Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why I Teach, or Why I am a Writer, final draft

due 12/13 SAT  5 min presentation/performance.

It's hard to choose between teaching and writing
each process informs the other.
See, I was an artist before I became a poet.
I was a poet before I started teaching kids art,
but I was also literary jailbait. It was a bootstrap affair.
 I arrived late to poetry all out of breath,
with things to say and nowhere to channel them.
I was a bad student in high school and college.
Least likely to succeed. I couldn't keep what I learned.
It was like a hive of bees swarming inside my head.
Stinging my tongue so I couldn't speak.

I didn't know the parts of speech, but I loved to read.
Art was my saving grace, I found my passion,
or, rather, I found something I could excel at.
I had no idea I was dyslexic, I hid my secret from the world,
wondered what was wrong inside my head. Those angry bees.
Because I read voraciously to escape the grim world,
no one tested me for learning disabilities. They called it laziness.

I was in 3rd grade before I learned to read. I remember the day.
A blue sky filled with whorls and a pinging sound
like champagne bubbles bursting. But it was all about fucking Dick
with that goody-two-shoes Jane and their stupid dog, Spot.
So I tuned out for the next nine years. It was the 60s.

At college I took bonehead classes for dummies.
In grade school, I was already labeled: Not college material.
My counselor steered me towards the typing pool and teaching.
I was a recalcitrant student. Mule-stubborn, I refused to learn to type.
I’d give my eye teeth now for that skill. At best, I’m a 4-fingered typist.

But then, my counselor disappeared, it was during the 70s,
the school misplaced my SAT scores and aptitude tests.
So I took advanced Biology 1A and English 1A classes.
The first half of the semester I failed miserably at both,
but then, mid-semester, both my teachers were replaced.

My biology teacher was nearly killed in a plane crash,
my English teacher ran off to bicycle across Europe,
(and then married my classmate, Adar Lara).
It was the early 70s, everybody was busy finding themselves).

Mid-semester, my teachers were both replaced by radical women,
and I began to excel. It was also the birth of Women's Studies.
Our teachers were Joanne Griffin, sex worker Margo St. James, of COYOTE,
Gloria Steinem, our guru-goddess, and Our Bodies, Ourselves, our tome.
Experimental behavioral psychology: BF Skinner, Konrad Lorenz. Imprinting.
We began to de-program the past to fit our future.

But back to Biology and English, I went from failing the courses
to receiving As and Bs. My counselor couldn't figure it out.
He scratched his head. Other than the fact that I scored high
at the likelihood of becoming a Spanish-speaking nun scientist
like Sor Juana de la Cruz, those tests weren't much help.
I was allergic to religion. According to my SAT test scores,
I shouldn't have taken those 1A classes—and yet, I passed with flying colors.
I was straddling genres. And clearly, I didn't test well. That much was certain.

I adored my biology teacher, Dr. Fatt from Finland,
who told us stories about her Siamese cat. 
The dark fur on their extremities is sensitive to cold—
So she strapped frozen sponges onto the cat's white belly,
and the poor kitty's tummy fur turned black.
She taught us through stories and by cause and effect.
She tested the territorial behavior of stickleback fishes.
Proved that they saw red when presented with something red.
She teased them with red things like they were little bulls.
Even though bulls are colorblind, and can't see red,
it didn’t matter. The stories stayed with me.

I don't remember if the English teacher told us stories,
but I do remember Dan Niblock, sang "Geordie" during class.
I was mesmerized. I loved Irish and English ballads.
When Vic Damone’s daughter sang My Funny Valentine
I got the chills. Finally—an opening wide enough to let me in.
We entered the English literary tradition via ballads and song.
Writing papers was my nemesis. I had to cut and paste everything.
But the ballads told stories. The teacher must've broken the mold.

Shakespeare’s plays led me to the theater department,
so while I pursued an AA in art, I was also enmeshed in theater.
Too shy to try out for parts, I designed costumes, painted stage sets.
My theater classmates moved onto Julliard (Robin Williams, James Harper,
Joel Blum, Anni Long, Mark Rasmussen). Theater was not my calling.

(My mother was a costume designer/actress, so the stars of stage and screen including Tommy Smothers, Lloyd Bridges, and Sterling Hayden were my babysitters). I was also allergic to the tinsel promise of Hollywood’s pipe dreams.

It was time to leave the idyllic nest and graduate to the next stage of life.
It was more like being kicked out kicking and screaming, but that's another story.
What was my calling? What was my passion. I loved art, but it didn’t feed me enough. Angry clouds of words buzzed in my head with nowhere to go.

Meanwhile we were still protesting the Vietnam war, practicing civil disobedience— ours was the only high school in the nation to make the 6 O'Clock News, and the cover of Time Magazine. Our class president, Jared Rossman, baby brother to Mark, who was Abby Hoffman's left-hand man. And yes, I was there in Sproul Plaza, witnessing the famous Free Speech movement. Didn’t understand a thing. Older brothers and sisters boarded that Greyhound bus at the San Anselmo Theological Seminary, to march on Selma, Alabama. Some were drafted, and some never came back. The times, they were indeed a-changin'.

And now we're back at it again. Oscar Grant is not forgotten in this town. Eric Garner and Mike Brown. The new martyrs. I despair. I live equidistant between Oakland and Berkeley and every night the enraged air vibrates with 'choppers circle overhead like we were back in 'Nam…. Anger swarms at the crossroads.
But I’m off task. I applied to San Francisco State, but the shock of urban culture and casual violence undid me. It was still a time of protests, riots, chain gangs, a murder in the men’s room, and a girl raped in the library stacks; for comic relief, there was this guy dressed in tinfoil, selling plots on the moon. I might as well have been on the moon for what it was worth.

The art department was dismal. The painter who I was to study with, Wayne Thiebaud, took a year off. Bob Bechtle had us painting 2-inch squares from Monkey Ward catalogues. Outhouse work. Helene Aylon was experimenting with the razor edges of art—we were way beyond dada, we were shit-deep into the theater of the absurd. Julian Beck, Ann Halprin, and the Committee were our tabula rosa. The art building was condemned, so we painted murals on the walls to prove we were there, and watched the demolition ball swing. We were also homeless.

So, I split to Sonoma State. I should've guessed things weren't going to go smoothly at Granola State. The art department was dismal. So there I was, once again, without anchor, without a mentor I could respect. Sonoma State was in the process of being built, so we were shoved in the basement of Darwin Hall. Art and science were rigidly divided. There was no community. Perhaps that’s why I gravitated to poetry. But I didn’t know how to write.

During my first years of becoming functionally literate, it was a bootstrap effort,  I learned by doing. Then I was in a car accident and when I was tested for motor skill coordination, I failed. It was a relief to know that there was some odd wiring in my head. And it had a name: dyslexia. It gave me a doorway to access my thought processes. The bi-cameral mind. I just had to figure out how to break down the door and enter the house of memory.

From there, I was able to unravel that tangled morass of thought and memory and put information into my head so I could (sometimes) retrieve it. One must begin with what is interesting. What is interesting? Stories. After hearing Gary Snyder read stories of my home at Olney Hall, I said: I can do that, and I began to write.
The personal story and rant of Beat poetry was relevant, like the stories and ballads of my childhood, like the things my grandmother told me again and again. My mother was nuts, her stories needed extensive retranslation, so I was raised by my Irish grandmother, who was a bearer of an ancient oral tradition. I had a foot in both worlds.

But I was hungry for synthesis and I drifted into an experimental cross-discipline cluster school, Expressive Arts. And there I found community and my life's calling. Not one arts discipline, but many. We were an ongoing psychology experiment, there was no dividing line between teachers and students: Jack Crimmins, Fred Curchack, Elizabeth Herron, Mac McCreary, Red Thomas (who founded SSU and taught us to “follow your passion”), and guest speakers including Natalie, and Carl Rogers. We learned that our vocation is the place where passion meets the world’s hunger.

Honing my craft, I also attended poetry workshops. One summer, we crashed Port Townsend's Centrum Foundation, slept in abandoned barracks, and on beaches. Sharon Doubiago, Tobey Kaplan, Leonard Cirino and I went to sit at the feet of Meridel LeSueur. The Centrum Foundation tried to throw us out, we were personae non grate—but Meridel said: The California poets stay, or I go. Showdown. And so we did. Sharon read from her manuscript, Hard County. Meridel said it HAD to be published, and so it happened. All those craft lectures began to filter down and settle into the crevices of my brain. I learned by osmosis.
Because I was working for alternative newspapers, I attended the Napa Valley Poetry Conference, as a photojournalist, and then I began to sneak into the workshops. Dave Evans, the director, knew I had no money so we traded photos to study poetry with the greats: my teachers were Carolyn Forché, Galway Kinnell, Gerald Stern, Carolyn Kizer, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, Steve Kowitt, Linda Gregg (whom I went to grade school with), and Jane Hirshfield (who was my co-poet at CPITS). They were my tribe. It was a long time coming, but I finally found out where I belonged.

One spring, we all ran off to the Bahamas to create the first and last international Napa Valley poetry conference. Through the workshops, I was meeting poets from across America, and abroad, exposed to myriad voices. The Bahamian voice, so like our own home-speak. Poetry didn’t have to be about the ivory towers of academe, it was also the language of the street. Poetry was a secret language, a form of code switching.

I also began to travel, because I was teaching Sonoma County history and poetry, I landed in the USSR, carrying art and poetry both directions. I was an accidental ambassador, giving readings, teaching poetry in Soviet schools, and translating poetry. I never meant for any of  it to happen. Time and place and circumstance.
I brought the books of Larry Ferlinghetti and Dave Eggers to the USSR. The Soviets didn’t know what to make of this free form writing. Poetry rhymed! These were forbidden books. 

But who knew Dr. Zhivago was the mother lode? The Soviets were a hundred years behind the times in poetry. I carried back new Soviet poems from Chernobyl, and rough translations from the White Square. We published Soviet Poetry Since Glasnost in tamizdat editions. Then, poetry of the Eastern Bloc, and Mother Africa. I was consumed. A fire burning in my head.
The free form process of poetry allowed me to express myself, I had something to say—and a way to say it. Before that, I was mute, afraid to speak out, afraid to be wrong. And yet, there I was…

It took another decade for me to fully arrive as a writer. Prose was never my strong suit. Because I worked as a photographer, I found myself writing captions, and soon I was writing poet interviews, and art reviews and other stories followed. For someone who couldn't write, and had no organizational skills inside the head, it was a huge achievement.

Then one day, I found myself standing in front of a class of kids teaching poetry. I wanted the ground to swallow me up whole, like right now. Teaching. Me. Imagine. I was the one who was least likely to become a writer, let alone, a teacher.

Because poetry became my lifeline, I hosted poetry readings, art openings in Sonoma County. Because I also needed money, I trained as a poet through California Poets in the Schools, and taught at multi-arts residencies funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. I had seven California Arts Council artist in schools grants in Santa Rosa, and a pilot project at the client library at Napa State Hospital. I was teaching painting, drawing, and calligraphy to students with learning disabilities similar to my own.

I was a bad student in school.
Least likely to succeed.
I couldn't keep what I learned.
A hive of bees swarming inside my head.
Stinging my tongue so I couldn't speak.

When I realized there were so many kids who were like me, no sense of belonging, no sense of achievement. There was something that they could excel at. Poetry. I realized that poetry saves lives. It saved me because in poetry there was no one right answer. It was the "begin anywhere" approach that saved me. It didn't matter how my brain was wired. I jumped in, and blindly thrashed around, and shape began to emerge from the chaos. And all this time, I realized those angry bees in my head were gathering nectar from the gods of poetry. There was a divine purpose, and I was the last to know.

Poet-activist Muriel Rukyeser wrote: the universe is made of stories, not atoms. And it was the stories that led me to my calling. I was following all the stories home, like a well worn cowpath to the heart of the barn. It was also the most political thing I could do.

Our Stories- Creativity, Writing and Storytelling for Educators class at Alameda County Office of Education, Aimee Suzara, instructor (FWIW, I think she didn't like it, as she tried to hurry me though the piece during performance time on Dec 13. It sort of pissed me off. It was rude and unprofessional, and it threw me off my final paragraph. My imagined audience was a TEDtalk, so it was long. She did ask for a manifesto. How to shorten a life of 62 years and make it fit into a 5 minute slot when my half-life is far different than that of my classmates? I could've cheated and used one of the poems, but I took her seriously when she said manifesto. But the more I tried to shorten it, the longer it got. FWIW, no one adhered to the 5-minute length, and we talked about it being ok to go over time.

I've left out the two revisions as the changes were minor
rev 12/12/14
& 12/23/14

1 comment:

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I liked catching up on what got you forth.