Category Archives: classes

The Lighting of a Fire

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” –William Butler Yeats

As you are all undoubtedly aware, I love English. And words. And language. And grammar. And all things related to such. Not just English, either. I love other languages equally as much. Yesterday, Andreas taught me the word Jötunn, which means a Scandinavian troll. HOW AWESOME IS THAT. The most awesome, is how. (Per Andreas, it is “the origin of the word giant – jätte in Swedish.” You all only WISH you had a friend as awesome as Andreas who knows about not ONLY science but ALSO geekily kickass foreign words with umlauts! Oh, how mouth-watering, a well-placed umlaut! I SWOON FOR YOU, UMLAUTS!)

I’m reading a book right now, which we will soon be discussing over at Insatiable Booksluts (OH! HEY! By the way, are you reading/following/obsessing over Insatiable Booksluts? Because you should be. It’s awesome, and me writing for them is only a teeny portion of that awesomeness. It’s all things that are amazing in the world of books and publishing and related things on a well-written, intelligent, humorous blog. So go, go go. Follow. Read. You’ll love it. I promise. I mean, I’d promise you your money back? But no money is expended, so that’d be an empty promise. Also, I have no money to give. THIS WELL IS DRY) so I don’t want to spoil that or anything, but anyway, this book has some of the most gorgeous phrasing I’ve come across since I read Swamplandia! last year. It’s got some sentences that I read, then I re-read, aloud, to myself, two or three times, just to hear them in the air, and to taste them in my mouth, it’s that well-written. I’m that much of a fan of the beauty of language, and the power of language. I want to be MOVED by words. I want to weep when reading, or become enraged, or laugh out loud. I don’t want it to be a passive experience; I want to be engulfed, I want to burn with the words on the page. I want to be swept away, I want to drown.

I was lucky enough to have parents who believed very strongly in books and reading, and instilled that love in me from an early age. My mother read to me until I was old enough to take that duty on myself (much to both her glee and chagrin, that happened earlier than expected – glee because who wouldn’t be proud of a child reading to herself at three? But chagrin because that three-year-old was all, “DO IT MYSELF!” and she became irrelevant in the world of book-reading.) I’ve talked about this here before. My father, not a big reader, read to me when she was unavailable, and taught me the value of making books fun, of using voices and gestures and facial expressions when reading to make the experience richer and more fulfilling for a child. So really, my dad was my first well-narrated audiobook, I suppose. I remember reading to my younger brother, making him laugh until my mother would beg me to stop because he was getting red in the face with giggles and having trouble catching his breath.

All of this to say, I’ve always been a reader. Once I learned how to laboriously print my name, then the intricacies and beautiful loops and whorls of cursive, I became a writer as well. Maybe not the kind of writer who gets published (or, at least often), but there haven’t been many times in my life that I haven’t been writing SOMETHING. Short stories. Unfinished (and, horrible) novels. Poetry. Diaries upon tortured diaries. Long letters to friends in far-flung locales. Plays. Emails that take up pages and pages. And, obviously, more recently, blogs and tweets and (non-emo, thank you very much) Facebook statuses. And I’ve never been happier. Do I think my words are moving people to tears? Not often, probably. But they seem to be making people laugh, most days. And that makes me (to quote The Bloggess) FURIOUSLY HAPPY.

So yesterday, All Over Albany (one of my favorite local blogs, and my favorite local news/happenings blog) posted this. And because it was from them, and because it had the word “poetry” in the title, and because it was grammatically incorrect (but in quotes, so obviously not All Over Albany’s grammatical inaccuracy), I of COURSE had to click through to the article and read what was happening.

Oh, ouch. OUCH MY BRAIN. On so many ouchy levels.

So for those of you who are not aware of how the New York State educational system is set up, I’ll give you a quick crash-course. As a junior-high/high school student, you can follow a Regents track, and I believe there’s also a BOCES/VOTECH track, where you attend BOCES and vocational technology classes off-campus (my mother works in a building where these students attend classes so I believe this is still occurring as it did when I was a student.) (When I was in school, there was a non-Regents option. This has been phased out.) (There are a lot of parenthetical asides in this paragraph. Hee.) Regents are exams given at the end of the year (or, in some cases, I think after a semester – I feel like our government Regents was only a semester-long course? I may be misremembering this, though, and now that I think of it, did we even HAVE a government Regents? It says there’s one now, but I don’t remember if there was one then. Man, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been a student!) in a variety of subjects – 3 separate math exams (Algebra, Geometry, and Trigonometry), 4 separate science exams (Earth Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics), 2 separate Social Studies exams (global history/geography and US history/government) and an English exam. If you are a New York State student who passes the exams, you graduate with a Regents diploma (or, maybe since they changed it, it’s just a “diploma,” since everyone takes the exams now? Not sure about that, honestly.) If you graduate with high enough grades on them, you can get a Regents diploma with honors. (I’m not going to braaaag, or anything, but…yeah, that’s what I got. SHUT UP YOU KNEW I WAS A SUPERSTAR.)

If you want to know more (you probably don’t, it’s not all that interesting, I don’t think, to anyone but a New Yorker, or maybe people who get off on testing) here’s the Wikipedia page. It seems fairly accurate.

The exams weren’t easy, but I’m one of those annoying bitches who tests well (no, seriously, there really are people like this, we seem to have a sixth sense for what’s being asked for in test questions. I know. It’s annoying to others. Sorry), so I breezed them all but Algebra, Chem, Physics and Earth Science, which were my worst four subjects in school. Well, and Phys Ed, but you (THANK YOU ALL THE HEAVENS ABOVE) didn’t have to take a Phys Ed Regents exam. You can also re-take the exams as many times as you want to get your grade up, so I re-took three of those tests, and aced them the second time around. I did NOT retake Physics, because I had graduated high school at that point, already had my diploma, and wanted to hang out with my skeevy emo lead-singer-in-a-band skaterat boyfriend more than I wanted to study for an exam that had no bearing on my life, since I’d been accepted early into the college of my choice. Yep. Never looked back. Hated Physics. HAAAAATED IT.

Now, in that article from the New York Times I referenced like a million years  ago above, which I know you’re not clicking because a., you like me to recap shit for you, and I’m happy to do so, and b., you hate clicking on things, it’s like a phobia with you people, it talks about how the standards for the English Regents in New York State have fallen. OH HOW THEY HAVE FALLEN.

Teachers (again, I remember this from AGO, so correct me if I’m wrong) can make a little (WAY LITTLE, don’t even get me started on how much teachers get paid, don’t even) extra money if they sign up to score Regents exams. They’re given a sample scoring booklet. There’s a short-answer section on the English Regents (supposed to be a paragraph long) where the score is zero or one. According to the article, the following comes from a paragraph that would score a one, therefore the FULL POINT LEVEL, for one of these sections:

These two Charater have very different mind Sets because they are creative in away that no one would imagen just put clay together and using leaves to create Art.

Now, you do have to hand-write the exams, so yes, kids today are used to spell-check, I get that, even me, Queen of Spelling Bees (oh, I SO have to tell you all about my reign as the Queen of Upstate New York Spelling Bees someday), relies on spell-check a little more than I should, and even then, spells things wrong now and again, I AM NOT INFALLIBLE I AM NOT THE POPE. But reading this makes me think of the mythic “automatic 200 points” you were supposed to get if you put your name on top of the S.A.T. I mean, I guess, since the kid wrote SOMETHING, and it’s not GIBBERISH, and your choices in scoring are ALL THE POINTS or NO POINTS, you’d give him all, rather than none? But oh, my. Random capitalization! “imagen” and “charater” and “in away!” Run-on sentences!

(Please bear in mind that when you take this test, you are at the end of your junior year in high school. So you are between sixteen and seventeen years old. Not 12, as this sample might imply.)

According to the article, since the change where there is no longer a non-Regents track option, and all students must pass the Regents to graduate, the Regents board had one of three options: leave the tests difficult, leave the scoring as-is, and risk failing a lot of students; “dumb-down” the tests; or “dumb-down” the scoring. They seem to have gone for the third option. Scoring seems to be a very “just show up, Sally and Brian, and we’ll do our best by you” situation. And this is so, so sad to me. And it is failing our students. No, not “failing” them in a “you fail, repeat senior year” way; failing them in a “here, go forth unto the world without knowing how to write, spell, or think critically” way.

This one was my favorite. This was, according to the scoring booklet, supposed to get full marks on the long-form essay – four points. The assignment was to analyze Goethe’s quote “No two persons regard the world in exactly the same way.”

In life, “no two people regard the world in exactly the same way,” as J. W. von Goethe says. Everyone sees and reacts to things in different ways. Even though they may see the world in similar ways, no two people’s views will ever be exactly the same. This statement is true since everyone sees things through different viewpoints. 

ZOMG you guys. TOTAL FUTURE POLITICIAN. Every one of the sentences IS SAYING THE SAME THING. Just re-worded. Actually, I might be tempted to give this kid full marks for bullshittery. His grammar and spelling are perfect, though, I have to say. But the content in this? There is none. He (or it could be a she, don’t mean to be sexist) didn’t fulfill the assignment. I have no idea what the kid thinks of this quote. Because the kid just rephrased the quote FOUR TIMES. Brilliant way to get around doing any thinking, though. Gold stars for that.

And then there’s this, from the article: “Sad to say, during the Bloomberg administration, little if any progress has been made, if test results are to be believed. In 2003, 52.5 percent of fourth graders were proficient in English, compared with 51 percent in 2011. In 2003, 32.6 percent of eighth graders were proficient, compared with 35 percent today.”

Yes, I know test results are to be taken with a grain of salt. I know. And I know test results often don’t represent how much a child actually knows, and that some people test poorly, and on and on and on. But 35% of our eighth graders are proficient in English? THIRTY-FIVE PERCENT?

Here’s the thing. They don’t get any JOY out of language. They see English as I see Physics – a joyless soul-suck. And even I got some joy out of Physics – seeing how and why things worked the way they did was kind of cool, even though I couldn’t totally wrap my mind around it.

What’s the fix? Shit, I don’t know. I’m not an educational reformer. I just know that something’s terribly broken.

I have some ideas. They’re not fixes. Just ideas.

We need to bring the joy of language back to our students. We need to make it fun and cool again. We need to show them the worlds that books can open up for them and the magic in those worlds and the escape hatches contained therein. We need to show them the utter awe of having the exact right word available when needed. We need to teach critical thinking and debate skills. We need to show them the humor innate in any language, because you know what makes kids want to learn? HAVING FUN WITH IT. We need to drill the rules of grammar into their heads like we drill the multiplication tables in there, because they’re equally important. We need to cultivate a nation of children who will grow into a nation of adults who are proficient in the language they speak and write. Is this so hard? Is this so difficult to achieve? Obviously, it is. Why?

English teachers were some of my favorites, over the years. Because they, for the most part, absolutely dig what they do. They understood how a beautiful poem could burst in your mouth like a ripe fruit. They understood how a good short story took hold of you and shook you until you were limp when you closed the book. They loved when the students got something, really GOT something, when their little sponge-like minds soaked up knowledge and put it all together and were able to connect the dots.

What’s the fix? I don’t know. I couldn’t begin to tell you. But I’m despairing a little today. As someone who loves language as much as I do, who sees it as a constant companion and guide and friend? I’m despairing for the youth of America. They’re bereft, and this is a sad state of affairs. We’re failing them. There has to be a fix for this.


A little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, two young ladies showed up for their first day of work at the campus dining hall. The campus dining hall was really a totally class joint, just so you know. When you were done your shift, you always smelled disgusting, and you were always finding bits of crud in your hair that you couldn’t identify so you took like a seventeen-hour shower after each shift. IT WAS THE GROSSEST.

Anyway, the two young ladies (who were, at that time, both pre-med majors, until both of them realized that this was folly I tell you FOLLY) hit it off like gangbusters, and they made each other laugh, and the two young ladies became good friends and then roommates and moved all the way across the country together and are STILL GOOD FRIENDS TO THIS VERY DAY. I know, right? What are the odds? Miniscule. Almost nonexistent.

One of the young ladies (who, truth be told, isn’t really much of a lady because she’s always dropping food on her shirt and swears like a longshoreman and likes non-ladylike geeky stuffs) grew up and wrote THIS VERY BLOG. I know! That was a total Sixth-Sense twist, right? Shyamalan is so afraid of my skills right now, I’m not even going to lie. HE SHOULD BE SCARED. The OTHER young lady, R (who actually IS a lady, like, a total class act, I’ll punch you in the neck if you imply otherwise) met her adorable Prince Charming recently and guess what? GUESS WHAT YOU GUYS.

Baby Girl Awesomesauce is on the way!

She is slated for arrival in mid-April. I AM SO EXCITED YO. I saw a PHOTO of R all curvy-full of Baby Girl Awesomesauce the other day and I am not at all embarrassed to say that I may have gotten a little weepy because THIS IS THE COOLEST.

So listen, I was thinking, Baby Girl Awesomesauce (probably let’s shorten that to BGA, for now, until she’s hatched and has a name of her own, because there’s no shortkey for Baby Girl Awesomesauce and there are a LOT of LETTERS in that) probably needs some life lessons. And R and A, her equally kickass husband (who, heads-up, won me over within HOURS of me being introduced to him by doing Muppet imitations IN MUPPET VOICES, I mean come ON, who doesn’t want someone like that for one of their favorite people in the world? I was SOLD AMERICAN RIGHT THERE) have informed me that I can totally be an unofficial aunt to BGA. I KNOW RIGHT? Can you even imagine? I’m already rocking the aunt gig with The Nephew. I can’t even imagine I wouldn’t rock the unofficial aunt gig for BGA EQUALLY as hard, right? Right. I WILL BE AN AMAZING UNOFFICIAL AUNT, BGA. (Side note: see the rhyme in the title, there? YOU, BGA, will be the “very good” part, I have no doubt. I, on the other hand, was, and am, the “when she was bad she was horrid” part. I’M TOTALLY GOING TO ROCK THIS YO.)

So, BGA, here are some life lessons which I have been dying to share since I only have a nephew and I have a WEALTH of female-related knowledge. Obviously, you are not going to be reading these right out of the gate. So R & A will have to save these and share them with you when you’re old enough to appreciate them. Or roll your eyes at them extravagantly. I know you probably might do that. I was a teenage girl once, too. I PERFECTED eye-rolling. Just ask my mom. I think she has PTSD from all of the eye-rolling I did between the ages of 12 and 18.

Girlfriends

OK, first, listen. Female friendships can be hard. There’s this weird competition vibe that goes on between women. It’s distressing. It causes fights and hard feelings and yelling and furious emails of fury and crying and falling-outs and it is the WORST, BGA. But here’s a little-known secret that it has taken me most of my life to figure out: fighting amongst ourselves and competing for things that aren’t even THINGS, women are easy to keep down. As a unified force, we are a FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH. So yes, please, by all means, have friends of all the genders. But don’t think you’re in a competition with your female friends for the best grades, boyfriends, accomplishments, etc. Think of it as a network; you’re there to support one another, and you’re there to cheer one another on, and you’re there to be happy when they succeed, because they’ll be there to be happy when you do. And if it works that way, you’ll see that you’re better at whatever you’re trying to be or do, because you’re happy, and you have inner peace, and you have an amazing support system of strong female friends who will buoy you up as well as catch you when you fall. Not a competition, BGA. Not a race. A team, all working together toward a common goal of amazingness.

Boyfriends

Now, I know this seems a long way off (especially for your dad, who’s all “NOT YET AMY FOR THE LOVE OF PETE”) but someday, you’re going to want to start dating. And that’s good! And that’s normal! And good for you! Listen, I’m going to warn you away from douchecanoes right now, though, BGA. Because I will COME DOWN THERE AND PUNCH ANYONE WHO TREATS YOU POORLY IN THE THROAT. OK, that being said, it is nice to date, and it is so, so nice to fall in love and get that whole flock of butterflies in your tummy, but here’s the thing: those butterflies bring with them POOR DECISION-MAKING CHOICES. So this is a rule of thumb: if the guy you’re dating is not allowing you to be you, if he makes you feel less-than or not-good-enough or broken in any way at all: HE IS AN ASSHAT. Dump him. Or, call me up, I will hop on down to you, and I will go have a “talk” with him. He’ll cry. I will guarantee you that right now. By the time you’re old enough to date, I’ll be in my mid-fifties? I WILL BE THE MEANEST OLD LADY EVER BGA. I will SMACK HIM with my ORTHOPEDIC CANE.

Also, things to look for in a guy: intelligence, sense of humor, and watch how he treats people when he doesn’t think you’re watching, like waitstaff in restaurants or the Salvation Army bellringer outside of the Walmart. Also, points if he doesn’t have those pants that hang halfway down his ass. Hopefully by the time you’re dating, those will no longer be a thing.

Books

Your mom and I are book people. I don’t know if your dad is. I adore him, so I’m going to assume he is, too. I plan on showering you with books, and I bet your parents do, too. Learn to read early, BGA, and love it. If I could give you one gift, like the fairy at the christening, it would be a love of books. Learn to love words like childhood friends; only, unlike childhood friends, you can always take them with you. And, here’s a tip: The Velveteen Rabbit is super-sad, BGA. SUPER SAD. It will make you cry. Just be prepared, ok?

Also, if you read a book where the female character is weak and needs to be saved a lot and this makes you worried, sad, or think that’s how women should behave, please call up your Kickass Unofficial Aunt Amy and I will tell you an alternate version of that book ON THE SPOT where the girl saves her OWN day. Anytime, BGA. Anytime, any day.

Math and Science

Hopefully by the time you get to school, this will no longer be a problem, but there’s a gender bias when it comes to the math and science fields. I was told, in physics, senior year, when I was having trouble grasping a concept, “I don’t know why you’re trying so hard. It’s a proven fact women don’t have the brain power necessary to understand physics.” THIS IS A THING THAT HAPPENED, BGA. I don’t want this to happen to you. You need math and science. And they are not hard! They’re actually interesting, awesome, and a lot of fun. So are English and the arts. OK, so is ALL THE LEARNING. Except P.E. Screw P.E. ANYWAY BGA. Don’t accept less than when it comes to math and science. Try hard, make them teach you just as hard as they teach everyone in the class, regardless of gender, and you show those men that women’s brains are MORE than capable of learning sine, cosine, tangent, and titration. YOU ARE A RAINBOW OF AWESOMENESS BGA.

Bullies

Again, hopefully this will not be an issue when you get to school, but the world is full of bullying assholes, BGA. I don’t want you to get bullied. Now, apparently, because of school shootings and suicides, they’ve started this anti-bullying campaign. My mother informed me recently that the local school’s anti-bullying campaign – no joke – involved the child who was being bullied “taking a bucket and filling it with rainbows” rather than retaliating. WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS MEAN BGA. I don’t want you to have a bucket. Or fill it with rainbows. NO ONE SHOULD BE DOING THIS AND THINKING IT IS A PROBLEM SOLUTION.

Don’t be a bully. Rule one. There’s no reason for it. Why would you be mean to someone with no provocation? You’re better than that. Rule two: if someone’s bullying you, you stand up for yourself. Don’t let them do it. Because if they do it, they’ll KEEP doing it. And they’ll ESCALATE it. I know the world’s all “passive resistance” and “turn the other cheek” but I’m here to tell you? THAT DOESN’T WORK. Am I telling you to bring an Uzi to school? No, I’m not. But a well-spoken “Hey, you giant bag of dicks, say that one more time and I’ll punch you so hard in the mouth you’ll be spitting out chunks of tooth for the next week” works wonders. People that stand up for themselves usually stop getting bullied, in my experience. Rule three, and most important: if you see someone else being bullied, DON’T ALLOW IT TO HAPPEN. Stop it. Stop it by telling someone, or using your sure-to-be-amazing linguistic skills to stop them dead in their tracks, or taking the kid that’s being bullied out of the equation altogether. You don’t have to be BFFs with them, BGA. But one kind word, one person who stands up for them, can mean you saved their life. I’m completely serious about this.

All else fails, you call me up. I will come down there like a TORNADO OF FURY. I will MARCH INTO YOUR HALLWAYS and you will POINT OUT THE BULLIES and I will LIFT THEM UP BY THEIR NECKS and I will SCREAM INTERNET CUSS LINGO INTO THEIR PIMPLY FACES.

I know, you’re pretty lucky you have me for an unofficial aunt, right?

Listen to the big people!

I have known your mom (at the time of me writing this) for nineteen years. I know, if you’re reading this as a teenager, you’re probably all “my mom is SO STUPID and SO OUT OF TOUCH WITH REALITY ZOMG.” I get it. I GET IT BGA. But your mom? Is one of the most intelligent, most practical, most intuitive people I know. She gets shit DONE, BGA. Also, I’m pretty sure she’s a spy, but don’t tell anyone or you’ll have to relocate to another timezone and change your name.

Also, I don’t know your dad the most well, but a., he married her, and she wouldn’t let just any yahoo do that, b., he likes my blog, so total ding ding ding on the points meter for that, and c., I didn’t get a single, SINGLE, bad vibe from him when I met him. AND I HATE EVERYONE BGA.

And your grandfather is just about the most kickass, I can’t even tell you. He makes me laugh and always sends me a Christmas card.

And listen, your unofficial Aunt Amy, even though she’s kind of certifiably insane and talks too much, is a really good resource for things, and is not related to you, so can be unbiased when you need advice. Also, she will take you out for things like ice cream when you probably shouldn’t have it. That’s what unofficial aunts do. But if she accidentally cusses when she’s talking to you DON’T TELL YOUR PARENTS BGA. She will try REALLY hard not to do it, she PROMISES.

Listen to your big people, even when they’re annoying the hell out of you. Because they love you so much and they want what’s best for you.

Find something you love and love it so hard!

I don’t mean a person – but that’s fine, love your people so hard, too. I mean a thing. I have theater (and a million other things, because I’m a total ADD sufferer.) But maybe you love fencing. Or fantasy novels. Or collecting miniature glass flowers. I don’t know. Just find a thing, and love the hell out of that thing. We all need something to make our lives happy, and throwing ourselves into something is a nice way to do that. Also, you can meet like-minded people through your thing, and make friends. And friends are nice, BGA! They totally are.

Do NOT accept less than what you deserve ever ever EVER!

Don’t you ever accept less than what you deserve. Is someone treating you like you’re stupid? YOU’RE NOT. Is someone treating you like you’re worthless? YOU’RE NOT. Is someone paying you less than you’re worth? YOU DESERVE BETTER. You let your voice be heard, BGA. No one can make you feel inferior without your permission. Don’t you give anyone that permission.

If you need me for ANYTHING you come RIGHT THE HELL HERE

As unofficial aunt, I promise the following:

I will send presents that are awesome;
I will always have gum or candy in my purse when you see me;
I will always get on the floor and play with you;
I will go to any lengths, including physically harming myself, to make you laugh;
I will always, always be happy to see you, no matter what’s going on in my life;
I will always rejoice in your accomplishments, no matter how large or small;
and I will always be there for you, no matter what you need from me.

I realize I live a few states away from you; that’s what phones are for. When you get older, you can come here and visit me. My door is always open to you, BGA. I love you irresponsible amounts and you’re not even here yet.

Oh, and I suppose, even though it’s annoying, and trite, and clichéd, I have to agree with one thing in this:

Wear sunscreen, BGA. Always wear sunscreen.

(Congratulations, R & A! I AM SO EXCITED YOU GUYS!!!!)


Polishing the hurt into diamonds

I didn’t find out until today, but Ruth Stone, my poetry teacher and mentor for all four years of my creative writing degree at Binghamton University, passed away on Saturday. She was 96. Ninety-six! Imagine that for a minute. Those are a lot of years. Not enough, though. She was amazing, and I have been tearful since I heard the news.

I still remember sitting down with her after she’d read my senior portfolio – four years of poetry, enough for a chapbook, as the assignment called for – waiting for her to pass judgment. Petrified, because she was tough. She pulled my work out of her bag, took my hands in her soft, worn ones, and looked me seriously in the eye.

“Your poetry is painful. You’ve been hurt,” she said.

I nodded.

“Some people are hurt, and they let it kill them inside. Some people are hurt, and they harness it and make it work for them. You take it one step further; you reclaim the hurt, you make it yours again, and to punish the people who’ve hurt you, you polish it into diamonds.”

Two of her poems. This is what this woman did with words.

Curtains

Putting up new curtains,

other windows intrude.
As though it is that first winter in Cambridge
when you and I had just moved in.
Now cold borscht alone in a bare kitchen.

What does it mean if I say this years later?

Listen, last night
I am on a crying jag
with my landlord, Mr. Tempesta.
I sneaked in two cats.
He screams, “No pets! No pets!”
I become my Aunt Virginia,
proud but weak in the head.
I remember Anna Magnani.
I throw a few books. I shout.
He wipes his eyes and opens his hands.
OK OK keep the dirty animals
but no nails in the walls.
We cry together.
I am so nervous, he says.

I want to dig you up and say, look,
it’s like the time, remember,
when I ran into our living room naked
to get rid of that fire inspector.

See what you miss by being dead?

Turn Your Eyes Away

The gendarme came
to tell me you had hung yourself
on the door of a rented room
like an overcoat
like a bathrobe
hung from a hook;
when they forced the door open
your feet pushed against the floor.
Inside your skull
there was no room for us,
your circuits forgot me.
Even in Paris where we never were
I wait for you
knowing you will not come.
I remember your eyes as if I were
someone you had never seen,
a slight frown between your brows
considering me.
How could I have guessed
the plain-spoken stranger in your face,
your body, tagged in a drawer,
attached to nothing, incurious.
My sister, my spouse, you said,
in a place on the other side of the earth
where we lay in a single bed
unable to pull apart
breathing into each other,
the Gideon Bible open to the Song of Songs,
the rush of the El-train
jarring the window.
As if needles were stuck
in the pleasure zones of our brains,
we repeated everything
over and over and over.

Ruth. That bruised-up twenty-two year old thanks you. Thank you for handing me my voice and giving me permission to scream.


There Once Was a Girl From Nantucket…(no, this isn’t going where you think it is)

When I arrived at college, I had grand plans. I was going to be a doctor! I was going to save the world! I’d done very well in high school math and science, so college would be a breeze!

In about a month, I realized the following things:

1.   Having friends means having a social life. Having a social life means less time to study (and, in my case, even go to classes, because daylight hours were prime sleeping time.)

2.   High school math and science weren’t difficult. College math and science were being taught in Swahili.

3.   I didn’t enjoy math and science courses half as much as my humanities courses, and if I continued on in my planned career path, I would end up being in school for approximately twelve years doing something I didn’t care that much for.

When it came time to declare my major, I chose theater and creative writing. Because if you want two completely marketable skills, those are the ones to choose!

My concentration in creative writing was poetry. I’d written quite a bit of poetry in high school and enjoyed the writing of it, and my stories weren’t anything I wanted to share with anyone (they’re still not – I write fiction like a third-grader. “I would like to go to the store,” Mom said. “The store?” I said. “Yes,” Mom said. We went to the store. We bought eggs. We came home. I like my puppy dog. He smiles with his tail.) (OK, before you’re all, “THAT LINE IS STOLEN AND YOU ARE A THIEF OF FUNNINESS!” I stole “My dog smiles with his tail” from one of the only two funny episodes of the television series Just Shoot Me, entitled “Slow Donnie.” So if you haven’t seen it, and are a fan of David Cross’s, go watch it, and when you’re gasping with laughter over “My pants are tight!” you can thank me. Now stop calling me a thief and continue reading, killjoy.) I believe journalism was also offered, but I think you have to be, oh, what’s the word, “serious” to write that? Or possibly “objective?” So that was a no. Poetry it was.

Those of us majoring in poetry – there weren’t many (I know! It’s surprising, right?) – were in the same core writing classes throughout the years. We were assigned a mentor, and she stayed with us and taught our writing classes and workshops. In these workshops, there would be some teaching, reading of major works, discussion of poetry, reading aloud of your own work, and discussion by your peers and the teacher of your work, in the hope of you re-writing it to improve it.
OK, first? I did not write rhyming poetry. I can’t rhyme for shit. I’ve written a few rhyming poems in my day, and they’re about as good as my fiction – not very. So don’t ask me to write a poem for your Nana’s 90th birthday, because it’s not likely to happen, or if it does, I’m going to call you up at 3 a.m. asking you to help me rhyme “nursing home” or “adult diapers” and you’re going to regret you asked.

How can I explain poetry class? Alright, there were some good poets in the class. Some poets that, when they read, I felt so daunted to read in front of them that I was afraid to read when it was my turn. (In their defense, they were all very nice. Surprisingly non-existent concentration of talented douchebags in my class.)

There were those of us (I include myself here, generously) that fell in the middle. We weren’t blowing anyone away with our talent, but we weren’t scaring anyone with our shananigans, or members of the class for the wrong reasons, either. We worked hard, we took the criticism to heart, we re-wrote, and we kept our heads down.

And then there was everyone else. Oh, my. No one really got turned away. There weren’t so many of us that they could afford to be choosy. The ones that stood out for me as being…um…note-worthy?

·    The metalhead who wrote lyrics for his “band” (I put this in quotes because when someone asked him if he had a band, he said no) as his poetry assignments; he also wrote very angry poems about the female anatomy of the members of the class who turned him down when he asked them out

·    The girl who couldn’t speak above a murmur, no matter how many times we asked her to speak up; we had trouble critiquing her work, because WE COULDN’T HEAR IT

·    The rabid feminist who only wrote poems about women – I’m sorry, “womyn” – and then, when that stopped being shocking, started spelling every word with an “en” with a “yn” in order to “regain the English language” – we got a lot of “childryn” and “downtroddyn” and “heavyn” and no one really had the heart to tell her (or the courage – she was ANGRY) that really the point of the “yn” was to take the word “man” out of female-centric words, not to replace the entire “en” letter cluster

·    The “sensitive” guy who was obviously there because he thought being a poet would get him laid (it didn’t) – he wrote a lot of “and then I gazed at her tender feminine beauty and was reminded of heaven’s gates” and would look up with bright eyes like “right, ladies? Right? So, you wanna come back to my dorm, see how tender I can be? Hmm? Anyone?”


Then there was our teacher. I’m not going to name names, because I’ve read her work, and at one point (and it wasn’t all that long ago), she was quite an excellent poet.  However, we’d gotten her late in life. Very late in life. Dementia-had-possibly-set-in late in life. In researching this, I’ve found out a lot about her, and admire her quite a bit – even more than I did then, knowing what I know now – and none of what I am about to say is an indictment against her talent, which is really quite prodigious.

Have you ever spent any time with poets? We’re an interesting bunch. If I could sum it up in one word, that would would be…eccentric. I don’t think any poet would argue that. I bet even Robert Frost, who was known to be salt-of-the-earth, had his eccentricities. I think it has something to do with forming your words into perfect phrases and shapes on the page. It does something to your mind, maybe.

Our teacher could not remember the time of our classes. Ever. We had many classes we ran ourselves, because honestly, we didn’t need her there to critique each other’s work. Names? Forget it. We were required to meet her once a week in her office for consultations senior year, so she could look over our senior portfolio. In that year, I was called Jamie (close), Amanda (not too far off), Autumn (same first letter, I guess), Janet (a number of times, I think perhaps I reminded her of someone with this name), Laura (I don’t know), and, a couple of times, her OWN first name, which would make her smile. She’d say, “Isn’t it funny how we have the same first name?” And what do you say to a 80-something-year-old woman who’s so pleased by this? I’d just laugh and nod. My first name was written on the cover of my portfolio, and she actually asked, “Who’s this? Why is this person’s name on here?” I wasn’t really sure how to respond to that without hurting her feelings (I used to care about these things a lot more than I do now – ah, youth, when people’s feelings mattered.) If I didn’t respond, though, I was pretty sure she’d think I was stealing someone’s senior portfolio. Then again, she’d probably forget it in the next twenty minutes. Or five seconds. Debatable.

She also sometimes would get incensed. About the environment, or politics, or something that we’d talk about in class. And she would erupt into a fury that was just something to see. If you’ve never seen a woman in her 80’s – a tiny little bird-boned woman with unnaturally colored hair and a lot of gauzy scarves – up on a classroom desk screaming that we were raping Mother Earth, well, you haven’t lived.

She also had stories about other famous poets. “I hate him,” she said once, in a light, musing tone, when a classmate mentioned another poet he admired, “because he murdered his wife. Oh, I know, I know, they say it was suicide. But I think we all know better, don’t we, ladies?” The “womyn” girl nodded sagely. She knew. She was convinced, evyn. I wasn’t so sure.

As for where my very prestigious degree in poetry has gotten me: I’ve been published. I have never been paid for it, but I’ve seen my writing in print. I’ve done two readings, in front of actual people (and, you’d think, as someone who acted on a regular basis for years, this wouldn’t be the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but it was. It most definitely was. Imagine pouring your heart out in front of a room full of people with only you onstage – not singing, not acting, just you. And a mike. It’s kind of like being naked and having people judge you. However, when you’re done, you feel like you can conquer the world, so there’s that.)

I would recommend, however, to up-and-coming poets: DO NOT MAJOR IN POETRY. If you are a poet, you can be a poet without a degree. Take the classes, by all means. Get a minor. But major in something sensible, like Accounting, so when the real world finally smashes you around the face and neck with a battering ram and you realize, hey, I have to pay these student loans BACK? What the HELL? You can provide for yourself and write on the side.

Also, watch out for men bearing bad poetry. I promise they just want to get in your pants. And once they’re there? They don’t know what they’re doing. Because no one else has ever been stupid enough to fall for that “I’m a sensitive poet” bullshit so they have no experience. Trust me on this one, okay?

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