Monday, January 31, 2011

Walrus vs. Eggman

Working with my Creative Writing 1 class on a couple of things -- what Richard Hugo calls "writing off the subject" and I call "writing away from the subject," and learning how to talk about literature. One of my frequent first assignments is to write a poem that doesn't mean anything, and I often follow that up by assigning peer critiques, in which they have to find meaning in each other's meaningless poems.

Being able to do peer critiques of each other's work doesn't come naturally -- the language of criticism has to be learned, as does the confidence that ond can find something to say. So I spent today splitting the class up into small discussion groups, and asking each group to come up with an interpretation of this:

Now, John Lennon wrote "I Am the Walrus" in response to a letter he'd gotten from an old teacher, telling John that he was having his students analyze Beatles songs. John's response was essentially "Oh yeah? Analyze this!" He wrote "I Am the Walrus" quite deliberately to have no meaning, and therefore to be analysis-proof. But that's never stopped anyone from analyzing it, and I got some really nice results.

A couple of groups noticed that Lennon puts himself together with everyone else (he's the eggman, but so is everyone else) and apart at the same time (he's the only walrus). One group suggested that the eggmen referred to the larval state of human spiritual development -- none of us have advanced past being eggmen -- except, or course, the walrus.

Another group focused on "sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun to shine" -- the sun is enlightenment, and perhaps they're waiting on an enightenment that never comes. Or maybe it does -- the waiting itself is the enlightenment -- you get a tan from sitting in the English rain.

Another group pointed out the sterility of official answers -- the expert textperts, the answers of organized religion like Hare Krishna -- and maybe Catholicism, if the penguins are nuns -- and suggested Lennon was saying the real spiritual answers come from babies -- goo goo goo joob.

One group said -- and this was really stretching, but I wanted them to stretch, to think outside the box -- that if you take on O out of "joob" it becomes "job" -- jobs are nonsense, like the guys in the corporation T shirts.

So I was pleased -- I got what I was hoping for -- imaginative, inventive thinking.

Friday, January 28, 2011


My first assignment for Creative Writing 1 -- write a poem that's 3 stanzas long, 5 lines per stanza, 8-12 syllables per line, each stanza featuring assonance and governed by a different vowel sound.

And it can't mean anything.

The idea -- start thinking about process, rather than message.

The first problem -- students confused assonance with rhyme, or mostly thought that they had to use rhyme. My fault for not making that clear. So I'm having them do it again.

Second problem -- how do you write a poem that doesn't mean anything? Of course, you can't. So all too many of them ignored that part of the assignment. But it's possible to try to write a poem that doesn't mean anything.

Then what do we do with a poem that doesn't mean anything? We make it mean something. That's what we do. Our minds are meaning-generating, connection-making machines.

Stanley Fish has an interesting essay on this, although that's not really his point.

Anyway, for my next class, I'm going to bring in a famous example of a poem that was deliberately written not to mean anything, and split up my class into groups, and have them come up with meanings for it.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Happy Birthday Bobby "Blue" Bland

From my pal Ken Kogan on Facebook, a reminder that it's the birthday of this blues great, and Ken posted a link to Mr. B doing this number:

Bobby Blue doing a Merle Haggard song and making it sound great. And isn't that the greatness of this wonderful art form that's our cultural heritage, our pride and joy? As Huck Finn says, the flavors are all swapped around. How about the Everly Brothers doing Ray Charles?

Or Sam Moore and Conway Twitty doing a duet:

Notes on persona and revision

When I write a poem, no matter how personal it is, when I get it down on paper (or computer screen) and start to revise it, I depersonalize it. The poem may say "I" on the page, but I think "he." I'm aware that the person in that poem is a character I've created, a fictional character--a persona. So when I'm critiquing a poem, I'll always refer to "the speaker," or "the character," or "he" or "she" -- never "you." It's not you any more, no matter how much it may be based on you. It's a character you've created. And as you revise, your responsibility is not to keep that character true to you, but to make that character true to his/her own self.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Cold Hard Facts of Life

This is one of my favorite album covers ever. I couldn't find a jpg of the back cover, but it's the same scene, this time shot from behind Porter, showing the cheating couple from his POV.

Fucking your sister

Since I haven't taught a section of creative writing in a while, and perhaps I've lost some of my edge, I decided not to start out the semester with the fucking-your-sister exercise (well, I don't actually call it that when I give it), although former student Ian Brent tells me on Facebook that it was one he really liked – “I appreciated it as a great way to knock us off our horses right out of the gate, so to speak. It was a great way to look at our writing habits and thought processes without a whole lot of time for us to think about it.”

I'm sure I've blogged about this before, but since I haven't blogged about anything in a long time, I'll start off with this again, since it's on my mind. Here it is:

Write a letter to someone -- you choose who, real or imaginary -- but it's someone you, for purposes of the exercise, you haven't talked to in a few years. You're filling this person in on what's been happening to you, and what's been happening to you is not so good. You have a twin sibling -- probably, though not necessarily, of the opposite sex, and your twin committed suicide a year ago by jumping off a cliff.

It was a terrible tragedy, but you know you need to put it behind you and move on with it. But your mother can't move on -- she keeps taking you back to the cliff, and asking why it had to happen. And the worst part of that is, you know something that might possibly explain it, but you can't tell her: just a couple of days before the suicide, your twin came into your room and had sex with you.

You were maybe half awake -- it was like a dream, but you know it really happened. But you're not sure of anything more than that. You're not even quite sure whether you were forced or willing.

That, I tell them, is your assignment. You can turn it in and leave when you finish it, and we'll talk about it next time.

This only works as an in-class assignment given verbally – written out, as it is here, the information is too concrete. I don't repeat any of it. And I do it on the first day of class, when they don't know me at all, or what to expect of me. Heh heh.

What we talk about next time is not what they've written, but the experience or writing it. How did they feel about the assignment -- what, if anything, was difficult about it, what -- if anything -- was fun or interesting or challenging about it?

I get a range of answers, but generally they're something like this. Difficult -- the subject matter; deciding what tone to take; imagining it happening – and just the organization. Fun – the challenge to the imagination, the chance to write something taboo.

Anyway, what it all adds up to, and this is the reason I give the exercise, outside of a natural tendency toward sadism, is that basically, this is what poets do. We deal with emotionally dangerous or unexplored areas, we imagine ourselves in situations that challenge us – and there's a thrill in doing it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Establishing a space

A family challenge we've just started -- answering a writing challenge. This one from my brother Jon:

Establish a room or space. It can be anything from a closet to a large public space. Locate it temporally and geographically. Introduce a character into the space. Have the character alter the space in some way, and then leave.
And here's mine:

Steven Hawking says that before the big bang, the speck that may have been ready to explode and become the universe was there, but you couldn't have seen it, because there was no light yet, and even if you had some sort of night vision goggles that would pick up no light at all, and even if you had been able to see something that small, you couldn't have seen it, at least not its outer contours, because space didn't exist yet, So inside the speck there's this seething cauldron of everything, and maybe nothing is differentiated yet, so there can't be any sexual urges, because if nothing is differentiated, who are you going to have a sexual urge for? But if there's a consciousness inside that speck, call it God, because it has no physical shape yet, just consciousness, then that consciousness must become aware of its separateness from everything else, even if there is no everything else, and the consciousness gives itself a name, and its name is Me. So God, which is Me, begins to create Myself in My own image, which is as yet a formless image. But as I conceive Myself as separate, My conception grows to encompass want, and as I begin to realize that want has to have an Other, I feel the first helplessness, the first hopelessness, hopelessness preceding hope, as I acclimatize Myself to the formlessness around Me, and the lack of otherness to the otherness which is everything outside of My consciousness. Out of hopelessness comes another formless awareness, which is longing, and the longing  begins to localize itself in one part of something which can't have parts, since it has no form, but this one part begins to swell, and harden, and the quantum space which has no provision for any hard object begins to glow, then bulge.

And this is how I created the universe.

Nick & Jake

You'll want to listen to the current episode (#9) of Nick and Jake, if only for the introduction of "Rue de Nostalgie," a haunting melody by Dave Grusin that becomes Nick's Paris theme.And you'll want to follow the unfolding relationship between Nick and Ronnie, as each of them begin to explore new cities and new lives. And what is the CIA planning now?

Back in action

I'm going to start maintaining my blog again -- I'd pretty much let it go when I started doing my Examiner page, but I think I'd just as soon have my thoughts on writing, or whatever else, be my own instead of Examiner's. So I'm reopening the old newsstand.