Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Myth of the English Teacher

Last night was the last class of Ekphrastic Poetry: a month-long workshop based on the relationship between art and poetry. We had such a good group of writers, artists and insightful readers that I will be greatly missing all of them. When a good class gathers and then ends, it can feel like an unwanted break-up. As an English teacher, you so often get to know your students much more quickly and intimately than say if you taught, geometry or gym class. There's rarely a time in math when I recall discussing my favorite theorem or really expressing myself through volleyball. English lends itself towards personal expression and poetry just takes it that much further.

But what I would like to argue against, as a poet and teacher, is the myth of the English teacher: the over-sensitive type standing in front of a group of students with chewed fingernails, coffee stained stutters with a bout of nervous leg syndrome. Someone who is prone to some disorder. Someone boldly wounded. Someone who wants to tell you about their woundness too easily. English teachers aren't all from the same tribe. We are not all just about feelings, wanting students to write about their painful childhoods and some of us will never be caught saying things like, "reading this poem is like waking up on a Tuesday thinking it is really a Sunday." No, some of us want to make sense. Some of us want to help give literature and poetry a better name. A lot of us are just people who like to read and find reading a liberating experience which really we just want to share. Literature is a means to study the history of a culture's consciousness and poetry again takes it that much further. Some of us teachers want to demystify, not simplfy, the world of literature, the workshop and also the idea of the the "writer".

When I think back to my own English teachers, I am pretty sure they represented the wide range of myths of females in literature: the wide scope of the madonna to the whore. Mrs. Craske was everything but crass. No, she wasn't a saint or even Catholic, but she read to us everyday, taught us grammar first then literature, had high expectations, and always encouraged us to read and read voraciously. She didn't give detention or have disciplinary problems, she had what most English teachers have in their pocket: psychological prowess in the art of verbal belittlement. Now, I don't recall anything rude or in severely poor taste, but Mrs. Craske could kick ass with her mouth. She never used profane language, just exacting ways in making you do your work. And she did. She would not tolerate late work, poor effort and laziness and she would tell you just that, in slow very articulated voice over her reading glasses resting on her nose while you feared that pink-lipsticked mouth hovering above your desk.

She stood close to five feet two and yet I remember her as tall. She carried herself well and annuciated perfectly and had a beautiful reading voice. I remember hiding my face while she read Truman Capote's "A Christmas Story", crying into my desk as quietly as I could. What Mrs. Craske gave to me as a student is what I have later used as a teacher: tenacity and strength. The belief to set high expectations, because if you do, perhaps students will reach them and want to reach them. And we usually did in her class. If not, you would certainly hear about it.

Yet sometimes, it's the teacher that doesn't like you that motivates you the most. It is not out of spite or ill-will, more out of those ugly lessons you have to learn early in life if you want to write or if you don't want to be a stereotypical English teacher with a lot of emotional baggage under your tweed jacket and whistful scarf. If you choose to write in this life, you need to learn how to be disliked, rejected and rejected over and over again. Thus is true with my English teacher, Mrs. Hungerford. Mrs. Hungerford showed up at our school mid-year, with outfits that each had a matching belt. She was pretty, too pretty for our small town, and for whatever reason she didn't like me. Ever. Maybe it was because I was on the cusp of my "only wearing muted shades" phase while I sat in the back of the room reading Vonnegut. Mostly, I think it was because of one thing: I wasn't a boy. My dad told me stories of a female professor at college who had a grading scale of : A for athletes, B for boys and C for co-eds. Now, Mrs Hungerford wasn't this extreme, but she was always reading papers from a group of attractive boys who seemed smart, but they were certainly not budding Hemingways.

I recall our final project in tenth grade English with Mrs. Hungerford. It was a simple book report. Now I certainly did not go to a private school, or a school with really high expectations, but at least I can say we were expected to read books. I had selected Slaughter House Five (Vonnegut of course) and had spent a lot of time reading, highlighting and underlining. I've never been a gifted writer, just a worker, so I knew I had to edit and revise a lot. I wasn't one of those write-the-night-before types, so I spent days editing and revising my paper. Days after I had handed it in, Mrs. Hungerford read the entire paper to the class. It was the first time a girl had their paper read out loud. I blushed in the back row. But when the paper was returned with a grade, I was shocked: circled at the bottom of the page was a B. In cursive, she wrote nothing but compliments with few corrections. I was confused so I approached her after class.

Her desk was immaculate and without any pictures, just neat piles of paper. I said nervously, "I don't understand this grade? Will you explain?" Taking off her glasses, she looked at me while seated. "Now your paper is very well written, but it is only four and a half pages. It wouldn't be fair to those who had written five pages when yours is well, shorter. "

"So this is an issue of page length?"


All I remember at the moment was two things: one, my posture changed and I stood as tall and straight as I could and two, I knew I would never forget this moment:

"That doesn't seem fair. If you want to base a grade on length and not content, then fine. You can give me whatever grade you want, but I know this is an A paper. I know my paper is short by one paragraph, but what I did write is solid."

I'd like to say that everyone clapped and all the girls cheered me on like it was some after school special where the awkward kid finds their moment of triumph and the popular kids finally accept them for their weaknesses, try on the geek's glasses and notice how pretty the girl really is. A moment when their faults aren't broadcasted anymore and some song with a driving beat plays in the background. A soundtrack that everyone will later sing while driving alone in their car. But no. No one was there. It was silent. I stood there nervous and yet certain. Mrs. Hungerford cocked an eyebrow and smiled slightly and turned to her piles of papers. I walked out of the room and nothing else was ever said.

There would be others--teachers, professors, and TAs that wouldn't like me. Give me grades based on reasons such as one professor who gave me B- after B- on anything I wrote. He told me with complete seriousness and clarity, "You have a very illogical mind Emily." And another, a TA for my Shakespeare class, wrote on my final paper, "I didn't want to give you an A on anything this semester, but this paper is just too good." It's good to be disliked. It's good to learn how to become even more disciplined, more focused to work for yourself first and not just the doting recognition of others. When you know your "audience" doesn't like you, you work even harder to communicate, to be clear. Also, it is good to know that people might not like you as a person, but they just might like what you write. 

It's good to learn to be more focused on the page, then the person. This also helps when you teach so you yourself aren't overly interested in biography and tell the studies how the poet commited suicide by putting their head in an oven before you tell them how great their poetry is. Really, it doesn't add to what the writer left. And if the students are interested, they can watch some TV late-night documentry with dramatic actors playing their lives. No, stick to the page. Focus on the poem.

When I first met Greg, my now-husband, he told me he got kicked out of his college poetry class within the first week. I knew I was in trouble. He told me he had said something in his first class about not wanting to sit around people just supporting each other and letting abstract words be thrown around the room like some game of Catch the Fledgeling Poet. He was allowed back after speaking with the professor and thankfully he still knows Wallace Stevens by heart and can tell me lines I sometimes forget. He was a Natural Resource student and preferred science to liberal arts, but had requirements to fill and chose intro to poetry. I'm thankful he did and I would imagine some of the others in that class did too. It's good to break down stereotypes of all types, either of student, teacher and hopefully even poet.

It's also a good lesson to learn to thank those who gave you difficult times, who maybe did something that didn't seem fair, but maybe you learned something valuable from it. It's good to thank who hated you, but maybe made you work for yourself, who taught you (perhaps indirectly) to write for what you believe in. As a teacher, I cannot tell you how many times students, sometimes the ones I thought hated me the my requirements the most, later find a way to say thank you, thank you for expecting so much from me. Thanks for not being too easy, but earnest. Thanks for not judging me or my feelings towards you. Really, it's good to even be forgiving of those English teachers that maybe stood with cigarette orange fingers and sadness. Under all that tweed and self inflicted tenderness, they are people too. 

Who knows, there might be more insurance salesmen sitting behind some desk writing out a sonnet, or some English teacher who climbs big mountains in their free time, or even a poet who loves this world so much they dream of flowers mostly, mostly in shades of colors other than black.

This poem I share with you perhaps isn't the most seasonal, but it is one that I really wrote just for myself --not from some place drenched in a lot of emotion or trying to say really anything revolutionary--just a simple still life of my joy in writing. 


The hardy perennials of July thrive
in sand, survive arctic winds and lay still
for months to sink their roots around
rocks, and when I sit on moss and granite

to collect them, I never let myself eat 
one. I stare at their mouths
open in the shape of a star.
The five tips resisting,

so my fingers won't ink my lips
blue. The color of a pen I never lend,
keep for myself while I wait to taste
the words ripening in my ear.

So Much Sky, Sometimes

Frostad_for_website.jpgStephanie Frostad's "The Invention of Sorrow"

This painting is at the Missoula Art Museum and has been recently acquired as part of the Contemporary Collector's Circle. The CCC is a group of individuals who purchase pieces by regional artists which reflect the imagery of the American West. The American West seems to be about the most Romantic phrase I can think of still used in our culture. I'm also surprised by how often it is still referred to as a mythical and poetical ideal. As if all this vast land, this space is our Greece; our country's place for stories to be told as fables and morality tales where characters rise and fall into iconic lessons. Like some sort of Steinbeck in all of us exists as shovel, meadow, depression, water, and work. We live as prairie by day and California by night. Our stories are those of wind over dried land instead of oceans. In our myths, we gave up the sailboat and mast for the automobile and factory. And what is left, is what was left before in Ancient tales, epic pursuits: just a man and a woman trying to love each other, trying to find solace below all this sky. 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Divorce Yourself

It was late spring in 1998 and all went from white to green in a manner of what felt like a few short days in Poland. Perhaps the only similarity between Montana and this country is how spring arrives. It comes like its name--sprouting out from layers of white and shades of dusted brown. I had been teaching English at a British school to students, all Polish, from the ages of six to sixty-five. Eleven years had passed since the Velvet Revolution, but even the six year olds told me that Poland has always been more like a radish; a thin covering of red, but mostly white--mostly democratic. And they were right. They were feisty about learning, very capable at arguing even at age six in broken English. All were determined to learn English with the hopes to move farther west in hopes to land jobs with the help of their English as if it was the one thing that could overshadow their passport.

Most of my students knew about America through television, but they wanted to know how many bathrooms I had in my house growing up and how many people did I have to share my bedroom with. But regardless of their questions, all of them were very diligent students. I was too. I studied Polish to read poetry not in translation, but mostly for practical purposes: to travel. And I did. I explored the beautiful fields and mountains and countryside of the great land that literally means, field. I took lessons twice a week with a tutor who spoke three other languages fluently and yet had never left her hometown of Kielce, known to Poles as the "knife city." Kielce was tough, but I loved it. Sure, it was mostly grey bloc houses, but it was surrounded by rolling hills and few people who spoke English. I loved the fact that it was the town where the Krakowian clergy would come to "catch some air." As if air was like butterflies, and all they had to do was walk around the rolling hills to fill their lungs before they went back to incense, stone and prayer. 

I travelled that spring a lot and felt like a clergyman myself. I just wanted to get out into the hills and remember that God wasn't something just to think about in buildings. I was anxious to find wildflowers and small towns along the Wisla and searched for churches in the hills with onion-domed roofs. I was going to stay past spring and into June to travel more in Eastern Europe. I had my thoughts on Odessa or maybe even Kiev, but my sister called and wanted to come and visit, travel with me for a few weeks and "see Europe." I recall trying to arrange plans via the phone, a static line over the Atlantic and all the way to Portland, Oregon where she lived and worked as a designer for Nike. She had two weeks and I thought we might go to Croatia and work our way along crumbling cities and the Adriatic to hopefully find ourselves on the Korcula islands. I was missing water and wanted to keep traveling in "the East", but she had it already settled: we were going to Switzerland.

She sent me maps and had everything planned out as to where we would stay and how we would get there. There was Davos and the Graubunden region and we were going to go to via Salzburg, the "home" of The Sound of Music, which is my sister's favorite movie. I tried to tell her that the Zloty (Polish currency) was not strong and that I would be limited with finances. Even though I made the same as an anesthesiologist in Poland, $300, a month: I knew it wouldn't go far in Switzerland. But she was determined. And my sister's determination is one thing no one can mess with. And so I agreed, mostly I didn't push it because it was my sister's first trip to Europe, but mostly I agreed because it was her first big adventure after her divorce.

She had married young and well, it just didn't work out as she had planned. I was in college when it happened and I don't recall much other than it was hard, a shock, not her choice and so she moved from Michigan to the west where my brother lived; Portland, Oregon. She arrived and worked her way from temp jobs in a lumber mill, to spraying perfume at department stores to finally landing a job in Nike. She told me on a train in Austria that she had lied in the interview for her job about knowing certain computer programs. Once she had the job, she would stay and teach herself after hours all that she needed to "already know." Say what you want about Nike, but what it gave my sister was confidence. It gave her a chance to start again, to believe in herself in the middle of a time when she could barely drive. She was distracted by sadness, by her changing identity from wife to single woman, but mostly I think she felt tattooed by a word I think she felt she had inscribed on herself: divorce.

And so when my sister said, "we are going to Switzerland." I did what I had always done with my sister; I went along and tried to use humor instead of arguing. Thankfully, I had something else I could finally add to my cache: the ability to speak foreign languages. When my sister arrived in Warsaw, I remember even though she was smiling, she looked tired, thin and worn from not just a transatlantic trip: she looked worn from life. Sure, I had been in Poland for a year where I watched a woman walk on her hands to the market and later drag her vegetables in a bag, wrapped around one of her limp legs. Life was hard in Poland, you pushed people on buses to get on, you ate standing up sometimes in soup kitchens, men cried in public even when they weren't drunk. But when I first saw my sister,  I just wanted to take her hand and not let go. For the first time, I wanted help her, I wanted to do something: I wanted be my sister's guide and more than just her joking side kick. 

And I was. While traveling from Krakow to Prague, we took an overnight train, a couchette, and I knew we would have to show our passports in the middle of the night, so I had mine and my sister's ready. In the middle of night, a knock came at the door with a stern voice following, "Pashport Kuntrol"  with a thick Polish accent. I opened the door, handed the documents to a young man in a grey suit , who stamped them, gave a nod, and then left. But when a second knock came, I became a bit suspicious. I opened the door and this time there were two men standing. Same procedure and when I closed the door, my sister had awakened and asked what was wrong. "Nothing" I said, "I think just a bunch of curious bored passport controllers who want to see some girls in pajamas." By the third time there was a knock, I opened the door and four men were standing there. I decided to not be quiet and use some of the words my Polish tutor had taught me in whispers in her house.  I wasn't shy or rude, but directly asked them in Polish, "Christ, do you really need four controllers to wake us up three times? I think you just want to see two American girls in their pajamas and not just our passports?" Their mouths dropped and they scurried away with their heads down. I smiled and closed the door. I turned to see my sister on the top bunk laughing so hard she almost fell out. We still laugh about that scene of men, even today. 

There were more scenes from that trip that we both hold on to: our first funicular ride up into the Alps, eating chocolate in St. Moritz, and braiding my sister's hair to look like Heidi before we climbed up past cows and alpine homes with weathered window boxes, up into the clouded mountains, up into what feels like the atrium of the earth, up to the attic of Europe. At the top of the Alps, you feel you are beyond birds, seasons, and even time--where it is all snow, rock and wind. Here, it is where rivers, grass, and meadows and maybe even where humans began. It is no wonder, Graubunden, translates as The League (or state) of God's House. 

Maybe I'm being a bit too metaphysical, but what I know was in the middle of that summer, my sister and I began again. We became something different to each other; we became friends. This is the beauty of family because it is defined by relationships.  Maybe you aren't close to a sibling or even a parent when you are younger, but through time and sometimes a birth, a death, maturity or just a trip you can change the dynamics of your relationship. Relationships shift and change, just like plate tectonics. Sometimes in the middle of our lives we begin to see even ourselves differently, we can grow, we can even be different to those in our family. We can divorce ourselves from old roles, or old habits that maybe just don't work anymore. We can re-invent even our family dynamics, even in the middle of our lives. I feel pretty lucky. My sister and I got to do it while we climbed mountains and ate Swiss chocolate.

We made more trips together, more meetings in foreign airports, more travels filled with scenes we still laugh about, like the time we hitchhiked in Northern Italy, where I chatted with the driver in Italian while my sister sat in the back seat. When he dropped us off at our hotel, she said, "He seemed nice." waving.

 "Really?" I said, slapping the door. "We argued the whole time. He complained about giving us a ride and I told him to lighten up. He had a story to tell his friends for days about two young American girls he picked up. That guy was a total jerk." 

"Oh, you sounded like you were friends." she said laughing.

"No way. I think Italian makes even arguments sound pretty." 

Besides our different roles while we travel, my sister and I both love to explore markets and eat well and eat anything wherever we go. This recipe is one that I always give credit to my sister for either inventing or mimicking from one of her own trips she took to Italy with her husband. These olives outshine any roasted olive recipe that I know of and have been a staple in my house and they taste great in the middle of any season. Enjoy.

Becky's Roasted Olives

3 to 4 cups of olives, a mix of green and black brine-cured olives, pits left in
1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon of fresh rosemary, cut up
1/2 teaspoon of orange or tangerine zest
1/2 cup of olive oil

1. Preheat oven to 300 
2. mix all of the above ingredients in a bowl, (can be put in the fridge for a few hours to marinade too.)
3. put olives in a roasting pan and over with foil
4. roast for about an hour


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Zur Laden Zum Gutenberg

Tomorrow is Earth Day and all I can think about is the printing press.  The little bit I know about Gutenberg didn't come for seeing Gutenberg! The Musical! (yes, there is a musical about the printing press) And if it is anything like Mama Mia! I don't want to see it. Musicals make me nervous. Perhaps the only musicals I have seen that didn't cause me to hide my head in my hands when the distant background music starts while someone's in conversation or thought is The Sound of Music and Dancer in the Dark. Perhaps it is the fact that neither of these two need exclamation marks in their titles, but I think it's because The Sound of Music is well, about music so it doesn't seem odd that Maria circles around on a Austrian mountain top with seven children in matching clothes made from curtains when all of them break into song. It seems like a different take on Snow white and the Seven Dwarfs. And Dancer in the Dark? It's an anti-musical musical. A postmodern version of life in America filmed in Denmark where the lead character is played by the Icelandic singer, Bjork. It somehow seems a bit more plausible than ABBA being sung my Meryl Streep in Greece for a young girl's wedding so she can be reunited with her three unknown fathers. Maybe I like Meryl Streep better in Africa with a Danish accent looking like a model for Banana Republic. Streep and Redford didn't need to break into song to prove their love. Maybe musicals aren't for every story.

Yet somehow, the story of the printing press has made it into a one-act musical played by two actors, Bud and Doug, who sing and act all the parts. I find it hard to connect the idea of a 15th century German epochal invention with a modern day score sung by two guys in baseball caps. But then again, Romeo and Juliet merged on the streets of 1950's New York for West Side Story. And Christ comes to life in Hamlet Two's "Rock me Sexy Jesus", so who am I to criticize a musical about a German man and his dream to print the Bible. What is known about this inventor and artist is mostly the Gutenberg Bible, yet what is interesting to note is that the first published document in 1439 was a poem. One could argue that a poem is short and a practical genre for a test run. Yet, I cannot imagine it was a German haiku. I cannot tell you the title or the author, but I find it interesting that he chose a poem to be the first printed text. 

Poetry has this beauty about how it looks on a page. No matter what language or from what era the poem is written or even if it is held up across the room, you know a poem when you see one. Its indention, its length, its shyness to go all the way to the right side of the page. Even in Arabic, you can identify a poem by it's appearance and if your eyes attempt to read it backwards. Poetry wants to be identified even it's by ee cummings. You recognize that it's a poem long before you read about the goatfoatedballoonman. Regardless of the eons that people have been writing poems on papyrus or stone, the shape has not been altered or changed much.

But what has changed is how a lot of poetry is now published. Now we are in D.A. the digital age, but does poetry translate on the screen? Does it have the same affect? Should we honor our Earth by not cutting down more trees for such small words to be printed on paper? Will something be lost if we stop the printing press? These are the questions I ask on this almost Earth Day. These are the questions I ask you, my now thirteen readers, about my dream that I cannot seem to let go of.

No, I don't have the private hope of writing a musical. Although I once worked at a French Restaurant where I would entertain my co-workers by threatening to write Chateaulin a bawdy play about a gay bartender named Lance who wants to leave Ashland, Oregon to become a performer in NYC. It just seemed too real and not enough flare for music. But what is real is my dream to have a book of poems published. I have stopped believing in the small press fairies that will someday visit me at night and leave a book under my pillow. I have sent out my manuscript, Recoil, so many times I am afraid to add up the amount I have spent on "reading fees" for first book contests. Sure, I know the stories of countless authors and their rejections. I am surprised there isn't a high school musical about J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye on how it was rejected hundreds of times before it was picked up by the New Yorker

Poetry is a bit different than fiction. First of all, few people read it, which means few publishers want to risk something that they already know won't make any money. Secondly, poetry isn't like basketball. There aren't any scouts out there looking for the next Magic Johnson, the next Shakespeare. Also, poetry (unlike musicals or basketball) doesn't have "try outs" it just has lots of small presses that have limited budgets and an even more limited readership. Yet despite all of these apparent obstacles, I still want to find a way to publish a book of poems.

This past week a book arrived in the mail which I have been waiting for The Dance Most of All by Jack Gilbert. I pre-ordered it over a month ago and have been anxiously awaiting its debut. I ordered it in hard cover and gently opened the box it came in and savored the first opening of the pages; its scent and the experience of opening the bound world in my hands. I gently ran the pages through my fingers and let the book open itself to the first poem it wanted me to read. This is truly something I could sing about. The act of holding a book, the private world that you feel as a reader, is something that I just cannot force myself to feel while sitting in front of a computer when I read something as intimate as a poem. Yet, here I am. I am sitting in front of you as I write this. I am going to be including a poem at the bottom which I hope you will read. Can I tell you that I didn't write this poem in front of the computer, but while pulling weeds and envisioning an herb garden? Can I ask you if you would read a book on poems on a computer or would you want to read it alone in your own comfortable chair, maybe under a window away from the mechanical glow of a screen?

I ask you these questions because my husband is trying to convince me to self-publish a book of poems. He has found a way to publish on-line but I am stubborn. Despite my earnest interest in this blog, this internet outreach program I have started, I still have dreams of a book. Please forgive my selfish need, Earth, to cut down trees to see my poems find a home in your own mailbox someday. But I am curious. I am eager to see my dream realized. Hell, isn't this the basic plot line of most musicals say Annie or Tommy? I just don't expect Daddy Warbucks to come knocking on my door or the Who to want to cover my life in song. So I ask you, my faithful readers: What do you think about publishing a book of poems on the internet? Any feedback is always welcomed thanks to the comment box. And if  I do get a book of poems published, I'll make certain Andrew Lloyd Weber doesn't get a hold of it. We all know what happened to Cats or is it Cats!.
Until then, enjoy a new poem. 


There's a shoe box in my closet filled with flowers,
photos of poppies and fields of Poland
springing away from grey block homes
and fenced gardens. Not one view of a person
or a room I once lived in, open petals
of a daisy I keep hidden. My private season.
I imagine even Chopin played sometimes
just for himself, his heart swollen as a bowl
of bulbs forced to bloom in a wintered kitchen.
All scent and snow. Nocturnes to play in the morning
or he'd walk the haunting streets of spring,
where a tulip boxed under a city window
could weep in public, instead of him. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Comment Box

Missoula is a baby crazy town. It doesn't help that I work in the Good Food Store, which could also be known as the Good Parent Store. Everyday I see mothers toting their kiddies around in plastic red car carts or new mothers maneuvering produce with a sling of a baby at their breast and parents together are often overheard in aisles silently shouting to their two year-old, "do you think that is a good choice, Willow?" My favorite are the kids with dreads who are dressed like cast members from Planet of the Apes. I have seen a few who play this game of running through the store finding something like a watermelon to throw and then hide under the bulk wheat germ. I don't recall playing that game myself as a child. Call me crazy, but coming from a household where you couldn't say the word "fart," this behavior seems pretty extreme. 

But what seems more extreme to me are the parents. Sure, I don't blame Sunbeam for wanting to play the old "chuck and duck" game in the store, but what I find baffling are the reactions from the parents or rather, the lack of reactions. Once after a cooking class--around 9:30 pm--a family came in and let their kids run. Yup. Run around the store like it was some park and somehow one of the kids wanted to play a version of "find something heavy and throw it on the floor." Again, another game I don't remember being allowed to play. While standing next to the child, the parent, witnessed the antic and stood back and said in a flat bored tone, "Felix, please stop," and processed to walk away. Maybe Felix's dad was tired and worn out from working, getting organic food for his family, and somehow maybe tired too of being the best hipster parent on top of it all. 

And it must be hard to want to be the best parent ever--but who doesn't? Even those of us who might not have children still foster thoughts of "when I have kids I'm going to" as if we all imagine standing in front of a large audience with a sash around our torso in cursive saying, "Best Parent of America" while we eloquently answer the question of "how will you create the most responsible and creative child this country has yet to see?" What is the answer? I am not sure, but I bet there is a new baby book titled, "Nurturing the Socially and Environmentally Responsible Baby in a Crumbling Economy." I don't have any intention of writing this book nor do I have any direct experience in rearing anything more than a hermit crab or an egotistical cat. What I do know about parenting, I have learned from poetry workshops.

Poetry workshops are a different breed. It's usually a group of people who are trying so hard to not take themselves so seriously, but they are poets and show up with something that screams, "this is me, please, will someone please validate me, please?" Even if they bring in a haiku. It is often a room filled with painfully articulate people and sometimes someone comes just dressed in their ego. I should know, I have been a poetry student in many workshops. Luckily, I have had some wonderful professors who used humor with tact and sensitivity always to model how to take on the task of teaching poetry. Under their tutelage and from my own painful mistakes, I have learned a lot about teaching poetry. I have learned that when working with poetry students, follow the same maxims as working with four year-olds.  Here are my top ten:

 1.) Be a good listener, an active listener while someone reads their work or tells a story about their pet that has recently died.
 2.) Monitor the group and don't let one person dominate i.e. take all of the toys or ballooning egos, but give them back when they leave for the day.
 3.) Give time to those who are quiet, try to allow equal time for everyone to speak.
 4.) Have patience for all sorts of emotions that might arise, but don't let one person indulge in too much of themselves which might make the whole room feel awkward i.e. don't let someone destroy someone else's poem or block tower
 5.) As the instructor, don't be afraid to take control, but don't respond or react from your own ego i.e) never hit a child or student even if you want to.
 6.) Encourage freedom of expression, but set clear expectations i.e. being naked isn't allowed in public places.
 7.) Be genuine in both your criticism and your praise i.e. sensitive people and four year-olds can snuff you out.
8.) Don't be afraid to say when something is inappropriate i.e. boundaries are helpful for everybody, especially poets and toddlers. The idea of " you can say anything"  is a myth.
9.) Have compassion i.e. really try to have both empathy for whatever someone brings to the table even if it is a dead gerbil, literally this can happen.
10.) Eye contact i.e. it is the simplest on the list but it sets a tone of understanding, attentiveness and helps everyone feel they are being heard. 

So maybe all of you (three people) who are reading this might think, what do I really know about parenting or maybe even about poetry for that matter. I don't have any kids or a book tour. I really don't know much, but what I do know is that children and poetry are both gifts. Simply, they are both gifts to this world and what they bring surprises us all. The complexity of both are beyond me and we humans don't seem to stop having children and thankfully haven't stopped writing poems either. I just wish we could have our own comment box for both.

This past week my husband and I have witnessed so many young couples merge into the role of super-parents. The new book shelf in their homes with editions of parenting 101, the stressed smiles while they tell me, "this is great." They are all working so hard and doing a great job. We are also related to some of these super-parents and feel lucky to be uncle Greg and auntie Em. But Greg said to me, "wouldn't it be great if each parent could have some kind of comment box, some card where people could write things like, hey you are really trying hard, don't take yourself so seriously people have been having babies for a really long time. Spend time as a couple. Don't take turns skiing, ski together, and always find time for a hot date." Comment cards are great, you can give criticism and praise and you might even learn something too. 

But it's not likely that new parents will have a comment box anytime soon. And besides, who am I to tell people how to raise their kids. My husband and I can't even keep plants alive. But accepting this fault isn't as devastating as criticism from something as personal and permanent as parenting. This blog, on the other hand, welcomes criticism and it even has a comment box. Don't be afraid to leave some comments. Or tell your friends to read my blog and they can make their own judgement too. Bottom line, criticism is how we learn, it's an opportunity if nothing else. Like this poem, it might be a different way to look at the Madonna and Child than just the pastoral Raphael painting of il bambino, called the Cowper Madonna. Enjoy.

The Vendor

I might give up my life to sell candles 
in Urbino, maybe scarves or small prints
of Madona il Bambino. Days bartering a gaze
of perpetual boredom, an orange haired Mary
in crabapple only shares the same nose
and faint halo as her son, who looks more man
than infant in his nakedness and well-kept hair.
There is no bounce to her lap, no single red flower blooms
in the spring she waits in. She sits heavy
like a walled city. More bored tourist 
than Madonna, she's just a snap shot
with a stone cross in the horizon. Maybe
Mary is just tired of being so good.
Even in Italy, women want more than portraits
of complacency to hang on their walls or frivolous jewelry
to wear like a heavy baby, some souvenir. 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Jesus Shaves and Eats Jif Peanut Butter

There's an old adage that says, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." I must confess, I had to look up this adage for the correct wording. Yes, I may be a poet, but I am a failure at even the simplest of adages. Once I tried to say to a friend, "Don't count your chickens before they become pennies." Adages, I've never been good at remembering exactly. Frankly, I don't like them and secretly distrust people who rely on them and use them during times of seriousness and sincerity.  Adages seem cheap, cliche and well, an easy way out of explaining a personal dilemma or a difficult situation.

Yet, despite my aversion to adages, there seems to be a fraction of truth to them, especially about first impressions. But even first impressions deserve some shades of explanation. For example, there is context to first impressions; someone might have had a bad day, hit a bunny on their way to work, found out they have cancer -and then walk into a room and say, "Hi, I'm Sally what a pleasure to meet you." Context, right? Another odd moment in today's world is meeting someone you only "know" through the internet and then you finally get to meet them in person. Someone told me after we had met that they thought I was going to be fat because my e-mails had been so funny. Really, is there an adage about fat people being funny? I don't know this one.

Adages, like modern mythic holiday figures and even sacred figures in history, do have some history of truth or I'd like to think so. Take for instance, Jesus and the Easter Bunny. One is a Judeo-Christian creation while the other is an Anglo-Saxon pagan. And both are often seen as the protagonists in separate books: The Bible and The Velveteen Rabbit. Despite their differences there are similar themes such as resurrection, renewal, and the belief in love. Yet maybe even more interestingly is how both come together for one holiday: Easter. 

Despite my grandmother's ardent efforts to buy me a picture book Bible every birthday until I turned 12, my favorite stories about Jesus have come from David Sedaris. In his short story, "Jesus Shaves," a group of students from all over the world try in broken French to explain the purpose of Easter to their Parisian teacher. Some of their explanations include, " He call his self Jesus and then he die one day on two morsels of...lumber." Also, "He nice, the Jesus." And finally, "He make good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today." The story isn't just funny, it is an ironic insight into the idea of faith. Sedaris attempts to discuss that the resurrection, or the ability to recreate onself, isn't just limited to holy men in togas. Sedaris attempts mostly through humor to talk about the need for "The Easter" and really the need for faith in ourselves, even if it's in just trying to learn a new language. Really, if I had to think of the two people who taught me the most about the purpose of Easter, it would be David Sedaris and my mother. 

One of my earliest memories of my mother is her standing over the stove in a worn blue bathrobe. I recall coming up for breakfast one morning following the hint of smokey links and then preceded to lie on my back and roll all over the floor. I rolled back and forth and shouted, "I have too much feeling inside." I don't recall my mother's response, but I do know she fed me and kept busy in the kitchen. This has continued to be a common interaction. I will be selfish or self involved, talking way too much about some existential dilemma sounding like Woody Allen, while my mother remains focused and selfless over the stove. As if to show and indirectly say, " just do something, something for someone else and maybe you yourself will feel better." 

And my mom did so much for me. She read to me, made my clothes, and took tasks like collecting mushrooms in spring into adventures. But showing the act of selfless love isn't the only trait of Easter that my mother has taught me. She has this ability to resurrect just about anything in the fridge into something new. For example, she has this habit of mixing all of the juices into one and giving it some name like, "mock champagne." Once, while making beef stroganoff, or so we thought, we quietly chewed and looked up to her in confusion as she said, "it's wheat meat, I wanted to try something new, " and went back to eating her food. Some of my favorite memories are eating frozen cherries in the middle of February when all was white and we forgot about color. My mother would pull out a zip lock bag from the freezer and fill a bowl with summer: resurrecting our taste buds and keeping us from becoming too dulled by the days of being kept inside.

Mostly, the ideas of Easter my mother has taught me come in one word: faith. This isn't in the esoteric sense of the word, but faith in simple acts. Faith in doing something instead of worrying about it or over-thinking about it. Faith is about believing in what you love to do, staying focused on it and doing even the smallest of actions to make it manifest. My mother loves to cook. She herself isn't afraid to try something new, but keeps her old recipes like some closet of friends she wants to visit with, keeps the flavors of family members alive, but mostly she cooks for us. She taught me that the act of feeding others, really helps you feed yourself, helps you to learn how to give in a manner of not expecting returns. Well, maybe expecting a thank you once in awhile.

And thanks to my mother and her lifetime of modeling faith through food, now I find myself in my own kitchen and I stare at a recipe or something I want to try and I don't hesitate or shy away from something complex or new. I just do it. I don't know a lot of the times how it will taste, but I figure if I follow along and be attentive then it will probably be good, maybe even be something I feel proud of making and ultimately worthy of sharing. And like my mother, if a dish doesn't turn out, I too have chickens to feed. And a husband who will eat what the chickens won't. Someone or something will benefit.

Easter is a time for chocolate bunnies, brunch and reflection on spring and new beginnings. It is a time for faith and a time for recipes that come around once a year. A time to give to others even if it is just a plate of food, a basket of eggs or chocolate nests. This recipe came from my nursery school and it is fun to make with little ones, for little ones and big ones too. My mom once sent these to me while living in Poland, and I recall eating them all. They are Easter to me. They are my mother. And mostly they are simple, fun, and a reminder of an edible spring.

Easter Nests

12 oz. chocolate chips
1/2 of a 9 0z. jar of crunchy peanut butter
1 box of shredded wheat 
wax paper
candy easter eggs or jelly beans

1. In a double boiler gradually melt chocolate chips and peanut butter together.
2.In a large bowl break the shredded wheat apart or you can break it apart in the package and then pour it out into a bowl.
3. Pour melted chocolate and peanut butter over shredded wheat and mix
4. Using two forks, form a small nest shape, about three inches in diameter and place on waxed paper. Be sure to make a small indentation in the middle of the nests.
5. Chill in fridge for about an hour
6. Place "eggs" in the center of the nests 
(can be kept in a sealed container for up to a week)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Google your Name

April is National Poetry Month and due to a mini-vacation to Salt Lake City, I have been away from posting; however, I am back with a windy April lioness roar. Also, I am thrilled to say that to honor this great month, I am teaching a class on Ekphrastic Poetry. Yup, as my dear husband would say that's e-k-p-h-r-a-s-t-i-c. The class is a month long course that I am team teaching with a good friend of mine and fellow artist, Kelly Hart, at the Missoula Museum of Art. The class meets every Monday for the month of April and last night was our first meeting. It was great. We have a varied, but small group and I was so thrilled by how everyone read poetry. None of the dulled lulling often overheard at poetry readings where it is a drone of da da da da da. Nope. Each person read with conviction, diction, and earnest interest. 

As for what exactly is ekphrastic poetry? It is poetry inspired by painting, sculpture, photography or any other artistic medium, even film. Ekphrasis can also mean when an artist is inspired by a poem which influences their creative process. My own father creates watercolors inspired by Robert Frost poems. As I said previously, my introduction to poetry began with my father's ability to deliver a Frost poem by memory while picking up kindling or watching the forsthia bloom. Seasons changed and withered with the iambs as naturally as the wind in our house. I feel so lucky that poetry began with something as basic as blossoms and as unpretentious as mud puddles in our front yard. I do not carry the talent that my father has in either painting or in his ability to memorize a collection of poems, yet I do believe I carry on his humble and human approach to poetry. 

Last night, during our introductions, I thought of my father. I began by talking about him and his approach to both watercolor and poetry instead of giving a litany of my personal accolades or accomplishments. It felt more natural and I wanted people to feel they could introduce their own personal interest instead of their education or expertise. Frankly, if someone wants to know more about me, they can google my name to see if I exist. This humble approach I think was effective last night, but this has not always worked well for me in the past. Humility isn't always the stance of choice for some. 

During my time in Missoula, I have had many job interviews. These interviews have been for teaching, writing, and for even being a substitute teacher. During every interview, there is usually some statement made by the employer such as, " I see you are a poet." Sometimes, I think they are saying, "I see you are a shepherd." I try to come up with some answer that is humble, yet honest about my pursuit in poetry. Yet somehow this usually works against me. During one interview, I was told, "As a poet, you are a risk at our publication." Wow. How I thought of myself with a beret and some semi-automatic slung over my shoulder and my laptop under the other arm. As if my byline would read Che Emilia, activist and risky poet. As if I would come everyday with a quick anger and a need to rhyme or heaven forbidden I might break out in a freak attack to alliterate all through an article. "Risk?" I asked. "Do you mind clarifying your word choice." I was informed that I would be a risk because of my training as a poet and not as a journalist. It seemed somewhat fair, but not quite worthy of the word risk.

There have been other comments made in job interviews when the employer sees I am a poet. My favorite of all interviews was during a position for teaching English as a Second Language. Now, I don't mean to fall back on my accolades in defense here, but I do have two certificates from Cambridge for ESL and over 10 years of teaching experience, but somehow that wasn't enough credibility for this employer. The job was for a month long course and no real guarantee for further employment after the course. The interview was over an hour and half long with two people grilling me questions about my teaching techniques. I will say, I like interviews. I mean when else are you asked what are your greatest weaknesses as a person? It is kind of fun to think of going into a room with complete strangers and casually discussing your inner most aspirations and trying to defend your existential dilemmas as why you have chosen the career path you have chosen. 

As the interview for the ESL job was winding down, one of the interviewees, who I will remain from giving his real name so let's call him Bob, asked me a question. Bob said, 

"You know Emily, I googled your name and I couldn't find your poetry anywhere?" 

Maybe it was hot in the room or I was tired of trying to talk about myself, but suddenly I saw myself in the film La Femme Nikita. There is a scene in the beginning of the film after Nikita, the main protagonist and female hit lady, is arrested and then taken to the police. She is sitting across a table from a police officer and is asked her name. She is tough, tired and one sexy French woman with a short skirt on. She takes a pencil and rises up and says, "Je suis Nikita" and jabs the officer with the sharp pencil in this hand. The symbolism is pretty straightforward and for a brief second, I wanted to just stand up and say to Bob, 

"I don't need to be on google to exist, you pasty bore." 

I wanted a retort that was bold and somehow risky. I wished I had said something, something strong. But I didn't say anything. Bob continued to say, "have you heard of blogging?It's really quite easy and it's free." I calmly responded, 

"interesting idea Bob, I'll look into that." 

Bob went on to tell me, there are many other ways to get myself "out there" besides blogging in the world of poetry. I graciously listened, nodding my head while envisioning myself as Nikita and Bob as you may guess it, the police officer. 

I didn't get the teaching job. I'm not surprised. But what I did get was a drive to do something for my writing like create this blog and try, as Bob said, "to get myself out there." So here I am. And I am asking all of my faithful readers, you ten lovely followers or anyone else out there reading this, to give me some feedback. Let me know what you think. What do you want to see, read? What do you think is missing here on the blogosphere or what do you think would make this blog even more successful? I want to know. Really. I don't think of myself as risky or even slightly leaning towards pursuing a career as a hit lady, so don't worry about your criticism. It is wanted. 

I began this blog from a desire to share my poetry and recipes with a humble approach in both pursuits. I think the best way to improve is to ask you, the reader, for some suggestions and feedback. Please make a comment on this page, or e-mail me at either emilywalterseitz@gmail.com or emsbleu@yahoo.com or we could even do it the old luddite way, by telephone. Until then, here's a poem. In honor of Bob and all of us who do things that aren't always on the Google.

Placing Her

There's no mirror in the sea. I google
my name to see if I exist and surf
waterless cities like Cash and Hoople
to find eighteen versions of myself.
I live in New Jersey and scream Wagner
at trains. Sometimes roosters brag
in my fourth floor walk up.
The best version of myself teaches preschoolers
to bend forks after nap time. I believe this
reduces crime. I want to call myself, ask,
do you believe in the myth of Emily Walter?
Forget about the nightmares of Katherine Hepburn.
Forget about my mother as Katherine Hepburn
alone in her underwear. I am more than
glass and less than the sea. I don't look like
either of them in a dress.