Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Are We Writing Toward Memorable Words?

As 2010 approaches, I realize that my main goal as a poet hasn't changed at all: I want to write memorable words.

And that's a difficult task when "po-biz" looms over many poets and writers. Often, without realizing it, we might think of ourselves as failures if we haven't published X amount in a year or haven't won an award recently. I remember one former creative writing teacher of mine who said the lines someone writes at this hour might be "the best lines written on the planet, but po-biz doesn't exist for such lines," and he might very well be right.

Imagine, for a moment, if Emily Dickinson had diminished her poetic ambition because she could only publish a half dozen poems and wasn't encouraged by the powers that be during her lifetime; the world would be diminished if we didn't have her verse that she wrote for the dresser drawer--and for the ages. Although Dickinson wrote approximately 1700 poems, at least two dozen of those poems would easily qualify as memorable words; others might find three or four dozen poems by Dickinson that are indeed memorable to them.

But even those who bask in "po-biz" can find themselves wondering about their accomplishments. Robert Frost, probably the most heralded poet in the 20th century, had misgivings about the quality of his work; one need only read Donald Hall's fine pieces on Frost to discover that even multiple Pulitzer prizes couldn't keep Frost happy. And that's probably why Frost never let up on the ambition he had for his poems even into his old age--he wanted his work "to last."

How does one know if one's words will last? Well, one will never know; that's history's business, but it's still a good thing to nudge one's self when revising (when the real writing begins) and to step back and ask (especially after months have passed during a poem's creation), "Are those words still as interesting as they were when I last inspected them?"

If poets routinely asked themselves such a question, the world would be an even finer place than it already is.

Let us start 2010 by asking ourselves such a basic question every time we think a poem, a short story, a play, or a novel is ready to be let loose upon the world.

Monday, November 2, 2009

What's the Appeal of AMC's Mad Men?

I've viewed AMC's Mad Men for at least a few episodes (partly because of the success the show had at the latest Emmy's), and I think I've ascertained the series' appeal: Like most 1950s fare, people of color aren't visible or viable as equals, and homosexuality exists elsewhere.

The series certainly has a lot of sex appeal, for one aspect of the so-called Eisenhower years is the mistaken belief that sexual lust and longing didn't exist (even Eisenhower had a mistress, a female soldier who was his aide during his military years). The women on Mad Men wear those bullet-shaped bras that remind me of those worn by my second grade teacher, Mrs. F, who always struck me as a sexy witch of sorts (yes, little boys do have sexual fantasies). I was--and probably still am--in love with Mrs. F partly because even then I sensed she represented the "ideal" woman of that era: physically beautiful, well educated, and white.

But, I suspect the series' main attraction is the viewer's ability to immerse one's self into a world that must seem simplistically nostalgic: The main actors and actresses are all white. If one were to complain about such an apartheid-like series, those in control could use history to validate the cast: "Why, people of color rarely worked in the advertising arena back then."

And there's the main appeal of Mad Men: It allows viewers to remember--and vicariously participate in--a simplified existence that wasn't complicated by difference other than the eternal tensions between genders--heterosexual tensions, that is, which also reassures those who voted for Proposition 8 in California.

The series should be titled Mad White Men, and I wouldn't at all be surprised if Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Lou Dobbs are ardent fans of the show, for I can't imagine those men and other like-minded individuals to even be aware of the negative effects such "nostalgia" television might have on all viewers: Does it help us minimize the importance of race and diversity in our lives? Does it reinforce heterosexuality as the "norm"?

Will I continue to view the show? I doubt it, for I ultimately find it boring because of the stereotypes and the blandness of the world depicted. But I'm sure others will look forward to each episode precisely because of what it doesn't depict: The world we live in.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

How to Select an M.F.A. Program

An ambitious creative writing student recently asked me to give my opinion about a specific creative writing program. Instead of giving information that might not be useful, I passed along advice given to me (by someone whose opinions matter to me) some time ago when I was nearing the end of my undergraduate years.

First, he suggested that I ask myself one very important question: "What do I want from a graduate creative writing program other than an M.F.A.?" (I had already decided that I didn't want to pursue an M.A.; such degrees generally don't meet the minimum requirements for tenure-track positions in creative writing at most four-year colleges and universities.)

I wanted a mentor whose work and personality appealed to me. When Richard Hugo was alive, I had decided to make the University of Montana my ultimate destination; he struck me as not only a wonderfully talented poet but also as a very giving human being, someone I wanted as a mentor (I fell in love with the guy after he gave a reading at Fresno State). I had already studied with Phil Levine (and I think I hold the record for taking Levine's poetry workshops: five semesters over a number of years). Hence, I was lucky to have had one great teacher, for Levine was great (and Hugo's great teacher was Roethke and, as Hugo noted, such a claim is impossible to prove--so be it), and I had heard that Hugo was Levine's equal in the workshop: tough to please, incredibly well-read, and a blast to be around. But when Hugo died, my desire for another mentor like Levine diminished (this isn't to say that great mentors aren't out there; nevertheless, greatness in any discipline is a rarity).

In addition to a mentor, I wanted training and experience in teaching composition. Most M.F.A. degree holders often have to teach composition simply because there's more need for composition instructors than creative writing instructors. Consequently, I made sure that the program I attended had to give me at least an opportunity to teach composition: The University of California at Irvine requires all M.F.A. candidates to not only take the seminar in rhetoric and the teaching of composition but also to teach composition for several quarters. That training (which also involved weekly meetings with various composition course directors) has been an invaluable aid to me over the years.

But I also wanted experience teaching creative writing. And, lo and behold, the program I attended also expects all of the M.F.A. candidates to teach creative writing in their specific genre. Fortunately, I got to teach beginning poetry writing for two quarters (and I was not alone: the majority of my fellow M.F.A. candidates taught such workshops for at least two quarters). I couldn't imagine earning a terminal degree and not get some teaching experience within my area of specialization.

Of course, a number of schools offer mentors, composition training, and opportunities to teach creative writing. But I was also given advice about how to distinguish a college from a university: "Your seminars should be geared toward Ph.D. candidates: You want the level of rigor to be worthy of a terminal degree." And, I must admit, the graduate literature seminars I attended were valuable to me partly because I knew I was competing--yes, graduate school is a form of competition: You're trying to distinguish yourself from and among your peers--with Ph.D. candidates at a school known for its critical theory emphasis (sadly, poets and fiction writers are stereotyped as "not scholarly" or as "non-academics" by some professors of literature).

And most universities (and not simply colleges renamed as universities) require teaching loads of no more than five courses a year; some more enlightened universities require their tenure-track faculty to teach only four courses a year. In contrast, most state colleges (regardless of what they call themselves) require their faculty to teach six or more courses a year. Lighter teaching loads result in more time for faculty to do research (which benefits students) and to meet with students.

True universities offer terminal degrees in numerous disciplines. Hence, if you're contemplating getting an M.F.A. from a school that does not offer a Ph.D. in English, that school is probably a state college, not a true university. As a result, the faculties at such schools often have trouble securing positions at Ph.D. granting institutions for a variety of reasons: They haven't made names for themselves in their areas of expertise; their publication records or awards often aren't as impressive as their peers, etc.

Paul Fussell, author of the humorous yet insightful text Class, notes that very few universities actually exist; one sign of "normal" schools posing as universities involves their departments of education: If the greatest number of graduates leave with single or multiple subject teaching credentials, the school is definitely not a university.

If this all sounds somewhat snooty and downright snobbish, the harsh reality is that hiring committees often interview--and ultimately hire--applicants who attended prestigious graduate schools.

No wonder various publications that rate graduate schools (such as the guide published by U.S. News and World Report) sell in the thousands each year and for good reason: Graduate students want the best educations they can afford. And that means some will have to attend a nearby Podunk U. or Ag Tech out of sheer financial necessity--not the worst thing in the world, for such schools (like the one I attended as an undergraduate) just might have a Phil Levine or a Richard Hugo (I think of the University of Montana at Missoula as an Ag Tech--forgive me former and current residents of Missoula).

However, exceptions exist that might cause us to ignore such advice.

Considered by many to be one of the best schools in the nation, the University of California at Berkeley doesn't even have an M.F.A. program in creative writing. Hence, if I were considering M.F.A. programs, UC Berkeley wouldn't even rate a look. But I do know that Bharati Mukherjee teaches at UCB; she's one of the best contemporary fiction writers in the world (I'm waiting for her to win the Nobel, just as for years I waited for J. M. Coetzee to win--and he finally did), so if I were a potential graduate student, I might postpone my need for an M.F.A. until after I've studied with Mukherjee (I'm a greater fan of her short stories than of her novels, though this is quibbling on my part: She has the "right stuff" regardless of the length of her works).

No matter what criteria we utilize to guide us, if we consider our uppermost needs, we can make the right decisions.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Writing is Craft and Craft is Discovery

As I begin another semester and tackle, among other things, a new group of students in a creative writing workshop, I have to remind myself how many aspiring poets and writers often have "important things to say" and proceed to do so--and often at the expense of their work.

I think it was W. H. Auden (forgive me if I'm wrong) who, when querying prospective students who wanted the opportunity to study under his guidance, would ask students why they wanted to take his course; if one said, "I have important things to say," Auden noted that such students would probably not become poets and writers. However, if one said, "I like playing with words," that student had a good chance of becoming a writer of worth.

I don't think I teach "creative writing" per se; rather, I think I teach experimentation with words. Even if these words often don't make literal, dennotative sense, I do know words can have a wonderful impact on us as readers when we consider the connotative, emotional sense of certain vowels and consonants hitting against each other in varied linguistic utterances.

The late Jacques Derrida made one crucial error when espousing Deconstruction: Writers actually like the fact that their works don't literally mean one thing. Consequently, Derrida's emphasis on the intertexuality and the interplay between words and meaning--signs and signifiers--certainly shines a light on what most poets and writers love: Like gophers, they dig their way through a rather dark world toward some destination that, with luck, will prove fruitful.

Supposedly Derrida put to death Structualism (and those binary oppositions--and for some reason I'm attracted to Structualist approaches to literature), but he didn't; he simply realized that meaning is indeed a mystery and that texts have built in contradictions upon contradictions; as Whitman said, "I contain multitudes."

That multitudinous-ness is so appealing, and some--not all--students eventually come to appreciate letting go of their "important things" so that they write something they didn't know existed at the end of their literary tunnels. As a result, whenever my assignments harp on using a certain number of syllables or stresses or the need for medial caesuras and run-ons, I remind myself that I'm giving students requirements that take the pressure off of their imaginations--and, ironically, their imaginations begin to flourish as they dig toward the unknown.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama and the Politics and Poetics of Interrelatedness

With President Barack Obama's election, the country (and the world) has witnessed a transition to a new paradigm: the politics and poetics of interrelatedness.

What do I mean by "interrelatedness"?

Obama successfully utilized a strategy of connecting different groups (whites, Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, biracial/multiracial Americans) by underscoring what they have in common: They all need better-paying jobs, less costly health care, greater educational opportunities, etc. In short, Obama emphasized the interrelatedness of their respective needs and wants as communal needs and wants: Obama would often say, "We are the United States of America." One might speculate that a biracial person such as Obama would be especially sensitive to our need for community.

In an analogous manner, many contemporary poets of color have been utilizing the same ethos of interrelatedness in their art. For example, Alberto Rios' poem "Seniors" brings together a collection of characters whose ethnicity or racial backgrounds do not take center stage; rather, the poem focuses on the speaker's omnipresent longing to connect these disparate individuals (William who exposed himself in class; Konga who did a rubber band trick; Maya's pride in the family's ability to afford a refrigerator; the "hot girl on a summer night" who was "all water") with a universal desire to love them all "in some allowable way," and that human instinct to love, whether it be religious, romantic, or platonic, or a commingling of all three, is reaffirmed by Rios' ability to see these characters as universal archetypes: One does not have to be a Latino to enjoy or empathize with Rios' speaker. Hence, Rios' poetics of interrelatedness does what Obama did: People from different backgrounds can appreciate the poem as a united readership.

But interrelatedness is not an easy task for any writer or poet to achieve; for example, many white poets and writers have taken the "interrelatedness" of their works for granted.

Whenever I enter a movie theater, I'm always struck by the overwhelming whiteness of the cinema and literary works that inspire them. For instance, I've been a fan of Woody Allen's films for decades; however, I've never understood why Michael Caine's character in Allen's Hannah and her Sisters had to be a white male: Couldn't the character have been a Latino? And when I consider the Raymond Carver-inspired, Robert Altman-directed Shortcuts, I can't help but think that many of those characters could have been played by actors and actresses of color; after all, Carver spent a lot of time in the San Jose area of California, and I just can't imagine (if Carver were still alive) that he would stipulate that all of the characters in his stories must be played by white actors if his works are adapted to film.

Obama achieved interrelatedness in his political campaign to garner the votes of a heterogeneous populace, but many of us who write might not be able to claim such success (and, I suspect, some of us might not even value such interrelatedness: "I know my audience--and so does my publisher--and I write for them!").