Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tomas Transtromer Awarded Nobel Prize in Literature

This year is certainly a good one:  Tomas Transtromer has won the Nobel Prize.

I first became aware of his work during the late 1970s/early 1980s when I studied with Phil Levine and Peter Everwine at FSU; both are admirers of Transtromer's poetry and promoted his work to their students.

Now all that's left is for Bharati Mukherjee to win a Pulitzer or the Nobel as well (J.M. Coetzee won the Nobel in 2006--I think it was 2006, another writer I have admired for decades).

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Congratulations to Philip Levine, Our New United States Poet Laureate!

This year is turning out to be a fine one for poets I value.  For example, I was happy to hear that Eduardo Corral had won the Yale Younger Poets Series Award, and now Philip Levine has been named Poet Laureate of the United States by the Library of Congress.  Congratulations to Phil!

Please visit Letras Latinas Blog at the following URL for more information about Philip Levine's latest honor:


Monday, August 1, 2011

Politics, Poetry, and The Dulled Public Soul

I watch with dismay as mostly Republican/Tea Party politicians refuse to tax the wealthy who, of course, are the main people they care about:  they stand up for them when they don't want to close tax loopholes for jet setters and corporate bigwigs, those moneyed organisms (to call them humans would be too kind at the moment) who have no concept of what it means to worry about having enough money to buy a month's worth of groceries for their families or having difficulty paying an electric bill.  I watch and shake my head at those who believe the working people who paid into Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid should sacrifice because politicians controlled by the wealthy promote the notion that "entitlements" are the main culprits for America's financial woes.  Too bad the "lock box" Al Gore spoke of never came to fruition to prevent politicians from siphoning off those "entitled" funds to pay for wars and corporate welfare.

And I wonder out loud, "What the hell happened in the cosmos that created such dulled souls?"  If I'm a good critical reader of Christian doctrines and teachings, I must assume such politicians and those wealthy organisms they represent would have a difficult time entering anything remotely considered a heaven when they die since they don't use their unique power on earth to help the poor--a damning sin if ever there were such sins.

And what does this have to do with poetry?  It has everything to do with poetry, for poetry above all else that it aspires to be connects our souls to each other; we become kindred spirits who yearn for what all art universally yearns for:  the eternal and the human.

If my training as a poet has taught me one thing, it has taught be me to be fully human, to care about those all around me who struggle each day to be blessed rather than cursed, who walk into the light of day and the dark of night knowing they will leave this world alone, naked, and wishing--no, praying--that they lived their lives on earth dedicated to nurturing souls, their own and others, instead of destroying them.

That is what poetry does for all of us; we commune with a universal soul--each of us readily wades into a pond:  We sense the coolness of the nearby waterlilies, anchored yet seeming adrift; we experience the soft mud oozing between our toes, the sweet sinking with each step; we take in the sun's water-borne glinting, and we shimmer in response.

But no such shimmering takes place when politicians and their corporate sponsors decide that compromise means no taxes for the wealthy, no end to wars across the globe, and no end to the hatred for the ordinary man, woman, and child who don't have lobbyists or political action committees or "conservative" talk show hosts who care about them.

When I hear politicians claim to have religious beliefs and convictions, I understand why mental illness is a commonplace phenomenon, for the ability of people to be self-delusional is always astounding--and always harmful to those in their wake.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

My Brando Died

My dog Brando, born in April 1996, died today, May 19, in the early morning hours as I slept next to him.

He was Mary's dog ("Our little boy," she would say), but I inherited him when she passed away in 2001.  When I woke up, his snout was turned toward me, touching one of my thighs, as was usual for him:  I think he felt reassured that he could feel my body next to his as we slept.  Mary got him used to sleeping with us, though I think he preferred to sleep next to me:  Mary's chronic respiratory condition would cause her to toss while she slept--Brando knew if I moved it was rare and, for some reason, I was always aware of his position in bed as I slept (though I didn't realize he had died until I woke up this morning).

The late poet William Matthews wrote about the death of a dog in the poem "Loyal":  At one point, the speaker notes that he wants to weep "steadily, like an adult, according to the fiction that there is work to be done, and almost inconsolably."

I too want to weep, and not so much for Brando but for myself, for he--and his kin--gave the kind of love few humans can come close to equaling:  total love despite the flaws of the loved one.

In my chapbook Braille for the Heart, one of the poems is about Brando.  I post it here for the twelve-pound wonder who championed love above all else, who now plays with Mary for eternity--and I feel happy for him and for her.

The Myth of the Happy Family:  Canine

If my sick self mumbles a prayer,
a faint adagio of
faith might twitch Brando's

donkey-like ears:  If dogs tune in earth-
quakes and Spielberg's alien
Edsels, they can sniff

out God's pizza-bearing messengers
who trod the piss-claimed pathways
of the Village Green

Apartments.  No tenant knows what sin
might doom him, but Brando's safe;
he'll respond to that

overdue horn blast with a scrolled turd,
mount the blond neighbor's bitch, and
nose into a bowl

of sleep.  For no other beast offers
his broad, out of kilter ribs
to me like Brando;

he'll sidle up like a movie star
and shimmy and pant for that
stark bone of love some

people pocket or misplace or lose
altogether.  If grace knocks
like rain, if the first

twister of judgment careens like a
Kearney Bowl modified hard-
top in mud, Brando

will likely yawn, yelp, or pass his own
impolite wind as roofs bloom
and human ledgers

vermilion the flesh-spent vale--it's all
explained with a biblical
blink.  And in the Book

of Canine, the sequel stars an in-
ept burglar, his jimmied doors
(as foretold) paw-marked.

--Robert Vasquez

Monday, April 11, 2011

Notes on Writers and the Teaching of Writing, II.


In Women Writers at Work:  The Paris Review Interviews, Joan Didion notes that she learned how to write sentences by reading and analyzing Ernest Hemingway's sentences:  "When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked" (323).  Not surprisingly, Didion, like many others writers, finds Hemingway's direct manner of utterance attractive:  "I mean they're perfect sentences.  Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes" (323).

Didion contrasts Hemingway's "clear water over granite" with Henry James' "perfect sentences too, but very indirect, very complicated.  Sentences with sinkholes.  You could drown in them" (323).  For anyone remotely familiar with both authors' works, Didion's use of "smooth rivers" and "sinkholes" seems appropriate:  Hemingway's audience awareness is in many ways quite different than James' intended audience--and the authors' mannerisms declare what they value.

Their stylistic mannerisms could be analogous to the two main camps in contemporary poetry and writing in general:  The Hemingway camp favors austere language and direct syntax, whereas the James' camp loves lush language and syntactic complexity.

For example, when I consider the poets Philip Levine and Rita Dove, I would have to place them in the Hemingway camp; both create poetry that utilizes the language of everyday discourse and syntax.  As for Charles Wright and C. K. Williams, their poetry would definitely fit within the James' camp with its "sinkholes."

Does either camp have an advantage over the other?  I would posit that the tribe of Hemingway certainly has a greater degree of what's known as relative readability:  Their manner of phrasing, their syntactical constructions, would be less stressful to the average reader when it comes to comprehension.  This isn't to say that their poetry is simplistic, though the danger does exist; nevertheless, poetry in the Hemingway camp, at its best, can be compared to the best of Shakespeare and Donne.

But the tribe of James also has an advantage:  those "sinkholes" permit stylistic leeway and, quite possibly, greater non-linear introspection; the reader can dive into those sinkholes for brief periods, but the danger involves losing track of the writer's initial linguistic leap or arc, so to speak.

When I consider two poets--among many of my influences--whose works I consciously chose to emulate in terms of stylistic mannerisms, I think I was attracted to both partly because they were good examples of those two camps:  Robert Bly and James Dickey.

Bly's poetry has tremendous appeal for me precisely because of his austerity; of course, this could have something to do with his and James Wright's adherence to the "deep image" ethos that somewhat echoes Haiku's emphasis on precision to the point of laser-like rendering at a localized level.

Dickey's work also utilizes imagery, but the welter of imagery and the complex syntactical constructions (the clauses can be overwhelming at times) Dickey infuses and wrings out of each poem has great appeal too:  The challenge in Dickey's work is to allow the imagination to roam the cosmos but always come back to the journey's center or "purpose" (a word and concept I'm uncomfortable with when it comes to creative writing) which is often simply to enjoy the linguistic excursion itself:  the poet as cartographer mapping out a route to some unknown destination.

For me, both camps have their advantages and their potential pitfalls.  For poets and writers, the challenge is to work within those camps--or attempt to intertwine them--and avoid the pitfalls.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Good News: Eduardo C. Corral has won the Yale Younger Series of Poets Prize

Some of you are aware of Eduardo C. Corral's poetry and his always interesting blog, Lorcaloca.  However, what some of you might not be aware of is that Eduardo has just won the Yale Younger Series of Poets Prize.  In fact, he is the first Latino ever to win this prestigious first-book award.

Considering the quality of Eduardo's work, I'm not surprised that the final judge selected his manuscript:  Kudos to Eduardo and to the Yale Younger Series of Poets Prize organization!

Monday, February 14, 2011

MFAs are Terminal Degrees (Even at Two-Year Colleges)

Years ago I passed up two opportunities to accept tenure-track professor positions in English/Creative Writing at two universities, in part because I thought I could have an equally positive impact at the community college level (and especially in Tulare County, for the most recent census has noted that nearly 60% of the county's population is "Hispanic"--I much prefer the term Latino); after all, unlike many four-year institutions, two-year colleges literally accept any adult, and that all-inclusive atmosphere has certainly made my classrooms both lively and memorable.  Still, both university job offers came partly because I had at least satisfied one common requirement for tenure-track positions at most publicly funded universities:  I had earned the appropriate terminal degree, an MFA, in my area of specialization.

But, when I accepted my current position in 1991 (I had never taught at a community college before 1991:  my previous teaching posts were at two University of California campuses--and, yes, I did have to "adjust" my expectations and standards), I was the only MFA degree holder regardless of discipline (i.e., creative writing, 2-D or 3-D art, drama/theater arts, etc.) at College of the Sequoias (COS).  In contrast, the majority of faculty who teach at two-year colleges have either an MA or an MS degree.  In 1991, I was the lone MFA fish in my pond, so to speak, but graduate programs that confer MFAs have since increased dramatically in number; hence, I'm no longer in that position at COS.

However, the same lack of knowledge I first encountered in 1991 about MFA degrees still seems to be the norm at most community colleges--and that sad fact can have serious implications (that involve life-long earnings and even retirement annuities) for those who've earned these terminal degrees that are the equivalent of PhD degrees.

I first became acquainted with the MFA degree when I took my first creative writing workshop at a community college back in the mid 1970s:  My creative writing professor had an MFA from the University of California at Irvine.  And he made it a point to explain to us why his degree was quite different than those held by the majority of his colleagues:  A PhD holder in English literature or composition is primarily a historian or critic or student of a body of work or an area of study, whereas an MFA holder in English is primarily a creator of literature (often poetry or fiction, though drama and creative non-fiction are also gaining currency in graduate writing programs):  the PhD recipient explains works of literature or literary theories by others, but the MFA recipient creates works of literature.  Essentially, if one takes literature or theory courses, one examines literature by well-known authors; if one takes creative writing workshops, one produces literature that's critiqued by workshop participants and professors.

Consequently, the goals of those earning such terminal degrees are totally different:  a PhD candidate studies literature, an MFA candidate produces literature.  And every literature course uniformly adheres to one vital aspect:  the students' writings never take center stage in their seminars.  In contrast, every creative writing workshop emphasizes the students' writings.

The formal coursework for either an MFA or a PhD candidate usually comprises two years of full-time study (most MFA/PhD degree programs require approximately 54-60 semester units beyond the BA level; in contrast, most MA/MS degree programs require approximately 24-30 semester units beyond the BA level); however, some MFA/PhD candidates may opt to lessen their coursework loads in the face of required teaching duties and writing schedules and, thus, take three or even four years to complete their coursework--this depends on a program's protocols and residency requirements.  Still, someone who's quite gifted as a student and as a writer could complete an MFA or PhD in as little as two years (but three to five years is a more commonplace time period for some to earn either an MFA or a PhD).

The dissertations/theses for PhD and MFA candidates have one important commonality:  they must be book-length works of publishable quality.  As for MA/MS theses, they're often 25-40 page articles--and articles are not book-length works.  No wonder many MFA and PhD programs give candidates from five to seven years to complete their degrees.  In fact, if one examines the unit requirements for many MFA/PhD programs, one will realize that the majority of PhDs take more than three years to complete their degrees because of the time needed to complete their dissertations:  again, formal coursework can usually be completed in two years.  Given the fact that PhD candidates rarely take courses that focus on evaluating and improving their writing skills, the plethora of ABDs (all but dissertations) should not be surprising:  Most PhD candidates are not formally trained as writers of academic non-fiction prose.

And therein lies the advantage of the MFA candidates:  Since most completed multiple semesters of creative writing workshop attendance during their undergraduate years, they can easily transition to and indeed flourish under the writing demands placed upon them at the graduate level.  As a result, most MFA candidates have no problem completing their book-length works within two to three years.  Rare are the MFA candidates who must take five to seven years--unlike some PhD candidates--to complete their books.

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) has long promoted the MFA as the appropriate terminal degree to teach creative writing at the college and university level; more importantly, the AWP has steadfastly supported the position that the MFA is the equivalent of the PhD in literature or composition.  Not surprisingly, many of us have benefited from studying with tenured professors who earned MFAs; additionally, many MFA holders currently direct or have directed graduate creative writing programs, including Christopher Buckley, Garrett Hongo, Alberto Rios, David St. John, the late Herb Scott--the list of notable poets and writers goes on and on--and a number of MFA recipients have won a myriad of prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize:  Rita Dove, Richard Ford, Yusef Komunyakaa, Philip Levine, and Charles Wright are among such recipients.  In short, the overwhelming majority of four-year colleges and universities have long accepted the MFA as the appropriate terminal degree that's equivalent to a PhD for tenure-track positions within the fine arts disciplines, but community colleges for whatever reason have been slow to accept or even understand this over half century-long academic standard (the MFA degree in English has existed since the 1940s)--and that lack of knowledge causes some to rhetorically say, "Well, what do you expect at the junior college level?"

That term, junior, carries pejorative connotations, and when I joined the community college arena, I already knew that many who teach at four-year institutions viewed "juco" schools through rather unflattering lenses.  I remember one professor in graduate school who was adamant that I should never teach, even part-time, at a community college:  "I guarantee you, you'll regret it," he said, his head angled downward as if he were contemplating one of the circles of hell reserved just for those who teach at community colleges.  His main concern--for me and others with MFAs--was the complete lack of institutional reward for faculty at the two-year college level when it comes to publishing; moreover, he made what has come to be a somewhat prophetic comment about terminal degrees at community colleges:  "At junior colleges, they don't understand that MFAs are similar to PhDs," and that alone should "scare you away from them."  He noted that most who teach at "junior" colleges have MA or MS degrees, and he posited that they're "not eager to admit that MFAs are terminal degrees.  You'll only threaten them with your MFA, and that won't be good for you or for the students, especially the students."  He later explained that students at "junior" colleges aren't assured of having qualified faculty in their creative writing classes since seniority alone oftentimes determines teaching assignments at the two-year college level, not area of specialization which is the academic norm at the four-year college/university level.

He was certainly right about the lack of knowledge about MFA degrees (I recently asked someone who has an MFA if he had heard that MFAs were the equivalent of PhDs, and he answered emphatically, "No!"  Ironically, he earned his MFA at a college that notes in their MFA handbook that the MFA is "the equivalent of a PhD"--and the notation is in bold letters.  I don't blame this person or anyone else who thinks that MFAs are not equal to PhDs; rather, this just illustrates that even some with MFAs aren't necessarily aware of the terminal degrees they possess).

However, hope bounds eternal, for a nearby community college district, the State Center Community College District (SCCCD), which comprises Fresno City College and Reedley College as well as other centers, has for years recognized the fact that the MFA is the equivalent of a PhD:  the SCCCD gives both MFA and PhD holders the same yearly stipend.

If we can figure out that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, we can surely figure out why some degrees are considered "terminal degrees" and accepted as equivalents to PhD degrees at the vast majority of publicly funded universities; once enlightened, we can use that knowledge accordingly at the community college level and equally recognize and reward those who've earned terminal degrees.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Satan's Billboards

Along a stretch of Highway 198 just west of Hanford, CA, a billboard proclaims a message supposedly from Satan (he asks people to avoid a certain religious group).  Obviously, Lucifer didn't pay for the outdoor space, but the idea of the most famous of all fallen angels utilizing advertising to sway the populace seems appropriate when one considers the angry, blame-oriented tenor of the times.

Lucifer would certainly like a billboard that says, "Don't worry about your neighbor's welfare:  Worry about yourself."  Preoccupation with one's situation is something every human who once breathed on the planet could understand; even primordial man, hunkered down next to his weakening fire as the rain soaked the world outside his cave, would have been acutely aware of his plight:  "Where will I find dry stuff to burn to keep away the cold and the beasts?"

Many in this country have no such immediate concerns, but the homeless can empathize with such vulnerability; not far from the neighborhood of my childhood in Fresno, dozens of ramshackle tents and cardboard and wood scrap constructions line the asphalt of what was once a bridge from California Street to Van Ness Avenue.  The kids called that area "The Hill" and we would ride our bikes down those bridges that rose over the railroad tracks and the nearby Fresno Rescue Mission where "the men of the road" could find a meal and a bed if there was room.  Now entire families inhabit that area and must fight poverty, drug addiction, violence--and our nation's collective apathy for their lives.

One of Satan's billboards would surely pronounce, "Apathy is good:  To hell with the other guy.  If you give him some money, he'll waste it on drink or drugs."  Rationalization has a way of dulling the soul to the point of maladjusted pride:  "Whenever one of those people asks me for money, I say, 'Get a job!'  Jesus!"  The irony of such an exclamation is profound, for Jesus would have never rationalized turning away from even the least of his fellow man or woman or child.  Yet, millions daily turn away and think they're championing some kind of moral ethic, though if one logically analyzes such a response (to deny someone aid), one would ultimately have to admit that Satan would embrace such an ethos.

Satan's billboards could be direct:
"Don't extend tax cuts unless the wealthy are included too."
"Overturn legislation that gives the poor and the working classes health care."
"Don't spend your taxes on the general masses:  That's socialism and communism."
"Privatize all social services:  Don't waste money on others."

Now don't get yourself riled up if you agree with the previous statements; however, seriously ask yourself one question:  "Would Satan or Jesus support such positions?"  If you think Jesus' teachings support such anti-human thinking, please let me know the title, chapter, and verse of the text you've been reading if you consider yourself a Christian.

But Satan's billboards could also be subtle:
"All white or mostly all white juries and hiring committees and neighborhoods don't harm anyone."
"Support the police:  They know who to stop."
"Let's take back America!"

Implicit in those statements are those who will be considered guilty until proven innocent, those people of color who won't secure employment even though they're highly qualified, those who will grow up in segregated areas--and even cultivate segregated adult lives--and be conditioned to fear diversity or be intolerant to difference, those who will be wrongfully stopped, and those who will be scapegoated for most of the ills in America.

And in a country where few are trained in or possess critical thinking skills, Satan would appreciate the ultimate effect of such billboards:  They work.