Book Spine Poetry

April 26, 2012

It’s national poetry month if you weren’t aware, and a trend I’ve seen online is a form of found poetry called spine poetry.  It seems like it might be easy and fun so here’s my first shot at it. I’ve also got some composition textbooks that might work well for this too…

Your turn.



April 20, 2012

Talking about myself isn’t attractive to me this evening so let’s just riff on my students once again. It seemed to work out well in the last post.

These silly kids write about stuff. Let’s talk about EBOOKS vs PRINT BOOKS. No, seriously… eBooks… It was a “Kindle Christmas” for the Cooney’s this last December.  My brother was gushing to me about his ereader on the phone last night. It did actually sound a little enticing. Here’s the thing about that though… the feeling of a connection to something old? I know, I know. That’s the first (emotional) reaction we have at our disposal, and hypocrite that I am, I don’t allow my students get away with that. There’s nothing researched about sentimentality, but as long as convincing rhetoric is all we’re after then do we need anything beyond that?

The wife’s family has had a difficult start to their year. An estate sale was just recently organized for her grandparents. This is how I came into a book of poetry by Robert Frost. If it is possible to apply the adjective ‘beautiful’ to a book…

This book is not a first or second edition or anything particularly valuable. It’s a smaller volume that surprisingly comprises seven discrete books of Frost’s poetry. The pages are thin, onion skin, and when you open it you find that they number almost 500. It’s part of a greater “classics” collection called THE MODERN LIBRARY, a series published by Random House, the kind of thing that you used to find advertised in the back pages of National Geographic. At the bottom of the title page is this message from the publisher, “The publishers will be pleased to send, upon request, an illustrated folder setting forth the purpose and scope of THE MODERN LIBRARY, and listing each volume in the series.  Every reader of books will find titles he has been looking for, handsomely printed, in definitive editions, and at an unusually low price.” Did you catch it? In the back inside cover of the book is an advertisement for The American College Dictionary.  It features a drawing, yes a drawing, of the American College Dictionary in the foreground standing upright on some sort of ornate desk with shelves in the background that are filled with books of uniform height, probably leather binding.

This book was not the only one purchased from THE MODERN LIBRARY. That’s not speculation. I have another one. The Best Short Stories of Dostoevsky is very similarly bound. That volume has a red canvas cover as opposed to the earthy green of The Poems of Robert Frost. Here’s what I notice about Dostoevsky though: The color of Dostoevsky’s spine is significantly more faded than the rest of the cover.  The spine is stiff and resists opening.  The book has been on a shelf for quite some time.

The Poems of Robert Frost is faded uniformly from the spine to the front and back covers. When you open it you get no resistance, and on the title page the blank beginning pages to the left have separated from the interior surface of the spine, exposing thread and stitching. This book has been read loved.

On the title page is also the inscription of the original owner, my wife’s grandfather. I’m not sure that inscribing books is a custom that many people continue these days, and his script reflects the value that generation placed on penmanship.  The pages of the book that contain Frost’s actual poetry are unmarred though.  I say unmarred because, while I value previous readers’ marginalia in prose, those marks on a poem seem wrong to me.  Poems are much more immediately consumable than longer prose passages, and while good poetry will reward sustained reading and focus, there is also a larger surface aesthetic to appreciate as well.

Well I wrote more than I thought I would this evening, and if you’ve stuck it out this far then I figure you are probably waiting for an obligatory quotation of Frost’s to close this out.  Sorry to disappoint. It’s late and my creativity is waning. I will leave you instead with this ponderance: if the vessels of our history and culture are not worth this sort of unabashed sentimentality that I’ve displayed here tonight, then what is?

Never a dull moment.

April 7, 2012

I have started no fewer than four entries on here recently and finished not a one of them.  School has been interesting lately.  Interesting.  What a nice bland word.

School has been tortuous interspersed with moments of euphoria.  I had a paper due the first morning back after spring break.  I wrote it the night before, naturally.  I was really, really proud of that paper.  I wrote about Wallace Stegner.  There’s a post about him below this one, but essentially I feel that Wallace Stegner writes essays that feel the very same as some of the poetry I read.  A talented poet I feel has a sense of self that goes very deep.  Stegner has that.  He writes essays about what makes people identify themselves with certain places.  One essay of his in particular helped me quite a bit with my paper, and provided me with some answers to questions I didn’t know I had.  If you read it you will become a slightly better person than you are now.

Then Wednesday this week also qualified as interesting.  Had a presentation that night which I agonized over probably a little too much.  I didn’t begin developing my ideas for the presentation until the night before as is typical of me.  I really wasn’t done with organizing all my thoughts and my Powerpoint before bed Tuesday night, and then Wednesday I had students I had to meet with all day long, and those meetings only concluded a couple hours before I was to give my presentation.  Then I set about putting finishing touches on it.  I was rushed, moving as fast as I could but focused the whole time.  I gave my presentation as soon as I could once my night class started and I was pleased enough with how it went.

I had some interesting student conferences too.  I tried to listen, really listen, to what they had to say and help them craft a convincing argument that they wanted to write.  Some of the conferences went quickly and felt a little formulaic.  That’s not to suggest that they weren’t productive.  One conference though in particular felt a little strange.  I have a student who wants to write a paper about the development of ethanol gasoline and why we should do away with it.  In the first paper students were supposed to write what the different view points were surrounding a particular debate in public discourse.  The second bigger paper of the semester is where students take up a particular side from the argument in their first paper and try to write persuasively that their point of view is in fact the correct one.  The first ethanol gas paper came out never actually stating one redeeming fact about ethanol gas.  In talking with the student and reading their writing I have learned that the predominate reason for the existence of ethanol gas is its environmental benefits.  During our conference I asked how they intended to defeat counter arguments that the environmental benefits of ethanol gasoline mandated their use.  The student had no real answer to that, so I tried to provide a way for them to do that.  The truth is though that I don’t have an answer to that either.  At one point I believe I even said something to the effect, “You can probably find statistics from reputable sources that will tell you anything you want to believe.”  The whole thing left me feeling slightly slimy, and upon reflecting on it later I feel only slimier.  How does one really compose that argument and believe it?  How do you discount environmentalism or climate change and argue instead, “but ethanol gas is harder on engines.”  How do you do that?  How?

Wednesday was hard.  I did hard things, and after the day was over I felt really really really good.  Really good.  I like my job.  I like people and talking about things.

The click of a well made box

March 15, 2012

Uh Oh.  I have neglected you.  It’s been ten days and that’s too long.  Gotta throw something down here.

I know before I even really start in on this that this post is going to be different from anything else I’ve been posting here recently.  This is going to ramble.  This is gonna get personal.

I’ve been down.  Dunno exactly why.  Use to be that Katie and I would pose the “one thing” inquiry to the other when one of us hit some sort of ambiguous malaise like this.  “If you could change just one thing about your life right now…?”  I don’t have an answer to that of late.

Not sure if it’s necessarily the source of my unease, but I kind of want to bitch about my courses this semester.  That’s unfair though.  While I want to put blame elsewhere my coursework is largely what I make of it, and I have all but stopped reading for classes.  That’s not to say that I’ve stopped reading though.  I am devouring David Foster Wallace of late.  Devouring.  I am reading his stuff, but I’m mostly reading about him.  Here’s my source:

One particular essay linked on that page focuses on Wallace’s experiences with his philosophy coursework as an undergraduate at Amherst.  Wallace talked about the appeal of philosophy for him, that he felt as though he was always chasing a “special sort of buzz,” an epiphany, essentially.  Of course, being David Foster Wallace, he described it in terms far more eloquent and verbose than the word “epiphany.”  He employs an obscure quote from Yeats: “the click of a well-made box.”  And Jesus.  Who doesn’t want that?

So my thoughts have been far from my course work and more on David Foster Wallace of late.  Then in a conversation with a friend the other day I arrived at a “click” of my own.

Let’s start here: Literature.  I don’t read it.  Guilt!  I feel such guilt about that, but fiction so often just leaves me cold.  What is very likely is that I’m just failing to pick up the right books, but even in moments where I can feel that I am entertained I can also feel that there is something in me that is not engaged.  This has caused problems for me in the past, and more than once the accusation of elitism has been leveled at me.  Maybe.  But I also know that even if I read trade-fiction, or even just watch a popular television show, I can enjoy it, and enjoy it more with company, but that when I walk away from that stimulus I do not feel the desire to return to it.

My friend was discussing the paper she was writing over Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.  (btw, If you’re one of those that discount the entire young adult genre as having literary value then you actually are pretentious.)  I devoured those books.  Much in the way that I am currently devouring David Foster Wallace.  *Click*  The His Dark Materials trilogy has some pretty weighty concepts at its core.  It concerns itself with largely with the origins of evil in our world and original sin.  Damn.  I ate those up.  David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction has more of that type of intellectual weight in every sentence than any other author’s prose I have ever read.  Ever.

Perhaps this click isn’t as much of a click as I would like to think.  Perhaps you’re reading this thinking, “Your epiphany is that you like prose that has weighty concepts and ideas behind it?  Deep.”  Well… yeah… that is my epiphany.  Truthfully, I’m reading more right now than I ever have in my adult life.  As a teenager I read insatiably, and then, that stopped.  I am pleased and encouraged to notice of late though that my ability to stay in dense prose passages has been steadily increasing this year.  Perhaps those weighty idea novels, and I know there are many of them, were just inaccessible to me a year or two back.  I have a reading list now that is prohibitively long.  If I’ve struck a chord then feel free to comment and throw some more titles on it.

March 4, 2012

So this weekend I went to the Write to Learn conference at Tantara.  Probably one of the very best conference experiences I have ever had.  I have a lot to think and talk about.  Too much.  My head feels full.  I have the urge to sit on it, to take a mental rest, but truthfully, I was engaged to the point that I’ve returned to some of it tonight.  But there is a lot here to engage with on my own time.  Too much.


Here are a couple gems I discovered through the sessions:

  • This is a musician, Fredo Viola.  He made this website to share his music.  But the website itself is art too.  Start with the brown hexagon.

  • This link is to a project called Visualizing Meaning.  All Cornell staff members were asked to reproduce a chart, table, graph, or just visual display of information that they found to be formative.  Many of these professors are submitting charts and graphs focusing on rising population rates and climate change.  Academics using their language skills.  The subtext though is, “We are afraid.”

The theme of the conference was new digital literacies.  Digital literacy–it would seem to these people–means visual displays of content.  Yes.  I agree and I don’t.  So much to talk about right now.

You come too.

March 1, 2012

I’ve been in a strange place this week.  Productivity is seriously waning.  However, I have noticed another thing that suffers when my life loses forward momentum like this.  Small talk.

I don’t think the term “small talk” is ever, ever used as anything other than a pejorative.  Small talk is something to detest, something to tolerate at best.  Always something that can potentially be screwed up, resulting in awkward conversations or exchanges.

“Enjoy your meal, sir.”

“Thanks, you too.”

But try to think differently about small talk for a moment.  Small talk is ideally the beginning of a longer, more meaningful conversation.  Think about the people you have meaningful conversations with for a moment.  How many?  Five?  Then you’re lucky.  But the truth is that almost everyone can potentially be that person to us.  Not that we would want everyone to fill that role, but we all usually can think of one or two people we would like to recruit.  The point is, though, that the mindset we approach these conversations with will usually determine their success or failure.  If you actively want to befriend someone—then guess what?—your conversations won’t be brief or awkward for very long before they grow much more meaningful.

Then.  An epiphany.  A conversation I had recently with a fellow teaching assistant.  He asked me for advice on teaching.  Teaching works the same way as small talk.

Think for a moment about someone in your past that taught you something and taught you well.  Let’s use the example of learning to ride a bike.  We all know what a triumphant moment that can be.  Chances are that you didn’t hate that person!  That’s because they felt the same way about you!  They cared that you learned something because they cared about you.  A teacher subconsciously does the same thing at the front of a classroom.  In ways we can’t ever possibly fully appreciate, we human beings send constant nonverbal messages to each other that say either YES I LIKE YOU AND I WANT MORE or NOT INTERESTED.  Our audience will usually oblige us in mirroring those signals that we send them.

If you think about it, the classroom is far from an ideal setting to learn anything.  One person speaking at the front of a crowd of 20 or 30 other individuals… disengagement is easy.  But if it’s just you in the audience, or you and just one or two others, then you can’t tune out instruction.  Social norms prevent it.  Our system of education typically prohibits that level of intimacy in instruction though; large classes can’t be avoided.  But if you like the person, if you know that the person likes you and cares about whether or not you learn something, then you are far, far more likely to give a damn.  You might even want to try and make awkward small talk after class.

Beautiful People

February 27, 2012

So I was pleased to get some views after my last post, but I realize that tree hugging and Facebook bashing aren’t enough to sustain us.  We need to talk about some real and pressing issues.  We need to talk about Chris Brown.

For starters, he’s generated some talk recently, but if you don’t care enough to follow that—and I don’t know why you would—then in a nutshell:  He recently collaborated on two tracks with his ex-girlfriend Rhianna whom he assaulted back in 2009.  Feminist groups have responded with heavy criticism of Rhianna, saying she should no longer associate with Brown.  After pleading guilty to the assault charge Brown is now serving a five-year felony probation.   Accusations abound that he violated probation last week on the 19th when he allegedly stole a picture-snapping fan’s cell phone while exiting a Miami nightclub.

My interest in him was recently piqued when I found this.

I figured that if Brown’s dancing can inspire such witty hyperbole then it was worth a look, and sure enough, it was, but that still doesn’t adequately explain why Brown is worth mentioning here.  I think the reason why Chris Brown has recently been a focus of my thought of late is because Brown is the musical heritage of Michael Jackson, and I was raised on Michael Jackson.

Of course, Brown isn’t the only homage to Michael in pop music today.  Justin Timberlake and even Justin Beiber have the same roots.  While all of these artists have been the target of much vitriol in the public eye, I have to say that something about their music and their dancing makes me feel like a kid again.  I danced to Michael in front of the bathroom mirror when I was a kid, and now that I’m an adult the mirror is a large one in my living room and the dancing continues.  I do more than just “like” this kind of music.  I identify with it.

That’s partly why I think I feel confused and perhaps even betrayed by Chris Brown.  I sometimes find it gratifying to reflect on how little in this life is really truly unprecedented, and music is no exception to that.  If you do your homework, Michael Jackson is mostly in the creative lineage of James Brown, but I would argue that Frank Sinatra would also count as an influence on the self-proclaimed King of Pop.  These men often prided themselves on being suave, socially adept, good movers and good dancers.  I aspire to those same qualities, and thus, came to admire many of those men.

Chris Brown has the look of these men when performing.  When not performing, tragically, he’s a thug.  What’s even more heartbreaking for me is that he’s one of the most talented of any of these individuals yet.  His dancing does deserve hyperbolic description.  His songs are catchy as hell.  But what good are these messages of love and acceptance when we consider their source?  All we’re left with is the music and someone who is fun to look at.  Isn’t music meant to inspire a sense of connection between the artist and listener?  Isn’t every creative medium supposed to create that connection when we get right down to it?

Now before you say it, yes, I realize that a comparison between the rotten Chris Brown and the benevolent Michael Jackson has some holes in it.  Michael supposedly did some very bad things in his life.  I remember.  In his defense though, it was never proven that he did those bad things, and truthfully, he was sick.  Michael Jackson had an upbringing that made him and destroyed him all at once.  He would never have been the performer he was if not for a sadistic father that made him rehearse for cruelly long hours.  He would never have had an unhealthy interest in children if not for the fact that he was deprived of his own childhood.  That being said, I didn’t know—nor would I have understood—any of that when I was a kid dancing in front of that mirror.  I just knew that Michael said “heal the world” and after enough plays one can’t help but internalize some of that.  You are what you eat.

Part of my fascination with Brown also comes from when I taught middle school.  The first year I was in the classroom I was teaching 6th grade.  This was 2007.  At the time I had never heard of Brown, but it didn’t take long.  His name was written on more notebooks than I could count, often surrounded by a large curvy heart.  If one attracts the attention of young people, then they should recognize the obligation they have to set a good example.  Brown doesn’t have even a questionable nature.  He’s overtly rotten.  If he can’t bother himself to even put on the façade, then where does that leave his fans?

A Country of the Mind

February 22, 2012

I have been posting here for a few days now, and yet no one is commenting or even viewing these posts.  That is unsurprising.  No one knows I have returned here.  I started this over two years ago, posted on it twice, and then abandoned it like so many bloggers do.  One of the previous posts, the first one, I have hidden out of sheer embarrassment.  Both posts, though, received views and subsequent comments.  The reason why:  I linked to it on my Facebook page, where the online community now by and large exists.

If I had misgivings about Facebook two years ago, those feelings are now overt.  I hate Facebook interactions; they are brief and deeply unfulfilling (if one can even be “deeply unfulfilled”).  Facebook has only grown these last two years.  The online community still exists there—nice try Google+—and the truly ironic/shitty thing about this renewed effort of mine is that if I want others to see this then the most effective move I can make is to reactivate my Facebook account and post a link there.

I think I’m ok with that.

In order to explain why, it helps to consider the brief history of the Internet since its popularization in the early 90’s.  If one takes the time to read the writings of various Gen Xers—probably a group of people more genuinely tech-savvy than any generation before or since—then a new perspective of the Internet is gained.  In many ways, the analogy of the Internet being a new frontier is not undeserved.  As we have seen recently, the Internet has the previously unmatched ability to resist the powerful influences of corporations and government. Like a frontier town, laws are more merely suggestions, and our existence is what we will make of it. The Internet has always been, and always will be, what humanity wills it to be.

The point is that what we as a species want of the Internet has changed before and will change again.  Facebook will die.  It will.  At one time the Internet community existed largely on AOL, then Myspace.  Some are even speculating that the new incarnation of the Internet is already taking form, waiting in the wings to kill the King.  I personally think the network of 800 million users that comprises Facebook will fracture significantly into something that more resembles the way we exist in real life.

In essence, the Internet is only links, and if it is to change—if we are to pack up and move on—then links must be made from one forum to another.  If it is not obvious enough, my needs for use of the Internet are not met by Facebook.  Facebook interactions are far too brief, and—perhaps this is the most naïve thing I will write tonight, but lord I hope it is not so—I don’t see how our interactions there can get any more brief.

A meaningful connection with others requires extended narrative thought, the only reality you have access to.  Make it what you want it to be.

February 20, 2012

I couldn’t say it better; and dammit, I really couldn’t.

I discover Wallace Stegner.

February 18, 2012

Last night I was with some people, and someone asked me what I had been reading lately.  I was drunk and started talking about Dick Proenneke.  Not exactly reading, but it’s where my mind has been.  I’ve been giving some thought to why those videos are so damn appealing.  More than those videos.  Those ideas.  Dick Proenneke is just one of countless stories along those same themes of the bucolic, escape from society, the morality of nature.  Those are important ideas.  They’re why kids are made to read Jack London in school.

Anyway a few years back I was revisiting Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.  He prefaces all his chapters with quotes.  This one came from Wallace Stegner, “It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us.  It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led west.”  I liked that quote very much at the time, but I had no idea who Stegner was and did not pursue him.

Last night I was in the middle of that conversation and suddenly I was reminded of that quote.  I couldn’t come up with Stegner’s name though.  The conversation moved on.

This morning I picked up Into the wild again and found that quote/Stegner’s name.  Meyer Library has several of his books.  Score.  Ah, but it’s a holiday weekend; the library is closed.  Sad day.

This afternoon I opened my Writer’s Almanac email.  It’s a daily publication produced by Prairie Home Productions, a Garrison Keillor outfit, that provides a poem a day and various on-this-date-in-history information for the literary minded.

Today is Wallace Stegner’s birthday.  More than that, they described his career and his legacy.  This is what they had to say:

It’s the birthday of writer Wallace Stegner (books by this author), born in Lake Mills, Iowa (1909). Wallace’s father had what Wallace called “the pioneering itch in his bones,” and moved his family around hoping to strike it rich in a Western boomtown. They moved from North Dakota, to Washington state, then Montana, California, Saskatchewan, and finally settled in Salt Lake City, where Stegner got into the University of Utah when he was just 16. He was finishing his dissertation when his brother died suddenly of pneumonia. Not long after, his mother died of cancer and, finally, his father committed suicide. By the end of the 1930s, Stegner had lost his entire family.

Stegner wanted to write about the American West, but instead of a novel about cowboys and heroic pioneers, a novel “about what happens to the pioneer virtues and the pioneer type of family when the frontiers are gone and the opportunities are all used up.” His first big success was The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), loosely based on the experiences of his own family.

Stegner wrote many novels and started the creative writing program at Stanford, where he taught Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, and Wendell Berry.

Not only did he write about the American Western experience and the need to preserve those spaces, Stegner also actively fought for preservation and became involved with the conservation movement of the 1950s. He said, “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We need wilderness preserved — as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

And then I found this.