I am transcribing annotations from a book (Time: A Vocabulary of the Present, edited by Joel Burges and Amy J. Elias) I’ve been slowly making my way through for a while. I’m almost done reading it, but figured I’d get started on gathering what I’d found, to whatever ends I may have. Who knows.
This particular chunk, which I LOVE, feels relevant to my last post about revision/sneak circuits/whatever the heck else I was on about — but I don’t know (yet?) how to wedge it in there. But I want to keep it nearby. So I’m putting it here for now, and maybe some of you will also appreciate this thinking. It’s from the chapter/essay, “Anticipation/Unexpected,” by Mark Currie. (all giddy boldface emphases mine)
TLDR: Surprise used to be less surprising.
“How are these connotations, positive and negative, of the unexpected related to the notion of anticipation? This seems a straightforward question, since the unexpected, whether positive or negative, must be the negation of expectation, or the failure of anticipation. It is the arrival of what we did not see coming. It is that to which our expectations were oblivious. But in a less obvious way, the category of the unexpected is actually produced by anticipation, expectation, and prediction. The unexpected event is more prominent in a world that is methodical and accurate and expert in its predictions, and the degree of unexpectedness is proportional to the extent to which we are accustomed to seeing things coming. The unexpected storm, for example, acquires a significance in a world of increasingly sophisticated weather forecasting that it did not have when weather was generally unforeseeable, and all storms were unexpected. The science of prediction itself foregrounds and gives emphasis to whatever is unforeseen, which stands out against a backdrop of regular, rule-governed, or repetitive behavior. Paradoxical though it may be, we might be justified in regarding these emerging ideas about a world less predictable than it used to be as ideas actually produced by the general environment of reliable and accurate prediction rather than by simple failures of prediction. This is not simply a structuralist logic that points out the normally imperceptible relation between a concept and its dark structural other, the conceptual inseparability of the contingent and the necessary. It is instead a recognition of the heightened experience of surprise produced by the labor of its annihilation. The modern species of surprise at the unexpected is the product and not the negation of sophisticated expectation. For this reason it is always necessary to regard the unexpected not only as a term of futurity, but also one of belatedness, of realization of what, in the past, we did not know. The unexpected arrives from the future, but it also springs an unexplained past, or a gap in what we knew about the world.” (99-100)
Beyond weather and other similar physical phenomena, I’m not entirely convinced “we” are “better” at predicting stuff, or how we’d even know whether we were or not. But this idea is compelling to me, this notion of “the heightened experience of surprise produced by the labor of its annihilation” is really setting up shop in my head right now.
After the deadly Apollo 1 fire, one of the groups investigating what happened to try and ensure the safety of the astronauts and program moving forward, was the “Sneak” Circuit Analysis Program. By “sneak” they mean surprise, essentially – an unplanned event caused by a combination of conditions, an event that seems to exist outside of normal or predictable cause/effect dynamics, an event that tends not to be detected during systems tests – not a hardware failure, but, to use astronaut Frank Borman’s words, a “failure of imagination.” A failure to imagine as much as possible of what might or could happen, or where, or how.
When I (fail to?) imagine the work of hunting down these circuits, I imagine dogged, optimistic focus, a relentless search for the thing not thought of, for the not just unintended but unimagined consequence. The work of believing that sneak circuits exist and can be found. The work of thinking the unthought-of, imagining the unimaginable. Of redefining “think” and “imagine.” Countless permutations of hundreds of what-if threads, versions upon versions of the circuitry. The work of examining what you thought you knew through a new lens, a lens that might be called “not-knowing.” (Forgetting what you [thought you] knew?) A curiosity – but a new curiosity that has been somehow untethered from the assumptions that structured the old curiosity, the assumptions that were so invisible as to seem . . . sneaky.
The word sneak suggests a degree of malice that those diligent engineers all know is impossible for a non-sentient machine to actually conjure; but that non-existent malice may nonetheless usefully inspire said engineers to conjure a personified adversary down in the circuitry, the “sneak circuit” biding its time like a hidden trapdoor or bomb. So the engineers’ job is to find what’s hidden, to imagine and root out paths to catastrophe (always catastrophe?) that no one had imagined yet; to worst-case-scenario all the possible choices.
The Apollo 1 fire was caused by frayed wires, and/but, more importantly, a huge failure to imagine what might happen if, while the vehicle was still on earth, at sea level, just running a test, a spark were birthed in a tiny space pressurized with a 100% oxygen atmosphere; a failure to imagine how materials believed safe might become explosively flammable in such conditions; a failure to imagine how the escape-hatch design meant to protect astronauts, to ensure that it wouldn’t open by accident somehow, would in fact get sealed shut by the internal pressure of the sudden, deadly fire in the capsule. The fire wasn’t the result of a “sneak circuit,” but if we think of our mental processes of imagining and planning and designing as circuits, something unimagined definitely snuck through.
Conventional wisdom around the fire and its aftermath is that the tragedy and the rigorous back-to-the-drawing-board degree of self-scrutiny it inspired probably saved the Apollo program in the long run. Some in NASA, engineers and astronauts and administrators at the time, have explicitly said that they believe there would probably not have been a moon landing had the Apollo 1 fire not happened. As I listen to their recorded voices and read their words, they seem gravely well-aware of what a heavy thing that is to say. To imagine.
One engineer, John Rankin, guesses they found about a thousand sneak circuits in various components at various times over the years of the Apollo program flights.
I was planning to write a poem about sneak circuits, and may yet, but instead I have found myself thinking through this longer, sprawly prose about making poems generally, about the possibility of both “composing” and “editing” ultimately being processes of revision. How composing is a process inclusive, necessarily, of revision at all stages. Or a process that cannot exclude re-vision. These notions about the writing-as-revision process are definitely not me “discovering” anything new; rather, the lens of the “sneak circuit” work, in the context of some current editing and revising work I am struggling with, invites me back into these ideas.
It doesn’t feel particularly revelatory to describe or imagine revision as a search for and analysis of (or just a noticing of, a speculation towards) “sneak circuits” – a “circuit” in this metaphor being the author-chosen language (word choice, syntax, white space, sentence length, usage of capitalization, punctuation, arrangement/sequence, repetition of various types, etc.) which was presumably chosen for reasons (“intent?” “desire?” “purpose?” “pleasure?” conscious and/or unconscious?), toward some kind of end or effect (for the writer? for the reader/listener?).
(Ugh. Are all my compulsive parentheticals and slashes themselves sneak circuits undermining everything I am trying to say, even when what I mean is to clarify, or to include a multiplicity of possibilities? Well, they sure don’t sneak. They are anything but sneaky. They are something, but they are not sneaky.)
I don’t mean a metaphor of “sneak circuits” in the potentially reductive sense of a poem being a coded fortress which can only be broken into by an “expert” like a critic or English teacher, or which is only truly accessible by The Poet. I don’t mean to confirm the suspicion that poetry is by its very nature an arcane, miserly, specialist code to be cracked, that sense that poetry is only for special people with special knowledge. (OK, yes, yes, language is maybe a sneak circuit, yes, language itself is ALSO A [DE]CODE[ING] but I have to move along. I just do.)
I am, however, thinking very much about an author and their language, their desire to create (summon?) an image, an impression, a meaning, a communication, or . . . something. (To make/to uncover/to reveal/to conceal/to create a dynamic of revelation and concealment.) I am thinking this as I delve with a very attentive editor back into poems I wrote pre-pandemic, in a world both chronologically and emotionally so distant.
Delve, in that last sentence, is a verb I’m inclined to revise – it connotes a kind of assuredness or fearless excavation that I don’t feel about this work. Do I dip? Scratch at a surface? Flirt? Tiptoe? Toe-then-foot-then-calf-et cetera? I look but do I actually ever leap? Do I creep? Do I sneak? I am, on average, six years distant from the initial composing/revising of nearly all of these poems, from their “origins.” My feelings about these poems, my relationship to them, to their origins (?) have changed since I submitted this (finished, I would have called it) collection to presses for publication. Part of my struggle here is the distance I feel, across pandemic, across forgetting, across other transformative life experiences, from those origins; origins I feel pressed to revisit now, with the guidance of an editor who is suggesting a lot of changes.
The editor I am working with is attentive and engaged and kind – early on in our work together, she was explaining her philosophy around insisting on doing this close editing work face to face (via Zoom), instead of via back and forth emails. She offered that she and I might have different ideas about the effect of language in a particular line or stanza or image, and that she wanted to be clear about communicating hers and understanding mine. Explaining how important dialogue is to her, and wanting to avoid potentially negative points of disconnection or disagreement about the poems, she reassured me, “you can teach me differently.” Not an argument, not a back-and-forth horse-trading, but an opportunity to teach, to learn, to be taught. The process has, indeed, often felt like a dynamic of teaching and learning, moving in two directions. This feels, fundamentally, like revision – revisiting the manuscript with an ally who doesn’t carry the baggage of feelings about my poems’ “origins” that I carry. An editor-ally who believes the manuscript is “worth” publishing, who indeed accepted the manuscript for publication, even while thinking it was not quite “finished” yet.
In one of the poems I’m working on, I’m revising a stanza wherein I consider the implications and possible revisions of a word choice. (Kind of like I do with “delve,” two paragraphs ago.) I repeatedly use a particular word in the poem, then wonder in the final stanza about my choice of that word, my motives for those choices, about what it might mean if I chose other particular words. The stakes for the choosing of the word feel significant to the poem.
So, I’m revising a stanza about revision. From a years-later standpoint, I am revisiting a poem’s attempts at language about considering how language can create (and distort and obscure and reveal) realities. I’m revisiting the poem’s attempts (my attempts, the attempts of years-ago me) to “show the work” rather than just changing the word and erasing the evidence of having considered a “wrong word.” But the “wrongness” (or the attempting, the grasping, the emotional significance of choosing “wrong”) is a big part of the point. More so in the latest iteration, I think (I hope?) than the earlier.
I remember reading Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, feeling and feeding a big urge to play out all possible versions/combinations/choices/consequences/(circuits?). I would read one version, one series of choices, then trace my paths backwards, testing out alternative choices as I went, somewhat systematically. I don’t know whether or not I kept any kind of track of my methods, but I can easily imagine younger me keeping a tally, some kind of accounting or mapping of all my different routes. Apparently I’m not the only one who had that kind of desire.
Of course, there’s no “correct” or “incorrect” version of a Choose Your Own Adventure, except perhaps if you just read the thing through, page by page, in the order of the page numbers rather than in the order of your particular choices. That might be considered “wrong,” but also maybe really interesting. I wonder if my urge towards slashes, parentheticals, etc., in this essay, in other things I write, (though not as often in poems) is me seeking a way to have all possibilities at once, to not have to choose and make the wrong choice? A delusional planning for, and inclusion of, every possible outcome, good or bad, so as to be seen (!) as not making a mistake.
As I work on my poems with this editor over several months, as I piece together this essay in fits and starts alongside that work, some language finds its way to my feeds, from a poet and thinker I admire, Keith Wilson: “A strategy for revision is to put the poem away in a drawer for a while. To come back to it when you are less emotionally invested. To see it with a cool heart and mind. On one hand, I am doing that when I find an old poem. But what else I am doing, when I hate the voice of my youth, is discovering myself in a drawer. And finding that one can never divest themselves from themselves—I am still invested in this snapshot of my soul, and if I find it ugly, it is not a rational part of me finding it ugly, it is a rational part of my finding an excuse to look for flaws, now that I can pretend I am looking at a page I have moved fully on from. I am skilled in the art of bias against myself.” Here’s Wilson’s full essay.
The poems I’m working on have been in the figurative drawer. Some part of myself, in the drawer, yes. But if anything, I feel more (differently?) “emotionally invested” than I remember feeling two years ago, and my heart and mind don’t feel “cool” about it. I am grateful for (and anxious about) how Wilson’s words and ideas invite me to think about what I’m doing in this composing/revising/editing. What I say (to myself, to others) I’m doing.
I feel an urge today, in this new paragraph, in the weird, fractured present tense of my experience writing this essay in fits and starts, to account for the passing of time. The continuity implied by the equal spaces between the paragraphs is a false one. I’m returning to this essay after a couple of months away from it. I started writing it nearly a year ago. It has been in and out of a drawer. The poetry manuscript I’ve been editing, pending the final (?) word from the editor, is . . . finished? I don’t know what word to use now.
I am acutely aware that there will soon be published versions of several of my poems which are very different from one another. The “old” versions, in literary journals, online and in print, and the “new” ones, in the book. One conventional narrative arc of revision is “the new versions are improvements on the old” or “the poems are finally finished,” but my capacity to comprehend “final” has shifted, is shifting. It’s unsettling. I hope it might mean new things for me in poetry, in living. But/and I am anxious: what if the newer versions aren’t “better?” What if they are better than ones I had felt were “finished” earlier? What if I just can’t tell the difference anymore? What if I don’t care about the difference, or care differently about what such differences might mean or teach me?
I feel an urge today, nonetheless, to finally (!?) finish (?!) this essay. To end or to be done with it. I notice as well my urge to put a turn here, a volta of some kind, and I want it to be about sneak circuitry. About the catastrophes I fear, the ones secreted away in little machines of language I scarcely understand but which I made, re-made, may yet continue re-making. Strophe (a term related to stanzas and “turns” in poetry, like some use “volta”) and catastrophe conveniently (poetically?) share an etymological root.
Yes; revision can be (among other things) a “reversal of what [was] expected.”
If I’m really engaged with the work, not just dusting and polishing, perhaps the catastrophe of revision is not only unavoidable, but desirable. Even as it makes me anxious. I think I feel anxious because I’m experiencing this particular revision process as twofold: not just changing the poems themselves, but (for the first time? more intensely or intentionally than in the past?) revisiting and somehow (re)seeing the structures or systems within which the earlier versions were made. The circuitry from which the poems emerged, itself a made thing. Sure, I am probably (always? inescapably?) replacing old “failures of the imagination” with new ones. “Better” (?) ones. But, as Cornelius Eady wrote in his poem, “Dance at the Amherst County Public Library,” the final poem in Victims of the Latest Dance Craze: “even the failure was a sort of dance.”
Here’s a little more of the poem leading to that line, for context:
This is how I wasted my time, Trying to become the Henry Ford of poetry, And mass produce a group of words Into a thing which could shake And be owned by the entire world.
Naturally, I failed.
Of course, even the failure was a sort of dance.
Cornelius, my teacher from years ago (and still, always, inescapably, teaching me), inscribed my copy of that book in July of 1986. It was one of the first books of poetry by an individual poet I ever bought, the first ever signed by the poet, I think. The spine is broken in a couple of places. The cover features a photograph of a pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars on fire. I had to pull the book from my poetry shelves so I could add his lines at the end of this essay. How glad I am to have it in my hands, to read it — all of it — again.
Blake, from the pest control service, stands several feet back from the front door of my house, after having knocked and waited, holding a mask in one hand, a box of rodenticide in the other. It’s Good Friday, 2022, and the mask says one thing, and the box another, and I tell him I’m fully vaxxed and ask if he is, too. He says yes, and I tell him he doesn’t have to wear the mask if he doesn’t want to, but if he’d prefer to wear the mask, I want him to wear the mask. Blake stuffs the mask into his pocket.
His first question is whether I want the rodenticide. That question comes first because it seems many of us do not want the rodenticide, and I don’t want the rodenticide. I’m making my first foray into professional pest control because of carpenter ants, not mice. The ants are so much smaller and tidier than mice, but mice I can at least capture. These ants, though: the obsidian armored, some winged, we see exploring our floors, are part of a larger, unimaginable, un-trappable thing, a nest or maybe a colony, an organism like a vast underground mushroom, a network, an idea, a virus.
In the basement, the attic, the main rooms, Blake attends to the windowsills, the corners, the baseboards, the doorjambs, with a flashlight and a big syringe of something he injects into cracks, in some pattern I can’t discern but which I assume is strategic. Then he does the outside, a slow, precise perimeter of the entire house, even beneath the deck, stuffing up some holes, ministering again to the sills, this time also wearing eye goggles as he applies a spray to finish it off. At the beginning, in the basement, curious and awkward, I watch him, but after that, I just listen, imagining, from another room, from inside, through a window.
Meanwhile, in town, a friend messages to confirm she has COVID, after all this—a suspected cold unmasked itself on the fourth day’s test, and, at risk, she’s already off to get infused with antibodies, to shield the cells, to stave off what wants to go further and further inside. To make a vast and expansive network of itself. A colony. A nest. Or at the least, a place to live and thrive for a while. For as long as it can last.
The carpenter ants, Blake warns me as he prepares to leave, will probably surge back, baited now by the delicious poison he has set out for them, drawn anew from any secret hideouts they’ve chewed through water-softened spots in this collection of boards we call our house. He has found one such spot beneath the deck where he crawled–because his job was to touch every part of this house that he possibly could—one spot we need to have taken care of, added to a growing list of tasks we don’t know how to accomplish ourselves.
That a thing as solid as a house could have such spots, could harbor such tender, slowly festering wounds you could push your thumb through, but had better not—isn’t news, yet feels sudden as a bombshell when Blake confirms in words what the last month’s daily reconnaissance of tiny, seeking scouts trickling across the hardwood floor was making plain as day.
I usually can’t recall my dreams at all; whatever fragments or sensations linger when I wake tend to dissolve very quickly. But recently I’ve remembered a few in which I forget to wear my mask somewhere, usually a restaurant. In the dreams, I’ve stopped in, unplanned, with friends, and am seated and suddenly realize, panicked, that I’m not wearing a mask, that I need to leave, and I do, I just get up and leave. In my waking life, I haven’t returned to public indoor dining yet, haven’t returned to spending more than a few minutes indoors anywhere public without a mask. It helps that I still mostly don’t go to public indoor spaces besides the post office, the doctor’s office, the pharmacy, and, a handful of times over two years, my office on campus. After a year of remote teaching (2020-2021), I’ve been on sabbatical leave for 2021-2022. During this leave I have done some writing, some editing, a lot of reading, and a lot of driving. I have tried to take care, as pandemic has permitted, of some home-related tasks and maintenance, since I can usually be at home for those hours-long service provider “arrival windows.”
I feel taken care of by Blake. He’s very good at the part of his job where he must explain things to people, like me, who think they understand more than they actually do. He has a good way of helping me understand, a way, not unlike that of nurses who have cared for me, of calibrating my attention, tuning me to just the right spot on a spectrum that stretches from blissful ignorance on one pole to full panic mode on the other. I am inclined to trust him, to believe the things he says, the tone with which he paints this situation, which is real, but not yet dire. And so for a moment, I feel competent enough, glad I called before it got out of hand. I called, they set up the appointment, and sent Blake, who stood a few feet back from the door I opened, holding a box rodenticide in one hand and a mask in the other.
As I write this scene, I remember that I opened my door to him maskless, as he stood safely distant, holding his mask so I could see it, as if to say something to me without words: I know there’s a pandemic. I know it’s real. I expect you might want me to wear this and I’m ready to do that. You’re not crazy. That’s the nature of what I heard, anyhow, the nature of what I read in that sign. I wish I’d been holding a mask, too, as my wordless answer. Or wearing one. I wish I had said something different in my wordless reply, though I suppose only Blake gets to say what I said, even if it’s not what I meant. Had my masklessness said something I didn’t mean to say? It’s over. Why do you have a mask? You don’t need that. I don’t care about your health. I think I might have been wearing my house — the luxury of its solitude and therefore perceived safety — like a mask, even as ants were maybe slowly destroying it from the inside out. The actual masks were right there, where they’ve been stationed for over two years now, right by the door, hanging on a peg meant for a coat you’d grab without thinking on your way out into the cold.
(a thin breath of air through a faulty window seal? a sip of ale drawn from a cask? a conscription of the unwilling? the distance from waterline to keel?)
and language itself is maybe the first transformation, and already it is wrong, the poem, it can never be right—and the body changes, and the world, and the understanding wrought between them, and I come to the poem a draft from a different direction, I change, I change, the language
is insufficient, a reaching, a lie, and so I change it, and I change it again, and then I change, and so I change it, and it changes me, and I change, I’m conscripted, poised always to dodge, eye on the northern border, and how did war come to the page where I meant nothing of the kind? my mean-ing wages itself, weaponized, against an impervious breeze—
I spent most of January at a very rural, isolated retreat, a place I love and have visited before. I brought with me some printed drafts I’d forced myself to write during three month-long daily “grinds” in 2021. I’d completed my commitments to write a poem or poem-like thing every day for those three months; then, for the most part, wrote nothing in between the three grinds; with a few exceptions I didn’t even glance at those drafts again until I printed them, didn’t give them any kind of deeper look until the retreat.
When I was finished with each printed forced poem draft, finished writing on it, crossing out, circling, adding – after I’d typed it into a word doc or given it up to the unfinished, the forgettable – I found myself folding the paper copies into cranes. My brother taught me how to do this years ago. This didn’t mean I was “finished” working on the poem, only that my work with that particular paper copy was over.
When I was on “work study” at the Vermont Studio Center, a dozen years ago, for a month-long writing residency, my job was to work breakfast and lunch prep – I can’t remember how many days a week, but not all of them. It was a very early morning shift, in the small dining hall/kitchen, and that early dark work shift was a boon that particular July, given the smothering heat wave that had settled over northern Vermont. My job included setting up/making the coffee and hot water for tea, putting out the coffee/tea fixings, topping off and putting out the cereals, setting up the breads at the toasters. The other piece of my job was prepping the salad bar for lunch, which meant that I had to duck into the walk-in cooler, frequently, respite from both heat wave and, as the other morning-duty worker got the hot entrees going, the blazing griddle and burners. I liked also that the work shift got me up and going so early in the day, because even if I had a totally unproductive, stuck, distracted failure of a writing day, I could console myself with the fact that I had helped feed us. I had made something. With my hands, a physical thing.
I spent some of the past pandemic year and a half folding and tearing and gluing and sewing paper. I was taught some new techniques. While I was doing it, it often felt more real or meaningful or grounded than writing poems did. Most of the poems I drafted felt forced because they were forced. But/and, that work sometimes seems all of a piece – the folding and tearing, the writing and even the not-writing. The threads, the glue. Even the forcing.
I made a list, called “options” at the beginning of the January residency. I tacked it to the bulletin board over the desk. I didn’t want to spend time having to think of something new to do or work on when I was tired of doing or working on whatever I was working on. I made a list that included different kinds of things – a handful of revision and writing projects, sure, but also writing letters and postcards, or doing counted cross-stitch, or listening to a podcast, or reading a book or article or literary journal issue I’d brought with me. I didn’t want to get hung up in potentially paralyzing “productivity” imperatives, yet I didn’t want to squander the incredible time and space I had been granted to “do my work.” I think this list was trying to be generous about pace and scope and rhythm and what might constitute work, or conditions that might make work rich, rewarding, surprising, sustaining, sustainable.
After I had folded a lot of paper cranes, I found the feather. The feather from a bird, a real bird, some kind of brazen flicker. Enough feathers spread across a section of the grass near the fenced in garden that it seemed like there might have been a squabble or an attack.
Thread. Revision having to do with picking up threads, or following them, or discarding them. Thread of thinking – like a theme. Here – literal thread – borrowed from spare skeins from the cross stitch amusement that was Not Writing (an other thing, a thing to do with my hands) – links the one work with the other. Or suggests a set of linkages. Like a trail? Like a leash? Like an umbilicus? From the folded words to threads to wings.
My old cigarette-smoking hands, my idle hands, my hands that wanted something more than a poem at hand, wanted a poem inhand, for folding. Some occupation. No more smoke-breaks for this iteration/version/draft of myself. Folding, sewing, reading, listening, staring, taking the cranes out into the landscapes. Re-reading via crane-folds.
I finished my planned cross-stitch project – a bowling towel with The Dude from The Big Lebowski on it – and had a set of small patterns but no big project left, so I experimented a bit with using random “wrong” colors of thread in place of the suggested colors in those small patterns. This made me remember someone I knew — a poet, actually — who did paint-by-numbers but instead of following the instructions, wherein paint #1 would be added to the sections marked #1, he’d use #1 to paint all the #7 sections, and so on.
Transform, re-form, re-figure the paper, fold, press the creases, then press them against themselves. Fold new lines against the old, printed ones. Fold with the grain, fold against it. Consider and reconsider the materials. Follow part of the pattern, ignore part of the pattern. Recombine. Recycle.
Bring an edge closer, push what’s at the center to an edge, reconsider here, and there, scope and relation and perspective – one window, another window, edge and ledge –
This past summer, in advance of anticipated autumn travel, before Delta fully unfurled and the Covid numbers painted the U.S. map almost entirely red, I had optimistically ordered copies of my book to have on hand during the trip. I was vaxxed, maybe more people would get vaxxed, maybe things would actually be better/safer/more accessible. I thought I might hit some open mics, some readings. There were a couple of series where I knew folks and which might be up and running.
I don’t remember more than the fuzziest contours of that small, sweet, brief optimism I permitted myself — to maybe read poems aloud in person to strangers, to hear the poems of others read aloud, in person. To travel in the ways I have traveled in the past. Along with eating inside restaurants and, well, doing anything maskless in a public indoor space, giving readings in person is a thing that did not happen during my travels, and that has not happened since March 2020. Other things happened on the road, good things, interesting and strange and profoundly uncomfortable things. I’m very grateful to have been able to travel at all, even within limitations I have tried not to resent too deeply.
At one point, outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, we happened to encounter one of those little free libraries, and I ended up leaving one of the copies of my book there. I signed it “Passing through Santa Fe,” and included the date.
Later on this trip, I decided I’d make it a point to find more Little Free Libraries where I’d leave a copy of my book and pick up anything that I was interested in reading, as is the spirit of the enterprise. In Chicago, visiting a friend, a fellow poet, I asked for a copy of each of her books so that I could leave them in the Little Free Libraries along with my own as I made my way home.
I visited a total of five more Little Free Libraries after Santa Fe — Boise, Idaho (#23842), Ogden, Utah (#32414), Cheyenne, Wyoming (#125480), Erie, PA (#53892) and the “Little Pink Library” in Corning, New York (#81419). Here are some photos. That first one is an image from Google Maps of the Boise LFL — I like the shadow. The rest are by me.
It felt satisfying to leave copies of my book in places where nobody (or okay, maybe one person?) knows me, where my book would probably never enter the book ecosystem more organically. I signed the books, always indicated that I was “passing through,” and included the date. It helped me get rid of some books, got me off the interstates briefly, and was another kinda-social-but-at-a-distance experience to add to the growing list of such experiences. There was something mildly therapeutic about this small ritual — something about me dealing with having dared to allow myself even a small optimism, feeling stupid for having done so.
I might make this a new road trip tradition moving forward, to make it a point to visit Little Free Libraries when I travel. Not necessarily with my own book, but because they are interesting, such a great project overall, and sometimes so freakin’ adorable.
In December 2014, six years ago, an old friend, also a writer, invited me to participate in a writing accountability group/experience called “the Grind.” Well, actually, he had invited me months before, invited me more than once, but I resisted — it was a month-long commitment to draft and share a new poem every day, via email, with a confidential group of readers, most of whom I would not know. No feedback, just daily accountability and practice. I don’t remember what finally enabled/forced me to say “yes” for that first December. This year, signing up for my first Grind in two years, it was a long dry spell that finally nudged me into making the commitment, the longest & driest I can remember, not only a not-writing but some kind of not-wanting-to-write, I think.
I just looked back through my emails to examine the archive of my poem drafts from that first experience. I see that I was assigned to a group with a poet whose amazing book (not published yet in 2014) I read and was blown away by in 2020. When I look at the list of participants in my first “welcome to this month’s Grind” email, I see a few familiar names of writer friends of mine who’d been participating already — poets and prose writers.
In December 2014, there were 9 groups (poem-focused groups and “manic mixture” to accommodate genre variations) with 63 participants signed up. This December: 174 signed up in 25 groups including new and revised poetry, new and revised prose, and mixed-genre). Some of the same names from 2014. When I look at the poems I drafted that first time — all new ones — I see that four of them have since been published, in a chapbook and then a full-length collection of poetry, my first. Another poem from that month was revised into the title poem of a forthcoming chapbook (hopefully out in 2021). Another poem from that month was published in an anthology in 2020, and I actually revisited/revised one of those 2014 poem drafts this month in my current Grind (I was in one of the “new and revised” poems groups, so revision was allowed!). I suppose I could look through all my monthly Grinds — I think I’ve done something like eighteen months total over six years — and inventory those “success stories,” poems that found a life outside the Grind. But of course the “success” of the Grind is daily, monthly, and mostly private. The success of the Grind is to show up with your poem, and to be there so others can show up with their poems. (or prose or whatever).
I always complain my way through the Grind. I kind of hate it. Hate having to write a new poem draft every day (I have done almost exclusively “New Poetry” during my time on the Grind), having to send it to people whose drafts always seem so much more finished and interesting than mine. Once I was randomly placed into a group with a VERY WELL-KNOWN writer whose work I have long admired, and with whom I would NOT have been inclined to share my shitty poem drafts (or even, frankly, poems I thought were decent) — it was disconcerting at first, but then just….lovely. Not having to give feedback — indeed, feedback of any kind is not only not required, it’s sort of frowned-upon — turns out to be an important element of doing a Grind.
On very rare occasions there have been folks who (habitually, repeatedly) did not show up daily, and that not showing up sometimes added (disproportionately, for sure) to my Grind grumpiness. You signed up, (I shouted to the empty room) voluntarily, to do ONE THING — to be accountable, alongside others, in this one daily thing — if you can’t do it — that’s OKAY! Just don’t sign up! God, who would even WANT to do this? My anger was mostly blooming and booming from insecurity about the roughness of my own drafts, and was (I cannot emphasize enough) DISPROPORTIONATE to the actual “offenses,” and probably not useful in any way. And for the most part, I have found that those who sign up come through on that commitment, and I am grateful for it, because it is HARD.
Why did I even sign up to do it? Different reasons or combinations of reasons each time, I think. Different contexts, imperatives. Grind founder (The Grindfather?) Ross White articulates so well the “whys” of the Grind in a two-part post (here and here). So many of the reasons he describes resonate with me – again, maybe different ones at different times over the last few years.
I thought briefly about signing up to do January as well, but I didn’t, for a number of reasons. I think I will, without benefit of the Grind’s specific pressure, try to do some revision of a few of these drafts in January. I’ve got a bunch of work stuff looming – specific tasks but also general conditions – that occupies so much of my head and heart recently. I will have to get back to it in January. And I am still not feeling the impulses to write poems that I have historically felt, that I have relied upon, that have been clear and strong enough to see me through other, different, shorter stretches of not writing, or writing struggle.
My December 2020 Grind poem titles are: My Love & Other Things, Pandemic Garden, Strangers, People You May Know, Fathom/Father, Prepared, The Book, Arecibo, 2020, Endearments, Mosh, Wind in Trees, Why I Woke at 3AM, My Mother Doesn’t Miss The Christmas Tree, Binding, Accumulations, Monhegan (revision), The College Bar, Ghazal to Remind the Rain, Dimensions, Conjunction Weather, Conjunctions, 2020, Walk of Shame, Salt, Not Even Now, We Learned, We Learned (revision), Certain Premises, Here, A Year in the Woods Behind the House, Tired, Therapy
I did a revision of “Conjunctions, 2020” and on a lark sent it to Transitions: Poems in the Afterglow, part of an ongoing project of Indolent Books, and they selected and posted it, like, the next day. That was a speedy turnaround. And a little queasy-feeling in the speed of it, from my end. Most of the rest of these drafts will never see the light of day beyond the Grind, and that’s okay – that’s as it has been. But some of them may make it out into the world a bit – that’s also as it has been.
In any case, as grumpy and whiny as I can be in the middle of it, I am grateful to my friend for inviting me to participate in the Grind, grateful to those many writers who showed up for themselves & each other, and grateful to Grindfather (surely I am not the first one to use this phrase??) Ross White for making so much so possible through his community-minded generosity.
I often think of and describe my dad as a “poster child” for a conventional/idealized U.S. middle-to-upper-middle class vision of retirement for his cohort — the “silent generation.” After thirty years in the Navy, which included a tour in Vietnam, unaccompanied deployment with the Seabees, and running the Public Works Center at the Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines, he was able to retire. He and my mom moved back to Washington State, where he had worked to help build the Bangor Trident Submarine Base on the Hood Canal — we lived there for three years when I was in elementary school. They liked the area, and had retired Navy friends there, and so they made one last cross-country move and landed outside of Poulsbo, right up the Hood Canal from the sub base, on a piece of land where my dad designed and supervised the construction of the last house he’d ever live in, after a life of moving every one to three years, due not only to his own itinerant military career, but also to his father’s thirty years in the Navy.
My dad’s birthday is coming up in early October, and then, the fifth anniversary of his death at the very beginning of November. I have, in my adult life, resisted anniversaries of all kinds, have been skeptical and even cynical about them, not sure why, but a part of me also enjoys certain rituals and traditions. The approaching of the fifth year “mark” of my dad’s sudden and unexpected death is on my mind. I wonder if my urge to commemorate is related to the pandemic, to the way the pandemic has altered — is altering –my relationship to time, to the passing of it, the measuring and marking of it, its role in how I try to live and comprehend my life. Many usual markers — many having to do with work, but also having to do with the rhythms of social and personal life — are radically altered or gone. So maybe how I feel about the role of ritual, of the intentional marking of time, which used to seem to mark itself (?), is changed and changing.
I opened this piece by asserting that my dad was a retirement “poster child” because he was such a good hobbyist. He Kept Busy. He made artful, precise scratch- and kit-built model ships. He took up the Appalachian mountain dulcimer. And he took up watercolor painting. Or, more precisely, in retirement he was able to dedicate himself more fully to even deeper pursuit and practice of these avocations to which he had been called, to varying degrees, before he actually retired.
I am interested in this turn of phrase, to “take” something “up.” I picture a person gathering something into their arms, maybe lifting it a bit? To take something “on” is to “begin to do” something, according to etymonline.com. I can’t find an entry there for “take up” but it feels to me like a step past “taking on.” In this thread, “take on” is described as more “burdensome,” hinting at an obligation, a challenge, or maybe at something adversarial, whereas “take up” is more of a free choice, maybe a chance at pleasure?
Now that I think about it more, I’d say my dad took on “taking up” as a retiree, for sure. As if it was his obligation (his new “job?”) to “pursue interests.” His obligation to enjoy them deeply. To not squander his opportunity. He probably wouldn’t have called it privilege, but it sure seems like privilege, that leisure.
My dad was not a mere dabbler in any of these three major avocations. He took them on and up with a patient seriousness of purpose, such a long-game for learning. He was a faithful practitioner, a “practicer.” My dad believed, I think, in mastery, but also, I think, he was patient about not achieving it. Especially with the painting, he put in the process and practice work. I wonder if this is related at all to the fact that both his sister and his mother were accomplished, “professional” artists. When he died, I already had a framed painting of his — my favorite from among a half-dozen or so from which he asked me to choose — hanging in my house in New Hampshire. (Also on the wall, a painting by my grandmother, and one by my aunt.)
But when my mom asked if I wanted any of the … dozens? hundreds? of stiff sheets of watercolor work he’d left behind, I didn’t look for another finished piece to hang on my wall. I was mostly drawn instead to the artifacts of his process, his practice.
There was even more of this stuff — and I took more than I’ve pictured here. His careful study documented. His practice, his learning, his trying, preserved here in these patches of color, these “tests.” And there were also a few starts or “drafts” I snagged. Though I guess I have no business saying what part of his process they represent or occupy.
Here’s my dad’s finished painting on my wall, the one I chose when he asked me to choose:
In the work he left behind, I found two versions — shall I call them sketches? attempts? perhaps rehearsals? — of the same scene. I am fascinated by them. I look and look at them.
It’s like seeing a little bit through his eyes, or so I tell myself, in this moment, trying that notion out in these words, this draft of an idea. A version. Not a commitment, even though putting the words into the white void sometimes can feel like signing a contract. Not so, not so. There are more words, different shades of the same idea, different ideas. Time passes through ideas/ideas pass through time.
Here are the two versions/drafts of the painting:
I look at these and I think: rehearsal. Practice. Getting to know the materials. Getting to know one’s own vision as enacted by brush strokes, color choices, quantity of water.
How do you rehearse for the “final version?” When do you know the final is the final? Is the version on my wall “finished” because it is framed, because it’s displayed? My dad is the one who decreed it finished, who had it framed as a gift for me. Also — he was finished — is forever finished — painting versions of the work. There will be no further work. So, in some literal sense, this is the “final” in a series. But I guess I’m asking, wondering, why even care about “finality?” I’m not sure.
These questions are ones I ask myself from time to time, and which I encourage my writing students to ask themselves and one another. They are sort of unanswerable. I try to talk with students sometimes about the difference between BEING finished WITH something (for now?) and a THING being FINISHED, though is that even a real distinction? And of course for writers I work with in university classes, the constraints of a “semester” which ENDS (and then a new one begins!) influence the pace and timing of composing, reflecting, and revising.
If to begin a thing is to “take it up,” might “finishing” be an act of “putting down?” (Sometimes we describe acts of writing as “putting (something) down” on paper. We also sometimes use the expression, “to write down,” not just “to write.” “Write down these instructions.” What is “up” in that figuring?)
What shall I do with these versions of revision? These versions of my dad’s vision? These transcripts of his trying? These archived attempts? What story of painting, of learning, of testing materials and gestures, do I want them to serve? What story of my father do I want them to serve?
It must be a kind of revision when I write about my dad in certain ways, certain genres, on certain days. Re-vision as I re-member him when he is dead and I am fifty, as opposed to when I was thirty and he was still living. Revision if I make it past the age he was when he died a few years ago to remember him again, remember him differently. I am thinking again, still, of time — how my thinking about my father recently is connected to the time of year, to the passage of time, to the commemorations of “birthday” and “day of death.” To my own aging. And so I think also of how re-vision feels connected to the passages of time, the duration and pace (of the poem, of the world swirling around the poem, of the before-poem and during-poem and after-poem), the shapes and textures we call time, those marks of it we make. Marks like clock numbers, like brush strokes, like words.
I wish he were here to ask; I’m sure he’d have things to say about the flaws of the versions of his painting — their failures, their incompleteness. And yet, the materials and technique — watercolor — he uses in this painting feel so….resistant to completeness. The painting edges up into what feels to me like a kind of minimalism when I imagine practicing what I see as a skilled kind of restraint. What I mean is, the few times I’ve tried seriously to draw or paint, I think my fatal flaw is not stopping soon enough. I was told this once (kindly, I think) by an art teacher. I look at the framed painting and wonder if the reason he framed it, named it finished, and not the others, is his feeling that he stopped painting at just the right moment? I don’t know. Probably if I’d found all three versions in the huge stack of his work, I wouldn’t be so certain which was the “final draft.” Which one I would have chosen to have professionally framed, which two relegate to the closet archives?
For the most part, I save no such archives myself — most of my versions disappear in the wake of revision — my rehearsals in the form of sequences of drafts are mostly ephemeral. There are exceptions, but most of the saved work is printed out and annotated, and is in a folder of “unfinished” stuff I mean to get back to.
Except that some poems I write are of course revisions/versions of poems I’ve already “finished,” or of “a poem” I keep writing and (re) writing and may never finish. And so maybe some poems are rehearsals only I don’t know they are rehearsals.
Or maybe many or maybe all my poems are rehearsals of some kind.
I make myself go outside. It is nice outside, not too hot, but sunny and robin’s egg blue sky. A light breeze to keep the bugs off. To have to “make” myself go out into such temperate loveliness is so absurd. I am glassy-eyed and dimwitted from hours, days, weeks of screen work punctuated by the social media work-distractions which also serve as my sole contact with most of my people these days, and it is a nice day and I have a book of poems to finish reading and it is August and I am sad and frustrated and the fall semester of teaching writing (online) is looming, and winter is coming and so out I go.
There’s some windfall from the remnants of tropical storm Isaias. Acorn-studded bouquets thrown down from the skyscraper oak. Last year’s paper wasp nest gust-scrubbed from the skylight frame.
(I have not been writing poems. These words about the nest and the oak have the vague feel of poetry, but don’t pull me into drafting a poem the way they might have in March. That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else. Some place I don’t want to tread.)
I sit down to read but want to scoot the potted celery over so I can set down my notebook on the picnic table. As I shove the pot over, I reveal a toad. He is not amused. He was not expecting this turn of events.
I think about the metaphors I want to make from the toad. The contemplative distance between my wanting to and my doing it is nearly nonexistent. First I consider the sudden exposure, the moments of disorientation and maybe fear, and then the finding again of that cool, dark space. I think about all the time I have spent inside over the last months. Then I’m thinking about how the few times I go out now, masked and skittish, I feel exposed and worried and strange. E(strange)d. And I am lucky enough to have a long-term partner at home, someone with whom to talk and cry and laugh and eat and be. And maybe I should just let a toad be a toad. I do not have a good history of letting toads be toads, however:
I wrote that poem almost 15 years ago. Maybe longer? I was still teaching Introduction to Literature, which I think I only did my first few semesters on the faculty at my university, where I will start my 20th year in a couple of weeks.
It’s (e)strange to read this poem now, to revisit its long-ago March (or April?), and to think back to this year’s pandemic shut-down right after spring break. Hubris. Being on the lookout. Toad as soothsayer. Spring full of flood, earthquake, astronomical rarities, weather extremes, and my own casual imaginings about what “plague” might descend next.
Later, after reading some poems and pausing to stare at the sky and reading some more poems, I notice a caterpillar, on the picnic table, making its way somewhere. When I first see it, it is caterpillar-ing confidently forward, like it knows where it’s headed. But when it hits the edge of the picnic table, it seems fully unprepared for the sheer drop, the next steps suddenly gone, suddenly air. It reaches and reaches into the void where the path should be.
If I can’t let a toad be a toad, I also definitely can’t let a caterpillar be a caterpillar. I mean, they transform (!) into moths and butterflies (!!) for crying out loud. They can’t let themselves be caterpillars. They spin cocoons of self-generated silk around their bodies and mutate into a new form, often one dramatically different from their caterpillar embodiment in terms of color and texture.
Out on an errand last week, I wore a face mask as usual, but also happened to be wearing a hat and sunglasses, and I’m pretty sure someone who has known me for 15+ years did not recognize me — they are a brassy, call-to-you-across-the-crowded-restaurant extroverted person who always notices/sees me, says hello/engages in chat when we run into each other. They were oddly standoffish, and it wasn’t until I was back in the car that it occurred to me that maybe this person had not actually known it was me. Had not recognized me.
This didn’t make me mad or upset — instead, it reminded me of when I was new to the area all those years ago, how nobody knew me from Adam, and also about how much I enjoyed, for the first two thirds of my life, the opportunity, given and given again, of being a stranger, being unknown, being anonymous. Being new, and maybe transformed by that newness.
Was I enjoying the notion of (possible) rare anonymity in pretty much the same instant I was mourning spending 95% of my time physically — and emotionally — apart from the world beyond our front door? Was I remembering a more itinerant life, when I rarely lived anywhere for more than a few years? When I was somewhat regularly renewed by…..being new? By being the stranger?
What is my current relationship to estrangement, anyhow?
I make myself look at the sky. Then I take a photo of the sky. I am documenting and archiving, which feels like a thing I can do to disrupt the strange stillness of just looking at the unmediated sky. Or observing, without recording, a caterpillar.
I have never succeeded at meditation, as far as I know. (I have also perhaps not tried very hard.)
How long was I outside before I was putting all of it to metaphorical purposes? Did I bring the purposes with me out onto the deck, with my book and notebook and iPad, or were they only revealed to me (like a toad!) after I got out here?
I wonder if there can even be an unmediated sky or caterpillar if I am there looking at it, camera or no. Aren’t I just a camera? I’m not even sure I want to let the caterpillar just be a caterpillar, or a toad a toad, or if that’s even an option, given language, given my hungry, narrating gaze.
Two ways I think about ending this writing. First way — another video, with my foolish narrating voice calling a melodramatic play-by-play for an inchworm who, in “the end” (of my documenting/narrative framing) succeeds, survives, makes it across the gap, doesn’t get eaten by the toad, etc., etc.:
Second way — I consider how the caterpillar and the inchworm, in their reaching with the whole front ends of their bodies into the empty air, across the gap, remind me of the first card of the major arcana of the standard Tarot deck: The Fool.
On the left, the Rider-Waite (classic, popular tarot deck) rendition of the Fool; in the center, a more contemporary riff on the traditional Fool iconography in the “Light Seers” tarot deck, and on the right, the Fool from my own tarot deck, the Hanson Roberts. The significant common image: the cliff the Fool’s about to step (or fall) off of.
At Tarot.com (the Hanson-Roberts link above), this is part of their description of the Fool:
“Modern decks usually borrow from the Rider-Waite imagery. Most Fool cards copy the bucolic mountainside scene, the butterfly, and the potential misplaced step that will send The Fool tumbling into the unknown. Don’t forget, though, that the earlier versions of this card represented already-fallen humanity, over-identified with the material plane of existence, and beginning a pilgrimage toward self-knowledge and, eventually, wisdom.”
The gap. The fumble and reach. The unknown. Fools of all stripes, neither fully innocent nor irredeemably fallen, poised to take that tumble or leap or step.
That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else.
Was in Zoom webinar conversation yesterday with faculty and staff colleagues about the “chat” function in Zoom being a kind of backchanneling that some folks found great/helpful/fun and others found overwhelming/distracting/not fun. We had a general conversation of different kinds of “backchanneling,” like, for instance, live-tweeting a conference presentation or class or other live/f2f event. We talked about access, distraction, engagement, etc.
We were asked to actually take a VOTE about whether we wanted to continue (in our synchronous/Zoom professional development sessions) to keep the Zoom chat live/open, or to have a separate (on Microsoft Teams) backchannel. We were also, of course, and more importantly, asked to think about this stuff with respect to the university courses we would be teaching in online and hybrid formats in the fall. We ran out of talking time, but were invited to reflect further. So I did.
In our conversation, I mentioned being reminded of Robert Brooke’s notion of “underlife” in the writing classroom. Here’s a wee summary, and here’s a link to the original scholarship (man, that was a long time ago!).
Channels are interesting to think about metaphorically. I think of water flowing – how a river might split into smaller channels and then rejoin. The English Channel (swim it! put a chunnel under it!).
A channel can be a (alternative? unplanned? VERY planned?) way of getting somewhere AND a channel can be a barrier. Channeling is also what a medium does, to speak to (and for) the Spirits.
Backchannel implies front channel. The river is the front channel, and when it hits the delta, it splits into multiple (subsidiary? smaller? less powerful? unnamed? seasonal? unmapped?) “back” (side?) channels.
Regarding the Zoom backchannels as I have experienced them – I have mixed feelings for sure. I like that the backchannel might “capture” something (a question, an idea) that might otherwise be “lost” (or never…exist?)
maybe not everything needs to be “captured?” What is the function of the ephemeral? The advantage of forgetting?
I sometimes find the backchannel distracting – I distract myself with it and am distracted by it.
When I am grumpiest about it, the backchannel/backchatter that happens during a presentation makes me think about the times at poetry open mics when a poet gets up to the mic, midway through the reading, and says, “I just wrote this here tonight,” which my internal grump-translator translates into “I am only here for you to listen to me, I am to busy with myself/my own work to bother listening to YOU.”
I occasionally imagine I am better at multi-channeling than I actually am – but mostly I know I am NOT good at focusing on more than one thing/thread/stream at once.
I occasionally use the backchannel to indulge in unnecessary chatter. Sometimes snarky, sometimes not.
such small talk might be “signs of life” in a class community? (or signs of “underlife?”) Which could be helpful for all to see?
I think the backchannel worked pretty well in the Advanced Poetry Workshop this spring, and has worked well in Zoom poetry readings I’ve attended – it’s a space where folks can emphasize lines/images they liked, during the reading, kind of like at an actual poetry slam (or some readings) – you know, that little sound you or someone might make when you hear a really AFFECTING line? In the poetry workshop, I think students appreciated being able to go back through the chat (alongside the written feedback they received AND the spoken feedback in the live zooming) as part of the overall experience.
When are the “distractions” worth the reward? Maybe we can’t always anticipate the reward, and therefore can’t plan for it.
Could the chat be used/function like a “fishbowl” discussion? Like, assign some folks to the chat to describe/comment on the spoken activity/conversation? This sort of….un-backs the backchannel, or, like, brings into alignment with the main channel.
Maybe there’s room for both – moments when the backchannel is (necessarily, unavoidably, helpfully) subsersive/counter/”back”, and other moments when the backchannel is harnessed (?) or serving (??) the main channel.
Or should the backchannel be left entirely to its wild, unbroken, un-harnessable ways? I don’t know! (Maybe the real backchannel is never for me — the teacher — to see?)
Can backchannel reinforce “clicqueiness?” Battle it?
Backchanneling can be a way IN and/or a way OUT. And a way…alongside?
That’s all I wrote. (in my notebook, I mean. Like, my paper notebook. And now here.)
For the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community at Plymouth State University, which I’ve committed to participate in this school year, we’ve been asked to do lots of different work so far, and to do it on various channels, publicly if possible/desirable. I have mostly kept my work to the semi-privacy of the Teams site associated with my cohort in this program. I started trying to show/share some of my teaching work in the spring, but my efforts there were stymied by the pandemic.
One of our recent prompts was to “write (and share if you feel comfortable doing so) a self-assessment on your own development of the Habits of Mind and pay particular attention to the signposts on the benchmarks for the level of achievement you believe you have attained. How do you demonstrate that level of achievement? What behaviors do you exhibit for each of the signposts?” (The Habits of Mind are a part of our General Education program.)
I don’t feel particularly comfortable sharing this publicly. But I have seen others in my cohort step out into a wider public with their work, and have been grateful and impressed. I am also interested in spending some more time in that feeling — discomfort (shorthand for fears & anxieties) as I consider what it might mean to teach in the fall, with/in the pandemic (and beyond, if there is a beyond), with a heightened awareness of the trauma that infuses nearly everything right now — the trauma that feels new to some of us, and which is familiar — if perhaps amplified — for others of us, students, faculty, and staff, friends and families.
This discomfort (showing my written reflection, my writing-to-think) is something many of my students experience regularly when I ask them to share their work, which may feel to them similarly unformed, and which may spark fears and anxieties similar to the ones I am feeling just now — around sharing this particular (not very high stakes) reflection, but also more generally, around teaching, the university, trauma, access, (in)humanity, and more. I want to both explore the “early” (?) sharing of thinking-in-process as part of thinking-in-process, AND I want to push back against pressures towards concluding, asserting, completing. Push back against the “process” as some kind of byproduct of product. (This is connected to some of my questions about the “summit,” I think.)
Anyhow, here’s what I shared in that more private space on Tuesday morning, which I’ll share now on Sunday in this less private space. I have resisted the urge to edit it. For now.
(WARNING — This is a straight-up FREEWRITE. Also, I am surely not doing this prompt correctly. ALSO I am not asserting any truths or conclusions here! I would not normally share this work, but, welp, here we go. I am engaged!)
The question, “How do you demonstrate that level of achievement” is interesting to me because of how it immediately makes me wonder: demonstrate to WHOM? When? How often? And maybe even WHY “demonstrate?” Maybe that verb is giving me pause. How about “enact” or “practice” or “employ?” “Demonstrate” makes me think about showing or “proving” (with evidence!) what I know, what I can do. But also maybe of a teaching-related activity. All of which makes me think of schooling. Also “exhibit” makes me think of evidence — also of a museum, a sideshow, symptoms of disease. “Exhibiting behaviors” also sounds a little clinical, a little pathological. (This is not me critiquing the assignment language, this is me rolling around in it, as I do, to find/make meaning) “Level of achievement.” Are these levels stable? Linear? Is “summit” more aspirational than actual? That’s how it often feels to me. But even if it’s actual, doesn’t our sense of “summit” change over time? Like, anybody else have the experience of being certain you were at a “summit” (for years, maybe) but then you realize (how? through more living/learning, I guess) there is actually more climbing for you than you’d realized. More climbing than you could see (were able/ready to see?) before. Hm.
PURPOSEFUL COMMUNICATION — as a writer, I suppose I’m good enough at this? I will never be at the “summit,” as I believe no “summit” actually exists? I’m certainly beyond basecamp. I’m climbing. Sometimes I write to find/discover/create my writing purpose, though, which is a purposeful activity. “To be effective, messages must engage the perspectives of others and foster dialog among individuals and the community.” ALL messages must do all of this all the time? Is drafting a poem sort of communicating with myself? Is this, right now, messaging? I have a purpose — to write-to-know, to use writing as a way to create/come to understanding or clarity (or purpose). But, like, is this a message for an audience beyond myself? What purposes might such learning-in-public serve? To document a process? And why do that? It feels very vulnerable to potentially do this work in front of others, before I have arrived at my Purposes.
PROBLEM-SOLVING I think poetry writing and much art making is actually problem-solving in some sense. (It is many other things, too.) According to the definition we’re using, problem-solving includes the “ability to think creatively, adapt and extend one’s thinking, acknowledge different contexts and incorporate different perspectives,” — what does it mean to incorporate different perspectives in a piece of art? For how many artists might art making be primarily about discovering/shaping/rendering their PARTICULAR perspective? Owning that? NOT “incorporating” others in the “solving” of the “problem” of the individual painting or song or poem? The language, “embrace flexibility, consider potential implications, determine courses of action, persist and adapt despite failure, and reflect on the results” is all very much in line, I think, with how I teach writing. And how I compose and revise poems. As to other kinds of problems — and a more general assessment — I find I am not as adaptable/creative as one might imagine a poet should be. I get stuck sometimes in old/established ways of thinking — I get in my own way with some stubbornness. I think I am better at spending time sussing out what a problem actually IS — like, describing/comprehending it. I think I resist “solutionism.” I think I privilege experimentation over problem-solving, though experiments are frequently part of a problem-solving process. But….does a poem or painting even need/want to solve anything? Useful, perhaps, to distinguish imaginative writing from expository/more utilitarian (UGH UGH UGH) writing here. Maybe. The composition essay as a problem to be solved? The QUESTION or WONDERING behind the composition essay as a problem (such a negative connotation!) to be solved (must it be? What if we were allowed to remain in the unsolvedness? Can solving ever be the wrong thing to do with/to a problem? Freewriting is fun.
INTEGRATED PERSPECTIVE “the recognition that individual beliefs, ideas, and values are influenced by personal experience as well as multiple contextual factors—cultural, historical, political, etc.” I think I know this. I achieve this. I think this is partly from growing up a military brat and moving every 2-3 years, living overseas, etc. I think also my discipline (English/literary and cultural studies/creative writing) also relies in large part on these notions — that contexts and subjectivities are FUNDAMENTAL, not just, considerations alongside or after the fact. I think I “demonstrate” good “climbing” here by owning my perspectives AS perspectives, by using tools I’ve accumulated (self-reflection, pausing and listening, stepping outside myself as much as such a thing is remotely possible to imagine empathetically other perspectives, language and theory around words like “other,” etc.) to examine my own assumptions as such. “Students will acknowledge the limitations of singular points of view and recognize the benefits of engaging with and learning from others in order to integrate multiple perspectives for effective communication, problem-solving, and collaboration.” We face interesting challenges these days from those who use this kind of language alongside “just my opinion” and “free speech” to recast, say, SCIENCE as a matter of “perspective,” which, yes, of course it is, and is also multiple/variant/evolving/WRONG sometimes — but — I’ve seen a careless and cruel version of “relativism” in the media/culture lately, a “both-sides-ism” that feels like a crude (mis)casting of “limitations of singular points of view.” BUT THAT’S JUST MY OPINION, MKAY?
SELF-REGULATED LEARNING I wish I were less responsive to extrinsic motivators — praise, badges, desire to be connected with others in certain ways. I mean, I read, I am curious, I write, I learn — do I set “goals” for learning? Not always, or if so, I just am not thinking consciously about it. Right now I have some goals — around learning how to build community online, how to act against the racist white-supremacist impulses of an institution I am a part of/complicit with. I feel DESPERATE to learn how to be in higher education while transforming (I mean in much more serious ways, not task forces and mitigation and lawsuit-proofing and placating) higher education. What is UP with that desperation, though? Partly it’s that I no longer trust higher ed (which is partly no longer trusting MYSELF) to see/do the work required. And yet, so much of what I have been reading and thinking about — so many sources — come from or are attached to or are VISIBLE through structures of higher ed. So. Where was I? Self-regulation. I desire to learn, but also must deal with the institution inside me — the institution that is me, that part of me — no small part — that relishes the familiarity and comfort and peace of the status quo in so many ways. UGH. Why would I (or my students or anybody) want to learn about how wrong we were/are about so much, how the strong and embedded and often invisible (to some) forces of status quo (within and without) continue to be. Am I taking intellectual risks? What would the evidence or “demonstration” of such risk be? Is there an “is it worth it” rubric for risk/reward? I think I am decent at metacognition, but also believe it has its limits. There’s only so far “out” of myself I can get, yes?
IN CONCLUSION (lol) I as the student, handing in the homework, am feeling a couple of things: I have been engaged with these concepts. I have not exactly or clearly done the work I was asked to do. I am nervous that I shared too much. I worry what readers will think about me. I hardly know what I think of myself. This is a too-rough draft. I composed it on 750words.com, and work I do there is private/not typically shared. I don’t mean this writing is “disposable,” but, like, with respect to PURPOSEFUL COMMUNICIATION, I worry that this is hardly a “message.” I see how organized and clear Cathie’s is and I compare my work to that and think I should not share it, or I should rewrite before sharing, or I should do it more like Cathie did it. But I’m past 1400 words and have other work I need to get to. Have I spent enough time on this? Does it even make sense? What next? I do not know.