Using “wreading” activities in my Introduction to Poetry class

I guess for my first foray into relating the impact of Language Poets on my own sense of poetry, it will be fine to start with how they have affected my teaching of poetry at the college level. Charles Bernstein in particularly has been someone whose pedagogy I have used as a model to guide how I shape my own courses on poetry as literature and as an art form.

Skimming through some the of chapters of Bernstein’s new book, Attack of the Difficult Poems (I’m able to read it online through my University’s library website as an ebook, but I think it’s stupid that I can’t just download the thing and print it out, or transfer it to my Kindle–I’ll have to work on that [o]: ), I’m surprised at some similarities to what I’ve been doing with my literature classes over the past few years. I’ve experimented with using writing activities in a literature course before, particularly the Introduction to Poetry course I taught last year at Purdue University. I think it is one of the best ways for students unacquainted with poetry and its language activity My subtitle for the course, which I plan to use again, is “Poetry as a Second Language,” which Bernstein’s echoes in his chapter on “Creative Wreading & Aesthetic Judgement:”

My response to this chronic poetic aporia (CPA) is to provide intensive poetry immersion courses, something like teaching poetry as a second language. That means I try to immerse the class in a wide yet distinct variety of poetic forms, sounds, dictions, and logics.

I had connected with that same concept of poetry as a second language via Kenneth Koch’s excellent book on teaching poetry, Making Your Own Days. Koch was referring I think to something Paul Valery had said about poetry being present as a second language within any given language, so that the language of poetry, while dwelling solidly within any given spoken/written language, exists on a somewhat different plane, behaving in different and strange ways in relation to its home language. I took from this that to really teach someone what poetry was it would be necessary to show them how it behaves by its own set of codes nestled within our language’s more instrumental set of signs.

Bernstein seems to describe a set of activities which he uses to run an alternative to the standard “creative writing” workshop for undergrads. I’m a fan of Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” activities, too, as well as other forms of appropriative, generative, or otherwise methods of writing poetry (Google Sculpting, Gnoetry). I’ve taken a lot from other teachers, especially writers who teach.

One wreading activity I had my students participate in last year which they found to be very engaging and enjoyable (I gauged this from their comments, laughter and expressions during the writing process) was for them to apply the Writing by Negation exercise (Oulipo) to two famous American poems. Here are the results:

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The first poem below is the class’s negation of Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar.” The second is a negation of Emily Dickenson’s “[The Brain–is wider than the Sky–].” Both poems in their entirety were decided upon by the class calling out suggestions which I then weighed as either being the most “interesting” or popular suggestions.

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Novel of Many Cans

for Wally

You retained many cans in Australia,
And square they weren’t, beneath the lake.
They destroyed the prissy palace
Lonely by the lake.

The palace sank down into it,
Poised, increasingly tame.
The cans weren’t square above the sky,
Stout and of a parking garage below the ground.

They left things well alone.
The cans were purple and gaudy.
They smelled of tuna and the beach,
Just like everything else in Australia.

[The Viscera ++ are narrower than the Ocean ++]

for Emily

The Viscera ++ are narrower than the Ocean ++
Then ++ moved them further apart ++
The many the all will exclude
With tension ++ and Eric ++ inside ++

The Viscera is shallower than the sky ++
Against ++ Release you ++ Green for Green ++
The two the same will reject ++
As Granite ++ Netting ++ doesn’t ++

The Viscera is heavier than the Devil ++
As ++ Light as ++ Dollar for Dollar ++
And we will share ++ and they won’t ++
As Multisyllabic Word from Silence ++

Collaboratively composed in class by members of ENGL 237 – 002, Purdue University

Dec. 6, 2010

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Novel of Many Cans is one of my favorite titles, I think I’ll steal it! It also has a better ending than I’ve ever written on my own. (How long has it been since I wrote something “on my own” anyways?)

Along with some of my standard writing/reading/wreading activities I might modify the collaborative writing Bernstein describes to suit my own purposes. I’ve got two projects in mind already: one is based on description and another on definition. Perhaps a third can be on subversion? They’ll each contribute a sentence a class day to any text and, by the end of the semester, we’ll have a book length collaboration, or maybe a chapbook that I can try to publish. Wouldn’t that be cool!

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Community Workshop: The Love Poem in the Internet Age

Love Poem Looseleaf Workshop with Eric Scovel, Feb. 8, 2010, at the Tippecanoe County Public Library, Downtown Lafayette, IN.

Thanks to the Sycamore Review’s Looseleaf Workshop Program, on Monday, February 8th, at the Tippecanoe County Public Library in Lafayette, IN, I hosted a workshop on the love poem, just in time for Valentine’s Day. Here’s the description I provided for the advertisement:

The Love Poem in the Information Age

In the age of e-mail, text-messaging, Facebook and Twitter, technologies which threaten to make all communication the mouthpieces of superficial, public representation of ourselves, how do we write a highly personal poetry that speaks to the deepest  and most vulnerable of emotions? And in a time when the fear of identity theft runs high, how can we manage to freely and openly give ourselves away to someone in verse? This workshop will focus on constructing a voice and presence on the page that is written both to a public and deeply private audience, and expresses an authentic love while avoiding superficiality and sentimentality.

How it Went

The workshop went great. Sixteen or so participants (and a few observers) showed up, and almost everyone seemed to get something meaningful out of the exercise portion of the workshop. Obviously, though, an hour and a half was hardly enough time to teach much about the “craft” of poetry to what turned out to be a group largely unfamiliar with poetry and inexperienced in writing it. A group such as this is hardly ready for a lecture on postmodern issues of authorship and poetics. It was really refreshing to see what newcomers to the act of writing poetry came up with in this short time. This is the first of my community workshops that has been so well attended, and it felt great to interact with people really interested in writing. I feel that many of the participants left with something more than they came with, which was ultimately the point of the workshop. I hope to do something similar again, for sure.

My Concerns About Expression and Love Poetry

I was thus surprised by how much I relied on the somewhat distasteful and largely unfashionable jargon of “expressing yourself” through poetry. I’ve been reading Silliman’s Age of Huts lately, and a stanza (or item? notebook entry?) in The Chinese Notebook seems to express the cause of my unease on this issue:

137. The concept that the poem “expresses” the poet, vocally or otherwise, is at one with the whole body of thought identified as Capitalist Imperialism. (166)

In this case, though, I had expressly chosen to focus on a particular kind of love poem, one whose intention, speaker and audience are all well-defined and make problematic a wholesale rejection of the poem “expressing” the poet. The kind of poem I was teaching was conceived as a gift from the poet to a specific person: wife/husband, lover, crush, etc. The two poems that best demonstrated the type of love poem I was aiming for (out of the six or so that we examined as positive examples) were Kenneth Koch’s “Alive for an Instant” and Appolonaire’s “The Ninth Secret Poem,” mostly because they fit the description of the poetic act I was hoping for in the workshop:

Without irony, without superficiality, we will seek to express something beautiful that comes out of love and is to be given to another as an act of love.

It is the idea of “poetic act” that is concerning me most here. Having a clear understanding of what kind of act (and there are many) one wishes to make through poetry is what defines the relationship between the poet, the text, and the reader, as well as being the basis for any judgement of the relative worth of the text.

In the case of a “private love poem,” as I have called the type of poem I wanted written in the workshop, the conception of the poetic act involves an act of sharing and communication between two parties that know something (or nearly everything) about each other, something which is generally not true most of the time for a poet. As a gift, it is an act of giving to the beloved. In the case of Koch and Apollonaire, the poet is giving their playfulness and their feelings of exhilaration in love to the beloved. In the case of Robert Creeley’s “For Love” or “The Act of Love,” one might say it is the depth of his thought that is his gift. With Gary Sullivan’s poem/e-mail from Swoon, [“Dear Nada, Brilliant wind conflicts the absorb I set sail against“], it is all of the above set in a passionate rant more clearly in the tradition of the love letter than many of the other love poems we looked at.

After putting all of this together and spending time with the 15 or so people in this workshop, I’ve learned a lot more about my own ideas about “expressing myself” in poetry. Mainly, I feel that I could again write out of a clearly articulated subjectivity, or “as myself,” if I felt that it would forward the intention of the poetic act. This comes with the awareness that any expression of myself is inevitably deceptive, as it is founded upon my own sense of self and my “voice” which are, in the end, only performances founded on my desires, concerns, and general ignorance about life. Most of the time, using cut-up, metonymy, or visual strategies, my poetry avoids the issues of the author “expressing” himself in a poem. My tastes, my sense of humor, and other aspects of my personality are undoubtedly manifest in my work whether or not I write as a character speaking in the text. In a poem written as an act (and gift) of love, I think I could write from a more “traditional” subjectivity again, as the representation of my personality, my desire and lust, spoken in my “normal” or “everyday” voice, is one good way to make such a gift.

“Appropriation, Intertext and Authorship in 21st Century Poetry”: 12-5-09 Guest Lecture

A friend of mine in the PhD program at Purdue kindly asked if I would come into her ENGL 407 class (Introduction to Poetry Writing) and give a lecture on something related to my own experimental work and/or anything relating to Flarf and conceptual writing. I of course accepted.

Read the handout of my Lecture notes here (PDF)

Something which prompted her asking me to do this was her decision to teach the July/August issue of Poetry Magazine to her class the following week. She hoped that I might provide some context for their reading of the Flarf and Conceptual Writing section of that issue, edited by Kenneth Goldsmith, which is online at the Poetry Foundation website.

My lecture was centered on Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” which none of them had yet encountered in their courses. After a brief discussion of the major division in contemporary English-language poetry between the Mainstream (official verse culture, School of Quietude) and the experimental (avant-garde, post-avant, flarf, conceptual, Oulipo, Language School, etc.) and some relevant vocabulary, we read and discussed excerpts from Barthes’ essay and two other poetics essays by Marjorie Perloff (“The Pleasures of Déjà Dit: Citation, Intertext and Ekphrasis in Recent Experimental Poetry”) and Craig Dworkin (his introduction to The UbuWeb :: Anthology of Conceptual Writing).

We used the ideas generated from this discussion to read several poems that eschew traditional ideas of authorship by various means of appropriation or constraint, all of which are available online:

  1. Andrei Gheorghe – The Longest Poem in the World
  2. Christian Bök – Eunoia
  3. Jen Bervin – Nets
  4. K. Silem Mohammad – Sonnagrams (and some more here)
  5. Eric Elshtain, Gregory Fraser, Chad Hardy, Matthew Lafferty and Eric Scovel – Gnoetry Daily

The discussion went very well, and it seemed that many students in the class had interest in these types of poetry. We briefly discussed at the end the issue of appropriation and whether one is “really writing” when using such techniques. Using Barthes you can respond that even traditionally authored texts are still intertextual and respond to all kinds of cultural texts, even if this appropriation is implicit not explicit as in most of the texts we looked at. Also, using Mac Low’s argument that Pleasure is the purpose of making poetry (read an excerpt from his “Pleasure and Poetry”) or any kind of art, why would the means of textual production exclude it from judgement based upon whether the texts are relevant, meaningful and/or pleasurable to the writer and the audience?

The whole experience highlighted for me even more clearly my desire to teach issues of poetics and experimental poetry to students, and to ask them not simply to admire and replicate the poetry of the dominant Mainstream poetic figures of our times (what creative writing workshops do), but ask them to think about what poetry is, what texts are, what the role of the author is or might be, and how these ideas might factor into the way the write and live in the world. I think a curriculum that focused on the idea of writing first and the craft of writing later would better prepare writers to make timely and original works of art instead of lyrical reproductions of Romanticism superimposed upon our Techno-PoMo landscape.

Good Article for Young Poets

Off The Shelf: Finding the pieces that turn writing into poetry,” by Matthew Zapruder.

Thanks to Ron Silliman for linking this on his blog. This seems like it would be a great resource for instructors teaching introduction to poetry courses, or anybody else new to poetry. It does a good job filling in crucial history of the formal shift in English language poetry from the old days of rhyme and meter to our more contemporary (in)formal tendencies. I know I had a few students who seemed determined to write like Alexander Pope, Edgar Allen Poe or Emily Dickenson who might benefit from this. Zapruder also connects poets to visual artists–a connection which I think is good to encourage in young writers’ minds–and introduces some helpful ways of thinking about the discursive element of poetry, the level of statement and idea, instead of focusing only on the formal aspects of writing.

Some quotable moments:

For about a year, I carried around a rhyming dictionary, writing terrible sonnets, lousy sestinas, atrocious villanelles, abysmal pantoums. I felt like I was working, which was good, but it was also painful and embarrassing to write so much bad poetry.

I didn’t realize then that I was doing my own clumsy version of what art students do when they learn to paint. Now every time I go to the museum I see at least one of them with a sketchbook, copying the great paintings, and it makes sense to me. I’m glad I did it, even though nothing I wrote was any good.

Also:

One thing I do notice about my poems is that, though they might not have overt formal elements, there is always a rhythm that develops, subtly, in the voice of the speaker. Maybe something more like a cadence. Most poetry is “formal” in that way.

And I think, secretly, that my poems actually do rhyme. It’s just that the rhyme is what I would call “conceptual,” that is, not made of sounds, but of ideas that accomplish what the sounds do in formal poetry: to connect elements that one wouldn’t have expected, and to make the reader or listener, even if just for a moment, feel the complexity and disorder of life, and at the same time what Wallace Stevens called the “obscurity of an order, a whole.”

I would only suggest that conceptual rhythm be added to the idea of conceptual rhyme. The most interesting poetry these days, for me at least, must be engaging on this level–of patterns of thought, the play (or disruption, or explosion) of signs, of making words mean elsewise, of making statements or impressions that are  surprising to both reader and author–and only after that do I admire its formal, linguistic or aural ingenuity. Alternately, I would also say that I have used formal, linguistic and aural constraints to give my writing a framework within which these “conceptual” elements might better flourish. In either case, the conceptual level of works end up taking precedence over the other (still essential) elements; i.e. I would not consider the work to be good without perfection on that level, though I might tolerate a lack or have more flexibility with the rest.

The education in literature Americans receive through high school is overall totally inadequate at giving young people the necessary foundation to make it an important part of their mental lives (if they are allowed these). Poetry suffers especially, and I have seen it in undergraduates that know nothing of poetry after 1900. Maybe this article will help to make up for this gap in understanding, or at least point them in a more relevant and timely direction. And just maybe, after reading this article, jumps to more experimental “forms” of poetry and works of conceptual poetry might not be so difficult for students to make.

CFP: Teaching with Bernstein’s and Meyer’s Experiments and Google-Sculpture

I’ve been thinking about this paper I’m going to write about poetry writing teaching pedagogy. A call for papers (CFP) went out on the English grad listserve a few months ago for papers by graduate students on teaching creative writing. I’ve taught two semester of the English 205 course at Purdue now, and hey, perhaps I will teach some more workshops/lectures in the future. I also think my approach to teaching the poetry section of the course was very beneficial to my students learning to approach poetry in a more engaged and exciting way.

Basically, I structured the half-semester of poetry around Bernstein’s inspired compilation and update of Bernadette Meyer’s “Experiments” from the 1970’s. It was the spirit of these experiments that was most beneficially applied to the classroom, which is a spirit of open-minded interaction with the world, ideas and language, and in some ways a kind of responsiveness training [not sure what I mean by that yet]. The readings for the course were mostly chosen to correspond with certain exercises, usually as a sample of what kind of poem might come from the specific exercise(s) chosen for a particular class. An example of this was to choose Silliman’s “BART” (from Age of Huts (compleat)) and one of Mac Low’s Twenties poems as examples of an attention poem (Experiment #41). I also combined two exercises and had my students collaborate on an alphabet poem (#17 + #21), using the model of Lyn Hejinian and Jack Collom’s Abecedarian’s Dream collabs from Situations, Sings.

But the most interesting exercise, which was not included in the 90’s version of the “Experiments” list, was #71, the Google Poem or Google Sculpture. I wrote about the exercise I created on the blog earlier this year (“Teaching Google Sculpting at Purdue“), which used K. Silem Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation as a model. (Bernstein’s exercise gives a few more options than mine did.) Some of them responded very well to the exercise, and came out with some very exciting poems. One of my students later reported that she has since done three more google sculptures “for fun,” which is a wonderful thing to hear.

I chose to teach using “Experiments” as my model in order to counteract the mainstream lyric workshop model that dominates even early poetry education. Most undergraduate students have no sense at all of contemporary poetry, and most are exposed by their professors/instructors to only a very narrow range of approaches. I employed along with “Experiments” a reading list of poems from nearly every contemporary aesthetic I could teach in 8 weeks. I did not seek to indoctrinate my students in the aesthetic of avant-garde poetry, but I equally chose to not indoctrinate them in the mainstream. The goal was to show them that poetry is an engagement with language, that words as sound and signifier are all around them, and that there are many, many ways to create a poem and many different voices to employ besides the self(poet)-conscious/self(poet)-obsessed subject inherited from Romanticism.

There. I just wrote some of my paper.

I wish I had been able at the time to use Gnoetry and mchain (statistical text analysis/genesis programs) in the classroom, too, but there were some software issues due to Microsoft’s institutional monopoly. Perhaps in the future.

Teaching Google Sculpting at Purdue

deerheadnationToday, Fri. Feb. 20, I reserved a computer lab for my English 205 – Introduction to Creative Writing class–something that I am not sure that a 205 instructor has done before–in order to teach my students the art of Google sculpting, and it was the most exciting class I’ve led so far. Hopefully it will open them up to a larger world of language play and, as it turned out, political commentary that is almost an inevitable result of this process. I’ve encouraged them all to submit their newly composed Flarf poems (or one of the other types of “bad poems” I asked them to compose this week) to the SPD Bad Poem Contest by this evening, too.

I had never used Google in such a way before this class, so it was almost as new to me as it was to them. I’ve used the Google News archive before to generate a poem, and I’ve used other computer programs to provide cut-up output to be shaped into poems, so the process is not at all foreign to me; but I’ve never tried to replicate the process that, for example, K. Silem Mohammad used to compose Deer Head Nation.

We began the exercise by discussing two of Mohammad’s poems from that book ( “Halloween in Atlantis” and “Spooky World”), and then I showed them how search terms put into Google could have created a poem like that. The exercise itself, if I had written it out, would have been something like this:

Exercise: Google Sculpting

Open a new document in a word processor and then open a web browser. Using the two poems by K. Silem Mohammad in your course packet as examples, type a phrase (or phrases) or a list of several search terms* into the Google search bar. Now look at the excerpts from each search result (the text beneath each link), copy words or phrases from it, and paste them into the document open in your word processor. You will continue in this fashion until you have a fairly long list (a page or so at least) of selected phrases to work with.

Finally, sculpt a poem out of these phrases, changing whatever you wish so that it “fits together” (or make/leave it disjunct if it pleases you). Look for themes and multiple meanings of the search terms you used. Try to create strange, amusing, or serious narratives and statements. Try to find a tone or voice in the poem as you sculpt it, either coming from you or from voices present in the search results that you selected. Once you feel you have “finished” the poem, save your file. Return to it if you like, expand on different themes or ideas that come up, or do whatever else you feel you need to do to make it into something that you enjoy and want to share with others.

This process is very flexible, so feel free to open search result pages if you want more material, to change search terms as you are making your list of phrases, or even to abandon what you started with for something more interesting that comes up as you are working. The form of the resulting poem is entirely up to you and the needs of your poem’s style and content.

Have fun with this and enjoy the process of writing itself. The importance of this cannot be overstated. If you get something meaningful out of it, chances are that somebody else will, too.

* Note: The more different the terms are from each other, the more varied the results should be)

I chose to structure the first 8 weeks of the semester–the poetry unit–around a set of exercises that are diverse in style and aesthetic approach. I think the Bad Poem exercise and the Google Sculpture exercise have connected with them more than any of the others that we have done. I got the idea from Chad last semester when he taught his Introductory Composition students how to Google sculpt, and I decided that I had to do with my own class.  It takes a lot of work to show (most) students that poetry is not always boring, stuffy, self-reflective/obsessed or moping, and my hope was that this process would help some of them to discover what various things contemporary poetry is to writers today as well as a range of what it can be for them.

Jackson Mac Low, in his 1999 talk entitled “Pleasure and Poetry,” [Thank you, Al Filreis, for this fantastic set of articles and poems that you’ve put up for your UPenn course!] began by stating that  “[t]he kinds of pleasure that poems may bring about are as various as the kinds of pleasure that poets may take in making them.” Later on in the talk, he elaborates on this idea:

Ultimately, artmaking, including the making of poems, seems to me to be primarily the making of “objects” that are valuable in themselves. One can expand this “in themselves” in many directions with various “becauses.” The most obvious one is what I started with: pleasure. Artworks are valuable because they cause pleasure–kinds of pleasure not usually available from other sources. And “otherwise” artworks are valuable because they bring about new kinds of pleasure.

Poetry, orthodox or “otherwise,” should be about pleasure–what brings pleasure to the poet and what can bring pleasure to the reader, and this is different for different poets and different readers. But what poetry isn’t is the most important thing I want my students to learn: It isn’t just stuffy academic posturing, and it can be relevant to their lives, in whatever way and by whatever means this may be achieved.

English 106 Fall 2008 Focus: Prison Industrial Complex

I’ve begun collecting possible texts and articles for my major unit for next semester in my Introduction to Rhetoric & Composition class. My unit on the torture debate/controversy in the U.S., using J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, was the most successful unit I have done so far, so I’m pushing it even further next year.

Thanks to C.D. Wright for convincing me to focus on the prison industrial complex as a way into race issues in America generally. Her long poem One Big Self [read an excerpt] will be one of several major texts for the unit. I’m going to try and find several other texts in various media (literature, film, music, interviews, photography, essays) to give as effective look into the situation as possible from multiple angles.

In an initial google search on the topic, I came across this grassroots organization that takes on this very issue, Critical Resistance. I would like to find more groups like this, or that write press releases on the situation in American prisons.

I really want my students to become of aware of the major problems going on inside the U.S., especially as they will not hear about from in the major media outlets. There is real disparity between the races in this country, and there is racism embedded in the structures of our communities as embodied in law enforcement and the prison system (and all stops between). If they can learn this one thing, what else might they be more open to seeing going on all around them?

“In a Strange and Foreign Country”: Composing Poetry from Existing Texts

Attached here in PDF format are the lecture notes for a Looseleaf workshop I led this week called “’In a Strange and Foreign Country’: Composing Poetry from Existing Texts.” What follows is the opening lecture:

_______________________________

I have taken the title for this workshop from a passage in Helene Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing which I believe says a lot about the nature of the methods that we will be learning tonight:

The writer is a secret criminal. How? First because writing tries to undertake that journey toward strange sources of art that are foreign to us. “The thing” does not happen here, it happens somewhere else, in a strange and foreign country. (20)

Tonight, we plunder. We will be “secret criminals,” or we should at least believe in the thrill of this.

None of the methods presented here are traditional ways to write poetry. They are often used for satire and social commentary than for “serious” art, but let that be a reason for encouragement rather than derision.

Where we will begin is with the language around us, the language we find and read and are fascinated by. The language that catches us like little children get caught up in anything wonderful.

A movement developed in music recently called plunderphonics which utilized samples from existing recorded music to assemble or provide the basis for new music which, though it uses others work almost exclusively as its means, is highly original in its ends.

We will do some plunderpoetics. We will use the methods of constraint and selection to create new works out of existing texts.