Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Our Schools are the Back of the Bus!"

In Edward James Olmos' film Walkout, Paula Crisostomo, played by actress Alexa Vega, astutely utilizes an interesting and cogent analogy to spur her fellow students to action; she notes that the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott that Dr. King led is similar to their collective plight in East Los Angeles high schools in the late 1960s: "Our schools are the back of the bus!"

Many community colleges are "the back of the bus" when it comes to creative writing. Unlike most four-year institutions that routinely demand graduate degrees in creative writing from their tenure-track faculty (in addition to substantial publications, honors, and awards--the "publish or perish" axiom has merit), many community colleges allow their rank-and-file English faculty to teach any courses offered in their departments.

Thus, creative writing workshops taught by untrained faculty have detrimental effects on students. For example, almost universally, students in workshops taught by such unknowing mentors focus mainly on the themes and subject matter of their peers' works and rarely, if ever, receive training in terms of craft. "I think this poem is about man's inhumanity to his fellow man," or "I like the subject; I can relate to the feelings"--in short, unqualified creative writing instructors focus primarily on what a poem or short story means or says, not on how a poem or short story means or says something. Craft awareness and instruction is crucial for all fine arts instructors and their students; craft expertise largely defines and delineates those who ultimately can make names for themselves as practitioners and those who can't.

If students can't get craft instruction in their beginning workshops, they'll have a far more difficult time once they enroll in intermediate and advanced workshops. Those who have become publishing practitioners need only remember their student days in workshops: Remember the student poets and fiction writers who seemed destined to drop out simply because they were out of their depths? Some of us felt pity for them, for we ascertained that they were victims of previous mentors who were also out of their depths:

"I studied with Professor X at Acme Community College."

"Does he publish? I've never come across his name in periodicals or in bookstores."

"No, but he shares his poems with students and always has positive things to say about students' poems. He's wonderful, not like our creative writing professor who never seems to be happy with my work. I mean, do you understand all that technical stuff he mentions in the workshop?"

To use a personal anecdote, I first took creative writing workshops at a community college taught by someone who possessed an MFA from a highly respected university. Although he hadn't published a book-length work, he did have a fair amount of work published in various literary journals and anthologies. More importantly, he had studied with numerous mentors who were--and are--well-known practitioners, and he made a point to note his training on the first day of instruction: He wanted us to know that, although we might disagree with him on certain points or matters, we should understand that his criticism is informed by his many mentors--and their mentors. Essentially, he passed along what he learned from his mentors; he wasn't interested in merely saying, "Well, I would delete this adjective and I would move this noun to this position." He wasn't interested in self-aggrandizement by suggesting that we write like him; rather, he was interested in passing along the craft knowledge and concerns that his mentors took from their respective mentors. I studied with that first creative writing instructor for three semesters; I didn't even receive credit for my third semester of creative writing workshop attendance at that community college, but I wanted to be prepared for my next mentor, Philip Levine, when I transferred to complete my BA in English at Fresno State University; through Levine, I benefited from what he received from his mentors, including Yvor Winters, Robert Lowell, and especially John Berryman. After Levine, I studied with many other impressive, talented writers: I spent approximately 300 weeks in creative writing workshops as an undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate student.

For one of the best things students in the literary arts can do for their work is to study with skilled, well-trained literary artists.

But we do great harm to those with literary aspirations if we don't give them properly trained creative writing instructors; we're relegating them to "the back of the bus."

And four-year institutions might very well decide, just as Dr. King did, that supporting the status quo isn't beneficial for them too since they will have to deal with underprepared transfer students in their advanced workshops. If they revoke creative writing course articulation agreements with community colleges, such action might spur community colleges to do the right thing since tuition without instructor qualifications is just as harmful as taxation without representation.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

"Qualifications? What Qualifications? We Don't Need No Stinking Qualifications!"

As some of you know, not long ago I spearheaded a petition, with the official sponsorship of the 28,000-member Association of Writers and Writing Programs (long live the AWP!), to add creative writing to the California Community Colleges' (CCC) Disciplines List. Although that specific petition failed to garner enough votes at the statewide Spring Plenary session in 2007, the status quo still negatively affects thousands of creative writing students in the CCC system.

Currently, the overwhelming majority of California community colleges allow any English instructor regardless of his or her documented area of expertise to teach creative writing workshops as well as any other highly specialized course offered within their respective departments. And some CCC campuses and their English departments utilize seniority as the sole or ultimate criterion to determine faculty teaching assignments.

This mal-ethos is beyond logical comprehension, for I know of no four-year public institution that essentially says (by policy or procedure), "We don't care what your degree says; anyone can teach anything he or she wants that's offered in his or her department."

Yet, most community colleges officially pronounce via college catalogues and websites that "the students come first." (Was it P.T. Barnum who mentioned something about a "sucker is born every minute"?)

Any novice of critical thinking can quickly surmise that a profound contradiction subjects California's community college students to academic pot luck: "Maybe this semester I'll finally get a well-trained poet or fiction writer as my creative writing instructor." CCC students depend on us to look out for their welfare; they automatically assume that their creative writing instructors know what they're doing; sadly, many of these students aren't aware of some of their instructors' shortcomings until they get to a four-year institution (that is, if they can survive and prosper in those advanced workshops, for some fail because they didn't receive the kind of informed training their student counterparts commonly benefit from on CSU and UC campuses).

However, even more disturbing is the nonchalant ability of far too many English department faculty members in the CCC system, most of whom are white, to be overly generous when it comes to their own qualifications. One would think that community college faculty members would have learned from their own experiences as undergraduate, graduate, and even post-graduate students that they benefited specifically because their colleges and universities did not allow anyone to teach anything in the curriculum.

Should four-year institutions and universities administer a simple exit exam to correct such nonchalance? "Once you receive your degree, will you be qualified to teach anything as a professor in your respective department?" The results of such exams could save the public millions in salaries, health benefits, and pensions by denying degrees to those who answer in the affirmative: potential employers would receive exit exam results with official transcripts. As for those who pass the exit exam but do otherwise once they gain academic employment, their degree-granting alma maters should have the ability to legally revoke degrees just as state motor vehicle departments can revoke drivers licenses from reckless drivers: "We've received evidence that you're teaching creative writing even though your graduate degree is in composition; therefore, unless you can prove possession of a graduate degree in creative writing or "equivalency" in creative writing within 30 days, we must revoke your degree in composition and notify your employer that you no longer hold a graduate degree from our university."

For those of us who are people of color, such academic self-generosity on the part of some white English faculty members in the CCC system is just one example of institutional racism. If one queries many white English faculty members in the CCC system who've sat on hiring committees as to why they didn't hire any people of color, they'll often cite "questionable qualifications" to justify their hiring results. But the issue of qualifications is quickly minimized--it vanishes outright for some--when it comes to who should teach creative writing: "Oh, I want to teach creative writing. I took a creative writing class or two during my college days and I even had a poem published in the local Penny Saver! And our contract says seniority rules, so there!" Comedy has its uses, but when community college students pay tuition for workshops taught by unqualified faculty, their daily reality is anything but humorous.

California's community college faculty members who don't possess graduate degrees in creative writing (these degrees have been available since 1942; over 300 graduate creative writing programs currently exist in the U.S. alone) or who don't have "equivalencies" in creative writing should not be allowed to teach such workshops if CCC articulation agreements with the California State University and University of California systems are to have any worth--and if our creative writing students' welfare actually matters.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union on C-SPAN

For the last two years I've been fortunate to watch Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union meetings on C-SPAN, and just this last weekend I again had the great pleasure of viewing Smiley's remarkable forum that's a stark contrast to what's normally offered over the public airways. (C-SPAN will rebroadcast the event this Friday, Feb. 29, 2008; please check your local listings for exact airtimes.)

Such programs are inspiring for one simple fact: People rarely get to hear so many leaders of color take center stage and comment at length on important issues. In contrast, if these men and women appear on CBS, CNN, or MSNBC, they're often presented via an edited, ten-to-twenty second sound byte on a program most likely moderated and controlled by white people. (If any Caucasians are uncomfortable with the previous sentence, they should ask themselves this simple question: Would you be happy if the overwhelming majority of news and informational programs--and print media--were moderated and controlled by people of color?)

Tavis Smiley's annual event is sponsored by some major corporations (their names appear on the backdrops behind the participants) whose largesse must be commended; such sponsorship illustrates these corporations' commitment to promoting diversity: They "walk the walk."

I encourage everyone regardless of color or ethnicity to watch the rebroadcast of Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union this Friday, Feb. 29, 2008, on C-SPAN; the participants' diverse comments (for such events dispel the mistaken notion that all people of color hold the same views) are engaging and thought-provoking.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Making the Visible Invisible

Fellow poet Sheryl Luna (her wonderful book Pity the Drowned Horses won the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Notre Dame Press, and the UND Press will publish her next collection titled 7 by 2010--kudos to the people at Notre Dame) brings up some valid concerns in a recent entry on her blog ( that warrant echoing.

Although various creative writing programs are attracting and graduating more poets and writers of color each year, including women of color, their increasing numbers don't seem to be mirrored in the empowered "literary circles and academic circles" that angers Luna and many like her. Another recent and similar complaint about the exclusion of Latino/a poets in a December "Poetry Marathon" held in Chicago also notes a similar frustration (see Francisco Aragon's December 20, 2007 entry at Even though 75 poets were contacted to suggest readers for the event, "not a single Latino/a poet was named." Considering the number of graduate creative writing programs in the Midwest, one would think that at least a dozen or more names would quickly come to mind to those solicited, but that was not the case.

Let's be frank: Poets and writers of color don't dominate or control most creative writing programs or organizations; on the contrary, if anything, diversity is often just a word in a slogan noted on academic and professional websites or printed on job announcements; diversity rarely manifests a physical reality in those "circles" other than nine letters on a bumper sticker. Rather, many Anglo poets and writers who are fortunate enough to be within those "circles" routinely use their power to promote others like themselves via tenure-track hirings, visiting professorships, and endowed reading series--but they want people of color in their classrooms as students as proof that they're "serving all communities." Hence, people of color count if we can bring in more revenue for departments and programs, but we don't seem to be as vital a component when it comes to deciding such questions: Who should we hire? Who should we publish? Who should we invite to read?

I used to be a member of a literary "association" in a California town that had a wonderful founding director whose generous spirit spurred him to promote diverse poets and writers; however, once that association's readings gained prominence and steady funding, the founding director was stripped of his position. What came afterwards was predictable: Mainly Anglo poets and writers were invited to give readings. Not surprisingly, I eventually ceased being a dues-paying member; I felt the association's leadership was not interested in inviting or promoting truly diverse authors who do indeed exist in America. According to the latest Bureau of Census report, over 50% of the population in the county in which the association thrives consists of "Spanish surnamed" people, but any year-long roster of the association's invited authors has yet to reflect such diversity.

Poets and writers of color readily support those in "literary circles and academic circles" by paying their salaries and NEA/NEH grants via our taxes, attending their readings, and buying their books. Is it asking too much that the patronage we've given be returned in kind?

Author Paul Kivel, whose book Uprooting Racism is a valuable contribution to us all, asks white people the following questions: "What do you stand for? Who do you stand with? What are you going to do about it?"

If we humans actually "do the right thing," to borrow from Spike Lee, the visible frustration that haunts Luna, Aragon, and others will eventually become invisible.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


A former student was--and probably still is--an ardent fan of a contemporary poet to the point where he wrote poems infused with the same subject matter and even similar stylistic mannerisms of his role model. At first, the class, including myself, praised him for his desire to learn from a practitioner whose works have a so-called "signature style"; however, instead of searching out other practitioners as additional role models, the student poet was vocal in his decision: "He's the best poet I can find, so I'll stick with him as my main influence." But his peers' praise began to dwindle with each new poem. Most memorable, one of his fellow students said, "You've already written this poem--and so has X (the name of his main influence). Why not try something else? Or, better yet, why not read someone besides X?"

Influences can help and hurt us: They can enrich our poetry when we utilize the best of what they have to offer, but they can hurt us if we only have a few influences.

We all have influences that are both visible and hidden. I can remember the first poets whose works I intentionally imitated, for I yearned for such a connection. Consequently, because I knew little of prosody, I initially devoured poetry by poets known for their use of form and meter: Donne, Herbert, Vaughan, Shakespeare, Coleridge, Keats, Yeats, Owen, Edward Thomas, Dylan Thomas, and Auden (all English poets--and, yes, I know Yeats was Irish and Dylan Thomas was Welsh--though Auden did become an American citizen) were my guides. But I soon discovered others who added their own examples of "closed" or "received" forms on this side of the Atlantic: Frost, Wilbur, Millay, cummings, Lowell, Berryman, Schwartz, Roethke, and Bishop. But I then got to the point where "free" verse was a mystery to me, and so I sought out poets whose varied lines, turns, and measures were just as fascinating to me as Vaughan's decision to write a poetry that had more variations than his hero's verse, namely George Herbert. Hence, I drenched myself in the works of poets like Whitman (his "open" verse is far more interesting than his "closed" verse), Williams (though much of Williams' verse has formal patterns), Bly, James Wright, Warren, Dickey, Hall, Strand, Hugo, Walcott, and Kinnell (and, as the astute reader knows, most of these poets started out writing "formal" verse before they began writing what could be termed "hybrid" verse). Finally, I became enamored with poets via translations who wrote in languages other than English: Rilke, Paz, Borges, Neruda, Pavese, Lorca, and Transtromer.

But the post-war generation that includes Kumin, Ashbery, and Snyder is probably the most recent generation of poets that I consciously chose to influence my work in terms of craft: They are my diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. As for the poets of the Matthews, Hongo, and Dove generation, I greatly admire and value their works, but they still seem to be finding their way: their generation seems just a bit too close to my generation (I was born at the end of the Baby Boomer years; the Vietnam War was winding down when I became eligible for the draft in 1973 but wasn't inducted into military service). This isn't to say that the poems of the Levis, Komunyakaa, and Rios generation aren't precious gems--they are wonderful gems I treasure. Still, I simply want the various poets from the 17th century to the post-war era to be my main craft influences. (As for subject matter influences, that's entirely another topic.)

Why all of the personal history? I used my own experience in that workshop to illustrate to all of my students the need for numerous influences in young poets' works. As one of my mentors used to say, "Why settle for rhinestones when you can have diamonds, emeralds, and rubies?" Young poets should indeed take advantage of those who have created poems that will live for as long as humans value written and spoken words.

As for the poets in the present, we strive to find our diverse ways with the help of those who went before us and--as Ringo Starr and Joe Cocker once sang--"with a little help from our friends."

Friday, January 11, 2008

Adventures of the Letter "I" (Part II): Revision

Revision, for many poets, especially those just unfurling their wings, often involves editing, not true revision. For art's sake, for eternity's sake, poets at times should seriously consider the first twenty or even fifty drafts of any poem as not acceptable, especially if for them revision comes down to shifting a word or inserting or deleting an adjective.

The term revision literally means to "re-see" something, whether it's a poem, a puzzle, or a mathematical problem. If one investigates the writing habits of some exceptional poets, one will realize that many didn't stop working on their poems prematurely. For example, the late James Dickey noted during the years that produced his wonderful book Buckdancer's Choice that he wrote with the conviction that the first one hundred drafts of any poem wouldn't satisfy him. Sadly, after winning the National Book Award, Dickey floundered, for his poetry seemed to diminish in ambition (an all-too-common result when the spur for fame loses its sharpness). Only late in his life did he seem to regain some of his youthful fire and once more gave us some lovely poems.

But the Ronald McDonald-like belief in numbers alone won't necessarily have memorable results; in fact, a few drastic revisions can be fruitful. For instance, William Butler Yeats often wrote only four to six drafts of his poems, but they were remarkable revisions: Rarely did one draft even remotely resemble the successive drafts, for he wasn't committed to the notion that his initial tropes required survival.

Both Dickey and Yeats understood that, for the imagination to flourish in conjunction with what's called craft, one must put pressure on one's art--on one's self--and re-see where a poem steams at full power and where it merely idles with unlabored puffs.

Of course, young poets sometimes can't recognize such moments, which is where honest criticism from mentors and fellow bards in workshops or Starbucks can lessen such poetic myopia. Not surprisingly, the best reason for anyone to take a creative writing workshop is to expose him- or herself to the heated, at times painful comments offered by mentors and friends (and these should be friends in the truest sense and not enablers: The workshop should never adhere to the Zenith Chamber of Commerce's motto: "Don't knock! Boost!"). And such harsh criticism should always be concerned with what's on the page, not with authors' personalities or the latest "schools of poetry." Therefore, each workshop participant should be free to eavesdrop, a wonderful gift even if the recipient can't initially appreciate it as he or she winces or groans--and resists the urge to defend his or her work. Otherwise, rebuttal might draw those boosters that Sinclair Lewis satirized in Babbitt.

And, dear critic, please remember that merely suggesting that a word should be dropped or a line needs to be repositioned might not be what's needed: Does the poem need editing or revision? Far too often, the latter requires serious consideration.

To withdraw for a moment to the personal, I remember listening to a fairly well-known poet whose work I wasn't familiar with but quickly found to be somewhat disconcerting: His trains of thought in almost every poem he read literally shouted their destinations long before he came to the final, soot-black periods. I turned to my neighbor and quietly remarked, "Why do I get the feeling he doesn't revise his work?"

Afterwards, during the question-and-answer part of the evening, the poet said that he "never revised" his poems: He always went with his first drafts! No wonder I ached to be outside in the November winds; at least the cold air would have made me feel more alive than the expected ruminations that assaulted my eardrums for nearly an hour.

No one likes to be told that his or her poem is a failure. However, analogously, a tennis coach would be far too lenient--and misleading and possibly even harmful--if he or she suggests that a man or woman who just picked up a tennis racket last month--or last year--is ready for Wimbledon.