Friday, February 26, 2010

Some Random Thoughts on David Alpaugh's Article "The New Math of Poetry" in the Chronicle of Higher Education

David Alpaugh's article "The New Math of Poetry" states that too many poetry books are being published, the Best American Poetry series is a form of domestic terrorism, and the ozone layer is messed up as a result of a book called Sanctified: An Anthology of LGBT Christians. The article appears in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Here's the link: David Alpaugh's article.

What follows are some of my random thoughts on the piece:

It is dangerous to have too many poetry books out there because then libraries won't be able to store them and they'll have no choice but to put huge stacks of them outside where the garbage men will mistake them for trash and our literary culture will wind up being incinerated on a Thursday afternoon.


It is dangerous to have too many poetry books out there because not creating is better than creating unless it has to do with pharmaceuticals.


Anthologies that circle around a group of people or for that matter any theme are fatal especially the idea of having one that focuses around Gay and Lesbian Christians, because that means that the gay men who actually like to get laid will want to create an anthology of their own and no one will know who the well-adjusted gay men are from the ones who aren't and that means the entire queer movement will dissipate right before our eyes and we won't have the rights we already have like calling ourselves married even though we don't have a contract and ring. That's the wonderful thing about Constitutional Rights. There is free speech and you can say whatever lies you want. Unless you're in school and then you have to say "I agree to disagree" when you really are going to say something much more complicated like "you can disagree with me but I'll make you pay for it later, asshole."


Why shouldn't editors publish their friends? Who else are they going to publish? Their enemies?


The Best American Poetry anthologies are killing us. It is impossible to see the word "best" as a fun way of trying to see what's out there in the poetry world from one famous author's point-of-view, and we all know that more than one point-of-view can lead to things like never passing a health care bill.


Story Line Press publishes mostly men who write about missing their dead fathers who worked a hard job and made sacrifices so their sons could write bad poetry. And if that wasn't enough, they can also rhyme! Good things that the University of Chicago press has taken control of the situation. Now the men are gay men. They can still rhyme. And can do those hets one better. This is the new formula on how to create a brilliant poetic work:

Rhyme + anal sex reference = Good Review
Rhyme + Ovid + two anal sex references = Best Poetry Book of the Year

As an MFA student, whenever someone wrote a poem that was longer than a page, someone would say, "I think you've got two poems here." And everyone would nod and say yes you've got two poems here and they look all happy as if we all got something for fucking free.


I personally like any article about literary stuff that's called The New Math of Poetry because it confirmed that all my advanced degrees in creative writing really matter. Math is a real subject, and putting that word one word away from the work poetry give us all legitimacy.

Poetry degrees need legitimacy. I took out $90,000.00 in student loans and I had published nine poems by the time I graduated. That means each poem cost $10,000.

That's what I like to call the New Math. And I have no regrets.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

On an Ice-Breaker for the Creative Non-Fiction Classroom

When I was a student, there was nothing more I hated than having to go around the room on the first day of class and say why we were there. Or what we wanted out of the class. Or even something less obtrusive like what's your major. I swore to myself that I would never do that when I became a teacher. It's stupid. Plus it provides me with no information that will cause me to remember their names--something I warn them on the first day I'll never remember. Yes: I won't forget what they said or where they sat or what they wore. But theirs names no way. Early on-set dementia, who knows?

Some teachers would say this is irresponsible. And maybe it is. But all teachers have strengths and weaknesses. And that's one of mine. I have worse ones. Like when I open things up for class discussion, and someone starts speaking, I talk over them. What can I say? I get excited. And I'm obnoxious. And who said that it's a teacher's responsibility to exemplify good manners? I like things messy in the classroom, and there's no doubt that I cause a good share of it. Also: why not put students in a situation where they're forced to be a little aggressive? Of course, I keep my eye out for the shy ones, may call on them, and sometimes because they know that, they often are more likely to participate--they don't want me to interrogate them about an assigned reading.

And I do in my class use the word interrogate. So there.

You could say I'm reclaiming it.

So: this semester in my creative non-fiction class, I decided it was time for me to think of some sort of strategy to make me remember their names. No matter how much we may like to deny it, the CNF classroom always becomes in some weird way partly a cathartic space. (If it made just a bit more money, I would be running support groups for a living.)

This was my new idea, and it worked. At least I hope it's a new idea. I'm always afraid of offering what I do in the classroom. I'm afraid I might have unconsciously stole it.

I took the old idea of putting students in pair and having them interview one another. I tried to give them some decent questions: name three props that have touched your life in a weird way, offer examples of a particular vocabulary that you think you may be the only person in this room possesses, etc. You can imagine the drill.

But this time I did something different. I didn't focus on the retelling of the information. I sent my students home with information based on the information they received in private with their partner.

This is what I told my students: based on your partner's information, make a gift for them--obviously, it is not a requirement to spend a single cent, but make them a gift that you think they would like, and IT MUST BE WRAPPED SO THE STUDENT CAN OPEN IT IN CLASS. Then you will need to explain why you got them what you did.

I was shocked how well it worked. Because I haven't asked my students' permission, I won't reveal any of the results except in the most vague ways. But for someone like myself who steers away from what could be perceived as cloying CNF exercises, I was in awe at the amount of time, thought, and energy that went into the presents. It provided specific information and in some case what the person offered their partner was something that could be used in their own work (ie DVD, a diorama, etc.)

It was entertaining for all of us--and suspenseful--is there anything more tension-filled than the spectacle of someone opening a gift? I should say I love nervous energy in the classroom. I have a worse attention span than my students. And this exercises corrected that.

It also gave me the ability to remember their names.

Monday, February 15, 2010

On Crushes, Exclamation Marks, and Evil

[Due to an overwhleming work load, this post will be more of a tangent and a preparation for a post on specifically poetry.]

It is an act of betrayal when a gay man has a crush on a straight man. There's no doubt about it. I've never understood it. Maybe because it's never happened to me. Maybe because I feel that there's always plenty of gay man to reject me. That's one of the things I miss about Utah: model scouts and mountain climbers. Those are two of my favorite things. I also like sunlight. I am a person who has to rush out of my home every morning into the sunlight to make sure the world is still here. It is. It's such a good feeling and I know I can begin my day.

I also am jealous when a straight man says gay men hit on them. They usually say it's happened a lot. Gay men have never hit on me. No flirtations. Only when I begged. For me begging is flirting.

I always have believe that people with ugly attitudes are ugly in real life. You can spot evil. It's pretty transparent. It can only hide so much, just enough, so that if you're a weak person you can pretend you don't see it. My partner is a wise man. "But you don't have street smarts," I say. He looks at me like I'm being crazy and insincere. Which I am. But still. Sometimes he doesn't make eye contact with people. I used to think it was because he was shy. Over the years, I've realized that isn't the reason. He knows there is some evil in the world and doesn't want to risk spotting it.

This is my point about ugly people. If you know how to look, you will see them. It's the same thing about straight men. You see that they wear tennis shoes to the mall and you know that they have a wife and kids. As long as they're not evil and require a divorce. (In Upstate New York, everyone, gay men included, wear tennis shoes. It's creepy. Jesus, Upstate New York. University of San Francisco, I hate you. I don't care how talented your faculty is, that at least three of them are brilliant. You're all evil. You ruined my life. You know why.)

Because straight men are transparent and on occasion evil, but no more evil than any gay man, you dodge them. You never say to a straight man, you are attractive. They will say something horrible, especially the ones who possess no homophobia. They will say, I'm flattered.

How dare they? Flattered. Flattered what? Flattered that in your eyes, I noticed the obvious. That is the problem with straight people: everything is obvious. It is not obvious for gay people. That's why people like me were ruined at a very young age. We couldn't quite get on board with the obvious: one should not use young girls to hide from our peers at the time: other young boys who thought kickball was a creation of good, not evil.

Those young girls saved us. Perhaps that's why straight women bait gay men into admitting that they find their husbands attractive. They're punishing us for using them when we were in high school. Is that evil?

Of course it is. I don't make rhetorical questions. That's what sissies do. That's what I say to my students. Rhetorical questions should be banned. Like the buffalo penny. Like the exclamation mark. Or perhaps not like the exclamation mark. At age 32, I have rediscovered the beauty of the exclamation mark. Perhaps my high blood pressure increased as a result of thinking that I couldn't use the exclamation mark and stressed about finding the right combination of words instead. Refusing short cuts is the mark of the young.

Older gay men (32 or above) should not like younger gay men. Just as any gay man should not like any straight men. I don't understand how they do it. All men 25 or younger look the same to me. Same thing with straight men. They're sporadically charming dizzying blurs. They're no more or less intelligent than gay men. But still. They all talk loudly and because of their privilege they rely on the exclamation mark without having to think twice about it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Self-Censorship (Part One)

As a queer teacher, you can't help but wonder through the constant defeats of gay marriage, how this impacts our students' views of homosexual teachers? Do we look as vulnerable as the unsuccessful gay activists? And how do those of us who have been activists against Proposition 8 internalize our political failure in misdirected ways in the classroom?

When five years ago, I went on job interviews for tenure-track jobs, I felt the need to convince my potential employers that my intellectual projects were about more than being gay. Of course, this might have been an attempt to combat an imaginary homophobia, but some paranoia is justified. To interview, an expression of wanting to become a part of an institution, how I could not prepare to shield myself from discriminatory programs like ROTC that populate campuses. On one level, I have nothing but respect for my students who are part of that organization, but at the same time, I can't help but acknowledge the fact that the institution does discriminate against gays and lesbians. In this particular instance, my own self-censorship, necessary or not, was what caused my own erasure.

Self-censorship is something that I've never been very good at. At least not on an unconscious level. When I first started working at SUNY Brockport, I always commended myself on the fact that I never taught a single gay and lesbian book and/or poem in one of my creative writing classes. "I'm about so much more than being gay," I'd say to my friends. And I'd further rationalize: I don't want my students to think that I want them to write like me. One of my heterosexual colleagues said, "Isn't that going a bit too far? Aren't they going to expect you to introduce at least some queer material."

In my advanced creative non-fiction course, I assigned this semester six books, probably too much. These are the books I assigned: Joe Brainard's "I Remember," Rigoberto Gonzalez's "Butterfly Boy," S.L. Wisenberg's "The Adventures of Cancer Bitch," Kay Redfield Jameson's "Manic Depression and the Artistic Temperament," Jane Gallop's "Feminist Accused of Sexual Harrassment," and Elaine Scarry's "On Beauty and Being Just."

I have my own rationale for teaching them and in that order. At whatever undergraduate level, students have difficulties creating their own idiosyncratic details in prose. I wanted "I Remember" to see how details, or "stuff" as I put it, accumulate, and create something, even if that something is not necessarily a conventional story with an arc. "Butterfly Boy" I choose because it does represent --and I mean this descriptively, not critically -- the more conventional memoir: father-son relationship, the road trip, the psychoanalysis of the conflation of identities between lover and father, the juxtaposition of showing versus telling. "Cancerbitch" follows that scheme and possesses an admirably overdetermined desire to shatter the idea of ill woman as victim. "Butterfly Boy" and "Cancerbitch" both pretty much embrace the established formal strategies of the popular memoir. It was my responsibility, to show them that non-fiction can be other things, say, an explicit rhetorical argument, as in the case of Gallop and Scarry. You don't always need to show. Showing can hinder things, or be completely beside the point. Sometimes, especially in this tragic world of ours, it's important to tell and tell and tell. And then tell some more.

At the same time, completely unprovoked, last night I felt the need to justify why I choose the books, that they had nothing to do with homosexuality--a bit too emphatically. With Brainard's "I Remember" I wanted in class discussion to erase the queerness of the book: the gay sex and confessed urges. With "Butterfly Boy" I kept moving away from the issue of sexuality and its interconnected with race and class. All I wanted to stress was race and class. It was the pressure I felt (I balk at calling it completely self-inflicted) to "prove" that I was about more than homosexuality.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Hallmark Card Creative Writing Classroom Exercise

This is one of the classroom creative writing exercises I’ve used since I first started teaching. (I hope this is my self-created exercise, and I'm not taking credit for someone else's accomplishment.):

1.) I buy two Hallmark cards with fairly lengthy messages on in the inside. I prefer the Just Between You and Me brand—the ones that focus on expressing sentimental love. I type them up on my computer. I don’t want my students to know that they are from the cards.

2.) I type up a poem from a famous poet—say, Pablo Neruda—regardless of what you choose, it needs to fit the theme of the other two cards.

3.) Without telling the class two of the three “poems” come from Hallmark cards, I pass out Xeroxes of the poems to the class.

4.) I say this: “Pretend that you are the editor of a literary magazine. We’re going to read these poems, and you will want to rank them in order of artistic success.” Of course, I tell them that they’re going to have define the term “artistic success” in their own words. I also always like them to rank things; it forces them to take a position—students love to dodge such behaviors otherwise. Perhaps the most important behavior you can teach a student these days: to have an opinion.

5.) I tally up the results on the board.

Almost inevitably, the poem by the published author ranks last. Of course, I don’t tell them this has happened until we’ve hashed out all the reasons for their rankings. But once it's time, this is where the trick come in: to make sure you don’t shame them into offering inauthentic epiphanies. At the same time, you want them to begin to reconsider their aesthetic preferences.