doing, flute, music, research, Weekly Poem Project

Halfway– but not half finished

I have just passed the midpoint of my sabbatical– it’s hard to believe it’s half over, but also hard to believe I still have half of it left!

This blog was intended to document my sabbatical year, and I suppose it’s as good a time as any to take a step back, see what I intended to accomplish, what I’ve actually gotten done, and where to head from here. I listed a number of goals in my first sabbatical post in May. And … how’d I do?

The main goal, of course, was to complete an entire book, currently titled How the Other Half Laughs: The Comic Sensibility in Art and Literature, 1895-1920. I’m pretty happy with my progress on that front. I began my sabbatical with one chapter (out of 6) drafted. I now have two– nearly three– more. I also decided to add a chapter, but I feel pretty comfortable saying I’m about halfway finished, maybe a bit more.

Also on the book front, I completed a book proposal, which I sent out to publishers last July. I have good news there: two publishers have said they want to see the finished manuscript! I also have one chapter out for consideration at a journal, to be published as a stand-alone essay. It’s been rejected once (at a top journal in my field, so I wasn’t super surprised or even disappointed, really), and now is under revision for another. I hope to get the revisions done in the next month. I’ve also applied for two grants, and plan to apply for one more, to do research, mostly in New York City. I wrote one of the applications while I was on vacation last week in Hawaii, unfortunately, but this was my fault– I totally forgot about the application deadline, which happened to fall while we were actually in Hawaii. Luckily (??) I had my computer and most of my files with me, so I was able to knock it out in a day. I am so the absent-minded professor these days!

I also did some research travel. I spent a week at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at the Ohio State University in Columbus; a couple of days at the Delaware Museum of Art in Wilmington; and probably a week or two’s worth of days commuting in to the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Altogether that’s about three weeks of my sabbatical doing research “off-site,” as it were.

In that first post, I also talked about the fact that I like to learn and try new things while I’m on sabbatical. At the time, I mentioned four things that I wanted to do–in short:

  1. Get back into playing the flute.
  2. Do some plein-air painting and life drawing.
  3. Write a poem every week.
  4. Write something every day.

This list surprises me now, especially when I recall what I was thinking when I wrote it:

I will just dismiss #2 at the outset. Ok, so I did some plein-air painting. I think I went out twice last summer. I kept intending to do more, but work on the book as well as various other things ended up filling all of my time. Maybe I’ll be able to fulfill that goal in the second half of the sabbatical.

I also did not succeed at #4, writing every day. I realized <insert dope-slap here> that when you write a book of scholarship, you need days to actually do the scholarship. That means lots of days doing nothing but reading, scanning microfilm, taking notes. You also need to give yourself time to actually think. I have decided that the mantra of constant productivity and writing every day is, in a word, bullshit. (But see #3, below.)

I did pretty well with #1. I’ve definitely been playing the flute! And the piano– a welcome byproduct of joining the Loyola Chamber Ensemble. Every Tuesday afternoon last semester, I spent about 2 hours with a lovely group of people– mostly students, but also a staff member from the advising office, and our coach, flutist and professor David Lavorgna. We dug into some interesting music, listened to one another, and grew into actual ensembles working together to produce music. I learned a lot from this, not just from the pieces I played (which I discuss here and here), but from watching and listening to everyone. The end-of-semester concert was a great success and a ton of fun. (FYI, if you check out the links: Maria and I did not end up ever rehearsing the Debussy cello sonata, but we may get to it someday.)

As a teacher myself, I was really inspired by David. He does such a good job finding music that will stretch, but not freak out, players from a wide (I mean wide) range of ability, and he also encourages students with lots of stories about his experiences with other musicians ranging from renowned performers like James Galway to beginning students. I’m looking forward to the upcoming semester– David dropped off my music at my house last week (we live a couple of blocks away from each other … Smalltimore!). Four pieces this time, two on flute, two on piano. Composers include Gaubert, Puccini, and Rachmaninoff. Can’t wait!

Now, for #3: writing a poem every week. This has been the biggest surprise of all. I initially thought that this would be a silly experiment, writing lots of bad poems and not taking things very seriously, but just using the experience to learn a little bit more about poetic form, which I spend a lot of time teaching. I did not end up writing a poem every week (fail!). However, I ended up taking the writing of poems much more seriously than I expected, and learning that I actually enjoy writing and reading poetry (win!).

In the past 7 months, I’ve written and posted a total of sixteen (or so) poems, some in multiple versions, and a couple that I decided not to post. I think, looking back, that my most successful poems were Karla’s Garden, a poem written in quintains; and two poems about Baltimore, a haiku and a pantoum.

I am especially surprised by the haiku. This is a form I have always detested. However, I realized that a lot of times you resist things because you don’t really understand them. (I tell my students this all the time. Funny how seldom we heed our own advice.) I’ve also learned the truth of another chestnut–the strongest writing often comes out of a deeply personal experience. I’m no good at writing philosophical poems, or abstract poems about Big Ideas. I threw a lot of those away. But I think I will write more about Baltimore. This is a town that you fall in love with; then, it will turn around and break your heart. Living here has been something that I need to write more about.

Another surprise: I ended up writing– a lot about poetry over the past 7 months. Much, much more than I’d planned. I guess it comes with the territory: I’m a teacher, and a scholar. The Weekly Poem Project posts brought everything together for me. But when I calculate the number of words I’ve written for this blog– altogether, over 30,000 words since late May (that’s 100 double-spaced typed pages, if you haven’t done much writing since college)–I’d guess that somewhere around 25,000 of those words have been about poetry. As a point of comparison, I’ve written about 28,000 words of my book during the same period. (I should mention that not a single word of my book–so far–is about poetry.)

This kind of blows me away. Another thing that blows me away is finding out how many people who read this blog also read– and love– poetry. It’s reassuring to know that in a culture that seems to be vapidifying at an exponential rate (Ice Bucket Challenge, anyone?– can you believe that took the nation by storm only 5 months ago? Have you already forgotten about it? I had.) that there are still lots of us who like to pause over a few words and really savor them.

It’s been great to reconnect with lots of old friends from college, high school, etc. We really did– and clearly, still do– have something in common, even though we didn’t realize how much so at the time.

I needed to take a break from the poems at the close of 2014, partly due to a different kind of productivity required of me during the holiday season (crafting!), but also because I needed to recharge. I’m ready to start again, though, so I’m going to take this opportunity to announce my plans.

  • I’d like to try some poetic forms that are defined by their subject matter. This is a way of defining form that I haven’t really dealt with up to now, and there are some storied kinds of poetry in this category: the aubade, the elegy, and the ode, to name a few. I think this would be fun.
  • I also stumbled upon a whole range of poems that are based on rounds and circles– primarily medieval in origin, and related to the ballad (another kind of poem I haven’t attempted writing yet, even though it’s one of the most basic types). Examples: rondel, rondeau, rondelet, triolet, lay. I think these are all different. Isn’t that crazy??
  • I also need to try, as promised, some classic, very complex (or difficult) forms. I flirted with the idea of doing a villanelle in the fall, but chickened out. But it’s still there, breathing quietly in a dark corner of my mind. And then there’s the sestina, and the chant royal, and others, I’m sure.
  • And– the heroic couplet. I am going to try this first. I have always hated the neoclassicists (The Rape of the Lock, anyone?), but hope that I will undergo an epiphany with this as I did with haiku. Walk a mile in Alexander Pope’s shoes … or something. This experiment may, of course, lead to blank verse and my own version of Paradise Lost– set in West Baltimore. I’ll keep you posted 🙂

One thing I won’t be doing more of is song forms. I tried doing a drinking song at the behest of my friend Ron, who also suggested I try a calypso. Both of these have really interesting histories, but I realized that the musical aspect of songs is really crucial, and doesn’t come across well when you’re dealing with lyrics alone. And I ain’t taking on composing on this sabbatical.

But I will be doing more research. And writing my book. And writing more about poems.  And playing music. And maybe painting some. And sharing what you all share with me about all of this. Onward to Sabbatical, Part Second!

P.S. Lucy’s latest blood tests came back yesterday and she is back to normal! So she is ready for a fresh start in 2015 too. 🙂


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