“I look in the mirror and hold up my mangled hand”: An Adversarial Persona Exercise

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Genre:
Poetry
Purpose:
To consider how persona, point of view, voice, argument, and empathy can support and/or complicate one another
Readings:
“Skinhead” by Patricia Smith

  1. Watch Patricia Smith perform “Skinhead”: https://youtu.be/Klb5TniRGao. Discuss.
  2. Jot down some notes about a situation in which you found yourself in direct opposition with someone else. Perhaps it’s as extreme as the violent racism in Smith’s poem or as routine as having the same seat number assignment as another person on a flight. The best situation is one in which the conflict was never or not easily resolved. (2–5 min.)
  3. Describe the diction that person uses and provide some examples. (1–2 min.)
  4. Now freewrite in the voice of that person as if he or she is addressing you. What would they say? How would they defend themselves against complaints about their actions toward you. (5–7 min.)
  5. Share your efforts. Did the exercise of writing in their voices change your opinions of your adversaries? What does this reveal about poetry’s ability to engage in empathy? Do your opinions carry into your rendering of their voice?

Spring 2015 Course Descriptions and Reading Lists

Bookplate of American painter and illustrator Edward Penfield (1866-1925)
Bookplate of American painter and illustrator Edward Penfield (1866-1925)

In the Spring 2015 semester, I will be teaching ENGL 215: Textual Analysis at Virginia Commonwealth University and CRWR 212: Introduction to Creative Writing at The College of William & Mary. Below I’ve included the course descriptions and required texts for each course followed by a brief explanation of my choices for the classes’ reading lists.

VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH UNIVERSITY
ENGL 215: TEXTUAL ANALYSIS

Course Description
“Brickwork: Urban Imagination”—From the sidewalk to the skyscraper, alleys to main thoroughfares, the urban landscape has not only provided the setting to many works of great literature, it has become a kind of a foil for many protagonists. In this course, we’ll read novels, nonfiction, and poetry that use the urban landscapes, the exterior world, that increasingly engage, complicate, and reveal charactes’ internal life. Starting with photorealistic portrayals of cities in a particular moment, like those in essays by Joan Didion, and moving on to fabular remakings of place, as found in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, students will learn the basics of close reading, analyzing the literary devices and strategies, comparing and contrasting works, and contextualizing their discussion toward a main question about how a city can make a person, how people make a city. In addition to the previously mentioned authors, students will read excerpts or texts by Kazim Ali, Teju Cole, Charles Dickens, Nick Flynn, James Joyce, Rebecca Solnit, Zadie Smith, Anne Winters, and more.

Required Texts

  • Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms. Ed. Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray. 3rd Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. ISB: 978-0312461881.
  • Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. ISBN: 978-0156453806.
  • Gautier, Amina. At-Risk. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0820338880.
  • Levine, Philip. What Work Is. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. ISBN: 978-0679740582.
  • Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass and Selected Poems and Prose. Penguin, 2014. ISBN: 978-0143107439.
  • Winters, Anne. The Key to the City. University of Chicago Press, 1986. ISBN: 978-0226902272.

A course packet available online with excerpts taken from the following texts:

  • Ali, Kazim. Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities.
  • Biss, Eula. Notes from No Man’s Land.
  • Cole, Teju. Open City.
  • Crane, Hart. The Bridge.
  • Diaz, Junot. Drown
  • Dickens, Charles. Night Walks.
  • Didion, Joan. Slouching Toward Bethlehem.
  • Flynn, Nick. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
  • Gunn, Thom. The Man with the Night Sweats.
  • Hull, Lynda. Collected Poems.
  • Joyce, James. Dubliners.
  • Lowell, Robert. For the Union Dead.
  • Meitner, Erika. Copia.
  • Meitner, Erika. Ideal Cities.
  • Neruda, Pablo. The Heights of Machu Picchu (trans. Morín)
  • Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader.
  • Sandburg, Carl. Chicago Poems.
  • Shapiro, Alan. Night of the Republic.
  • Smith, Patricia. Blood Dazzler.
  • Smith, Zadie. White Teeth.
  • Solnit, Rebecca. Wanderlust: A History of Walking.
  • Teitman, Ryan. Litany for the City.

*The goal with my selection of these required texts and the course packet is to keep the students engaged and challenged while exposing them to a variety of canonical and contemporary writing in their acquisition of essential textual analysis skills.

Additionally, I want them to be exposed to poetry throughout the course, unlike my students who read only one poetic work this semester. I find that students who read a lot of poetry become much better readers of poems and, I’d even argue, all other texts; continued exposure is the key to their understanding. I came to this conclusion after reading the responses to Autobiography of Red, in which many of them thoroughly investigated sound and line breaks. I realized that I hadn’t trusted the 215 students enough to “get” poetry when I was making my syllabus because they hadn’t taken any college literature classes before; this time, I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and give them equal parts poetry and prose.

The excerpts in the course packet will be short, and they will be used either on their own (like Didion), as a supplement for their books, and/or for in-class assignments. Many of the books on the excerpt list were originally a part of the working text lists. I decided, however, to cut down the required reading from this semester’s seven texts to five so that we could spend more time on in-depth exploration. In this way, we’ll have more focus on a few core texts and I won’t have to cut out many of the authors I want to teach. I might supplement Anne Winters with Alan Shapiro poems and an excerpt from Dickens’s Night WalksInvisible Cities with some of Ali’s Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities. Once I start making the course calendar, I’ll have a better idea about how I’ll juxtapose these texts.

I decided to add the Bedford Glossary because I felt like I often had to remind students of literary terms, strategies, and concepts this semester. They received these terms through lecture, discussion, and a glossary I created. A desk reference such as the Bedford, however, will provide them with many more possibilities to understand and locate literary devices and to explore the lenses through which to analyze texts. I haven’t decided yet whether I want to test them on a selection of these terms, but I think it might incentivize them to learn core terms.

WILLIAM & MARY
CRWR 212: INTRODUCTION TO CREATIVE WRITING

University Course Description
Workshop format emphasizes the basics of writing fiction and poetry. Class meets for one two-hour session per week. No previous writing experience is required.  Open to academic freshmen and academic sophomores with priority given to academic freshmen.

Required Texts

  • Biss, Eula. Notes from No Man’s Land. Graywolf Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-1555975180.
  • Burroway, Janet. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. (3rd Edition). Penguin Academics, 2010. ISBN: 978-0205750351.
  • Gautier, Amina. At-Risk. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0820338880.
  • Levine, Philip. What Work Is. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. ISBN: 978-0679740582.
  • Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Wave Books, 2009. ISBN: 978-1933517407.
  • Rankine, Claudia. Citizen. Graywolf Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-1555976903.

*I decided that I wanted my Creative Writing students to be exposed to the types of writing that we generally eschew in lower-level courses, especially hybrid works like prose poems, lyric essays, etc. So many creative writing students I’ve encountered have such set ideas for what poetry or prose should be that it’s hard for them to engage the genres in any new way. The idea here is that we will start with fiction (Gautier), move into the essays (Biss), transition into poetry (Levine), and then consider poetry/prose hybrids (Nelson and Rankine). In every other creative writing class I’ve taught, questions about prose poetry and, less frequently, lyric essays have arisen. They want to know what they are and how to write them. I want students to understand genre as one bridge you can walk rather than separate rocks you have to hop between to cross the river. This decision is founded on my belief that a writer of any genre can learn from strategies of other genres and that there are many intersections between the genres.

I will use the Burroway for the students to learn essential concepts (setting, tone, point of view, etcetera), and I’ll likely use the example texts therein for in-class assignments to jumpstart exercises and or discussions.

“On Poetry’s Relevancy” and a Reading Poetry Exercise

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Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)

Genre: Poetry

Purpose: To encourage students to be generous, curious, and discerning readers of poetry and to consider poetry’s impact on culture.

Readings: Poetry‘s July/August 2014 issue that includes poems by Dean Young, Philip Fried, D.A. Powell, Traci Brimhall, Devin Johnston, Rosanna Warren, Amanda Calderon, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Rickey Laurentiis, Timothy Donnelly, and Alice Fulton

Sharing “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” Assignment
Several volunteers will share their “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” assignment (500 words, completed outside of class) in order to start a discussion on the topic. Students should feel free to debate this question, supporting and/or countering one another’s arguments. Some students may take a more person approach, answering the question “Why is poetry relevant to me, my life?,” whereas other students might consider macro reasons as in, “Why is poetry relevant to society? Our culture? Politics?”

ON POETRY’S RELEVANCY
In a class in which the term “relatable” is banned, it may be difficult to understand why the “relevancy” of poetry is, well, relevant to our discussion. Aren’t these two concepts synonymous? Don’t they both suggest poetry’s ability to appeal to our emotional, cultural, or intellectual needs? Let’s break it down. “Relatability” as a concept, used in comments like “The poem’s subject matter of a child’s dog being run over by a car is so relatable because we’ve all lost something or someone that’s close to us,” has the expectation that, as Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker, “the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” “Relevancy,” however, suggests that the work has social or practical pertinence or applications, meaning you can use the poem as a means to access other points of view and to understand your own role in society. “Relatability” is a connection between what you’ve already done and what’s happening in the poem. “Relevancy” is a movement between who you are now and how you can understand what’s going on in the world. “Relatability” is predicated on the past, whereas “relevancy” is predicated on the present and, for some, what’s to come. One looks backward, one looks forward. “Relatability” is passive, and “relevancy” is active.

Patricia Smith’s poem “Skinhead” is in the persona of a white supremacist who says things like:

I’m just a white boy who loves his race,
fighting for a pure country.
Sometimes it’s just me. Sometimes three. Sometimes 30.
AIDS will take care of the faggots,
then it’s gon’ be white on black in the streets.

Scary, right? It may be helpful to know that Patricia Smith is a poet of African descent. So, ask yourselves, why has she chosen to write in the voice of a violent white supremacist? Perhaps it’s an act of empathy, of trying to understand this person, but I imagine it would be incredibly hard to have any sort of tenderness toward such a person. Or: she has chosen to draw our attention to this kind of voice in our country so that we can know about this sort of threat. Or: she has situated herself in direct with white supremacists and saying, “See, I know what you’re thinking.” In that way, it may make her appear stronger for having gone through the writing of this poem, and in some ways, she may have triumphed over this point of view by bearing witness to it. Whatever the reason, this poem is certainly not “relatable” to Patricia Smith or, I hope, to you. But is it relevant? Discuss.

In-Class Assignment
Break up into groups of two or three. I will assign each group one poem from the July/August 2014 issue of Poetry that you read over the weekend. Read the poem, and then compare your “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” essays. Now, do the following:

  • Write down how this poems moves. Is it narrative (it tells a story)? Associative, meaning it jumps around a lot? If it’s associative, consider how the poet jumps between each line? For instance, in “Romanticism 101” by Dean Young, what’s the train of thought that has “Then I realized I hadn’t secured the boat. / Then I realized my friend had lied to me. / Then I realized my dog was gone” all on the same tracks? (How do the boat/friend/dog relate?) Is it literal, meaning it sticks to “Just the facts” or does it employ figurative language like simile and metaphor (as Rosanna Warren does: “still she offered each song, / she said, like an Appalachian artifact.”)
  • Now compare your “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” essays. Does this poem exemplify any of the points in your essays? Why or why not? Be sure to address points made in each essay.
  • If you didn’t think the poem exemplified some of your points, think of why other readers might find the poem valuable. If the poem did appeal to your points, think about why other readers might not think the poem is valuable? Consider multiple points of view. Write this down and type it up later as an addendum to your essays. Post it to Blackboard before Thursday, August 28th.