Monday, January 31, 2011

On Rane Arroyo's "White as Silver"

One of my literary heroes, Rane Arroyo, who died last year, gave his last reading at SUNY Brockport, where I teach. It was obvious that he was sick, but he made the trip with his talented poet partner Glenn Sheldon. (Within my next few posts, I’ll be talking about Sheldon's new chapbook Biography of the Boy who Prays to the God of Foreheads.)

In an earlier post, before I struck up a correspondence with Rane, I talked about how joy permeates his poems. In his eleventh book of poems, White as Silver, published after his death, it is obvious, if you read the poems autobiographically, and I do (and I’m sure Rane wouldn’t have minded), that the joy, even during sickness, was still present and thriving. Here’s an excerpt from “Even Tricksters Get the Blues”:

I have been sick all day and finally my body and house
are quiet. Is not quintessential a word that hides quills
to avoid questions? Saw a slow show about Whitman’s
vexed aging, read Ritsos’ last bitter poems and wondered

if Anna Akhmatova was forced to use her fire poems
as kindling in her last years? How quixotic I thought
Death was after I read the Romantics—before AIDS,
war(s), my friends stolen in broad midnight. Better

that I eat this banana bread my lover made or think
about not thinking, but not like in Buddhism. I do not
think this world is an illusion; I have eaten mangos,
have been transparent in a sudden cloudburst, and have

watched the doctors strap me down so I would not
loosen tubes by movement...

As in my other post about Arroyo, I felt queasy about offering a critique of his poems. Sometimes it’s better to leave the work alone. I offer this post then as simply an encouragement to sample his new book White as Silver. As in the work of Agha Shahid Ali, my teacher, Arroyo’s poems in their own way do very little wrong. Arroyo is a genuine writer: he wrote, and he wrote some more, and then even more. For me, I’ve always seen the prolific as the most generous: they want you to read them, and they expect you to pick and choose whatever you want; they allow you the opportunity discover the masterpieces among everything else. Rane never rested on his laurels. He just kept on going. That was one of the most amazing things about his trip to SUNY Brockport: he was sick, but that didn’t stop him from delivering hands-down one of the best performances from a poet I have ever seen.

Let's end this post, appropriately, with Arroyo’s “Poem To a Poem Written to One of My Poems”:

We agree there are poems
and scars. It’s that old
who came first: the chicken
or the cha-cha-cha? I’ve yet

to meet “innocent readers,
although once someone
wrote to ask me if I remembered
marrying her in a past life,

and I didn’t, don’t. What is
written astonishes because
most of the world escapes us
Then we find a poem and

a scar. Sometimes, there is
only one of them. I am “wrong”
often and why I have poems
and not just one. Like scars.

Rane Arroyo's White as Silver is available through Cervena Barva Press.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

Why the Creative Workshop May Need a Formal Mid-Term Examination

Reading published works has always taken a backseat in creative writing workshops.

I’ve done more work this past year to combat that than I ever have in the past. I've been free to make the undergraduate creative workshop into something other than a congenial, even if critical, discussion of other students’ written work. I can't imagine doing the same routine for thirty or so more years.

Even if you assign a book or two or three, what pervades the classroom is a desire to get to what students see as The Important Stuff: talking about their poems.

Who can blame them? I love to hear people talking about me: why should students be any different?

In order to stop that tendency, at the beginning of the course little to no creative writing work will be assigned. It will almost all be reading.

For the first half of the semester, all we are going to essentially be doing is reading published work in class. These books include Rane Arroyo's Buried Sea: New and Collected Poems, Haryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary, Russell Edson's The Rooster Wife, and Ketjee Kuipers Beautiful in the Mouth. (Two of those four are published by BOA--I believe in supporting local presses as much as possible.) David Kirby and Barbara Hamby's anthology Seriously Funny is also a required text. Again, there will be little to no creative writing exercises.

When it's time for midterms, they will be taking a two-day midterm. (I teach Tuesday and Thursdays for 90 minutes.) They won't like this, but they'll be going through the same hoops as students to do in their literature courses. Part One of the midterm will consist of the following:

1. defining vocabulary words such as "enjambment," "stanza," "litany," "metaphor," etc. etc.

2. matching poets and titles of book to lines of poems discussed in class

3. offering a short passage(s) of a poem and instructing them to write about particular formal strategies in relation to the content

Prior to the exam, students will be assigned three poems that contain examples of skill sets that I consider integral to writing good work, and will want to see employed in the second half of the semester when we do have "normal" workshop. They will be assigned to write their own poem, emulating one of the assigned poems in terms of their formal strategies. For example, let's say a poem contains a litany and anaphora; they will be forced to do the same.

Of course, people could argue this limits the students. But I believe that undergraduates are sometimes offered too much freedom and never learn to master anything definite. These are the skill sets I want them to engage. Each of the poems will force a student to "play" with their own work in a rigid way with consequences (ie. their grade on the midterm):

1. being able to create an idiosyncratic detail. This means to be able to:

a. using strong nouns and verbs
b. draw upon the five senses
c. demystify abstractions through concrete detail
d. don't equate description with simply illustrating gross situations (ie a messy dorm room, a friend puking, etc. etc.

2. following the odd trajectory of their mind through

a. making imaginative leaps from one "thing" to another "thing" (ie Robert Bly's Leaping Poetry)
b. vary syntax in intriguing, even if flawed ways

3. experiment with the line as opposed to the sentence

a. break the line in ways that create a sense of simultaneity, surprise, delayed disclosure, etc.

We will go into the computer room and they will have 90 minutes to complete the poem. I think this part of the exam forces them to also reflect about their own writing process. I guarantee that most students complete a group of three to four poems for workshop in less than 90 minutes. Here, they will be forced to slow down their process--this is an important thing. The reason why we spend so much time as creative writing teachers in saying "show, don't tell" is our students are never mandated to pause. Abstractions are automatic writing. Taking time to catch your breath is a good thing.

It also forces them to rewrite. If you have 90 minutes to complete a poem and your teacher isn't going to let you leave until class is up, what else do you have to do?

They also get to watch their classmates, how other poets are working. Comparing yourself with someone else is natural. They may realize their own work habits need to improve.

It gives me a way to see exactly where my students are at and how successful or not I may be as a teacher. If a lot of students don't do their best, I need to adjust my pedagogy.

I know some creative writing teachers may say that this criterion prioritizes a certain type of poem. Which I say yes, it does. What creative writing teacher doesn't believe in the necessity of abstractions? However, any creative writing teacher who believes that more than 30 % of the students can immediately identify the difference between abstract and concrete language is delusional.

This is my new experiment for the semester.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On Shane Allison's "Slut Machine"

Shane Allison’s Slut Machine forces a question: can the writing of formal verse by a queer poet function like an act of homophobia? Is that iambic pentameter, blank verse, rhymes –all those formal elements- nothing more than a prissy way of “cleaning up” the messy emotionalism of poetry, forcing it into a cramped and tidy closet?

But like any good radical, Shane Allison wants it all, to have it both ways. If the "traditional values" of all those formal structures build a kind of closet, then the risk and energy in those same poems ultimately break free of that constriction.

Look at “Sonnet in Orange Avenue Projects”: “I got jealous when he tried to get under Makeeba’s skirt:/Boyish hands up girlish thighs./No one cares about sexual harassment in the projects.” Determinedly shabby, barely organized, Allison’s sonnet has no time to leisurely walk through the restrictive formal transitions---there’s too much at risk. At the end of the poem, Allison writes: “He promised not to tell,/But kids break their promises like pencils in the projects.”

One of my brilliant former students and I had extensive conversations about issues of race, gender, and publication, explaining her great frustration. When a white gay poet deals with race, he may sometimes receive more accolades than an African-American who deals with similar subject material. For certain critics, the white poet is seen as brave, dealing with topics writers of his own race often ignore; he’s applauded for being brave and risk-taking. At the same time, the poet of color’s material may be obliquely dismissed as predictable and expected. The underlying current being: what else is he going to write about? That may be one of the reasons why white writers still sometimes receive better jobs, awards, and fame than their peers of color. Perhaps even more importantly, certain critics still often respond more positively to poets of color who create austere victim narratives. It gives the appearance of being charitable.

But here’s a funny, lacerating excerpt from Shane Allison's poem “It’s a Boy.” What is remarkable is the way that it simultaneously seems to embrace and reject through humor the traditional victim narrative:

Polyester shirt with the butterfly collars:
His afro glistened with the coconut grease under the canary-yellow sun.
You look just like your daddy, boy, Ma would say
She fed me Skinner’s fried chicken.
Okra and mashed potatoes instead of strained carrots, peas.
Instead of baby formula, I got Tahititian fruit punch in my bottle.
I pulled a hot iron on my thigh;
It took the skin right off.
I don’t remember Ma scream for help.
Did the house smell like burned flesh?

At one-hundred-and-thirty pages, Slut Machine can feel a bit overlong, especially since Allison relies too often on litanies with uninspired anaphora. Sometimes those poems stretch over two or three pages. And like a good number of gay poets, Allison gives us at least two found poems comprised of gay personal ads and bathroom graffiti. Unfortunately, you can’t always tell the difference between the found poems and the poems that deal with his own sexual inquiries. Here’s some lines from “Love & Romance,” taken from the personals:

Massive muscular guy wants sensual bottom sissies for autumn
Uncut suck off
Dominant jock seeks 2 straight white boys
Well-hung good-looking hot bottoms for
Enthusiastic daddy suck buddy.

In flatness of language and understatement, the poem doesn’t differ much from “Tongue”:

My tongue purple from grape soda
My tongue newly pierced
My tongue forked and wicked
My tongue down the thick shaft of his veins
My tongue through a glory hole

Yet even with more similarity than difference, Slut Machine’s overindulgence is welcome. Rather than creating a nimble 48-64 page book for the average poetry contest, Allison jettisons those expectations for something more personal: an enjoyably vast, even if occasionally somewhat monotone, inquiry into racial and sexual politics.

In fact, you could claim that Allison’s decision to take up space simply to take up space is a political move in and of itself. With so many publishing houses ignoring the writing of queers, why not talk about whatever you want for a long as you want, given the opportunity?

I had never heard of Shane Allison, who has written six books of poetry. And I’m more familiar than many with very small queer presses. It’s unfortunate evidence of the marginalization of the gay publishing world. More people should hear about poets like Allison. Shane’s obvious self-satisfaction, his refusal to shut up, is nothing short of inspirational.

Shane Allison's Slut Machine is available through QueerMojo, an imprint of Rebel Satori Press, or by clicking on the book photo at the top of this review.