Archive for Pedagogy

Wrestling with Sestinas and Other Adventures in Form

sestinas twoI have a love/hate relationship with the sestina.  I love to read sestinas — I love the way poets experiment with the form, playing with the end words, while twisting meanings, tenses and even spellings.  I also love to teach the sestina.  The sestina has a fixed pattern  — much like other forms that I teach (the pantoum, the ghazal and the villanelle), so many of my nonmajors suddenly see patterns and organization that they didn’t see before.

But I hate writing sestinas.

I admit it — it’s probably lack of patience or lack of imagination when it comes to linguistics and/or language, but every time I start playing with the sestina, I throw my notebook down in a huff.  The only time I managed to actually finish a sestina, I showed my poem (rather proudly, I might add) to a colleague, who read my piece, frowned, and said, “It’s a sestina, all right.”

Not exactly comforting words.

Still, The Incredible Sestina Anthology edited by Daniel Nester makes me want to try the sestina again.  In this collection, Nester brings to together a wide range of poets who have succeeded with the sestina.  Included are works by poets Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Justice, Marilyn Hacker, Sandra Beasley, Denise Duhamel and Patricia Smith.  It’s not the kind of book that you want to sit down and read in one sitting. Instead, it’s a collection you want to put by your nightstand, where you can read three or four sestinas before you go to sleep.  (This way, you can dream in sestinas — which has happened to me before — it’s a little funky.)

In the last week or so, we have been working with forms in my Writing About Literature classes.  Even though it’s not a creative writing course, I do take a class period to have students experiment with form.  For many, the sestina is the biggest challenge; however, many of my students do enjoy the pantoum and the ghazal.

Today, as I am finishing this post, we are under our first Lake Effect Snow Warning of the season.  The wind is blowing and snowflakes are flying.  It’s a good day to stay inside, bundle up, and try that sestina again.

Weekend with Kindle

I admit it. I’ve been a bit resistant to the whole E-Reader craze.  However, Anthony got me a Kindle Fire for Christmas, and I have to say that I’m in love with this little device.  Since the holidays, I’ve already read four books on my Kindle, including the wonderful Fire on Her Tongue: An eBook Anthology of Contemporary Women’s Poetry edited by Kelli Russell Agodon and Annette Spaulding-Convy.  Right now, I’m currently reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63, a book I’m really enjoying. 

Amazon offers daily deals with some great Kindle books for only $1.99.  I’ve downloaded some wonderful novels including The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and When She Woke by Hillary Jordan.  Still, my best Kindle find so far has been a true crime book titled Midnight Assassin: A Murder in America’s Heartland.  The description of  this book on its website says the following:  

On a moonlit night in December 1900, a prosperous Iowa farmer was murdered in his bed–killed by two blows of an ax to his head. Four days later, the victim’s wife, Margaret Hossack, was arrested at her husband’s funeral and charged with the crime.

This beginning summary sounded vaguely familiar and interesting, so I downloaded the book and started reading.  Much to my surprise (and delight!) I discovered that this book is about the real life case behind the play Trifles by Susan Glaspell, a play I teach on a regular basis.  Now I knew that Trifles was based (loosely) on a real life murder, but this book not only presented the investigation of the case but gave a lot of information about the life of women on the Great Plains during this time period.  A young Glaspell, as a reporter, is also featured prominently in the book.  Kindle allows the reader to highlight and make notes, and I know that I have found a lot of good background material for the next time I teach Trifles.

Still, I am not giving up on the print! There’s part of me that is amazed that my Kindle can hold as many books as what I have in my whole house.  Still, bookshelves are bookshelves for a reason: to hold books, and not Kindles.

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Novel Reading

I have put both poetry and short story collections (and the chaos of the recent election) aside while I catch up a bit on my novels.  Next semester, I am scheduled to teach The Modern Novel, a class I haven’t taught in years.  This course is a general English/Humanities elective with no real guidelines except that the time period starts with the Modernism movement and the books are supposed to be by British or American novelists.  I already know that I will be teaching Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (a student favorite), and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. 

This past weekend I re-read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, a book I have not picked up in years.  I forgot how much I enjoyed this book, and I think it’s a good pick, so it’s probably going to go on the required reading list as well.  Since the end of the world is all the rage, I would love to find a book that fits into this subgenre; however, most of the books I have read fall into the young adult category.  I read The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, and I really liked that book, but it’s not out in paperback yet.  If anyone knows a good end-of-the-world novel geared towards adults, please let me know.

In other news, I am currently reading  Son, which is the sequel to The Giver  by Lois LowryThe Giver is one of my favorite books and I’m still debating whether or not it was a good idea for a sequel, but so far I am really enjoying Son. We will see what the conclusion brings.

Four Books for the New School Year

This Wednesday, I’m back on campus, and classes start next week.  After a year reprieve, I’m teaching creative writing again, but this semester, I’m also teaching an introductory writing about literature class (a class I have not taught in about five years), so I’m busy revising syllabi and reviewing new material and ideas for both courses as well as my developmental writing course.

Outside of the required textbooks, I have four books I am using for ideas.  If you teach high school or the first two years of college, you may want to consider the following titles:

Reading in the Dark: Using Film as a Tool in the English Classroom by John Golden (NCTE Books)  I’m actually revisiting this book — for years I have used Golden’s strategies of watching certain clips of movies in the classroom to help teach aspects of writing.  My favorite?  Using the first five minutes or so of ET to help teach point of view. 

Reading in the Reel World: Teaching Documentaries and Other Nonfiction Texts by John Golden (NCTE Books)  In this follow-up to his first book, Golden discusses a number of documentaries or “nonfiction” films in order to help students learn to read nonfiction texts.  I’m especially interested in his exercises on writing for my developmental students.  Plus, his book introduces a lot of documentaries — many I have never seen.  So far, I have decided to use Born Into Brothels, Spellbound, and Mad Hot Ballroom (sections, not the whole films) in my class.

Poetry of Place: Helping Students Write Their Worlds by Terry Hermsen (NCTE Books)  I purchased this book because I’m extremely interested in the idea of place in poetry.  Also, because I teach in a rural community college, I like to emphasize to my students how important their place is (They don’t always want to believe me).  Hermsen’s discussion about place extends far beyond physical landscape.  Furthermore, he offers many exercises (and examples from students) that may help jumpstart poems for your students.

The Working Poet: 75 Writing Exercises and a Poetry Anthology by Scott Minar (Autumn House Press)  I purchased this book for two reasons.  First, I love Autumn House Press and second, I wanted prompts to help with my own writing.  Then, I discovered that the book could be a useful tool in the classroom.  The Working Poet features pages and pages of writing prompts exploring various themes, styles, and forms.  So many books that offer writing prompts contain broad assignments like, “Write a poem that makes you happy.”  (Okay, I may be exaggerating a bit, but not much).  However, what I liked most about this book was how specific and concrete the prompts were — perfect for my classroom.  My favorite prompts are from Jan Beatty, who talks about writing a narrative with the help of a globe and a little imagination; Charles Harper Webb who encourages the trading of secrets, real or imaginary, to help jumpstart a poem; and Diane Lockward, who discusses using “the exploited metaphor” to connect concrete items with abstract words.

In Transition

Today, in my comp class, we are going to talk about transitions (and why it’s not a good idea to throw in just any transition, like moreover, into your essay if you are not sure what it means).  This is why I especially like the poem by Billy Collins found here at Poetry Daily.

Plugging Away…

I have been away from my blog, in fact, away from my computer quite a bit this last week or so.  I’m in the middle of grading final papers, and probably won’t be able to return to regularly scheduled blogging until Thursday.  In the meantime, I am in the middle of reading my British Literature papers and entering the world of Thomas Hardy, W.W. Jacobs, Charles Dickens and Angela Carter (a personal favorite!)

A Brief Break in the Silence

Really, there’s no good reason for my silence.  I’ve been incredibly busy with both work and play.  Besides playing a bit with my manuscript, I have been revising some older work.  I also am going to take some time this weekend to send out some poems.  I know that many journals stop accepting submissions in April, and even though it doesn’t feel like it (I woke up to below zero temperatures today), I know spring is around the corner. (Or is that wishful thinking?)

Besides the “creative side” of my life, I am also re-reading Jane Eyre for my Brit Lit class.  On Monday, I’m introducing postcolonial literary theory to my students, and I have to admit, I am a bit rusty, so I do need to do some prepping this weekend.

Brit Lit & New Bookcases

For most of the week I have been back in the office — JCC has had advising days, assessment days, clean your office before classes start days (okay — that last day was not an “official” back to work day — but I need to go through the two big piles on my desk so I can at least find my textbooks for the new semester).  I have also put the finishing touches on my British Literature II course for the spring semester.  It has been years since I have taught this class (7 years — to be exact — I looked it up!) As many of you know, this kind of class is a survey class — a bit of everything from Romantic poetry to today’s British literature.  It’s almost impossible to fit everything in that I want to teach.  So goodbye, The Importance of Being Earnest (I just couldn’t fit it in…) and hello “The Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti (good stuff here).  And of course, there’s so many others..Tennyson, Arnold, Woolf, the list goes on and on…

The other big news of the week?  I purchased two brand new furniture store bookcases.  For years, I always got my bookcases from Big Lots or Kmart , and I put them together myself.  The only problem is that no matter what I did — they always sort of leaned to one side.  So I finally splurged.  The new cases house my complete poetry collection, and although I don’t have any official count of how many poetry books I do have, it has to be over 500.

So now it’s back to the books — and not the bookcases.  Classes start Tuesday, and I still have some reading to do before the first day.

How to Make a Poem

Happy Monday! My review of  Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets edited by Todd Davis and Erin Murphy  is up on Rattle.  For those of you who teach, you will find this book to be an excellent resource for exploring the genesis of poetry.  Even if you don’t teach, you would enjoy the fine work by 40 contemporary poets, including Jim Daniels, Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Greg Rappleye. 

Of rainbows and butterflies

I saw a rainbow this morning as I was driving to work.  The first thing I thought was Wow, I haven’t seen a rainbow in a long time.  The second thing I thought was How can I get this image into a poem?

Well, as you all know, I probably won’t ever put this image into a poem — a rainbow is one of the dangerous, melodramatic, sentimental image that writers try to avoid.  It ranks up there with butterflies and sunsets.  And another image that I have added to my Do Not Use list for students: the full moon (inspired in part, probably, from the Twilight series).  These are words you want to avoid in your poetry, I tell my students.

Still, a few years ago, when I presented said list to my students, I had a young woman prove me wrong. She wrote a stunning poem about a butterfly collection, complete with thin tissue-like wings, stickpins, and cigar boxes.  Graphic and detailed, the poem reflected her relationship with her brother who had died at a young age. 

It was a beautiful poem.  And I was proved wrong.

As a teacher (and it seems that teachers get slammed in so many different ways today), I love it when my students break the rules of writing and it works.  (so many times, of course, it doesn’t exactly work)  Rules are supposed to be broken, my students sometimes tell me.  I respond that Yes, but you need to understand the rules before you break them.

This young woman understood the rules.  She understood the cliché of the beautiful butterfly.  And she turned the cliché upside down.

That is what I wish for my students: the strength to turn the world upside down, and the knowledge to understand when it is appropriate to do so.

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