Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why I Teach, or Why I am a Writer. 1st draft


It's hard for me to choose or to make a distinction between teaching and writing as each process informs the other.

I was a poet before I became interested in teaching for California Poets in the schools, but just barely. The two events were nearly twinned. I arrived to poetry all out of breath, with things to say and nowhere to channel them. I wasn't a writer and I was a below average student in high school and college. I couldn't retain or access the information I learned in school. It was like a hive of bees swarming inside my head.

I didn't know parts of speech, but I loved to read. Art was my saving grace, it was through art that I found my passion, or, rather, I found something I could excel at. I had no idea at the time that I was dyslexic, I hid it from the world. Because i could read for pleasure, no one thought to test me for learning disabilities.

When I entered community college I was assigned remedial bonehead classes. Classes for dummies. But my counselor disappeared, it was the 70s, and the school either lost, or misplaced my SAT scores and aptitude tests (computers were a new science, they were the size of houses). So I was placed in Biology 1 A and English 1 A classes, first half of the semester I was miserably failing at both, but then the teachers were both replaced.

My college biology teacher was in a plane crash, and I'm not sure what happened to my English teacher, Jim Heig, who was gay, other than he ran off to Europe and married my grade school classmate Adair Daly (aka Adar Lara). Like I said, it was the early 70s and everybody was busy finding themselves. Mid-semester, they were both replaced by women teachers, and weirdly, I began to excel. It was also during the birth of Women's Studies. Our teachers were guest speakers, Margo St. James, sex worker and founder of Coyote, Gloria Steinem, our guru-goddess, and Our Bodies, Ourselves, our tome, with lots of experimental behavioral psychology classes as well.

But back to Biology and English, I went from failing the courses to receiving As and Bs. My counsellor couldn't figure it out. By right, according to my test scores, which they had later found, I shouldn't have been assigned to those classes, and yet, I had passed with flying colors. I was straddling genres.

I'm sure it helped that I adored my biology teacher, Dr. Fatt from Finland, who told us stories about her siamese cat. The reason why they have dark markings on their extremities was because they were colder—she proved it too by strapping frozen sponges to the cat's belly, and the poor kitty's fur turned black. She taught through stories and cause and effect. Her doctoral thesis was on the territorial behavior of stickleback fishes. They saw red when presented with something red. The stories stayed with me.

I don't remember if Helene, the English teacher, told us stories, but I do remember that a high school classmate, Dan Niblock, sang "Geordie" in a class presentation, and I was mesmerized. I loved Irish and English ballads. I still suffered while writing papers. I had to cut and paste everything. But the ballads told stories. She must've broken the mold, you will write a paper a week and you will like it, because I was suddenly liking English. I've a vague remembrance of being immersed in Shakespeare plays. That led me to the theater department, so while I was getting my AA in art, I was also immeshed in theater.

Too shy to try out for parts, my memorization process is non-existent (probably because of the dyslexia), I designed costumes, and helped paint stage sets, ushered, etc.

After three leisurely years in community college, my theater classmates moved on to Julliard (Robin Williams, James Harper, Joel Blum, Anni Long, Mark Rasmussen), and since theater was not my calling (my mother was a costume designer/actress, so I have rugrat stories of being babysat by the stars of stage and screen including Lloyd Bridges, and Sterling Hayden), it was time to leave the idyllic nest and graduate to the next stage of my life.

After three leisurely years in community college... (meanwhile protesting the Vietnam war, marching, and participating in civil disobedience—since high school: we were the only highly politicized high school in the nation to make the 6 O'Clock news and the cover to Time Magazine for protesting (our class president was 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, naive but motivated. Many of our high school classmates older brothers and sisters boarded the bus at the San Anselmo Theological Seminary, and marched on Selma, Alabama. Some were drafted, and never came back. The times, they were indeed a-changin'.

I brought my college GPA up to snuff and, since all my classmates at College of Marin had moved on, I applied to a four-year college. I was accepted at San Francisco State, and commuted for a year from West Marin, but the shock of urban culture, and the violence at SF State—S.I. Haikawa was president—during my second semester, there were school protests, riots, chain gangs, a girl raped in the library stacks, a murder in a bathroom, and a guy dressed in tinfoil, selling plots on the moon.

So, I left, fast, and applied to Sonoma State, aka Granola State. The art department was as dismal as San Francisco State (Wayne Thiebaud, whom I was supposed to study with, took a year off). 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. But I was hungry for synthesis and drifted into an experimental discipline, Expressive Arts. And there I found my community and my life's calling.

During the first years of becoming functionally literate, it was a bootstrap effort, I was in a car accident and when I was tested for my motor skills, the doctor discovered I had major left-right issues. It was a relief to discover that there was some odd wiring in my head. It gave me a doorway to access my thought processes. I just had to figure out how to get through the door and into the house.

From there, I was able to unravel that tangled morass of thought and memory and I begin to put information into my head so that I could (sometimes) retrieve it. One must begin with what is interesting. Poetry was interesting as well as the stories and ballads of my childhood, the things my grandmother told me again and again. My mother was nuts, so I was raised by my Irish grandmother, who was a bearer of oral tradition.

Because poetry was my lifeline, I became involved with hosting poetry readings, art openings, and multicultural events in Sonoma County. Because I also needed to earn money, and I was trained as a poet through California Poets in the Schools, and an artist through Artists in the Schools of Sonoma County, I applied for, and was awarded seven California Arts Council artist in schools grants at Mark West School in Santa Rosa, and a pilot project at the client library at Napa State Hospital.

I also worked under the auspices of several artists in schools grants, including multi-arts residencies funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, and local arts agencies. I was teaching painting and drawing, as well as calligraphy to students with learning disabilities similar to my own. I also began to travel during this time, because I was teaching poetry and Sonoma County history, during 1989 to 1991, I wound up in the USSR, carrying art and poetry both directions. I was an accidental cultural ambassador, giving readings, teaching poetry in Soviet schools, and translating poetry.

Honing my craft, I also attended many poetry workshops during the early 1980s. One summer, we crashed Port Townsend's Centrum Foundation, slept in abandoned buildings, and on beaches. Sharon Doubiago, Tobey Kaplan, Leonard Cirino and I went to sit at the feet of Meridel LeSueur. They tried to throw us out but Meridel said: The California poets stay, or I go. Sharon read from her manuscript, Hard County. Meridel said it had to be published, and so it happened. The craft lectures began to filter down and settle in.

I also attended the Napa Valley Poetry Conference, first as a photographer, and then as a workshop participant. Dave Evens, the director, knew I had no money so I traded photo-documentation 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, was becoming known), and many more. They were my tribe. We all ran off to the Bahamas one spring 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.

It took another decade for me to fully arrive as a writer. Prose was not my strong suit. I began to work for alternative newspapers as a photographer and then I found myself writing captions, and soon poet interviews, and art reviews and stories followed. For someone who couldn't write and had no organizational skills inside the head, it was a huge achievement. 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. I was painfully shy in grade school and high school, afraid to speak out, afraid to be wrong. An yet, there I was…

MY MANIFESTO first script/draft of final project images, gesture, poem, more formal. roots of pedagogy Open. for 11/19 need one page;
12/10 script page to stage/performance w/ theatrical elements
12/13 SAT 5 min presentation/performance.'

Our Stories- Creativity, Writing and Storytelling for Educators class at Alameda County Office of Education, Aimee Suzara, instructor

No comments: