Thursday, September 25, 2014


Here is a work-in-progress for any ENG 205 students who may stumble upon it.

Professor Brofelby loved most things about his job; however, like many writing teachers, he always dreaded grading papers. It wasn't that he didn't like reading his students' essays—not at all. He loved those little glimpses into how their evolving minds worked. A nostalgic intimacy warmed him as he pored over their earnest endeavors to wrestle with the same Big Questions so many generations have grappled with before.
No, it wasn't the reading that bothered him—it was the grading.
Shakima undoubtedly spent hours on this assignment. She re-wrote the introduction entirely after I told her to get rid of all those generalizations. Her revised thesis statement—that political cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy—is so much sharper than its predecessor (voting is pointless). Sure, she is still dropping in quotes out of context and switching points without transitions, but she has made real progress. She is growing. How can I take all her blood, sweat, and tears and reduce it to a “B-”?
It was time to put his foot down. No more grading.
He was reminded of 2003, when he protested the Iraq War. He knew he would be misunderstood, but he also knew he had to follow his conscience. Maybe this wasn't a matter of life and death, like the war had been, but grading (he was convinced) was its own kind of violence.
An essay is not a game of bowling to be scored in so many boxes. Nice argument! Strike! Your next two paragraphs are now worth double points! It's a window into a multi-dimensional consciousness, into a thinker/speaker/feeler, into a human soul, goddamit!
No, he wouldn't do it. He would still read them, of course. He would still write his little paragraphs of feedback (mostly encouraging, with a little constructive criticisms here and there—nothing too overwhelming). But that was all. No points. No percentages. No big red letters with circles around them. No checks or check pluses or check minuses.
After he handed back the first batch of essays, he braced himself for the backlash. But it didn't come. Not right away.
Maybe they won't notice. Maybe they'll just read my comments and reflect on them and think about how to make adjustments for next time. Maybe this will solve everything.
He knew that was mostly fantasy.
More likely they think I'm getting senile and just forgot the bloody grades. Or maybe they're afraid to ask.
Professor Brofelby was only five foot two, and didn't really understand how anyone could be intimidated by him, but he knew from experience that students often were.
They're confused. They're afraid to ask. That must be it. Should I say something? Make a little speech? Do I owe them an explanation?
He decided no, he preferred not to explain. He would just pretend, as long as he could, that nothing had changed, that this was the way it had always been done.

After the second round of papers were returned, there was still no reaction in class. No hands went up, though Professor Brofelby was sure that everyone was thinking the same thing: What about our f&*%ing grades, dude?
Not surprisingly, Shakima was the brave one who finally broke the silence. She was that one student—Brofelby seemed to be blessed with one every semester—the one who stopped by during office hours to show him her rough draft; the one who would email him, with excessive formality (Dear Professor Brofelby, Ph.D.:) asking for clarification about some citation minutiae (Yours sincerely, Shakima Jackson, from your MW ENG 101 class that meets at 9:40am). She was driven, and not just for a perfect GPA; she really believed that education was going to change her life. Still, she needed to know.
“Shakima, hello! Come in; have a seat. Would you like a chocolate biscuit?”
(Brofelby was not British, but he always seemed to have a tin of McVitties on his desk—and always eager to share.)
“ thank you, sir.”
“What's on your mind, Shakima?”
“I was wondering if I could talk to you about my last essay.”
“Of course. Did you get a chance to look over my comments? I hope my handwriting was legible.”
“Yes, sir, I did. I think I understood them. I was just wondering...I were very specific about what you liked and about what you thought know...not-so-great. But I guess I was wondering what you thought of it overall?”
“Overall, I thought it showed a lot of promise. Your critical thinking skills are really starting to shine through.”
“ that like...a 'B'...ish?”
Brofelby frowned. Then he sighed. He knew he couldn't answer her question, but he knew he had to say something. He liked her; he sympathized; he pitied her. The world had so conditioned her to the violence of grading that here she was longing to be disciplined—longing to know the dimensions and decorations of her pigeonhole.
No, Shakima—I will not place you in a box.
“It's a good essay, Shakima. It has its flaws—it's not the best you will ever write—but it's good.”
There, that was honest.
“But...aren't you going to give it a grade?”
“I would really prefer not to.”
“But...why? What does that mean?”
He thought, for a minute, about trying to explain it to her. He felt confident she would understand. But he was a little afraid that she might repeat what he said to others, and that she might not represent his “grading=violence” epiphany with complete accuracy. Paraphrasing, he knew, was not her strongest skill.
“I'm doing things a little differently this semester, that's all. Don't worry about your grade. Just worry about your writing. Better still, don't worry at all. Just keep doing what you're doing. It will be fine. Trust me.”
Shakima gave him a look—a new look—a look he had not seen from her before. Her lips tightened and her eyes narrowed. Brofelby guessed that he wasn't the first person to ask for Shakima's trust in such a dodgy manner. He had set off some red flags.
“So does this essay...does it even count?”
“Of course it counts. Everything counts.”
“I mean does it count for our grade.”
Brofelby had not yet decided what he was going to do about final course grades. He knew, even with tenure, it would be difficult to avoid submitting them. He didn't like the idea of giving everyone “A”s (or any other grade). He had read some articles about “holistic” grading, but reducing an entire semester's worth of struggle and growth into a single quantity seemed even more violent than doing that to an essay. In short, he didn't yet have a plan, but he was not prepared to confess this to Shakima.
“Is that all you care about, Shakima? Your grade?”
This was not a fair thing to say, and he regretted saying it, even as it huffed out of him.
Shakima appeared stunned. Brofelby had only ever been kind, generous, and somewhat awkward around here—never defensive or insinuating. Maybe he's just having a bad day, she told herself. It probably has nothing to do with me.
“I'm sorry, sir. No, that's not what I meant to suggest. I just want to do well in your class.”
“I know, Shakima. I'm sorry, too. I know you're hear for the right reasons. Just keep working on your writing and try not to worry about grades.”
“You'll let me know, though, right? If I do need to worry? Later on?”
“That's a fair request. If I think you're getting off track, I'll let you know.”
“Ok, professor. Thanks for your time.”
“No problem, Shakima. Take care. And take a biscuit before you go.”
“Ok,” she said, with an uncertain smile, reaching into the tin. “Thanks.”
“Any time.”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

When You Can't Remember the Last Time You Wrote a Poem, It Might Be Time to Write a Poem

If I had to guess, I would say sometime around 2006. And I think it was a sonnet. For an ex-girlfriend. It's probably for the best that I can't remember more than that. Let's make some new memories (by way of new verses).


My wife drives one of those little Smart Cars,
and she drives it hard.
If you're between her and Point B,
you are that-which-must-be-circumvented.
If you're behind her,
you're where you should be.

One day when I went to adjust my rearview mirror,
it snapped right off.
Suddenly, I was just holding it, like a banana or a remote control.
I dropped it on the passenger's seat--who needs it?
Everything it shows me is in the past;
better to keep my eyes on the future.

When Kima was a puppy, she used to vomit every time we took her in the car.
So we stopped feeding her before trips.
She would lie down on the backseat and drool all the way to Maryland.
And sometimes vomit anyway--greenish yuck.
Then, one day, she learned to sit up and look out the window.
Now, as she rides, she can take things in rather than let things out.

We took the Smart Car to Jim Thorpe one Valentine's Day weekend.
Thick patches of ice covered the streets and parking lots.
The first time we got stuck,
I wondered if we could simply pick the car up and move it off the ice.
Not quite. It's still a car. A little car, but a car. And we're little people.
People, but little people.

When I was 23, I bought a used Pontiac from a friend.
Never do this. Never buy a car from a friend. And never buy a used Pontiac.
After it wouldn't pass inspection,
she grudgingly agreed to take the car back and return my money.
We haven't spoken since.
Should've just taken the bus.

After I got my license and started driving by myself and with my friends,
I seemed to have a near-death experience at least once a week.
Perhaps, like many, I have a hyperbolic memory,
But I recall countless blown stop signs,
A myriad of reckless lane changes,
And a persistently foolish belief that acceleration could solve all problems.

During the winter we lived in Reading,
and Yuriko was commuting to and from Ursinus College,
in the Smart the traffic...
on 422, all frozen and black-iced,
I thought my share of paranoid thoughts,
which always ended in the unanswerable, "How will I go on?"

For three years in my 20s, I had no car at all.
One of those years was in Boston:
I bought a bus/subway combo pass.
I could go anywhere, as long as I wasn't in a hurry.
The other two years were in Binghamton.
Buses were free with my student ID, but it took forever to get to Wegmans.

In high school, I drove a Buick handed down to me from my sister.
For several months Paul Simon's "Graceland" was trapped in the tape deck.
The player had an auto-reverse feature,
so when one side ended, the other automatically began.
Over and over I went to Graceland, Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee,
with Paul Simon as my bodyguard.

I don't know if this actually happened: I was driving from Auburn to Albany,
on the New York State Thruway, in the middle of the night, not yet 20 years old.
I was exhausted and should not have been on the road.
Suddenly a car pulled out of the median, perpendicular to my progress.
I swerved onto the shoulder, narrowly evading it, nearly losing control;
then swerved back, Epicuriously, adrenaline pumping, awake and alive.

I've never had sex in a car.
(At least I can't remember ever having sex in a car.)
I've made out in cars, gotten to second base in cars, but that's it.
Did I miss out on some iconic, American teenage experience?
Should I make up for lost time,
even though so many more spacious locales are now readily available?

I was somewhere near Kutztown, headed to the Catskills for my bachelor party,
when Yuriko called me to say, through sobs, that Baylor, our dog, had collapsed.
I turned around and drove home, but of course there was nothing I could do.
Michael, our neighbor, helped me move his 90-pound body to my Nissan.
When I think of that handsome, joyful dog, I still feel that weight--
that weight that was no longer him.

I don't actually like cars.
In fact, I think the invention of the car was a disaster.
Think of how it accelerated the consumption of fossil fuels.
Think of how it catalyzed (sub)urban sprawl.
Think of the lives and living wasted by drunk drivers and traffic jams.
I dream of a world with more trains. And bicycles. And walking.

In 2002, a man named Bob and I pooled our money to buy a Geo Metro for $800.
We were in Sitka, Alaska.
Three months later, we decided to put it on a ferry to get back to the mainland,
and then drive it across the continent to upstate New York.
We saw aurora borealis in the Yukon, caribou along the Great Alaska Highway,
Superior waves in Thunder Bay; we lingered a few days in Sault Ste. Marie.

I know a woman who, years ago, drunkenly crashed her car into a house.
She confessed this to me one night as we dined at an Italian restaurant.
She had fled the scene. The police had never connected her to it.
Maybe I didn't know this woman.
Maybe she was a fiction whom a stranger and I both collaborated in creating.
Or maybe the parts of some people--or all people--just don't add up.

I'm nostalgic for the days before GPS, when I used to get lost all the time.
I believed getting lost and then unlost was the best way to learn my way around.
Maybe I still believe that.
At least back then, when I was lost, I knew I was lost.
Now I seem to disappear in my head every few miles, and then I'm on the road,
but I don't know which road, and I don't know if I know where I am.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Year to Write

When I was in high school, I published a "zine" called Iconoclast which featured an eclectic assortment of obscene, bizarre, and mostly terrible poetry by myself and my friends. I also attended a variety of open-mic poetry events in Albany, New York, performing my own work and listening to the inspired ravings of fellow upstate oddities. I remember this terribly pretentious poet named R. M. Englehardt, whom I always used to make fun of with my friends. I remember having a Mrs. Robinson-style crush on another poet, Mary Panza, who was twice my age. I also remember, quite affectionately, these three old dudes who called themselves "3 Guys from Albany" and read their work as part of a collaborative performance. Albany poetry: it was a scene, sort of.

When I left home for college, I knew I wanted to write. I even picked a college (Bard) that sounded like it was built for writers. I knew that it was unlikely I would ever make a living as a writer, but I didn't think I needed to worry about that yet. College, for me, wasn't about being practical. It was dreamlike. It was a world of ideas and imagination. It was filled with the joy of knowing that high school was over, and the repressed anxiety that one day the dream would end, and I'd be a starving artist of some kind.

My number one priority freshman year was to get into a Poetry Workshop. At Bard, you couldn't just sign up to take Creative Writing--you had to submit a portfolio of your work in order to demonstrate that you were serious about your craft. The professor would look over the portfolios and decide which students he/she wanted to work with. There were always more portfolios than spots in the class. Not everybody made the poetry team.

I scrutinized my work. I sweated. I revised. I put together a collection of my best poems.

I didn't make the cut. I didn't even make the waiting list.

In hindsight, this wasn't all that surprising. I had never read much poetry, especially not contemporary poetry. Aside from Allen Ginsberg, the only living poets I was really familiar with were the local versifiers from Albany. That kind of poetry didn't really cut it at Bard.

Later that semester, I got a voicemail from Peter Sourian, who taught a creative writing workshop in prose fiction. Professor Sourian had been on an Amtrak train, chatting with a conductor, who had mentioned that he knew a young man--a friend of his daughter's--who was studying at Bard. "He's a nice young man. Check up on him, if you think of it." And he did.

I took Professor Sourian's invitation to stop by during his office hours and introduce myself. We chatted about our common acquaintance--my friend Michelle's dad--and about a writer from Albany whom we both admired (William Kennedy). When it came time to register for Spring classes, I submitted a portfolio of short stories for Professor Sourian's fiction workshop. Of course, I got a spot in the class.

Would I have ended up in that class if my friend's dad hadn't talked me up to this professor on a train? I'll never know. I decided to believe that I was simply a much better fiction writer than I was a poet.

Professor Sourian ran his workshop in pretty old-school fashion. At the end of a class, he'd tell a few of us to bring a story to the next class. At the next class, he'd read a story aloud and ask everyone to say what they thought of it. You'd sit there and listen to your classmates and your professor analyze your work, sometimes generously and sometimes harshly. It was not for the faint of heart.

The first story I submitted for the class was pretty terrible. Professor Sourian said something to the effect of, "There's no story in your story."

The next story I wrote was about a friend of mine who had been molested, as a child, by her uncle. The third story I wrote for the class was about coming to terms with my father's death. These stories were both probably emotionally overwrought and painfully amateurish, but they were better. They had their moments.

I ended up taking two more fiction workshops while at Bard, one with Richard Ford (who was pretty well-known) and one with Liz Strout (who would go on to become very well-known). Writing fiction didn't exactly come easy to me, but I was definitely getting better. When I wrote, I often tried to create somewhat mythic versions of real people I knew in my life, and to place them in mythic versions of real places I had been. Sometimes I felt like I was writing portraits; sometimes I felt like I was writing landscapes. Sometimes I was going for realism; sometimes for fantasy.

One of the graduation requirements at Bard is a year-long, 8-credit project, completed during one's senior year. I decided to write a collection of short stories for my project, and Professor Sourian was one of three professors who read and evaluated my work. The collection was called Where Things Come Together: Stories of the Northern Hudson. Each story was set in a different town along the Hudson River and featured a character loosely based on someone from my past whose real story had fascinated me at some point. (Maybe I should have just written little biographies of ordinary people. I often wonder if I could make that into a marketable genre.)

My senior year at Bard was the high point of my writing life--far more pleasurable than the years I spent writing my dissertation for my PhD. (Of course, writing a collection of short stories and writing a dissertation are very different projects. Both require imagination and insight, but one is geared toward a broad audience, while the other is for quite a narrow one.) I lived in an old dormitory that year, called "Manor", with a clunky old radiator that I couldn't control. I remember (wastefully) keeping my window open in the dead of winter to avoid broiling. I remember sitting at my little desk, with a faint view of the Catskills, typing away while pockets of cold and hot air swirled and mixed around me. I remember creating scenes and characters that excited me, and I remember the moments of terror when I thought it was all crap--that I had spent months producing total garbage. I remember sharing stories with friends and professors, afraid to hear the truth. I remember the relief when they told me, "I think maybe you've got something here."

Of all the great things Bard gave me, perhaps that was the greatest. A year to write.