Guest Post, Svetlana Lavochkina: Rubies the Size of Peas

A very old school house chalk boardA writer always has a mother and a father, who very often have nothing to do with her biological manufacturers; neither does the mother have to be female or father male. A writer also has a husband/wife of whatever gender that sparks off her desire, often not the one who shares her daily bed and bread. The mother is the reason of why she writes at all. The father is the one who actually puts a pen into her hand and presses it onto the paper. The partner is aka, well, her muse.

The first piece ever that a writer produces is usually about one of this trinity. If I am ever invited to contribute to this blog again, I will tell you about the latter two. But today, it is my mother-in-letters, Maria Ivanovna Moskvina. A little vignette in her honour that I would like to share here was written ten years ago to be performed at an international teachers’ conference. It was received very favorably, and I submitted it to a British literary magazine, where it was accepted at once, my very first publication, which gave me the courage to write on, on, and on.

My name is Svetlana. I learn English every day. I am learning English now. I have learnt some English already. I have been learning English for ten years. If I hadn’t been so lucky I would have never had a chance to learn English. Even the gorgeous Present Perfect Progressive have I mastered, and the mysteries of the nebulous Subjunctive Mood, too, as you can well hear, without ever having visited London, which is the capital of Great Britain and stands on the river Thames.

I live in a fuming Eastern-Ukrainian town with dandelions poking through concrete in some places. Grey people swarm into trolley-buses to get to factories in the morning. In the evening they storm groceries to get some sausage for supper.

I don’t mind an hour’s ride to school in a bursting trolley-bus because I am fortunate to go to the only school in the town where English is taught from the first class. Maria Ivanovna, the town’s premium teacher of English, reigns there. We are all in awe of her. She makes us meek and silky just with the glance of her bespectacled eyes. Maria Ivanovna takes a syringe and injects a dose of success right into our assiduous bottoms. She says, ‘Don’t you dare come to see me in ten years unless you are driving a black Mercedes, working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and own an apartment in Moscow.’

We try to detect Maria Ivanovna’s mood and the degree of her irascibility by her clothes. Experience has shown that Maria Ivanovna is in the worst of her moods when she wears blue Margaret Thatcher suits. It is then that she throws objects around and bangs our heads against the blackboard at even the tiniest mistakes. On the contrary, the nicest queen-like half-smile crosses her face when she wears red. It is usually then that her ears are adorned with rubies the size of peas, and, believe it or not, it is their warm shimmer that melts my brown school uniform and my skin under the uniform and pours the mellow melody of the strange language directly into my veins.

I am jealous of Maria Ivanovna’s jewels, the more so because I know that I myself could get rubies like this by right of inheritance, but I never will. They say my great-grandmother Celia was married to a rich merchant in Odessa. She was an illustrious beauty. She spoke five languages, had relatives in London and never condescended to wearing such vulgar jewels as rubies. Even at the market place, accompanied by her kitchen-maid and a drunkard hired for a kopeck to carry the heavy baskets, she chose the best vegetables and chicken for a Sabbath meal wearing no less than diamonds the size of cherries.

But then the Revolution swept the wealth of the family away together with the diamonds torn directly from her earlobes by a waif on the streets of hungry Odessa. It was only in the thirties that Celia’s surviving children were able to afford to give their mother earrings albeit only rubies the size of peas, so she had to condescend to the red.

Photo by Svetlana Lavochkina
Photo by Svetlana Lavochkina

The earrings were inherited through the female line. When Celia died, my grandmother wore them, and after that, my mother. Unfortunately, my mother lost them shortly before I went to school. Not once was she reprimanded for that.

I gaze at Maria Ivanovna in scarlet glow and imagine myself not in a black Mercedes, not in the ministry of foreign affairs and not in a flat facing the Kremlin. In my dreams I go to London, step onto a boat on the river Thames and meet a whiskered young lord whose accent is the finest RP. We fall in love and marry and live in his castle with a ghost. To the ghost I also speak in my own finest RP.

I gaze at Maria Ivanovna in scarlet, she is gleaming. I think how lucky I am to be sitting here. Everybody says that it is impossible without connections or heavy bribes, customary and going without saying nowadays, but my parents are ordinary clerks, they have neither money nor connections. English equals freedom and wealth, though nobody dares to say that in our concrete town. So parents tacitly gamble all they possess on their children’s future, because English is a spaceship, a password, a catapult to a different, perilous, much railed against and forbidden world, a world teeming with bright colours and ingenious people.

It is widely known that a healthy bribe is a passport into Maria Ivanovna’s classroom. They say she receives several eager mothers in her flat simultaneously, and she has them all wait in different rooms and holds her audience with them separately so that they can’t see each other. There is even a wild story passed on in a whisper that Maria Ivanovna once locked a mother in the bathroom because all the other rooms had been occupied.

When asked how I had obtained a place, my mother always said, ‘it was your fortune, there was that one last place left.’ I finished school and tried to catapult myself into the longed-for perilous world. The concrete curtain fell and the cord of fate connecting me with Maria Ivanovna was cut.

I must confess I’m neither exactly in London nor exactly married to an English lord, neither exactly living in a castle nor exactly speaking RP. I haven’t fulfilled Maria Ivanovna’s black Mercedes precepts either, but I am trying to teach the English I learned from her to German children, who are not in the least fascinated by London, which is the capital of Great Britain and stands on the river Thames. They are not in the least in awe of me either, and if anything, it is I who would need to bribe them to listen.

Last Sunday I was marking the exercise-books and cursing loudly when the doorbell rang. A man with a concrete-like greyness about him was standing at my doorstep. I had never seen him before. ‘Is your name Svetlana?’ he asked me in my hometown vernacular. ‘Yes it is,’ I answered, surprised. ‘I was asked to hand you this,’ he said, and gave me a plastic bag. Before I could open my mouth he vanished into the dusk of the hallway.

Inside the bag there was a folded letter and a small tightly cellotaped box.

‘Dearest Svetlana,’ the letter said, ‘you forgot me, who taught you the Subjunctive Mood and told you all about London, the capital of Great Britain, and this is a shame. You were my most diligent pupil and I still remember your charmed face. It was a pity to bang it against the blackboard. So for you to remember me I bequeath to you the contents of this box.’

I undid the cellotape and opened the box. The rubies the size of peas shone up on me, unwinding a caravan of scenes and memories, jewels of the vanished world.

I learn English every day. I am learning English now. I have learnt some English already. I have been learning English for thirty years. Even the gorgeous Present Perfect Continuous have I mastered and the mysteries of the nebulous Subjunctive Mood as well. Had it not been for my mother, who had spent the spookiest hour in her life in my teacher’s bathroom locked from outside to offer her the only family treasure, I wouldn’t be struggling for words to tell you this story now, with rubies the size of peas in my ears.

Guest Post, Alissa McElreath: We Read

I teach English for a living. I primarily teach the composition sequence to freshmen students at my university, but I also teach creative writing, and now and again, literature classes. Sometimes, getting my students excited about reading and writing feels like trying to coax my kids to eat the green stuff on their plates. I know why reading matters in my life – helping my students see why it is relevant in their lives is often another thing entirely.

This semester, on the first day of classes, I asked my Studies in Literature students why it was important to read literature. It was one of those general, ice-breaker-type questions that I tend to throw out into the mix on the first day. It helps me gauge where my students are coming from – and to get a sense, early on, of the dynamics between them. There was an awkward silence for a few minutes, until the answers began to flow. I wrote their responses on the board.

We read:
To learn
To be entertained
To discover
To escape
To transcend loss
To confront big truths (life, and death, and everything in-between)
Because we have to

“Do we?” I asked. “Do we have to read?”

Of course, the answer to that question was ‘yes’ – because, the students told me, if they didn’t read they wouldn’t get the grades they wanted. But I encouraged them to think about reading as a necessity for living; that books provide us with the roadmaps we need to navigate through life. Books are like manuals created just for us – we can even personalize them to our needs and liking. Through them we can learn to be more empathetic and compassionate; we can learn our histories, and those of others; we can learn how to treat the living, and the dying, too. We can learn about hate, and love, and forgiveness. We can learn about motherhood and fatherhood, and sisterhood and brotherhood, and try those roles on from the safety of our couches. Without reading, everything is one-dimensional. Without books, our worlds are narrow and impossibly limited. Sure we can live that way, I pointed out, but would we want to? I mean, really, and truly?

reading boyI am lucky in that I get to see firsthand the impact that literature has on a life. While my students do not find all that they are assigned to read entertaining, I know they learn from some of it. Only last week, a student came shyly up to me after class to tell me how much she got from Helena Viramontes’s story The Moths. This story, narrated by a 14-year old girl, is about family, and loss, and love (how often it is difficult to separate the three). While my student did not see herself perfectly mirrored in the narrator’s story, she had an epiphany-type moment after reading it, and she was able to look back on her own 14-year old self with a new clarity. She could now confront some Big Truths about her own family – ones that she had buried deep inside of her. I’ll never forget the student athlete who gobbled up Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone (I never knew people could write about stuff like that, he told me), or, when I taught a night class one semester, the veteran whose voice (and hands) shook with emotion when it was his turn to share a favorite passage from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

I see the impact of books reflected all the time in my own kids. For example, driving to Harris Teeter with my 11-year old daughter last weekend, I found myself, improbably, discussing T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It began when she unexpectedly quoted the first two lines while we sat in traffic at a light.

“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky…Do you know that poem? she asked from the backseat.

“I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled,” I replied. “One of my favorite poems! How do you know it?”

She reminded me that Hazel Grace recites the poem in her Favorite Book of All Time: The Fault in Our Stars. She read the book earlier in the summer and, at the time of writing this, has re-read it five times, and watched the movie twice. (This excludes all the viewing and re-viewing of the movie trailer that happened before I decided she was allowed to watch the entire film.) The book changed her life as a young reader – threw the door to a whole new reading experience (and world) wide open. Green’s book led her to Eliot’s poem, which in turn led us into what can only be described as an absolutely delightful yet mind-blowing discussion of Eliot’s poem while we were headed to complete a very mundane errand. Talking with her about The Love Song absolutely made my day. If she hadn’t read TFIOS when, unprompted by teachers or homework obligations, would she have otherwise turned to the Internet to look up the poem by herself? I couldn’t stop thinking about this. The fact that Green took Eliot’s poem and, coming as it does from Hazel Grace, made it new and accessible and interesting and cool and relevant to countless young (and yes, old) readers all over the world – young readers who would perhaps not even have given the poem a second glance outside of the world of the novel – that right there is what books can do; that’s the kind of power they have, and it’s pretty staggering when you think about it.

So, why do we read? We read:
To learn
To be entertained
To discover
To escape
To transcend loss
To confront big truths (life, and death, and everything in-between)
Because we have to – we really, really, just have to.

Guest Post, John Vanderslice: Whiplashed

About a month ago, before any of the awards were given out, my wife and I went with our 14 year old son to see Whiplash, one of the Best Picture nominees for 2014.  We went partly because the movie was getting critical praise, but mostly because our son, who is strongly considering a career in music, really wanted to see it.  After watching the movie I found it unusually hard to characterize my feelings about it.  Was it a “great movie,” as some of my writing students were emphatically declaring the other day?  Well, yes, I guess it does rank as that.  Certainly it is well-filmed and well-acted—J. K. Simmons without question deserved the Oscar he won for his performance as Terrence Fletcher, the insanely aggressive teacher—and I know it affected me more than any other movie I’ve seen in recent memory.  In fact, Whiplash absolutely hit me in the gut.  But here’s the thing: The effect it had on my gut is that it made me sick.

WhiplashI found the movie very hard to watch even if it is brilliantly put together, and even if the young protagonist, Andrew Neiman, is a very sympathetic character.  But let me clarify, it wasn’t hard to watch because of the way the Fletcher psychologically and even physically abuses Andrew.  As a teacher of creatively ambitious students, I despise and reject every single teaching “method”–if one can call them that–that Fletcher espouses.   But it’s not his methods that made me sick.  What made me sick is that the movie endorses them.   Early on, sensing where it was going, I turned to my wife and whispered something to the effect of “I hope they’re not saying this is okay.”  I watched on, waiting and hoping for the “not okay” message that never came.  No, what came was the exact opposite, which is why to my students’ announcement that Whiplash is a “great movie” I finally replied: “It may be a great movie, but it’s not a good one.”  Because a good movie does not make you leave the theatre revolted and heartsick, with disgusting and dangerous notions echoing through your brain.

For those who haven’t seen Whiplash and don’t intend to, here’s a quick summary.   Feel free to skip ahead if you already know the movie.  Andrew Neiman, a talented, hard-working, and, most of all, ambitious young jazz drummer enters the prestigious Schaffer Music Academy in New York.  Andrew is soon noticed by Fletcher, who promotes him to the “A team,” so to speak; that is, Fletcher’s orchestra.  Fletcher’s teaching methods amount to psychological torture and physical demands that border on the lunatic.  He literally makes Andrew bleed, but even worse are the constant mind games he plays, as he pits students against each other, lies to them, and consciously undervalues them.  His great mantra is that Charlie Parker only became Bird because somebody threw a cymbal at his head.  It’s a long story, but Andrew is finally cut from Fletcher’s orchestra and expelled from the school—but not because he isn’t a good player.   He reluctantly agrees to participate (on an anonymous basis) in a lawsuit against Fletcher, the result being that Fletcher is fired from Schaffer.

Later, Andrew discovers that Fletcher is playing in a neighborhood jazz bar, and he stops in to listen.  Fletcher sees Andrew afterwards and they have a come-to-Jesus meeting in which Andrew seems to abandon all his former reservations about the teacher.  Fletcher, in turn, asks Andrew to play drums in an orchestra he has put together for a festival gig at Carnegie Hall. It’s Andrew’s big chance to return, and to be noticed—in a big way!  But as it turns out, the request is a set-up.  Fletcher—who, it turns out, knew all along that it was Andrew who brought the lawsuit against him—doesn’t inform Andrew about the new song he intends to open the first set with, and Fletcher doesn’t provide him with the sheet music.  Andrew tries to fake it but fails miserably.   It looks like it’s all over for him.  He walks off stage humiliated.  But then, rather than quit, he walks back on stage and starts drumming out the opening of “Caravan,” forcing the orchestra and Fletcher to follow along, as if this is planned.  Long story short, Andrew gives the drumming performance of his life, including a ridiculously elongated solo.  At the very end of the movie, he and Fletcher smile at each other, as if this level of accomplishment is what the teacher had wanted all along, planned for all along, and finally got.

Some disagree about the meaning of that last crucial scene, but it seems pretty clear to me that no matter what Fletcher really intended to have happened, he comes out smelling like a rose.   Either his former student, the one who brought a lawsuit against him, would leave thoroughly humiliated by the teacher’s crafty if evil power play—proving that you never mess with the man—or the former student would use the humiliation to come back at him and prove to be Fletcher’s greatest accomplishment as a teacher.  Fletcher would have found and formed the next Bird, so to speak.  (I know, I know.  Bird was not a drummer.) Either way, Fletcher wins.  He earns respect.  And that’s what really bothers me about the movie.  Not only does it not do away with Terrence Fletcher, it winds up endorsing his many misguided and clichéd notions about the art of teaching.

As others commenting on this movie have made clear, there’s no way anyone as openly abusive as Fletcher would be allowed to teach in the first place.   You won’t find teachers like him in music schools if only for the fact that the students at those schools are paying ungodly amounts to go there—and not for the sake of being abused.  But that’s really beside the point for me.  Whether a Terrence Fletcher actually exists is immaterial.  What matters is that teachers like him exist in the public’s imagination, and I fear—in fact, I know—that they are romanticized to the point that bad teaching practices become operative cultural myths.

What myths and practices am I talking about?  First, the idea, openly embraced by Fletcher, that everything he does as a teacher is for the sake of that one gifted student.  He breezily dismisses any and all concern for the rest of his charges.  Problem is, all of his students pay tuition.  So a teacher who really is one tries to educate them all.  It’s called teaching.  You try to help all of them, understanding that of course in the end they will each reach different levels of achievement.  Because that’s your job.  Second, how can Terrence Fletcher, before he decides which particular student should be the focus of his psychopathic attentions, be so sure which student is the one and which isn’t?  I had a teacher in grad school who claimed he could tell if you were a poet or not after reading only three lines.  Three lines?  This is so stupid a claim (and I knew it was stupid then) I don’t even know where to begin.   Human beings develop at remarkably different rates. Some shine out loud when they are very young; some shine only a little but shine more and more the older they get.  Some shine brightly, but then are too distracted or too lazy or too unfortunate to ever shine any better.  Some shine bright for a minute and then burn out.  Some shine brightly and only get brighter as they age (e.g., W.B. Yeats).  No one can or should make absolute statements about any person’s talent based on one point in that person’s working career.  And besides, poems are as different as they come.  I don’t mean from poet to poet but within the work of a single poet, even during the same period of her writing life.  Three lines of one poem is so paltry a sample of a person’s work it’s laughable.  To claim you can judge a poet after three lines—or a musician after three seconds (as Fletcher does repeatedly in the movie)—is to prove oneself ignorant of both human nature and the arts.

An even bigger problem with the myth is that even for the gifted student, Fletcher’s methods are not only not productive; they are counterproductive.  No one realizes his inner potential by being ridiculed and humiliated and insulted.  That is one of the most toxic, and most enduring, misconceptions of the teaching profession.  What happens when someone is ridiculed and insulted is that they are driven away.  They are shut down. They become afraid.  No one who is afraid ever makes great art.  No one who is afraid ever actualizes anything.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not of the school that says you should only praise students.  I don’t think any student of mine has ever written something that could not be improved and that I haven’t said as much to them.   But at the same time, constructive criticism can and should be delivered without insulting and dismissing the writer of the words.  Without claiming that they shouldn’t even try.  That’s what you should never do.  Because you don’t have the right to.  And because there are simply too many cases where teachers who say such things wind up being wrong and looking foolish.

I’m not sure if it’s widely understood just how much of a myth the myth of the bastard teacher is.  Far from guaranteeing that the great artists come, there’s no telling how many great artists have been stymied and blunted by the arrogant slash-and-burn school of instruction.  Unfortunately, there are people in the world—like the writers of Whiplash—who believe that intimidation, maligning, and mind games really do work as teaching tools.  In fact, I’m willing to bet that in the general population there are a higher percentage who believe that this is how “real” artists are shaped than who know better.  I can swear to you that there are many people in the world who believe that a teacher of writing should just tell some of her students to give up.  (Just ask my wife how many of her Teaching Creative Writing students have asked her exactly when they are supposed to tell a young student this.  The ironic thing is that these people are almost never good writers themselves.)  The charismatic teacher who dominates his room like an old school general may be cinematic, but he’s really of no use to anyone or anything except his own ego.  Actual teachers know that there is no one-note system guaranteed to reach all your students or even all your best students.  Every single student learns a little differently and that makes broadly effective teaching an amazingly complex and multi-dimensional endeavor, one that requires knowledge and smarts and confidence, but even more intuition and mind-reading, acute sensitivity and the ability on rare occasions to turn off that sensitivity; good humor, an infinite amount of patience, as well as the ability to become impatient once in a while.  See, it really is a ridiculously complicated task.  But that’s no fun for screenwriters. You can’t make an unforgettable and cinematic a**hole out of complication, intuition, and patience.

But you can get J.K. Simmons an Oscar.  And you can get a lot of college students talking.

[Note: This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on Vanderslice’s own blog Payperazzi.]

Visit John’s website here and his blog here 

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?

S[R] Interns Attend UMOM Read-To-Me Night

SR at UMOMThis semester, a handful of the Superstition Review interns attended one of UMOM’s weekly Read-To-Me nights, and I was lucky enough to be there.

UMOM is the largest homeless shelter in Arizona, located in our very own downtown Phoenix. Their mission is to provide homeless families and individuals with safe shelter and supportive services including classes and daycare in an effort to assist the residents in reaching their greatest potential. UMOM aims to break the cycle of homelessness by teaching their residents how to grow as members of society. The Read-To-Me night that we attended is a program that they’ve designed to break the cycle of illiteracy among the children of these families.

We walked in not knowing what to expect. A then vacant room would soon be filled with tables of books for volunteers to read to the children living at the UMOM center, an old hotel in Phoenix that has been reverted into housing for families in need of assistance and guidance. Every Tuesday night the recreation room at UMOM is converted into a makeshift library where children can come pick out books for volunteers to read to them. There are picture books and storybooks for the beginning reader to about the middle school aged reading level. At the end of the night the children are allowed to take three books with them to help build their own personal libraries and reading habits.

Before the children came, the program director went over a few helpful tips for the night. “Don’t be let down if you get dumped,” she said, “It’s nothing personal.” We all laughed and before we knew it there were children everywhere picking up books and partnering with readers. Some wanted to read, and others wanted to be read to; other children simply went around collecting books from different series for their collections of Goosebumps or The Magic Tree House.

I tried more than a few times to sit one of the children down to be read to, but it seemed like most of them had other plans. As I waited for a child to ask me to read to him, I marveled over the spectacle in front of me. The room that had once been empty and silent was now alive with people picking through books and turning through pages. Even though most of us had stock piled the books we remembered and loved from our own childhoods, the children presented us with the books that they wanted to explore. Obviously, this was not the first rodeo for many of the children. It was they who held the reins in the literary roundabout. Friends were made over books and memories, and the shared smiles on the faces of the volunteers and children alike showed the true magic that can only be found with one’s nose stuck in a book.

After about fifteen minutes of waiting, one of the directors asked if I had any experience with young children and if I would mind going into the nursery. “Sure, I guess,” I told him. No, I did not have any experience with young children, and no, I had no idea what I was doing, but I figured I would help in any way they needed. They were the experts after all.

I left the recreation room and went back to the nursery where about eight young children under the age of five sat playing with three older women. I was apprehensive at first, but as soon as I entered the tiny room a young boy greeted me with a toy fire truck ready to play. I sat on the floor and pushed the truck around with him and tried my best to keep his attention, but sure enough he soon got bored with me and another child was ready to play.

After a while I found myself at the table coloring with a young girl. She was not rowdy or unruly like the boys, but rather she was calm and sure of herself. “Why don’t you sit here,” she said patting the small chair next to her. I was sure that if I sat down I would break the chair, but I more or less crouched down steadily next to her. She was playing with an ancient toy, a blue, plastic turntable that you tape paper plates to and hold markers over as it turns. Most of the plates were what you would expect from a child aged four or younger, but this young girl kept a steady hand and drew solid circles with many different colors. To say the least, I was quite impressed. We were having a full conversation on colors that led to the ocean. She moved the turntable away and grabbed a piece of paper. “Let me show you,” she said. She proceeded to draw a seal, as she told me, and I colored in the waves above its head.

It was at that moment, thinking about how smart this girl seemed to be, that I realized how truly sorry I felt. I was born into a family that was able to send me to a private elementary school that I by no means deserved. I was told that I could be anything I wanted, and encouraged to dream. I had a backyard in a safe neighborhood that bordered the forest, and I was able to play everyday, and grow and dream. It was all I knew at her age, but here she was, this little girl, smart as could be, funny and sociable. Surely she was smarter than I was at that same age. But who was telling her to dream, and where were those dreams allowed to grow? She was four years old and growing up in a shelter, and this was not a life with which I was familiar. Here I had been given most everything in my life, and I knew that she was going to have to work much harder for it all.

When I said goodbye, I knew that it was going to be the first and last time I would ever see her, and I wished her the best. I wished that she’d find her way and someone would tell her that she was smart and could do anything she ever wanted, just like all those people that told me when I was young. And then I was happy to know that at least she was safe and had a roof over her head, and that the people of UMOM were taking steps towards the betterment of the lives of these children and their parents.

So, reader, if you ever get the chance, I highly recommend volunteering at a Read-To-Me night, and if you are not able, please visit their website to learn more ways that you can help. They are always in need of donations, and since the children are allowed to take three books home each week, UMOM is always in need of more books for the children to read.

I want to thank the people of UMOM for giving me and the other interns of Superstition Review the opportunity to volunteer with them, and I wish them a wonderful holiday season.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Writer Terese Svoboda

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Terese Svoboda.

Terese SvobodaRecipient of a 2013 Guggenheim, Terese Svoboda is the author of five novels, most recently Bohemian Girl, named one of the ten best 2012 Westerns by Booklist and an Historical Book of the Year Finalist in Foreword. Tin God, a finalist for the John Gardner Prize, was reissued this spring, with Publisher’s Weekly deeming her a “fabulous fabulist.” “Astounding!proclaimed The New York Post in a review of her memoir Black Glasses Like Clark Kent that won the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize and The Japan Times “Best of Asia 2008.” Vogue lauded her first novel, Cannibal, as a female Heart of Darkness.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Writer Lee Martin

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Lee Martin.

Lee MartinLee Martin is the author of the novels, The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, River of Heaven, Quakertown, and Break the Skin. He has also published three memoirs, From Our House and Turning Bones, and Such a Life. His first book was the short story collection, The Least You Need To Know. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Writer Jill Christman

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Jill Christman.

Jill ChristmanJill Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction, was first published by the University of Georgia Press in 2002, and was reissued in paperback in Fall 2011. Recent essays appearing in River Teeth and Harpur Palate have been honored by Pushcart nominations and her writing has been published in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Descant, Literary Mama, Mississippi Review, Wondertime, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She teaches creative nonfiction in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

Guest Post, Benjamin Grossberg: Through Me

Benjamin S. GrossbergI’m never more aware of myself as a patchwork—a centerless (practically) amalgam—than when I think of teaching.  It isn’t just that I say the phrases I heard my teachers say—though I certainly do that.  It’s that I often say these phrases in the same ways, using the same inflections, notes of irony, surprise, or suspense.  I remember one of my first writing teachers, Alan Michael Parker, talking about how a poet might interpret for the reader.  Don’t stick your finger in my pie, he said.  I don’t recall when he said it—or if he said it more than once—or even if I understood what he meant.  In fact, I’m sure I didn’t understand.  But I can hear him saying it . . . can hear the way his voice rose in pitch as he spoke, pretending a little belligerence.  My pie.  He sounded almost petulant.  What pie were we talking about?  I wasn’t sure.  But it was his.

So how was it, ten years later, teaching my own creative writing class, that the phrase slipped out of me?  Was I looking for a way to discuss how drawing conclusions in a poem actually limits a reader’s involvement . . . how it locks a reader out?  Trying to help a class see why “telling” actually makes a text less inviting and participatory, even though it might seem to ensure wider understanding?  But I didn’t say that.  I talked about Alan’s pie.  At least I think I did.  Afterwards students said that phrase back to me, smiling, enjoying it, enjoying me for it.  How had it gotten from him to them, if not through me?

That’s what I mean by centerless amalgam.  Ed Hirsch often began classes by asking if we had any hopes, fears, or dreams for the future.  Something like that.  It was offered playfully, but I have no doubt—he has such a commodious soul—that had I or anyone earnestly offered a “dream for the future,” he’d have made space for it and found its dignity.  I suppose he was really just asking if we had questions—but simultaneously letting us know that the floor was open, and that our work together would be informed by a spirit of serious play.  Now, I’ve never said that exact phrase.  But Ed’s rhythm and the ethos of an open invitation?  God yes: it’s come out of my mouth more times than I can count.

Amalgam.  Patchwork.  There are dozens of examples—and perhaps many others from earlier teachers that I can’t recall.

But I’m not in debt only to my past teachers.  I’m also in debt to my past self, past moments of clarity.  And this, too, is a kind of copying.  At some point, in some class, I uttered the phrase, criticism honestly offered is a form of love.  I know that’s a little cheesy, but it expressed something I believed—still believe—that suggestions for emendation offered without ego or agenda are a generous act.  I wanted students to think about workshop in more lyrical—even grand terms.  So now I say that phrase every semester, usually around the third week when we just start workshop.  Is the phrase any less stolen, any less delivered, because I am its originator?  At least I think I am its originator.  Maybe I’ve just forgotten who said it to me.

So many examples.  The screenwriter Dave Kajganich once taught me about narrative structure using William Carlos Williams’ “The Use of Force.”  I’ll never forget Dave’s right there, finger jabbing at the page, pointing to the line “Nothing doing,” which initiates the story’s conflict.  I always say, right there, when I teach that story.  Or Cynthia MacDonald’s exhortation that I make a poem the best that it can be.  I discovered years later how useful that phrase was to encourage revision without taking a stand on a text’s value.  Revise this until it’s great?  Not so likely. . . .  Cynthia’s finesse has become my finesse.

A teacher, then: a concentration of luminous moments—from past teachers, from past selves.  How many new such discoveries, conjured on the spot, take place in a classroom?  Maybe one or two a term?  Fewer as years pass?  Perhaps when I think I’ve had a bad day teaching, that assessment should be tempered by the inherent value of what I’m delivering: it may have felt bad to me, but I’m dulled to all those great phrases and formulations I’ve stored up over the years.  Maybe their value can’t be completely obscured by clumsy delivery.  And maybe on days when I think I’m really good, there should be some tempering, too.  After all, much of my work has been integration, not invention.

In one of the bursting moments of Song of Myself, section 24 (“Unscrew the locks from the doors!”), Whitman describes himself as a conduit for speech: “Through me many long dumb voices. . . .”  Whitman focuses on those who have been silenced, but the idea resonates more generally—how voices can move in and out of us, how we can speak about the human voice, a single, collective thing.  I’d have thought it would be through writing and reading poetry that I’d glimpse that connection.  I would have wanted it to be through poetry.  But that said, I should probably just be glad that I’ve experience it at all.

Superstition [Review] Collaborates with Combs High School Creative Writers

Last fall, Superstition Review initiated a collaboration with Combs High School that brought S[R] interns face to face with some of San Tan Valley’s most ambitious high school creative writing students. This semester, that collaboration continues.

SRCombs1Since the spring of 2013, Jess Burnquist’s creative writing class has almost doubled in size, presumably becoming one of the more popular class choices for seniors looking for creative expression and exposure to literature. Word must be getting out that reading and writing is cool. Or that literary magazines are. Aside from honing their craft, these students are responsible for producing their high school’s online literary magazine, IMPRINT.

The work published in IMPRINT is not limited to those taking the creative writing class. Anyone attending CHS is welcome to submit work under an extensive array of categories including poetry, fiction, music, memes, visual arts, and photography. Yes. You read that right. Memes. They’re taking the lit mag to a whole new level, showcasing how brevity paired with familiar images can transcend language barriers and tell stories and jokes.

SRCombs2Needless to say, Superstition Review was ecstatic about meeting the students behind such an innovative publication. In an organized discussion panel, interns aimed to compare and contrast the production methods of IMPRINT and s[r] and provide insight to students on everything from marketing to getting submissions to making editorial selections.

As each of our interns stood up to speak about their roles and how they contribute to Superstition Review’s final product, they offered advice to students who may wish to become a part of the literary community one day and confirmed that at the core of all great projects is a hardworking and flexible team. S[R] poetry Editor, Abner Porzio recalls one of the questions he was asked:

Q. What if you  like one of the poems a lot but none of the other editors do? What happens then?

A. When I vote yes for a poem and no one else fights for it during our meeting, I let it go knowing that the decision to not publish the poem is a team decision. After discussing it, even though it’s sad to let it go, I know it’s what’s best for the literary magazine.

We have no doubt that the decisions made for IMPRINT’s upcoming issue will be outstanding. With an unrestricted “dream” theme, the art and writing of the issue will be inspired by the daydreams, nightmares, goals and aspirations of Combs’ students. When asked about their own goals and pursuits, students amazed us with their confidence and ambitiousness. A future botanist, fashion designer, CEO, video game developer, performing artist, and comic book writer were among the group. We hope that these students follow their dreams and continue to write about them.