Poems, Uncategorized

Others Carried Milk

(offered in solidarity with Minneapolis protesters in the wake of the murder by police of George Floyd, and in response to this striking image from Andy Mannix on Twitter)

“Within the crowd at least one person was wearing goggles and carrying a stick, others carried milk – a tactic known to be used to decontaminate pepper spray, and medics were on hand.”

–Burlington, VT Police Department press release, offered to characterize a nonviolent crowd of protesters as violent in order to justify the police department’s violent response

“Hope is never silent.”  —Harvey Milk

Others carried signs, a tactic known to enable free speech, written messages, dangerously sharp puns and slogans.

Others carried pocketbooks, a tactic known to keep sunglasses and spare change from spilling its deadly shrapnel out onto the pavement.

Others carried fists full of air.

Others carried pocket copies of the Constitution, a tactic known to be used for creating the U.S. government and enshrining fundamental rights, the sharp corners of which have been known to be used for putting out an eye.

Others carried cell phones, a tactic known to enable talking to other people on other cell phones.

Others carried pockets, a tactic known to enable convenient access to car keys – car keys, a tactic known to enable the driving of cars, the entering of homes and offices.

Others carried ideas, in invisible baskets, a tactic known to incite more ideas.

Others carried paper, a tactic known to enable origami, ass-wiping, face-fanning, petition-drafting, letter-writing, voting, littering.

Others carried tampons, a tactic known to enable convenient and tidy menstruation.

Others carried canvas shopping bags, a tactic known to stop tanks.

Others carried babies, a tactic known to be used to board airplanes early.

Others carried oranges, a tactic known to provide a handy and nutritious snack.

Others carried flags, a tactic known to incite patriotic protest and inspire impossible-to-sing anthems.

Others carried newspapers, a tactic known to incite reading and thinking.

Others carried shirts, a tactic known to be used to modestly cover nipples, known to be used to staunch the bleeding of broken skulls.

Others carried eyes, a tactic known to enable seeing, believing.

Others carried throats, a tactic known to enable swallowing, breathing, drinking milk.

Others carried teeth, a tactic known to enable biting.

Others carried ears, a tactic known to enable hearing the hiss of the gas canister and its clink on the sidewalk.

Others carried fingers, a tactic known to be used for pointing.

Others carried hands, a tactic known to be used for covering the head, the guts, the groin, against the rain of blows.

Others carried hearts, pumping and fluttering, a tactic known to push the blood into use and maintain life.

Others carried legs, a tactic known to be used for attempting to get out of the way of the falling baton.

Others carried Otherness – some easily, some bent beneath it – they could not put it down when ordered to do so.

Others carried away injured bodies, a tactic known to keep bodies from being further injured.

Others carried video cameras – pepper-spray-proof eyes plugged into long memory.

Others carried voices, a tactic known to enable talking, chanting, shouting, singing, testifying.

Others carried question marks, a tactic known to be used to ask questions.

Others breathed, a tactic known to be used to manufacture poisonous carbon dioxide.

Others carried bottles of water, which may not be taken through the TSA checkpoint – water, a tactic known to be used to slake thirst, to wet the voice for one more inconvenient accusation, one more adamant song.

Others carried hope, fiercely and tenderly guarding its necessary ember.

Others carried milk.

Others carried milk – tactical milk defensive milk mother’s milk of human kindness—

And the milk was spilled, all the milk was spilled upon all the scalded eyes, and oh how we cried over it.

And even those milky, non-tactical tears were gathered up. We pressed them into shards, into service. We carried them.

*

(first published in If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration, Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017)

Poems, Poetry, Publication

New Anthology: Show Us Your Papers

CvrShowPapers_postcardDiscounted pre-orders are now available for Show Us Your Papers, a poetry anthology due out from Main Street Rag press in Fall of 2020. I’m very happy to have a couple of poems included among those of so many poets I’ve long admired.

PRE-ORDER online here

Order Form (if you prefer to mail a check)

From the Introduction:

“Show Us Your Papers speaks to a crisis of identity and belonging, to an increasing sense of vulnerability amid rapid changes in the USA. While corporations wait to assign us a number, here are 81 poets who demand full identities, richer than those allowed by documents of every sort. Here are poems of immigration and concentration camps, of refugees and wills, marriage and divorce, of lost correspondence and found parents, of identity theft and medical charts. In an era where the databases multiply, where politicians and tech companies sort us into endless categories, identifying documents serve as thumbtacks. They freeze the dancing, lurching, rising and falling experience of our lives. The disconnect between our documents and our identities is inherent, reductive, frustrating, and, too often, dangerous. Yet we cannot live without them. In this anthology 81 poets offer a richer sense of our lives and histories—richer than any “official paper” allows. These lyric and narrative forms demand that readers recognize our full identities: personal, familial, national, and historical.”

You can read the full introduction, as well as some sample poems (including one of mine!), and see a complete list of poets included in the anthology HERE.

 

 

Student writing, teaching

Shifts

MaineVacationJune2007 124When Plymouth State University switched to online learning right after spring break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my students found themselves thrown into not only the traumatic disruption of their schooling, but into unemployment, extra/new employment, stressful or precarious living situations, housing and food insecurities, stress surrounding seeing (or not being able to see) loved ones, sudden childcare responsibilities, isolation-related mental health struggles, illness or illness of a family member, and/or so many conditions and circumstances that seemed bent on keeping them off-balance, exhausted, pulled in many directions.

When I invited my Composition students to take a pass at writing something about their experiences during the pandemic, if they wanted to, a few took me up on it — “C.S.” not only accepted the prompt, but really ran with it, and kept running. We talked on Zoom a few times in addition to exchanging drafts, talking not only about her writing process, but life at home, the strangeness of physical and social distancing, and what her education was feeling like these days. I share her essay here with her permission, because her voice is important and her story illuminating, one that will resonate with many readers. It’s an essay I’m grateful to read, one I learned from.

SHIFTS

MaineVacationJune2007 124

by C.S.

Spring Break

Being away from home and living on a University campus can sometimes feel like living in a bubble; I say this because my main concerns while living in the bubble are school and social life. The campus bubble is a curious concept, one that both connects and disconnects a person from the world. While I am advancing my studies, making new friends and living on my own, there are a few disconnects as well; for example, I no longer tune into local news on the television or pay too much attention to an ‘outside world’ only what is in the bubble around me.

Spring break was finally here, the second week of March. I was so excited to see friends and family, and it would be a perfect time to pick up a few shifts at the nursing home.  During my junior year of high school, I obtained my Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) license. I have been working as a CNA for almost two years now, so coming home and picking up a few shifts was nothing new to me. Since I no longer watch news broadcasts on the TV, I relied on what I saw on social media, but just a few posts here and there across social media mentioned that Coronavirus was starting to spread and filter around the United States, I did not think it would come to affect the world around me as much as it would.

I decided to pick up a twelve-hour shift on Sunday, March 11th. I can never seem to sleep the night before a long shift. So when my alarm rang at five fifty in the morning, it was not a surprise to me as I was basically already awake. Groggily I put my scrubs on, clipped my badge reel and buckled my watch. I scanned my badge to get into the building and headed up to the assisted living floor. I was the only day shifter to be there on time. The night shift nurses sipped the last of their energy drinks and cold coffee. The halls were still dimmed. I walked over to the nurses’ station and read the staffing clipboard. Call-outs on every floor. Taking my assignment list of residents who I would care for, I read through them and passed by their rooms to see if any of them were starting to wake up.

As the day started to roll and the hallway lights shifted from overnight to daytime bright, all the residents, nurses, and nurses assistants like myself were glancing at the televisions in the halls or listening in as we busily passed by. The virus dubbed Covid-19 was spreading across the United States rapidly. Local, state and federal officials were giving speeches on every news channel. I was assigned to supervise the elders’ breakfast with another nurse. She was the definition of a mom-friend, nurse, and boss lady. I guess one could say I looked up to her. She and I walked around and checked on the residents, but I wasn’t prepared for what the overhead speaker would say next.

The mystery voice announced there would be an emergency supervisors meeting shortly. I looked at her confused. She is a floor supervisor and also one of the nurse educators, so she was required to go. I sat on a rolling stool, watching the news. I collected most of the meal trays and started to help residents pack up, passing back walkers, canes, and pushing those in wheelchairs. I was having a very typical day, nothing was out of the ordinary. Influenza type B was going around the nursing home and that explained a few of the call outs. All and all, it was a very typical day. The overhead speaker came on once again, the disembodied voice said all floors were to host a mini-meeting at the nurses’ station.

This is when things got real. No visitors allowed, No activities for residents, No dining room socials. All residents were to stay in their rooms and were to be limited when visiting each other. All non-essential employees were to be dismissed. We were going into some sort of facility lockdown. The regular seasonal flu itself is enough to knock an Elder down, but this new virus would be fatal.

We talked for fifteen minutes, watched a personal protective equipment donning and doffing example and then reviewed what each level of precaution is and signed inservice papers. Then the conversation we had next scared me and that’s when I realized how real this could be.

The nurse that I trust the most, my mother-like figure at work went on to say that face masks of all sorts would now be limited. Gowns and other personal protective equipment would now be restricted. We were directed to use clear vinyl gloves and leave the blue latex alone. They were cutting and limiting resources to save and store. This left me very uneasy, and I still had seven hours out of my twelve-hour shift left.

After I spent all morning showering, bathing, and assisting my residents to prepare for their day I had to tell them all activities were canceled, and no visitors were allowed at this time. It was very hard to explain to grandmas and grandpas that they were not allowed to have visitors come and on top of that afternoon, coffee social was canceled. Every room on the seventy-bed floor had one news channel on or another. All of us were watching the school closure updates, the social distancing lectures, and being reminded of proper handwashing. Residents became scared and stressed. Family and friends called the nursing station non-stop. I was growing nervous as well. When I went to take my lunch break, I walked by the front lobby and administration offices. Family and friends were arguing with administrators over not being able to see their loved ones. Beautiful bouquets of flowers placed on office desks with well-wishing cards and thinking-of-you notes. My heart started to ache. I went about the rest of my shift as normally as I could.

I will never forget how serious the day turned as things worsened on the news. Being told we had to restrict and minimize personal protective equipment usage to avoid wasting could not be more frightening. Telling residents that their daily activities, like crafting hour or afternoon coffee would be canceled until this is resolved was heartbreaking to me; it was so hard to explain to them what was going on without instilling a panic or fear. Seeing the family members argue with directors and administration, seeing flower bouquets clustered on the secretary desks, seeing the activity ladies pack up and go home without employment; it seemed like something only a movie could portray, yet I just lived through it.

MaineVacationJune2007 124

Second Shift

Originally my scheduler could only give me one twelve-hour shift during my spring break, but once things started to change, so did the staffing plans. I agreed to work the day shift on the Wednesday following that Sunday shift. Two days. Only two days passed in between my last shift and my next one. Two days. Things at my facility have changed drastically. Some staff were so scared they quit, more people than usual called out, residents were sad and fearful. Orange and red signs posted everywhere, No Visitors and No Vendors. Another sign posted, that I wish I never read, said, “No Entry Unless Actively Dying Hospice.” That policy made me wish I never learned to read, something about it shattered my heart and kicked my morale in the teeth. We were required to wear a face mask and gown when providing care to a resident. The gowns make you hot and the mask makes you think that stale hallway air is the purest oxygen you will know. The nurses’ station was clear of coffee and energy drinks. It was the cleanest I’d ever seen. Hallways were empty, any activity or social event for the residents were completely canceled, residents were restricted to what neighbor they could visit and when. Residents were to stay in their rooms.

During this shift, residents asked questions and my answers were hard to give. They wondered why they could not have visitors, they wondered how their friends next door were doing, they asked why I was covered with a blue plastic sheet and had a mask covering my smile.

One resident teared up and said to me, “I am not dirty, I am not infected, please let my husband come in.”

It was very hard to answer these questions or respond to their pleas. Each question and person who asked or pleaded with facility policy is burned into my memory. I will not forget how emotionally charged this shift was.

I thought about my residents who have dementia or memory impairments and needed routine, structure, and visitors to help them get by. It made me think about how having a loved one visit, gathering in the main dining room for coffee hour, sitting in your friend’s room and other daily activities were taken away from these residents. It made me think about how stressful, lonely, and challenging it must be for them all. This shift made me realize more than ever how my residents need me; they need a friend, an ear, a caregiver. The nursing staff was not just their caregivers but their family.  I guess I always take my job as a nursing assistant for granted. I always tell myself it’s just a stepping stone for my nursing career and that I just need to do my time in assisted care, but it is times like these where the elders need us more than ever; even to just sit, listen and care for them.

This shift was very hard on me emotionally to get through, the world was changing and a virus was spreading rapidly. The cutback and supply limits frightened not just me but my co-workers who have been in the healthcare game for a while. I watched my co-workers steal boxes of gloves, shove extra facemasks into their purse, build their own first aid kit in the supply closet; all in fear for themselves and their loved ones.

I was the youngest one working, nurses and aides I looked up to were now panicked and worried.

The whole shift was nothing like one I’ve had before. I will never forget these two days.

MaineVacationJune2007 124

Welcome to Zoom University, an Online Learning Experience

By the last day of spring break, my in-person higher education would be switched to online courses for the upcoming two weeks. At this point, my phone buzzed and dinged with calls and texts from friends, family, and the nursing home. The nursing home was short-staffed on every shift basically each day. I had to respond politely that I was no longer on spring break, I was back to school, making me unavailable for shift pickups. It did not take long for the spring semester to be fully transferred online; it was my next learning journey.

With shifting to online courses,  I was presented with another round of challenges. Some of the main challenges included the lack of in-person learning through gaps in communication with some educators, students also lost on-campus utility access like a printer and courses had to abruptly alter syllabi in which corners were cut in education by removing lab work or skipping chapters. As a nursing student, we have labs to take along with lectures. Since we were no longer on campus and class could not be held in the lab, my fellow students and I missed muscle twitch and stimulation projects.

Another issue that arose with shifting into remote learning and the idea that students are being confined to a home, is that some professors have taken this idea as a way to assign or create a heavier course load to keep students engaged or involved under the assumption that students are doing nothing while at home has freed time to complete a different workload and by becoming unsympathetic to the challenges outside of schooling one might face. Some students are more comfortable or even luckier than another student; one may have returned home to an unsteady income and have to enter a job deemed essential during this time to help their families, or someone who now has to take on another role for their siblings as caretakers or early educators,  or even those who might live in a heavily affected area causing them to have more invisible alterations to their life.

Though this shift is flawed, I have noticed some positives as well.  Even though there were significant communication losses, there were some communication gains; some professors were now being more thorough with directions, more timely with email responses and some even lessened required projects. I think this has also been a good way to measure if online courses could be something a student might consider or not in the future.  A more personal positive that was brought to my attention was my ability to have more control over my personal learning and could implement specific learning needs, such as the advantages of  having access to power points or presentations, or having the ability to rewatch or re-listen to lectures that were not recorded before.

Though my focus shifted back into more studious tasks, my nursing home would call; they needed me to come in. I could not pick up shifts, I had Zoom classes to attend, textbook excerpts to memorize and news reports to watch. Learning from home has been an impactful life shift and challenge, not to mention outside factors that may worsen a student’s capability to focus on or complete work, considering the state of the world right now. This has been a challenging learning curve, one that I had never seen coming.

MaineVacationJune2007 124

Guilty and Fearful

I have thought about working every day. I think of my residents. I think of my co-workers. I think about the stress, the fear, the sickness. I have had my facility message me for shift pick-ups nonstop and coworkers messaging me asking why I am not working and how selfish of me it is to stay home.

I have guilt. I think about it constantly. I don’t want to feel this way, but I do. I am an aide, I am a nursing student; I want to help, I want to provide care. I am still a kid, I am still in school. I am conflicted, I have a fall semester to pay for but I am more afraid of getting sick.

Guilty thoughts fill my mind. My facility sent me a letter in the mail, reminding me of my per-diem duties scheduling me for the end of May without my input. It was a threat and served as a reminder not to abandon my commitment to the facility.

Weighing even heavier on my shoulders was fear, the fear of falling ill under the sickly grasp of Covid-19. Throughout my time being quarantined, I have lived in an anxiety-induced state, like many others, over my chronic illness, Asthma. Asthma has plagued my lungs since the day I entered this world. During Flu season, I caught Influenza B, which took a huge toll on my health. This had required me to visit the Health Service office on campus. These visits were daily, as I was subjected to having my breathing monitored. Seeing as a common cold could hit me hard as it could, I can’t imagine putting myself at risk against this all-new virus. This provided me a fork in the road, should I continue feeling guilty and selfish or play it safe and lock myself at home?

MaineVacationJune2007 124

Concluding Thoughts

Almost two months have passed since that first shift. The world around me has been tested and challenged like never before. My learning has been altered, going to the store to pick up a missing recipe item has now become a second thought, seeing friends and family has been turned virtual. No one could have foreseen such drastic alteration in such a short period of time. Uncertainty, worry and fear are now feelings to be felt more than usual. I harbor guilt, stress for school and often worry of what might happen the next day. This situation is so surreal it almost feels like a sick joke on me and the rest of the world. I still find it hard to believe the world is under lockdown, but I truly believe that if we all work together and stay home, we just might possibly slip through the cracks of Covid-19’s grubby paws.

COVID-19, teaching

Windows

IMG_9421“What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
I’m saying: what if that is joy?”
-Ross Gay

Sick, so pandemic sick of my own face
looking back from the screen, I squirm
against her quarantining gaze, each
glance a new bruise in this grid, this room
where I’m caught in the simple prison
of her eyes, the way they pin me in place,
the way I can’t escape her, her head
and shoulders blocking any way out
of myself. Herself. But then, one at a time,

you arrive, blinking into the screen,
banished with me to this grid, from
our third floor corner classroom
with its old-school chalkboard,
its deferred-maintenance carpeting,
and the occasional wasp or ladybug,
the hoisting open and shoving closed
of the giant windows, the tops of trees
outside telling us the weather.
You arrive, and your eyes

are windows opening, are opening
windows in me, letting in at least a splash
of the light and air I’ve been denying
myself as I try to occupy this remoteness.
You arrive with poems, which are sometimes
ladybugs and sometimes wasps and sometimes
a kind of weather passing through the room
we create in the flat digital space by showing
each other our faces, and sometimes we are as tired
as deferred-maintenance carpet,
stained and worn, stretched thin. You arrive:

your unchecked red hair and beard
backlit into otherworldly glow, your tulips tilted
towards the camera to expose their complexities,
or offering a poem full of ox-eye daisies,
or your freshly cut bangs or your long hair
growing longer; you arrive in and from
your bedrooms, at your desks, or in your kitchens,
where you are making birthday cupcakes, or pad Thai,
hungry for more food in poems; you arrive
with your darling cats, and with your gratitude
to each of us “for helping me feel that way,”
and your re-kindled fishing journal;
you arrive on the freshly unfurled wings of a moth
that wanted to be a metaphor, or with your laptop
open at a strange angle, showing us surprising
and curious views, and bright and surprising splash
of your questions; you arrive mute and unmuted;
you fumble for words because they are often
worth fumbling for; you make yourself, you bring
yourself here into this grid, and even when
you can’t bring yourself, you send a poem
which arrives, every time, like a rung I can add
to the ladder I’m living on now. Or like a birthday
cupcake. Or like a window. Or like a metaphor.

You arrive, and I’m stunned by how desperate
I was for the news of you, any word
you might offer. How you gave
one another your faces, as exhausting
as it was, even science tells us we’re not
supposed to meet like this. How desperate
I was, though, for your likenesses to flicker
like spring’s extra hour of light
into my laptop’s window so my remote self
could become just another loved face
among loved faces, and in that way
not feel so estranged, and in that way
have a chance at closing – even briefly –
the distances between us.

for the Spring 2020 Advanced Poetry Workshop
Plymouth State University

COVID-19, Poetry, Uncategorized

Ice Out

                  Lake Winnipesaukee, NH, April 2020

They declared “ice out” this morning,
made it official, having observed from the air
mostly clear waters; yesterday’s
waning bergs in Meredith Bay
and Center Harbor broken up overnight
and swallowed back into the dark fathoms.

So now, the M/S Mount Washington
can navigate the massive lake
to all five of her ports –
but pandemic has promised
she’ll stay moored at shore,
her decks and cabin remain
empty, their former life gone
not like the gradual departure
of winter ice, but suddenly –
an abduction, a shock, a rupture –
like when the earliest ice beckons
but is actually still so thin
you could break right through
and into the frigid lake – fall
victim to the shock of exposure –
you and your optimistic bob house,
maybe even your reckless snowmobile.

*

At deepest winter’s turn into this year,
we waited for the other call—ice thick
and sewn up solid enough on Squam
that the harvest could safely commence –
the cutting and hauling and packing
into sawdust of massive frozen slabs,
ice cakes stowed away through spring
to cool the storied lakeside camp’s
July iceboxes. It came in late January
in the nick of time, ice in,
and the saws and pike poles and winches
did their usual work over two days
of frigid glimmer.

*

In March, while ice still held the big lake
in winter’s loosening fist,
our small town campus’ hockey arena
was thawed and drained, swept and scrubbed,
and cots, oxygen, privacy screens, bedding,
brought in to set up for overflow
from the modest 25-bed hospital,
to prepare for the surge, which I visualize
as a flood, remembering how this very arena
has been flooded by the surging, sudden sprawl
of spring’s unbound river, loosed
in the abrupt letting-go of an upstream ice dam.

*

Oh, April. Cruel. Just as the green started
to reveal itself, another wet dump of snow.
We hunker down, and when we creep out
for essentials – toilet paper, food, medicine,
breeze and sunlight – we try to smile
through hand-sewn masks.

The harvested ice waits, stacked
to the rafters of the dark ice houses,
quarantined in layers of sawdust.
The vintage iceboxes wait to be filled
with the particular cold of those
slices of preserved January.
The loyal ghost ship is now able
to cruise her seasonal circuit
across the unlocked lake, but must wait
for now as we must: tied to the dock
but also unmoored by uncertainties.

The empty cots wait on the dry, swept surface
of the transformed hockey arena,
organized in taped-off rows,
simultaneously reassuring and foreboding,
so still and quiet in their competent anticipation
where once my students blazed past,
Andreas and Victor and Mike and Grant and Maddie,
chasing the puck, careening in a blur of joy,
riding that long-gone ice on the keenest blades.

 

 

Uncategorized

The Heads of My Colleagues

are sorted into a
constantly shifting grid,
Brady-bunch style
in the video-conference

we take turns being
Alice in the middle
as our voices
crackle in and out

one broadcasting
from her car
because she needed
to escape her house

another swooping in
late with lunch
and one holds
a grinning dog

and here’s one sweet
baby with lots to say
to her tired,
tender mother

more than half of these
heads wear spectacles
and one sports
a baseball cap

and there I am,
my own head floating
in my own framed
portion of home

just touching and
touching my face
enough to make me
worry about myself—

holding my
chin in my hands,
resting my
cheek on my hand

touching my nose,
my mouth, the corner
of my eye – what
am I looking for?

the heads and shoulders
of my colleagues
float in kitchens,
in living rooms

and I squint into these
temporary windows,
curious about what I might
glimpse of their lives

among those cabinets
and light fixtures,
window treatments
and houseplants

each detail I transform
briefly into a crucial clue
each colleague made
newly mysterious

by my scrutiny, my curiosity –
or is this pandemic
tenderness blooming
across new, strange distance –

a kind of longing, and
inside this longing,
a wandering
would-be koan –

love is curiosity
is love – even if that
is neither true
nor a proper koan

I do believe just now
that I am infused
with something
like love

and I have touched
my face enough
times now that
the tears are coming

they were not
on the agenda
but the sweet baby
understands

and cries
in solidarity
with this fraught,
sad love, this

fierce and tired
and complex
but also simple
love

for the heads
of my colleagues—

 

 

 

About Writing, rumination, teaching

Peer Review as an Expression of Hope

royalquietdeluxeportable_3.jpg

I started out this semester with some big plans for my teaching (and my learning around my teaching), but like so many plans, they have been disrupted by the global pandemic and the physical isolation it has necessitated. (In February, my teaching/plans were also disrupted by a definitely unplanned two-week hospital stay. So it’s been….less than ideal in terms of a semester to be launching into this new/revised pedagogy I’d been into.)

But. And.

While I do NOT believe the remnants of this semester are going to wind up manifesting some kind of “triumph-over-adversity teaching epiphany” narrative, I do think that much of this experience has me not just scrambling/triaging, but actually re-thinking long-standing assumptions and practices (embedded in assignment language and syllabus language, for instance) in ways that will certainly continue post-pandemic.

(What is “post-pandemic?” I have no idea. Maybe there will be no easily discernible “post.” No after. Only next? I’ll say it again — I have no idea. And yes, that makes me anxious.)

I think my hospital stay “disruption” is also informing my thinking about teaching, learning, and the systems that seek to enable those things but which often do just the opposite.

All of this is to say: I just (re)wrote some language around this week’s assignment for my Creative Writing students at Plymouth State University. And I have been glum around not keeping up with the thinking/posting/sharing I had just barely gotten started with around my teaching earlier this semester.

So I thought I’d share my new iteration of this assignment, which I will send out to my students when I send them their peer’s story drafts. Some of this language already existed, but feels different; some of this language is new/emergent. It would likely benefit from some compassionate and inquisitive feedback. Because like writing, and good writerly feedback, teaching is (or can be) a profoundly optimistic,  hopeful, enabling and always-evolving.

Creative Writing, Spring 2020:
Short Story Peer Review Assignment

You have been sent (attached to this email) the short story draft of one of your classmates.

Your task: to offer your thoughts/questions/ideas about what they are working on, and what they might do next.

Another way of thinking about your task: we are all pretty isolated from one another right now. If we were in class, you’d be in small groups sharing this work face to face, and then we’d be talking together as a larger group about questions/struggles/ideas around writing/revising short fiction. Alas, we don’t have those conditions for our work any more.

I believe that our attentive and generous attention to each other’s work at this particular time may be extra important.

Not because creative writing class and short story draft assignments are especially important right now – but because compassion, connection, and creativity are especially important right now. Your reading and thoughtful, hopeful responding to your peer’s story draft can be an enactment of all these things. I say hopeful because good feedback, I think, often gives the writer a sense of possibility, of next. Good constructive feedback, even if the draft under considerations is a gorgeous, difficult, wandering mess, assumes an optimistic posture.

Remember – as always – your job as a draft-reader is to describe what you notice, wonder (ask questions, speculate) about what you see (and don’t see?), and to help the writer keep going. You aren’t “correcting” or “editing,” though editing/pointing out typos or unclear parts can certainly be helpful. But this draft is too new for you to encounter it as something that needs “fixing.” These drafts are still emerging, so keep that exciting and hopeful newness in mind as you read and respond.

You are a human reader; someone who knows what a story is because you have been telling and hearing them all your life. You are a fellow story-teller, a fellow human practicing ways of telling stories. Be with one another in that. Help each other keep going.

Please write up your feedback in at least 250 words and email it back to the author, cc-ing me (eahl at plymouth dot edu), so you can get credit for the assignment. If you have a way to mark up the draft itself and return the marked-up draft along with the 250 words, I’m sure it would be appreciated, but just do the best you can! If you can’t do the markup, don’t sweat it. (I will, of course, also be responding to all drafts!)

It would be ideal for you to submit at the beginning of next week (April 13), so that writers can get it in time to make good use of it, but as with all deadlines before the end of the semester, there is FLEXIBILITY. Just let me know if you need more time, or tech support, or help getting started, or if there are any other obstacles hanging you up on this work. We’ll find a way.

About Writing, Poetry, teaching

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Poetry

Last class we started a conversation about the genre of poetry – what it is, what it isn’t, what our experiences have told/taught us about what makes a poem a poem, or what makes a not-poem not a poem. After generating our own thoughts, we looked at a set of poems and observed how those poems were, by their existence, their formal choices, their shapes and sounds and subject matter, suggesting what a poem does/can do, what a poem is/might be.

The homework was to write a poem and an accompanying author’s note discussing how the poem draft is (trying to be?) a poem, as opposed to a not-poem, what choices or techniques or ideas are at play in the making of a poem or poem-like thing. Students have swapped and are making descriptive comments now about these questions of poem-ness, along with describing the use of concrete, sensory detail. They were even numbered, so I commented on my own draft.

My draft was inspired by an in-class writing exercise we did focusing on a significant place — everyone listed important, meaningful places, then chose one to dig into further. We brainstormed lists of “things” or “stuff” associated with the place, as well as a list of people associated with the place, and then we generated lists for each of the five senses associated with the place. I was inspired mostly by the “things/stuff” portion of the brainstorming, as you can see. Hope to keep working on this draft after a little time away from it.

About Writing, teaching, Writing Tools & Tips

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Second Assignment in Creative Writing

The second assignment in Creative Writing (aside from an in-class freewrite) invites students to practice using concrete imagery — language of the five senses — as well as imaginative associations / associative play to bring an “abstraction” to life. We discuss “showing” and “telling” — NOT merely how you’re supposed to do one and not the other; rather, how the two are different and have different uses/purposes. This exercise and assignment, though, is definitely about using SHOWING. (For a really important perspective/critique on some not-great implications/limitations of a rigidity that privileges “showing” over “telling,” see THIS amazing piece.

This is another “worksheet” brainstorming activity — it doesn’t have to be a worksheet of course, but I’ve found it handy at times. After a conversation and some terms-defining around imagery, figurative language, “connotation” and “denotation,” the function of the five senses, and the concept of the “abstraction,” we each choose one abstraction to take through the exercise.

We spend a little time in class sharing some of the associations/ideas/images we came up with — privileging the strange and surprising ones. The take-home assignment is to create a piece (any genre, any length), preferably titled with the selected abstraction, which creatively uses concrete/sensory detail (imagery) to bring that abstraction to life. I share some samples with students — I’ll admit nearly all of the samples are poems. I need to work on getting more genre variety in there. Here’s my notebook draft, then my typed-up edit with author’s note.

I am reminded every time I use this exercise of a shy and quiet high school student in a summer poetry workshop I taught years ago. He almost never spoke. When the workshop was doing a version of this exercise as a group that summer, we were coming up together with associations for the abstraction, “love.” We had decided that love drives a vintage baby blue VW bug convertible. We were speculating, I think, about where love would drive — and this young man spoke up quietly. I didn’t hear him at first, and asked him, gently, if he could repeat himself. “Love doesn’t have a driver’s license,” he said, dazzling us into appreciative, companionable silence. Everybody in the room that day agreed that love definitely didn’t have a driver’s license. I have never forgotten that!