In my position as chief of grammar police, I’m often asked to wax poetic about Standard Written English (SWE), and if you don’t know what “wax poetic” means, just don’t. Please go back to your original search because you obviously clicked here by accident. You were probably trying to spell “Kardashian” or “nude,” which is nowhere near “Superstition” or “Review,” but I rest my case. #damnpeoplelearnhowtospell
Anyway, the fine folks here at SR hit me up sometimes for a few grammar tips, and while it might be a teensy bit difficult to pare down my pointers to a “few,” I’ll try.
Common errors that writers make because they don’t read cause me bodily harm. As I’ve often lamented (including twice in previous SR guest blogs), many people learn language primarily from hearing instead of reading, God help us, so, for example, because the contraction should’ve sounds like should of, I frequently see folks write it the second way despite the fact that it causes me to writhe around on the floor in my own fluids like a possessed waif in the presence of a priest and a vial of holy water. The Closed Captions typist wrote “should of” during Seth Meyers’s monologue tonight, and now I’ve got to mop allllll the floors tomorrow. Thanks.
Another grammar-error pet peeve: Writers who use there’s in a plural sitch like the one below, which seems pretty popular in local commercials where everyone is hollering:
“There’s 17 reasons you should come on down to Sofa Kingdom!”
I mean, come ON. First of all, I seriously doubt there are 17 reasons. And second, get your subject/verb agreement right. Sofa Kingdom.
Also, plural nouns created with an apostrophe + s get my dander up:
“Come sample our 10 new flavor’s of frozen yogurt at Burlene’s Yogurt Emporium!” (Are you just trying to see if I bleed?? I do, okay?? Happy?? It’s flavors, you ice cream wannabe. And stop hollering!)
I feel that the death penalty is appropriate for the misuse of there’s and apostrophe + s; for failing to capitalize the personal pronoun, I; for writing snuck instead of sneaked; and for writing nauseous instead of nauseated like this:
I found a piece of chocolate on the kitchen floor and ate it, but it turned out not to be chocolate, and now I feel nauseous.
While anyone who eats “chocolate” off the floor truly is nauseous – which means “causing nausea” – the dadgummed dictionary now considers nauseous to mean nauseated, and do you know why??
Popular usage, that’s why.
The very same reason that snuck is becoming the accepted word to mean sneaked. The very same reason that some nutbags are about to declare that my most cherished incorrect grammar pet peeve is no longer grammatically incorrect! Is everyone at the dictionary on drugs!??
When writers use the plural pronoun their with a singular antecedent, it is just plain wrong. For example:
*Everyone thinks their way is best. (← Noooooooooooooo)
*Everyone thinks his/her way is best. (Ahhh. That’s nice. Even though everyone can’t be the best. There’s only one, and just because everyone – even the losers – gets a trophy for participation doesn’t change things. #damnpeoplegrowapair)
Now, I understand the agony our young must suffer in having to spend the extra nanosecond to say three syllables instead of one, really. There’s no telling how many levels of Mortal Kombat a person could advance if only he or she didn’t have to waste time writing “he or she.”
Obviously, it’s in everyone’s best interest if we bend alllllll the rules of grammar to suit the rising majority. Am I right?
I mean, any day now, SWE will be a thing of the past, gone the way of dinosaurs and dragons except those three that belong to Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones. There will be no need for any more SR grammar blogs from Elaneasaurus; the Chief of Grammar Police will be out of a job and living next to a dumpster behind the Golden Corral. And shoot, any old body will be able to win the National Spelling Bee because we’ll all just spell words any old way we feel! And, texting shorthand will soon be allowed in academic papers. The upside is that papers will be just a handful of letters, so grading should be a breeze. I should be thrilled at this gradual relaxing of rules. Right? Right?
Okay. I admit it. Sometimes…sometimes, I want to be a real-life version of Cameron Diaz in the only funny 15 seconds of the hideously horrible movie, Bad Teacher, and mark up my students’ papers in huge, red profanity. I mean, come on! Somebody show me a college or university that allows texting language in academic writing…although with the dumbing-down of our educational system, I’m sure that sooner or later, some brilliant “educator” will suggest that we bend the rules to accept texting slang “to meet students where they are.” I will die.
I love my students, and I am more than happy to contort myself to help them, but I draw the line at accepting lower case “i” for the personal pronoun. I mean it. If I see that lower case “i.” One. More. Time. My big, red “What THE?!” is going to be scrawled in student blood. (JK.)
Although I am the Chief of the Grammar Police, I’m way too polite to kill anyone for stabbing me in the brain with grammatical gaffes even if it is clearly self-defense. Plus, I’d go to prison, and I just look like death in orange. For some grammar offenses, anyway, there will never be justice because it’s nearly impossible to teach 12 years of grammar in 12 weeks. (And…Autocorrect. Ohhhhh, that Godforsaken Autocorrect. If you rely on your telephone for correct spelling, and then you end up telling your grandmother that you really enjoyed her vagina instead of her lasagna, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.) Standards are slipping because in addition to texting, an epidemic of non-reading threatens all that I hold holy.
Scientific data from some study blah, blah, blah shows that people have a much larger auditory/speaking vocabulary than their reading vocabulary, which is then larger than their writing vocabulary. That means that people learn most of their words from hearing them, so recognizing many words in print or actually writing them proves to be a challenge. As a result, we English teachers encounter things like this: “My goals is to keep up with the paste”,“I want to past this class“, “I have to deal with stuff on a daily basics”, “This class really peeped my interest“, “So I will keep trying until I get it down pack” and “You can do anything that you put your mine to.”
Annnnnnd, my soul just died.
However, as the Grammar Police Chief, it is my duty to restore peace and harmony to the writing community. If I train my blinding spotlight on these 7 common offenses, perhaps the community will pull together and eradicate these blights. A girl can dream.
1.) Plural nouns are not formed with an apostrophe and “s.” Really. I mean it.
If you can read this, and you think it is correct, you had maybe not so great teacher’s. (Evillllllll!)
If you can read this, thank your excellent teachers. (Ahhhhhh!)
2.) Definitely is definitely not spelled defiantly.
3.) If you start in past tense, for the love of God, you must stay in past tense. (Or vice versa.)
Yesterday, we were in the Wal Mart parking lot, when this guy comes up and starts yelling at me for no reason. (Gaaaacckkkk!!!)
**Special note: If you cannot locate the shift in tense, please just go ahead and stop reading. You’re done.
4.) When the antecedent (the noun for which a pronoun “stands in”) is singular, you must use a singular pronoun. And for the last time, their is not a singular pronoun.
Anyone who leaves their dog at the kennel after hours will need to call Dan’s Express Pet Crematorium and Super Hibachi Buffet. (Nooooooo!!!)
Anyone who leaves his/her dog at the kennel after hours will need to call Dan’s Express Pet Crematorium and Super Hibachi Buffet. (Yessssssss!!!)
5.)Internet should be capitalized. What is the aversion to an upper case “I”?? Sheesh.
6.) The objective case of a personal pronoun (me, her, him, us, them, you, it) receives the action of a verb or acts as the object of a preposition.
Mother baked a cake for Sally and I. (No, no, no, no, no)
Mother slapped Sally and I. (No, no, no, no, no)
Mother did NOT bake a cake for “I”! She baked a freaking cake for me. For me! ME, dammit! And, she didn’t slap “I” either. She slapped m… But, I’d rather not talk about that. Look, I know some well-meaning first grade teacher told you that it’s always “so-and-so and I,” but she lied. She also told you that the classroom hamster went to live on a nice farm, and you fell for that too!So, stop it. Just stop it.
7.) And, finally, believe it or not: formatting dialogue has rules! Those little quotation mark thingies do more than just look like tiny eyelashes. They go around the actual words that someone speaks so that readers will know the actual words that someone speaks. But, really, this is a topic for another day…
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…
Matthew Gavin Frank is a contributor for Superstition Review’s Issue 7. In this interview, SR talks to Frank about work and his newest piece, The Morrow Plots.
SR: After so much time spent in the food and wine industry, what inspired you to pursue degrees and careers in writing and poetry?
Matthew Gavin Frank: I loved writing well before I fell into the food and wine industries. I remember—I was about 10—going through my parents’ dresser drawers when they were otherwise occupied. I remember it as a Saturday. My dad was likely working. My mom was likely working-out: one of those Jane Fonda VHS tapes. In one drawer, I found a short essay she wrote about her own father’s death when she was 13. She spent her life teaching grammar—past participles and shit—to 7th graders, but, up until that point, I never knew she wrote. And, she never wrote anything again outside of letters to the editor. So stumbling onto that essay allowed me a richer engagement of my mother as a human being, I think.
Soon after that, I remember (this was 5th grade) collaborating with my friend Ryan Shpritz on a series of gross-out stories. A few years ago, when my wife and I were visiting my family in Chicago, my mom sat us down with these scrapbooks she made when my sister and I were toddlers. In the column that asked for my interests, she wrote, “Ghosts, blood, anything ghoulish.” Fucking blood. According to my own mother, one of my primary interests as a toddler was blood. So my later collaboration with Ryan, on this series of stories called “Death at Dark” (I, II, III, and so on) had its roots in those early interests. Mrs. Buccheim, our teacher—fabulous perm—allowed us to read our work in front of the class each week. She loved that we were writing extracurricularly. Once, in D at D part VI, I think, some poor sap caught his hand in a garbage disposal, and we compared the resulting carnage to a punctured egg yolk. Shannon Elliott, the cheerleader, cried. After that, Mrs. Buccheim, bless her proper heart, put a stop to our public readings. So, I then realized that writing not only had the power to reveal, but the power to get one banned.
This knowledge sort of fed all kinds of ideas about revolt, writerly and otherwise. Soon, I started thinking a lot about food. Growing up in a microwave-and-saturated-fat-centric family, it took me a while realize that the food world was larger than a radiated Lean Cuisine paired with Crystal Light pink lemonade. There was some impetuous revolt growing in me in my late teens in response to the crappy undergraduate meal-plan dinners (if you could call them that) served in Hopkins Hall, where I worked for a while—a very short while—clearing trays and washing dishes. I remember the particular dinner that inspired this culinary rebellion. It was this disaster of Creamed Chipped Beef on Texas Toast. It broke me. I began reading books on food and wine, determined to do better than this, which took a while actually. At some point, I came across an article on Barolo wine and vowed to go to the region where it was made. After a couple days, lazing in the vineyards, eating fresh pasta and white truffles, I vowed to return to live there and, upon returning to the States, trashed my microwave in vulgar ceremony. I thereafter took all sorts of restaurant jobs, and found a common thread: when chefs get together after work for drinks, and one chef asks me what I like to do in my spare time, and I say, “write poetry,” it’s ever a great conversation killer. Eventually, I realized I needed to chat about such things with some like-minded folks.
SR: I have heard some poets say that it is important for young writers to first go out into the world and experience life before writing about it and/or attempting to go into a MFA program. Others insist that the jump straight from undergraduate school to a MFA program is necessary. As someone who left home at age 17, experienced the world young, and returned to academia, what advice would you give to young writers?
MGF: I feel perfectly ill-equipped to give young writers lifestyle advice. There is no prescription for this shit. If you need and want to write, you will need and want to write, whether flipping eggs in an Alaskan diner for a living, or immersing oneself in academia. Folks are always talking about how MFA programs can be ruinous to burgeoning writers, who should first experience the world and gather stories; other folks insist that the training provided by the MFA is not a stylistic evening-out, but is essential to burgeoning writers and that it’s the outside world with its various bankrupt distractions that can be ruinous. So, everything can be ruinous, is the thesis, I think.
I tend to believe that these extremists are giving both the MFA program and the “world-at-large” too much credit. If you want and need to write, I’m not sure either choice has the power to strip that away and ruin you. Everything is situation-specific. The shunning of the academic construct in order to lead a vagabond lifestyle worked for me. That’s what I needed to do. I know incredible writers who never left academia—went straight from undergrad to MFA to PhD to a tenure-track position. That’s what they needed to do. I do think surrendering to whimsy is important, but such whimsy manifests itself in myriad ways for myriad people.
SR: I noticed that comments about your books by poets such as Norman Dubie and Cynthia Hogue are quoted on your website. Did you work with them during your time in the MFA program at ASU and if so how do you feel that they have influenced your writing?
MGF: Yeah, I worked with Norman and Cynthia, also Beckian, Jeannine, Alberto—all of whom were fabulous and influential. I love Norman’s poems for their drama, their characters, their social conscience, generosity of spirit, and their hilarity. I love watching the master of the dramatic monologue do his thing. I love how some of his poems combine the best of PBS’s Nova with the joy inherent in the telling of a fabulously bad joke. Norman once told me: “Dude, all my poems are jokes,” which is, of course, a joke, I think. This has inspired much of my own work. Wrapping joke in verse is hard, but so much fun. I can sense Norman’s joy in writing these poems as I read them. And every so often, Norman drops the veil, and steps, larger-than-life, center-stage. I love these moments, when he breaks the fourth wall. His poem, “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont” is a great example of this. It ends:
In a year the owl will go on a shelf in the shed
Where in thirty years there will be a music box
Containing a lock of hair, her rosaries,
Her birth certificate,
And an impossibly sheer, salmon-pink scarf. What
I want to know of my government is
Doesn’t poverty just fucking break your heart?
Reading this for the first time, I felt like Ronnie Ballenger had just pulled the chair from beneath me at the junior high lunchroom table again, and Kelly Konopka laughed so hard milk came out her nose. I’m similarly disarmed and embarrassed, and delighted. As a poet, it seems Norman could not help himself here. There is a time for restraint in poetry, and a time when restraint should not be part of the poem’s language. Norman understands this. And the result is often an exhilarating, guilty pleasure. The line break after the “What” is essential to this effect, this surprise. In my own work, as a challenge, any time I try to pull off the presence of a booger, or something like it, that’s Norman’s influence.
Cynthia’s work taught me to stay in one place, poetically-speaking, for a while, to allow the poem to become itself. To keep looking at the thing again and again and again—to micro-examine the thing via various contexts and lenses, and then, just when you think you’ve got it, to turn away from the thing, to stare into the opposite direction, and then to describe what you see there. This sort of technique allowed me, in a thematically-linked book like The Morrow Plots especially, a fulcrum to which subsequent poems could attach like burrs, and spin.
SR: Was The Morrow Plots the original title for the poem? And if so, did it come naturally? What made you choose it as the title for the entire collection?
MGF: When I lived in Upstate New York—way up on the Canadian border—during the awful winter, I became obsessed with The Morrow Plots, an experimental cornfield on the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign campus. The local and campus agronomists conduct important crop experiments there, and then disseminate the findings among the U.S.’s farming industry. So, it’s an important square of land, and hallowed ground in downstate Illinois. You do not trespass on the Morrow Plots. The legal and social consequences for such things are dire. The Plots are regionally revered. Yeah: holy, even. I was born in Illinois, and I think I was oddly homesick for the Midwest all the way up there near Canada among the defunct Go-Kart tracks and Shining-esque hedge maze that my wife and I lived behind (the area was a bedroom community for Manhattanite boaters in the summer time, and so had all of these kitschy tourist traps that would go skeletal come winter). Upon researching old newspaper articles from the ’20s and ’30s, I found that the Plots were then known as a popular site for violent crime, or a dumping ground for bodies. And, if some mutilated remains went unclaimed, the University of Illinois would claim them for “experimental purposes.” And now, The Morrow Plots are a National Historical Landmark. So dealing with that discrepancy consumed me for a while. This is a great, if nauseating, way to sink into the comfort of the winter blues. But I was so glad to reemerge after that one. See some light after all the murder. I had to temper a lot of the darkness by reading Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s sumptuous At the Drive-in Volcano that winter. So yes, this obsession came naturally, and acted as that fulcrum on which I hung a bunch of murderous Midwestern things.
SR: In The Morrow Plots there is an enchanting set of lines that I am curious about. “…The book opening/to your knees/explodes with border scenes—/skeletal fish becoming women/with piñata faces.” The imagery and the musicality are beautiful. Where did your inspiration for these lines come from?
MGF: Firstly, thank you! When I was long ago an undergraduate at The University of Illinois, I used to sneak into Lincoln Hall at night. I was taking a Biology course from this guy George Kieffer—this wonderful old madman on the cusp of retirement who would run around his lecture stage, waving his hands and screaming about having found dead bodies in the nearby Boneyard Creek. He would triumphantly howl, to his teenage and twentysomething students, “You’re all headed toward Max S [the end stage of entropy], Max S! That’s when you’re dead!”
It was one of those buildings that had locked behind Plexiglas cases all sorts of wrinkled beasts pickled in jars of alcohol. I remember halls of fetal pigs, halls of snakes—both of which are good for poetry, of course.
So I would sneak in there at night, climb to the top floor, exit a window, and sit on the roof’s ledge overlooking the center of campus. Sections of the roof were made of copper and were beginning to green. I would often write up there, read up there by a pocket flashlight. From that vantage, The Morrow Plots were visible. I have this memory—fabricated or real, I can’t tell—of sitting up there, watching the stars or some other youthful romantic shit, with two books open on my lap: a biology textbook, and a glossy book of old Mexican movie posters. One book on each thigh. I’m trying to hold them both open, while also trying to not fall off the roof. The stars. The Plots. In the biology book, I remember some anatomical cross-section of a cod or something. In the second, an image of the second. Honestly, I don’t know if this is true or not, but this memory, when coupled with the violent history of The Morrow Plots, served to inspire this line, and this poem. The poem struggles, I think, to make all of these odd histories gel with the images that attend them. Struggles to deal with the ways in which height and distance both reveal and obscure. And how everything on earth is, of course, magnificent, terrible, and indistinct from a rooftop.
SR: Is there a particular poem or poet that first provided inspiration for your stylistic choices as a writer?
MGF: The poet Mike Madonick was the first poet who taught me that the muse occurs during the writing process, and not beforehand. That, to write a poem, in his words, is like, “[being] a dog let loose in a field, you pick up scents, another dog perhaps, a pheasant, or the quick motion of a grasshopper turns your head, and then your owner calls, you scramble back or you want to run or you just stand there and cock your head, look at him because you’re puzzled about the strange demand he’s put on you, as if he owned you.”
I was lucky enough to have Mike as a teacher, and am lucky enough to have him as a friend. I remember, as an undergrad, I declared a psychology major. Then, I took my very first poetry workshop with Mike, and he said something as simple as, “Poets are fucked-up people, generally,” and I rushed out of class and switched my major to Creative Writing, as if Madonick had given me some sort of permission to be my dumbass self, and to do the dumbass things I wanted to do.
SR: What advice do you have for writers with an interest in travelling and/or cuisine as subject matter for their work?
MGF: Don’t skimp tent-wise. Purchase one that decently blocks out the rain. This is your home for a while. Make it so. Create a little nightstand in the corner with a stack of books you plan on reading, and your notebook. Keep your watch, glasses and lantern on it, each in their own little spot.
Remember how when you were five, the optometrist told your mother in front of you that you’d be blind by age 30. Remember how you used to walk around your parents’ house at night, feeling your way in the darkness, practicing for blindness. Remember bumping into your dad’s collection of antique metal Coca-Cola trays. Remember the loudness. Finger your glasses on that makeshift nightstand in the tent—see in them, and your (however limited) retention of your sight, a lovely Fuck You to that optometrist’s version of fate. Contemplate fate, and other such nebulous things, no further. Go to sleep and dream about pasta.
If camping along the ski valley road in Taos, New Mexico, bring your own toilet paper, lest you want to succumb to the discarded Subway napkins the guy the next site over push-pinned to the pit toilet wall.
When camping in Kruger National Park in South Africa, listen at night to the hippos laughing. Take notes in vocables.
Camp at Wonder Lake in Alaska’s Denali National Park in mid-September. Wake up in the middle of the night to see the aurora borealis dancing pink and green over the mountain. Write a horrible poem about it. Revise it into a better poem, but realize it’s still horrible. Write a new poem. Put an oyster in it.
In a pinch, when preparing ramen noodles over a propane camp-stove, choose the pork flavor; boil the noodles in half-water, half-pineapple juice. Contemplate the illusory makeup of gourmet. Remember: ratio is everything. Two cans of Stagg Chili + one can of Libby’s Corned Beef Hash = tolerable high-calorie meal. One can of Stagg Chili + two cans of Corned Beef Hash = digestive demoralization from the throat on down—this is a ratio that may cause you to abandon your current course, flee the woods, get on the first plane to Paris, and have a vegetarian dinner at L’Arpege. After that, think differently about the tomato.
Meet your spouse in a Latin jazz bar on one island or another—one that you previously defined as fickle. Propose to her at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. Do this realizing that you are surrounded by nuclear test sites. Do this realizing that nearby Arco was the first town in the U.S. to be lit by atomic power. Do this realizing that you are camping on the rocks on which the astronauts practiced for moon landings.
No matter where you are, surrender to the street food, even though it will make you sick.
Tomorrow I will be starting my first day of actual work at New Era Public School. I will be shadowing and assisting teachers in different subject areas for the next week, after which I will be assigned a subject area to teach. When I first learned I was to be spending my summer here, the whole idea of teaching seemed incomprehensible to me. Despite being a good student for the better part of my life, I wasn’t able to place myself in that mindset of authority at the front of the classroom. Learning comes easy to me, but teaching? That’s a whole different set of skills altogether.
However, this past week of teacher workshops was a highly engaging and informative experience because I learned something very important from those running the workshops: differentiation is key. Kids are different and have different strengths in different areas of intelligence, and therefore teachers must be steadfast in their ability to be as flexible as possible with their methodologies to effectively teach the curriculum to a wide variety of students.
But with all I’ve learned this week, I’ve also realized that teaching is in not a simple task to accomplish, especially not in the typical Indian classroom. I know this because at one of the final stages of the workshops, teachers are grouped by their subject areas and asked to discuss the application of differential learning techniques in the classroom.
In my group, the subject happened to be English, and the two teachers with whom I was grouped discussed the positive aspects of differentiating classroom teaching. One teacher taught grades K-5 and the other taught grades 6-9, so as I expected, each came up with different techniques to teach their children. However, as I asked them questions about the specifics of their classes, I realized that such diversity in the classroom, though undoubtedly helpful, is nowhere near ideal in a realistic setting. First, both of these teachers teach six separate classes of 45-50 children per day. That’s 300 different students with 300 different sets of strengths and needs that must be adequately addressed by each teacher each day. By my count, my own high school’s teachers taught about four classes of 25-30 children per day, which is 30 kids less than HALF of what the average Indian teacher has to deal with daily. These numbers take on even larger scope when put in terms regarding the subject of English that, despite the school’s recognition of the global utility of the English language in today’s world, exists in an overwhelming majority of Indian households as a third language, preceded in usage by Hindi and a secondary dialect like Punjabi or Gujarati. Therefore, retention of grammatical rules is usually so low that from kindergarten to the beginning of the 9th grade, most students spend the first few weeks of school essentially reviewing the same basic grammatical principles for lack of repetition, engagement, and comprehension.
Furthermore, although the school has several alternative options for children with developmental disabilities, the sheer amount of students greatly lessens the effectiveness of these options for rehabilitative learning. The teachers with whom I spoke try their best to teach their students, but results are often less than ideal.
I have a newfound respect and compassion for the entire profession, especially considering how those who choose this difficult but necessary path can be vastly under appreciated for their hard work.