with, any number of writers who attest to the fact that writing is the hardest and most frustrating thing they can imagine doing, and yet at the same time the most enjoyable and rewarding. Patchett ends her essay on a similar note:

Do you want to do this thing? Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there. Think of yourself as a monk walking the path to enlightenment. Think of yourself as a high school senior wanting to be a neurosurgeon. Is it possible? Yes. Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found. Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.

So what does this have to do with my measly little 64-word posts in general, or this one in particular? Well, today was a very good day in which nothing of particular note got done. I have a number of projects I'm working on, and others in mind; on this particular Monday in August I didn't work on any of them. Now it's the end of the day and I'm trying to figure out how I feel about that, and that's what I was writing about in my journal when Harry Chapin's voice showed up in my head from all those years ago. I'm still learning how to inhabit my life as a retiree, how to be able to enjoy the days in which the ordinary things (making meals, walking the dog, taking a nap, reading) predominate, without worrying too much about what else, what other opportunities for progress on some larger scale, might be being left behind.

When I started this series of posts, my intention was to set a low enough bar (64 words per day) that I would be able to stay with it even on days when I might not have been moved to write. Insofar as that was the purpose, it's worked. I've been able to stay with it. And often, like tonight, what started out more than an hour ago as a report on an ordinary day has opened up to something larger. As Patchett points out, once you set the bar, however low it is, that gets you into your seat, there's the strong likelihood that you will end up doing more than you had anticipated. In this case, the 64-word post became the jumping-off point for a process reflection that led me into something else I had intended to write about eventually, Patchett's essay, which appears in a book of equally enticing essays called This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage. I happened across her book on a trip to the library late last week and it basically derailed all my other reading projects for the week. I recommend it to you heartily.

So now it appears I got something done today after all. I suppose if I were serious I'd have to go back and re-write this entire post and focus it one what it turned out to be about, rather than what I thought it was going to be about. I'm serious. But not that serious. I'm heading down the wooden hill. Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea.