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.