Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Notable quotes from Junot Diaz at Montclair State University

The following quotes were taken during the Q&A portion of the event, so the topics were inevitably dictated by the audience members posing their "questions" (sometimes they were actual questions, other times they were orations based in and on self).


On compassion:
"How many of us tell a 4-year-old:'you're a moron'? Compassion begins with the self --stop kicking yourself and be kind."

On art:
"Art is a fundamental human vocation. We try to summon beauty."
"In art, you are who you really are. It gives you a space to be human."
"Art asks you to be in contact with your true self."

On success:
"The most successful people are those who tolerate failure the best."
"You're awesome because you fail a lot."

On the college experience, beyond a classroom education:
"Lower your guard. Accept that you can look stupid or be wrong in order for transformation [of self] to happen."
"We, the educators, the professors, want you to be transformed --that's the point of college."

On violence:
"The best way to fuck something up forever is with an act of violence."
"Violence lasts forever."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

We will return to our regular programming soon as I find my notes on Junot Diaz at Montclair State University and the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark...

Friday, October 1, 2010

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming--

I need to take some time to process what has happened at our university.

A first-year student, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide last week. Two first-year students, Dharun Ravi (Clementi's roommate) and Molly Wei (Ravi's friend from high school), are charged with invasion of privacy after allegedy broadcasting over the internet a sexual encounter that Clementi had with another man. The details can be found anywhere online. Here is one article. Here is another. This article offers an interesting angle from Clementi's point of view.

This is a terrible terrible tragedy and the actions of the suspects are appalling & outrageous. Though I did not know Clementi, nor do I know Ravi or Wei, I feel really affected by this because it has taken place in my own backyard. I have a heavy heart.

But what's unsettling to me now is some of the responses by the general public.

Some have commented on online articles with a lack of empathy for Clementi. Things like, "I felt like he did but I didn't kill myself, I found a way... --why would you do that?"

Some are quick to pass harsh judgment, calling for involuntary manslaughter charges for Ravi and Wei. There is name-calling and villification.

But let's take a step back. Breathe. Pause. Take a closer look.

These are three first-year students who have been in the process of making that significant adjustment to college life --after all, it's only been a month since the semester started. I brought this discussion to my class this morning. Two of my own students commented that Ravi & Wei's behavior is "very high school". This touched on what had been bothering me these past few days: these three students are kids, really --and they are from a generation that has grown up in a vastly unwieldly world. What do I mean by "unwieldy"?

Think about this: the average first-year student was born in 1992. They do not know a world without the internet. Their main mode of communication has nothing to do with pen or paper or ink of any kind. The speed at which technology moves is incredible, to the point where we (the grown-ups) are chasing it just to keep up. How many times have you read or heard a story about a pre-teen girl taking a naked photo of herself and sending it to a boy she likes, just so he'll like her back? And then that boy sends it to his friends, and soon that photo is circulating out in the unmanageable world of the internet. It is so easy for young people to communicate with each other, physical boundaries be dammned. You want to share a song with your friend in the Philippines? No problem. You want to rant about something to the world? Piece of cake. You want to broadcast your roommate's sexual encounter without his knowledge? Go right ahead.

So here's the thing: we lived in a world that gives young people --kids who are still trying to figure out who they are in the world-- the easy tools to invent themselves & create personas; this requires some serious guidance. They know they can get away with certain things --saying outrageous or cathartic things online through a screen name, for example-- and not be held accountable. Not immediately anyway. And sometimes, they're never held accountable, depending on what was said.

Many young people don't think twice about what they share on the internet. Many young people can't tell the difference between what is real and what isn't. There are so many boundaries that have been blurred by the internet, including how to handle something like cyber-voyuerism in a court of law, but particularly moral and ethnical boundaries. So where is the guidance?

We as a society need to step up and provide the values that have fallen to the wayside (and in its place is sex & violence). We need to set examples for this young generation before they self-destruct.

I think about Tyler Clementi and wish he had taken a moment to breathe, to pause, to take a step back. Maybe he could have found some help, some support. I think about Dharun Ravi & Molly Wei and wonder where we as a society have failed them and the others who have resorted to this kind of behavior. I think about all three students' parents and pray for them as they struggle with what has happened. I cannot even begin to imagine what that would be like, if that was one of my kids.

So please, pause & take a breath. This is more complex than it seems.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Author identity

An issue that was raised in class a few weeks ago: how important is an author's identity to a poem or story?

We're taught to separate the author from the speaker in a poem or story. This is easier to do when it's a work of fiction --after all, the genre itself says that the story is "not true". But what about a poem? Do we assume the speaker is the poet or not? Is it a case-by-case basis? When do we know that a poet's identity should or should not inform one's reading of a poem?

Here's an example:

"Pulled Over in Short Hills NJ, 8:00 AM"

It's the shivering. When rage grows
hot as an army of red ants and forces
the mind to quiet the body, the quakes
emerge, sometimes just the knees,
but, at worst, through the hips, chest, neck,
until, like a virus, slipping inside the lungs
and pulse, every ounce of strength tapped
to squeeze words from my taut lips,
his eyes scanning my car's insides, my eyes,
my license, and as I answer the questions
3, 4, 5 times, my jaw tight as a vice,
his hand massaging the gun butt, I
imagine things I don't want to
and inside beg this to end
before the shiver catches my
hands, and he sees,
and something happens.

--Ross Gay, Against Which

Many of my students read this poem as someone being pulled over, perhaps for getting caught speeding, and the physical experience of that. No one paid attention to the town named in the title (even though most of my students are from Jersey... though, how many of them have heard of the town, one known for its affluence? I can't say.). One student suggested that the speaker was late for work, indicated by the time mentioned in the title, and was speeding. There was no mention of the poet being a black man, because, really, is that relevant? But in light of this, knowing the color of the poet's skin, does this change the reading of the poem? Of course it does.

So how do we, as readers, know when to take a poet's identity into account and when to ignore it? There are no hard and fast rules to follow, but how do we determine how to read a poem?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The writing process: "All I write is crap!", part 2

Here's one solution: read. Read as much as you can. Fill the creative well with all that you can by reading. Read everything and anything. I can't stress that enough. Reading is the backbone to writing.

For me, if i read crap, I end up writing crap. So if I want to write strong vibrant poems, I try to read strong vibrant work. I may not necessarily like what I'm reading, but if it's written well, then I may learn a thing or two. And you might too!

So read!

Hey audience! Any suggested reading? :)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The writing process: "All I write is crap!"

One of the primary hurdles for my students is that they're afraid to write crap. They sit there, pen in hand (I insist on pen-to-paper for that first raw rough draft), before the blank page and mentally wrestle with what will go on paper. Some have said that they worry what they say will be dumb, or crappy, or totally not what they had in their minds. This worry prevents them from doing any kind of writing --crappy or otherwise.

I've encouraged them to just write the crap --get it out of their systems and onto the page, not worrying about whether or not it'll win the Pulitzer, or if it even fulfills the assignment. Writing anything down is always the first step. The real work is in revision. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

To show that even people who have been writing for a while write crap, I shared this result of the in-class writing exercise we did yesterday:

"First" [dumb title]

Walking along the edge of the Hudson River,
we tried to count the lit windows of office buildings
--the stars of Manhattan--
tried to locate our building
where we first met
on the corner of 56th and Madison
in the cool April air
where we masqueraded as ad execs
but shed those selves at night
that night when you sliced a mango
and kissed me pink

[ugh! how awful!]

The exercise was to write about a personal first experience and to include the name of a river you know, a color, a city, a street, a fruit, a month and a job.

I hope, at the very least, this gave my students permission to write anything, no matter how crappy, or, even, unexpectedly stellar.

So what about you? Any thoughts on writing crap? Any examples you'd like to share that illustrates a crappy first draft polished into something fantastic?

Friday, September 24, 2010

The writing process

Ah, the good old topic of process. It never gets old, does it?

Today, we talked about the writing process, specifically the daily writing. I have my students commit to daily writing --it doesn't have to be long; it can be as short as 10 minutes or as long as, well, as they feel like. I have no way of checking their work, but that's not the point. Those who are committed to developing and improving their writing skills will practice daily.

I checked in with the class today, to see how the writing was going. The problem that some are having with the daily writing is that it's repetitive. Some are writing about the same things: what went on in their days, who did what, etc. Nothing new was really happening --both in their daily lives and in their writing. I made a few suggestions on how to change it up, but I wanted to start out my first post by asking you, my audience, for some ways to approach the practice and exercise of daily writing.

What've you got?

An experiment: the blog as a teaching tool

So here's the idea: use the blog as a teaching tool to continue classroom discussions and open them up to the rest of the world (specifically, the literary community who reads this blog). Imagine that: using the "outside" world as a source of education! I'm excited!

I've just sent an e-announcement to my students informing them of this new adventure and have invited them to post their thoughts in the comments section of this blog. I would really appreciate it if you, dear readers, could also contribute to our discussions.

I know it's been quite some time since this Show has been on the air & I wonder: do I still have an audience? Well, instead of wondering, why not create a new one? I'll post invites to FB and see what happens.

I have no idea what will happen, but let's just go for it and find out!

Won't you join us?

[As an FYI: this is for my Introduction to Creative Writing course, which covers poetry, fiction, and this year, screenwriting. Oh, and I teach at Rutgers-New Brunswick.]