Guest Post, Heather Foster: Sh*t My Students Said: In Memory of Teaching

Now’s as good a time as any to announce it: at the ripe old age of thirty, I’m retiring. Well, I’m preparing to change careers. In 19 months, I’ll have my BSN, and hopefully, a nursing job. There are many reasons why. I found it nearly impossible to write while teaching Comp; the adjunct scenario is a racket; and when I wasn’t grading a stack of 78 disastrous essays on Flannery O’Conner [sic], I was dreading the next stack of 78 disastrous essays on Flannery O’Conner. I love helping people. I love science.

teacher-mistake_2837991bThat’s not to say there aren’t things I have loved about teaching. I have learned from my students. Just this semester, a girl who studies Victorian floriagraphy taught me something new about a poem I’d have sworn I understood inside out. Sometimes I was fortunate enough to have students—usually a handful each semester—who made me intensely happy with their smart contributions to discussions about literature, and especially their ability to follow essay guidelines. I’d strategically place those students’ papers in the pile, a reward for the halfway mark, a reset button in the seemingly everlasting hell of circling comma splices.

And sometimes a poem would do it—after days watching dozens of eyes, glazed and confused, stare into the distance while I explained again that “so many good times” is not a concrete image, so please try again (some students took more than SEVEN attempts to come up with one single image until I finally yelled, “Brass lamp! Accordion! Cowbell!” and the room went silent like in one of those movies where the crazy person finally loses their shit and I stood there breathing hard, regretting most of my life choices)—finally we’d read Allison Funk’s “The Lake” and I’d see the lightbulbs switching on and I’d hear them talking about poems in the hall, and I would know that this, this feeling of showing them something they might never otherwise see, this was why I signed up for this gig.

Nevertheless, I’m moving on. But not before I take a look back on some of the craziest things to ever come out of my students’ mouths. Those who are teachers will probably not be surprised by anything they find on this list. College students are notoriously lazy and shameless, and since I taught mostly dual enrollment high school seniors, I dealt with my fair share of both. They are, in many of their ideas about writing, the polar opposite of me, and so listening to this stuff for days on end can be maddening, but I have to admit there’s a kind of ridiculous charm in their words as well. Behold:

  1. “Writing poems is so easy for me. They use hardly any words.”
  2. “The next line says that he died before she had time. She is talking about killing her father. This could mean that he died before she had time.” Meanwhile, Plath is rolling over in her grave.
  3. “I am writing about the Galway Kinnell poem, because it’s got a really long title. If I mention it a few times, I’ll hit the word count sooner.”
  4. “Can you type up everything you said in class today and email it to me? My alarm didn’t go off, but I want to pass the midterm.”
  5. “At first, I thought I hated poetry. Then I discovered the secret to writing the perfect poem: listen to music. But not just any music. Something really deep, like jazz. As you can see, the results are amazing.”
  6. “Can you read my 6 page rough draft, fix my errors, and tell me exactly what grade it would get before and after I fix each thing?”
  7. “The fact that the paperhanger accomplished his goal inspires me to believe that no matter what people think you can or cannot do, you can do anything you set your mind to.” I won’t spoil William Gay’s tale for those who haven’t read it, but the paperhanger is maybe not the best role model.
  8. “I didn’t do my homework because the guideline sheet you gave me blew away in the wind.”
  9. “I never thought I could like poetry. Then your class changed my life.”
  10. “I haven’t been in your class for the past 6 weeks because my fiancé faked his own death to get out of having to marry me.”  What else is there to say?

Imaginative Skeptics

Ian McEwanAuthor Ian McEwan recently visited ASU for a lecture in partnership with the ASU Origins Project and the Center for Science and the Imagination. At this co-sponsored event, Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and Sweet Tooth and winner of the Man Booker Prize, and Lawrence Krauss, cosmologist and theoretical physicist at ASU, discussed doubt and skepticism in relationship to writing, as well as the interplay between science and literature.

The first question posed to McEwan and Krauss contained the overarching theme of the discussion: what is doubt and skepticism and how is it approached in writing both fiction and nonfiction?

McEwan began by defining doubt as “someone hesitating before a problem or outcome…pausing before a moral choice.”  He explained that the novel is a secular form which is invested in individuals and is at the heart of doubt and skepticism. Using Hamlet as the quintessential example of a self-examining and moralizing character embodied by doubt, McEwan described literature as reflective of the relation between consciousness and doubt in examining human actions and motives.

In reply, Krauss examined uncertainty in nonfiction, the scientific version of doubt. According to Krauss, uncertainty quantifies science because it imparts a worth on scientific discovery and establishes a value of correctness or probability. Although uncertainty is valuable to science, Krauss discussed how in writing scientific articles, his copy editor eliminates uncertainty and ambiguity even though “there is no absolute truth in science…it’s either very very very likely or very very very unlikely or in between.”  While uncertainty is crucial to scientific discovery, he explained that the human condition does not allow for doubt in something we like to accept as pure fact and truth.

In discussing the place of the scientific account in the narrative spectrum, McEwan commented that “science invades the territory of land held by the novel.” He explained that as science progresses, it seeks to quantify how we as humans make our choices. Understanding human action, as defined by science, forces the novel into a position of doubt as it must change its set of approaches in human emotional analysis. The novel, McEwan argued, is in a position of vague threat due to the increasing advancements of science because “if [science] changes the novel, it will change everyday lives.”

The moderator asked both lecturers to discuss how each conveys skepticism and doubt in a narrative. McEwan characterized his approach as a bottom-up–not a top-down–matter. In paraphrasing a 1953 lecture by Nabokov, McEwan said that one’s job as an author is to find the details; what a novelist has to do is build a world where skepticism is possible.

In contrast, Krauss’s approach to skepticism in nonfiction is a top-down approach, which to him is the best tool a scientist can use. For Krauss, skepticism is best utilized by conveying shock to the reader because “the easiest person to fool is yourself.” By getting someone to make the discovery that what they believe is wrong, it opens up the possibility that everything else could be wrong and leads to a questioning everything.  Krauss argued that it is vitally important for a scientist to be brutally honest as “little accidents can have a profound impact.”

In their examination of doubt and skepticism, McEwan and Krauss spent a substantial amount of time examining the vitality of the novel and writing. Writing doubt takes different forms in each genre, and as science alters humans’ understanding, fiction writing will alter as well in a continued attempt to clarify the human condition. This intimate discussion between two prominent masters of their field stirred a thought-provoking lecture in the exploration of how these two fields affect and alter one another.

Guest Blog Post, Simon Perchik: Magic, Illusion and Other Realities

Where do writers get their ideas? Well, if they are writing prose, their ideas evolve one way. If, on the other hand, they are writing poetry, their ideas evolve another way. Perhaps some distinctions are in order. Distinguishing the difference between prose and poetry may not be all that simple; there are many definitions, all of which may be correct. For the purpose of this essay allow me to set forth one of the many:

It seems to me that there is available to writers a spectrum along which to proceed. At one end is prose, appropriate for essays, news, weather reports and the like. At the other end is poetry. Writers moves back and forth along this spectrum when writing fiction.

Thus, prose is defined by its precise meaning that excludes ambiguity, surmise and misunderstanding. It never troubles the reader. To define it another way, prose is faulty if it lacks a coherent thrust guided by rules of logic, grammar and syntax. It will not tolerate contradiction. Poetry, on the other hand, is defined by its resistance to such rules. Poetry is ignited, brought to life by haunting, evasive, ambiguous, contradictory propositions.

This is not to say poetry is more or less useful than prose. Rather, they are two separate and distinct tools, much the same as a hammer and a saw. They are different tools designed for different jobs. If an essay is called for, the reader wants certainty; exactly what the words you are now reading are intended to give. If, on the other hand, consolation for some great loss is called for, the reader needs more: a text that lights up fields of reference nowhere alluded to on the page. This calls for magic, for illusion, not lecture. The reader needs to be informed of what cannot be articulated. To be made whole the reader needs to undergo an improved change in mood, a change made more effective if the reader doesn’t know why he or she feels better. Exactly like music. That’s where poetry gets its power to repair; an invisible touch, ghost-like but as real as anything on earth. A reading of the masters, Neruda, Aleixandre, Celan…confirms that a text need not always have a meaning the reader can explicate. To that extent, it informs, as does music, without what we call meaning. It’s just that it takes prose to tell you this.

This is because prose is a telling of what the writers already know. They have a preconceived idea of what to write about. With poetry it’s the opposite. The writers have no preconceived idea with which to begin a poem. They need to first force the idea out of the brain, to bring the idea to the surface, to consciousness. With poetry the writer needs a method to find that hidden idea. If the originating idea wasn’t hidden and unknown it isn’t likely to be an important one. Let’s face it: any idea that is easily accessible has already been picked over. It’s all but certain to be a cliché.

To uncover this hidden idea for a poem the writers each have their own unique method. As for me, the idea for the poem evolves when an idea from a photograph is confronted with an obviously unrelated idea from a text (mythology or science) till the two conflicting ideas are reconciled as a totally new, surprising and workable idea. This method was easy for me to come by. As an attorney I was trained to reconcile conflicting views, to do exactly what a metaphor does for a living. It’s not a mystery that so many practicing lawyers write poetry. See, Off the Record, An Anthology of Poetry by Lawyers, edited by James R. Elkins, Professor of Law, University of West Virginia.

The efficacy of this method for getting ideas is documented at length by Wayne Barker, MD. who, in his Brain Storms, A Study of Human Spontaneity, on page 15 writes:

If we can endure confrontation with the unthinkable, we may be able to fit together new patterns of awareness and action. We might, that is, have a fit of insight, inspiration, invention, or creation. The propensity for finding the answer, the lure of creating or discovering the new, no doubt has much to do with some people’s ability to endure tension until something new emerges from the contradictory and ambiguous situation.

Likewise, Douglas R. Hofstadter, in his Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid writes on page 26:

One of the major purposes of this book is to urge each reader to confront the apparent contradiction head on, to savor it, to turn it over, to take it apart, to wallow in it, so that in the end the reader might emerge with new insights into the seemingly unbreachable gulf between the formal and the informal, the animate and the inanimate, the flexible and the inflexible.

Moreover, the self-induced fit is standard operating procedure in the laboratory. Allow me to quote Lewis Thomas, who, in his The Lives of a Cell, on page 138 describes the difference between applied science and basic research. After pointing out how applied science deals only with the precise application of known  facts, he writes:

In basic research, everything is just the opposite. What you need at the outset is a high degree of uncertainty; otherwise it isn’t likely to be an important problem. You start with an incomplete roster of facts, characterized  by their ambiguity; often the problem consists of discovering the connections  between unrelated pieces of information. You must plan experiments  on the basis of probability, even bare possibility, rather than certainty. If an experiment turns out precisely as predicted, this can be very nice, but it is only a great event if at the same time it is a surprise. You can measure the quality of the work by the intensity of astonishment. The surprise can be because it did turn out as predicted (in some lines of research, one percent is accepted as a high yield), or it can be a confoundment because the prediction was wrong and something totally unexpected turned up, changing the look of the problem and requiring a new kind of protocol. Either way, you win…

 

Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the defining distinction between applied science and basic research is the same as that between prose and poetry? Isn’t it likewise reasonable to conclude that the making of basic science is very much the same as the making of poetry?

In a real way I, too, work in a laboratory. Every day at 9 a.m. I arrive at a table in the local coffee shop, open a dog-eared book of photographs, open a text, and begin mixing all my materials together to find something new.

For the famous Walker Evans photograph depicting a migrant’s wife, I began:

Walker Evans     Farmer’s wife
Tough life, mouth closed, no teeth? Sorrow?
Not too bad looking. Plain dress

This description went on and on till I felt I had drained the photograph of all its ideas. I then read the chapter entitled On Various Words from The Lives of a Cell. Photograph still in view, I then wrote down ideas from Dr. Thomas’s text. I began:

Words –bricks and mortar
Writing is an art, compulsively adding to,
building the ant hill,
not sure if each ant knows what it will look like when finished
its too big. Like can’t tell what Earth looks like if you’re on it.

This too goes on and on with whatever comes to mind while I’m reading. But all the time, inside my brain, I’m trying to reconcile what a migrant’s wife has to do with the obviously unrelated ideas on biology suggested by Dr. Thomas. I try to solve the very problem I created. Of course my brain is stymied and jams, creating a self-induced fit similar to the epilepsy studied by the above mentioned Dr. Barker, M.D. But that was my intention from the beginning.

Sooner or later an idea from the photograph and an idea from the text will be resolved into a new idea and the poem takes hold.

No one is more surprised than I. Or exhausted. The conditions under which I write are brutal. My brain is deliberately jammed by conflicting impulses. Its neurons are overloaded, on the verge of shutting down. I can barely think. My eyes blur. The only thing that keeps me working is that sooner or later will come the rapture of discovery; that the differences once thought impossible to reconcile, become resolved; so and so, once thought  impossible of having anything to do with so and so, suddenly and surprisingly, has everything in the world to do with it. Or has nothing to do with it but can be reconciled with something else it triggered: one flash fire after another in the lightening storm taking place in my brain.

Getting the idea is one thing but the finished poem is a long way off. And to get there I abstract. Abstraction and music are soul mates and poetry is nothing if not music. For each poem its opening phrase is stolen shamelessly from Beethoven. He’s the master at breaking open bones and I might as well use him early on in the poem. Then I steal from Mahler whose music does its work where I want my poetry to do its work: the marrow.

Perhaps marrow is what it’s all about. Abstraction, since it contradicts the real world, is a striking form of confrontation which jams the brain till it shuts down confused. It befits the marrow to then do the work the reader’s brain cells would ordinarily do. And though what the marrow cells put together is nothing more than a “gut feeling,” with no rational footing, it is enough to refresh the human condition, to make marriages, restore great loses, rally careers.

Of course abstraction is just one of the ways writers arrive at the poem with their idea. But however they come they all leave for the reader poetry’s trademark: illusion. It is that illusion that builds for the over-burdened reader a way out.

Perhaps, as you may have already suspected, a poem, unlike a newspaper, is not a tool for everyday use by everyone; it’s just for those who need it, when they need it…

Poetry Northwest’s Science Issue Explores Poetry & Science

The Science Issue

cover art by Amanda Knowles

Poetry Northwest announced publication of its Spring & Summer 2012 magazine. The Science Issue presents an intriguing exploration of the intersections of poetry and science through works by poet scientists from fields encompassing “astrophysics and quantum mechanics to geology, botany, ornithology, and marine biology” and other related works.

“I’ve always taken a deep interest in the sciences—biology, astronomy, and physics in particular,” says editor Kevin Craft. “And I’m fascinated by the representational overlap between poetry and science: how each serves as an image or model of realities difficult to perceive in any other terms. Also their common capacity to be profoundly misunderstood in the public arena, where nuance and complexity never fare well. With our spring issue, we have a chance to clarify the conversation on both accounts.”

Featured writers include Alison Hawthorne Deming, who read for Superstition Review in the Spring of 2011, Bob Hicok, whose poems were published in SR‘s Issue 2 in Fall of 2008, Linda Bierds, Timothy Donnelly, Amy Greacen, Richard Kenney, Katherine Larson, Sarah Lindsay, and others.

One of these featured writers is Katherine Larson, a molecular biologist, field ecologist and poet who earned a BS in ecology and evolutionary biology and a BA in creative writing from the University of Arizona and an MFA in poetry from the University of Virginia. Larson is the author of Radial Symmetry, a book of poems melding science and poetry. In “Science and Stanzas,” an article she authored for The Scientist magazine, Larson describes how this intersection of science and poetry works. “Whether dosing lung cancer cells or dissecting the branchial heart of a squid, working at the edge of knowledge requires equal measures of perception and imagination, science and art; a balance I hope can be found in the hybrid explorations of Radial Symmetry.”

For more information, see: http://www.poetrynw.org/

Sam Harris at Changing Hands Bookstore

At Superstition Review, we like to update our readers about upcoming literary events in the Phoenix area. On Friday, November 5th at 7 p.m., Sam Harris will visit Changing Hands Bookstore. Sam Harris’ work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic and others. His other books include The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. Harris is also CEO and Co-Founder of Project Reason, a group devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values.

At the reading on Friday Sam Harris will be discussing his most recent New York Times bestseller entitled The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. The controversial nature of his writing has challenged what readers believe as the line between science and morality fades. Because of the heated debate, his work has been discussed in over 15 languages in publications such as TIME, Scientific American, Nature and other journals.

Sam Harris’ website, http://www.samharris.org/, features assorted media about his publications as well as a recommended readings list. Books on this list purchased through his website generate a 7% return for his charitable foundation, Project Reason. A few of the recommended texts include Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Thinking and Deciding by Jonathan Baron and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by J.D, Bauby. For more information on Changing Hands Bookstore and their visiting writers you can check out their website at http://changinghands.com/.