About Writing, rumination, teaching

Peer Review as an Expression of Hope

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I started out this semester with some big plans for my teaching (and my learning around my teaching), but like so many plans, they have been disrupted by the global pandemic and the physical isolation it has necessitated. (In February, my teaching/plans were also disrupted by a definitely unplanned two-week hospital stay. So it’s been….less than ideal in terms of a semester to be launching into this new/revised pedagogy I’d been into.)

But. And.

While I do NOT believe the remnants of this semester are going to wind up manifesting some kind of “triumph-over-adversity teaching epiphany” narrative, I do think that much of this experience has me not just scrambling/triaging, but actually re-thinking long-standing assumptions and practices (embedded in assignment language and syllabus language, for instance) in ways that will certainly continue post-pandemic.

(What is “post-pandemic?” I have no idea. Maybe there will be no easily discernible “post.” No after. Only next? I’ll say it again — I have no idea. And yes, that makes me anxious.)

I think my hospital stay “disruption” is also informing my thinking about teaching, learning, and the systems that seek to enable those things but which often do just the opposite.

All of this is to say: I just (re)wrote some language around this week’s assignment for my Creative Writing students at Plymouth State University. And I have been glum around not keeping up with the thinking/posting/sharing I had just barely gotten started with around my teaching earlier this semester.

So I thought I’d share my new iteration of this assignment, which I will send out to my students when I send them their peer’s story drafts. Some of this language already existed, but feels different; some of this language is new/emergent. It would likely benefit from some compassionate and inquisitive feedback. Because like writing, and good writerly feedback, teaching is (or can be) a profoundly optimistic,  hopeful, enabling and always-evolving.

Creative Writing, Spring 2020:
Short Story Peer Review Assignment

You have been sent (attached to this email) the short story draft of one of your classmates.

Your task: to offer your thoughts/questions/ideas about what they are working on, and what they might do next.

Another way of thinking about your task: we are all pretty isolated from one another right now. If we were in class, you’d be in small groups sharing this work face to face, and then we’d be talking together as a larger group about questions/struggles/ideas around writing/revising short fiction. Alas, we don’t have those conditions for our work any more.

I believe that our attentive and generous attention to each other’s work at this particular time may be extra important.

Not because creative writing class and short story draft assignments are especially important right now – but because compassion, connection, and creativity are especially important right now. Your reading and thoughtful, hopeful responding to your peer’s story draft can be an enactment of all these things. I say hopeful because good feedback, I think, often gives the writer a sense of possibility, of next. Good constructive feedback, even if the draft under considerations is a gorgeous, difficult, wandering mess, assumes an optimistic posture.

Remember – as always – your job as a draft-reader is to describe what you notice, wonder (ask questions, speculate) about what you see (and don’t see?), and to help the writer keep going. You aren’t “correcting” or “editing,” though editing/pointing out typos or unclear parts can certainly be helpful. But this draft is too new for you to encounter it as something that needs “fixing.” These drafts are still emerging, so keep that exciting and hopeful newness in mind as you read and respond.

You are a human reader; someone who knows what a story is because you have been telling and hearing them all your life. You are a fellow story-teller, a fellow human practicing ways of telling stories. Be with one another in that. Help each other keep going.

Please write up your feedback in at least 250 words and email it back to the author, cc-ing me (eahl at plymouth dot edu), so you can get credit for the assignment. If you have a way to mark up the draft itself and return the marked-up draft along with the 250 words, I’m sure it would be appreciated, but just do the best you can! If you can’t do the markup, don’t sweat it. (I will, of course, also be responding to all drafts!)

It would be ideal for you to submit at the beginning of next week (April 13), so that writers can get it in time to make good use of it, but as with all deadlines before the end of the semester, there is FLEXIBILITY. Just let me know if you need more time, or tech support, or help getting started, or if there are any other obstacles hanging you up on this work. We’ll find a way.

Poetry, rumination, teaching, Uncategorized

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Getting Started in Creative Writing

It is my habit to start each semester’s (UG sophomore-level) Creative Writing class with a writing exercise/assignment using objects — some common, some strange — distributed at random among students. There’s a multi-step, in-class generative phase, and then at home, students are to draft a piece somehow connected to/inspired by the object. Here are some photos documenting my own brainstorming and drafting — my object was a “T” token.

Step one — the in-class brainstorming part. I keep veering back and forth between just “talking” students through the steps and giving them a handout, which is good for encouraging students to move at their own pace.

I took my “worksheet” home and pounded out this really long, probably needlessly-wordy poem draft (essay draft?). Then, next class, we did a round of feedback, with multiple folks commenting on drafts. My readers were really helpful, and good at describing to me what they noticed and appreciated. And this is only the second day of class!

I’ve already started very minimally tinkering/editing…I’ll probably revisit this draft when we spend a class focusing on “radical” editing and revision skills. We’ll do exercises meant to really “mess up” our drafts, in order to “see them anew.” Until then, I might keep tinkering here and there:

About Writing, Poetry, rumination

Language, Translation, Connection, and Everything The Storm Blew In

Driving home through Crawford Notch then through Franconia Notch last night, I had to take my time, take care to pay some extra attention with my aging eyes and slowing reflexes. The wind was gusting up pretty badly, and rain which might not have been so bad had it been left simply to fall was hurled, hissing and rattling, against my Honda. It was dark, and the roads were fairly empty and of course wet, and very foggy in places — so strange to drive up into the White Mountains and not see the White Mountains! Temperatures were also up around sixty-five degrees — a bit out of character for Halloween in Northern New England.

Weather forecast alerts about gusts of fifty miles an hour in the notches were actually what sent me out into the crazy weather — an event I was up north for was ended early due to those warnings, and I live south of the notches.

I was lucky enough to be a participant in an event connected to Poets Bridging Continents IV — a live reading of work in translation (English and Mandarin) by both New Hampshire and visiting Chinese poets. Two of my poems had been translated in advance — and I had English translations of two poems by a visiting poet, Yue Qui.

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When I first saw my poems in Mandarin I was startled. Startled at the visual differences between English and Mandarin, sure, but also I think startled at myself. Startled at how moved I was, looking at those versions of my poems I couldn’t decipher. I actually got a little choked up. As far as I’m aware, none of my poems have been translated into another language before. The act/art of translation felt like such a generous and intimate thing in that moment — so personal! So patient! So enlarging — literally, an enlarging of the potential readership of my two poems but of course, and maybe more importantly, an enlarging of the poems themselves, into new linguistic territories, and maybe, somehow, I could follow my poems there?

Before the reading, our host and organizer Rodger Martin had organized a family-style dinner at the reading venue, the AMC Highland Center. As I arrived, Rodger greeted me by letting me know that “one of your students is here!” I was more than a little surprised — it was, after all, Halloween, and I hadn’t really mentioned this event to my students because I knew they’d be otherwise occupied — and it’s a bit of a haul — an hour’s drive north from the university. Who could it be?

It turned out that Emily, one of the staff helping with our group dinner that night, was my student — an English major from several years back. What a crazy delight to see her! She had taken my Poetry Workshop four years prior,  before graduating and heading off to earn her M.A. in Environmental Arts and Humanities at Oregon State University. She was just recently back home in New Hampshire after completing some post-grad work in Arizona. She was working, so we didn’t get to catch up properly (it’s in the calendar now!), but we did talk briefly about an assignment for poetry workshop that she remembered.

Each fall, after I’ve had a chance to get to know the work and personalities of my students a bit, I select for each of them a book from my own poetry shelves. I like pulling a chair up to those shelves, scanning the titles and authors, holding each student (as I have come to know them) in my mind, selecting a book I hope will engage that particular student as a reader and a writer, maybe nudge that student further in their own writing, whatever that might mean. The set of assignments (annotation and sharing of a poem, imitation of a poem, paper responding to the book) has been largely successful over the years, as students seem interested and ready to respond to a collection of poems that has been selected, individually, for THEM.

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To Emily, whose interests in the environment I was aware of at the time, I loaned Charles Goodrich’s A Scripture of Crows. I had met Charles the year before at the Playa Artist Residency program in Summer Lake, Oregon and became a fan of his work. When submitting her paper about this book, Emily wrote: “Thank you so much for sharing his work with me. I don’t know how you knew it, but I think it was a perfect match for me. I will be looking into more of his work.” Emily ended up out in Oregon — meeting and working with Charles. Wild, huh?

That very day, about an hour before I’d headed up north for this dinner and reading, I had just distributed this year’s selected poetry collections to this year’s poetry workshop students. And among them, as it happens, was A Scripture of Crows, which I loaned to a student whose interests/priorities include environmental sustainability and food justice. Coincidence. Connection across the years and miles between three poets — four if you count me, I guess! — a poetry collection doing some serious traveling. How to articulate this circuit of individuals, poems, interests, fellowship? Look at what can happen!

Most of my students’ lives probably aren’t dramatically life-changed by connecting with these books/authors. I do find, though, that most of my students, even some years later, REMEMBER “their” poet’s name and work, and do so fondly. I just met with one student from poetry workshop a couple of years ago who remembered his work with his assigned book by Marcus Wicker as a meaningful reading and writing experience.

Driving home, the wind and rain were certainly at high volume against my car, in my ears. But also — the music and cadence and expression of “my” (?) poems read aloud so well by Yue Qui was still in me, and I wanted to hold on to that reading, that sense of connection and also, a kind of lovely, brief estrangement from my own sense of my own poems? A moving distance. A reintroduction to the strangeness of any language? I am not sure. I am blogging in the rough, people, trying to capture some things before the wind that is STILL raging down here this morning manages to knock the power out.

Here’s one of my two poems from last night — I recited it as the wind was really kicking up around the Highland Center, and the reading of the translation (photo above) was the cut-short evening’s final reading before we scattered in the wake of the threatened nastiness in the notches.

Outage

When the power fails, the room goes dim
in winter’s ashen afternoon. The hum
of the fridge, the sweep of second hand, all pause.
The breathing of the ancient furnace stops
mid-heave. The well-pump won’t draw water
and in each toilet just one flush remains.
The screens that manage our commerce with the world
blink shut. The cordless telephone is mute.
And so we power down ourselves. We slow
our scurry, quieted like the other major appliances
inhabiting this house. We speak rarely
and in dim whispers; move slowly and then
not at all, stalled and sort of thankful for it;
stranded, darkening, waiting to be re-lit.

from Beating the Bounds (Hobblebush Books, 2017)

The power held while we read. Maudelle, one of the other New Hampshire poets translated and featured at the reading, pressed her card into my palm and urged me to give her a call if it seemed too nasty to get through, that I could crash at her place that night. Everybody said rushed goodbyes, photos were taken, cards exchanged. I wish we’d had more time to finish and then to just talk and be together.

But instead we all drove out into the strange, humid, gusty darkness. The poets and translators and others in the group were staying nearby. I drove home, alone, but also full of thoughts of my students, those bookshelves, the generous and strange and impossible art of translation, the music and difficulties of all language — yeah, just a few light thoughts. I drove home down through the invisible mountains I knew were still up there, and poetry was with me.

About Writing, Poems, rumination

Insects, Metaphors, Sonnets

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In the wild, bright colors warn of danger,
shout “stay away,” and warn of a nasty sting,
the consequences of touching a stranger.
A neon yellow frond, a cobalt ring,
the spangles and the spikes I wore as a girl–
I sometimes miss those garish hues of youth:
ornate parades, the glint of carnival,
the ways in which my body told the truth.
Emerging from long darkness, and long work,
I fade to camouflage in middle age:
my common wings match the oak’s dull bark–
a sturdy brown and a powdery dust of sage.
Sometimes I miss the way I caught your eye,
but also, these dull wings are how I fly.

*

The last time I blogged about an insect, it was in 2010, when I was at the Vermont Studio Center and encountered a dobsonfly. Let me tell you, it’s a fly worth blogging about. But also, that post remains my most viewed post EVER. I contemplated that popularity (and other things) in a 2012 post.

We discovered this yellow caterpillar yesterday morning on the closet door opposite the front door, and were wowed by its vividness. A friend & university colleague of mine (also a great friend and colleague of insects, I’m 100% sure she’d approve of the characterization) helped me identify it. It’s got a fabulous name — more fabulous, I’d say, than even dobsonfly. Ready?

This handsome specimen is the definite tussock moth caterpillar. Orgyia definita if you enjoy the Latin.

Tussock is certainly a great word, but it’s “definite” that slays me.

Reading about the definite tussock moth, and being struck by how it starts out so bright and glowy as a caterpillar and ends up sort of nondescript and plain as a moth, and thinking about conversations with a friend recently about the traditions (and subversions) of the sonnet and on the cusp of another semester teaching creative writing and so therefore (and always) thinking a lot about metaphors — I wrote the above poem.

Encountering and then learning a little about the moth kindled these thoughts about being younger versus being older — paying attention to the world, being awake to it and interested in what it has to offer. It was the visual detail of the moth, contrasted with the visual detail of the caterpillar, that made me want to further compare their qualities, comparison being both at the core of metaphor AND a common sonnet convention.

I daydream about how I might, some day, with my distinguished, insect-loving colleague, teach a class about insects, metaphors, observation, comparison.

The poem doesn’t have a title yet. I might have called it Orgyia definita (I do enjoy the Latin) but decided I shouldn’t name the specific species that inspired me because (please feel free to enjoy this detail like I enjoy Latin) the adult female definite tussock moth IS WINGLESS. Which temporarily wrecked my metaphor, but then I realized that this poem’s metaphors, while they came from this specific, actual place, are not consigned there forever. The poem has already … taken a step away from its origins. Like the moth, it has undergone transformation into … the next thing. Lucky for me, there are plenty of girl moths who grow up to be lady moths that have wings. (There are of course, other “solutions” to this “problem.” I’ll enjoy figuring it all out.)

For now, though, a new poem draft, just hatched, and some thoughts at the beginning of a new semester.

rumination

Hotel Room

Note: As I got into writing this piece, it did occur to me that, while crappy hotel rooms have been the exception rather than the rule of my own experience, I really could write this essay’s opposite, given, if not the PERCENTAGE of hotel rooms that have been crappy, the often bizarre and memorable WAYS in which their crappiness has manifested itself. Maybe I will still write that essay. Or maybe you will.

*

The pleasures of the hotel room are many. The pleasures of the hotel room are simple. It isn’t luxury, exactly—not the hotels where I stay, anyhow—but pleasure, simply. The hotel room is cool, or warm, as needed. The hotel room is not on the first floor. The hotel room has more pillows than you would ever allow yourself at home—why wouldn’t you allow yourself these extra pillows? They aren’t expensive, and they swaddle you perfectly. And there’s the bolster—the decorative pillow—which I so enjoy, but which I also don’t require at home. The bolster would actually annoy me at home, its purely decorative cylinder. But here—the bolster is part of the pleasure.

Since we’re apparently already in bed, let’s talk about those cool sheets, infused with something magical—likely a chemical from the hotel laundry—that must be like tryptophan—it draws me into sleep. The sheets, the covers, the comforters—the bed is a big, poofy nest.

Next to the bed is a chair, which is mostly for show, unless there’s a table. Many times there is not a table. There is the desk, though—the chair and desk and the complimentary internet service and the place to plug in all your stuff. The telephone is on the desk, offering its multitude of single-button wishes—hotel info, reservations, front desk, hotel operator, housekeeping, maintenance, messages—and most nights I don’t even pick up the receiver!

The hotel room is sometimes home to a microwave and/or mini-fridge. Sometimes there are treats in the fridge, for sale, but usually I am not staying in that fancy of a hotel. There is also sometimes a safe, which you think would only appear in a fancy hotel, but sometimes the place you need the safe the most is not the most fancy hotel. Food for thought. I have used a safe before. Which reminds me of the locks on the door—especially that metal bar thingie that I always forget I’ve engaged so when I try to leave in the morning, I startle myself briefly, trapped.

The hotel room is home to the gigantic television set, which is actually hooked up to cable, unlike the not-so-gigantic television at home, which is only for playing Wii and watching DVDs. The hotel room television is the home of HBO and Showtime. My particular weaknesses, however, are competitive cooking shows and home or bathroom or garden renovation shows. They never fail to puff me up with “I should try that” ridiculousness.

The hotel room has a thick, plush, vinyl binder full of laminated pages—menus, services, phone numbers, taxis. The hotel room has a breakfast room service menu cleverly fashioned to hang on your door. I never use it, though—as much praise as I have for the hotel room, its pancakes are simply too expensive. Not worth it. The hotel room has free coffee—usually pretty shitty, but still—complimentary! The hotel room coffee makers, located most often in the hotel room bathrooms, are getting smaller and smaller—this one makes just one cup at a time, in a very clever way. Hotel rooms can be pretty clever. Sure, they could give me a little more sugar and creamer in my complimentary individually wrapped coffee accessory packet. The packet includes one napkin—why a napkin, when there’s all this complimentary toilet paper and kleenix and towels? One red plastic coffee stirrer, two small sugar packets, one small creamer packet, and one pink packet of sugar substitute. Pink! Who, besides my mother, even uses that anymore? I need more regular sugar, or at least, a yellow packet of sugar substitute. These are trifles, of course, and don’t fundamentally alter the fact that I am drinking a complimentary cup of shitty hotel coffee as the sun hoists its fat ass over the building across the parking lot.

As long as we are in the bathroom (making our coffee), let us consider the bathroom. A shower with more than adequate pressure—sometimes with an adjustable head. Paper-wrapped soap for the body, paper-wrapped soap for the face, AND even liquid body wash if neither of these soaps will suffice. And a small bottle of moisturizer, a small bottle of mouthwash, a small bottle of shampoo, a small bottle of conditioner. Sometimes a small bottle of shampoo and conditioner in ONE, which I prefer, as I prefer the yellow carcinogenic sugar substitute to the pink. Small things. And the towels. In my good hotel room, a bounty of towels. And, sometimes, really soft ones. Always white. Rolled up and stowed in cubbies—sometimes one is folded into a clever shape—hospitality origami—and left propped on the toilet tank or next to the sink. Speaking of the sink—often there is an ice bucket there, with at least a couple of plastic cups wrapped in more plastic.

The pleasure of the hotel rooms is bittersweet. I arrive exhausted, usually from a day’s driving, and am comforted by all I mention above. But too soon I am asleep, lullabyed down by a gutsy bathroom renovation, and in the morning, there is rarely time to really appreciate all those comforts because I am usually back on the road, or off to the conference sessions, or to the airport for the early nonstop. Someday I’ll treat myself to two nights for no reason—arrive right at check-in time and stay in, order in, use all the towels, watch all the channels, use the telephone and all the toiletries and multiple buckets of ice from the machine down the hall. I think I know the pleasure of the hotel room now—but just wait. I have no idea.