Guess Who Reading Discussion Prompt for Craft of Prose

In this reading discussion prompt, students are asked to consider what elements contribute to our understanding of character in this “Guess Who” game in which students draw a character who appears in chapters 3–12 of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and then describe them by answering a series of questions. They will use their descriptions to come up with three clues about the character: one is a concrete detail about the character’s appearance, the second is to identify a scene in which they appear, and the third is a literary craft element that helps reveal their character.

Fall 2016 Required Texts & Course Descriptions

ENG 2015: Poetry Workshop

American poet C.D. Wright once wrote: “If I wanted to understand a culture, my own for instance . . . I would turn to poetry first. For it is my confirmed bias that the poets remain the most ‘stunned by existence,’ the most determined to redeem the world in words.” In this course, we will hold poetry to this noble standard, as an amplifier for the voices in our culture and an invocatory rendering of our world. In doing so, I’ll ask you to not only read and write poetry but also begin to look at your surroundings as a poet would. This requires close examination of images, scrutiny of your thoughts and feelings about subject matter, and consideration for other points of view. Additionally, you will be asked to think deeply about language, in terms of its meanings, its sounds, its rhythms, and its forms. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. As a means of introduction to the craft of poetry, students will submit original poems for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers.  In addition to workshop, you will be asked to engage with the writing of contemporary poets, to read like a writer would. I’ve chosen Poetry magazine as our required text so that you will have a lens through which to examine the current landscape of American poetry and to see that even today poets are still trying to “redeem the world in words.”

Required Texts

  1. Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. ISBN: 978-0151011957.
  2. Poetry magazine student subscription, available at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/subscribe

 

ENG 2016OL: Online Prose Workshop

This course will focus on the prose forms of the short story and personal essay, and emphasize drafting and revision. Students will respond to published prose and write their own pieces for workshop, a collaborative discussion about the effects of a writer’s choices on readers. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. We will base our discussions on how texts work rather than what they mean, after Francine Prose’s ideal of “reading like a writer.” We will use Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection of short stories, Almost Famous Women, and Zadie Smith’s collection of essays, Changing My Mind, as a touchstone for learning writing skills and discovering genre conventions. My approach to teaching writing is founded on the belief that our writing skills must be practiced and cultivated, and that one must continually challenge one’s aesthetics, habits, and concerns throughout one’s writing life in order to write anything of consequence to one’s readers and, perhaps more importantly, one’s self.

Required Texts

  1. Bergman, Megan Mayhew. Almost Famous Women.  Scribner, 2015. 256 pages. ISBN: 978-1476788814.
  2. Smith, Zadie. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. Penguin, 2010. 320 pages. ISBN: 978-0143117957.

 

ENG 2031: Craft of Prose

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan that “the city must never be confused with the words that describe it.” In this course, we will shoot high and aim to write so richly and uniquely about our fictional worlds that they will be rendered in our readers’ imaginations as palpable, the words and places indistinguishable, symbiotic, “real.” We will take as our lodestars a number of texts, including Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a short story collection by Centenary’s fall 2016 visiting author Megan Mayhew Bergman, and one of the Harry Potter novels. We will translate these immersive reading experiences into writing skills through discussion, exercises, and workshop. Several times throughout the semester, students will turn in original writing for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers, and later revise one of the pieces using the comments received in workshop. Additionally, we will play host to Centenary’s Fall 2016 visiting writer, Megan Mayhew Bergman, and prepare accordingly. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. We will base our discussions on how texts work rather than what they mean, after Francine Prose’s ideal of “reading like a writer.” My approach to teaching writing is founded on the belief that our writing skills must be practiced and cultivated, and that one must continually challenge one’s aesthetics, habits, and concerns throughout one’s writing life in order to write anything of consequence to one’s readers and, perhaps more importantly, one’s self.

Texts and Supplies

  1. Bergman, Megan Mayhew. Almost Famous Women.  Scribner, 2015. 256 pages. ISBN: 978-1476788814.*
  2. Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Harcourt, 1978. 165 pages. ISBN: 978-0156453806. +
  3. Everett, Percival. I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Graywolf Press, 2009. 234 pages. ISBN: 978-1555975272. +
  4. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Scholastic Paperbacks, 2002. 752 pages. ISBN: 978-0439139601.*
  5. Russell, Karen. Vampires in the Lemon Grove: And Other Stories. Vintage, 2014. +
  6. Writing Journal

 

ENG 3099: Special Topics: Literary Editing & Publishing

“Editing, like writing, is fundamentally about composing a world,” Peter Gizzi writes in his essay “On the Conjunction of Editing and Composition.” In this course, students will learn how this act of composition takes place, from submissions to printing, by reading first-hand accounts of editors in the profession and through practical application. This reading intensive course will challenge you to read like an editor rather than a reader, writer, or critic, and ask you to consider how literary magazines contribute to literary culture. You will be exposed to many different types of editing styles, and you will be asked to begin to cultivate your own approach to editing a literary magazine or journal while being introduced to all the skillsets needed to create a publication. We will use literary magazines as a case study for all of our publishing inquiries, but we will likewise touch upon the book-publishing process and market. The class will include an investigation into the history of literary magazines; editorial meetings in which students will evaluate and debate sample pieces; papers that analyze literary magazines, editorial roles, and the state of contemporary publishing; and a final editorial project in which student groups will “compose a world” through a mock literary magazine by developing its mission, design, and content. In many ways, this course acts as a kind of introductory practicum for students interested in pursuing future publishing opportunities as editors, production editors, and as writers.

Texts and Supplies

  1. Lupton, Ellen. Thinking with Type, 2nd edition. Princeton Architectural Press, 2010.
  2. Kurowski, Travis. Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine. Atticus Books, 2013.
  3. Art supplies, paper, etc. and whatever else you may need to create your final editorial project.

Poetry Reading Calibration and a Writing Exercise for the First Day of Poetry Workshop

Note: In an effort to keep this blog updated regularly, I’m going to be storing my writing exercises and handouts in my Google Drive. I will post these exercises as a link here.

This single document includes three different components:

  1. An introduction questionnaire, allowing students to tell me a little about them, their needs, and their preferences.
  2. A Poetry Reading Calibration Exercise, featuring Ari Banias’s poem “A Sunset.”
  3. A Writing Exercise titled “Home” after the Safiya Sinclair poem by the same name.

I’m giving these exercises on the first day of class in order to get a better sense of where the students are in terms of their poetry knowledge and reading ability. Additionally, I wanted to introduce them to some terminology (e.g. line breakstoneconcrete details, etc.) that will make it easier for them to talk about poetry throughout the course.

 

“No River, No Bridge: Writing Poetry, Writing Nonfiction” Handout and Exercise

Ermakov, Dimitri (1846-1916).
Ermakov, Dimitri (1846-1916).

I taught a class titled “No River, No Bridge: Writing Poetry, Writing Nonfiction” at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School’s Writers’ Fest yesterday. We discussed hybridity of poetry and nonfiction, as well as the ways in which poetry can take on and explore “truth” using essayistic strategies without the requirement of “fact.” Several students came up afterward to show me their exercises, and one told me that she felt like it was one of the best things she’s written. The class ranged from high school students to adults.

In this course we will examine works of poetry and creative nonfiction in order to open up these genres to hybrid works. We will discuss features that are shared by the genres, how to bend the rules, and look at some examples before doing an exercise.

With over forty students in a one-hour class, we had these objectives:

  1. Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein.
  2. Think about the function and aims of each genre.
  3. Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.
  4. Write some assays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.

Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein. We looked at definitions of essays and lyric essays and Edward Hirsch’s definitions of line, lineation, lyric, prose poem, and stanza from A Poet’s Glossary. We looked at these definitions because they seek to define and, therefore, draw boundaries. We needed to know these definitions in order to explode these boundaries. In particular, we looked at Hirsch’s definition of line, in which he quotes Longenbach:

“Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines,” James Longenbach asserts in The Art of the Poetic Line (2008). “More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing.”

And compared it to the prose poem definition:

A composition printed as prose that names itself poetry. The prose poem takes advantage of its hybrid nature—it avails itself of the elements of prose (what Dryden called “the other harmony of prose”) while foregrounding the devices of poetry. . . . Baudelaire used prose poems to rebel against the straitjacket of classical French versification. He dreamed of creating “a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or rhythm, supple and jerky enough to adapt to the lyric movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to the somersaults of conscience.” Baudelaire’s prose poems—along with Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations (1886) and Malarmé’s Divagations (1897)—created a mixed musical form (part social, part transcendental) that has been widely and internationally practiced in the twentieth century. “There is no such thing as prose,” Malarmé insisted in 1891. “There is the alphabet, and then there are verses which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffused. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.”

We thought about these paradoxes, discussed why lineation makes a poem a poem, as well as considered some alternative definitions. We then examined Hirsch’s definition of “lyric”—

The lyric poem immerses us in the original waters of consciousness, in the awareness, the aboriginal nature, of being itself. . . . The lyric, which offers us a supposed speaker, a person to whom we often assign the name of the author, shades off into the dramatic utterance

—in juxtaposition with a discussion of point of view in essay.   Think about the function and aims of each genre. When I think about the intersections and differences of poetry and nonfiction, it’s helpful for me to illustrate the two genres with metaphors.

  1. Poem as a river. With all of their musical elements, I think of poems as a river—something fluid, flowing, that rushes and eddies, deltas, and empties out to sea. Poems are one of our oldest forms of literature and therefore seem natural to our landscape of language.
  2. Essay as a bridge. The essay, an analytical form, builds upon its subject piece by piece, element by element, fact by fact, experience by experience. We might think about this strategy as similar to building pillars with blocks, hammering planks together, supporting and trussing.

We might use these metaphors to understand hybrid works—nonfiction prose poems, lyric essays—better. Sometimes a poem is a river we want to cross; we see and hear the rushing water, but we want to examine it from a sturdy vantage point where we stay safe and dry. Some music comes into the poem, but we rely on the exposition that essays provide. Adversely, we could be in the water, prone to the rapids, splashed in the face, paddling fiercely. Just trying to stay afloat in the overflow of language, of experience. There are times, however, where we might pass under the shadow of a bridge, have insights into reason, into conquering this flow, bridging one experience to another.   Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.

  1. “Say It, Say It Anyway You Can” by Vievee Francis (two versions—the prose poem version from Rattle and the lineated version that appeared in her collection Horse in the Dark). Let’s take a look at this poem, which started off as a prose poem and then became a lineated poem. Discuss the poet’s possible reasoning for lineating the poem. What are the effects of the two forms?
  2. An excerpt from Citizen by Claudia Rankine and an excerpt from Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Talk to me a little bit about what these prose forms borrow from poetry. Are they poetry? (How were they marketed? How were they identified?) Is it enough to say something is poetry? Nonfiction? Are these true hybrids? How would you categorize it? Does it need to be categorized?

Write some assays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.

“No River, No Bridge” Exercise

  1. Select an everyday object that’s in your house. Ex. a television, a pair of jeans, a can of kidney beans. (1 min.)
  2. Now describe the object using all of your senses, with only concrete details. Do not use any metaphors or other figurative language. (2 min.)
  3. Imagine how the object was made. Write a step-by-step description of its fabrication. (3 min.)
  4. Imagine the harvesting, mining, or creation of the raw materials that went into making this object. (i.e. the shearing of sheep for your wool sweater or the mining of silicone to make your iPhone). Describe. (2 min.)
  5. Now talk a little bit about how you came to own this object (and talk about not remembering how you got it, if that’s true.) Tell us the backstory. Or, what connotations does the object have? Do you have specific memories associated with it? (2 min.)
  6. Now describe the object using only metaphors. (“My pair of jeans is muddy water reflecting sky, a bird with clipped wings . . . ”) (2 min.)

Share and discuss: How has the object changed in each iteration (concrete description, origin story, deconstruction, entrance, emotional connection, metaphorical naming)? Which form (poetry or essay) better conveys these approaches? Why? How can we combine these strategies?

“Fame Makes a Man Take Things Over” Exercise

Drawing of Stage Door Johnnies (1894)
Drawing of Stage Door Johnnies (1894)
Class: Writing Out of the Ordinary
Genre: Creative nonfiction
Readings: A packet of persona poems and dramatic monologues
Time: 10 minutes

1. Pick a celebrity, sports star, cartoon or comic book character, product mascot (ex. Count Chocula, the Geico gecko, etc.) or newsworthy individual (Octomom, Charles Manson, etc.).

2. Create a mundane problem for that character or person. (Kobe Bryant can’t open a jelly jar. Elvis Presley can’t fit into his old slacks. Speedy Gonzalez gets stuck in a mouse trap.)

3. Free write for ten minutes in the voice of that character as they’re attempting to resolve the problem. What concerns them? Are they worried about their public image? How does this problem relate to bigger problems for them? What sorts of language do they use? Are they thinking about the problem at hand or something else? Where are they at? More specific questions: What are they wearing? What kind of jelly is Kobe Bryant trying to get into? Strawberry or grape? Who set the trap for Speedy? Has Elvis tried dieting? (Hint: You don’t have to answer these specific questions, but be sure to take leaps like this with your own characters.)

The Shape of Words

ImageIn Design as Art, Bruno Munari writes, “Not only does each letter of a word have a shape of its own, but all its letters taken together give shape to the word.” When we read, we read the shape of the word if the word is familiar to us. If the word is unfamiliar, we must read the shape of each letter, attributing sound to each one and combining them. We use this amalgamated sound to attempt to locate meaning. We troll our memories for previous usage. We look at context. If we’re scholars, we might even recognize roots and stems. In effect, in all of these investigative processes, we look to the history of the word—personal, textual, or etymological—in order to understand its present meaning.

Sometimes when I’m tired or sick or otherwise impaired, however, I look at words and they’re only shapes; they mean nothing. It makes reading more akin to viewing visual art, a Rothko perhaps. I look at the whole page, the shape, and the rivers of white across the lines. I see the words as bodies, as segmented insects. Regardless of whether or not I view the shape of the letters or words, meaning becomes untethered to those shapes. They become tangible. I care more for the vessel than what it contains.

While this as a permanent condition could be problematic, the transient aphasia provides me with a means to reboot language, the way time seems new and fresh on those rare and brief occasions when I forget how old I am. It reminds one that language is a symbol rather than an incarnation and that, in order for language to mean, I must be present. I must supply language with meaning. Reading is a transaction rather than a gift of information.

Words need me as much as I need them. When I realize this, suddenly the axis shifts again, and those shapes suddenly have definition.

On Journaling: a Revelation

Codex Manesse, fol. 383r, Meister Konrad von Würzburg
Codex Manesse, fol. 383r, Meister Konrad von Würzburg
Sometimes discussions with my students lead me to articulate things about writing that I’ve fathomed but haven’t been able to put into words. For instance, in Intro to Creative Writing this morning, my students were discussing Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” and how they could use journaling as a foundation for their creative writing. Because of the students’ provocative questions and Didion’s exegesis on the practice—”I imagine . . . that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. . . . our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.'”—I was able to finally say what I’ve often felt in keeping my writing journal:

Journaling is an exercise in being a character.

In keeping a journal, I distance myself from the self that appears in my writing. (Think Dante the writer vs. Dante the character.) This not only allows me to receive critical input without feeling as if I’m under attack but it also, and perhaps more importantly, gives me the opportunity to view my own writing as a reader would.

Maybe other writers out there have come to this realization, but the idea, and the way I was able to say it, surprised me in its clarity. Maybe this too is a product of journaling: I have distanced myself enough so that I am allowed to be surprised by myself, a moxie I find quite germane to the writing of the lyric.