Saturday, November 28, 2009

If Only, If Only

Tonight in McKinleyville

It's time to pick up the Bitten Apple again, along with many other things that have fallen by the wayside lately in pursuit of ridiculous unattainable things.

I have been saying that hope is the thing that has allowed me to live through the last two unbelievably turbulent years.

Now I'm not really sure what keeps me moving forward, but it isn't hope.

I'm going to try to just accept life the way it is and stop working so hard to make it better.

The fruitless labor has been taking a tremendous toll on my physical and emotional health. For example, I have had the flu twice this fall. And I never sleep anymore. I cry every day.

Here is what is true for me: I can't leave this place because I have people here who need me, yet I am all alone all the time.

It would be a lot easier if I could just be put in suspended animation, only to be activated once a week or once a month when someone needs me for something.

I am trying to lay my dreams to rest. There is no point in dreaming.

You are probably getting weary of the endless poetry. Me too.

Poetry is just a way to encode pain so we can imagine ourselves as less pathetic. It is a way of clothing the naked, unglamorous truth of our pain. Pain is ugly, poetry is pretty.

By quoting poetry, we attempt to turn our own pain into art the way these poets and songwriters seem to have.

By Digging Roots

He said, "I'm doing fine, but I'm lonely."
He said, "I laid on the line, but she don't love me."

I hear it all the time, "If only... if only."

With all the people living in this world
Why are we still living lonely?

She said, "He's always by my side, why am I so lonely?"
She said, "All these years we tried,
But he still don't know me."

She's got to get outside. "If only... if only."

In a world full of people, a world full of people
Why are we still living lonely?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Lips That Taste of Tears

By Dorothy Parker (1926)

Lilacs blossom just as sweet
Now my heart is shattered.

If I bowled it down the street,
Who's to say it mattered?

If there's one that rode away,
What would I be missing?

Lips that taste of tears, they say
Are the best for kissing.

Eyes that watch the morning star
Seem a little brighter.

Arms held out to darkness are
Usually a little whiter.

Shall I bar the strolling guest
Bind my brow with willow,
When, they say, the empty breast
Is the softer pillow?

That a heart falls tinkling down
Never think it ceases.

Every likely lad in town
Gathers up the pieces.

If there's one gone whistling by,
Would I let it grieve me?

Let him wonder if I lie.
Let him half believe me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Bird Forgot the Song

Little Miss Sorrow

She had those magic eyes you could see from miles around
She wore her summer dresses bright
Quite like the sky
She always came in colours
All smiles and daffodils
She let her hair down in the breeze

But every little thing has changed today - little Miss Sorrow
Every little thing turned pale and faded - little Miss Sorrow
The sunlight doesn't show
Although the colours go
Out through the window

She used to go out dancing
Cool silver fingernails
I used to watch her from the bar
Following her car
She always came in colours
She always kept control
She painted yesterday in gold

But every little thing turned grey today - little Miss Sorrow
Every little thing turned pale and faded - little Miss Sorrow
The sunlight doesn't show
All the colours go
Even the rainbow

Allow me to introduce myself
I'm just a local boy
She was my little Miss Joy
I want to call her name
My life won't be the same
Dear God

Every little thing has changed today - little Miss Sorrow
Every little thing turned pale and faded - little Miss Sorrow
Yes, every little thing turned grey today - little Miss Sorrow
The weakling plays the strong
The bird forgot the song

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


English majors -- you know what I mean?

A few select characteristics probably come instantly to mind to describe the average, ordinary English major: word person, a bookworm, big vocabulary, good at Scrabble, and so on.

But to those of us who majored in English at HSU there are three very distinct and easily recognizable subcategories. At HSU, the major is split into three pathways: Literary Studies, Creative Writing and Language Arts Instruction. We can tell one another apart from a mile away.

Language Arts Instruction majors were tomorrow's middle school English teachers, down-to-earth, pragmatic and prescriptive, ready to enforce the "rules" of English.
Creative Writing majors were artsy, unstructured poets, as dramatic as invaders from the Drama Department, with more creativity and instinct than technical knowledge.
Literary Studies majors (of whom I am one) were either railing against the canon in favor of women's/cultural/ethnic/queer studies or alternately, they were lamenting the lost classical canon and reading Beowulf for fun.
I'm a variation on that theme: I began by lamenting the lost classical canon while still enjoying some of the marginalized voices we studied (for example, Sherman Alexieand Naguib Mahfouz), then began finally to recognize what we were doing as cultural studies, which as it turns out, I love.

But I continued to be turned off by things like post-structuralism's endless hair-splitting and annoyed by the emotionality of the politically-correct mob that ruled in some of my classes.

At least I can say with authority that I don't like George Eliot or Trollope, but that I do like Dickens and Melville. And happily, I never once took a Shakespeare class.
Midway through, I discovered Linguistics. It was like finding a life raft in the middle of the sea, because linguistics makes sense.

I began to minor in linguistics, while unofficially and secretly, I began to major in it -- as best I could considering such a major doesn't exist at HSU. I took sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, history of English, language analysis, and grammar. And I interned in each one so I could take it twice.

Even in grad school, I have continued my underground major --applied linguistics, viewing everything I learn through the lens of discourse analysis, bending everything I learn about composition theory toward my goal of teaching ESL.
And now that I'm in grad school, English grad students are once again divided into easily recognizable groups. You think you know English grad students? OK, yes, it's true, we are the ones using words like recursivity and genre in ordinary, non-academic conversations, for example, at the laundromat. Words like intertextuality and intersectional actually mean something to us.
But among us English grad students, there are two distinct types: Master's in Literature and Master's in Teaching Writing.

The MA Lits are drinking hard liquor and quoting poetry in public places right now.

And right now, the MATWs have in our satchels great stacks of freshmen composition papers we're doomed to read. We occupy a special level of hell where paperwork keeps multiplying no matter how late you stay up reading it. We are like Sisyphus if his boulder were made of reams of paper covered in type.

Among English grad students, we're the pragmatic ones, hungry for practical ideas for teaching writing.

We are kept from being utterly boring by our fascination with any combination of these major theorists: Lev Vygotsky, Mikhail Bakhtin or Kenneth Burke. Yet, it hurts our brains to float for long in the rarefied air of theory when we long for practical applications.

MA Lits, on the other hand, thrive in the airy realm of theory.

So people like Phyllis Schafly think they know English majors? It's not as simple as that.

Many thanks to all the sites I borrowed these illustrations from.

I Wish You Were Here

Monday, November 9, 2009

Rome Wasn't Built in a Day

I finally got down to the business of actually writing my thesis today.

As opposed to seemingly endless research and reading. As opposed to sorting out my previous work, three different papers, under the headings of my thesis sections. And as opposed to crafting a comprehensive works cited section.

In other words I have done everything under the sun to get out of the process of actually writing.

But today, I finally worked: writing, creating, expressing the complexity of my ideas. Trying to lay them out in an orderly fashion without being too dry.

I didn't actually write all day, although I was a virtual prisoner in my apartment, held captive by the necessity to get something done.

All I have to show for it are 511 words that were harder to extract (from what seems like my very soul) than wisdom teeth.

When I look through my other writings on the same subject matter, I seem so fluent that I hardly recognize myself. Why can't I do that this time?

I think of all these American idioms to express difficulty, and they speak to me.

I am out of my depth and in over my head. I have bitten off more than I can chew.

But I can't escape the imperative to write this damn thing. I either write it or I fail. I'm between a rock and a hard place. I have no other choice except to get it done, but I don't feel like I can.

Then again, if it weren't difficult, if it weren't soul-wrenching, then I suppose it wouldn't mean much. And without this baptism of fire, I could never expect the academics to welcome me to their fold.

P.S. Is it any wonder I can't write when all I have to offer are bouquets of cliches?


Image of Spalding Butterfly Collection courtesy of mark6mauro
Bear with me while I mix metaphors recklessly as I try to pin my feelings down long enough to analyze them a little.

Pin them down -- as if my feelings were pretty butterflies, tragically pinned to a board in some collector's den, their lives of sunshine, flowers and flight cut short and sacrificed to knowledge that is, after all, pointless.

I've been criticized in the recent past for being too analytical, or perhaps it was for being analytical at the wrong time. Not everything requires analysis, so someone said to me.

When I think of the butterfly analogy, I realize there might be some truth to that.

I realize how tenuous attraction is -- a fragile and delicate thing that it can't really bear up under the collector's scrutiny. Pinned down, it is likely to crumble into fine dust and blow away on the slightest wind.
The biggest mystery I have ever known is my own heart. The closer I look, the more unknowable it is. With a heart this unknowable, it's a wonder I get anything done at all.

The only solid thing I have ever discovered there is the love for my children.

Outside of that, however, everything is a contradiction. I want to be safe at the same time I want to be free. I am fiercely independent but also lonely. I am always walking away even while I'm approaching.
Attraction is fragile, oh-so fragile, maybe nothing more than a trick of the light, as it turns out.

All it takes is the slightest shift in perspective, and your precious dreams, built up over the course of a year, vanish -- dusty smudges on your hand after you try to catch butterflies.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Gathering Flowers

You know, I always say the reason I'm a journalist (and now an academic) is I don't have the stamina (or the attention span) for long, sustained writing.

I like small things-- news articles, press releases, 5-page literary analyses, etc. -- things you can finish in short order. I work very intensely for awhile, then move on and forget about it.

I am struggling to manage my thesis, which in the grand scheme of things isn't even that long, really: approximately 50 pages when it's done. But I am lost in it and overwhelmed by it.

I have these novelist friends, who think nothing of 40,000 words, who have to limit themselves to a single volume. I look at them in wonder; they're sort of alien beings to me, creatures who have been blessed by both inspiration and tenacity.

I could never do that.

And then I think of the Bitten Apple. OK, so it's an anthology, which by the way comes from the Greek anthologia "flower-gathering-- a collection of smaller works. But there are 217 of them, counting this one.

I am encouraged. Apparently I can do this if I break it into mini-tasks, each section of my thesis like a mini-paper all in itself. Intro, Lit Review, Definitions, Apprenticeship, Transparency, ESL Research, Textbooks, and Conclusion.

I just have to write each one like a small paper, then gather them like flowers, and arrange them elegantly into a thing called a Master's Thesis.

I like this analogy better than Frank.