research, writing

A writing retreat

Matt said he was trying to help me jumpstart my summer writing when he packed me off for a few days to our cabin in WV for a 3-day writing retreat. I think he was really just sick of being surrounded by all my books and needed a break from them—and from  me wanting to talk about them. Out here on my own, I can make as big a mess as I want, stay up writing as late as I want, and eat as badly and as erratically as necessary.

The scene inside: stacks of Stephen Crane and trusty Scrivener on-screen.

I’m devoting a chapter of How the Other Half Laughs to Stephen Crane. What? Did Stephen Crane ever laugh? you may be asking. The author of the grimly symbolic Red Badge of Courage (1895), the hopelessly deterministic Maggie: Girl of the Streets (1893)? The writer who described winter in Nebraska as follows:

Scully threw open the door. “Well, come on,” he said. Instantly a terrific wind caused the flame of the lamp to struggle at its wick, while a puff of black smoke sprang from the chimney-top. The stove was in mid-current of the blast, and its voice swelled to equal the roar of the storm. Some of the scarred and bedabbled cards were caught up from the floor and dashed helplessly against the farther wall. The men lowered their heads and plunged into the tempest as into a sea. (“The Blue Hotel’—my favorite Crane story)

I don’t know whether Crane laughed much himself, but some of his sentences make me laugh. In “The Open Boat,” he has his four characters, stranded on a 10-foot dinghy in the middle of the ocean, repeat the same existential question to themselves as they row, and row, and keep trying to row to shore: “If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?”

I can’t help it. This passage cracks me up. My students are afraid to laugh at Stephen Crane, but I think they should let themselves go. It might do them some good.

In my book chapter, I’m exploring the grotesque humor that marks Crane’s work from the very beginning of his career. Some of his earliest published—and unpublished—work feature exploding babies, pet dogs thrown out of windows (I admit that this story, “A Dark Brown Dog,” is simply horrifying and not comic at all), lots of incoherent drunkards, and people who generally stumble, directionless, through life.

But there is something essentially comic about Crane. And that’s what I’m writing about right now. I’m planning to discuss some of the sketches I’ve just described, as well as “The Men in the Storm,” “The Five Blind Mice,” “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky,” “The Monster,” and “The Price of the Harness.” I might throw “The Blue Hotel” in, too.

I took lots of notes and did a lot of freewriting, and returned home to Baltimore all set to do some proper writing.

While I was out in WV, I was able to get a few hours of gardening in, separating the mountain laurel shrubs I’d planted too close together in April, planting some lilies of the valley a neighbor let me dig up from her yard, and weeding. Lots of weeding. (Weeding helped me feel virtuous about taking a break from reading/writing.)

Everything is looking good right now. Each year things look a little less stark, a little more natural. It’s tough when you can only tend things every few weeks or so.

Can’t wait until the monarda start blooming! By then, I hope to have this chapter on Crane drafted.

academia, writing

Full retreat

This is what my spring break (yes, it’s early!) has looked like thus far: me, my computer, stacks of books, in the library. Yep, that’s right: Profs Gone Wild!

I’ve been joined in the library this week by a half-dozen or so intrepid colleagues from around campus. We’re all trying to write. We’re all trying to shift gears from our day-to-day semesterly grind to devote some solid, untinterrupted time to our research.

Unfortunately, being on this retreat has reminded me—oh halcyon days!— of what being on sabbatical was like. Fifteen months of doing almost nothing but research. While the reminder certainly made me nostalgic, this week I also realized why I have such a hard time doing research and writing while I am also teaching. And serving on committees. And all that day-to-day semesterly grind-y crap.

I realized this week that when I am writing, a switch flips in my brain that basically makes me useless for anything but writing. On Monday, I ended the day, satisfied with the 6 or so pages I wrote, and came home with a stack of books but no backpack. Which also meant, no laptop, no notebook, no notes. (Luckily, no one uses the library during spring break, so I recovered backpack, computer, notebook, and all the next morning.) Then, after deciding on Tuesday that I wasn’t satisfied with those pages after all, I started over again, wrote another 8 pages, and went to bed, satisfied but exhausted. And then sat up bolt upright at 3am with a Great Idea and decided to start over again … at 4:30 am. And aside from a few breaks, I’ve been at it since then. A good 11-hour day of writing. If your brain isn’t a bowl of overcooked noodles after than, I’m not sure what it is.

I can’t do this and actually teach anyone about anything. I can barely dress myself this week. Luckily Matt is a good sport about all this.

I am starting to suspect that the reason why I have only been able to write in fits and starts, during breaks—mostly during the summer—is because that is, in fact, the only way I am able to write. Lots of academic productivity coaches advocate writing every day, even if it is just 30 minutes. I tried and abandoned this experiment on sabbatical, and my experience this week confirmed again that this method just doesn’t work for me.

I would love to know if it works for you!

teaching, writing

My book of Zen

It’s been a long time since I’ve last posted, but I have been writing–a lot. Over the past few months I presented a conference paper that I was asked to turn around immediately into an article (done as requested), wrote an academic book review, and written a piece of local history for the Bolton Hill Bulletin, my neighborhood newsletter (which I’m now co-editing).

I also witnessed, finally, the publication of an essay based on the blog posts I wrote last April and May in the weeks after the death of Freddie Gray around the corner from my house. I’m especially proud of this piece, “The Accidental Activist,” because it was solicited by The Concord Saunterer, a journal devoted to the study of Henry David Thoreau. I don’t study Thoreau—in fact, I engaged in a somewhat perverse resistance to Walden throughout my teens and twenties—so to be invited to comment on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” in light of the events in Baltimore was gratifying, to say the least. (I also used the occasion to pay some penance for my earlier misdirected hostility toward Walden.)

And of course, I’ve been doing lots of other writing since returning to teaching after my year-long sabbatical. Handouts, emails, Tweets (see right), comments on student papers, lecture notes, committee reports and proposals: this is the kind of writing that sucks dry, drop by precious drop, anything that might have collected at the bottom of the creative well.

So it’s been hard to write here on the blog. None of this is a surprise, but it’s no less deflating.

But I have taken a cue from an assignment I developed for my first-year students this semester, and which, on a lark, I decided to do alongside them. The assignment is called “Your Book of Zen.” It’s inspired by the “moment of zen” with which Jon Stewart ended each episode of the Daily Show. All students need to do is to keep a bound journal and at the end of each day, briefly write about a “moment of zen” they experienced that day.

The moment of zen might be a moment of hilarity or intense irony, as it so often was on Stewart’s show, or simply a moment of balance. It might even be a moment of realization, an epiphany.

You might wonder why I have incorporated this assignment into a Gen Ed class called Understanding Literature, which, as its title implies, promises nothing but boredom. In it, students toil away learning the ins and outs of terms they thought they already knew “from high school,” as they like to say: metaphor, sonnet, symbol, synecdoche.

The scope and stated goals for the course already make it a tough sell. And the millenials I’m teaching, to tell the truth, make it harder. While they are very caring, and earnest, and kind, they are simply not very creative or prone to risk themselves, either psychologically or intellectually. Preserving their own safety, as so many have been talking about lately, is their modus operandi.

I am just as frustrated as any frustrated Gen Xer at the current state of things. But rather than throw triggers in their faces, or tell them to suck it up because life is hard, nasty, brutish, and short (and then you die), I wondered if there might be ways to lure millenials out of those “safe spaces” that have been built around them all their lives, to make risk-taking appealing rather than scary, something they might willingly choose to do, even want to do. I wondered if they would they risk their safety to experience the thrill of something new? To experience unexpected joy?

It seems to me that only by taking these sorts of risks can one actually understand literature. For that is what writers themselves do, and want their readers to understand: risk-taking. They risk their language, their emotions, their intellect: they flay themselves open and call upon the vultures to feed, and the next day, they do it all over again, all in the service of that moment of enlightenment, of realization, of coming-into-being, of zen.

(I am pretty sure I am totally misapplying the actual concept of zen here, but I hope you get what I mean.)

Maybe if they can see the zen in their own lives, my thinking goes, they’ll be able to see it in someone else’s writing or art. But mostly, I would just like for them to feel it for themselves. One of my favorite quotes from Walden, now that I’ve actually learned to appreciate it, is where Thoreau says he went to the woods because he “wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life.” I want them to taste that marrow and savor it.

So far, we have only been keeping our zen journals for a couple of weeks. Most of the students still seem pretty baffled by the whole idea. But some, I can see through my skimming of their entries, are starting to get it. A few of the more well-adjusted, mature students are really seeming to enjoy it.

Initially, I, too, was a bit baffled. Students asked me what to write if they did not have a moment of zen on a particular day (millennials love rules) and I just told them to write, “No zen.” I wrote that myself a couple of times in the first week. But we have discovered together that if you give yourself enough time to think, and actually notice what you are doing during the day, it’s not hard to find a moment of zen every day. It’s a good feeling to have.

If you pray regularly, meditate, or already keep a journal, I’m probably not telling you anything new. Indeed, my Book of Zen assignment is a stripped down and secularized version of the five-step reflection process developed by Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits and namesake of my university: the examen.

The beauty of the Book of Zen is that it really only takes about a minute or two—literally—every day. In only a few weeks, I now find it one or two of the best minutes of my day. It is so good to end the day knowing 1) that something cool did in fact happen, and 2) that I actually wrote something.

Perhaps it’s ok that I’ve let long-form blogging slip these days. I decided to set aside a couple of hours this morning to write this entry, just to keep a foot in the door here, but I do so in part because I know I will not be able to devote a couple of hours to the blog for the next few months. In the meantime, I may post a few Book of Zen entries.

For instance, as I put this post together, I watched the sun gradually illuminate the stand of trees outside our little house in West Virginia, against a startling blue sky that only appears in wintry places. Deciding to write this post instead of getting right to work gave me a chance to see it. That’s my moment of zen for today. I already know it.

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academia, writing

Time for change

Well, the time has come: time to close down—or at least, step away from— my sabbatical blog. School’s about to begin!

I embarked on this blog a little over a year ago. In my initial post, I talked a lot about things I’d be doing over my upcoming sabbatical year– trying to finish a book, dusting off my flute, writing poetry for the first time, taking up plein-air painting. I didn’t say there, though I was certainly thinking it, that I was also blogging because I wanted to figure out how this whole social media thing worked and what it might do for me. At the same time, I also decided to actually try following and posting to Facebook, which I’d joined in 2010 or thereabouts but had never thought much of. And this past spring, I also picked up Twitter.

I did most, almost all, of the things I said I wanted to do at the outset of my sabbatical. I did not finish my book, but I knew even then that that was an unreasonable goal. I am now a flute player again, and have picked up additional crafts (as if that was ever needed). When I look back over the year, though, what really surprises me is how much more than my book I actually wrote, and how many more people I reached with my writing. And for this, I have social media to thank. So, thank you.

Academics often joke about no one reading their books. You spend years working on a book, or even getting a single article published in an academic journal, in the hopes of reaching dozens, maybe hundreds, of readers before you die. I’m not exaggerating when I say this. The royalty statements I receive from Rutgers University Press, which has published three books I’ve either written or edited, are a painful yearly reminder of all the millions of people who are not reading my books. Google Scholar tersely informs me that my first book, The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton: Redefining Ethnicity and Authenticity (now that’s a title that makes you stand up and take notice!), has been cited 21 times since it came out in 2002– three times by yours truly (ha!). Articles I’ve written have been cited by other scholars numbering in the single digits, though I also know some essays are assigned as reading in American literature courses, which is perhaps more important in the grand scheme of things.

Any way you slice it, it’s a hell of a lot of effort expended to not accomplish very much. Yes, it’s frustrating. You add to this the fact that it is becoming more and more difficult all the time to even get published in an academic journal or an academic press, when you know no one will read your work when it appears in print, and you start teetering on the precipice of existential crisis. What’s the point of it all …???

In my case, the result was that I was writing less and less. Luckily, social media, mostly in the form of this blog, came to the rescue.

Since May 2014, I’ve written 80 posts and have had over 4200 documented views by some 2500 individual visitors.  I say “documented” because I discovered, much to my chagrin, that WordPress almost always underreports the number of views and visitors one actually receives. (If you want to know more about this and why this upsets me, leave a comment and I’ll explain why.)

That comes to more than a post per week, each post averaging about 1000-1200 words. And while they may not show it, I really did write these things: they have all been drafted, edited, revised, rewritten. I’ve tried not to waste your time, dear readers.

Also, as part of my Weekly Poem Project, I wrote over 20 poems, in forms ranging from the lofty (sonnet) to the absurd (clerihew). I’d initially set out to write a poem per week, which I was unable to even come close to doing, but I decided that was fine, given that I ended up caring more about writing poetry than I ever thought I would.

(Writing poetry, incidentally, was a funny thing. I had no pretensions about actually writing Poems when I originally started, but once I started to enjoy writing them, I wanted them to be good. Which made me end up writing less. A sad paradox of the writerly condition, no?)

Writing teachers and productivity gurus love to say that “writing begets writing.” And yes, it’s true. All this writing has made writing come much more easily. Listening to and responding to actual readers has made me a better writer. And readers have also brought me more projects to write. Among these:

  • The editor of The Concord Saunterer, a journal specializing in the work of Henry David Thoreau, ran across one of my posts about the unrest in Baltimore in late April and asked me to write a piece on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and Baltimore for their upcoming issue on “Civil Disobedience Now.” This piece, titled “An Accidental Activist,” is in the can and should be appearing in a few months.
  • It looks like I’ll be co-editing a volume coming out of the NEH-funded Summer Institute I attended in June in New York City on The City of Print: New York and the Periodical Press, which (I hope) will include an essay from me on the professional and social networks of artist John Sloan.
  • Also coming out of the NEH institute, I hope to collaborate with one of my fellow participants on an essay about potential connections between periodical studies (my field) and communication theory (hers).
  • Oh yes, finishing my book, How the Other Half Laughs: The Comic Sensibility in American Art and Literature 1895-1920. Can’t forget about that.
  • And a new project, arising from the Weekly Poem Project: a book about poetic form, aimed at the adult writer, people who want to write poetry, either for personal edification or as a method of self-reflection. This project is just forming in my head right now so I’m not articulating it clearly, but hopefully you get the general point.

This should be enough to keep me pretty darn busy until, well, my next sabbatical in 7 years, probably! So it’s time to put the blog aside and move on. I may post periodically here if I have something of substance to say– or a poem for you to read!– but I’ve discovered that at least for now, Facebook is a fine place to post the very short observations I have about current events and the academic profession that seem to be coming to me these days. So, if you’ve been following this and would like to keep in touch, send me a friend request on FB, or follow me on Twitter.

Thanks for reading, and for helping me make the most of sabbatical. Now it’s time to enjoy what’s left of the summer!

links, writing

From the hive mind

The holidays are a great time to reconnect with family, old friends, and just talk to people about things that you don’t have time or mental space for in the hurry-scurry of everyday life. Here, I’d like to pass along some links to things that people have sent to me, that have come up in leisurely, languid holiday conversations, or that I’ve run across during those leisurely, languid– and sometimes crazy-hectic– holiday days:

  • The Beltway Poetry Quarterly, a publication entirely new to me, and their new issue focused solely on sonnets–featuring a poem by my friend Ned Balbo, “For My Cross-Dressing Friends.” Teachers: this issue is a goldmine for sonnets, old and new, to use for class assignments to teach your students about the everchanging form that is the sonnet! And to prevent plagiarism!!
  • Climate change explained in haiku: oceanographer Greg Johnson recasts the 2000-page 2013 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) into 19 illustrated haiku. This came to me from a new friend, Brett Maxwell.
  • A poem from Robin Robertson, a poet with whom I was previously unfamiliar: “The Soul’s Tinsel.” This comes from an old, old friend–my husband Matt. I did not know until I started blogging about poetry in the past year that he actually reads poetry for fun. This is given that we have been married for over twenty years. Isn’t that crazy? I guess you will never stop learning about– and from– the people you love.

Enjoy! And Happy New Year, everyone!


doing, music, research, writing

Yeah, I’m a maker. Wanna make something of it?

Did you know a gathering of owls is called a parliament? Well, it turns out I made a parliament of owls this year, for Christmas.

I haven’t posted in a while, but this is not because nothing is happening. I’ve actually been very, very busy. And I’ve discovered that when I’m very, very busy, the posts to Think.Do. are one of the first casualties.

Being on sabbatical has given me some time–and space–to think about what it means to be busy. What my “busy-ness” actually means. How being busy relates to creativity, productivity, and probably, longevity and lots of other words ending in -ity.

I am immensely lucky to be able to say that much of my busy-ness is of my own choosing. In my job, I love discussing literature with my students and my colleagues, thinking about new ways to teach things, editing others’ writing to make it sharper and clearer. In my non-working time, I like to make things and spend lots of time thinking of new things to try. The weeks between Labor Day (apropos, that!) and Christmas are when the spirit of making kicks into high gear. I’m not sure if my family members always agree, but I like making people gifts for Christmas. It is a small, personal stand I’ve taken against the crass materialism and shallowness of feeling that has overtaken the holiday.

Perhaps because I’m on sabbatical, and thus freed of the end-of-semester flurry of activity that normally comes with my job, I kind of went crazy with the giftmaking this year. Our house became an off-Pole manufacturing workshop. I was even a little chagrined by my excess when I assembled this year’s line of Presents by Jean for a group photo (I also included pics of a couple of other things I made that I forgot to include):

This level of production strikes me as totally ridiculous. But it was awfully fun.

I needed to finish everything up by this weekend so that I could pack everything up and get it all sent off in time for Christmas. Along with that, I also played the piano in two events– one, our department’s annual Holiday Feast (accompanying the Loyola Literary Singers in renditions of “Anything You Can Do” from Annie Get Your Gun, “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and some random Christmas carols), and the other, my first ever performance in the Loyola Chamber Ensemble, playing piano in the beautiful, haunting Adagio from Bohuslav Martinu’s Trio for Piano, Flute, and Cello, and flute in an unbelievable arrangement of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” for four flutes.

What really struck me about playing this arrangement is that Debussy wrote a piece that flows from the fingers when played on the piano, but feels incredibly unnatural and awkward when played on the flute. Fortunately for all of you, we did not record the concert and so you will not have to suffer through our rendition of the piece. But if your curious to hear what the arrangement sounds like, here’s a professional group, the Collage Flute Quartet, playing it.

I was on 3rd part, which has lots of noodling going on for the middle third of the piece, as well as right at the end. My second-to-last note, a high E, is notoriously difficult to play in tune, and to end with that was really a masterstroke by the arranger, Mark Thomas, to inflict as much torture as possible onto his musicians– and their audience.

Oh yes — and I also did some research travel. Spent two days at the Delaware Museum of Art doing research in the John Sloan archive and the Everett Shinn and George Luks Papers, and a couple days commuting into DC to read microfilm copies of the New York World newspaper and The Truth magazine, dating from 1890-1896.

Thanksgiving happened somewhere in there. Keith and Jeri came in for that– fun times.

Yes, it was all fun. But exhausting. And I could not even think about writing for the blog, or writing poems for the Weekly Poem Project.

What I conclude from all this is that creativity (mine anyway) is a finite resource. I seem to produce a certain amount of it, and can either store it up or use it–but it definitely gets depleted, used up. My tank is currently empty.

And I think that our stress on constant productivity must have a similar impact on all of us. Why is it so important to constantly be working? Meeting milestones, achieving outcomes, maintaining ever-escalating trajectories of productivity? Are we not all feeling depleted these days?

On this sabbatical, I’ve been trying to pay closer attention to what my body & my unconscious is trying to tell me. What have I heard? Some unsurprising things: I need to sleep more. Exercise is freeing for the mind as well as good for one’s health–if the health of the body can in fact be separated from that of the mind. Things like that.

But I’ve also realized that not all periods when one is not actively producing are actually unproductive. When the tank is empty, it takes time to fill it back up. Even when the tank is full, it takes time, and quiet, and space, to figure out where to begin, and where to direct one’s energies. This is not a dead time, a period of non-productivity. It’s actually essential to producing anything that is worth something more than nothing. Scientists like to say that “speed is simply velocity without direction”–that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot lately. And the idea of farmers leaving fields fallow. You have to let things alone in order for them to grow.

My friend Janet Maher, who is blogging at Trusting the Process, recently addressed this issue of productivity and process from an artist’s perspective. (I reblogged her entry “Here, Now, Beginning” last week.) Here’s an excerpt I found especially apt:

Artists and writers, makers of all kinds know about process. It is where the best part of anything resides, the real stuff of the matter. It’s why I always feel that my art exhibits are residue, frozen moments arranged neatly in a logical visual narrative. They were never that way until all the elements came into that particular space at a given time. I find that part of the process to be strange, yet it is how things are done. Something very important for me is over once the work hangs in a room for a month or so waiting for people to come and see it.

In a comment to one of my own Think.Do. posts where I lamented the agonies of writer’s block, she gave me great advice that got me to appreciate writer’s block as simply part of the process, not a “block” or impediment or failure to produce. She said, “Block? not so, just other tangents that are all part of the creative writer… If cleaning the closets gets the creativity flowing, then one must clean the closets.” She also encouraged me to recognize and value my own process, rather than confining myself to “how something ‘should’ be done (i.e. as ‘boring academics’ would).” This observation really struck me. And unsurprisingly, I think I started writing again the very next day, freed from worrying about whether I was doing what I should be doing, and rather, simply doing.

I leave you with a little tidbit from one of my recent research trips to the Library of Congress. I went looking for illustrations and comics work done by George Luks, who exhibited with The Eight in 1908, and also was included in the 1913 Armory Show. Like the other painters I’m examining in my book, he got his start in newspaper illustration (newspapers used to rely on artists to depict the news before photographs could be easily reproduced onto newsprint). This is a page from the Dec. 19, 1891 issue of The Truth, a weekly New York humor magazine that competed with Puck, Life, and Judge in the 1890s.

These humor weeklies were precursors of our present-day Sunday comics section, and in the page reproduced below you can see some glimmers of what would become the comic strip. Interspersed between the jokes, anecdotes, and single-panel cartoons that made up the bulk of the magazine, you can see some sequential panel cartoons. Eventually, William Randolph Hearst (and his comics supplement editor, Rudolph Block) simply gave over the entirety of the comics section to these sequential cartoons–or comics. Below, George Luks drew the three illustrations beginning in the top left corner, and continuing diagonally down the page:


Not the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, but interesting as a lead-in to the strips he would end up doing for Joseph Pulitzer’s NY World:

George Luks, Mose's Incubator, Feb. 13, 1898.
George Luks, Mose’s Incubator, Feb. 13, 1898.

Well, this cartoon isn’t exactly what you’d call rip-roaringly funny, either. It’s actually pretty offensive. But it’s wild nevertheless, don’t you think? I simply cannot believe that something like this was really intended to be read by children alone.

More soon! Poems will come back online in 2015. (I’m already starting to get some ideas.) Happy holidays, everyone!

links, writing

From the hive mind

Links to some really interesting poetry-related stuff circulating on the web this week:

  • “The Writing Class” by Jaswinder Bolina, a long but provocative essay on the relationship between poetry and privilege, and a peek into the darkness that lies behind the curtain of the AWP (Association of Writers and Writers’ Programs, the MLA of creative writers)
  • An article from the Guardian about the Poetry Brothel in NYC, which is banking on the sensual delights of poetry read out loud
  • And another approach to making poetry more hip–“Bitches in Bookshops,” a Jay-Z/Kanye parody celebrating bookishness


Weekly Poem Project, writing

Weekly poem project: pantoum #2

I am very late with my second pantoum. In part, it was a casualty of the struggles I’m having with my other writing, the advent of Christmas-present-making season (more on this later), and some late-season allergies. Yuck.

I’ve actually been working on this poem for a while, but could never bring it to an end. This is the problem, I’ve discovered, with the pantoum. Because the lines repeat from stanza to stanza, you feel like you could just go on for ever, like boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past … you get the idea.

Part of the problem may have been that I wanted to choose a subject that could take advantage of the repetitive aspects of the form. So the poem is about something I find very relaxing and meditative, in large part because it is so so repetitive: making bread. But I found that I was going on and on and on with the various steps of the bread-making process, which I can’t imagine anyone, even an avid baker, being very interested in. So the challenge became finding ways to make this poem shorter. I am also, of course, trying to conserve my writerly energies for the book chapter that is really occupying most of my time right now. Writing poetry doesn’t really benefit from efforts to conserve energy, I’ve discovered. So, I’m cutting the poem loose now, before it can drive me (any more) crazy. Now that I reread it in its entirety one last time, I am amused by the irony of the first line, which I set down some 3 weeks ago.


A loaf of bread has few demands.
Some flour, water, a bit of yeast
A dash of salt, some olive oil.
And heat: warm water and an oven.

Some flour, water, a bit of yeast
At first stirred with a spoon, then hands.
Slow warmth readies it for the oven.
But the dough is sticky, wet; too hard

To stir with a spoon, it coats the hands
Monstrous fingers, not dough, but quicksand
Sticky, wet; clinging like a child
It’s hard to think this could be bread.

Monstrous fingers mired in quicksand
Kneading, kneading, till one’s arms ache.
It’s hard to think this could be bread.
Yet in the end, a rest, a rise

Once kneading’s done; now just needing
The oven’s blast to stop the work.
Mixing, kneading, a rest, a rise
And baking; now a golden loaf

Emerges from the oven’s blast.
So soon eaten, just crumbs, the scent
Is all that’s left of the golden loaf.
So much, so little more than air.


You know you have writer’s block when …

You find yourself compelled to go through your closet. And dresser. Thoroughly. When I get into this mode– of thinking I need my space to be organized before I can possibly start writing– I know writer’s block is either imminent or already in full swing. It may be that my efforts to “de-clutter” are a literal analogue to what I want to happen in my mind.

I’m trying to write a section of the introduction to How the Other Half Laughs about how ideas about humor and comedy changed in the United States at the turn into the twentieth century. You’d think this would be fun to write about, but I’ve discovered it involves reading lots of really boring books. It’s the academic version of the idea that if you have to explain a joke, you’ve killed it. Academics, being rather humorless sorts to begin with, don’t seem to understand this. And I don’t want to continue the genocide.

Even though I’m not writing much these days, and even though I’m bored by my research, I have read a really good book in the past week. It’s actually a book of poetry and essays– something I would have been highly unlikely to pick up in the days before I started my Weekly Poem Project (yes, I know I am a bit behind on this but poems have also been a casualty of the writer’s block I’ve been struggling with). The book is Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, nominated last week for the National Book Award. It also happens to be published by Graywolf Press in Northfield, MN, where I learned the rudiments of book design and typography in a summer internship way back in 1990.

The cover design provides an excellent introduction to the book’s subject and themes:


Yes, that’s a black hood from a hoodie sweatshirt on the cover, and yes, part of it is about Trayvon Martin. I was curious to read Citizen because so many of the reviewers have noted how difficult the book was to get through. “Citizen comes at you like doom,” says Hilton Als. Marjorie Perloff says the book has “a shock value rarely found in poetry.” Jonathan Farmer, who reviewed the book for Slate, said, “It is one of the best books I have ever not wanted to read.” How could you not want to read a book that gets press like this?

One of the interesting things about the book is that Rankine uses second-person point of view to portray the paradoxical position experienced by blacks in America: both never-not-visible, and almost-always-invisible. In second person, you end up inhabiting the persona of the speaker, seeing through her eyes, feeling what she feels. So that you can experience this feeling yourself, here is a short prose poem from the book, which incidentally also happens to be about humor. I think Rankine really kills this joke here (in the good sense, not in the sense I’m afraid of doing ;-)). I quote the entire poem:

Someone in the audience asks the man promoting his new book on humor what makes something funny. His answer is what you expect–context. After a pause he adds that if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not, probably would not. Only then do you realize you are among ‘the others out in public’ and not among ‘friends.’

Another great surprise about this book is that the entire second section is an essay about racism in tennis. Most of you reading this know that I am a tennis nut, so I ate up this part of the book. Rarely do you ever see sports written about with eloquence, or even with care. Sometimes baseball gets this treatment; sometimes golf. But I never expected to read about tennis in a book about racism in America.

Most of the essay is about Serena Williams, a tennis player I have no love for. Rankine’s essay, though, made me gain a lot of respect for her. The ongoing discrimination she experiences on and off the court, as an assertive black woman in a country-club sport, is shocking–and depressing. But I can’t say I disagree with any of it.

So, I strongly recommend Citizen. You may not enjoy reading it, but I don’t think you’ll be sorry that you did.


Avoiding the agony

I’ve been reminded a lot lately of a cartoon that was widely circulated when I was in graduate school in the 1990s. Those of you of a certain age will remember Matt Groening as much for his weekly comic strip Life Is Hell as for the seemingly deathless The Simpsons:

groeningIt’s the panel on the center right that became a sort of wry refrain when we were all doggedly trying to finish our dissertations: Can’t face writing? Read another book!

Well, that’s kind of what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks.

It’s been fascinating reading–don’t get me wrong. I’ve been doing research on minstrel shows and vaudeville, which contributed to what was called “The New Humor” of the early twentieth century, (along with comic strips, of course). In the chapter I’m working on, I am trying to show how aspects of the minstrel show tradition infiltrate comic strips by George Herriman and James Swinnerton, the artists I was researching in June at the Billy Ireland Comics Library and Museum. I have all the strips chosen that I want to analyze, and have lots of notes, and have done the biographical research on the artists, and, well, pretty much everything I need in order to write this chapter. I’ve even written the introduction. But for whatever reason, I can’t quite get any farther. So I’ve lapsed into classic grad-student-thesis-writing avoidance behavior–I keep picking up another book. And each book leads me to more books. I have amassed quite a collection in the past few weeks. I know that if I actually read them all, my sabbatical will be over and I will not have even finished another chapter, let alone the whole manuscript. So something’s gotta give.

Writing this blog has been immensely helpful to me this summer. I think I’ve already written more than I have ever succeeded in writing in three months, not just here on the blog but for my book as well. It is true that writing begets writing, as they say. So I am hoping that I can use this entry to write my way through this current block. It’s a version of doing what Joli Jensen, a professor of communication and blogger at Vitae, an academic career website, calls “inviting your demons in for tea.” So come on in, demons.

Maybe it’s obvious why it’s so hard to write about minstrelsy and vaudeville. There’s no denying that these forms of entertainment–entertainment, mind you! Fun! Whee!— depend on, are produced by, and perpetuate appallingly racist beliefs. It’s almost impossible to believe that people ever thought this was funny–much less socially acceptable.

I have to admit that I know I’ve seen some of the movies and cartoons excerpted above (the Bugs Bunny ones, for sure!), but do not remember being offended by them, or even noticing that some of them incorporated blackface minstrelsy. Of course, I remember being shocked by The Jazz Singer and other films that depicted white actors in blackface. But films with African American actors channeling minstrel dances and speech? Bugs Bunny or Elmer Fudd in “brownface”? Monkeyface? What is that? Whatever you call it, it goes to show how tightly racism is woven through the fabric of this country’s entire history, its entire being.

The idea of writing about something so racially charged is pretty scary. And I am not only writing about minstrelsy, but arguing that Swinnerton and Herriman used minstrelsy to turn racism on its head. In other words, contra Audre Lorde, I want to argue that they dismantle the master’s house using the master’s very own tools. Or at least, they try. Here’s one strip by Jimmy Swinnerton that I especially love (in order to read the text, you may need to click on it to see the full-size image):

"Sam as a Magician's Confederate," 1905. San Francisco Academy of Comic Art collection, Billy Ireland Comics Library and Museum.
“Sam as a Magician’s Confederate,” 1905. San Francisco Academy of Comic Art collection, Billy Ireland Comics Library and Museum.

In my view, Swinnerton depicts Sam acting like an ignorant, inarticulate buffoon (as he is perceived to be since he is, of course, black) in order to send up the actual buffoon, the magician. Making such an argument, of course, runs the risk of being misinterpreted, to be taken to be defending the tools themselves–defending racist depictions of buffoonish, ignorant, inarticulate blacks.

So I suppose that in order to make sure I don’t get interpreted this way, I am trying to find out all I can about the form, not just what it is, but what other people have said about it. Maybe that’s it. I am hoping to defend myself from criticism by putting up a palisade of “experts” (including as many African American ones as I can find, I will freely admit) so that I can ventriloquize my ideas through them rather than having to say what I have to say, full voice, name attached.

And now that I’ve said it, I can see that this is pretty much what most academic scholarship is: a series of palisades hiding some very insecure ventriloquists. It’s kind of sad, really.

But I do feel much better now, having said it. Maybe I can actually start writing now.