End of Term Blues

Just finished grading my last set of papers & now I’m on sabbatical until next September. The papers brought me up short, I must admit. They were from a freshman class and we had finished the semester reading Margret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a very smart & entertaining book, I think. My students seemed to like it too, but their papers were, with only a few exceptions, dismal. I have to take some of the blame for this, though, because I should have gone over the basics of evolution with them before turning them loose on a novel about the hazards of genetic engineering for fun & pleasure. Many of them went wrong by assuming that evolution is teleological, i.e., that it leads inevitably to us. Others fouled up by assuming the meaning of “natural” to be self-evident. But the most breathtaking move — which showed up several times — was importing an entire metaphysics unexamined into an argument with a single sentence: We were put on earth for a reason. By whom & for what was never mentioned. What my students were really saying, I think, is something like “the world makes sense” — a rejection of nihilism. That rejection might have been a good start, but I didn’t get the chance to move them along since this was the final essay in the semester.

Actually, I’m dissatisfied with the way I have structured the course. I like the content I’ve worked up since we rennovated the curriculum three years ago — the authentic individual in a social context, the problems of establishing justice — but the wriing element isn’t really working. I’ve always just assigned four 3-5 page essays with opportunity for infinite revisions, but most of the essays turned in are essentially rough drafts. So when I go back to this class next year I’m going to make some changes.

  1. I’ll reduce the nmber of major texts and supplement them with critical essays. I’ve been using Graff’s little handbook They Say / I Say & when I can get them to adopt its methods, my students are better writers. (I’m also looking at a similar book, Rewriting, by Joseph Harris, but it seems aimed more at advanced writers of academic prose.) But I have to do more in class with this “entering the conversation” trope. In fact, I have to have workshop sessions using student writing. So:
  2. I’m going to assign six two-page essays starting in week one, with one final essay of 5-6 pages that develops some idea from earlier writing. We will use these two-pagers in class to discuss the various kinds of moves you can make in writing. Basically, I’ll do what I do in my creative writing workshops.
  3. Possible book list: The Book of Job (Mitchell translation), Utopia (More), Parable of the Sower (Butler), Oryx & Crake (Atwood), along with a simple text on evolution and a pocket style guide. [Great video here of Atwood discussing her novel.]

Some Questions about Vietnamese Poetry

As I prepare to go to Vietnam in the spring, I have been in contact with friends there, asking them about poetry in contemporary Vietnam. Part of my project involves interviewing Vietnamese poets and that means thinking of the sorts of questions I want to ask. I know a bit about the history of Vietnam and its literature, particularly in the 20th century, but I want to know how that history is affecting the making of poems now, in the first decade of the 21st century. Here is a first pass at some questions, or pre-questions — the sort of questions I need to ask in order to find out what the real questions are:

  1. Who are the most interesting poets now working in Vietnam?
  2. To what extent is contemporary Vietnamese poetry connected to the poetry of the past?
  3. What is the nature of the connection, to the extent that it exists?
  4. Do contemporary poets make use of the extensive folk traditions, for example, of Ca Dao?
  5. What has been the effect of urbanization of Vietnamese poetry over the last twenty years or so?
  6. Have the changes in the Vietnamese economy over the last generation affected Vietnamese poets?
  7. Are there marked generational differences among younger and older Vietnamese poets?
  8. To what extent are Vietnamese poets aware of and interested in poetries in other languages?

Those are the questions I’ll be asking poets I already know as I get ready to go to Vietnam; presumably, these questions will lead to others that are more detailed and take into account the individual situations of the writers I’ll be meeting. If anyone happens by this space who has answers to the questions posed above, please feel free to chime in.

Vietnam

One of the perks of being a college professor is paid travel. Yes, you have to write the grant, but when you go it is on someone else’s dime. And of course you have to have some project and come back and write it up, but most of us consider that an additional benefit. We like writing stuff up, that’s why we became academics in the first place. All of which is by way of preview to announcing that I will be returning to Vietnam this spring for a six-week visit. I’ll be spending most of my time in Hanoi, where I lived what I was a Fulbright scholar in 2000-2001, but I’ll also be going to the south. My plan is to record interviews with Vietnamese poets and collect poems for translation. I am particularly interested in placing contemporary Vietnamese poetry in its cultural and historical context. Vietnamese culture has long venerated the art of poetry above all others and I am interested to see how that attitude is holding up in the globalizing market economy that has taken hold with a vengeance in VN over the last fifteen years of so.

On a personal level, I feel a deep connection with the city of Hanoi. Unaccountably, living there I felt at home. Perhaps because I was free to be a flâneur, roaming the city at will & mostly without a need to do more than show up occasionaly at the offices of the publishing house where I was acting as an editor / consultant. In fact, all the freedom made me a little crazed at times, given to fits of obsessive compulsive walking. For a few weeks I went about in a kind of flaming daze, before returning to myself shortly before coming back to the states. Even that was lovely, in its way — “I have a great capacity for joy,” I repeated to myself incessantly as I walked the tree-lined streets and narrow back alleys of Thanh Long, the city of the rising dragon.

Mixed Blessings

So I’m sitting around at home this morning looking out on the kind of beautiful fall morning that would usually pull me outdoors. My favorite yard chores are autumn yard chores. But I’m sitting inside because I picked up a head cold & sore throat at school. Colleges are viral breeding grounds. I just don’t have the oomph to get out & transplant perennials. Despite the cold, it has been a good semester so far — across the board, my students seem pretty engaged, though I remain amazed at their meager abilities as readers. And by that I mean, just the ability to get the basic prose meaning of a literary text. “That’s weird,” they say immediately in response to a poem they don’t understand (Stephen Dunn’s “Men Talk,” hardly a difficult text), dismissing it before they have even tried to suss out the meaning of all its words and images. Reading poetry, they tend to not read sentences, even when there are perfectly clear sentences. I guess they are reading lines as fragments. Perhaps it is just a very weak sense of grammar. And by grammar, I don’t mean knowledge of the names of different grammatical entities, but a sense of the way the parts of a sentence relate to each other to create a meaning. I also found out yesterday that I was one of four members of my department who had been nominated to replace our outgoing department chair, though I immediately took myself out of the running. Five years ago I wanted the job & didn’t get it, but I don’t want it now. I’ve passed that particular fork in the road. All my ambitions are literary & pedagogical these days. Inspired by Stuart O’Nan’s visit to campus, I have begun working on a short story — my first attempt in 20 years — & I’m still struggling with my long poem, pieces of which are lying around on my desk, in my notebooks, and on my hard drive like flotsam on the beach after a storm.

Theodore Solotaroff

I was really too young to have been influenced by the New American Review during the main part of its run, but I remember in the mid-seventies picking up copies in used bookstores & feeling nostalgic for a scene I was never a part of. Ted Solotaroff is dead at 80. Those beat-up paperbacks, for my generation, were tokens of bravery to be lived up to. And they were printed (at a loss) by major publishers. Now there is something to be nostalgic for. Another believer in the efficacy of writing as an art is gone.