Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Lengthy Relationship

One of my students recently proposed that marijuana should be the drug of choice among older teens providing that they stay off the roads and remain at home with only a few friends. This topic could work if the evidence is plentiful and if the writer anticipates counterarguments from his/her audience early within the essay. It isn’t an argument that I would encourage personally because I think the teen years are a time when one develops intellectually, physically, emotionally, and socially, and adding something like marijuana complicates the process and prevents that growth from developing as it should.

Marijuana used to be my drug of choice. As an undergraduate, I usually smoked marijuana on Friday evenings as a way of relaxing and rewarding myself for getting through another week of college. Not having a car, nearby relatives, or many friends when I was living in Wichita, I mostly kept to myself and remained in my duplex apartment. On Saturday nights, instead of getting stoned while watching television or listening to music, I usually studied, worked on an essay due in one of my literature classes, or worked on a poem for one of my creative writing classes until about 10:00 p.m. Then, as I sat at the kitchen table with my work spread in front of me, I added marijuana to my pipe or rolled a joint and used that time to reflect on what I had been doing, eventually adding a record to the stereo.

Marijuana provided a way to relax, offering moments of peace, reflection, amusement, and discovery. I often gained a new appreciation for music, finding pleasure in Jan Garbarek, Michael Urbaniak, and Zappa (particularly “Big Swifty” from Waka/Jawaka), for example. I often dreamed of a rural landscape where I could escape from the noise of Wichita and where I could seclude myself with a woman.

I had experimented with drugs when I was younger, beginning in the Air Force. During the Vietnam era, psychedelic drugs held a strong allure for many of us. I regularly smoked hashish while stationed in England. Easier to find than marijuana, hashish could be picked up in Cambridge or London; an ounce of hashish from Afghanistan cost the equivalent of $30. Once in Cambridge, I exchanged four cartons of American cigarettes, Marlboros mostly, for hashish. As an impulsive and impressionable young man, I also took psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD on more than a few occasions. I eventually got so strung out that coming up with the words to say anything became extremely hard; it was as though I had become the person that Robert Lowell in “Waking in the Blue” refers to as “more cut off from words than a seal.” Tripping lost whatever pleasure it once provided after my first six months in England. My own lack of sexual experience became magnified during my altered states of consciousness, causing me to imagine that others were aware of my inexperience as I heard voices and saw gestures that seemingly related directly to me.

My first Christmas in England was spent on amphetamines. When my flight chief brought baked goods out to those of us guarding the F100’s on alert status, I was standing outside of my gate shack, delighting in the falling snow and unaware of the cold. My flight chief seemed surprised that I wasn’t hungry and refused any of the cookies and candy he offered.

This experimentation with drugs developed again, but to a lesser degree, when I was living in northcentral Kansas after the Air Force and attending a local community college. I took another psychedelic named Hawaiian woodrose one Friday night that first semester. A couple of friends also introduced me to cocaine, which I ended up trying a few times. One of the local dealers of marijuana had gotten busted and raised the money to pay for his lawyer by selling cocaine, which seemingly flooded the town during my first November there.

Having learned firsthand the ravages of experimentation, and having gained an understanding of what risks I subjected myself to by taking psychedelics, amphetamines, and cocaine, I opted to make marijuana my drug of choice and to forgo any further experimentation with drugs. This decision didn’t suddenly result in moderate indulgence. I continued to smoke marijuana almost every day during the next two semesters and again when I moved to Wichita with the goal of working and achieving Kansas resident status, thereby reducing the cost of college tuition.

Over the years, I went through extended periods without marijuana. My return to college, three years after I dropped out, wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t given up marijuana for a couple of years. It took that time for me to realize how much I wanted to study poetry in college. I was reading poets like Norman Dubie, Pamela Stewart, and Dave Smith and came to realize how much I needed to know about poetry and about writing before I could compose better poems.

My absence of writing skills became especially prominent when I bombed a literary analysis/research paper written for a class in Romantic and Victorian poetry during my first semester at Wichita State. That much more of my attention had to be devoted toward my studies if I wanted to remain in college.

Smoking marijuana remained an occasional part of my life when I left Wichita for Connecticut, after earning my BA, and when I returned to Kansas to live in Manhattan and earn a Master of Arts, and when I taught English in Lawrence and Kansas City. I ultimately quit when my only source of supply left the area. The desire to continue that habit wasn’t strong enough to seek out a different, and probably a far riskier, connection elsewhere. I also finally managed to quit smoking cigarettes, a twenty year habit as well, after more than a few unsuccessful attempts.

Sometimes I remember, nostalgically, my quiet evenings with marijuana. It isn’t something that I want to pursue anymore. There are so many more risks associated with marijuana. It isn’t only me that I have to worry about now. I have also invested too much time, effort, and money in pursuing my career to suddenly let it be tossed aside.

I dread the day when and if I should find a baggie of marijuana in my son’s room. What can I say to prevent him from continuing to smoke it when he spits back, “But dad you did it.”

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Long Hard Slog

Handling the demands of teaching doesn’t get any easier, regardless of how much experience one has gained. This last semester, which ended for me on Wednesday morning, proved particularly difficult. I approached the grading of each set of essays with dread and took longer than I should have in returning the grades and my comments to the students. The writing assignments in the second-semester composition course, for example, are more exacting and require that I give attention to not only how the student constructed his/her argument but also how well the student incorporated sources and acknowledged them. I usually made my way through the expressive and referential essays in the first-semester course fairly quickly and preferred that course when I first started teaching. Administrators would be more sympathetic to the workload in second-semester composition courses if the number of students allowed in any one course were set at, say, twelve, about half of the current size at the institution where I teach.

Each semester I emphasize paraphrasing, integrating quotations, avoiding plagiarism, documenting sources, and providing the bibliographic information, using MLA style, on the Works Cited page. Some students learn the conventions of academic writing quickly; other students think it is possible to simply add the author or title of the source in parentheses at the end of a paragraph and that that marker signifies having used that source at some point within the paragraph. Even at the end of the semester, when the student had shown otherwise in the previous essays, the student reverts to that weird form of documentation when writing the so-called research paper. High school classes would prepare students for college if the conventions of academic writing were in place even then.

This semester proved to be the semester for plagiarism as well. Students when summarizing lifted entire sentences and added them without quotations marks and without documentation. The class had addressed the distinction between paraphrasing and quoting and the essential elements of a summary (brevity, objectivity, and using one's own words, for example). These students apparently don’t realize that I have used the textbook for several semesters, have grown familiar with the essays and can identify passages taken from one of the essays, and keep the textbook open when I read their work, referring to the text when necessary. One student when evaluating a movie used an essay that someone in New York had written and had posted as an example of an essay about film in a graduate course. I guess students don’t realize how easily theft can be identified when using the Internet. If they can find the essay, using Google, then I can find the essay as well and probably with less effort. I have to admit that I was stumped when the student who had used the plagiarized evaluation turned in a research paper addressing the nursing shortage. I recognized that the essay was written in APA style, but I couldn’t find the exact essay online. My success rate was higher when a student addressed a summer reading program in California. It turned out that the student hadn’t changed a word.

Overall, getting to the point where I could add up the points and figure out grades was a long hard slog. I was up several nights in a row and caught about five hours of sleep after my son left for school. Anyone driving by my house would have seen the light visible through the blinds and curtains covering my office window until the early morning night after night. It was mostly me and the computer and the occasional horns of freight trains and the rain on the roof.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Sgt. Frederick Wyllyams

Recently, a few visitors to my blog have been looking for information about Frederick Wyllyams, the Eton graduate who had emigrated to this country and earned the rank of sergeant in the American Army before he died outside of Fort Wallace in 1867.



One essay assignment in my second-semester composition course, and one that I have since discontinued, required that the students research someone who had died. The students had the option of researching a family member; another option required that the students choose someone buried at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery and research the person, beginning with the date of death. Occasionally, if students were stumped in their research, and if they could prove how thoroughly they had conducted the research, despite the absence of information, they could show, as a third option, what steps they took in their research and what information they managed to discover.

A few students during the four years that I used this research assignment chose to investigate Frederick Wyllyams. None of their research revealed why Wyllyams’ wasn’t given a commission or why he decided to enlist in the Army. But there are a few detailed sources describing Frederick Wyllyams’ death and mutilation. Captain Albert Barnitz provides a first-person account of the skirmish outside Fort Wallace, which is located on the western edge of present-day Kansas, a bit south of I-70. Barnitz in his letter to his wife laments the loss of several troopers and expresses a particular fondness for Sgt. Wyllyams. Dr. Bell, who was accompanying a railroad survey party and was visiting Fort Wallace during the summer of 1867, attributes Wyllyam’s mutilations to the Cheyenne, the Sioux, and the Arapahoes in his article in Harper’s . (Additional information about the conflict appears here and here .)

One reason I think that Wyllyams continues to attract attention is the historical evidence of his death, including the photographic evidence that Dr. Bell took of Wyllyams’ naked body. A copy of this picture appears in Leo E. Oliva’s Fort Wallace: Sentinel on the Smoky Hill Trail; a much smaller copy of this picture appears at this link .

Many of my students have tried to limit the conflict between the Native Americans and the Euro-Americans to the Battle of the Little Big Horn, perhaps because of the myth that Libby Custer created about her husband and because of the many movies that have glorified that particular historical event. A student versed in history comes to recognize how complex our relations were with the native peoples on the Great Plains and how often our relations were punctuated by violence. There weren’t any heroes; there were only participants in a lengthy clash of cultures.

Someone growing up in Kansas may think that the place is boring. It’s true that the public schools in their sanitized version of the state’s history don’t generate much student interest. In actuality, a trip to Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery and an examination of some of the soldiers buried there can provide insight into the government’s policy toward Native Americans after Kansas was opened up to white settlement and can enhance an appreciation of the region when traveling west across the state on I-70.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Reflection on Blogs and Blogging

I have been looking for blogs addressing adjunct teaching for my blogroll. One of the few I've found, Invisible Adjunct , went dormant two years ago. There are plenty of blogs created by academics, many of whom use their real names, but what they describe isn't part of my experience since I'm not on the tenure track and don't know that I'll ever get there. I'm also interested in locating other interesting blogs, that is, something other than a daily report of one’s life.

From what I’ve noticed, there seems to be more women than men who blog. I can’t draw any generalizations regarding the reason for such a gender disparity. Female bloggers, I’ve noticed, also generate a lot of traffic, particularly if they reveal intimate details that appeal to those voyeurs who seem to find satisfaction at knowing when Lucky Lucky Star and her husband have had sex or when she gives her husband oral sex because of what he did to earn it. Some things are best left private. Most of all, I‘ve noticed how young many bloggers are. I remember when I was 28, and I certainly don’t want to relive that year.

Since I’ve added the Site Meter that appears lower on the page, I discovered that people in other countries have been using my blog as a resource. When someone in Poland googles Michal Urbaniak, when someone in England googles Frederick Wyllyams, when someone in Japan googles the Bothy Band, my blog comes up in their search engine. That recognition, even though the visitor doesn’t explore my other pages, makes me very happy. I can’t think of many other reasons to maintain a blog than to address some of those things that interest me or that I know something about and to have someone else utilize the material when conducting a search for information. Having regular readers who post comments occasionally is a special kind of pleasure, particularly since I haven’t succumbed to describing my sex life in detail, and lets me know that more than the occasional visitor cares about what I post, no matter how quirky or how odd the subject.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Technology and Its Pitfalls



About six weeks ago, I had the misfortune of losing six months of e-mail messages. Instead of deleting my messages after reading them, I tend to save them and to let them accumulate, only moving them to a separate folder once every six months or so. I was in the midst of cleaning up my messages when this mishap occurred. I had thought that I had returned to my deleted messages screen when I checked all of the boxes on the left and hit delete. After a few attempts to salvage what I had lost and after investigating what advice Google offered, I had to admit that my messages had been lost. It was quite depressing.

One message I wish had not been lost was the password that would have let me upgrade Trend Micro for free. This accident ended up costing me money, too.

I am less the Luddite than I used to be, but technology doesn’t always cooperate and doesn’t always prove hassle free. I didn’t start using a computer until I wrote my Master’s thesis in WordStar, which was one of the few word processing programs available in 1989. The computers in the English department at that time required two five and a half inch floppies, one for the programming and one to save one’s document. I got so used to WordStar that I wouldn’t use anything else until I took my qualifying exams for the PhD, which was taken using one of the computers in the Writing Center at school. I continued to use WordStar at home until I bought an HP Pavilion in 2001 and had to learn Microsoft Word because the computer only had a bay for three and a quarter-inch floppies and all of my program disks for WordStar were five and a half inch. Fortunately, I located and downloaded a converter that altered all of my WordStar files. That HP has been since passed on to a friend of my son’s, and I’m now using a personalized Dell E310, that is, one that has a 3.2 GHz processor, a gig of RAM, and an in-house floppy instead of slots for memory cards. It’s not a computer meant for gaming, but it serves my needs.

Everyone in my house considers me the computer expert. I diagnose our computers when they act up. I download the program files needed when converting TGA files to JPEG. Even so, when I try to clean up my personal e-mail account when exhausted, I still make mistakes. All of this technology can be so frustrating.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Lt. Grattan


It’s ironic that a memorial was erected for Lt. Grattan after his death in 1854. Lt. Grattan is credited with starting the Sioux wars. Having learned that a Mormon traveling past Fort Laramie had had a cow killed by one of the Indians encamped near the fort and waiting for their allotments, Grattan insisted on capturing the guilty party. Together with 30 troops, a drunken interpreter, and two artillery pieces, Grattan set out for the Indian encampment. One Indian offered to make retribution. Such an act wouldn’t satisfy Grattan, however. He wanted the guilty party to stand trial. Someone fired a gun first, and the conflict didn’t end until Grattan and his troops were all killed. Grattan’s body, according to some scholars, was so badly mangled as to be unrecognizable. Perhaps that’s why only a memorial has been erected to remember him.

That behavior exhibited by Grattan, that is, each infraction by the native tribes punished with substantially more force by the military, became common practice in the Great Plains. That behavior can be seen at Washita, Sappa Creek, and Wounded Knee.

That kind of behavior exhibited by the military remains in force today, a hundred and fifty years later, because each ambush or explosion experienced by the American military in Iraq is met with substantially greater force. The American military still hasn’t learned how to engage guerrilla fighters.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Pvt. Charles Johnson


When I first started this blog, I made mention of Charles Johnson, a private in the 7th cavalry who attempted to desert during Custer’s summer campaign in Kansas in 1867. Already suffering from a high desertion rate and having heard rumors about half of his remaining troops preparing to desert, Custer wanted to prevent further desertions and when he heard that three troopers had left the encampment with their horses, Custer sent one of his officers after them. Johnson was shot in the head and returned to the encampment in a wagon. Custer refused to allow Johnson to receive medical treatment for the next twelve hours. Eventually, a doctor came to his aid; it’s doubtful that medicine at that time could have done much to assuage one’s pain. Stocks of laudanum might have been available. In any event, Johnson remained alive for three days and died in route to Fort Wallace. The date on Johnson’s tombstone records his date of death as July 17, four days after Custer was said to have arrived at Fort Wallace.

Although I don’t know why Johnson decided to desert, I admire his decision and his refusal to be a part of the western campaign against the Indian tribes in northwestern Kansas. He might have had other, more material, reasons to leave the Army, such as a desire to pan for gold in Colorado. Even so, we can only hope that he had a moment of conscience and refused to be a part of the ethnocentric and imperialistic aims of the American military and the politicians who refused to maintain treaties made between the government and the western tribes.

Initially buried at Fort Wallace, Johnson, along with the other soldiers buried at Fort Wallace, was disinterred and transported to Fort Leavenworth after the Cheyenne and Sioux no longer threatened the white settlers and after Fort Wallace was closed down. Although Johnson should have been buried closer to Frederick Wyllyams and Nathan Trail, other troopers who died while defending Fort Wallace in 1867, he instead is buried among soldiers who are not identified, possibly the soldiers from Fort Larned whose identification had been lost during disinterment and shipment to Fort Leavenworth.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Writhing in Thought

One of my students in critically reviewing an article refers to the author as “writhing the article.” That kind of writing is always the hardest. More than likely, the student was referring to himself as someone who was writhing in having to think critically about a text.

Students in my classes have been struggling with their critical review assignment. Some students are struggling with evaluating a movie, too, not recognizing that a movie can be approached as a text. Once one has seen a movie often enough, it becomes relatively easy to pick out where the movie works and where it doesn’t. Perhaps high schools should assist students in developing their critical senses by seeing movies like Citizen Kane, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and The Graduate. Even evaluating a movie like The Breakfast Club could prove profitable. It’s too bad that the subject matter in those kinds of movies wouldn’t be appropriate for our young people and would lead to parents protesting about what their little darlings are being exposed to. It’s no wonder that recent posts at Rate Your Students have mentioned how high school students tend to do nothing but bide their time until graduation. I know I hated high school and couldn’t wait to have it end. Struggling to understand Citizen Kane would have been better than reading Travels with Charlie in English class or better than watching my political science teacher comb his hair in front of the class.

Maybe I shouldn’t expect too much thinking from my freshmen. We’re not a society that promotes thinking as a virtue.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Never Certain

As I mentioned in a previous post back in August, I used to question whether I did the right thing by not serving in Vietnam when I was a security policeman in the US Air Force. This doubt has entered one of my poems, one that appeared recently in Project for a New Mythology. This poem also won an in-house prize judged by Mark Doty when I was a graduate student years ago; the poem remained unpublished until recently.

I recognize that my understanding of the weapons in use then is wrong; that misunderstanding is intentional. Let's hope that no one shares the feelings I once knew regarding the current conflict involving American troops.


Never Certain

I was trained for war as a child,
given toy soldiers and taken to movies.
July afternoons in the yard I reenacted
the liberation of France, the taking
of Porkchop Hill in Korea. My father
told a story of spending the first
night of the invasion at Omaha Beach
with the dead all around him,
before he fell into silence.
He gave me the oath when I enlisted
and asked me not to disappoint him.
Assigned first to Montana, I guarded

tankers on alert. Eager to tell
the stories that we heard nightly
about mamasan selling her mouth
in the shower, papasan selling sticks
of marijuana carted from Thailand,
and the sappers who lobbed mortar
shells from the jungle, creating action
on the flightline, my friends volunteered.
Not convinced, no matter how alluring
the account, but still more afraid,
I asked for England. I spent a year
guarding nuclear bombs against the fog

that crossed the perimeter and crawled
below the fence, waiting for me
to look away as I drew pipefuls
of hashish into my lungs. I handed
out leaflets and marched in London
against the war. I took a discharge
offered, with benefits, two years early.
It took only weeks to regret my choices.
I missed my nights on post, my friends.
No one else I knew had stayed home.
Even now at times, thirty some years
later, when I count up the time
spent inside, stoned, jobless, alone,
with no ribbons but national defense
stored away with my night stick, I wish
I had joined my friends from high school,
my friends from Montana in AZR training
at Lackland. Like Azrael, the angel
of death, I could have learned
to separate a soul from its body
with a knife, a bazooka, a mortar
before boarding a plane for Da Nang.

I could have spent a year releasing
my nineteen year old lust. I could have
peered through a night scope and aimed
my M60 machine gun at the shapes
firing mortar shells onto the flightline,
watching them fall like silhouettes.
I could have created my own silences
for the last night of stuffing
my dufflebag, before adding
my souvenirs to the stack of bodybags
flown back to the world.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Dulce et Decorum Est

One of the strongest of the antiwar poems written in English is Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est." Although he died in France during World War I, he recognized the futility of war. The Latin at the end of the poem translates as "Sweet and fitting it is/to Die for one's country." The poem can be found at the following link: Wilfred Owen

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.


Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.


In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.


If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

***************

The only time when war might be justified now, in this post World War II era, is when one's own country is invaded; otherwise, there are far better ways to solve problems and conflicts. You would think we would get smarter after all of the years that have made up humankind. The events of 9/11 don't signal invasion; anyone who lived in Europe during the time of 1969 to 1985 or so, recognizes that terrorism can be a constant threat. It can be prepared for, if the government and officials are competent, but the event itself can happen at any time.

Even attacking Afghanistan was not necessary. You didn't see the British invade the Republic of Ireland whenever a bomb was set off in London. The problem with the IRA was solved through diplomacy. Likewise, our government should have analyzed the situation and determined what we could have done to lessen the hostility against America. A thinking president would have gotten troops out of Saudi Arabia and done everything possible to find alternatives to petroleum products so that this country's presence in the Mid-East could have been drastically reduced.

Similarly, the president should have ensured that oil producing nations deciding to switch from the dollar as the currency of exchange to, say, euros, should not threaten the economic health of this nation and should not serve as a reason to invade Iraq and as a reason to bomb Iran in the near future.

That's how the lives of those Americans killed on 9/11 should have been remembered.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Experimentation

I have been playing around with my camera recently. Ideally, I would like to get outside and see whether I can find scenes worthy of capturing without having to travel as far as the Konza Prairie, outside of Manhattan. That venture into the country will have to wait a few more days.

My wife made the paperweight appearing on the left in the second picture. When we were working on our PhD's, she took a class offered by the community. It lasted only for one day, provided insight into what's involved in making paperweights, and turned out to be great fun.






Wednesday, September 27, 2006

More Evidence of Fall

My wife brought to my attention this indication that the seasons are changing.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Do Women Read More Fiction Than Men?

The Chronicle of Higher Ed, quoting from an article that appeared in In These Times, recently reported that women read fiction far more than men. More information regarding the results of surveys conducted in the UK, Canada, and the US can be found at the following link: In These Times .

As I mentioned in a previous post, I haven't been reading much fiction within the last few years. Currently, however, I am reading a new collection of stories by Thomas Fox Averill, a Kansas resident and a writer known to some of us in Kansas and the Great Plains. Entitled Ordinary Genius, this collection contains those stories written since Seeing Mona Naked (his last collection of stories), roughly a period of about fifteen years. I have been known to introduce my students to Averill's work, particularly "The Last Dancing Pig in Southeast Kansas," a story my students find funny and significant because Jacob's relationship with the pig parallel the male-female relationships in the story. I highly recommend this particular story and any one of Averill's collection of stories; his first one, and the one containing "The Last Dancing Pig in Southeast Kansas," is entitled Passes at the Moon.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Another Example of Scenic Kansas

I have added another picture. Clicking on it will enlarge it. If you decide to save any of these photos, from this post and the previous one, onto your computer to use as either wallpaper or as part of a screensaver, I would at least like for you to leave me a comment.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Scenic Kansas

Over the weekend, I managed to get away from my grading. Pictures of the view from Coronado Heights appear in these two photographs. Marking the furthest north that Coronado had come in his search for gold, Coronado Heights is located in the Smoky Hills, which are a bit south of Salina in mid-central Kansas.

Clicking on these picures will enlarge them.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Anthony Sobin and "The Dream of the Moth"

One poet I’m especially fond of is Anthony Sobin, sometimes known as A.G. Sobin or Anthony G. Sobin. His only collection The Sunday Naturalist appeared in 1982. Fortunately, the Beloit Poetry Journal has digitized its archives, making some of Sobin’s poems available to those unfamiliar with his full-length collection. The Dream of the Moth, for example, reveals playful use of metaphor and vivid imagery.

My reluctance to accept his criticism prevented us from working well together when I was a student's of his around the same time that his book came out. That division kept me from applying to the MFA program at Wichita State where I would have created a book under his tutelage. I had a weird conception of my own poems, thinking that they should emphasize sound over sense. Nonetheless, in hindsight, I was lucky to make his acquaintance and could have learned more if I had been less arrogant and less stubborn.

Conflict and Escape

Amazingly, even though I don’t see my students face-to-face and don’t deal with the personality issues that evolve within an onground classroom, I encounter conflict within my online classes—either because the students cannot hold a civil discussion among themselves or because they cannot recognize and respect differences in values and beliefs. Three weeks into the semester, I am already encountering problems among the students in one of my classes.

It seems as though these kinds of conflicts have been more common since Bush, Jr., has taken office and since the collapse of the Twin Towers. The connection could just be a coincidence or post hoc ergo proctor hoc. Even so, the amount of fear created among the populous by the Bush administration seems to have created a climate in which conflict occurs more often because of the inability to respect each other. This absence of mutual respect occurs on an individual basis and among cultures. One of the news magazines once featured on its cover a woman’s face onto which the various facial characteristics of the ethnic cultures that make up this country had been blended together. That sense of cohesion, that commingling of cultures, occurs less often now.

Personally, I have sought to get farther away from people. That’s why my profile makes mention of my desire to live somewhere between the 98th and the 105th meridian. I recognize, of course, that the odds of finding people like myself, that is, with the same interests and beliefs, would occur infrequently out there. When younger, a large part of my life was spent in disguise. At that time, generational differences and the attendant attitudes toward things like the Vietnam war and marijuana were largely determined by the length of one’s hair. Having had alopecia universalis when I was a preschooler and in elementary school, what hair I had when it started to grow again—on my head, at least—was never very thick. Once, after walking into a hippie bar, I was labeled a narcotics agent, aka narc, and threatened with a knife in my side if I didn’t leave. Unbeknown to that guy who whispered in my ear, I had already altered my consciousness when I walked into the bar, and I certainly wasn’t going to turn anyone in. It was hard enough seeing anything six feet in front of me. Living with my baldness has gotten easier as I have grown older. Even though my alopecia has returned in certain spots, mostly on my face, it doesn’t matter anymore what someone says or when someone stares. That kind of behavior has occurred often enough that I largely ignore it.

Working among lots of people in a Wichita hospital years ago completed my transformation into a misanthrope. It isn’t something that occurs monthly like a lycanthrope. Instead, it remains a constant to a degree, surfacing most strongly when I feel as though I have to get away from everyone except my wife and son, when I have been around too many people and need to escape to a quieter environment.

At this Wichita hospital, when I worked on Saturdays, I managed to escape during my lunch break to the top floor of one building, which was still unfinished, and gaze out onto the city, the number of trees preventing me from picking out particular landmarks. Now, I take walks in the early morning when there are few people about, except the occasional man or woman leading a dog, and feel a sense of satisfaction that I don’t live in a large city among the constant noise, the traffic, and the fewer chances to get away. These quiet times are rejuvenating, making it somewhat easier to interact with humans again.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

One-Word Poems and Dictionaries

During my first semester in college, Jonathan Katz, one of the poets on the faculty at Wichita State, made the two and a half-hour trip north to Cloud County Community College to read his poems, some of which included one-word poems. I have come up with some of my own one-word poems over the years, and I have included them below. A word qualifies as a one-word poem if it resonates with meaning--literal and, occasionally, figurative. It is the reader’s responsibility to ascertain the denotation for each word if it isn’t already known. Each poem acquires even greater significance if you can add where you first encountered the word. I encountered the word callipygian in Catch 22; rime comes from Dr. Zhivago, and mizzle comes from a Thomas Hardy novel.


One to Two Syllable One-Word Poems

Brume
Mizzle
Sough
Rime


Multi-Syllabic One-Word Poems

Ensorcel
Troglodyte
Bafflegab
Callipygian


Ultimately, these kinds of poems cause the reader to return to the dictionary with renewed interest. As an onground instructor, I encouraged my students to make a close friend of their dictionary. I even set aside a few minutes in my first-semester composition classes to have the class learn more about dictionaries and to evaluate the ones that they brought to class. Students usually left class that day resolved to buy a larger dictionary.

When I was taking a linguistics class at Wichita State as an undergraduate, I became aware of how deficient my own dictionary was. I was using a college edition of the Webster’s New World, one that was copyrighted in 1964. When my dad gave it to me in 1965, he inscribed it with the following comment, “May you one day have knowledge of most of the contents of this book.” By 1979, I recognized the necessity of acquiring a dictionary with a more detailed pronunciation key and with more words than the 142,000 in the older Webster’s New World.

After my summer class in linguistics had ended, I was browsing through a secondhand bookstore on West Douglas when I discovered a first edition of the unabridged Random House, priced for $15.00, and copyrighted 1969. I lugged that ten-pound dictionary home on the bus and kept it near me when I was studying or even just watching television, occasionally looking up a word that I heard but didn’t know. Sometimes I found enough entertainment opening up the dictionary on a table in front of me and randomly flipping from one page to another, making a new discovery on each page.

Although I later acquired the second edition of the unabridged Random House, it has never carried the same emotional attachment as the first edition. Its cloth cover now contains several rips along the length of its spine and is about ready to fall off; even so, that first edition remains a treasured book in my library. It helped me get through college at a time when I had doubts that I would ever finish my undergraduate degree.

Instead of using an abridged dictionary now, I have my needs met by a recent edition of the Random House Webster’s, College Dictionary. It’s only those more obscure words, like omphaloskepsis, that cause me to open one of the unabridged dictionaries.

My kid will eventually inherit these dictionaries of mine. He currently much prefers to use the Internet when asked to look up words in Language Arts. He hasn’t yet learned the tactile pleasure of rubbing his hands over the open pages of an unabridged dictionary.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Militarism and Video Games

The other night I attended a lecture and demonstration in which one of the software engineers for the US Army outlined how video game technology is being put to use. The lecturer mentioned, for example, that the update for "America’s Army," a full fledged video game, will be available soon and serves as a recruitment tool. Video game technology is used in other instances as a means of thinking through various scenarios so that the troops will be prepared when confronting a similar situation overseas. The Army, he says, doesn’t want the soldier to discern a difference between the video game scenario and the actual event itself. Once one has become suitably brainwashed, he/she reacts in ways that have been predetermined, in other words.

One scenario duplicated what was meant to happen in Mogadishu, that is, a number of soldiers entering a structure and kidnapping a terrorist leader. The scenario goes much smoother than what occurred in Black Hawk Down; in fact, once the troops get pinned down by a sniper in a building, they call in an airstrike from an A10 Warthog circling overhead, allowing the equivalent of a Bunker Buster to destroy the entire ten-story building and everyone else inside.

Most depressing of all is that the lecturer disclosed that he is currently working on video game scenarios that won’t be released for another four years. One clip revealed that the US Army expects to remain in the Middle East for much longer than has been disclosed in the corporate media at least. This revelation duplicates the ideas expressed today at the Information Clearing House where the article Corporate Globalization and Middle East Terrorism argues that Cheney and Rumsfeld articulated their intentions six years ago in a white paper “call[ing] for permanent military bases throughout the [Middle East]…[because] America has no intentions of leaving until the last drop of oil runs dry, and Iraq’s [and Iran’s] natural wealth has been privatized.”

Don’t let your children download and play “America’s Army.” Don’t be tempted to purchase a copy when the updated version is released for the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 in a few more months. Boycott militarism and vote to make a difference in November (assuming, of course, that our votes count and that the election hasn't been decided by the voting machines already in place).

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Starting Another Semester

Ninety-two students are enrolled in my classes for the fall semester. Just thinking of that number makes me incredibly tired because of the amount of essays that I’ll be grading. Probably the best thing about this time of the semester when my classes are just now underway, having been open and available since Sunday at midnight, is the relative peace before the influx of student essays. It’s possible to have a real life, that is, regular hours and sufficient amounts of sleep for these first few weeks.

I’m hoping to get most of my grading done during the day this semester. I’m also hoping to start the grading earlier because it has usually taken me a week before I can even begin to face the essays that I have to grade. Feelings of disappointment at the quality of the writing keep me from reading them with alacrity. It takes time to approach student essays with the ability to lend praise occasionally; the temptation when approaching them too soon is to identify the faulty mechanics and to find reasons for not giving them much attention, such as brevity, not fulfilling the assignment, plagiarism, and errors in documentation. Simply telling the student how awful his/her essay is is not teaching.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Memoirs and Kathleen Norris: An Appreciation

Memoirs can often be disturbing. As a writing teacher, I have encountered students who make revealing personal disclosures in their essays. One of my supervisors when I first started teaching encouraged students to write about their personal pain; probably encountering those kinds of essays assisted her in mothering her students as they made the transition from expressive to referential writing. I now caution my students against writing about incest and rape; otherwise, I am open in terms of topics, even when the students describe abortions or drug use, for example. The students, of course, are not writing for me as their audience, but I still dislike having to encounter incest and rape in their essays. All I can do is encourage the student to seek professional help while grading the essay in terms of how well the student has fulfilled the assignment. When I taught prisoners at the United States Disciplinary Barracks, the maximum security prison on Fort Leavenworth, I got one or two essays containing intimate descriptions of rough sex. That topic probably proved cathartic for the writer.

Published memoirs can be disturbing as well. William Kittredge goes into obsessive detail regarding his drinking in Hole in the Sky. David Ray gives a lot of attention to the sexual abuse he encountered as a young person in The Endless Search. A full understanding of the person requires this disclosure. As readers, we wouldn’t want these details to be kept out of the narrative. The redundant detail can prove either overwhelming or embarrassing at times, however.

Kathleen Norris shocked her audience in The Virgin of Bennington (2001). Having grown familiar with her work from reading The Cloister Walk (1996) and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (1998), her audience expected the same religious themes in subsequent books. The Virgin of Bennington, on the other hand, traces Kathleen Norris’ life from her undergraduate years to her apprenticeship with the Academy of American Poets, particularly her relationship with Betty Kray, and her decision to leave New York for South Dakota. Reviewers of The Virgin of Bennington tended to caution readers because of the frankness in which Norris describes her adulterous liaisons with a professor and her abundant drug use. The narrative places an equal amount of attention on Norris’ encounters with various poets, such as James Wright and Galway Kinnell, and on her own literary success. Most of all, the memoir describes the assistance that Norris received from Betty Kray; it’s this relationship with Betty Kray, combined with Norris’ fascination with poetry, that kept the narrative from becoming a strict confessional mixed with tears and recriminations.

Used copies of The Virgin of Bennington are listed at Amazon, starting at the price of one cent. Apparently, some of her readers couldn’t accept that change occurs in the course of one’s life. Those of us familiar with Norris’ poetry recognized that she has always embraced the full range of human experience. Long before Norris attracted an audience of those exploring their religious faith, she embraced physical passion in The Middle of the World, a collection of poems that U of Pittsburgh P released in 1981.

Notice the following poem taken from The Middle of the World. This poem also appears in Journey (2001), her collection of new and selected poems.


The Dancers

We are curious about one another’s bodies
But courtly now,
Assume the prescribed position:
Your hand on my back,
Our fingers meeting, holding in air.

We move where instinct moves us
On the stage-lit dance floor,
The strong farmer’s son
And preacher’s daughter
Holding each other gingerly,
Keeping distance, like possibility,
Between us. I would like to feel your blond head

Between my legs, hear animals breathe
In the fields around us
As we get up shivering
And the moon steps down, still hungry,
In the pale grass.


Kathleen Norris.
The Middle of the World. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1981. 47.


Not a religious person, only having entered a church for weddings and funerals since 1969, I still followed Norris’s career as she explored her spiritual interests. An appreciation of Donne doesn’t end with his poems of married love, e.g., “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” and “The Relic”; a full appreciation of his work includes “Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward” and the “Holy Sonnets” as well as “The Flea” and “The Good-Morrow.” Similarly, one cannot turn away from Norris’ explorations in her poetry and prose. I suspect that she will continue to reveal the truth of her experience and will find those allusions that allow her to articulate those truths.

Even if Norris were to lose all of those readers who have taken an interest in her work since The Cloister Walk, she will remain as a writer of the Great Plains. She proves an inspiration for students who think that this region has nothing of value because it lacks a beach or mountains. Occasionally, the relative absence of people and the extreme fluctuations in weather cause us to explore an interior world. Norris has dealt with the Great Plains in her own unique way.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Commercial Free Zone

Whenever I watch television, I gravitate toward those channels that are commercial free. A year ago, my wife and I decided to combine our telephone service with our cable TV and Internet services. This deal allowed us to save money every month and to gain many more channels. My first impulse when turning on the TV now is to turn to the upper channels like IFC and Sundance before I work my way to Encore and eventually to TCM and PBS. If I am reduced to watching regular TV when too tired to do anything else, I turn to the Weather Channel, the History Channel, Discovery, or National Geographic while ensuring that my finger is close to the mute button during the commercials unless I should fall asleep. Before my wife and I expanded our channel lineup, I used to spend a few minutes on Tuesday nights watching one of the professors at a local community college teach my subject area; although the class had a fifteen intermission about midway through the three-hour class, it still remained free from spots pitching products offering to increase my libido or to make me an epicure of fast food. Even Book TV on C-Span during weekends offers a respite from commercials. When I used to commute, I tried listening to the radio until the number of commercials forced me to turn it off. It stands to reason that I won’t be adding advertisements to this blog. If I cannot stand commercials on the TV or the radio, why would I want them on the Internet? I understand how it could be possible to make money from offering advertisements. This posting is not in judgment of other bloggers. I believe that exercising my own voice does not require remuneration apart from an occasional comment or two.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Pamela Stewart and "Not Light"

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have added the titles of some of my personal library in LibraryThing. I still haven’t yet paid for a lifetime membership, so the number of titles entered remains at 200. In creating tags for some of these titles, I used the tag limited edition poetry for eight of these books, all of which are chapbooks, that is, collections of less than forty pages. A chapbook allows a poet to make some of his/her work available to the reading public at a reasonable price. Often, a chapbook precedes a poet’s first full-length collection; some poets, however, have been known to release chapbooks of their work before a second or third full-length collection.

Pamela Stewart, a poet who has published five full-length collections and whose work has not gotten much exposure, has also published five chapbooks of her work. Two early chapbooks were included in The St. Vlas Elegies, her first full-length collection, which was published by L’Epervier Press in 1977. That same year, Maguey Press released Half-Tones, a chapbook containing twelve poems. One poem that she kept back from Cascades, her second full-length collection, is titled "Not Light." This poem remains one of my favorite ones; my students have responded positively to it as well when I take them through it, stanza by stanza. Under Fair Use, I am including the poem in its entirety.


NOT LIGHT

Dayflowers cluster at the steps.
The hedge is spiked
With lilacs that have dried
To brown cones. Thirty years ago,

A plum tree was planted when I was born;
It’s taller than me and the roots
Must spread, now, everywhere
Under a lawn, under
The glowing flowers that lose
Their color at this hour. I want

To wake you up from afternoon sleep
But my dress has faded
In the fading light. This garden,
Once deliberately made, is wildly
Uncared for and I think
All the flowers eat light
At dusk so their colors

Can startle us tomorrow.
Tonight, there are no
Distances, just the large
Darkness through which I make
My way. I reach
To touch where I can’t see,
And feel a pulse—
A sound the tree-frogs make
To sever fields. I could sing

Like a rude bird to wake you,
Remain here always, sleep-walking
The day, wrecking the night. Or
I could eat the flowers that ate
The light, and take the milk

From broken stems to return
Folded in a dress. And, then,
Enter the house with light inside me
Like a firefly caught
In a dark bouquet I carry into the room
Where you have moved again

Beyond the weight
Of flowers, beyond the light of stars.


Pamela Stewart

Half-Tones. Tucson: Maguey Press, 1977. 25-26.

One of my teachers once said that a woman has to use her body in her poems to get published. “Not Light” differs because the emotional situation is revealed through the images and metaphors. I could explain the poem for you, but I know that those of you who have gotten this far down the page are a bright bunch, and I need say no more.

This book remains available from Abebooks. Originally, it sold for $3.00; now it can be found for as little as $6.00 and as much as $37.00, depending on the condition.

Reevaluating my Existence

I have thought recently of discontinuing this blog. It started as an opportunity for me to write something other than comments justifying the grades given to student essays. I have come to realize that I can squeeze in time for writing when I want to. There are limits to what one can say in a public forum like this one even though I know that this blog doesn’t generate much traffic. Even so, if I want to write personal essays, I need to keep the material offline. It’s doubtful that someone stopping by would want to read a posting that is the equivalent of three or four pages in length. When writing these postings, I am conscious of my audience and intentionally leave out material that might be too revealing or incriminating. If the material were written for a collection of essays, I would instead seek to achieve honesty and to establish my credibility through the amount of details. I recognize, too, how posting within this blog can take precedence over the writing that I need to be doing. I have decided to explore a different direction in what I post.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

War and Personal History


I have been following the events in Lebanon and find the events occurring there saddening and capable of drawing so many other countries into the maelstrom of war. Invading a sovereign nation and killing innocent civilians is not the way to solve problems. If Israel had indeed planned this conflict a year in advance, then they probably should have given more attention to the ramifications of what they had decided to do. It’s unfortunate that our own president has given Israel the freedom to continue their campaign against innocent civilians. Oil prices will definitely shoot to five or seven dollars a gallon or higher if either Israel or this country decides to widen the war and bomb Syria and/or Iran. Bush will extend the available resources of this country if he’s the one who chooses to wage war against yet another country. I feel sorry for those young men who will be called up once the draft is reinstated, which is sure to happen because the number of troops currently available is not enough for another ground campaign.

If every generation has its own war, my war was the one in Vietnam. I knew I had little chance of avoiding the draft when I finished high school. Ranked third from the bottom out of 124, I knew that I wouldn’t be attending college. Six months after graduation from high school, I enlisted in the Air Force, having been assured by the recruiter that I would be able to use the skills that I had acquired in developing and printing my own photographs. During the medical exam, I discovered that I was colorblind. That deficiency, combined with my low test scores, limited my career options to clerk, cook, firefighter, or security police. During the fourth or fifth week of basic training, I learned that I would be remaining at Lackland AFB and would undergo training as a security policeman.

Once when going through the chow line during the early stages of my SPS training, I saw a classmate from my high school. He had graduated a year before me and was now going through AZR training before his assignment as a K-9 handler at Cam Ranh Bay. He mentioned his learning to fire a mortar and a 30 caliber machine gun and didn’t seem at all worried about using his training against the sappers trying to penetrate the perimeter.

Later, after the six weeks of SPS school and earning my 81130 certification, I was assigned to Malmstrom AFB in Montana, where I guarded KC 135’s, which at the time were flying gas stations used for midair refueling of B 52’s in their route over the pole. If the Air Force hadn’t lost my security clearance, I might have been guarding missile silos a hundred miles or more from the air base in all kinds of weather. Whenever the security systems failed at any one silo, the security police were called to maintain onsite protection, usually requiring that this two-man crew live in a camper until the security systems were back in place. Instead, I had to wait two months for my security clearance and worked as a clerk in the scheduling office. That summer, after I received orders for a three-year tour in England, I lived across the hall from two Vietnam veterans. They had just recently returned to what they called the world and were finishing out their tours in SAC, the Strategic Air Command. Each night they used to regale me with their stories about how much fun they had in Vietnam. Both sex and marijuana were readily available, and firing their 30 caliber machine guns from an observation tower just added to the fun. Some of the cops in our flight or unit eventually volunteered for an assignment in Southeast Asia, hoping to partake in those same pleasures. I thought I had what I wanted by shipping out to the same air base where I had attended high school as a Navy brat.

That October, I arrived in England and often patrolled the perimeter of the flight line until I earned my 81150, which qualified me for more responsibility. Afterwards, I usually either guarded weapons or aircraft armed with nuclear bombs and on alert in the event that western Europe was attacked. Most of my time on duty occurred at night. Sunset in England during the winter occurred at 3:30 p.m., making the nights especially long. As I stood outside in four layers of clothing or sat within an unheated wooden building big enough for one person, I usually listened to Radio Luxembourg on the transistor radio I had hidden in one of my pockets.

Despite my professional duties, I still opposed using the nuclear bomb. I had grown up during the 1950’s when nuclear war remained a possibility. I also lived in Istanbul during the Cuban missile crisis and remember the night when my father came home from work and told us that we could be at war in the near future. The naval station where he worked along the Bosporus monitored the Russian ships that passed in and out of the Black Sea. Sometime later that fall, he told us that the ships carrying the missiles that had been in Cuba were seen moving through the Bosporus back to Russia. One weekend when I was in high school, we had been warned that a group representing CND, the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament, the group that created the symbol for Ban the Bomb, which later came to be known as the Peace sign, was coming on the airbase to distribute literature. Prohibited from being outside during that time, we had to decide whether to remain in the dorms or to spend the day in a building called the dayroom, which contained the cafeteria and pool tables. We later came to find out that the protestors were a friendly group and only wanted to distribute leaflets. That airbase continues to contain the most number of nuclear bombs in Europe. If Bush decides to drop tactical nuclear bombs on Iran, they will be coming from this particular base.

Through my associations with the other airmen, I came to learn of an antiwar group in Cambridge. Composed of Americans who had avoided the draft and left the country to study at Cambridge University, this group organized a few GI’s who were opposed to the war in Vietnam. Most of the GI’s attending their meetings were actually informants for the Office of Special Investigation, who wanted to know which GI’s might compromise the mission of the Air Force. Impulsively, I volunteered to distribute antiwar literature on the base near the snack bar and earned a letter of reprimand from my commanding officer as a result. I also marched in London against the war during one of the major demonstrations. The small group to which I was associated marched in the rear. I carried a sign calling for the end to US involvement in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. After this line of demonstrators snaked its way to the American embassy, the communists in the front burned the American flag and chanted slogans against the war and American involvement. I remember watching them but not participating. Afterwards, the protesters drifted away. It seemed rather anticlimactic, I thought. My most memorable moment came when I flashed my sign at a couple sitting in a Bentley as they waited for the demonstrators to pass through the intersection. This couple reminded me of my own parents; in fact, my father had a Bentley shipped back to Maryland after he finished his assignment in Scotland. It was so embarrassing riding down the highway on a Sunday afternoon in my dad’s Bentley. I just wanted to be a normal American.

After I had been in England for a year, I was relieved of duty when my squadron commander found a cache of antiwar literature in one of my dresser drawers. I was supposed to have distributed it within the barracks and didn’t have the sense to throw it away instead of leaving it in my room. Out of bravado and youthful impulsiveness, I wrote a letter for an antiwar newsletter in which I pledged more support for their antiwar activities now that I no longer had to work at my job in the military. I actually missed working and didn’t have the sense to keep my mouth shut. I probably never would have been able to rejoin my squadron, however. The Air Force would have decided that I couldn’t be trusted and would have retrained me to fight fires or to cook.

Within a couple of months, after I refused to fight the charges against me and after I refused to undergo attitude readjustment at a base in Colorado, which would have kept me in the military, I was honorably discharged and sent home to Maryland. Inarticulate and impulsive, I don’t know what a trial would have done for me. I certainly couldn’t have defended myself and couldn’t have expressed why the literature had remained in my barracks room. If I had been a reflective and intelligent person, I would have realized—when first arriving in England—that completing my tour of duty would have been the best thing for me because it would have offered the opportunity to mature and to gain more experience in the world and with women.

No one except my parents and sister welcomed me home. I didn’t have the experiences that would have let me join any of the antiwar groups if that were an ambition of mine. I also didn’t have the grades that could have gotten me into a four-year college. After nine months, I found a community college in Kansas with an open admissions policy. The starlit autumn nights fascinated me, and I delighted in the freight trains hauling carloads of wheat through northcentral Kansas. I was living among the images in an Allen Ginsberg poem.

As I grew older, I recognized that I missed a unique opportunity by not serving in Vietnam. It seemed as though all of my experiences up to that point had been in preparation for serving in Vietnam. I also thought that if I had completed my four years in the Air Force, I would have emerged a changed person, one ready for the responsibilities of adulthood. I didn’t realize that I still might have drifted through a slew of jobs and still might have spent ten years earning my undergraduate degree. Around 1984 or so, I discovered that even Vietnam-era veterans suffered problems in dealing with others, in abusing drugs, and in readjusting. Apparently, the attitudes we acquired regarding the military and figures of authority were universal among those of us who served in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when public opinion had turned against the war.

The ambivalence I have regarding Vietnam occurs infrequently now. I don’t feel as though I missed out. More often, I recognize that I did the right thing by not going to Vietnam. I recognize now the accuracy in Wildred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” in which so many young people grow enamored with what Owen calls "the old lie,” that is, “Dulce et decorum est/pro pratria mori.” My transformation, I believe, occurred at a veteran’s day pow-wow where I was a visitor. All of the veterans were called out to the dance floor for a welcoming home ceremony. As I bowed my head, one of the older Indians said a prayer in which he asked the people attending and the nation as a whole to welcome back home those of us who had served in the military. I’m not an Indian or a believer in traditional religion, but I still felt cleansed and no longer felt as much at odds with myself for what I hadn’t done.

The irony is that my own son delights in nuking his opponents in one of his video games and likes gunning down the villains or slashing them with a sword. His generation has been prepared for the next war so that they can destroy an entire village without remorse or regrets.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Summer Reading

Despite the time spent grading essays this summer, I still managed to read a few books. I usually read for pleasure every day. I’m between books at the moment, and I’m rereading portions of Edward Abbey’s The Journey Home, a collection of essays that I just recently finished. Abbey surprises me with his recognition of the influence of corporations. This collection was published in 1977 when it seemed as though fewer of us were aware of the control that corporations have over our behavior and over the government.

Abbey is prophetic in the following passage taken from “Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom."

As I see it, our own nation is not free from the danger of dictatorship. And I refer to internal as well as external threats to our liberties. As social conflict tends to become more severe in this country—and it will unless we strive for social justice—there will inevitably be a tendency on the part of the authoritarian element—always present in our history—to suppress individual freedoms, to utilize the refined techniques of police surveillance (not excluding torture, of course) in order to preserve—not wilderness!—but the status quo, the privileged positions of those who now so largely control the economic and governmental institutions of the United States.


Having seen blurbs by Jimmy Santiago Baca in praise of Adrian Louis' poems, and not knowing anything about Jimmy Santiago Baca, I picked up a copy of his memoir A Place to Stand. His book contains descriptions of his illiterate youth and young adulthood, his imprisonment for five years, and the transformation he experienced once he taught himself to read and write and began writing poetry. His writing kept him from extending his time in prison to what could have been a life term. His writing has also kept him from returning to prison. I recommend this memoir; it serves as a testimony to how poetry—and art in general—can keep us human and provide hope in a world where none usually exists.

I had heard mention of Mike Rose when I was teaching at Oklahoma State. When I saw a bent up copy of Lives on the Boundary at a discount bookstore in Leavenworth, I quickly grabbed it. Like Baca, Mike Rose describes a childhood without books and without language before he provides an account of his educational transformation. This foundation allowed him to assist students, most of whom were disadvantaged by their educational background and their poverty, in acquiring language and in adjusting to the rigors of college when he began working at UCLA. Working as a tutor, Rose managed to escape the depressing task of grading student essays in composition and expresses an inspiring enthusiasm for teaching, which can jar the behavior of even someone jaded like me. I even adopted the language of Rose when I encountered students who had plagiarized their essays this summer, recognizing that they had not yet acquired confidence in using the academic voice.

For fun, I picked up a copy of The Last Run: A True Story of Rescue and Redemption on the Alaska Seas. This nonfiction account differs from Junger’s The Perfect Storm by emphasizing the narrative over informational details about waves and the weather. This book kept me reading until dawn several mornings in a row. I kept on wanting to know what would happen next. It was as good as, if not better than, a novel.

In addition to these books, I also read portions of Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box, Elizabeth Bishop’s poems that were unpublished during her lifetime, and Michael Heffernan’s newest collection of poems, The Night Breeze Off the Ocean. I’ll provide more details about these books in the future.

It has been a busy summer for reading. I haven’t decided as of yet whether I will start reading John Coltrane’s biography or George Bent’s biography (entitled Halfbreed) during the remainder of the summer.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Celebrating the End of Summer Teaching


My summer session has ended. Two of my classes ended during the third week of July; the remaining two ended on Friday of this week when I turned in my gradebook. Because the last two classes contained more students, I spent all of the last week grading essays. Counting the prewriting and drafting that I had to grade, I ended up grading something like 120 different items. As one of my professors in graduate school once said, each assignment requires a decision, so that’s 120 different decisions. It’s no wonder that I often want to spend time at the end of the semester not making decisions. My first inclination is to squirrel myself away for a day or two, without leaving the house or answering the phone. I have told myself that I won’t check my campus mail and won’t look in on my online classes until Monday. Any students unhappy with their grades will have to wait.

Since I seldom drink and don’t alter my consciousness in other ways, I relaxed by rearranging my office at home. I still have to unburden my desk from its layers of detritus and file away student essays. But I rearranged some of my bookcases and moved my computer desk a little closer to my regular desk, which is a six-foot length of wood placed over two file cabinets. This file cabinet desk has been a part of my life since 1987. Moving the two desks closer together makes it easier to go from one to the other. No one ever said that the life of a teacher is exciting.

I’ll be entering my twentieth year of teaching when classes start again in three weeks. Much as I might like to get away during this short break from classes, I’m going to wait until it gets cooler. One hundred degree days are forecasted for the immediate future, and it’s not much cooler elsewhere unless I were to fly to Seattle or Vancouver.

I now think of the fall as my favorite season. One of the attractions nearby offers a chance to bask in the fruitfulness of nature. Red Barn Farm sells pumpkins and offers hay rides through the country. I am including a picture of this place so that others can feel a moment of relief from the heat of summer.

Friday, July 14, 2006

LibraryThing and Book-Buying

When I was reading a recent issue of Poets & Writers, I noticed an article about a website in which people have uploaded the titles of their books. This website, named http://www.librarything.com, also allows those bibliophiles with similar books to exchange messages. This website attracts those people who feel particularly proud of the books that they have collected. I managed to add the titles of 200 books in my account in just a few hours time. I haven’t yet added any others. Listing the first 200 hundred books is free; adding additional titles costs $10.00 per year or $25.00 for a lifetime membership.

It would seem logical that this website would attract those readers with odd, eclectic, or esoteric tastes. Actually, the titles and authors found in abundance are the same ones generating interest in the mainstream, such as J.K. Rowling and Robert Jordan. If I hadn’t listed a few works of fiction, I would have had far fewer matches with those who read the same books. Perhaps I should have resisted trying to find readers with similar tastes in fiction and should have concentrated on listing my more obscure titles.

I am surprised that no one else who has listed books with librarything has Julene Bair’s One Degree West or Anthony Sobin’s The Sunday Naturalist. Julene Bair’s collection of essays won several regional prizes. I luckily found a signed copy of her book at the Washburn University bookstore. Anthony Sobin taught creative writing at Wichita State for about ten years before he left teaching to run a gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Sunday Naturalist remains his only collection. It was a popular collection of poems in Wichita. I suspect that one day Anthony Sobin will release a second and perhaps a third collection of poems.

Besides finding something that I want to read, one of my motives in buying books has been to collect those titles that are not easily found elsewhere—either in bookstores or libraries. Although I still like browsing through area bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble occasionally, the great majority of my purchases anymore can only be made at Amazon. When I once tried to order a book through the Waldenbooks in Leavenworth, I discovered that none of their suppliers had that title in stock, which confirmed the necessity of shopping online. Barnes & Noble sells books online, but they take no care in shipping them. After I received two books that had been badly mangled in shipping, I swore that I would never again order a book online from Barnes & Noble. As a book-buying consumer, I am also unhappy with Books-a-Million because of their narrow selection of books at the store located at the Legends in Kansas City. Owned by conservative Christians, Books-a-Million limits its selection of current events to those books exhibiting a conservative perspective. Very little shelf space is devoted to poetry and jazz. One entire wall is devoted to Christian living, but very few people seem to frequent that area. Its Christian bias hasn’t prevented Books-a-Million from stocking books about sex—both novels and manuals. Even Henry Miller is represented with copies of both Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. My wife likes shopping for fantasy novels and pens at Books-a-Million. Refusing to buy anything there, I pick up a jazz discography or a history title, one that I might order from Amazon at a later date, and sit reading in the fiction section while she shops, leaving my book on a table or on one of the shelves when I leave.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Spelunking

The damp dark ground in my head
when I was twenty let the spores
I took into my mouth grow mushrooms
so fat that I opened up a roadside
stand, my sign reading, "fungi
for sale." After each harvest,

I opened up my head for the sun
to warm my soil, the hinge so stiff
I had to use all of my strength.
Earthworms went deeper. My eyes--
the pupils so large I could see
inside a cave, without a torch,

without radar pinging off the walls--
scared the tourists back into
their cars, engines already running.
I scared myself. I was afraid
of them, too. I only wanted
a gardener to come and turn over

my dirt with her spade. My sign,
up close, read, "gardener wanted."
And now when oak, maple, and spruce
trees fill my head, enough space
between them to keep the ground lit,
and when my gardener helps me grow

daffodils and tulips each spring,
peonies in the summer, I look
onto rooms in the afternoon, squares
of light on the floor, the curtains
blown back from the windows, the drone
of an airplane overhead, needing no more.




One of the hardest poems to write is the love poem. I wrote this love poem for my wife. It appeared in Gulf Coast in 1998.

A Christmas in Hartford

I worked reading church bulletins
three nights a week. I started
my holiday at midnight, two days
before Christmas, when I climbed
the stairs to my bare second floor

apartment. I looked across
the brick wall at the dark windows
of the Institute of Living,
the only light entering the lounge
from the nurse's station, before I closed

my blinds and switched on my lamp.
I sat in the wooden rocker, my one
good chair lent to me by my sister,
set up my nine-inch black and white TV
on the table given to me by a woman

unwilling to leave her house
in the country, where we had stayed
together for four days, taking baths
and leaving our footprints in the snow,
while her husband celebrated Christmas

in Maine that year with his mistress.
I separated out the seeds, stuffed
my pipe with pot, celebrated the holiday
until 5:30, when the trucks delivering
milk, ham, and vegetables arrived

at the loading dock. Getting up
at 2:30, two hours before sunset, I sat
in the chair, drank coffee, watched
the traffic on Washington, the cars
stopping at Quiktrip, and saw a woman

getting out of a black station wagon
turn to glance up at me,
before I looked across the brick wall
at the windows of the insane, who stared
back at me and thought I was so lucky.


Using Phil Miller's poems of drunkenness as a model, I wanted to do something similar with the substance that I once used regularly. This poem of mine appeared in Phil Miller's The Any Key Review, an online journal, in 1998.

Poets and Lived Experience

When I was working as a poetry editor for Cimarron Review, I solicited work from Phil Miller and Adrian Louis. Phil Miller, before he retired from college teaching and left the Kansas City area for Pennsylvania, was a local poet who I got to know when I was teaching in Kansas City after finishing my MA. He overcame the problem of not writing regularly and avoided approaching the page without any preconceived ideas by treating the same subject in a whole series of poems. He addresses subjects like martial strife, drunkenness, ghosts, and death. Many of his poems are quite strong. Nationally, Phil Miller is underappreciated and only a few of his books can be found outside of the Kansas City area, such as the chapbook Father’s Day and Branches Snapping, a full-length collection published in 2003.

When I asked Phil to submit poems, he sent me ones that he had written after having had heart surgery. I accepted two of them, “God” and “When I Wake Up.” Mark Cox, the senior editor at the time, disagreed with my choices and opted for a single poem. I still think that the ones I selected are stronger.

I had interviewed Adrian Louis when I was writing a seminar paper in a graduate level history course devoted to Native Americans. A couple of years later, when I asked him to submit poems, I don’t think he remembered talking to me on the phone. He sent about five poems. The three that I selected probably would have been published if Adrian hadn’t tired of the acceptance process, which included submitting a form signed by a notary public, possibly to ensure that the work submitted was one’s own. “To Jim in Sawyer, Minnesota,” “It Has Come to This,” and “To Bill in Minneota, Minnesota” later appeared in his collection Ceremonies of the Damned (1997). Cimarron Review could have counted coup if it had published Adrian Louis.

Mark Cox at that time was requiring that his creative writing students read the anthology New American Poets of the ‘90s. The great majority of the poems in that anthology sound the same. One exception is the work of Adrian Louis. I used to often turn to “Couch Fantasy,” a poem of his that appeared in Fire Water World (1989). Adrian’s voice was iconoclastic and idiosyncratic, a welcome change from the poems that my graduate school professors found so fascinating.

I was also lucky to discover poems by Paul Zimmer when I was flipping through the stack of submissions that I brought up to my office one Friday afternoon. I usually reserved my office hour on Friday to read manuscripts. I later wrote him a personal note, telling him of my acceptances. He was kind enough to write me back, too. I don’t know whether those poems of Zimmer’s, that is, “Saint Wanda,” “Saint Cecil,” and “Saint Lester,” ever appeared in Cimarron Review. I left Oklahoma State soon after, and Lisa Lewis took over as senior editor of the journal. She prided herself on accepting almost nothing and typically only accepted work from friends of hers and other editors as well, usually ones who would repay the favor and accept her poems.

When reading poems, I often find pleasure in a strong sense of place. This sense of place is what drew me to the South Dakota poems of Kathleen Norris in The Middle of the World, a collection of hers that was published in 1981. A sense of place is present as well in the work of Jonathan Holden—the New Jersey of his boyhood and the Kansas of his adulthood. Adrian Louis maintains a sense of place in his poems, too, mostly Pine Ridge in South Dakota.

Having taught composition for nearly twenty years now, I am not enamored with generalizations and abstractions in either essays or poems, unless, of course, when the generalizations have been earned. My concern for the concrete and lived experience surfaces in my preferences for the work of Jonathan Holden, Adrian Louis, Sharon Olds, Phil Miller, and the Vietnam poems of Yusef Komunyakaa and Kevin Bowen. It’s probably this concern for lived experience that separates me from what is currently fashionable.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Kansas: More Enjoyable When Ignored

A recent news story (see the links below) recently revealed that a video ad of Kansas will be shown in Times Square three times an hour for eighteen days. Created by the Kansas Department of Commerce, this advertisement seeks to make Kansas residents happy with their state and generate positive nationwide publicity about the place as well. I suppose there are reasons why Kansas needs to reveal a more positive image, such as the negative publicity generated by the Board of Education’s decision to teach something called intelligent design and Reverend Phelps’ trips across the country to protest the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq. Craig Miner in his history of Kansas argues that the state has been characterized by the extreme views of crackpots since its creation. Those kinds of people don’t go away; in fact, some of them get elected as the state’s attorney general.

I would prefer that very few people learn about what we have here. It’s true that small towns in western Kansas have been losing their populations. The state could absorb about half a million new residents comfortably if they were to move to those more secluded parts of the state. If they were to move to places like Johnson County or Wichita, they instead would generate more sprawl and more congestion on the highways, neither of which we need. I would prefer that the state maintain its current level of pollution, without an increase caused by additional cars and more people requiring tremendous amounts of electricity. There is no reason why we should acquire the problems that characterize the East Coast.

If anything, we who live in Kansas should thank those crackpots who bring negative publicity to the state because they help to keep people from moving here. Otherwise, Kansas risks becoming like western Montana or the area of Wyoming near Jackson Hole where large amounts of people have been drawn to the natural beauty and bring with them the pollution and high prices that they were hoping to escape.

News Story: http://www.thekansascitychannel.com/newsarchive/9394783/detail.html
Advertisement: http://www.kansascommerce.com/

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A Teacher's Life

After a short two week break, I am now teaching four sections of English during the summer session. I was hoping that one of my classes wouldn’t fill and that my boss would cancel the course because of the lack of enrollment. During the last hour of open enrollment, the eighth person enrolled, causing the class to make. I had the option of teaching the class pro-rated, which means that the amount of money I would normally get for teaching the class would be divided eight ways, and I would receive seven-eighths of that money as my salary.

I will be earning about a third of what I earn in a year during this summer. My wife wants me to promise that I won’t work myself too hard; last summer I ended up getting hospitalized after experiencing several bouts of fever and vomiting.

Although it may seem as though all of my classes are small, I am actually teaching a total of seventy-four students. Some of them are currently overwhelmed by the technology that accompanies online learning; some of them are also intimidated by the intense pace of summer writing classes. It is quite possible that anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five students will drift away over the next six weeks or so. A few have already dropped.

I am currently experiencing the last few days of relative quiet before my first sets of essays arrive. Once they start arriving, there will be a constant round of grading and returning essays. Right before the semester started last week, I was up till dawn several nights in a row as I got my online classes up and running. This preparation includes revising the syllabus, altering the dates in those pages in Course Content, revising the assignments, making adjustments here and there to ease comprehension of any one assignment, and updating the calendar within the course. This preparation probably took about eight hours per course. Two of my courses are cross-listed, which means that the students from two sections are combined into one course, so I essentially had three preparations when I was still exhausted from the previous semester and could have thought of anything else I would have rather been doing.

One of the biggest frustrations of online teaching is how the students enroll in the course and don't do the required reading, choosing to e-mail me instead. They come up with excuses like “I couldn’t find what I’m supposed to do” or “I don’t understand exactly what is due now?” These kinds of messages require that I inform them where to look for the information they apparently missed the first time. Although the homepage tells the students to read the syllabus first, some of them manage to overlook the link on the homepage that leads directly to the syllabus. Even my boss admits that students enroll in online classes for the wrong reasons. The students think that taking an online course will be easier than going to class three days a week; they don’t recognize how much more demanding online learning can be because the learning styles that an onground course incorporates don’t apply when the students are only interacting with the computer screen and the keyboard.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Not Reading Novels

It has become really hard for me to read a novel. Apart from The Bedford Incident, a quick read best enjoyed when lounging in bed, I haven’t read a novel in a couple of years, not since Hudson’s The Bones of Plenty. At some point, I plan on reading Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, Wister’s The Virginian, and Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. I may even get to Winesburg, Ohio. But there hasn’t been a great deal of urgency.

Instead of fiction, I have been reading narratives of history. My dad gave me a copy of Stalingrad, which describes the initial optimism of war and the abandonment of so many German troops by their high command. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been reading histories of Kansas. Craig Miner, a history professor of mine when I was an undergraduate at Wichita State, first generated this interest in Kansas history with his accounts of life in Wichita during the 19th century. He read from his notes in one or two of his lectures, and these notes went on to form his book Wichita: The Early Years. The view from the bus window, and my imaginative recreations, during my trips to and from campus became much more interesting as a result of his class. In connection with my students’ research of the dead soldiers buried at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, I have also read accounts of Beecher Island, the Kidder Massacre, and Custer’s involvement in the summer campaign of 1867.

When I took over someone’s online class a couple of years ago, the students were readings articles about global warming, consumerism, fast food, and the influence of media. Not knowing much about these subjects, I felt as though I needed to know more, so I set about educating myself, beginning with the documentary Super Size Me. The extra features on the DVD contained an interview with Eric Schlosser, whose book Fast Food Nation was also mentioned in some of the articles that my students were reading. Schlosser’s book has altered my perspective of meat and fast food and continues to remain controversial today, four years after the initial publication. Big Food is still trying to downplay the negative publicity generated by Schlosser’s book.

Some of the other books that complimented my teaching include Mark Lynas’ High Tide, Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy, and Naomi Klein’s No Logo. In connection with my research into global warming, I also read Paul Roberts’ The End of Oil. All of this reading has essentially made me more politically aware than I was before. I regularly visit websites now that present a more open-minded approach to current events. Oddly, about a year ago, I stopped having my students choose subjects like consumerism and global warming by incorporating a textbook into my class instead of using links to articles available through the college library databases. It was easier adopting a textbook than updating the articles for five or six different subjects. My own research of these previous subjects hasn’t ended, however, and I may return, at some point, to having my students choose from a list of articles for their essays.

In addition to reading what augments the subjects my students address, I like reading memoirs and biographies. A jazz fan, I am drawn to reading books about those musicians I admire, such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus. Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece is particularly informative and enhances an appreciation of that classic album. I am also drawn to reading biographies of poets—Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Patrick Kavanagh, Robert Frost. Understanding the biographical allusions in the poems of these people isn’t essential, apart from Robert Lowell’s work. These books cause me to return to their poems and to discover poems that I overlooked; these books also result in an understanding of my own writing habits and ultimately cause me to write more of my own poems.

Not having a place to call home because of my Navy brat life, I adopted Kansas and the Great Plains once I left the Air Force. I wanted to escape from the overcrowding, the concrete, and the pollution of the East Coast. After each overseas duty station, my dad brought us back to Maryland, first Glen Burnie and then Crownsville, which provided the home base when my dad worked at NSA and when he was stationed at Cheltenham, Maryland and at Nebraska Avenue in D.C. I opted to live in Kansas, partly because it reminded me not only of the agricultural land in the Fens, north of Cambridge, England, where I attended high school and where I served in the Air Force, but also of the Atlantic Ocean, which I crossed by ship several times and which fascinated me because of the unbroken horizon during those clear days. After my first ten years in Kansas, when I had doubts about my connection with the place, I left the state for Connecticut and stayed there for three years. I liked living in Kansas more and came back. Not part of the Midwest, Kansas is one of the Great Plains states, even though the eastern border of the Great Plains doesn’t officially exist until the 98th meridian for some geographers and historians and not until the 100th meridian for other geographers and historians. (Leavenworth and Kansas City are closer to the 95th meridian.)

In adopting the Great Plains, I have been reading memoirs by people like Dan O’Brien, Linda Hasselstrom, Kathleen Norris, and Julene Bair. It’s true that their experiences are different from mine because I have never farmed or worked on a ranch. Reading their work allows me to understand more about the landscape where I live and to learn some of the stories of people who have known this region.

I don’t believe that I can gain these kinds of benefits from reading novels. Willa Cather’s and Wallace Stegner’s novels are important depictions of life in the Great Plains. I turned to them first. Now I am seeking more background information and more first-person accounts in my reading about the Great Plains. My reading for my classes provides the information that I need to possess to point my students in certain directions; this more recent reading for my classes also provides an education in events that are so easily manipulated by those who either seek to profit from them or seek to misrepresent what has been happening in our lives.