“The Reading” – Improptu Poem

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“It’s like we’re on

a train,” someone says.

There is four feet

of thin worn carpet

in the northernmost aisle

of this narrow bookstore

Where the local poet,

A published, prolific professor,

Prepares a Power Point

presentation prior to performing.

~Those P’s wrote themselves~

In this single aisle,

A woman has collected

seven seats, six stools

to serve as satisfactory

sitting options squarely secured

~Those S’s were stretches~

for the incoming anonymous

manifest of friends, colleagues

who conduct themselves like

strangers or companions on

a metropolitan commute or

lengthy return to relatives

whom they see less

and less each year.

We’re trained from youth

to be still, civil,

engineered from our childhood

to be polite. Always.

As the bookshop’s car

fills with late arrivals,

We shed our layers

and peel away ourselves

To become more comfortable.

And those who arrive

before the poet’s departure

from real life realize

that they are suddenly

seatless. They’ll see less

with coats draped over

their arms like towels

or plain white bedsheets

that danced in backyards

of our grandparents’ youth.

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Prologue to This Journey

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*Note: I’m moving the material from my Google Pages Blog to this blog. It turns out that it’s senseless to attempt to maintain two types of blogs.

February 20, 2018

I’m struggling already with the best way to start.  This is the exact issue I discuss with my students and their writing assignments.  “Don’t worry about how it begins yet,” I say. “Write the body first.” That might be useful for formal academic writing, but this is not exactly that style of prose.  No. I’ll be posting a lot about teaching, I’m sure, but this blog is meant to be about my decision to begin a doctoral program at the age of forty-two.

So, here’s the background that I feel is relevant.  No names have been changed, as far as you know. I finished my bachelor’s in December of 1998 and began teaching in a public school in August of the following year.  For a couple years, that was my life. I got married somewhere in the middle, but that’s for another discussion. I began a master’s degree in 2001 or 2002 and eventually finished in December of 2007.  Near the end of my coursework, I took a class on American drama with [unnamed professor]. He was one of the best instructors I ever had, but one evening–I think prior to our two-hour discussion and evaluation of A Streetcar Named Desire–he answered a classmate’s inquiry about her consideration of applying for a Ph. D.

“Why the hell would anyone want to get their Ph. D. in literature these days?” he scoffed.  

Scoffed.  Yes. He was a scoffer.  

I can never know if his voice inflection was meant to be advisory, sarcastic, or some confusing combination.  I will tell you, famous reader, that I took it to my aortic pump.

Mentally, I shut down the notion of a doctoral program around that time of my life.  I was inching toward completing the master’s, anticipating a meager raise, and was set–at 28 or 29–to do the same job at the same school for the next thirty to forty years.

The question I ask myself now is, “Why the hell would I not seek out a Ph. D. in literature?”

You may be reading this and you can hear my voice in it.  You know me, and you know how much I truly loved Shakamak, even though, like any school or job, it had its flaws.  But my time was done there. I taught for seventeen years, and I cannot continue typing without reminding myself and informing you that they were the school that chose me.  They started my career.

 

[Activity 2] “The Hell is This?”

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The following is just Steps 1 and 2 from the previous writing activity. We did this in my graduate fiction writing workshop this week (Jan. 16, 2019).  Here’s what I came up with in my 5 minutes:


Shiny. That’s what drew me close. And as I approached it, my own image enlarged – me walking, reaching toward my own outstretched hand. Two gaping depths at the top. My investigative fingers soon found sharp metal strips along the inside. I withdrew them and peered in to discover thick metal rods–one in each slot, parallel to the tabletop.  Carefully, I dip my fingers in again to learn that each rod is bouncy. I turn the reflective round box and find a black spindle encircled with miniature lines and symbols.  Finally, I see a lever on the side’s center, which I learn enables me to lower the metal rods inside to a locked position.

Story Construction Idea

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Here’s something that came up just yesterday in my Creative Writing class.

  1. create a list of 12-15 objects found around the house (no humans or animals, preferably)
  2. choose one and write for five minutes describing the object as if you’ve never seen it before.
  3. Create a list of themes from books, stories, poems, movies, and TV shows that appeal to you  (e.g. love conquers all, coming-of-age, good over evil; empathy; challenges of prejudice, etc.)
  4. Now, brainstorm a potential plot by beginning with a theme and including the chosen object for #2 as a symbol

Example:

household item – mousetrap

theme – value of integrity

Plot idea – a nervous boy wants to try out for the HS football team but knows he’s likely to be bullied by bigger, stronger kids.  After being victimized, he places a bunch of mousetraps throughout the locker room to get back at them.

options—the plan fails but he’s not found out;  the plan fails and he’s eventually caught; the play succeeds but the other boys don’t change; the plan succeeds but the boy is caught and expelled for bullying/attacking his classmates…

I don’t know…but it’s something, right?

 

Being Photographed (Flash Nonfiction)

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In the mid-1980s, my grandmother encouraged my brother and mother to accompany her to her church service each Sunday morning, and my older brother and I stretched our imaginations wider than ever in constructing a reason for us not to attend, especially once we both reached double-digit ages. In the fall, the church would invited families to have a portrait taken for the upcoming year’s membership book. For normal families, dressing up on a random Tuesday night and driving to church for a photograph is more than likely a relatively simple feat. My brother and I, however, were unfamiliar with that level of normalcy.

I can remember waiting in line from the middle of the building to where the photographer had set up camp in a partitioned-off segment of a rec room on the west side of the church. This room was usually reserved for adult Bible study meetings (which my mom attended, I’m now convinced, strictly to award herself sixty full minutes of being free from her sons’ constant irritations) and the annual Christmas tree decoration stations led by adult members of the church who had accumulated a seemingly endless amount of pipe cleaners and cotton balls. Any other time, the partition boards were squeezed off to the sides, leaving only long metal coat racks that lined the perimeter of the room. Anyway, while in line, my brother became restless after about seventeen seconds, so, contrary to our mother and grandmother’s wishes to “shush” or “just be still”, he filled the void by creating reasons to make me laugh. No specific joke or comment comes to mind, but I want to say the range varied from an unknown member’s loud outfit or obscene use of perfume to corny puns that a lot of nine-year-olds think are hilarious (e.g. “Steve, I don’t think that jacket suits him.”)  These jokes would build and build as we eased closer to the threshold of the makeshift studio. The photographer was always a bespectacled man who by the time we reached him had begun sweating, draped his blazer over a chair, and kept over-smiling, apparently to negate the stress of his job. Simple instructions such as “Face to the left” or “Chin up” were far more than I could handle by that point as well. Any reference to turning my cheeks forced my brother to remind me that the shaky photographer meant the ones on my face. What should have been about a hundred seconds of standing and smiling toward the camera became nine or ten minutes of me struggling to compose myself and my mother silently developing innovative methods to beat the hell out of us on the walk back to the car. Every year for about half a decade, she rightfully announced it was the last year we were doing pictures.

Last month, in the middle of a stuffy mall, my own family spent two solid hours from the moment we joined the Santa line to when the apathetic teen handed over our incredibly overpriced photograph. I’ll never not think about the church photos when we take professional pictures, and I’m sure if my mom is reading this that she’ll smile and say something about paybacks.

[Activity 1] “Snoopy and Maker’s”

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Every year the faceless family south of us erected over-sized inflatable holiday decorations, killing perfectly good grass and lowering property values in our entire ZIP code, Dad would say. Mom’d say let ’em be and Jeremy always announced that this would be the year he’d puncture and steal them in the night. I’d never invite boys over until well into spring when only a yellow patch of land proved they’d been stored in their backyard shed. Dad would drink Maker’s more each time a boy held out his shaky hand to introduce himself the way Mom had taught him only seconds earlier in our narrow kitchen that always seemed to have a burned-out bulb.

When our twins were old enough to get wide-eyed at electric decorations, they’d gawk at the twenty-foot Snoopy snow globe next door, but Frank would just ride the brakes and hum along with Deano. The year Jeremy got released on Christmas Eve, he pulled Frank aside to tell him jail was better than marriage while the girls dressed Ken in Barbie’s outfits and Mom hovered over them with a bit lip as she struggled to open another bottle of Maker’s.

[This was inspired by George Saunders’ “The Sticks”, a flash fiction piece we discussed on Jan. 9, 2019 in my graduate fiction writing workshop class.]

“Plenty Daddies”: Parenting in Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones

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In a novel where the looming devastation of Hurricane Katrina serves as only a backdrop to the story, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones addresses a bevy of congealing themes while simultaneously targeting specific audiences.  Though the central teenage character’s pregnancy serves as the main arc of the entire plot, the most significant character in the novel has been dead for a number of years.  Salvage the Bones addresses the impact of the loss of a mother, which can be analyzed through two distinct situations: the fallout at the basketball tryout and Esch’s own resolution of what is best for her baby.  This void reemphasizes the cornerstone of Hortense Spillers’ conclusion in “Mama’s Baby; Papa’s Maybe”–that Black women are far more responsible for the trajectory of American civilization than that for which they are credited.  

Randall, the eldest Batiste child, has developed his skills in basketball over the years and is on the brink of becoming eligible to attend a lucrative basketball camp.  This is symbolic of his potential to contribute to the family in the way a traditional parent might. Without a mother around to complement the care their father has provided, Randall, Skeetah, and Esch have each played a maternal role for Junior, the youngest, since his birth.  During one of the most chaotic scenes of the entire novel, however, Randall’s dreams are immediately shredded due to an outburst between Skeetah and a rival dog owner named Rico. These chief dog owners have clearly different opinions of who should retain any of the litter and when any pups can be dispersed.  While Skeetah appears to have a deeper understanding of the developmental phases of newborn puppies, he also fabricates information about the pups and omits the pup he wants the most when he’s itemizing the living ones for Rico.  Though this may appear to be a selfish act, Ward is characterizing Skeetah as the best possible parent for these pups.

Skeetah’s pride and immaturity–traits that perhaps a mother would have monitored and corrected throughout adolescence–led to the impromptu fistfight which, in turn, resulted in Randall’s dismissal from the tryout.  Ward indirectly suggests here that, had his mother been one of the parents who was in attendance that afternoon, perhaps this spout between Skeetah and Rico would have either been stifled. Though their mother’s existence is only mentioned through Esch’s memories, any reader can conclude that she would not have tolerated such behavior in general–and certainly not on a crucial day as this was.

Additionally, the fact that the narrator’s mother passed after giving birth to Junior is an obvious parallel to Esch’s own insecurities about the fate of the baby she learns she will be having early in the book. As the only remaining female on ‘The Pit’, Esch has taken on more responsibilities, notably of feeding and caring for the only younger brother she has. Interestingly, Ward does not portray her promiscuity in an overtly critical manner, a choice that progressively diminishes the long-standing stigma of young women engaging in sexual activity prior to being betrothed.  Throughout the novel, Esch is weighing the potential outcomes of revealing her pregnancy to her family and the baby’s father. While Ward portrays Manny as someone who has sex appeal, she also uses him to exemplify the predatory sex-driven male whose selfish desires will always outweigh the needs of others. When juxtaposed beside much more honorary men in her life like Big Henry, Esch does not settle, predicting that including Manny in her child’s life will only limit that child’s development. Specifically, the culminating moment occurs when Big Henry asks Esch for the father’s identity but is told “[i]t don’t have a daddy” (254). Big Henry lives up to his moniker by expressing to the frightened young mother-to-be “This baby got plenty of daddies” (255).  Ward shows here that a love is what raises children, not necessarily humans. This progressive notion of a woman and her child being better off without a biological parent as a parental figure has roots in all feminism–especially Black feminism.

These two scenes–Randall’s failed attempt to earn a basketball camp scholarship and Esch’s final decision to keep the baby and not include Manny as the part of the baby’s life–parallel the constant theme of the role a parent that echo the tenets of recent Black literary movements and positions.