Poetry, Readings/Events, teaching

“The Poet’s Dream:” The 2020 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival (October 22-November 1)

In October 1986, I was a high school student in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and attended the first Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in the village of Waterloo.

My family lived in Cherry Hill for two years when my dad was stationed at the Naval shipyard in Philadelphia. It was difficult time for teenage me, a time of struggle and growth. I was caught shoplifting. I smoked pot for the first time. We were renting a house in a neighborhood that wasn’t really accustomed to welcoming “new folks,” and for most of my first months of school at Cherry Hill High School East, nobody at the bus stop would talk to me. And I was too shy to talk to them. I was used to living either on a Navy base or in a neighborhood near enough to a large enough Navy base that there were lots of new kids every year, and we just kind of knew how to be with one another.

But eventually, at this supremely well-resourced public school, I found teachers and peers who were “my people.” Miss Beck and Mr. LaVoie, in particular, and the students I met in their English and Creative Writing classes, were, finally, such a source of connection. I also found a weekend program, the New Jersey School of the Arts, hosted at the then Glassboro State College, where I connected pretty intensely with three other young writers.

That first Friday of the Festival was specifically organized for students and teachers, and free to attend — and that access to poetry and its communities has always been a part of the Festival’s ethos and mission. It continues this year — you can get a free all-access pass if you are a student or educator. They are also offering their standard all-access pass as “pay-what-you-can,” and a free version for live-streaming and discussion groups only. I’m hoping to encourage some of the writing students I’m currently working with to register and attend.

Looking at this year’s amazing Festival schedule, I see so many poets whose work I love and admire, I see old friends and acquaintances and teachers from various parts of my poetry life. I see necessary themes and conversations.

Access to programs and events like the Dodge Festival, the NJ School of the Arts, and others really shaped and helped me, especially during certain periods of my life. Now, in 2020, access online to an overwhelming variety of readings and talks has been, for me, another nourishing source of connection and hope and help. I am so grateful the Dodge Festival endures, and if you can, I encourage you to join me in financially supporting this work. If the financial support isn’t an option, consider spreading the word and, of course, participating in the Festival.

If it’s back in person next year for the 35th (contingent upon so many other urgent “ifs”), I might have to head down there, as I can imagine the Festival serving as a good emerging-from-pandemic-isolation (please please please) experience. A poet can dream.

Uncategorized

Middling

So many things are so crappy right now. But watching Amanda Whitworth’s work here — appreciating the instrument or language (?) of her body, and also of the work of her collaborators, the cinematographer and composer — transports me not exactly “away” from all that’s crappy, but . . . I don’t know . . . into a dimension or a facet of possibility. I don’t even know what that means. Maybe only a body could say, wordlessly.

About Writing, rumination, teaching

Practice/Versions/Revisions/Rehearsals

I often think of and describe my dad as a “poster child” for a conventional/idealized U.S. middle-to-upper-middle class vision of retirement for his cohort — the “silent generation.” After thirty years in the Navy, which included a tour in Vietnam, unaccompanied deployment with the Seabees, and running the Public Works Center at the Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines, he was able to retire. He and my mom moved back to Washington State, where he had worked to help build the Bangor Trident Submarine Base on the Hood Canal — we lived there for three years when I was in elementary school. They liked the area, and had retired Navy friends there, and so they made one last cross-country move and landed outside of Poulsbo, right up the Hood Canal from the sub base, on a piece of land where my dad designed and supervised the construction of the last house he’d ever live in, after a life of moving every one to three years, due not only to his own itinerant military career, but also to his father’s thirty years in the Navy.

My dad’s birthday is coming up in early October, and then, the fifth anniversary of his death at the very beginning of November. I have, in my adult life, resisted anniversaries of all kinds, have been skeptical and even cynical about them, not sure why, but a part of me also enjoys certain rituals and traditions. The approaching of the fifth year “mark” of my dad’s sudden and unexpected death is on my mind. I wonder if my urge to commemorate is related to the pandemic, to the way the pandemic has altered — is altering –my relationship to time, to the passing of it, the measuring and marking of it, its role in how I try to live and comprehend my life. Many usual markers — many having to do with work, but also having to do with the rhythms of social and personal life — are radically altered or gone. So maybe how I feel about the role of ritual, of the intentional marking of time, which used to seem to mark itself (?), is changed and changing.

I opened this piece by asserting that my dad was a retirement “poster child” because he was such a good hobbyist. He Kept Busy. He made artful, precise scratch- and kit-built model ships. He took up the Appalachian mountain dulcimer. And he took up watercolor painting. Or, more precisely, in retirement he was able to dedicate himself more fully to even deeper pursuit and practice of these avocations to which he had been called, to varying degrees, before he actually retired.

I am interested in this turn of phrase, to “take” something “up.” I picture a person gathering something into their arms, maybe lifting it a bit? To take something “on” is to “begin to do” something, according to etymonline.com. I can’t find an entry there for “take up” but it feels to me like a step past “taking on.” In this thread, “take on” is described as more “burdensome,” hinting at an obligation, a challenge, or maybe at something adversarial, whereas “take up” is more of a free choice, maybe a chance at pleasure?

Now that I think about it more, I’d say my dad took on “taking up” as a retiree, for sure. As if it was his obligation (his new “job?”) to “pursue interests.” His obligation to enjoy them deeply. To not squander his opportunity. He probably wouldn’t have called it privilege, but it sure seems like privilege, that leisure.

My dad was not a mere dabbler in any of these three major avocations. He took them on and up with a patient seriousness of purpose, such a long-game for learning. He was a faithful practitioner, a “practicer.” My dad believed, I think, in mastery, but also, I think, he was patient about not achieving it. Especially with the painting, he put in the process and practice work. I wonder if this is related at all to the fact that both his sister and his mother were accomplished, “professional” artists. When he died, I already had a framed painting of his — my favorite from among a half-dozen or so from which he asked me to choose — hanging in my house in New Hampshire. (Also on the wall, a painting by my grandmother, and one by my aunt.)

But when my mom asked if I wanted any of the … dozens? hundreds? of stiff sheets of watercolor work he’d left behind, I didn’t look for another finished piece to hang on my wall. I was mostly drawn instead to the artifacts of his process, his practice.

There was even more of this stuff — and I took more than I’ve pictured here. His careful study documented. His practice, his learning, his trying, preserved here in these patches of color, these “tests.” And there were also a few starts or “drafts” I snagged. Though I guess I have no business saying what part of his process they represent or occupy.

Here’s my dad’s finished painting on my wall, the one I chose when he asked me to choose:

img_6981

In the work he left behind, I found two versions — shall I call them sketches? attempts? perhaps rehearsals? — of the same scene. I am fascinated by them. I look and look at them.

It’s like seeing a little bit through his eyes, or so I tell myself, in this moment, trying that notion out in these words, this draft of an idea. A version. Not a commitment, even though putting the words into the white void sometimes can feel like signing a contract. Not so, not so. There are more words, different shades of the same idea, different ideas. Time passes through ideas/ideas pass through time.

Here are the two versions/drafts of the painting:

img_6979

img_6980

I look at these and I think: rehearsal. Practice. Getting to know the materials. Getting to know one’s own vision as enacted by brush strokes, color choices, quantity of water.

How do you rehearse for the “final version?” When do you know the final is the final? Is the version on my wall “finished” because it is framed, because it’s displayed? My dad is the one who decreed it finished, who had it framed as a gift for me. Also — he was finished — is forever finished — painting versions of the work. There will be no further work. So, in some literal sense, this is the “final” in a series. But I guess I’m asking, wondering, why even care about “finality?” I’m not sure.

These questions are ones I ask myself from time to time, and which I encourage my writing students to ask themselves and one another. They are sort of unanswerable. I try to talk with students sometimes about the difference between BEING finished WITH something (for now?) and a THING being FINISHED, though is that even a real distinction? And of course for writers I work with in university classes, the constraints of a “semester” which ENDS (and then a new one begins!) influence the pace and timing of composing, reflecting, and revising.

If to begin a thing is to “take it up,” might “finishing” be an act of “putting down?” (Sometimes we describe acts of writing as “putting (something) down” on paper. We also sometimes use the expression, “to write down,” not just “to write.” “Write down these instructions.” What is “up” in that figuring?)

What shall I do with these versions of revision? These versions of my dad’s vision? These transcripts of his trying? These archived attempts? What story of painting, of learning, of testing materials and gestures, do I want them to serve? What story of my father do I want them to serve?

It must be a kind of revision when I write about my dad in certain ways, certain genres, on certain days. Re-vision as I re-member him when he is dead and I am fifty, as opposed to when I was thirty and he was still living. Revision if I make it past the age he was when he died a few years ago to remember him again, remember him differently. I am thinking again, still, of time — how my thinking about my father recently is connected to the time of year, to the passage of time, to the commemorations of “birthday” and “day of death.” To my own aging. And so I think also of how re-vision feels connected to the passages of time, the duration and pace (of the poem, of the world swirling around the poem, of the before-poem and during-poem and after-poem), the shapes and textures we call time, those marks of it we make. Marks like clock numbers, like brush strokes, like words.

I wish he were here to ask; I’m sure he’d have things to say about the flaws of the versions of his painting — their failures, their incompleteness. And yet, the materials and technique — watercolor — he uses in this painting feel so….resistant to completeness. The painting edges up into what feels to me like a kind of minimalism when I imagine practicing what I see as a skilled kind of restraint. What I mean is, the few times I’ve tried seriously to draw or paint, I think my fatal flaw is not stopping soon enough. I was told this once (kindly, I think) by an art teacher. I look at the framed painting and wonder if the reason he framed it, named it finished, and not the others, is his feeling that he stopped painting at just the right moment? I don’t know. Probably if I’d found all three versions in the huge stack of his work, I wouldn’t be so certain which was the “final draft.” Which one I would have chosen to have professionally framed, which two relegate to the closet archives?

For the most part, I save no such archives myself — most of my versions disappear in the wake of revision — my rehearsals in the form of sequences of drafts are mostly ephemeral. There are exceptions, but most of the saved work is printed out and annotated, and is in a folder of “unfinished” stuff I mean to get back to.

Except that some poems I write are of course revisions/versions of poems I’ve already “finished,” or of “a poem” I keep writing and (re) writing and may never finish. And so maybe some poems are rehearsals only I don’t know they are rehearsals.

Or maybe many or maybe all my poems are rehearsals of some kind.

About Writing, COVID-19, Poetry, rumination

The Next Step

I make myself go outside. It is nice outside, not too hot, but sunny and robin’s egg blue sky. A light breeze to keep the bugs off. To have to “make” myself go out into such temperate loveliness is so absurd. I am glassy-eyed and dimwitted from hours, days, weeks of screen work punctuated by the social media work-distractions which also serve as my sole contact with most of my people these days, and it is a nice day and I have a book of poems to finish reading and it is August and I am sad and frustrated and the fall semester of teaching writing (online) is looming, and winter is coming and so out I go.

There’s some windfall from the remnants of tropical storm Isaias. Acorn-studded bouquets thrown down from the skyscraper oak. Last year’s paper wasp nest gust-scrubbed from the skylight frame.

(I have not been writing poems. These words about the nest and the oak have the vague feel of poetry, but don’t pull me into drafting a poem the way they might have in March. That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else. Some place I don’t want to tread.)

All those empty chambers

I sit down to read but want to scoot the potted celery over so I can set down my notebook on the picnic table. As I shove the pot over, I reveal a toad. He is not amused. He was not expecting this turn of events.

img_7088-1
The toad scoots back underneath the pot, where it’s cool and safe, for now.

I think about the metaphors I want to make from the toad. The contemplative distance between my wanting to and my doing it is nearly nonexistent. First I consider the sudden exposure, the moments of disorientation and maybe fear, and then the finding again of that cool, dark space. I think about all the time I have spent inside over the last months. Then I’m thinking about how the few times I go out now, masked and skittish, I feel exposed and worried and strange. E(strange)d. And I am lucky enough to have a long-term partner at home, someone with whom to talk and cry and laugh and eat and be. And maybe I should just let a toad be a toad. I do not have a good history of letting toads be toads, however:

Toad
from my chapbook, A Thirst That’s Partly Mine (2008, Slapering Hol Press)

I wrote that poem almost 15 years ago. Maybe longer? I was still teaching Introduction to Literature, which I think I only did my first few semesters on the faculty at my university, where I will start my 20th year in a couple of weeks.

It’s (e)strange to read this poem now, to revisit its long-ago March (or April?), and to think back to this year’s pandemic shut-down right after spring break. Hubris. Being on the lookout. Toad as soothsayer. Spring full of flood, earthquake, astronomical rarities, weather extremes, and my own casual imaginings about what “plague” might descend next. 

*

Later, after reading some poems and pausing to stare at the sky and reading some more poems,  I notice a caterpillar, on the picnic table, making its way somewhere. When I first see it, it is caterpillar-ing confidently forward, like it knows where it’s headed. But when it hits the edge of the picnic table, it seems fully unprepared for the sheer drop, the next steps suddenly gone, suddenly air. It reaches and reaches into the void where the path should be.

If I can’t let a toad be a toad, I also definitely can’t let a caterpillar be a caterpillar. I mean, they transform (!) into moths and butterflies (!!) for crying out loud. They can’t let themselves be caterpillars. They spin cocoons of self-generated silk around their bodies and mutate into a new form, often one dramatically different from their caterpillar embodiment in terms of color and texture.

Out on an errand last week, I wore a face mask as usual, but also happened to be wearing a hat and sunglasses, and I’m pretty sure someone who has known me for 15+ years did not recognize me — they are a brassy, call-to-you-across-the-crowded-restaurant extroverted person who always notices/sees me, says hello/engages in chat when we run into each other. They were oddly standoffish, and it wasn’t until I was back in the car that it occurred to me that maybe this person had not actually known it was me. Had not recognized me.

This didn’t make me mad or upset — instead, it reminded me of when I was new to the area all those years ago, how nobody knew me from Adam, and also about how much I enjoyed, for the first two thirds of my life, the opportunity, given and given again, of being a stranger, being unknown, being anonymous. Being new, and maybe transformed by that newness.

Was I enjoying the notion of (possible) rare anonymity in pretty much the same instant I was mourning spending 95% of my time physically — and emotionally — apart from the world beyond our front door? Was I remembering a more itinerant life, when I rarely lived anywhere for more than a few years? When I was somewhat regularly renewed by…..being new? By being the stranger?

Screen Shot 2020-08-07 at 9.44.32 PM
From Etymology Online

What is my current relationship to estrangement, anyhow?

*

I make myself look at the sky. Then I take a photo of the sky. I am documenting and archiving, which feels like a thing I can do to disrupt the strange stillness of just looking at the unmediated sky. Or observing, without recording, a caterpillar.

I have never succeeded at meditation, as far as I know. (I have also perhaps not tried very hard.)

sky

How long was I outside before I was putting all of it to metaphorical purposes? Did I bring the purposes with me out onto the deck, with my book and notebook and iPad, or were they only revealed to me (like a toad!) after I got out here?

I wonder if there can even be an unmediated sky or caterpillar if I am there looking at it, camera or no. Aren’t I just a camera? I’m not even sure I want to let the caterpillar just be a caterpillar, or a toad a toad, or if that’s even an option, given language, given my hungry, narrating gaze.

*

Two ways I think about ending this writing. First way — another video, with my foolish narrating voice calling a melodramatic play-by-play for an inchworm who, in “the end” (of my documenting/narrative framing) succeeds, survives, makes it across the gap, doesn’t get eaten by the toad, etc., etc.:

Second way — I consider how the caterpillar and the inchworm, in their reaching with the whole front ends of their bodies into the empty air, across the gap, remind me of the first card of the major arcana of the standard Tarot deck: The Fool.

On the left, the Rider-Waite (classic, popular tarot deck) rendition of the Fool; in the center, a more contemporary riff on the traditional Fool iconography in the “Light Seers” tarot deck, and on the right, the Fool from my own tarot deck, the Hanson Roberts. The significant common image: the cliff the Fool’s about to step (or fall) off of.

At Tarot.com (the Hanson-Roberts link above), this is part of their description of the Fool:

“Modern decks usually borrow from the Rider-Waite imagery. Most Fool cards copy the bucolic mountainside scene, the butterfly, and the potential misplaced step that will send The Fool tumbling into the unknown. Don’t forget, though, that the earlier versions of this card represented already-fallen humanity, over-identified with the material plane of existence, and beginning a pilgrimage toward self-knowledge and, eventually, wisdom.”

The gap. The fumble and reach. The unknown. Fools of all stripes, neither fully innocent nor irredeemably fallen, poised to take that tumble or leap or step.

That next step, such a habit, ordinarily such an optimistic impulse for me once I’ve got some initial image/language down, escapes me these last pandemic months. Where I once stepped confidently, almost thoughtlessly, many times before — nothing. Or nothing solid. Air, or something else.

Uncategorized

More Moten & Harney: Two-Part Podcast “Revisiting The Undercommons in a Time of Pandemic and Rebellion”

“Wildcat the Totality: Fred Moten and Stefano Harney Revisit The Undercommons in a Time of Pandemic and Rebellion (Part 1)

“Give Away Your Home, Constantly:” Fred Moten and Stefano Harney Revisit The Undercommons in a Time of Pandemic and Rebellion (Part 2)

As in my earlier post on Moten & Harney, I am mainly transcribing language and ideas from the podcast that I wanted to capture and study further. I am hoping that taking this step leads to the next step — some kind of synthesis & further reflection — and I am finding connections between the things discussed these podcasts (and The Undercommons) and other reading/thinking/talking I’m doing.

PART 1

Moten and Harney discuss critique versus study, & “wildcatting.” Reminding us that when they wrote The Undercommons, they were writing a book about “study,” not a book about the university. And particularly about certain kinds of Black study outside of institutionalization as Black Studies in the university.

They talk about the (American? primarily?) university as a place of violence –  a place that “has always been a structure for the regulation and incarceration of intellectual life – not for it to flourish.”

But at the same time, they note, “the brutal interdictions of intellectual life OUTSIDE of the university have been so intense, folks have fled to the university to seek refuge from that brutality.”

But they find that the notion of the university as refuge is ultimately false.

They examine the university as “a job, a place where people work,” and seek to understand the university better on those terms, but to do this (study) outside of academic labor — to move from “critique” to “study.”

*

Tearing down statues of racists as “national plastic surgery.”

*

The police are just policy by another name. This idea is one that has been really resonating with me over the past months as I have read/studied/considered police/prison defunding/abolition as connected to the university/classroom as a carceral space. And “policy” is, for me, a really clear way to see that connection, that carcerality. As in, policy is just police by another name.

*

Solidarity is also fundamentally selflessness (not about that something that activates your SELF through some figure of the Other so that you can become more fully and completely who you are, the good person you were meant to be, etc…)

*

I really liked the whole thread at the end about politics/candidates/voting – too much to transcribe here (I’m lazy I guess) — start around 45-50 minutes into the podcast and listen for yourself. Or, really, truly, just listen to the whole thing, both parts.

PART 2

Some issues and ideas Moten and Harney get into in this part — the destruction of the commons, the problematic of ownership, living on stolen land and “homelessness.”

MOTEN: “Homelessness is not the condition in which you ain’t got no place to stay. Homelessness is not the condition in which you ain’t got a house. Homelessness is the condition in which you share your house, literally. It’s the condition in which you give your house away, constantly, as a practice of hospitality . . . . home is where you give home away.”

*

On study:

MOTEN: “The kind of thing that we do, which is reading and writing and talking about books, I think it’s important. I’m not ashamed of it. I think it’s a good thing to do, I think it’s important to try to imagine ever more radical ever less privatized ways to do that. But Black study is not reducable to reading and writing and talking about books. Reading and writing and talking about books is an irreducible part of Black study, but Black study is not reducable to reading and writing and talking about books.”

HARNEY – playing/listening to music together, watching sports together, dinner and conversation – all intellectual pursuits, all are potential Black study that don’t get counted by (university) Black Studies (discipline/institutions)

HARNEY: “It seems like a general condition in study that if it appears at first like a gentle and passive thing, that’s ‘cause we are trying to practice being gentle and passive. However, it’s also an immediately antagonistic thing, it’s that primary insurgency coming forth, and the way you know that is that no matter where you practice study (not equally, and yet it is the case), that someone will come after you to stop you. And that’s of course what we first discovered in the university, when we used to say, early on, “what’s the one thing you’re not allowed to do in a university?” and the answer was “study.” Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s a risk of that seeming flippant with regard to trying to study in a prison. I’m not trying to equate them. I’m simply saying that although study is in many ways the practice of allowing people really to have the time to think about something and rehearse something, revise it together, sit and be with each other on and on and on, it does have this quality of allowing a kind of gentle flow of time to give you this space…it is nonetheless caught up in a struggle all the time to maintain itself. And if you don’t believe that, try studying, and very quickly you will see how many people come to your door to stop you: landlords, bosses, teachers, police, the water man. Whatever the case may be that you have had to struggle against in order to be there together. Study is a struggle.”

*

Other ideas/concepts explored in the podcast: “the surround,” indigeneity and its relation to Blackness, enclosure, settlement, destruction of the notion of sovereignty itself, and fugitivity

HARNEY: “The surround is a constant insurgency against sovereignty and everybody who participates in it . . . . there’s so much misunderstanding, especially in Afro-pessimism, about indigenous sovereignty, but that comes from putting things backwards, to imagining that sovereignty precedes the rebellion, and I think that’s just not right, just not correct, and that historically its not the experience of indigenous struggles. The experience of indigenous struggles is that one can find a home there, a fugitive home. That land is not “sovereign” in that sense, there’s not a fence there’s nothing permanent in that way about its ownership. The surround is also set as a constant broil against land in a way, a constant broil against settlement, which is not to say that it can’t take the form of home, or homelessness, in the way that we’ve been talking about it.”

I found it engaging to listen/think about this after reading and discussing Tuck & Yang’s “Decolonization is not a metaphor.”

*

Other topics and issues discussed as the podcast continues — abolition, non-reformist reforms, defunding of police, current uprising, and carceral policies generally.

I was interested to hear them discuss “fugitive planning” connected with recent/current protest movements (but/and which has been ongoing for a while – mutual aid, bail funds, community orgs, etc.) — self organized, insurgent work that is constantly calling out the police/policy (that’s where planning is going on all the time – in what we might take to be “unorganized” way – but that misapprehension might be the result of our own lack of study/understanding)

The idea that we have “policy” (public/visible/”rational”/”what folks want to see”) versus (fugitive) “planning” is one I want to study further.

Moten speaks of thinking more about solidarity – how it operates with policy (as opposed maybe to the refusal of policy).

MOTEN: “I can’t deny the very palpable shock to the system that occurs when you watch mainstream TV news taking seriously a debate about defunding the police. That’s a thing. I wasn’t expecting that any time this century. I don’t know what it means. I think that it can, it should, fill people with equal measure of exhilaration and dread. And that all has to be worked out in practice on the ground. One of the ways it gets worked out is in maybe trying to understand better, let’s say, what the difference is between the expression of solidarity or the expression of empathy and the PRACTICE of empathy, or the PRACTICE of solidarity.  And maybe what we might want to say would be that the expression of empathy the expression of solidarity manifests itself within the realm of policy, and the practice of solidarity and the practice of empathy, that manifests itself in the realm of planning. And maybe protest is a more general phenomenon which can contain but also move by way of the suppression of either of those modes. And at a certain point when the protests dwindle, which they must do, because protests don’t generate their own energy, right, they’re not self-generating energy fields, and  when that energy is expended, then we have to say, “okay what do we do now, where do we go now?”, not only to regenerate that energy but also to imagine the distribution and circulation of that energy within our own social field and not just as an expression either of solidarity or an expression event of conflict, let’s say, with the police or with policy. . . . For all the folks who really love that conflict, they don’t have to worry, ‘cause policy and the police, they ain’t going anywhere just yet, whether the shit is funded or not. But there always remains the question of “what are we going to do?” And it’s really important for us I think to try to get enough information to look really closely and think really deeply about what folks have been doing. Which is part of the reason why we adamantly refuse and resist, in general, the constant invitation to write something about the present crisis. ‘Cause we don’t fucking know that yet, but we’re trying to learn. We’re trying to think about it. And there’s always room for that learning and thinking. It doesn’t always have to manifest itself as an immediate response.”

FURTHER READING/STUDY

“The subprime and the beautiful,” in African Identities, Vol 11, 2013 – Issue 2: Cedric J. Robinson: Radical Historiography, Black Ontology, and Freedom

“Politics Surrounded” (Moten & Harney) South Atlantic Quarterly (2011) 110 (4): 985–988

“Fred Moten’s Radical Critique of the Present” (The New Yorker, 2018)

rumination, teaching

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Thinking about the “Backchannel”

Was in Zoom webinar conversation yesterday with faculty and staff colleagues about the “chat” function in Zoom being a kind of backchanneling that some folks found great/helpful/fun and others found overwhelming/distracting/not fun. We had a general conversation of different kinds of “backchanneling,” like, for instance, live-tweeting a conference presentation or class or other live/f2f event. We talked about access, distraction, engagement, etc.

We were asked to actually take a VOTE about whether we wanted to continue (in our synchronous/Zoom professional development sessions) to keep the Zoom chat live/open, or to have a separate (on Microsoft Teams) backchannel. We were also, of course, and more importantly, asked to think about this stuff with respect to the university courses we would be teaching in online and hybrid formats in the fall. We ran out of talking time, but were invited to reflect further. So I did.

*

In our conversation, I mentioned being reminded of Robert Brooke’s notion of “underlife” in the writing classroom. Here’s a wee summary, and here’s a link to the original scholarship (man, that was a long time ago!).

*

Channels are interesting to think about metaphorically. I think of water flowing – how a river might split into smaller channels and then rejoin. The English Channel (swim it! put a chunnel under it!).

A channel can be a (alternative? unplanned? VERY planned?) way of getting somewhere AND a channel can be a barrier. Channeling is also what a medium does, to speak to (and for) the Spirits.

*

Backchannel implies front channel. The river is the front channel, and when it hits the delta, it splits into multiple (subsidiary? smaller? less powerful? unnamed? seasonal? unmapped?) “back” (side?) channels.

*

Regarding the Zoom backchannels as I have experienced them – I have mixed feelings for sure. I like that the backchannel might “capture” something (a question, an idea) that might otherwise be “lost” (or never…exist?)

BUT

maybe not everything needs to be “captured?” What is the function of the ephemeral? The advantage of forgetting?

I sometimes find the backchannel distracting – I distract myself with it and am distracted by it.

When I am grumpiest about it, the backchannel/backchatter that happens during a presentation makes me think about the times at poetry open mics when a poet gets up to the mic, midway through the reading, and says, “I just wrote this here tonight,” which my internal grump-translator translates into “I am only here for you to listen to me, I am to busy with myself/my own work to bother listening to YOU.”

I occasionally imagine I am better at multi-channeling than I actually am – but mostly I know I am NOT good at focusing on more than one thing/thread/stream at once.

I occasionally use the backchannel to indulge in unnecessary chatter. Sometimes snarky, sometimes not.

BUT

such small talk might be “signs of life” in a class community? (or signs of “underlife?”) Which could be helpful for all to see?

I think the backchannel worked pretty well in the Advanced Poetry Workshop this spring, and has worked well in Zoom poetry readings I’ve attended – it’s a space where folks can emphasize lines/images they liked, during the reading, kind of like at an actual poetry slam (or some readings) – you know, that little sound you or someone might make when you hear a really AFFECTING line? In the poetry workshop, I think students appreciated being able to go back through the chat (alongside the written feedback they received AND the spoken feedback in the live zooming) as part of the overall experience.

*

When are the “distractions” worth the reward? Maybe we can’t always anticipate the reward, and therefore can’t plan for it.

*

Could the chat be used/function like a “fishbowl” discussion? Like, assign some folks to the chat to describe/comment on the spoken activity/conversation? This sort of….un-backs the backchannel, or, like, brings into alignment with the main channel.

Maybe there’s room for both – moments when the backchannel is (necessarily, unavoidably, helpfully) subsersive/counter/”back”, and other moments when the backchannel is harnessed (?) or serving (??) the main channel.

Or should the backchannel be left entirely to its wild, unbroken, un-harnessable ways? I don’t know! (Maybe the real backchannel is never for me — the teacher — to see?)

*

Can backchannel reinforce “clicqueiness?” Battle it?

*

Backchanneling can be a way IN and/or a way OUT. And a way…alongside?

*

That’s all I wrote. (in my notebook, I mean. Like, my paper notebook. And now here.)

Uncategorized

Undercommons/Exodus/Presence/Institutions: Some Ideas and Language from Fred Moten & Stefano Harney

img_6900
from Jack Halberstam’s introduction to The Undercommons

Honestly, probably don’t even read this post — it’s mostly just notes I took when viewing/listening to the video. And most of it is just transcribing. Spend your time reading THIS (by Moten & Harney) and watching the video below, I say. Then you’ll have the fuller context and your own experience of the interesting stuff I didn’t pluck out to include here. There’s so much to think about. (I am still figuring out most of what I think about all of this, what I might do with it. Honestly, the act of transcribing/typing has been helpful to me.)

The video was hosted HERE — at “FUC” — “a weekly online series that hosts conversations around labor, labor movements, de-commodified knowledge, and the future of the university and higher education. It is facilitated by rent-burdened graduate students at the University of California in solidarity with the COLA movement.”

 

From early in the video, some reflections on The Undercommons (which I am currently reading for the first time) from Harney & Moten–

Moten emphasizes: “The Undercommons is not a book about the university.”

–not meant a disavowal or scolding, but a way of “recognizing that if the dream of the subversive or critical or fugitive intellectual is to rise above their complicity with the institution, there is no individualized path for any such rising above, and so the answer really isn’t to rise above complicity but to try to practice and activate an alternative radical complicity, which is again about shared practice rather than individual roles.” (Moten)

“trying to find more radical form of complicity—where, rather than imagining we can extract ourselves individually from the university, we build up an increasing number of unseen accomplices who are there with us in the university and who undermine any steady ability of the university to characterize, affix us, and to frame us, because somehow it’s not just you. Seen or unseen, others are there. Others are in some sort of conspiracy without a plot inside the university. And then at the same time, we know that we can only leave together, because whatever wealth we have, whatever means of production we have, we only hold those in common.” (Harney)

*

“We’re trying to understand the relationship between abolition and exodus.” (Moten)

(maybe also between exodus and presence?)

*

A concrete thing that might be done: detach universities from local police departments, abolish university police departments.

But, Moten asks, what if it turns out that faculty and administration do more policing at the university than the campus police or town/city police do?

So let’s not be police in our classrooms. With our “policies,” say.

Harney adds a list of other institutions – the “artist” as institution, the “professor” as institution, “the subject/individual” as institution – that need to be abolished.

Abolishing the individual/subject kind of blows my mind. But I do find myself wondering about the institution of myself lately. What my self (my roles, my subjectivity?) has institutionalized.

*

Moten, responding to a question about what practices are possible for folks in the university to enact, towards abolition/exodus.

“I’ll do the wrong thing and answer the question.”

“For those of us who are teaching, we should stop grading, and we should stop giving assignments. Just that, on the most basic level right there. Stop doing the administrative work of the university. Radically detach the credentializing function of the university, which is a front for finance capital, and detach the intellectual and social and aesthetic work that we would like to do with one another in the hope and in the recognition that doing that collective intellectual social and aesthetic work will actually be a practice of exodus, gathering, and presencing against the grain of the already-existing institution.”

“The correct response to the question… is not to answer it – but to say let’s continually ask that question with and of and for one another in every gathering that we are engaged in and let every class be a class on that, let that be the curriculum, let that be the occasion and the content of our gathering, and let the form and practice of our gathering emerge from the continual asking of that question.”

*

“Our daily work is the work of reforming a completely unworkable system.”  (Harney)

Got me thinking about this notion that by just showing up and cooperating, we are re-forming, minute by minute, action by action, the institution.

*

Moten asks, in re-framing another question, “How do we comport ourselves towards the enemy when the enemy is us?”

(a question meant not to induce paralysis, but rather movement)

*

Moten, responding to a questioner in a way that models for me how I’d like to respond to students in the classes I teach — “I hope that you feel that the dissatisfactory nature of our response is actually a tribute to the depth of your question rather than an attempt to avoid it, and if it’s dissatisfactory, it’s just ‘cause we don’t know no better, but we’re thinking about it now along with you.”

and

“Your question messed me up….I appreciate you for that…..I’ve got some thinking to do.”

*

Moten is interested in the potential of Zoom classes to potentially buck the credentialing function of classes:

“The university guards access to my class because they’re guarding access to the mechanism which produces the credential. They don’t give a fuck about the “experience.” Right? So what I like about Zoom is I can let anybody up in there, if they want to come. And what’s interesting will be when the university starts to try to take our teaching and turn that into their intellectual property. They’ve already done that with research, particularly with regard to the sciences.”

What use might be made, Moten wonders, if we distinguish between the “credential-buyers” and the folks who “just want to talk about Plato that day.” Momentarily setting aside the fact that he doesn’t really support the credentialing function in any way, Moten wonders if the class should be free for the ones who want to talk about Plato and that the credential-buyers should pay for the credential credits.

This idea of seeing more clearly that credentialing is separate from “the experience” (?) of study/learning together is a big & helpful one for me.

*

I am still reading & listening & thinking, so….more to come? Maybe here? Maybe a separate post?

 

rumination, teaching

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Uncomfortable Habits

For the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community at Plymouth State University, which I’ve committed to participate in this school year, we’ve been asked to do lots of different work so far, and to do it on various channels, publicly if possible/desirable. I have mostly kept my work to the semi-privacy of the Teams site associated with my cohort in this program. I started trying to show/share some of my teaching work in the spring, but my efforts there were stymied by the pandemic.

One of our recent prompts was to “write (and share if you feel comfortable doing so) a self-assessment on your own development of the Habits of Mind and pay particular attention to the signposts on the benchmarks for the level of achievement you believe you have attained. How do you demonstrate that level of achievement? What behaviors do you exhibit for each of the signposts?” (The Habits of Mind are a part of our General Education program.)

I don’t feel particularly comfortable sharing this publicly. But I have seen others in my cohort step out into a wider public with their work, and have been grateful and impressed. I am also interested in spending some more time in that feeling — discomfort (shorthand for fears & anxieties) as I consider what it might mean to teach in the fall, with/in the pandemic (and beyond, if there is a beyond), with a heightened awareness of the trauma that infuses nearly everything right now — the trauma that feels new to some of us, and which is familiar — if perhaps amplified — for others of us, students, faculty, and staff, friends and families.

This discomfort (showing my written reflection, my writing-to-think) is something many of my students experience regularly when I ask them to share their work, which may feel to them similarly unformed, and which may spark fears and anxieties similar to the ones I am feeling just now — around sharing this particular (not very high stakes) reflection, but also more generally, around teaching, the university, trauma, access, (in)humanity, and more. I want to both explore the “early” (?) sharing of thinking-in-process as part of thinking-in-process, AND I want to push back against pressures towards concluding, asserting, completing. Push back against the “process” as some kind of byproduct of product. (This is connected to some of my questions about the “summit,” I think.)

Anyhow, here’s what I shared in that more private space on Tuesday morning, which I’ll share now on Sunday in this less private space. I have resisted the urge to edit it. For now.

***

(WARNING — This is a straight-up FREEWRITE. Also, I am surely not doing this prompt correctly. ALSO I am not asserting any truths or conclusions here! I would not normally share this work, but, welp, here we go. I am engaged!)

The question, “How do you demonstrate that level of achievement” is interesting to me because of how it immediately makes me wonder: demonstrate to WHOM? When? How often? And maybe even WHY “demonstrate?” Maybe that verb is giving me pause. How about “enact” or “practice” or “employ?” “Demonstrate” makes me think about showing or “proving” (with evidence!) what I know, what I can do. But also maybe of a teaching-related activity. All of which makes me think of schooling. Also “exhibit” makes me think of evidence — also of a museum, a sideshow, symptoms of disease. “Exhibiting behaviors” also sounds a little clinical, a little pathological. (This is not me critiquing the assignment language, this is me rolling around in it, as I do, to find/make meaning) “Level of achievement.” Are these levels stable? Linear? Is “summit” more aspirational than actual? That’s how it often feels to me. But even if it’s actual, doesn’t our sense of “summit” change over time? Like, anybody else have the experience of being certain you were at a “summit” (for years, maybe) but then you realize (how? through more living/learning, I guess) there is actually more climbing for you than you’d realized. More climbing than you could see (were able/ready to see?) before. Hm.

PURPOSEFUL COMMUNICATION — as a writer, I suppose I’m good enough at this? I will never be at the “summit,” as I believe no “summit” actually exists? I’m certainly beyond basecamp. I’m climbing. Sometimes I write to find/discover/create my writing purpose, though, which is a purposeful activity. 
“To be effective, messages must engage the perspectives of others and foster dialog among individuals and the community.” ALL messages must do all of this all the time? Is drafting a poem sort of communicating with myself?  
Is this, right now, messaging? I have a purpose — to write-to-know, to use writing as a way to create/come to understanding or clarity (or purpose). But, like, is this a message for an audience beyond myself? What purposes might such learning-in-public serve? To document a process? And why do that? It feels very vulnerable to potentially do this work in front of others, before I have arrived at my Purposes. 

PROBLEM-SOLVING
I think poetry writing and much art making is actually problem-solving in some sense. (It is many other things, too.) According to the definition we’re using, problem-solving includes the “ability to think creatively, adapt and extend one’s thinking, acknowledge different contexts and incorporate different perspectives,” — what does it mean to incorporate different perspectives in a piece of art? For how many artists might art making be primarily about discovering/shaping/rendering their PARTICULAR perspective? Owning that? NOT “incorporating” others in the “solving” of the “problem” of the individual painting or song or poem? The language, “embrace flexibility, consider potential implications, determine courses of action, persist and adapt despite failure, and reflect on the results” is all very much in line, I think, with how I teach writing. And how I compose and revise poems. As to other kinds of problems — and a more general assessment — I find I am not as adaptable/creative as one might imagine a poet should be. I get stuck sometimes in old/established ways of thinking — I get in my own way with some stubbornness. I think I am better at spending time sussing out what a problem actually IS — like, describing/comprehending it. I think I resist “solutionism.” I think I privilege experimentation over problem-solving, though experiments are frequently part of a problem-solving process. But….does a poem or painting even need/want to solve anything? Useful, perhaps, to distinguish imaginative writing from expository/more utilitarian (UGH UGH UGH) writing here. Maybe. The composition essay as a problem to be solved? The QUESTION or WONDERING behind the composition essay as a problem (such a negative connotation!) to be solved (must it be? What if we were allowed to remain in the unsolvedness? Can solving ever be the wrong thing to do with/to a problem? Freewriting is fun.

INTEGRATED PERSPECTIVE
“the recognition that individual beliefs, ideas, and values are influenced by personal experience as well as multiple contextual factors—cultural, historical, political, etc.” I think I know this. I achieve this. I think this is partly from growing up a military brat and moving every 2-3 years, living overseas, etc. I think also my discipline (English/literary and cultural studies/creative writing) also relies in large part on these notions — that contexts and subjectivities are FUNDAMENTAL, not just, considerations alongside or after the fact. I think I “demonstrate” good “climbing” here by owning my perspectives AS perspectives, by using tools I’ve accumulated (self-reflection, pausing and listening, stepping outside myself as much as such a thing is remotely possible to imagine empathetically other perspectives, language and theory around words like “other,” etc.) to examine my own assumptions as such. “Students will acknowledge the limitations of singular points of view and recognize the benefits of engaging with and learning from others in order to integrate multiple perspectives for effective communication, problem-solving, and collaboration.” We face interesting challenges these days from those who use this kind of language alongside “just my opinion” and “free speech” to recast, say, SCIENCE as a matter of “perspective,” which, yes, of course it is, and is also multiple/variant/evolving/WRONG sometimes — but — I’ve seen a careless and cruel version of “relativism” in the media/culture lately, a “both-sides-ism” that feels like a crude (mis)casting of “limitations of singular points of view.” BUT THAT’S JUST MY OPINION, MKAY? 

SELF-REGULATED LEARNING
I wish I were less responsive to extrinsic motivators — praise, badges, desire to be connected with others in certain ways. I mean, I read, I am curious, I write, I learn — do I set “goals” for learning? Not always, or if so, I just am not thinking consciously about it. Right now I have some goals — around learning how to build community online, how to act against the racist white-supremacist impulses of an institution I am a part of/complicit with. I feel DESPERATE to learn how to be in higher education while transforming (I mean in much more serious ways, not task forces and mitigation and lawsuit-proofing and placating) higher education. What is UP with that desperation, though? Partly it’s that I no longer trust higher ed (which is partly no longer trusting MYSELF) to see/do the work required. And yet, so much of what I have been reading and thinking about — so many sources — come from or are attached to or are VISIBLE through structures of higher ed. So. Where was I? Self-regulation. I desire to learn, but also must deal with the institution inside me — the institution that is me, that part of me — no small part — that relishes the familiarity and comfort and peace of the status quo in so many ways. UGH. Why would I (or my students or anybody) want to learn about how wrong we were/are about so much, how the strong and embedded and often invisible (to some) forces of status quo (within and without) continue to be. Am I taking intellectual risks? What would the evidence or “demonstration” of such risk be? Is there an “is it worth it” rubric for risk/reward? I think I am decent at metacognition, but also believe it has its limits. There’s only so far “out” of myself I can get, yes?

IN CONCLUSION (lol) I as the student, handing in the homework, am feeling a couple of things: I have been engaged with these concepts. I have not exactly or clearly done the work I was asked to do. I am nervous that I shared too much. I worry what readers will think about me. I hardly know what I think of myself. This is a too-rough draft. I composed it on 750words.com, and work I do there is private/not typically shared. I don’t mean this writing is “disposable,” but, like, with respect to PURPOSEFUL COMMUNICIATION, I worry that this is hardly a “message.” I see how organized and clear Cathie’s is and I compare my work to that and think I should not share it, or I should rewrite before sharing, or I should do it more like Cathie did it. But I’m past 1400 words and have other work I need to get to. Have I spent enough time on this? Does it even make sense? What next? I do not know.

Uncategorized

Last Summer

This time last year, unbelievably, I was back home from a long trip out west — a driving trip, with so many visits and memorable moments & sights, unplanned “adventures,” long stretches of open road, and the slowly evolving landscapes of the (almost) coast-to-coast route — plains, foothills, mountains, forests. The initial “excuse” for the trip was that I was going to be spending a two-week residency working on poems at the Playa Artist Residency Program in Summer Lake, Oregon.

Last week. I received this beautiful annual anthology full of writing and art from 2019 residents and it brought me right back, but also startled me into a sort of hiccup of time and memory. Remembering Playa (this was my third residency) is always sort of like remembering another world — that feeling is amplified now for me. Time and distance sprawl and ripple. Not just the strange and inspiring landscape of the “Oregon Outback” and Summer Lake, but also, the notion of such travel, so many embraces of friends in Chicago, in Nebraska, in Pennsylvania, a world of touch and faces that, too, feels distant and not a little bit unreal to me just now. I was there, I’m sure of it. I hope to make it back again — back to Playa, back to poetry, back to touch and faces. It will not be “back,” exactly, though. Not the old world. Some world trying to be born right now.

Uncategorized

“We Seek Communion as We Read in Solitude”

from “Asterisks for Dead Astronauts,” an extraordinary review/essay/meditation/leviathan from one of my favorite writers and thinkers and humans, Matthew Cheney.

It’s a truly affecting essay about…..everything?

About reading and grieving and language and suffering and love and loss and story and recognition and ecological apocalypse and and —

Here is a part I loved, but it’s not really “representative” of a text I’d say fully resists being “represented” by any fragment of itself, resists that very idea. Just…trust me. Please do yourself a favor and go read the whole thing. I’ll be re-reading it myself, taking some more time with it, gratefully.

“When I was younger, I enjoyed absolute judgments of books and writers: This novel is terrible, that writer is the best in the last fifty years, this book is moral, that story is evil, this writer ought to be trepanned. Though I still occasionally enjoy such judgments, mostly they feel shallow, easy, arrogant. The years have mellowed me, as has being a fiction writer myself. I need something else from evaluations of art than simple judgments of yes or no. What I want from a reader is exegesis, sometimes, yes, but also (always) a chronicle of reading. “How I Read, and What I Read For” is the subtext I desire from essays about fiction and poetry. Value is an inevitable part of that, because we value most what brings us the most passion, but I do not need those values to be transcendent, I do not need the reader to say, “Paul Celan is the greatest poet of the 20th Century.” Rather, I need the reader to say, “Paul Celan is the 20th Century poet whose work has meant the most to me, whose sense of language has most deeply influenced my own, whose nightmares have haunted my dreams.” As I grow older, as my future grows shorter, as the time I have left to read seems (and is) more finite than it was before, what I seek from fellow readers is that story of their reading, that map through their way of making meaning from bits of ink on a page.

We seek communion as we read in solitude. By sharing how we make stories from pages scarred with words, we share how we imagine, how we dream, how we yearn, and how we feel.”