Archive for August, 2010

Coyote, with Mange

Oh, Unreadable One, why
have you done this to your dumb creature?
Why have you chosen to punish the coyote

rummaging for chicken bones in the dung heap,
shucked the fur from his tail
and fashioned it into a scabby cane?

Why have you denuded his face,
tufted it, so that when he turns he looks
like a slow child unhinging his face in a smile?

The coyote shambles, crow-hops, keeps his head low,
and without fur, his now visible pizzle
is a sad red protuberance,

his hind legs the backward image
of a bandy-legged grandfather, stripped.
Why have you unhoused this wretch

from his one aesthetic virtue,
taken from him that which kept him
from burning in the sun like a man?

Why have you pushed him from his world into mine,
stopped him there and turned his ear
toward my warning shout?
by Mark Wunderlich (born 1968)

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The Room
by W.S. Merwin (born 1927)
I think all this is somewhere in myself
The cold room unlit before dawn
Containing a stillness such as attends death
And from a corner the sounds of a small bird trying
From time to time to fly a few beats in the dark
You would say it was dying it is immortal

Below are three paragraphs by three different students writing about rooms:

Pink Derma (acrylic on wood), by Arash and Kelly

For the past five years I’ve lived in the same beautiful home with my amazing family, the best little brother anyone can ask for. A mother who is like a best friend. A bright pink room with a canopy bed. This is the memory I have of the place I grew up, where I brought too many boys home to meet mom. Where I felt safe and secure. Where I had too much love and attention. The only part I disliked was the smell of cigarette smoke. My mom smoked, but I never did. A month ago all I could think about was moving out, so I could get away from that smell. I never thought I’d be left with such a hollow, empty feeling of tears and loneliness.

Pink Chant by Maura McDonnell

When I’m in my bedroom, I’m truly the happiest. I’ve had the same room all 20 years of my life. I have countless memories there. I love curling up in my pink and brown polka-dotted blankets wearing my boyfriend’s over-sized t-shirt, holding my cat and watching television. My room is full of an overwhelming amount of my favorite color, pink. I love being able to relax and see all the amazing things my parents have blessed me with. The one thing that makes my bedroom the perfect room is when my boyfriend visits Felix and I.

Landscape (mauve/pink) by Kuno Gonschlor

Four walls surround me, pink. Curtains that match the walls with a speck of white. The room has a waxy smell, the scent of the burning candles my mom would light, with the images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Screaming is all I could hear from behind the door, the shouting of my mother pleading while my father continued to beat her. My room was a paradise, an island I could escape to, far from the pain, the palm trees blowing as if they were dancing, swaying from side to side. Each shout I would hear, the palm trees would dance. The pink walls were the sun setting to the west, disappearing into the horizon. Each tear I would shed, I would think of the rain falling from the sky, trying to turn off the flickering burning candle with the fake image of the Virgin Mary. But why if it rains and the candle turns off, then why won’t my pain go away? I wake up still surrounded by these four walls, but now I’m grown, still affected, but the walls are not pink.

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These two poems came to mind when I read your animal paragraphs:


by Robert Frost (1874-1963)
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou (born 1928)
A free bird leaps on the back
Of the wind and floats downstream
Till the current ends and dips his wing
In the orange suns rays
And dares to claim the sky.
But a BIRD that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
Of things unknown but longed for still
And his tune is heard on the distant hill for
The caged bird sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
And the trade winds soft through
The sighing trees
And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright
Lawn and he names the sky his own.
But a caged BIRD stands on the grave of dreams
His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings with
A fearful trill of things unknown
But longed for still and his
Tune is heard on the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.
Maya Angelou (born April 4, 1928)

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Several different angles of a self-portrait I’ve been trying to finish for some time.

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Sharecropping is a system of agriculture in which a landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crop produced on the land.

“Sharecropper teachers,” I heard a colleague say last week at a teacher orientation, “That’s what they call us.” She was referring to a term by Wendell V. Fountain in his book Academic Sharecroppers: Exploitation of Adjunct Faculty and the Higher Education System, published in 2005.

He says in the book, “Adjunct faculty have no formal standing in the institutions for which they teach. They are powerless — used and abused by a flawed system and are paid a third to a quarter of what a full-timer receives for teaching the same course(s), while teaching nearly half of all courses in higher education. . . .

“Many today are quick to criticize companies for outsourcing jobs and work to lesser developed countries (LDCs). Yet, higher education in the United States accomplishes essentially the same thing by using adjunct faculty to teach courses.”  
At the community college where I teach, there are 38 full-time faculty and 200 adjunct faculty members teaching approximately 3,000 students. The school is on a 10-year lease in two buildings that were originally commercial office space.

Enrollment is up 30 percent, and $2 million was recently approved for resizing of classrooms, a new biology lab, installation of a sink and prep area for catered events in the community room and remodeling of administrative offices.

Community college enrollment spikes when the economy is down, but recent legislation also streamlines the process of transferring credits from a two-year to a four-year institution.

A student can attend ABC Community College for two years but receive a diploma from XYZ University. Less tuition is paid over the four-year period.
I teach 24 students. One third of the class is in health-care, returning to school to seek job skills in higher-paying fields. But two-thirds are attending with plans of transferring to a four-year institution.

Adjunct faculty members make $2,000 a semester, which means we bring home about $100 a week. As Fountain points out, community colleges charge less because they depend on adjunct faculty members to teach the bulk of the courses for less pay.

I stayed out of teaching for years because I had so many friends teaching at two and three colleges a semester trying to make a living.

At the orientation last week one teacher said, “Some community colleges offer adjunct faculty members health insurance. We’re 200 strong now. We need to have a voice.”

I also work for a city newspaper that filed for bankruptcy in April. As it restructures, our employee numbers shrink. We’ve gone from 24 to 18 to nine. I’m the only person left on the editorial staff other than the managing editor. As print media becomes the dinosaur in the communications arena, I watch a small staff struggle to keep a local newspaper alive.

Yet, I wouldn’t trade my degree in writing for a career in a more lucrative field. I hope to instill some of my passion for writing into my students. College administrators and publishing companies may bank on my appreciation for my teaching position and publishing job and pay less, but I still don’t regret my career choice.
I’ve been told before I was being exploited for something I chose to do — for my expensive MFA writing degree, for my job at the newspaper and for this teaching job.  But as someone said to me once, “It’s your intentions that matter, not anyone else’s.”

It’s not my intention to be exploited. Receiving my MFA was one of the best experiences of my life. Our newspaper bonds our city in a way a national newspaper can’t. And teaching gives my life more purpose. As valuable as Fountain’s book is, it leaves out something very important, how much life gives back to us for giving to the community.

I have friends who teach in third-world countries where teaching isn’t allowed. They are paid nothing and risk their lives to teach migrant children who work in fields all day. The children sit bundled in coats trying to stay awake at night to learn how to read. It’s their only way out of situations poverty and their governments have placed them in.

That’s what I think of as I stand in my classroom, how lucky I am to share even remotely in that experience.

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Oriental Poppies, oil on canvas, 1928.

Something to keep in mind when writing your descriptive essay — really take time to see your subject. The painter Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) said, Nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small that it takes time — and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.

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True Learning

“One day, Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, ‘Abba Arsenius, how is that you, with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this man about your thoughts?’ He replied, ‘I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not even know the alphabet of this man.’”

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The writing assignment last night was from the book The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn (born 1958) and Chase Twichell (born 1950), and published in 1992. The book is a collection of writing exercises from poets who teach. It serves as a good base of exercises for writers in all genres.

I assigned the exercise by Deborah Digges (1950-2009) from the chapter entitled Evolutions: “Write a poem [or paragraph] in which an animal figures prominently. As you decide on your subject, consider an animal that fascinates, even confuses you, one that incites in you wonder, perhaps even fear. Brainstorm a bit, taking quick notes on any particular experiences you’ve had or heard about in relationship to that animal. Reread stories, fairy tales, biology texts, in which your animal appears. Go look at it if you can, or study its features in a book.
“You might also trace the etymology of its name to discover new facts and information that might trigger your imagination. For instance, squirrel comes from the Latin skia or shadow. Tortoise comes from the Greek tartarchos, meaning god of the underworld . . . . Be careful not to sentimentalize. . . .The animal is not a stand-in. The animal is itself. Look hard at your subject and render it in its strangeness, in its integrity, wholly animal.”
What struck me as I read the paragraphs today was the name Deborah Digges written on top of one of the pages. The student did that to reference the assignment, but I didn’t expect to look down and see Digges’ name as I leafed through the pages — as if she’d done the assignment herself.

Digges published four books of poetry and two memoirs and died in April 2009 in what was believed to be suicide. She apparently jumped from the upper level of the Warren P. McGuirk Alumni Stadium on the campus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (New York Times, April 16, 2009).

When I saw the name written on the paper today, I thought of the young Deborah Digges sitting in class with her teacher Larry Levis (born 1946) in 1981, working on the same writing exercise — just as unsure of her future, hoping her teacher would like what she wrote, carefully writing her name on the top of a page, with all her hopes and dreams ahead.

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I am posting snippets of student writing on a class blog called English Comp Class (http://www.englishcompclass.blogspot.com). It is a mixture of student writing and mine. Some posts on this blog will be posted there as well. I like the student’s idea here that paper records human history but is nonjudgmental about what is documented there. The line moved by nothing suggests apathy but means open mindedness. The line breaks and title are mine:

 Moved by Nothing

I’ve always loved that paper consistently listens,

takes my ink,
letter by letter.
Moved by nothing,
changed by no one,
What is family when it is broken?
When life gives you oranges,
must you simply make lemonade?

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When I showed up at the track that cool Friday night,
the light illuminated the stadium.
I was moved by an experience I was about to embrace.
We pulled into the parking lot and stepped outside
taking a large breath in
and my lungs filled with the smell of high-octane fuel and oil.
I knew instantly this was going to change my life forever.

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